La Raphaéle

Over the decades I’ve had a few weird experiences, mostly inspiring but occasionally ominous, of the soul, or the psyche, or maybe psychosis. I don’t know. Usually descending in the wee hours of the morning, they’ve been encounters I can appreciate and reflect on deeply or flippantly, but I don’t try to attach explanations to them these days.

And I was a harpsichord student at university. The harpsichord is an instrument that can sound quaint and dry under academic hands. The famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once snidely remarked, “the sound of the harpsichord is like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.” Well, yes it can, when Bach or Scarlatti are rattled off á la The School of Velocity. But if you are sensitive to its fragile touch and the poetry or spiritual ethos of the music, you can make a harpsichord sing with a deep, sustained and sonorous rumble.

In my case, nothing came of these studies professionally, but I love to play now and then when I come across an instrument. So here’s a little memoir culled from my diary, about a moment in time these two quirkily cobble stoned alleyways on my life’s journey once met and crossed.

It was still dark on an early winter morning back in 1986. One of those mornings when a fairly cold onshore breeze blows across the Swan River, and heavy cloud rolls over Perth from the Indian Ocean.

It must have been about five a.m. when I got to the Eileen Joyce studio at the University Music Department, to which I had the privilege of a key. I let myself in and lit everything up. The studio contains a large, aseptic wood veneered space with plate glass windows facing a garden of pine trees, and beyond that, the campus football field.

I can remember, from the many hours I spent practising keyboard music there, the instruments standing around the room in various states of rehabilitation. A dusty square piano from the 1850s, a squeaky medieval organ that no one knew how to fix, a fortepiano styled after one Mozart might have used, a small teal and rose painted clavichord, and a big grand piano. The piano sat there like a shiny black limousine among the spindly phaetons and cabriolets from earlier times.

In the centre of the music studio sat a glorious instrument, ancient and recently recovered from decades of disuse; a Kirckman harpsichord of worn and glossy walnut, with brass and iron strings, ebony and ivory keys. The ebonies were soft and yielding to the touch. The ivories were grainy and brittle, like an old man’s fingernails. The instrument was made in 1760, a year after Handel died.

There were a couple of other Early Music students beside myself, and a couple of excellent double keyboard reproduction harpsichords, but I took an interest in the Kirckman, worked up some suites to play on it, and the department decided it’d be good to restore the old thing.

They got a builder out from England who fixed it, and showed us the basic principles of tuning and other arcana. So on this early morning I got out the tuning key to finely adjust the intervals, the fifths as flat and calm as cream, the minor thirds narrow and tangy, suitable for playing around B minor and its closely related tonalities.

I did an hour’s practise and then began to play through a suite I was working up for a student recital, the eighth Ordre from the Piéces de Clavecin by Francois Couperin. This suite opens with a prelude, titled La Raphaéle. It’s a slow, sinuous piece almost ready to burst with passion. The first strophe announces itself as a grave arpeggio. The bass rises in fifths. The treble falls in thirds. The concord of notes then rises to a minor ninth suspended over the tonic, then to the dominant, gushing further upwards, tense with growing colour, before it sinks and darkens again, suspended and falling through the air, coming back to rest on B minor.

I loved this music, spun on those deep and dazzling strings, mystical and gloriously sad, music that the language of B minor was thought to incant most appropriately back in Couperin’s time. And of course, I also liked to think deep studently thoughts as I played. Perhaps about grandeur being a vast cold joy that holds up the empty spaces in one’s mind; or about the Shadow of God, and other such things.

The music must have drawn it out of me, so I felt attuned to it. These old keyboard dances are like civilized swordplay, like games played under the faint smile of Apollo, with the formal protocol of pause and return, perhaps so that the power and passion deep within the melody and harmony would not tear one’s heart open with their daggers as some laughing Dionysus would have them do.

So I played, and the formal praeludium of this first movement rose, straining against the steady four-beat measure, and fell back, took a courtly bow at the cadence, and began again.

And then I remember, and my diary records, that I stopped unaccountably, as though the room was expecting something.

I hadn’t slipped a finger or spoiled an ornament. It was as though the room, and my existence at that moment, slipped between the notes into a rest, a second of silence like the entrance to an underground cavern, into which I might have fallen.

There was a presence standing behind me. I could see it through my back. It was nine, or maybe twelve feet tall and shimmering with silver light.

I didn’t know if I was going to jump out of my seat in fright, or resume the dance. I think I sat very still for a while.

The being, made of invisible light, embraced me from behind. I could sense the ethereal warmth of its arms. And knew its broad shoulders as though my back and neck leapt out to meet them. The presence didn’t have a clear gender, but my emotions allowed it to be male. That’s the only way I have of describing the perception. I decided to let go, but remain watchful. The presence rocked me back and forth, with an imperceptible yet obvious force. My body went hot-cold, as it has on other odd occasions. The visitor, still standing behind me, made the hairs on my neck rise. A chill coursed down my spine, both terrifying and hilarious, then the sense of a light blue breeze or an indigo flame glowing and licking my back and head, flowing up and around.

It was as if the being had brought me to the pivot point in time between the upward swing of yearning and the downward plunge into terror and possible madness. I couldn’t decide whether to strike the notes, and will the visitor away with a sharp “no” and a tension-releasing shrug of my shoulders. Or accept. My head was emptied of speculation, having had the very useful, and timely, realization that I didn’t really know anything about anything.

A warm, almost hot shaft penetrated my lower spine and rose through my diaphragm and into my chest, making a bowl of warmth there.

I neither heard nor sensed any name, except possibly the thought, “No need to fear, you are safe.”

I sat there at that bench, hands resting in the air above the keys, ready to strike. I wanted to say something, but also keep it light and formal, so I just uttered quietly, “Well, you seem to be benign.” The shining presence remained behind me, shimmering, as though made of stars I could see through my back. I didn’t dare turn around. Perhaps I feared that if I did the experience would vanish.

“I hope you like the music,” was all I could add.

I don’t know for how many measures of time I sat at that keyboard as the experience left me. I began to play La Raphaéle again, the strands of suspended dissonance descending over several pedal points before the dance falls towards its close, the cadence ending on low B, F sharp and B. I was alone again with the music. I held down the ivory and ebony keys of the final chord, letting the vibrations follow my visitor as far as they could fly, before lifting my fingers, one by one letting the plectra slap quietly against the damped strings.

And then suddenly a whip crack lashed out from the soundboard like a shot from a flintlock pistol. The longest iron string had snapped. It snarled across the other strings before coming to rest, a quivering tangle of dark wire on the ancient yellow wood.

I sat for a minute longer, silent, not breathing, wondering what had happened to me, and who the visitor might have been. I realized that I oughtn’t ruin the memory with too much thought. Why, some years later, rereading my initial scribbled account, I’d scrawled, “it was nothing but the skeletons in my closet copulating on a harpsichord.”

But at the time I just sat there repeating quietly, between long bars of silence, “I hope you liked the music.”

I came back to my immediate surroundings after a while and got up to unhook the broken string and coil it. On the other side of the expanse of glass the ferns, the pine trees and the sky slowly filled up with the morning.

It had begun to rain a light silent winter rain. A weak patch of light glanced against the wall of the studio. The shadow of a branch quivered there for a moment and faded again.  The early morning sun must have passed across a narrow opening between the plane of the earth and low layers of rain as it rose.

I let myself out of the studio and locked the door behind me as the birds screamed with joy at the brightening light. There were dozens of them in the bushes, plumping their feathers and shaking open their tiny wet wings.

