Double in ourselves

We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.

—attributed to Michel de Montaigne

Our hotel would have accommodated the more sinister sequences of some cloak-and-dagger ‘B’ film. During the night, a French letter in the lavatory bowl refused to be flushed by either of us. Then in the morning we had our first glimpse of Olympus through the haze above the curving bay. Any true Grecophile will understand when I say that the unsinkable condom and the smell of shit which precede the moment of illumination make it more rewarding when it happens.

—Patrick White, Flaws in the Glass

As a child in the 1960s, in the then newish Melbourne suburb of Forest Hill, I attended Saint Timothy’s Primary School. The little church in which I was confirmed and where I confessed my drab sins was a wooden fire hazard. I went to a service there every Sunday with my father’s mother—my own parents having separated. On one side of it were the school’s classrooms, and on the other a nunnery, both buildings made in what looked like, then, to be a modern style. The school was established in 1962 by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. I had no idea who they were. To the seven- or eight-year-old me they were the handsome, unthreatening mystics of education who never said an unkind word.

St Timothy's Primary School
St Timothy’s Primary School now

I do not recall having religion forced on me. We said a prayer now and then before running out to play. Occasionally there was a bit of unruly, awful squealing of hymns in the church. And the nuns chose me to appear in ‘dramatic’ reënactments of the nativity story. Even at nine or ten years of age I knew that painted cotton wool beards were not a good look, so I pulled mine off just before walking on stage and tried to look wise without it. This kind of disruptive behavior should have permanently blotted my curriculum vitae: ‘Not a team player.’

St Timothy’s church in 1962.

I wanted to know what the deal was with these nuns. During an afternoon nap, while lying on the floor near Sister Henry’s workbench, I determined to look up her chalk-covered tunic to see if there was anything there that would provide an answer to the mystery of her manly face. There was nothing. Just layers of perplexing, impenetrable, black underskirts. Anyway, I was ten. Someone was walking on the moon. I ran home to watch it on tv.

The Sisters of the Infant Jesus handed me over to the Christian Brothers to complete my befuddlement.

When I was twelve and in the first year of high school I helped fellow classmates cheat at Latin, allowing them to steal my answers in order to escape the sarcasm, and strap, of the unchristian maniac who ruled our Latin and math classes. I didn’t think I could help with the math; I felt hopeless at that. This was the year that maniac was hit by a car while riding his bike. For a couple of weeks this chastening episode turned the rancorous sadist into the mild and kind teacher he should have been all along. And then, without warning, ‘Mr Hyde’ returned.

Family circumstances required me to sample the educational services of four different Christian Brothers Colleges. After Thomas More’s Boys College (now called Emmaus College), I attended Cathedral College in East Melbourne for two weeks, and then St Mary’s in West Melbourne.

A middle-aged man who was a customer of my mother’s business began to use puns in his brief conversations with me that were intended to suggest he knew of my interest in sex. I had not heard them before but, after checking my Chambers Dictionary, instantly recognised them as verbal concussion grenades. One morning, at St Mary’s in West Melbourne, I armed these grenades and chucked them in a history class without bothering to take cover. The lay teacher looked at me for what seemed like a long time while the meaning of what I had said sunk in and he tried to figure out if I had actually meant to use the anatomical pronunciation of ‘aboriginal’. Something about my face must have suggested I had. He sent me down to the principal’s office, where the whole story of my new interest in punography had to be revealed.

St Mary’s principal was a severe-looking bald man who demonstrated his eccentricity and his modernism through the medium of Vespas. He rode his scooter everywhere. He travelled even the short distance from St Joseph’s, where the brothers lived and which was to be my next college, to St Mary’s by scooter. It was one block away. He put his helmet on, started the scooter, turned one corner, and he was at work. When I told him how I had become so expert at upsetting adults, he immediately sat down so as to bring himself on the same level with me. He spoke to me with an unfeigned concern about how important it was for me to avoid the man in my mother’s restaurant. I knew the nameless thing he was warning me against. I had sensed it, but not felt in any danger.

On sports days many of the St Mary’s students would walk along Victoria Street to the Melbourne City Baths to go swimming. One of the younger religious brothers at the school inexplicably decided to go swimming with us, which required him to be naked in the changerooms. When this happened, I suspected he was secretly trying to announce that the brothers were, after all, ordinary men. We thought his arse was too hairy and were distressed we had to look at it.

