Late in 2019, the Australian prime minister (marketing guru and shitty-pants Scott Morrison, ‘Sco-Mo’ to you) and his theatre assistants removed the federal administration’s arts appendix. One moment the word ‘Arts’ appeared somewhere in the names of government departments, and the next it had gone. Snip! And he chucked it in the bin.
Well, not exactly… ‘Arts’ was removed from a department’s name. To compensate, the yarts (as they are called in Australia) got an office. The Office of the Arts: <https://www.arts.gov.au/>. Never have the arts and government been so closely aligned than in this uniform resource locator.
There were articles in newspapers, outrage on the arts websites, and a long rash of angry emojis at the end of comments on Facebook.
The conservative government in Australia, returned at the May 2019 election by a slender margin, had decided a feature of the victory after-party would be to show the country’s angry, artistic child the door. “Your mother and I are tired of you! Always with your hand out, and never a word of thanks! Get a job!” And then, the ‘clap’ of the fly-screen door and a barely audible ‘clack’ of its tiny snib that seemed to say, “And don’t come back.”
Making art is a patient, lonely business. Making any progress seems to require years of practice and a bit of luck. Guidebooks and internet articles about being an artist, full of advice and clichés, pile up very quickly. Be yourself. Tell your truth. Talent is important, endurance essential. In the age of Instagram, sexy drawings and a bubble-butt are handy, but not essential (or so they say). Governments are not needed, but academic sinecures, supervising doctorates in novel-writing or discussions of queer theory, good if you can get them. When universities are financially sous vide, as they will be emerging from the 2020–forever pandemic, place bets at long odds that the arts will be favored for rehabilitation.
Governments, truth be told, don’t want to help. The governing classes are too busy ‘governing,’ which might as well mean lying, or fudging, or crying crocodile tears, or making a killing on the stock market, or taking a holiday in Hawai’i. To be the governor is to be the winner, the one who calls the shots, to be ‘the decider.’ From their high station in life these decider-governors have a role in narrating our social experience. They have a role we give them in legislating to tell us what is and is not important. (Have you noticed how very often our prime minister tells us what is important, and how very important is the very thing he is now saying?) It’s been a long time since governors of any stripe have shown us how the arts and sciences are important. Business, the economy, the stock market, and jobs are important. Wages growth, arts, and science, women, not so much.
UNFURL, my arts publishing project, was a reaction to artists’ reactions to government biases against the arts. Who needs government moneyanyway? I thought. It turns out, lots of people working in the arts need audiences, and it’s not easy to find and maintain audiences without government assistance. And, even within my narrow range of interests—writing and visual arts—the connections between arts activity and funding are deep. Poetry is not the malnourished tenant of the attic it was in Australia in the mid-1980s. The long lists of books for review and the number of official insignia on web pages are two possible measures of this.
At the same time, long-established literary magazines have had their funding cut. There is money for the arts, so long as it is going to places where the expenditure can be seen to be spent. Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.
UNFURL asked writers and artists to promote their own work to their own social media contacts while doing the same for other artists and writers: it’s a tool for artists to find new audiences and readers. UNFURL /1 started with a couple of writers I knew, Davide Angelo and James Walton, and a writer whom Angelo recommended, Anne Casey. Susan Wald, also published in the first UNFURL, was a painter whose work I liked and who had an exhibition planned for early 2020. I wanted to establish a process that could lead to unexpected choices. I would try not to make selections. I wanted artists to select or recommend other artists; and I wanted those artists to choose for themselves what they wanted to show with as little mediation as possible, encouraging people to show and to publish work they liked, and that might not have been selected (or grouped together) by an editor or curator.
It is more efficient to work on all one’s secret agendas simultaneously, so I should also admit my concern that belle-lettrist aesthetics (including the idea that poetry is language’s semantics incubator) and faux-modernist experimentation have combined to make poetry mostly irrelevant and a branch of marketing. —One only has to look at the writing being selected by the selectors to see that something is wrong with the practice of selection. As much as possible, I think, best to leave artists to make their own choices; and if there are mistakes, then, we’ll know who to blame.
And then, in March 2020 … then was the actual end of the world-as-we-knew-it. Those crazy ‘preppers’ I’ve made fun of started to look like visionaries. “Where the fuck is my bolthole, goddammit!?” and “How big is your bolthole, my friend!?” could have been common questions in some circles. People who could afford it, and had somewhere to go, did leave town. Gen-Xers lost their hospitality jobs, decided that they couldn’t afford their share house rent, and moved back ‘home.’ Artistes no longer had audiences. Artiste-enablers, stagehands, administrators and carpenters, were also out of work. COVID-19 put the arts and sciences back in the news.
The intersectional tragedy of pandemic and conservative political hostility to the lefty arts seemed to many like another opportunity to turn indifference into punishment. It was hard to disagree with pundits who have been cataloging this punishment.
UNFURL, possibly because of all this, has done quite well. By the time UNFURL /5 was released, writers and artists could expect to reach about two thousand readers within a couple of weeks of publication. (Each new UNFURL number provided a little boost to the previous issues, so that all the issues now clock up numbers in the thousands.) Eighty per cent of readers were in Australia, and most of the rest in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. The male:female ratio of readers was almost 50:50. The largest age group of readers was 18–35 years. (Though if everyone is ten years younger on the internet, maybe that’s 28–45.)
It’s difficult to read poetry on small-screen devices, so I did not expect UNFURL to be read on phones. The visual arts component of UNFURL is quite effective on phones and tablets, however. It seems likely that readers interested in the writing in UNFURL resorted to their desktops and printers. Sixty to seventy percent of downloads of UNFURL were to mobile and tablet devices.
I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.
I learned that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of connecting with an audience. Old-fashioned email also works really well. Some artists and writers had no significant social media presence but used email effectively to communicate with friends and contacts.
I also learned that visual artists were, generally speaking, more enthusiastic and positive about using social media, and even better at basic stuff like answering messages. Visual artists be like Molly Bloom; writers be like Prince of Denmark.
I found that both writers and artists did things in UNFURL other publications might not permit (requiring, as they mostly do, first publication rights). Philip Salom published groupings of new and old poems. Alex Skovron published poems, prose, paintings, and drawings. Steven Warburton published a series of pictures about how one canvas evolved over several years. Robyn Rowland published poems and their translations into Turkish for her readers in Turkey. Ron Miller published a brief survey of his life’s work in space art.
A small, framed print of ‘The contest over neuroscience and culture’ is on show, and for sale, at an exhibition of small works at the Brunswick Street Gallery from 26 June to 18 July 2019. Get in quick!
The gallery is at Level 1 & 2, 322 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy VIC 3065 Australia. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10–6pm. Closed Mondays.
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.
Richard Rorty, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.