 

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Christmas in Maridalen

Silent wooded hills surround our valley of fields and farm buildings in Maridalen, the Vale of Mary, a few miles above Oslo. Near where the road divides and hems each forested slope sit the ruined remains of an ancient church abandoned after the Black Death: a thick stone wall lanced with Romanesque apertures and outlines of rubble. In the summertime the site rests on a mound above a waving meadow of gold at the northern tip of the lake, but now most of it lies buried in snow. A mile further up, past the new school and the old wooden church a few dozen brightly painted houses huddle under the hills above the western branch of the road. Below that several farms divide the long bowl of the valley. Through it the river winds south under its winter ceiling of ice.

The seasons express themselves intensely here. Halfway through spring, masses of tiny violet and white flowers push themselves up through gobs and rivulets of sunny slush. Summer is for bike riding and berry hunting in the forest; tiny strawberries, then redcurrants, blueberries and hazelnuts. Days are long and yellow as the grass. We go to bed with the sun still up, heavy curtains drawn against the blue. Autumn, and school: I’m shy and inquisitive among a rowdy mass of kids. At home the cellar is full of small wrinkled apples and potatoes, pots of redcurrant jam, one with a drowned mouse in it. There’s the distant rumble and clank of hay harvesting. My friend and I ride the tractor with farmer Brodin. His nose drips and he makes rude remarks about “the angels who will be pissing on us soon enough.” Now, bruised shadows line the tired eye of winter, opened only a few hours each day to peer wearily at the blue-black hills and gritty roads, before shutting down for another sixty-five long nights.

The snow descends silent and slow. Sometimes it falls along the narrow path between spiny cliffs of black trees, and then the world makes a sudden turn and we all rise and spiral into heavens of floating snow. It drifts sideways like white opium ash. When we aren’t making angels wings or pissing our initials, the drowsy numbness reduce our small forgetful bodies to piss our steaming woollens instead. Falling snow envelops our innocence with its warmth, but once fallen, cannot erase the grimy adult miseries induced by darkness.

My mother, my brother and I live at “Trollstein,” a place father had bought three years earlier. There are a dozen steep steps, then a sunken path to the small wooden house. The windows are shuttered, but the rough square panes are iced thick. Ours is an old yellow cottage with a tarpaper roof on a patch of grass surrounded by rocks. A few scabby apple trees and a row of evergreen sentinels keep us away from the larger houses on either side. We are friends with the Buringrud family on our right, but we must have nothing to do with the people in the big green house on the left.

We have our baths in the kitchen in a big plastic tub. My mother sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room, she shares it with my father on the rare times he is home from the sea. My younger brother and I have bunk beds and teddy bears in the back bedroom

Pine and spruce buttress the slopes behind our little spot. What rears beyond it is an unknown wilderness. Wet, snow-sunk boulders loom and lean against each other under the trees above us. They are the troll stones. Perhaps those stones have sent me the same terrible dream several times: Long after midnight I fly over fir-dark hills to an invisible lake. An Indian paddles his canoe across the cold reflected stillness. He raises his feathered head and cries a single eerie cry, the long scream of a bird in the ghostly moonlight.

*****

On a late December afternoon Norbert and I come home from hours of play. We find ourselves outside the locked kitchen door in a canyon of snow, unable to get in. We are warmly dressed, with our rubber boots and waterproof overalls, but before long I’m raging in frustration, banging on the door, kicking it vigorously, and hollering out to our mother who is inside. I can hear her call out, “just wait, I won’t be long,” but we have never been locked out like this and I do not understand at all.

After what seems a whole afternoon she lets us in. Wonder and excitement replace our tears. In the corner there’s a tree with chains of coloured paper, little heart shaped baskets filled with sweets, white lights and a star on top. The first we’ve ever had. We find a pile of parcels under it. I recognize a small pair of skis under the wrapping. Mother has laid out bowls of nuts, oranges, and marzipan pigs, a traditional Christmas treat. We have been told that father will be coming home soon, but I am lost in all the presents.

Evening arrives at three o’clock, and someone else is banging down the door. The Julenissen stomps in with his loutish charcoal-bearded boys, doing the rounds of the village with a sack of trinkets. “Good evening, have there been good children here?” Norbert and I recite our merits and get a little plastic car and a piece of marzipan each. They sing a drunken little ditty. Mother gives them some oranges. We’ve forgotten to put the bowl of sour cream porridge in the toolshed out by the outhouse. Norwegians like to encourage goodness in their gnome-folk, but mother is Australian, and she could not have thought of everything. Perhaps our neighbour and his teenaged sons would prefer some Aquavit before they stumble off. Their speech is warm, with Nordic words flying like woodchips off a log. Mother’s accent has a pewtery English quality, careful and formal. She is giving us the best Norwegian Christmas she can.

The house is silent. Norbert and I are dabbling around, waiting for the day when we’ll be allowed to open our gifts, and watching Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble babbling in Norwegian on TV. Four candles sit glowing on the sideboard by the plastic crib. Next to them, paper dolls of the wise kings Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. The last gilded door on the Advent calendar has yet to be prized open.

Mother stands for a long time by the window, gazing in silence at the black void outside our little cocoon. She says nothing, then leans against the sideboard for a while and gently blows three of those four candles out before tucking us into bed, for the long, dreamless sleep at this deepest edge in the trough of the year. But life has returned late next morning as we tumble out of our bedroom. Mother makes the tea and takes a box of matches. One of the four candles had burned down to a stump. She relights the three that remain. There is accordion music on the radio, then melancholy classical sonatas.

*****

It must be Christmas Eve. Father is not yet with us. We join our neighbours, the Buringruds, and visit the little timber church in its grove of bare beech saplings. Other fathers push their kids along the white velvety road on their sparkstøtter, wooden chairs on sled runners, or haul them along in toboggans. I don’t remember having been inside a church before. The white-planked walls pulse with joy in the creamy dazzle of brass chandeliers and a hundred candles. It must be almost as exciting as visiting King Olav’s glittering palace. The room is full, farmers and kids and city cousins. Many dressed in traditional costumes; boys in colourful vests and knee britches with white stockings. We sit with our neighbours, their girls Mona and Dora in red dresses, embroidered camisoles, lace aprons and filigree jewellery.

A couple of fiddlers play along with the organist on his harmonium. Big rosy men rocking back and forth, their hard heels drumming the floorboards as they spin a slow dance on their Hardingfeler, fiddles with mother-of-pearl inlay, ink rosettes and maiden’s heads, and half a dozen sympathetic strings droning under the courtly polyphony.

The pastor ascends to his pulpit, clears his throat and announces the birth of a magical child in round buttery tones. He rests up there, well upholstered in his black cassock, with jowls swelling over a thick white ruff. I wonder why we’re getting alphabet crackers to eat. At last we all stand and stretch, and the grown-ups sing a hymn. It’s strange to hear my mother singing, a girl’s voice, gentle and a bit tentative. A sound so unlike her.

Et barn er født I Betlehem, I Betlehem, I Betlehem.
Nå gleder seg Jerusalem. Haleluja.

*****

Father has come home from the sea. He is first mate on a Wilhelmsen cargo ship and gets back to his wife and kids every six months or so. I have small icons of his visits tucked away. The shapes of them have crumbled at the edges, and though they may have lost their original place, flashes of sound and colour remain intense. Like half a dozen pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a tin kept in my pocket, or fragments of mosaic laid upon the mantelpiece.

I have fallen on the ice and cut my chin badly. My father tapes it up with cotton and sticking plaster. A day later he squats in front of me and tells me he is going to pull the bandage off very slowly and gently. I am whimpering with anticipation. He sighs “oh, yo, yoh” and rips it off clean and quick before I have time to think.