In the first years of the 1970s, boys of my age could see the chaos in Vietnam had been worsening, even as news of Australia’s decreasing involvement in the war there made no impression on me at all. No adult ever mentioned or tried to justify to me why Australia was involved in the fighting. It seemed to have escaped the notice of the adult world that there were children waiting in the wings of its drama and we had no idea what we were going to say or do when it was time for us to be pushed into the spotlight. The matter was urgent because we sensed our bodies were changing even as the threat of conscription increased. The election of a Labor government was a relief.

When we were fifteen a classmate and I experimented with the social effects of our own precocious hairiness by going to an R-rated double-bill at the Forum Theatre on the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets in Melbourne. It was the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, followed by something in the vampire-sexploitation genre. The first movie seemed to be about burning Christians. We were disappointed there was not more sex, naked actresses notwithstanding. During the intermission we discovered that our hairy-arsed teacher had also been in the audience with us. He asked us if we liked the movie and we answered in a way that avoided telling him what we really thought, while still pretending to be three years older than we were. I do not think it worked, but he did not seem to mind.

1974: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Melbourne, Australia.
1974: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Melbourne, Australia.

At St Joseph’s College, in 1974, a beautiful student whose parents came from Sri Lanka started calling me “Stevie Wonder” and tickled my palm flirtatiously when he shook my hand. Was I being mocked or flattered? Gough Whitlam was prime minister and anything seemed possible. I listened to Motown, and liked it. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Melbourne. (There is a photograph of him flexing his muscles as he stands on the tram tracks in Bourke Street. The long-haired boy in the striped shirt and bell-bottom trousers standing behind him is not me— but the claim of resemblance to my former self is credible, and several times I used the photograph to ‘prove’ I once had a chance to push Conan, the barbarian, under a moving vehicle.)

It was the golden age of religious educational indifference. The Christian Brother who taught me nothing about Australian history before 1788 stood one day behind a not-quite-closed door and spied on the ‘Year 11 agnostic society’ pooh-poohing transubstantiation and putting the resurrection of Jesus down to a bad case of food poisoning. When we noticed him we expected our religious auditor to establish an inquisition. Instead, he took his nose out of the crack in the doorway and walked away. In retrospect, this now seems like the mature response.

One hundred years after the death of Winwood Reade I got around to reading his book The Martyrdom of Man. The initial excitement wore off after a while and I entered a long period of theological apathy.

Young boys and girls everywhere, before they reach what we have come to refer to as adulthood, trip over the idea that adult convictions are a charade. We stand up, mud on our faces, feeling that we are at the same time cynics and anarchists; we want to preserve what is in our interests and to agitate against the failures of the world we have found ourselves in. Some people manage to maintain an expectation of revolutionary possibility about their own selves and about the world.

By the start of 1976 no psycho-social jamming was strong enough to block my ‘gaydar’. Of course, I was unsure about how to meet people. I was not old enough to go to bars; and the internet was still in the hands of the military-industrial complex; so, I found friends and education as a flâneur. I met men at night, but I was better at conversation than at sex. The first man who spoke to me was three times my age. He invited me to his flat—a tiny bedsit in the ‘CAIRO’ apartments across the road from the Carlton Gardens. He made tea. We talked, and he gave me a tatty copy of Voltaire’s Candide that I have treasured for nearly fifty years. Life, it says, is one episode after another of misfortune and suffering; and the only antidote is work.

In the second half of 1977, construction of the World Trade Centre was completed. Airliner ‘terrorism’ was in its first flowering. Voyager 2 was being launched. There was a uranium export debate in Australia. In August, a ‘docudrama’, The War Game, was shown at the Longford Cinema in Toorak Road, South Yarra. This BBC production by Peter Watkins was a critical event in the life of the high school friend sitting next to me. When the movie ended most of the audience decided not to leave and, instead, started the conversation right there in the theatre about what could be done. It took me a few more years to find the failure I would agitate against.

