I left home in the late 1970s. 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 still look like a granny flat. I was twenty-one when 1980 ended. Worries about finding and keeping a home were often on my mind.
And the world seemed to go haywire. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the UK. ‘Mad Max’, an apocalyptic premonition, appeared on cinema screens. Later in 1979, Iranian students and ‘radicals’ invaded the US embassy in Tehran and took ninety hostages. In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In early 1980 the world looked overheated and dangerous, and Ronald Reagan was chosen to be the Republican Party nominee for the November presidential election.
In these first few months of 1980 I took my anxieties about ‘home’, welded them to my anxieties about everything else, and tried to tell myself a joke to relieve the tension. That joke is the story ‘On the uncertainty of finding a place to call home’. I was never happy with it, partly because it seemed too slight, partly because the ‘voice’ adopted in it did not treat my secret feelings with appropriate seriousness.
A half-life later I am struck that this only slightly funny story—of a man trying to survive in a world that has already fallen apart—tries to be funny at all. It is not the kind of humor that is a string of jokes. Instead, it asks readers to notice, over and over again, that the central character’s principal flaws are timidity and an inability to face reality. This, I thought, was what was wrong with everyone, including myself. It is not really a joking matter.
When it was finished I sent it off, with a ridiculous and completely unwarranted degree of self-assurance, and a stamped self-addressed envelope, to Meanjin. I was lucky that the then editor of Meanjin, Jim Davidson, had been putting together an issue in which some professional thinkers would set down their thoughts about Australia’s war literature and opposition to Americanisation. Arthur Phillips picked my story out from the leaning tower of words that was stacked in J.D.’s fiction in-tray … and the rest is all regret and tears.
Rejecting this story from inclusion in my first book was the first step in rejecting everything about writing that I associated with the performative staginess that was a common mode of poetry in the early 1980s and is still alive and well. (More power to everyone who can cope with the special rigors of that mode of publication!)
That was then; this is now…
The election of an entitled, self-absorbed septuagenarian populist to the US presidency seems to mark a turning point if one looks at things from the narrow perspective of party politics. But several writers and historians have pointed out, setting aside startling differences of tone and ambience, the course of US and world politics, Australia included, is not much changed since at least the late 1990s—and it is possible the current direction was set even decades earlier. Richard Rorty wrote, in 1998:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. —Achieving Our Country
When Barack Obama let US bankers escape prosecution or personal consequences for the havoc they wrought in the world’s economy, he joined the club of presidents and ‘progressive’ leaders around the world who have kept their respective polities on a starvation diet, caring too much about points gained on the stock market and too little about the health of democracy, society, and working people. Since the late 1990s the average worker’s ‘take home’ from the growth of developed economies has been zero or less than zero; while high-earning managers and CEOs who twenty years ago earned forty times an average wage are now earning 350 times the average wage. The economic ideology that created this result operates at the level of threat: it tells working people over and over again that government must take care of business or jobs will go: submit or starve.
The forty-fourth issue of Otoliths is available, free, online. Several of the poems concern the emerging situation in the USA after the election of President von Clownstick. As usual, the issue contains interesting visual material and experiments. My own contribution, ‘Auguration,’ was a reaction to the imminent inauguration of the new POTUS. I was reading a part of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy at the time. A note in this work uses a quote from a novel by George Sand: “Le combat ou la mort; la lutte sanguinaire ou le neant. C’est ainsi que la quéstion est invinciblement posée.” Fight or die. A bloody struggle or nothingness. This is how these questions are inevitably posed.
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
One third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field —The Epic of Gilgamesh
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.
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.’
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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. 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 and beliefs has become a blood-sport, usually played while crouching behind an anonymising avatar, but often, and just as viciously, among ‘friends’.
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 spitting at my friends while 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.
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.… Then I worked 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.… Computers appeared on desktops and jobs started to disappear in the printing industry. The ‘workplace’ had already been invented, many years previously, as an object of study, regulation and control; but now people who worked in offices or for large organisations started to talk to each other using the language of business reports, even at home.
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. The most impressive scientists I met were working with heat exchangers to improve the energy efficiency of bakeries; extracting the active components of mussels to find why they appeared to have anti-inflammatory effects on humans; and finding ways to inoculate chickens against salmonella.
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, provides evidence of a general failure of religious people to face reality. In this milieu, in the months before he died, Christopher Hitchens became the modern-day Winwood Reade, interpreting the whole history of Western civilisation with the wit and clarity of a man who has few words to waste.
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. Both atheists and believers arrogantly treat the ‘faith’ at the core of the other’s belief system as though it were merely a deep layer of intellectual stubbornness—a hardened, shrivelled core of ignorance that, because it will not go away, must be mocked in order to make it hide itself. It has become a standard trope of proselytising atheism that the wisdom of religions is unnecessary: we need only apply the ‘golden rule’ to everything, and a fully-formed ethical system will naturally unfold from within us. I don’t buy it. The smarter we think we are the less we think we need the lessons of religious books, and hope that reading ‘literature’ or science will do the trick. Does reading anything make me a better person, even if I only feel improved?
Religious belief is imagination speaking to darkness; but, in a way, that is what science is, too. 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. Is this the reason, or only one more reason, why we are double in ourselves?
In 2012, after many months of tiredness and a feeling of disorientation, I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. And he, in turn, spoke to a nurse about what he had heard me say. 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’ve reached an age where The Epic of Gilgamesh makes sense as a fiction about life—something it is difficult to see when you are young. 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 the work, the city, its culture, and even its empty fields, will outlive us.
“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.”
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.
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. 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.
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.