I see my father naked as he changes out of his clothes in our bedroom on a summer’s day. He is swift and shy and turns away.

He dandles Norbert on his knee, up and down, cooing “my lit-tle tiny tot.”

My mother has a screaming fit, shouting at him across the living room. I can anticipate her laughter and anger, but the sound of her weeping, so rare, fills me with shame; it seems to me like the sound of cold water falling into an iron cauldron. She hurls her shoes at him as he lies across the sofa uttering nothing.

Father is tall and lean and quiet. Perhaps it is Christmas day when he gets here, or soon after. He has brought us more gifts from far away; a little wooden camel and a bronze bust of Nefertiti from Egypt. A copper boomerang with a thermometer mounted on it from Australia.

I help him prepare a great pile of doughnuts. He towers over me as we work at the kitchen bench, mixing sour cream, eggs, sugar, cardamom and flour. He shows me how to roll the dough and join the strips into rings before he fries them in hot fat and dusts them with sugar. My father is methodical, explaining as we go.

He bakes a salmon. It’s a silver ship on a reef of boiled, peeled potatoes, anointed with butter and black pepper, then broken to reveal its cavernous pink bowels. He stirs the sour cream porridge, cooks it down with sugar and puts a knob of butter in each bowl.

He sits and takes his coffee at two in the afternoon, sipping the hot liquid through a lump of sugar tucked between his teeth. He gives me a green piney cough lozenge coated with sugar. He drives us up to the Holmenkollen ski jump, racing along the narrow roads and tearing round the corners. Mother laughs. “God! Kristian you’re a dreadful driver!” She says sailors are pretty dangerous behind the small jittery steering wheels of cars.

I don’t know how long he might stay here with us, perhaps a week before he goes back down to Oslo, to the black ship with its salty derricks and blue striped funnel, off to trace lines in the rolling seas between Gøteborg and Tilbury Docks, Port Said and Port Hedland, or Lisbon and Sao Paulo.

It is the first Christmas I remember, and the last one we will have with our father. After he has gone away again, it is as though mother has begun to lead us deeper into the dark-white valley, into the river with its ceiling of ice, under the hard grey lake, down to the fjord and out along the ocean floor, walking miles below the storms, too far down for her to notice the short pearly days between the long vacant nights. Perhaps her sun will rise again months after Christmas day, after a voyage past the Canary Isles, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and on to the coast of Western Australia, the farthest shore of an unimagined world.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Sad Swedish Porn

It’s one o’clock on a sticky Wednesday morning and I haven’t been able to sleep.  I’m all hot and bothered, praying for any kind of release from wakefulness, and there’s nothing to do but put this churning mind in neutral and let my feet sneak me out of the house. There’s a little place these dirty feet of mine know by Central station. In a twenty-five minute stroll they get me to a steel doorway with its spluttering neon tube and gum-pocked turnstile. With great cunning my toes fish money out of my pocket, disturbing me not at all. Without me knowing (I swear) they pass the grubby blue ten-dollar bill to my sleepy fingers, paying the sallow gatekeeper before trotting me down some worn stairs. Once down there I’m half aware again. Goodness me, am I here? Yes, I am!

I feel around sweatily in the dark and flop down into a rancid seat. I’ve landed on my ass in the basement, hoping for a piece of my favourite genre, the Puerto Rican Prison Pic.  The scenario of the PRPP varies but the theme is always the same. Hapless hunky inmates, brutalized by their big white prison guards, turn the tables and show those sneering starchy uniforms who the real funky bosses are. The bad nasal acting evaporates after a while and equilibrium is restored. It invariably ends in joyous delirium, a carousel of manly merriment for all involved where everyone ends up a homeboy. But (oh bugger!) I’m late or the show times were wrong. The closing credits, accompanied by monotonous grooves on a cheap Casio keyboard and drum machine, are rolling on Live Hard Or Die. It’s a typical Chandler Waxwurst production, featuring the brutal and languid Rusty Springstains in combat with the astounding undercarriage of legendary Latin former soap star Don Quidique. Hot Damnation! I’ve missed it.

The joint I smoked fifteen minutes earlier (it must’ve been my toes that rolled it, put it in my sleepy mouth and lit it) is beginning to take effect, my eyes and ears prick with sense data, my brain is now a nervy horse flaring his nostrils.  A few shadowy figures lurk in the background and hover in the squeaky cigarette-burned seats to my right and left.  Something quite different unfolds itself on screen.

The dialogue is Swedish, and subtitled. As the forest scene opens two tall blond travellers have come to a sort of clearing and have collapsed on the moss. They lie quietly listening to their own breathing. The camera zooms in to a close up of tanned skin, golden chest fuzz, and the sound of heartbeats. The forest is wild and impenetrable. Eskil the vessel of God gazes at Eugen the noble. Eugen gazes back at Eskil. “Soon dawn will come, but the heat continues to hang over us like a smothering blanket” says Eugen dreamily. Round one starts with a delicate stroke around a nipple, and two fingers snailing down a polished belly of steel.

“Mmmmmm. These are like wild strawberries from the forest,” murmurs Eskil. “I have never seen such large ones. How they smell!”

They look up. A workman in the forest is watching. Hadrian the raven-haired is leaning against a tall tree. “I feel that something is going to happen to me, but I don’t know what,” he whispers to himself as we gaze up at his foreshortened chest, lips and aquiline nose.

Fifteen minutes later the scene ends with three bangs and a whimper. The strawberries have been polished off and all the cream lapped up.

The actors are superbly chiselled Nordic gods of chilly countenance. The director (I missed his name, is it Lars von Queer? Or perhaps it’s the notorious transsexual auteur Ingrid Bergdorf-Goodman) must love art, because now the lads are in a palace garden, grouped on a marble terrace under a pavilion of Ionian columns standing in a parterre of roses and yew trees. Arne the eagle and Andreas the strong have joined Eugen, Eskil and Hadrian. The five are grouped as naked statues in a Nazi Academy of Art pose d’un tableau vivant heroique. The camera circles the pavilion to strains of Schubert, and then moves in for the kill as the action gets going. Stylised arm wrestling and head holds become sweatier groping further down the virile chain of command. The sculpture has come to life, like some wobbling perpetual motion machine.

They’re like a vision of Munktell’s Swedish Steam Engine of 1853 sculpted in meat. The wet blanket of neoclassicism has been ripped aside to reveal great glistening cylinders huffing and puffing, with greased pistons pumping away at rubber gaskets. The camera surges in and rears back, the action broils as though in an oven. Now the tableau transforms into a carcass of beef on a spit tended to by adoring cooks, pounding and basting, licking and tasting. The hole where the meat had been skewered is like a tight little mouth opened in slack-jawed amazement. After another fifteen minutes of vigorous ministration balls and whistles all go off at once. The five of them whirl that smothering blanket of heat and hurl it sticky and damp right off the screen at our faces flickering in the dark. The scene fades into a lactic mist, to the heavenly lengths of poor syphilitic Schubert.

The camera pans across the broad parterre to a pair of old palatial doors. Eugen, still the beautiful and lonely nobleman, greets Eskil, now playing a delivery boy. You may imagine the clipped, quietly modulated Swedish, “ah, Eskil, arriving as you always do, when the warm melancholy evening sinks into the sadness of night.”  They gaze into each other’s icy blue eyes like two cool hells yearning for heaven.

Eugen and Eskil have this 18th century chateau to themselves. It seems deserted apart from them. They walk from room to room. There is only emptiness and a quiet echo. Outside, the rain is heard roaring noisily.

The boys have wandered into a huge, taffeta walled drawing room, and set themselves down on a yellow silk covered empire chaise longue.

