My post on Bevis Bawa referred to James Broughton, who is described in the extract from Wikipedia as “… a poet, poetic filmmaker, and practitioner of ‘Big Joy’ ..a pansexual Dionysian approach to life. He’s been called the father of the West Coast experimental film movement in the wake of World War II, was part of the San Francisco Renaissance, a literary movement that included Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others. He was an early bard of the Radical Faeries”. James was a prominent figure of the ‘Beat’ generation that evolved into the ‘Hip’ scene in the late 50s – early 60s in San Francisco, with his far out films and poetry. He was also married briefly to Pauline Kael (one of the most influential film critics ever) with whom he had a child, and later another marriage produced two more children, but James, being the ultimate renaissance man, hooked up with Joel Singer (a student of his) sometime in the 70s and they lived happily together ever after

It was in 1979, whilst spending some time with Swami Siva Kalki (aka Mike Wilson) that a mutual friend, recently down from San Francisco, presented me with a slim volume of wisdom titled ‘Seeing the Light’ relating to the art of filmmaking by James Broughton. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti described it: “This is a book on filmmaking but it is also much more, Broughton being first a poet: it is a book about how to see the light beyond the camera, the light which doesn’t register on any light meter but must register on any filmmaker if his work is to rise above the pure celluloid”.

I had never heard of James before and found the book to be right up my street in terms of the Zen within it – not to mention the filmmaking aspects that always intrigued me. Not much later, I get a call from someone called Joel to say that he and a friend were visiting Sri Lanka and they had been given my name by Dirk, who at the time was the proprietor of a ‘head-shop’ type of establishment in San Francisco. We made arrangements to meet later that day and when I did, at Dirk’s parents home on Havelock Road, one thing led to another and whilst driving Joel and his friend (who turned out to be James), one of them saw ‘Seeing the Light’ lying on the dashboard of my VW bus. The cover of the book has a picture of a face, most of which is diffused by the light, but on closer inspection I found that it was James’ face (photographed by Joel). The coincidence was incredible and the circumstances odd, to say the least – given all the little facets of old relationships and incidents of chance that led to it, and when I discovered that it was James who was the author, it almost seemed as if karma or fate had determined to put us together, which of course led to their meeting with Bevis – eventually.

How this occurred is a story in itself and there were all manner of little adventures including quite a few insane encounters (not all of them the stuff that dreams are made of – in fact, quite the opposite, but that’s another story) before James and Joel were well ensconced within the boundaries of ‘Brief’. But this is best described in James’ own words from the journal that he kept during the time and although I couldn’t possibly reproduce most of it here, the parts in which he describes their first meeting with Bevis and later, the part that describes his joy at having eventually found a place that was suitable to live and work in for some months whilst they were in the country, should suffice.

December 23. Bentota  8 am.
…from there we were to call on the man JJ had been praising to us from the beginning of this trip: Bevis Bawa, one of the most famous gay men in the country, and the brother of the noted gay architect, Geoffrey Bawa. JJ said that his house was fabulous, and that he was confined to a wheelchair, but I wasn’t prepared for the actuality. Instead of reaching a house in the country off a side road, we went through the Muslim village, Darga Town and then on to a narrow one lane dirt road over marshes and rice fields as if just going into the uncivilized interior. At some unspecific point we went up a rise into a beautiful avenue of Sealing Wax palms to a stone gateway where the sculptured posts were of nude males whose cocks formed the noses of faces below. And then there was a circle where we parked with a wall, a black and white door and a large bell. JJ rang, and soon a servant boy in a sarong opened and said the master was asleep but could we come in and wait.

