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)
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.