“Your smile is like brandy. Your eyes like blackberries.”

“And your manhood, like a great brain sausage.”

A zipper is heard grinding its gears slowly down to the ground.

“Ahhh, Eskil you are so perfect, in your perfect imperfection.”

“Why do we torture ourselves this way Eugen?”  They collapse into each other’s heaving skins, chewing tongues for thirty-five seconds. The third glorious duel has begun.

And the music! This round of the action is carried on wings of song, a chamber version of Chopin’s piano prelude in B minor. Lento Assai, with clarinet, flute, cello and piano querulously warbling away. The music, interwoven with every subtly understated thrust and gobble, rises and falls in sad, sad strains. Da-de-da-de dumm, dah, de-daaah. Up, two, three. Down, two, three. The actors’ bodies sway in peachy-cream pie-in-your-face slow motion against the mustard silk taffeta. In, two, three. Out, two, three.

I can’t help giggling at such paradox, a koan of Calliope and carnality, of Erato upending Eros. Back down here in the smelly seats my nervy horse brain tells me that the guys groping away in corners are glancing at me sharply. I think they think I’m laughing at them.

Suddenly there’s a rat-tat-tat of guns, and five tall slender Swedish soldiers burst in. Birger the rescuer and Enar the warrior now accompany Andreas, Arne, and Hadrian. Eugen and Eskil unshackle their engines. Eugen rises from the chaise longue and demands, with insinuating hauteur, that the soldiers strip. The men are cocked in a Swedish standoff, the steam still rising from the muzzles of Eugen’s and Eskil’s guns. Their fate is sealed.  Heat and gravity drags them all down together on the Aubusson carpet in a mad, mad whirl of manhood. They’re like seven golden seals brawling gloriously on a silk tasselled beach.

And over it all, like a troubled Baltic sky the narrator intones . . . “The hot day has become night. Singing and howling can be heard from the distant inn.  In a hollow near the forest, the light still lingers. Now, a soft gleam of light strokes the hilltops, a last reflection from the red clouds over the sea.  The plague is spreading along the west coast. People are dying like flies.”

There’s a final close up to the noble lips of our two heroes. “Who watches over us Eugen? Is it the angels, or God, or the Devil, or only the emptiness?“

“Oh the emptiness, the emptiness Eskil.”

Milky fountains splutter and flow.

Herre Gud, such art, such impeccable, exquisite taste! This is porn to be pondered, Cinema Perversité for the delectation of philosophers and cultured gentlemen. Could it even be possible that in a hushed, sky blue and gilt rococo recess by the back stairs of Stockholm’s Royal Palace, a certain descendant of Queen Victoria would be titillated unto his little death by this offering? If not amused?

Ahh, but it didn’t do it for me. I sit there in the sweaty gloom, fending off the darting, farting shadows, not yet exhausted enough to let my feet take me home to sleep, waiting for what comes up next. Some new offering from Ballywood? Or a sardonic Sardinian romp? Where the hell are Rusty Springstains and Don Quidique when you need them? Up on screen a didgeridoo begins droning under the tinny chords. Saliva! Australian Outback? No, just a trailer. The drums start beating. It’s Saliva! Vanuatu – Island of Fire.  I settle back. A trio of good sex, coconut oil and bad music is a form of homo-pathic medicine. It will cool me down eventually.

 

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

The New Year’s Cadence

November 20, 2005

It’s only the middle of November, but a new year is beginning.  I’ve had the same list of assessments and resolves for ages—haven’t we all.  Occasionally there’ll be something fresh, and something I considered important might be excised from the current draft.  The same big issue items appear every year, moved up or down the page depending on whether health, wealth or wisdom are uppermost.  But New Year’s Resolutions are for one’s inner committee to debate and agree upon on Saturday morning after a big breakfast and two cups of strong coffee.  Resolution embraces resolve, synthesis, clarity and rest.  A night away from everything, no matter where or how you spend it, allows resolution to speak as though from nothing.  It arrives like a small furry creature that creeps across the grass towards you when sleep has become deep and soundless.

***

On a beach near Torquay
I’m three hours south of Melbourne, parked on a lonely stretch of beach on a dirt track off the highway, with the van I borrowed hidden from view by a couple of sand dunes.

Putting my picnic things away in the dark I’ve banged my ankle severely on the tow-ball of the van.  I get such a shock I begin to shiver violently.  I’m shaking as though my body is unzipping itself. With all my body zippers slowly ripping down and the flesh falling off my bones.  I stumble into the driver’s seat and sit there shivering and holding my shape together.

The invisible prison rises and breaks across the sky.  I can see the bright half moon in the deep well of heaven between thick arms of cloud.  I wonder what the moon would look like seen through a glass of red wine?  I have so much wine but no glass to pour it into.

In the right hand corner of my field of vision appears a small half circle of peachy orange light rising from the beach town up the coast.  The clearing sky is brightly black.  Silhouetted against it is a long low stretch of thick dead-black bushes.  They have a little bit of shape and dimension to them.  Under it is a band of grey beach gravel.

In the left corner of my vision there’s a small shed on the far side of the parking area.  It’s a little broken down toilet block with two doors.  One door painted white is closed.  I sense rather than see its whiteness.  The other door is open, flapping in the wind, an inky hole, banging and winking.  As I imagine, inside that door a naked man is seated.  There is writing and strange symbols all over the walls.  The naked man is still alive but he has been half eaten.  He may have been eating himself to death.  I can see the stump of his arm reaching out of that doorway.  It is the image of a man not yet ready to let go of his debts, paying his devil the remaining interest due on past transactions.

The shivering has left me.  I’m drawn for a second or two into deep and soundless wakefulness, a cool and dry clarity, not hot and humid and decisive.  Questions dissolve.  Tiny bubbles, perfect little answers, float to the surface of the cup and foam for a moment before they burst and disappear.

Waiting for the complex to be simple again
Anything new that strikes the heart-mind has no image yet, because images are formed out of what I already have.  In the first confusion, what strikes seems too big and too complex to cope with at face value.

I could fire up my school brain to reduce it to something intelligible, something theological.  But maybe I’d take the life from it by doing so.  Theology is like attempting to build the model of a waterfall out of a Meccano set, or to construct a feathery wing of cirrus cloud out of Lego blocks.

I’m learning to sit with what I cannot see.  Whatever it is will be made visible through what I already possess.  It will be a rich and tangible truth for as long as the form is needed, before it resolves back into an unknown and total presence.

Where is the seat of faith?
If the seat of faith is the mind, is faith threatened every time the hinges of the mind are broken open by a prying question?

If the seat of faith is emotion, are joyful, hopeful feelings the truth of faith, and dryness and despair the absence of faith?

Can I see, touch or taste faith?  Perhaps faith rests where it cannot be expressed at all, but where it might influence the architecture of thought and the effulgence of feeling.

How do I imagine God?
Do I mean the God I constantly refashion in my own evolving image?

What else can I know?  All I know is, my God prefers honest shit to “pious ejaculation.” At worst, he averts his nose from pious crap.  No, no, God does not avert his nose at anything.  That’s what I do. It is we, the proud ones, who avert our noses at things.

The God I sense loves best our clumsy loving, our naked, foolish hearts.

Who am I?
When someone asked, “define yourself,” and I rattled off an answer, I was describing a mask.  I don’t have these answers any more, though I still have my masks handy.

A proud man or woman, bluffing against the terrors, says firmly, “I know myself.  I can look myself in the eye, in the mirror any day.”

Someone who accepts that they possess no full self-knowing might say, “I cannot always look myself in the eye, and I must wait.”

