I remember it was a rainy night

I remember it was a rainy night, and cold
For our reunion my father took me to his favorite restaurant
His Chrysler Valiant was painted pearlescent white
He drove much too fast of course on slippery roads, and parked in a dark street
When we arrived it was already very late
In this part of town theatre people, and prostitutes, were everywhere
A tall man with an ornate beard stood in the restaurant window’s light
My father was known here so, when we entered, we were seated immediately
One elderly couple had brought their little tan-and-white dog to dine with them
It was creating a puddle on the floor underneath their table
A large party had formed near us, several tables crashed together
There was laughter and shouting for more wine and bread
For a while the restaurant was a chaos of yellow light, food and noise
Tables rearranged themselves like Dodgem cars
And my father’s table crashed the party forming in the centre of the room
There were some people we knew—Susan, for example
She was relating the story of her assault on the base camp of Everest
And there was Thomas, the tiny but famous author with white stubble
I tried to listen to everyone, and even to Susan whose story I had heard before
Thomas tried to speak to me to tell me about something he thought important
I watched his mouth as it spoke to me
Then, unfortunately, Susan saw that I was no longer listening to her
She leaned forward, stared me down, tugging at her ear
Oh, Susan, I said, no one wants to hear what unrecyclables you left at the feet of the gods
So, she was hurt of course but I did not see any way of avoiding it
And Thomas and the secret he was whispering to me were gone
People had already started to leave before the lights went up
It was the time of morning bakers go to work
My father took his coat and headed out before me
He did not wait for me and crossed the road
His silhouette marched into a narrow laneway and then it turned a corner
That was where I also turned to follow after him
I found only wide, dark pools of water there
The steep road, winding along the edge of a city park, was empty
The early morning smelled shiny-wet, and he was nowhere to be seen
I walked in circles and walked in circles and then came back to where I’d been
I fell in a gutter and my skirt and shoes were soaked
The man with the elaborate beard was still standing there
Even after several hours he was still waiting though I didn’t know for what
And inside, I could see through the window the dining room being dismantled
Renovations that could not be started during service had begun
And workers were already atop of their ladders getting ready to paint
The old patron said, it’s cold outside come in
Thank you, if you don’t mind, I will use your restroom, I said to him
And slipping in, behind me, the strangely bearded man followed me
Me too, he said, pretending we were together
Behind a door from the dining room the bakers were on the morning shift
A beautiful young girl with the tray of sweets swept past me, smiling
Try, she said, and tilted the display toward me
I could smell the powdery confection under my nose
Warm, nutty and sweet, and ready to eat
And behind me the smell of my new, wet friend
His arm stretched over my shoulder to grab a treat
His beard, thin as a tattoo, sculpted into spirals, scratched my cheek
I could have fucked him then and there
It was what we wanted, but we threw ourselves into a soft sofa
In the family rooms there were other diners who also had returned, defeated
My wet friend wrapped his legs around me
I looked closely into his eyes, asking for reassurance but finding none
I kept one hand on his shaven neck and with the other painted his lips with sugar

Exhibition of small works

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.

The quiet Australians

In case you were wondering the quiet Australians 
Won’t tell you what they are thinking. Their patriotic 
Yowl is stifled by a kind of shame, or fear of shame 
That in a plastic-colored world of money, generations  
Of growth and privilege do not add up to much.  
The quiet Australians want someone to wail for them  
 
To sob about unfairness, suffering, their piece of cake 
To blame, to tear down, to strategise retaking what 
Was taken from the history their forebears vandalised.  
The quiet Australians would stand up to be counted 
If they had a leg to stand on. They would go to war  
If war did not require a sacrifice they shrink from.  
 
Fears aside, the quiet Australians sometimes speak  
When martyrdom can be assured, when whistling 
At a pitch that dingoes hear their words give voice  
To pain they sincerely feel in the salty cracking  
Landscape of their lives. There on the dusty plain  
The quiet Australians cultivate contempt for strangers.  
 
Not feeling for them, we pretend the strangers cannot 
Feel. We, I say, since I am one of you and know that 
Silence can be strength; I know what lengths my hate 
Can go to. When we quiet Australians learn to speak  
We might have something good to say. But, when? 
I don’t know. I’m old. One day, I think. One day. 