Still from Peter Watkins' 1965 BBC docudrama 'The War Game'.
Still from Peter Watkins’ 1965 BBC docudrama ‘The War Game’ »» https://goo.gl/W0U5Mf

I left home in the late 1970s. My mother thought gay people were “disgusting.” My first nights of freedom I slept on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, at a bend near where there is now a skate park. The first home of my own was a couple of rooms in North Fitzroy that were more like corrugated iron lean-tos than rooms. These rooms were air-conditioned but not waterproof; the windows were broken, glass louvres, and the entrance door had a large hole in it.  By 1980 I had moved into digs, at the rear of 777 Park Street in Brunswick, that are still standing and look like a granny flat. Worries about finding and keeping a home were often on my mind.

In retrospect, the educational mystery of my childhood is how I could have been treated so gently by most of my teachers, spent so long in the care and company of outwardly religious people, and ended up sharing so few of their beliefs. The same is true about sexuality: growing up surrounded by intolerant, know-all heterosexuals clearly does not lead one to become an intolerant, know-all heterosexual. Why do people believe what they believe, and why do others’ prejudices always seem more urgently troubling than our own? Attacking and shaming people for their opinions, beliefs, choices and preferences has become a blood-sport, usually played while crouching behind an anonymising avatar.

In the 1980s the appearance of the AIDS virus turned my theological apathy into disgusted atheism, not because I thought an omnipotent god could have avoided such misery but because there were suddenly a lot of angry people claiming to be concerned with morals. At this time, my humanistic, progressively-oriented opinionatedness was in full flower, until I saw the world in its proper scale. I had a ‘Hubble moment’. It dawned on me that all the stars of the night sky I had been looking at all my life were just the lights of my local galaxy and altogether less than a hundred-billionth part of the universe. This universe was, if properly imagined, too large for spiritual and ethical systems focussed on what people did with their genital systems.

It is oddly disorienting now to remember that the cause of “GRID” was not known, though its effect was immediately obvious: “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning,” Susan Sontag told me.

For a while I did volunteer work writing advertisements and pamphlets about sex. It was a subject I never claimed to know very well, but there were a lot of experts willing to talk, and there was a lot of ‘literature’. I made careful note of the interesting bits and tried to pass on the best intelligence. Patrick White had just published Flaws in the Glass, which contained the only example I needed that condoms were a good idea; the advertisements I helped to write, with a committee of volunteers at the local AIDS council, were less inspiring than Patrick White, but more appropriate for the toilet doors of gay clubs.

Then, I had a day job as a writer for a union. I knew even less about Leon Trotsky than I knew about sex and, therefore, resorted to the same creative process. And at night I joined hundreds of people at telephone counselling services to answer questions from people panicked by the Australian government’s ‘public service’ announcements about AIDS. The telephone banks were in training rooms of the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.

When you say yes… say yes to safe sex.
When you say yes… say yes to safe sex. Information flyer of the Victorian AIDS Council.

There was a very long period, years that seemed depressingly long, when every diagnosis was a death-sentence. Like scores of others in Melbourne, I did the required training and joined care teams for people who were dying. I wrote stories and poems and hoped, like Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss, that everything would turn out well in the end.

My next writing job was explaining science to journalists: I tried to make laboratory fractionation dramatic, and offered to fact-check their articles; they wrote articles about three-eyed fish and called me a fascist. I learned that a good many, if not most, scientists are, in their hearts, engineers who want to know how things work, to make things work better, and to apply knowledge to practical problems or unproven theses.

In his early middle age, the conservative and combative Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, had a thick mop of brushed-back hair. When he visited the city campus of RMIT, a rabble of students turned out to protest. A young man, dressed in flannel pajamas and an old-fashioned dressing gown, yelled at Kennett as he got out of his limousine, “Get a haircut!” We became good friends, listened to Bach and Nina Simone, and drank a great deal of champagne. Twenty years later he saved my life.

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s reports began to appear in the media about abuse of children by Catholic priests. The institutional failure of Catholicism to protect children from abuse, to admit the wrongs done, and to offer reparations, is evidence of a general failure of religious people to face reality. I used to imagine religious fanatics and authorities could be cowed with public lashings of pure reason. But the faith at the centre of religious belief is password-protected, unassailable and shameless.

What can a former Catholic do with a feeling of loss that is also the hope of loss? Any man or woman who is honest with themselves must get used to abandoning prejudices and wrong beliefs. The judge “standeth before the door,” and that judge is the world.