What is vanity?
Vanity gazes into the mirror, searching desperately for signs of ugliness and decay.

How will I end?
I will not die alone.  I must take my self with me when I go.  How long I spend with this self at the time of passing will depend on how well I know and how much I have come to accept.

***

I fall asleep, and wake up at 4.30; pull on some pants and a jacket and walk away from the salty rumble of the ocean, lifting my legs over a slack barbed wire fence to get onto to some fields with a few sheep and cattle in them.

Before dawn the Otway hills are made of cloudy glass.  There is a soft dreamy solitude about the dawn.  As the sun rises the land is like a wet painting.  The dewy grass looks like frosted glass in the chill early morning.

The mist lifts its white tendrils off the water of a muddy dam, the water flat, not yet ruffled by a breeze.  The tendrils of mist rise like a chain of ballerinas in gossamer tutus slowly dancing Swan Lake on a brown linoleum stage.

I pass a scraggly patch of bush, and then a broken down wool shed.  Its timbers are no longer hewed from trees, but cast in pewter.  In the distance big black rectangles of cattle, their tails sticking out, graze and shit.  The grass is sage-blue in shadow, and like butter where the sun shines across it.

And so back to thoughts about the New Year, and quiet resolution: After a messy climax, during which dissonances have begun to untangle and relax, I’ve arrived at another cadence, one of several in life that are regional, oblique, and plagal.

Resolution is hidden in these cadences.  The perfect one will be the final return from dominance to tonic.  This cadence, which is the resolution of life in all its meanings, is always present in the air, more easily sensed at night under an open sky.  You can also feel it in the ground underfoot, in the prickle of thistle and gravel in your heel after you’ve kicked your shoes off.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Cosmic Dreaming, Church Hopping

 

Melbourne 2006

As far as you can tell, creation manifests a rounded shape, perhaps a sphere, perhaps an egg, or, as a cosmologist might put it, a curved surface on which existence plays like a shoal of fish in a net of dimensions. 

You see light, like mist: a glowing and dark gas.  For a tiny span of time you see every particle of it.  You are quite a way outside this sphere, or glob, and can see it, whole and in its parts, because you are not looking at visible brightness, which has not had time to reach you, but sensing its existence. 

You are still within and a part of the realm of the sphere, having been thrown out onto a dangling thread floating away from the dimensional net. 

Your sight is drawn toward what you know intensely.  This is everything.

***

A few Sundays in December-January I went to St. Mark’s, Fitzroy, my inner Melbourne neighbourhood church.  These forays into the church world arise not so much from an inner, unspoken prompt, but from a reawakened desire for music and company.  St. Mark’s is a big bluestone building from the 1850s, with a grassy square and a wrought iron fence, a very High Anglican church with a good small choir and a fine old English pipe organ that purrs like a Rolls Royce.  They’re all very nice, a typical small Anglican parish.  There are a few middle-aged and elderly stalwarts, a married couple with small children, an ancient retired vicar who sits in the front pew and one or two quiet, very conservative looking papery young men who cross themselves and bob up and down with shy fervour.  They never stay around to say hello to afterwards.

When I’ve got my good manners on I get on well with elderly Anglican ladies. 

“Doooo have another champagne dear, and one of my very own Scotch finger biscuits,” says one of them after midnight mass, her grand-maternal bosom-shelf swathed in a garden of green and blue silk.  And I usually don’t put big foot in sharp mouth until the uneasy feeling trips me up; that I might be exuding the charms of a well-read Teutonic gigolo (and one no longer young). 

One of the silver foxes on the Parish Council had asked me to lunch before Christmas.  I got quite tipsy at his party, and in my rather innocent (liberally urban American Catholic) way gave him a brotherly hug as I departed.  I sent him a thank you note on a card with a painting of two Grecian muses holding up a watery world, and just to be amusing I scribbled little black beards on their faces.  I was invited back for a little supper a few evenings later (me, still clueless).  He had one of the other parish people over too, an ex nun who likes to hike.  Interesting, I thought.  But after a drink and some church gossip, she left, saying, “it’s time for me to leave you two to your supper.” I became less clueless. 

My new friend was lonesome.  His lover had died years earlier.  He didn’t know what he believed, as far as religion went, but he loved being a part of the church.  After dessert, enjoying the silver fox’s mellow company I agreed to stay and watch an old black and white movie. 

“The TV’s in the bedroom.  You don’t mind .  .  .?”

Well, I didn’t want his loss-of-face to end the evening, so I sat up on the edge of his bed with him.  He was a perfect gentleman.  I think I dozed off for a little while before I apologized and went back to my studio apartment, too much wine and too little sleep.

I got the cold shoulder after that.  He didn’t need another friend he needed a boyfriend.  Perhaps I’d come across as a tease.  After so many years abroad I had forgotten how British the social culture is in Melbourne.  So no more tipsily grateful brotherly hugs or funny thank you cards until I know the score. 

The vicar of St. Mark’s is a pleasant Englishman, though very traditional and a bit stuffy when robed.  He’s a monarchical priest.  He exhales the gracious attention and dignified indifference of a Viscount—Viscount Fitzroy perhaps.  In accordance with his rank in the sacerdotal aristocracy of the First Estate, this would be his style and title.  The vicar presides over the Eucharist and pulpit like a solemnly hieratic and gravely masculine Noel Coward, and he has a good steady baritone too.  But at the door after church the first couple of times we shook hands he was all blushes and smiles, though he had forgotten who I was from the time before. 

“And what is your parish?” he’d ask, plummily. 

“Oh, I’m a bit of a vagrant,” I’d reply with a grin. 

St. Mark’s Fitzroy is like a little Hanoverian court.  I am at one of the Deity’s minor palaces, at the Sunday morning levee, when the masters of the bedchamber gently awaken the King, the Prince Royal, the Presence, while gentry and servants look on.  In some courts the queen mother drops in to lend a kindly maternal ear.  One church I sang at a few times, St Ignatius of Antioch on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was so steeped in the incense of 18th century English custom the vicar ought to have gone the whole way by wearing a powdered wig and red-heeled court shoes.

Why do we need gilded rooms?
And stained glass? 
So we can assign a tangible value on our love and look safely through to the light?

Do we erect very high ceilings to remind us of the loftiness of our imaginations, and to keep the elemental, transforming creator as far away from our bare heads as possible?

In order to get some conversation going I emailed the vicar a hello, attaching, as an introduction, the short essay The New Year’s Cadence which I’d done a couple of months earlier.  I never heard back.  He may have been scared off.  Many bachelor priests find themselves wary of the type of parishioner who arrives to vex them with an interest in devil’s advocacy or their private persons.  After a couple of chats with the music director and a bit of wavering I agreed to sing with the choir for their concert at the end of this month, but not commit to Sunday mornings.

Sometimes you need to feel welcomed in from the burning sun, or the heavy rain, or the darkness of a cloudy night, or the busyness of foreign streets, or the barrenness on your pillow.  You find the ritual and symbolism human and nourishing, in small doses.  Your heart and mind speaks this language, when there’s language to speak.  But you’d become ill and constipated if these rich, pre-cooked spiritual dishes were to take over your natural diet.  This must be why you still long from time to time to be accepted at court, but insist on bringing your rude, out-of-doors notions with you. 

“The soul of man cannot live on cake alone,” you mutter to no one in particular. 

***

You turn around for a moment, and there is nothing but void.  Terrifying, void is.  It extends nowhere.  It is nothing, not even space.

You must fight hard to turn your back on it; to turn back in order to see existence.  Why is void so frightening?

Void is end and void is not.  End is never.  Never is, and never was.  I mean, never isn’t, and never wasn’t.