Jobs

by Davide Angelo and Stephen J Williams

Sir or Madam, (which as I write it sounds really antique)
these lines began as a conversation about work, with news and images
of the maltreatment of children in the ‘justice’ system. Leviathan
has for a long time been the symbol of the Commonwealth
and a lawmaker.  In the Tanakh (Job 41) this monster is a pride­-killer.
So, I am only passing on the world as I see it, the job lot as they say.
*
There was a long gestation between 25 January and 1901.
Arriving under cover of darkness, the first work done on our plot
was chopping and clearing—not yet finished—followed by a great
deal of fucking that, in a ‘new’ country, apparently qualifies as work.
*
1966, when dad came to Australia he went to work in a spray painting factory.
He worked there for eleven years. After a while the foreman who was
ready to retire said dad should become the foreman. It meant more money.
He wouldn’t have to work overtime. He would no longer have to spray.
Dad turned it down. He could not write. This terrified him. He was stuck.
*
Later, we worked for a union and on a process line. There was a time
in a lighting factory when there was an engineer on your left and a doctor
to your right. It was the 1990s. It could have been now. Immigrants turning
screws on pieces of metal ten hours a day. The president of the union talked
about how a video cassette recorder could make movies play a frame
at a time or make time stand still. It was the 1990s. It could have been now.
Then the ‘workplace’ became a science when the continual improvement
of work could be the continuous improvement of ourselves. But
when we were waiters, when we were clerks, when we were cleaners, when
we washed dishes and when we sold shirts, we were too tired to think.
The process line workers were separate. The sales people, on the floor above
didn’t move, didn’t eat, didn’t smoke between the ringing of bells.
They had a different clock. Sometimes a person on the process line
would be given a promotion and leave the factory floor to work upstairs.
He would be trained in sales, arranging deliveries and acquiring new business.
He got a new haircut. He could see the sky. He wore shiny shoes.
These promotions were only for certain types: men without accents.
The owner was the main man at a football club. He had a promising junior
player working on the floor above. I say ‘working’, but he did fuck all
and spent his days sitting in a toilet and reading the paper, like a champion.
*
“The spot chosen” “at the head of the cove” “near the run of fresh water”
“the stillness of which” “for the first time since the creation” “interrupted by the
… sound of the laborer’s axe.”
*
Little children are sacred. Everyone agrees.
In order to protect me, a national emergency
cordons off one million three hundred and forty-­seven thousand
five hundred and twenty-­five square kilometres and
brings justice by taking my father’s land
a second time. I was inspected in the morning
and forced to speak English. I practiced this
new language counting times the law mentions land
and times it mentions me: six hundred to none.
Irony bridges what was said and what is done.
*
My people were the first here but I have no union. I am thirteen.
I spat in the face of the whale that threatened to swallow me.
The old men who put their knees in my back want to kill
my pride. When I am abandoned by my country
I am the Pip spat out in the desert, castaway and lost.
Could you use your vote now to put a hook in this monster’s nose?
Does it speak to us in gentle words or tell us to work and shut up?
Will it make us beg for mercy? Will we have to fight again?
Nothing in our dreams is its equal. It swallowed me up
and I wait here for the ones who made the law to free me.
*
Sincerely, from all of us
(a wog, a Welshman, an immigrant, and those kids in the centre)

Swedish Academy’s new protocols for laureate selection

The Nobel Committee for Literature has announced new procedures for determining laureates in the field of literature.

Current Nobel committee members Per Wästberg, Anders Olsson, Kristina Lugn, and Horace Engdahl, and associate members Sara Danius and Katarina Frostenson, have spoken at length about their dissatisfaction with the selection process. “Det är en jävla cirkus,” Wästberg said. “På något sätt blev hela jävla galen och vi hamnade med en jävla musiker. Hur hände det? jag vet inte.”

Determined that past errors and controversies would not be repeated, Danius and Frostenson have suggested that there should be a new protocol for nominations: “Vi kommer att få människor att kämpa i sina underkläder och under de hårda förhållandena. Det kommer att bli kallt. Verkligen väldigt kallt. Och det kommer att bli lera – enorma mängder mycket våt, slarvig lera.”

Once nominations have been received through the new process, a new protocol for selection will be equally rigorous. “Vi ska göra det på den gamla vägen. Naturligtvis kan vi inte avslöja för mycket, men det kommer att involvera äppelkakor, våfflor och pannkakor. Och risgrynsgröt, förstås,” Kristina Lugn said.

The Nobel Committee receives over one hundred official nominations each year for the literature prize. The nominees are usually pretty good writers, yet somehow the Nobel Committee manages to come up with a decision.

“Några av dessa tekniker används för närvarande i mongolsk och australisk litteratur, och deras genomförande här kommer att leda Nobelprisen till nittonde århundradet,” Horace Engdahl added.

The ancient techniques of Mongolian and Australian poets promote new respect for literature.
The ancient techniques of Mongolian and Australian poets promote new respect for literature.

Home in the years of a cold war

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.

U5, 777 Park Street, Brunswick
Unit 5, 777 Park Street, Brunswick

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.

'Protect and Survive', published in the UK in May 1980.
‘Protect and Survive’, published in the UK in May 1980.

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!)

Trumps epic struggle to read a book (from Slate.com)
Trump’s epic struggle to read a book (from Slate.com)

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.

Voters in the US, UK and Australia have looked for someone else to vote for and found candidates who are worse. Voters are not timid any longer (at least not in the voting booth), but they still have trouble facing reality. The state of geopolitical tension that was the cold war is being served again. It was tragedy then. It is farce now.

[Link to the story.]
Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.
Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.