For years I tried hard to maintain a small part of trust in the wisdom of the religion that educated me and tried to protect me. But that church does not understand what wrong it did and is still pretending that gay priests are the problem, when the worse sin is betrayal.

In 2012, after many months of tiredness and a feeling of disorientation, I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. He used to wear pajamas while he was painting in the artists’ studios at university. He spoke to a nurse about what he had heard me say and they were concerned I might have had a stroke. My friend called an ambulance. He knocked on the door of my flat and, when I answered the door, two paramedics were standing behind him. All three of them insisted that I would have to step into the vehicle that had been manoeuvred into position so I could step into it directly from the rear door of my apartment in St Kilda. One of the paramedics asked me a couple of questions designed to ascertain whether my mind was still in one piece. The ambulance moved onto the street and toward the nearest hospital. Sometime in the next minute I was unconscious, and then in an induced coma for several weeks. There were no distant, mysterious lights. There was, unfortunately, no music.

It was a long while before the wound on the back of my left leg, caused by a bacterial infection, had healed sufficiently for me to be able to stand again. I was confined to a hospital bed and drugged for months, and the demarcation between my dreams and the real world became very unclear. In the days between Christmas and New Year, 2013, I imagined, and for a while actually believed, the surgeons of The Alfred hospital had grafted a reproduction of a painting by Canaletto to my thigh using a new technique to disguise the scarring of surgery. By mid-January 2013 I was at war, somewhere in rural Italy, in sets made by Cinecitta designers and photographed by Pasolini. The electrical substation that was the locale of my small part in the war had a touch of HR Giger about it—and, yes, there were well-dressed Nazis who looked like they had just stepped off the set of a Mel Brooks video. When the body is in ruins, the mind works on, regardless. Among the beliefs most difficult to abandon is that we have a firm grip on reality. Seen in retrospect, what we believed is as substantial and changeable as a dream. Certainty is in the here and now, where we are sure we know what is real, and where we are almost always in some way wrong.

Fifty years too late, perhaps, I reached an age where The Epic of Gilgamesh made sense as a fiction about life—something it is difficult to see when you are young. Like the probably gay Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, we are all the bad rulers of our own domains. In the end, we look to the places we called home, forced to accept we will not survive; but our work, the city, its culture and even its empty fields, will outlive us.… Candide was right.

«Chronicle of wasted time» [contents]

Chronicle of wasted time - cover

for Sabo

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their ántique pen would have expressed
Ev’n such a beauty as you master now.
Sonnet 106

Neither gods nor nature suffer our insolence to be unrestrained.
And, so, they made a plan to humble our pride
and improve our manners. To diminish our strength
they cut us in two, and gave us, each, a neck that could be turned
to contemplate the part of ourselves that was lost.
Through this we were to learn humility.
the fable of Aristophanes

Sonnet 106

Contents


Poems in this book have been published previously in Family Ties: Australian poems of the familyMelbourne Chronicle, Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets, Overland, HIV Here and Now and TheBody.com, The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems, Perseverance Poets’ Collection 1991–92, Walking the Dogs: the Pariah Press Anthology, and on ‘A First Hearing’, ABC Radio.

[Years ago, when I was reading]

Years ago, when I was reading the philosophical works of Schopenhauer
I heard a sudden eruption of laughter on the street.
I looked up to see what the cause of this laughter was.
Across the road, an old man
extraordinarily obese, was heaving his immense body
along the footpath. He used a cane to help balance himself as he walked
and to relieve the strain on his back
caused by the great bag of fat hanging from his stomach.
It required considerable effort for him to walk only a short distance.
I felt revulsion at the sight of this man.
There were feelings of pity, too.
I knew immediately
there are no counter-motives to humiliation.
We live by climbing over each other
struggle to keep our heads
above despair
and try not to think of harm that’s done.
I lowered the book and listened to the sounds of birds
a howling dog, a small child in the street
asking something of her parents —
every voice repeating the inner nature of the world
and I knew what trouble and pain was
still to come.

Published in Pink Cover Zine, No. 3, November 2018.

Sr Pessoa

 Of course, in times of crisis I do not write
poetry—a consequence of having escaped
pretenses about pain and metaphysics.