It isn’t ‘The Void’ because there is no such “thing”, and there is no such “place”. 
What did you not see when you turned around? 

This is the point at which horror arises.  You wonder if one day you will be terrified of death. 

***

The more elegant forms of Church-ianity (ones I love too) are kept in stasis by a particular spiritual tyranny; the hurt and reproachful feelings of the elderly when faced with any breaking open of the protocol of their religious observance.  I remember my octogenarian landlady, Miss Nimmo, supported by her friend Miss Cannon, standing up at St. Gabriel’s annual parish meeting in Pimlico, complaining in hurt and horrified tones about the phrase “seen and unseen” having replaced “visible and invisible” in the Nicene Creed.  Clearly, the language of God, set down in the 17th century, had been affronted and perverted.  The responsibility to see or not to see has been placed on us. 

Many priests will accede complacently to the demand that nothing must change.  There’s no point rocking the boat, and a modestly good living and secure sense of self depends on not doing so.  This observation is, of course, as unfair as it is true of many of life’s vocations.  The protokollon of religious observance contains the glue that holds faith together.  If there were no protocol, faith might fall apart for a lot of people, and more wars might erupt, so the reasoning goes.  But I wonder if the gospel message is really a gospel of glue, or one of breaking open into new life?  And doesn’t growth germinate from flesh that falls apart?

On one of those Sunday mornings I’m sitting in silence in my pew at St Mark’s, after the vicar’s irritating, psychologically uncomprehending sermon.  He was mildly self-deprecating in his opener, but grew very firm about the tradition and authority residing in his position.  He went on a bit about people these days creating their own versions of religious truth.  Us and Them, it seems.  I find myself in a curmudgeonly, Cromwellian mood about the whole lot of them. 

Suddenly, I am taken to task by the Jesus of my Anglo-Catholic imagination.  A shimmering Christ hovers before his mahogany and silver gilt cross, creamy hands outstretched, showing me his delicately sculpted puncture wounds.  He is so beautiful: quiet, tall, noble, his visage gravely joyful, slightly melancholy, as though he were Ingrid Bergman in the lean body of a man. 

“Lorentz,” he sighs, his lilt could be Aramaic, or Nordic. 
“Suffer the little old ladies to come unto me.”

***

It was only a fear, of the eventual terror of death, which frightened you.
Existence is beginning.  Beginning is always.
The comforting constancy of creation is always beginning.  It is not a preserved thing. 
You are often captured by the wise blind smile of a newborn child.

 

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Melburniana

 Image

John BRACK, Australia, 1920–1999. Collins St., 5p.m. 1955, oil on canvas. 114.8 x 162.8 cm.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Purchased, 1956 © National Gallery of Victoria.

Once, when living in Portland Oregon, I was acknowledged at a party by an elegant old wag who asked, in patrician, Rocky Mountain-Oxbridge tones; “Larry, where is it that you’re fruhhhm, exah-ctly?” He went on; “I’d wondered whether you were from New Zealand? Or South Africa perhaps? But of course you speak High Australian, don’t you?”

On a couple of occasions during years lived in New York, having a coffee or a drink in one of the bars around Mulberry Street staffed by sniffy actor-model types, my order had been briskly taken by some young woman discreetly suppressing a mild kangaroo twang. On each occasion, the order taker wouldn’t quite look me in the eye. As if to convey, “you don’t mention it, and I won’t either.” I’d keep quiet until it was time to pay, when I’d inquire, murmuringly, “so where in Australia are you from then?” To ask was dismally gauche, I knew. In both instances, they were Melbourne girls. A quick flash of the eyes told me to piss off before I ruined their dreams.

On other occasions, in a train dining car crossing Montana, or after an uptown choral concert, I’d find myself meeting people visiting enthusiastically from Down Under.

“We’re from Brisbane. I’m Pearl and this is my husband Merle, my daughter Fleur and her boyfriend Barry. We’ve just been doing Europe. We met so many people from back home, didn’t we Merle?  What’s your name? Lorentzo? You don’t sound that Australian!”

Well, I acquired my accent during formative years in Britain and Norway, and it’s now become High Melburnian.

Melbourne is Australia’s classy city, fairly mellow, less noisy and frantic than Sydney. Sydney’s glorious cliffs and sunny inlets were seeded with convicts and soldiers. Melbourne, with uninspiring weather and a broad, muddy bay, was settled fifty years later by farmers and bankers. Melbourne grew rich and splendid on gold. It was going to be the capital of Australia, but due to rivalry with Sydney it was decided that the federal parliament should reside halfway between the two, in the dry yellow sheep runs of Canberra. People from New South Wales thought of Melbourne as being slow and dowdy, but Melbourne has managed to keep its air of superiority quietly to itself, as wise snobs do. People here are agreeable, if not particularly welcoming.

*****

A weekday morning rush hour on the tram. I’m on a shiny new white and green number 96 going from Fitzroy, through the city and down to St. Kilda on the bay. A woman in pink track pants carrying a laptop computer bag blocks the middle doors of the tram with her massive rear end stuck out like a boulder in a stream. People resort to sucking their breath in and squeezing around her, both men and women trying to avoid groin-buttock contact. She stands there, like a stubborn cow blocking the barn door with a resentful look on her face. No one dreams of telling her, “move your fat arse lady so we can get by.” Not even “umm, excuse me, could you step in further, we need to get on board.” That’d draw a ghastly amount of attention to ones self.

There does appear to be room to move beyond the big pink-swathed bum. There’s even a seat down the end, which no one will take. The two chalk-faced suits nearest to it ignore that empty seat. Others glance resentfully at bodies blocking easy access to its green pad, but no one will move. I speak up, “If someone takes the seat, there’ll be room for another person to stand there.” I am ignored. I push through, excusing myself as best I can, and take it. Muted glints of passive hostility are now transferred onto me. But by the top end of Bourke Street the tram has half emptied.

As they do once in a while, a posse of ticket inspectors wanders through, polite in dark blue uniforms, big and chunky with clumpy black shoes. I present my ticket with a flourish and a smile, and they thank me and move on to the next person. I’d noticed a tall skinny dude with a little chin beard and street-hip scruffy clothes sitting behind the middle set of doors, lost in his Walkman. He sees the ticket cops just as I do and dashes up to the coin operated machine on board the tram, grabs some coins from his pocket, punches in his request and grabs his two-hour ticket, quick as a flash.

So what do I feel? I feel there’s something dirty and rotten about this scoundrel, something shifty, sneaky, embarrassed and shameful. Because of course, like many Melburnians, I’ve jumped on the tram a few times without paying, risked a quick free ride with no pebble of guilt to ripple the placid surface of my conscience.

Down the other end of the tram the ticket inspectors have stopped, hemming in a young bleach-blond fellow, or maybe it’s an older man with white hair. He has his back to me so I can’t judge his face. The ticket cops are earnest and polite as they write up their note pads, giving him an infraction notice and a lecture. Pity the wretched underdog who’s been caught without a ticket. This contrasts with the displaced sense of shame and disdain I felt over the fellow who got up sneakily to purchase his ticket in time, and with the solidly righteous feeling of having bought my own ticket well in advance.

“Nest e-shtupp As-shol Strict,” cries the swarthy driver from his cockpit. The tram shudders to a halt at the corner of Russell Street. A crazy man gets on squirting a bottle of water around. It’s hot outside, so no one is roused with bother. He’s got no clothes except some army shorts. He’s yelling, “Who’s got mah corn bread”. He goes on with pretty good imitations of Tweety Bird and Thylvethter the cat.