We ascended a curving stairway past a nude male caryatid and entered upon a spacious entry way with great gardens beyond. The house, called a bungalow in this part of the world was open and elegant and simple and satisfyingly designed. Its prospect from the terrace was a lavish garden, a work of art in itself. Since we had to wait, we roamed around it and came upon a handsome half clad lad mowing the lawn. He stopped his work and pointed out the paths to us. Plainly this elaborate folly of a place rising out of peasant fields was the caprice of some rich crazy. Was it related to Hearst or Hughes? (Actually, as it turned out, it was a bit of both)…

…The three of us sat around on the terrace for a long time….eventually there was a flurry in the halls. Among others a suave and handsome fellow, named Dooland I think, speaking graceful English, announced that Bevis would soon be coming out and would we care for tea. I expected a wheelchair, I did not expect an incredibly tall and thin grey spider moving on two canes, laboriously, toward a deep and long caned chair into which a boy placed a round pillow with a hole like a doughnut shaped bedpan. Onto this the unlikely long and frail gentleman was lowered.

Because it had begun to thunder and rain we had been moved from the terrace into the narrower dining room, and in the fading light this creature looked like a great praying mantis. His limbs were fantastically long and thin and spidery. He spoke with an English accent and a world-weariness of his ailments: to add to his arthritis and diabetes he could no longer eat anything and he was going blind. He had his memories he said, and the peacefulness of this beautiful garden he had created, which was often at night a terrible silence to endure.

That was the first meeting James and Joel had with Bevis. I had intended this to be an interesting ‘side-trip’, but also had, at the back of my mind to ask if there would be a possibility of Bevis recommending to the two of them suitable accommodation for some months. There were a few suggestions which we would follow up to no avail and then finally, when Both James and Joel were giving up hope of finding the idyllic spot of their dreams, I managed to sort out the rental of a house that Bevis had built for Karu (a loyal ‘retainer’) which was situated just outside the entrance to ‘Brief’ in its own cosy environment. In James’ words:

“December 26 –
..tomorrow we move down to ‘Brief’ – I am excited, nervous, hopeful, worried. This will be what I came across the sea for. And certainly it is more of a ‘house’ than I ever expected; I had thought we would at best have some guest house arrangement. The Guardians are calling my bluff: there will be nothing to do there except write. Praise the Lord! And to think: only a few days ago I felt there was no solution but to pack up and go home.

December 28 – Karu’s House. Brief. Bentota. Dawn
I am overwhelmed, speechless, at trying to describe the astonished joy at being here. It all came true. It is true. We are in Paradise. We have a house in Eden. We are blessed indeed…When we arrived here I was most enchanted to find the bed draped with blue mosquito netting over the red coverlet, making the room look like a bridal chamber. And I have a workroom with a great solid table. And we have two servants: the cook/houseboy and his helper. (They slept outside our bedroom, guarding the outside door.)

The place is so remarkably beautiful. Opposite us, across the paddy fields are groves of cashew trees. Just below the house, to the east, grow the fruits: pineapple, papaya, banana, breadfruit, as well as the hot pepper bushes. There are orchids and fantastic flowering shrubs. And the intricate sounds of birds…. the afternoon sun setting glowed upon us like a radiant blessing from the gods of poets: I felt touched by many divinities. The half moon shone directly overhead. And then, yet another blessing, a gentle rain fell upon us, upon this house; and when there was a break in the clouds Orion was the only constellation visible.

..From Oakland to Bentota…If I had not learned to flow with the changes, would we be here at all?

James and Joel made a short film on ‘Brief’ called ‘The Gardener of Eden’ and more prose and poetry on reflections of the time they spent at ‘Brief’ and with Bevis are in James’  ‘Packing up for Paradise – Selected poems 1946 – 1996’, among other publications.

James Broughton died on May 17, 1999. Joel is still in touch and sent me the section of James’ journal that dealt with our mutual experiences (which will form part of ‘A Broughton Reader’ – just recently published), his film and some other stuff.

Of James’ death, Joel wrote: My main news is that James died…. a more gentle, peaceful passing could not have been imagined. His last words were “Praise and Thanks” (his favorite mantra). Champagne, the last taste on his lips (along with a sprinkling of water from the Ganges river) and his favorite piece of music…when he took his last breath.

James’ gravestone in a Port Townsend cemetery reads, “Adventure – not Predicament.”

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