Last night, though, my head was full
of dreams—most particularly
that my friend (a euphemism)

had decided it was time to leave—
bringing us to the long struggle (an embrace,
perhaps, but it may have been a death-clutch).

And when I woke
everything in my world was ruined
and in fog.

So, it has been impossible to speak
a word that makes sense
and there is no pleasure in a pun.

After all the excitement
I am just another child sleeping
face-down at the edge of the abyss.

Come over some day—
I can offer refuge
in tired abstractions.

I will put on my red dress,
make tea, and then
ignoring Life, we will walk or write.

Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.)

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …


Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.

Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”

Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.

Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.

Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.

Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.

It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.

Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.” 

I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.

What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.

Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.

With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…

Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.

The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)

The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.

Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.

Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.

To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.

Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.

Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?

I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.

Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.

Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.

I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.

At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.

The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.

Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

More information about refugees (links)

Melisma variations

My father had a secret stash of Shirley Bassey records. There was a record-player in the house. Mine. It was not a very good record-player. I was eleven and I did not know what hi-fi was. I was into noise, and catchy tunes and syncopations. I had no idea what a ‘Shirley Bassey’ was either, except that it was obviously extremely glamorous and sparkly, could be photographed with its mouth open and got hidden in my father’s bedroom closet—where there was no record-player to play it.

'Melodica'—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.
‘Melodica’—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.

Many years later I learned my father lived most of his life in another house, an apartment he kept in Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne, while I reconnoitred the border of ‘Forest Hill’ and ‘Nunawading.’ His Shirley Bassey records got played—if they were played at all, I never heard them—in Collingwood.

I compensated for the lack of a musical education, from my parents or anyone else, by trying to figure out how musical scales worked with the aid of books and a strange, little keyboard called a ‘Melodica’ (which sucked, even though I had to blow in it). This ‘instrument’ emitted horrifyingly weedy, windy sounds that were supposed to be musical notes.

Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education.

Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education. Exactly what these ideas and impressions are is difficult to say.

One of them, for example, might have something to do with scales. Leave aside the discipline and patience needed to practice them: every distinct culture has a distinct musical scale that is a framework upon which all its music is built. There is a Chinese scale, an Arabic scale, a Greek scale, an Indian scale, scales that are equally tempered and scales that are not. Discovering these facts through musical exploration changes a person’s understanding of what culture is and how culture shapes perception.

I listened to Mozart, and graduated to Bach. I had no idea what a Sex Pistol was, or a Clash; David Bowie, The Ramones, The Osmonds and The Bay City Rollers were all just words.

One of the popular boys in high school, who seemed to know things the unpopular boys did not know, started to mock me and gave me the nickname “Stevie Wonder”. His mockery was so gentle and, I see in retrospect, so complimentary that I wonder now whether he might have fancied me. Whatever his motive, my new nickname introduced me to the artist who convinced me that contemporary music was worth listening to. Motown. It was fresh air.

Wonder was twenty-three when he made the live studio promotional video for a new album and recorded ‘All in love is fair’. What a voice he had! Conversational and easy-going when singing quietly, it could suddenly unleash tremendous emotion. Wonder’s version of his own song is a study of contrasts between beautiful vibrato, playful melisma, and striking crescendos.

Shirley Bassey singing 'All in love is Fair'.
Shirley Bassey singing ‘All in love is Fair’.

Other singers, mainly women, took up this song very quickly, and made it their own. Shirley Bassey renders it in a sassy, wise-ass style in which her jaw really looks as though life is punching it crooked as she sings. Barbra Streisand performs it straighter, as though whispering a lesson in life and love right in your ear. Carmen McRae’s version is jazzier, seeming to plumb darker notes, but all the while keeping the melodic line under tight control. Dionne Warwick’s is the saddest version and, just by a little, the slowest.

These other artists are not merely channeling Wonder’s song. Each version seems like something completely original that is made out of the singer’s own life.

The great French cellist Paul Tortelier said of musicians, “We are fortunate. We know about happiness.” Note, though, that he does not say they are happy. And that is another mystery music teaches us, and which it is best not to explain.


Carmen McRae

Barbra Streisand

Dionne Warwick

Stevie Wonder

Shirley Bassey

Paul Tortelier