A forty-something woman in an all-white ensemble with sun glasses bigger than her face gets on, sees the crazy guy waving his water bottle, and with a huff steps off again before the doors close. An old lady sitting just below the crazy guy’s protruding belly button taps herself on the knee and starts talking to the lady next to her about the good old days on TV when they had cartoons on before the news and not that awful Seinfeld, so whiny, “but he’s a Jew, isn’t he though?” she says to the other with a raised eyebrow. The other, much nicer lady turns her head and looks out the window, ignoring her.

I’m dragged out of the present, to a visit with my elderly godmother more than thirty years past. She lived in a lovely home in Glen Iris in the Eastern Suburbs. She was speaking about a trip to India and Thailand. “Asians are such lovely, lovely people,” I remember her saying in her delicate, quavery, high Melburnian kindness. “You know Lorentz, you can leave your handbag on a cafe table over there in Asia and no-one would dream of stealing it.”

The shiny new 96 tram trundles along its eighty-year-old rails. It’s gotten chilly in here now, nearly empty of passengers. A wispy young man gets on, another eccentric, a pale fellow who hasn’t broken a sweat outside, even though he’s dressed in silks and a black swallowtail coat.

He sits opposite me. His face is as white as an alabaster Christ in a Baltic church. He’s got a prophet’s beard and ringlets down each cheek, a waistcoat of silver scrolls, baggy pinstriped pantaloons belted high under his ribs, a blue business shirt and a woven tie, white gloves on thin fingers, and his pale, veinless feet are shod in glossy black slippers.  His vestment is crowned with a Satmar-style fur hat.

The tram squeals very slowly around the corner onto Spencer Street, and as it does so a heavy silver crucifix the size of a handgun slips out of his waistcoat. He notices me noticing him and looks blankly uncomfortable. I’d love to talk, but I’m shy too. Perhaps my inquisitive, bacony bigness is a threat. He floats out of his seat and tiptoes down to the empty area at the other end of the tram. As he sits down again he fishes a transit ticket out of his waistcoat pocket, holds it in both hands and gazes at it, muttering something, a cleansing prayer perhaps.

*****

Later that afternoon, on a long walk up the beach path from Brighton back to St Kilda on the northern shore of Port Phillip Bay, the sky is thick with smoke from the bushfires raging in the mountains to the north, fires which have burned three quarters of a million hectares so far. The office towers a few kilometres to the northwest can barely be seen because of the haze, they seem like mile-high skyscrapers in the distance, though the tallest of them is a thousand feet.

The land around the bay is flat. Heat ricochets off the sand. The black tar soaks it up. Flies are dancing all over my face. Dozens of small boats tack across the bay. A couple of bulk carriers shimmer in the nebulous distance. Cyclists whiz north and south in their super streamlined silver and neon sports gear, high on the saddles of their racers, with mixed expressions on their tightly drawn lips, of chilly concentration and environmentally conscious scorn.

A bent-over Japanese lady trudges slowly by, her face crunched up like a salted plum to protect her eyes from the hot breeze. She’s pushing a koto in a shopping trolley. I happen to look down as she passes, and just off the kerb a lost button melts into the sticky black road.

Quite a few sun worshippers and picnickers are taking the day off work. One couple catches my eye. Agog and culture stunned, I cannot help but look again. A young man, dark brown and lanky with a thatch of black chest fur, oiled up and lolling around on his beach towel, wiggles his tight little bottom in electric blue bikini briefs, adjusting his limbs to the burning caress of the afternoon sun. Sitting close by him on a rug, a young woman feeds him with her fingers, doling out morsels from a picnic basket. She is swathed, nun-like, in a tent of black cotton, with a cream-coloured hijab covering her head and shoulders.

I spend the last part of the afternoon wandering up and down Acland Street St Kilda, avoiding the pastry shops, and checking out bric-a-brac and New Age jewellery stores.  After a meat pie and a diet coke I walk down to the gardens by the beach, to read and doze under a dusty Phoenix palm away from the crowd. The breeze has changed by dusk and it’s cool again. I wander back down the coastal path a mile or so, to where it’s really quiet. The fishermen won’t be here until well after dark.

Evening on the bay: the water is flat, smoky and oily. The red-hot cast iron sun has set over Williamstown on the invisible western shore. Whatever colour there was has wasted away. There seems to be no sound left either, apart from the sluggish retch of brine, leathery weed and black garbage puking slowly over flat sheets of sand.

*****

There’s plenty of cosmopolitan tinsel to make Melbourne a diverting place: elegant little arcades, a Chinatown as old as any other, galleries, cobblestones, cafes, gypsy musicians at the old Vic market, Turkish rhythms wafting out of kebab shops, operas and ballets, imposing Victorian wedding-cakery and elegant post-modern towers. But a bourgeois British chill, discreet and charming on the one hand, blinkered and dull on the other, still deadens the marrow of Melbourne. Back in the 50’s, John Brack set up his easel on Collins Street in the city and painted the office crowd going home after work. Grim, gimlet eyed, weary and grey, like New Yorkers without the buzz of caffeine or jazz, or Londoners without their brisk, well brewed opinions, the army of businessmen, clerks and secretaries marched down to Flinders Street station each weekday evening to catch suburban trains. No one paid him any attention, the artist later said. It was as if he wasn’t there.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Battlers, Ferries and SydneyWorld

July 8th, 2005

Up at six-thirty, a rare foggy Saturday morning, toe-curlingly cold the first hour. Time to put the kettle on for a cup of milky brick-coloured tea and potter about with the oven on high to warm the kitchen. Had another long wakeful stretch before dawn, so I’m heaving my usual Sisyphean grumble up the lower slopes of the day. My mood is like hot air pouring out of an open oven door, rising into the high-ceiling chill as one warms bitterly to one’s subject. It’ll roll back down and dissipate during the cool reflective evening. This morning’s portion of text: good old raw Aussie gold, transmuted into the base metal and refined polymers of the New World Order, just like everywhere else (Book of Negativity, Chapter 6, verse 13).

Sydney at its most obvious is like a party person who exclaims “Wow”, or “Exactly”, or “Fabulous, isn’t it FABULOUS!” The city’s boom-era grab-and-go cheeriness is enough to wear you out. It is one reason why the right sorts of Melbourne people claim to despise the same class of Sydney people. In Melbourne the salonistes prefer to resonate discreetly. If Melbournian pretension could be likened to very old balsamic vinegar, the luxuriant smugness of Sydneysiders is like virgin olive oil the colour of money.

“Think of the possibilities!”

The aspect of Sydney that flashes its front at you is like this: a not-so-young couple at a party, carefully dressed in dark, retro-metro angst-chic, sharp, knowing, but tanned and super positive, talking fast—about her hip-hop semiotics thesis, his stressful job and expensive habit, their artist friend who’s a Torres Strait Islander…. But they’ve got nothing to say. The bright, cotton-tufted Sydney sky seems this way too.

I ought to put a sock in it, sitting here at seven o’clock in the morning like Eyore, dropping the damp rubber remnant of a blue balloon into my empty honey jar, looking at it, and fishing it out again before looking at it some more. I should get out and enjoy the crisp air and creamy winter sun, go on a ferry trip maybe.

The usual photogenic Sydney ferry trip crosses Port Jackson to Taronga Zoo, or through the churning rip between the inner heads to Manly, “seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care.” You cross the busy Corso, get some fish and chips and a beer and sit on the beach. Today I’ll do the commuter trip from Circular Quay up the Parramatta River as far as my Red Zone weekly transport pass will allow, to Kissing Point. I’ll have a look round out there and wait for the return ferry.

