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
U5, 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. 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.

On the uncertainty of finding a place to call home

[Note on this story.]
The beginning of the end

When not giving demonstrations of black boxes to new salesmen in country towns, I sell the boxes door-to-door in the city. Black boxes provide relief from all the 156 boring chores associated with day-to-day living. There are 156 different boxes to do 156 different jobs. Visitors to my house cannot understand why it hums. All the boxes are at work. My house must be the only one in Australia with all 156 boxes installed and working. A showcase of modern technology it hums, contented, and I hum with it. When the children were younger, in the days when Marjorie could still remember my name, we all used to sit in the living room together and listen to the house hum its merry work-a-day melody, and we used to hum along with it. The novelty of my new job was still fresh then, and it was a time for humming and singing and being happy.

If Marjorie is home when I return to Melbourne, she will say that she has been waiting for me.
—Peter (she will say), I’ve been waiting for you.
—You shouldn’t have (I will reply. Then 1 will give Marjorie a kiss).
—Are you tired from driving, Simon, darling? (she will ask).
—No, I’m fine (I will answer, not at all surprised that she cannot remember my name).
—John, the children will be home from school soon. They’ve missed you terribly.
—Yes. Marjorie. I’ll have to spend more time with them, I know. Perhaps this weekend we could all go to the beach?
—David, I think that’s a wonderful idea. I’d like that a lot.

Only one thing puzzles me—why Marjorie forgot my name in the first place. Apart from the tension this causes between us sometimes, our marriage is perfectly normal, and I am happy.

The children may be home of course. If they are sick today, they will be home lying in front of the television set, which is the only medicine Marjorie knows to relieve their hyperactivity.

The color of the dust has changed noticeably during the past hour’s driving, from pale and red to grey.

I don’t believe country people when they say living in the city is unhealthy, that it causes cancer. The sky is still blue, and the grass green. Though I must admit the sky looks a little frayed around the edges sometimes, maybe from overuse.

Not one car has passed me coming out of the city in nearly two hours. This is strange, even for January. There are two huge trucks cruising behind me—loadless, uncovered, semi-trailers. I think that if I stop or slow down they will push me on. I have no choice. But I will have to stop soon, because I am running out of petrol.

I stop.
I get out of the car.
I look at the signs. It is a self-service. It is what I deserve.
I look at the directions on the pump, then try to operate it.
I succeed. I have a knack for this sort of thing.
Replacing the nozzle on its rest, I notice the attendant is watching me.

The attendant’s head is propped up by the attendant’s hand.
His elbow is on the desk.
And the desk is on the floor.
The floor is a concrete slab lying on the ground.
The ground has always been there.
The attendant will not take his head off his hand.
He doesn’t want to disturb the natural order of things.

—How much do I owe?
No answer.
—How much does the petrol cost?

His eyes move and look at the meter on the desk. It shows the amount that I owe. I put the exact money on the desk and turn to leave. I get the impression that he doesn’t like me. I have disturbed the natural order of his loneliness. He jumps up, and rushes to the door ahead of me, running around to the side of the station, falling to his knees near the old oil barrels, where he spews up the morning’s breakfast and beer. When he is finished, he looks up at me. He wants me to go away. I go away.

Closer to Melbourne, driving through the suburbs, I find more semi trailers. They are not alone now. Each semi-trailer is accompanied by a big, red fire-truck. Inside the fire-trucks are men in rubber suits. They get out of the trucks sometimes, looking like frogmen.

I stop my car to watch them.
The frogmen get out of the big, red trucks, and hose their rubber suits with a kind of detergent that even from a hundred yards away I can smell is very sweet and flowery. They wait for a semi-trailer to arrive. When one arrives, they start picking up the bodies. Some of the bodies are very stiff and dry from being left in the sun too long.

The frogmen see me watching them. I don’t try to hide. They seem harmless enough. I notice that they do not talk. I don’t know why.

Approaching them, they ignore me. They seem intent on ignoring me.

The middle of the end

I think maybe the communists have taken over, and everyone is not really sure what to do about it. The shop-owners seem to have caught onto the idea really well. All the stores are left open 24 hours a day. You don’t have to pay for anything. It’s there for the taking. Though I suspect a lot of shop assistants are out of jobs, as self-service seems to be the trend. I don’t know how they will pay their bills if they refuse to take any money from me. Maybe there won’t be bills to pay any more. The communists have taken care of everything very nicely.

Apathy is still a problem. Marjorie still will not talk to me. Neither will anyone else. Three days after I arrived home, Marjorie is still slumped across the kitchen table, fascinated by her soggy weetbix and milk. I think she is conducting an experiment, and wants to be left alone. She is watching the milk curdle, and waiting for the weet-bix to turn mouldy. But I don’t know how this could have commanded her attention for so long. The children are still lying in front of the television set. And my house still hums. At the very least, my house is contented. I find the behavior of my family most disturbing. They should be grateful for all that I have done for them, and at least talk to me now and then.

The fourth day after my return, Marjorie is still in the kitchen conducting her experiments.

I take a seat beside her at the kitchen table, and I insist that she talks to me. She doesn’t. I put my arms around her shoulders, kissing and hugging her, but she is cold and unfeeling.

—Marjorie?
Marjorie. please talk to me.
Please take your head out of the bowl.
Marjorie.
Marjorie?
Marjorie, please.
Pretty please.
Pretty please, with sugar on top. Marjorie?
Marjorie. if you keep on acting this way. our marriage is sure to deteriorate. Think of the children, Marjorie. Marjorie?

These five days of solitude have made me lose my faith in human nature.

Finally. It ends.

Marjorie and I have separated. She is retaining custody of the children.

Today, I don’t feel like going to work.

I have gotten into the habit now of actively seeking out and following the frogmen in their big, red trucks.

The frogmen will not talk to me, but I plead with them to take me.

—Will you take me with you?
Please?
Will you take me, please?
I’m bored and lonely and if I stay here much longer, I’ll go insane.
Take me with you,
pretty please.
Take me with you,
pretty please,
with sugar on top.

One of the frogmen takes me by the arm, and helps me onto the back of the trailer. It is nearly full. I am lucky to get a place. He points to the spot where the next body should go, and I climb up.

And in the end,
among these bodies.
I sense I am no longer here
waiting
but here
dying.

I dare not disturb the natural order of things.

The frogmen spray me with their balmy lotion,
so I smell of flowers and honey.
They take me to the mountains,
and I lie there forever,
refusing to talk.


Originally published in Meanjin, number 3, 1980.
meanjin-3-1980
Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.