A half hour walk takes me down the crowded Glebe hillside past the greyhound track and the fish markets, across Pyrmont to Darling Harbour, which has been revamped as an Expo-Sydney style tourist hub. After crossing the old drawbridge, another half hour’s walk down the city’s George Street canyon will get me to Circular Quay.

I remember crossing the battered Pyrmont Bridge from the city to the Inner West twenty-five years ago, when Darling Harbour was stray dog’s crotch of abandoned wharves and sooty warehouses with broken windows. Pyrmont and Ultimo were still grimy and cheap, the last redoubt of the inner city Little Aussie Battler.

“Battler” is an iconic, almost scriptural title. It started out as a put-down. A woman who loitered on the street corners of Kings Cross so she could earn a few extra quid for her old man was a battler. So was a bloke who hung around the racetrack, without the cash to make a bet or the inclination to find any. Later on the Aussie Battler was remembered as the little bloke who struggled in a low paying job, with few prospects and fewer complaints. Little Aussie Battlers could never quite fight their way out of the psychological chasm between the bugger-you-mate swaggering colonial larrikin and the primly resentful ledger clerk of Aussie bureaucracy.

The River Cat backs out of the Quay, turns to face the choppy harbour and zips past the Opera House, a glowing three dimensional puzzle of lunes, segments of a sphere balanced together like sails (the travel brochure simile), or like several pairs of hands, a family of fingertips together in prayer, or a sun bleached nautilus shell peered at through a kaleidoscope.

As soon as you’re out on the water life becomes a holiday and the wind gets wintry. The ferry-catamaran is full of weekend trippers. We “ooh” and “aah” under the grey steel harbour bridge, past the waterfront warehouse lofts, back around to Darling Harbour, the next inlet on the journey inland.

Where are we really? Is this the Embarcadero San Francisco? Is it South Street Seaport New York? The same international mall in plate glass and steel girders, palms and potted Ficus trees, with minor local variation: home baked cookie outlets, wallaby skins, opals, tea-towels, didgeridoos made in China, billboards and menus of gangly, quirky, laconic Crocodile-Dundeediness laser-written, laminated and slapped down on the plastic tables with the roo burger and fair-dinkum-fries specials.

Entertainment halls, airport terminal style, crowd Cockle Bay, the back end of the little harbour. From here they look like molars in a wide mouth stuffed with sweets. A Monorail loops the complex and touches the western edge of the city. (“I reckon we orta have a Monorail.” “Yair, a Monorail.” “Hasn’t Tokyo got one?” Seattle’s got one.” “We orta get one.”) A vision realised so modestly is useless as transport except for tourists to pay and be led by the nose on.

The ferry pulls in at King St wharf, next to the “Sydney Showboat”, made up of sheet metal and Perspex windows, with a fake paddle that trails at the back. Bloody Sydney World.

The Aussie Battler kept his nose to the grindstone, occasionally waving his little ragged flag, sticking it in the face of Officialdom and its rectilious punctitude. The wives, when they’d finally had a gutful of it all, could summon up a red-faced rage against the machine (usually in the form of their hapless, mumbling husbands) before settling for a cup of tea, a Bex and a bit of a lie down. The men retreated to their sanctuary, the beer garden on Friday and Saturday nights, where they’d talk about the oats they could’ve sowed, but didn’t quite have the courage to, all the while cultivating their beer bellies together like market gardeners nursing prize watermelons.

Other snapshots of battlerdom:

A little girl sits humming “hi ho the mary-oh,” kicking her sandals against the planks of the old wooden dunny box in the outhouse at the back (our dunny had a shingle with “Pooh Corner” scratched on it).

A freckled boy has his picture taken, head hanging bashfully to the side, mouth open in a pained grin and eyes screwed up against the glare of the sun. Seems like everyone had this expression on their face in the old days when they had their picture taken outdoors, peering quizzically into the heat. I’ve even seen a picture in an old Woman’s Weekly magazine of some grey Prime Minister escorting Elizabeth II in rubber boots on one of her royal rambles, across a paddock full of sheep shit. Both Minister and Queen squint toothily into the morning glare.

Our Battler was also the backbone of the Labour movement during the early to mid 20th century, when Australia and New Zealand led the world in women’s and workers’ rights. The White Army, Australia’s pre-war fascist sympathisers, threw their net out and fished up some battlers too, but they appealed to a more nervous stratum, those battlers who had made it across the chasm and finally had a bit of something they feared they could lose. Militant Right-ism fizzled out quickly though. Aussies are gung ho fighters and can be as lazily intolerant as anyone else, but we’ve always hated being told directly which way we ought to march.

The ferry half-disgorges before gobbling up a group elderly Japanese tourists in identical plastic rain jackets and sunbonnets. The Japanese tourists point their tiny silver video cameras this way and that. The railings are crowded. I move back for a small smiling couple. The old man extends a little bow, and I acknowledge his thanks with a High-Melbournian inclination of my upper torso.

We well-exercised, educated new-centra-lefties living in the former Little Aussie Battler districts of Glebe, Pyrmont, Balmain et al., have to deal adroitly with the thought that the contemporary Battler (whose grandfathers we claim as our spiritual grandfathers too) is now more likely to be a Liberal voter, which in Australia means nationalist-conservative, and is as likely to be South East Asian or Middle Eastern, living in Cabramatta, Blacktown or Emu Plains, out in those Western Suburbs where no one from the Inner City ever goes, and where the frothy head on the Aussie dream is to live like a Burgher King in a McMansion and own a home theatre system and a speedboat. Sound familiar, international brothers and sisters?

Inner Eyore is at it again. At least we occasional grumblers can’t do too much damage to the world, not like those dangerous utopian types who get doctoral degrees in Life so they can Think Things Through before telling us grumblers what to do. Ahh, shuddup and let Inner Piglet have a squeak. We’re on a ferry trip.

Darling Harbour is not all cheap. The Chinese Garden of Friendship, a wooing gift from the Peoples Republic of Doing Business, is tucked away next to the Convention Centre. It’s a set of pavilions with roofs that curve like the line of a ballet dancer’s beckoning arms. Behind its austere walls weeping willows and watercourses dapple prettily in the sun. It’s an enchanting place in which to curl up read on a day of soft, cobwebby rain.

Away from the shops the jetties are full of ships, retired naval vessels and square-sailed replicas that don’t look fake. There’s the Bounty, of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian fame. Its hull is a fat cucumber of varnished, rivet-pocked timbers with three masts like crossbow bolts held down by pyramidal webs of taut and twisted rope. The next jetty has the restored colonial barque the James Craig, and up by the maritime Museum is the Batavia, the tallest masts and widest spars of all, a tubby and piratically rakish hull with a jutting prow and high quarterdecks rearing up like a saddle on a horse’s bum, caprizoned in gold and blue. The original was wrecked off the West Australian coast in 1629, with an aftermath of mutiny, starvation and massacre. Inner Piglet squeals with glee at such tales of ships and history.

The River Cat speeds out to the middle of the harbour and turns west toward the suburbs. But if you got this far, dear reader, and still want to chug up the river with me to Kissing Point and back you’ll have to wait for another instalment, as I’ve nearly run out of my allotted gallon of wind.

We pass the container port on the long side of the Darling Harbour dogleg, under the towers of the Central Business District. There’s just one cargo super ship today, clean and graceless. It looks like a big white freezer welded onto an orange speedboat hull. What’s missing here is a rusty old tramp steamer from the grimy glory days of shipping, the sort my dad was first mate on after the war. If I ever bought a Powerball ticket and won I’d scour West African and Indian ship graveyards until I found one and got it towed back here, battered and reeking of salt and soot. But a development committee would vote to have her cleaned up and turned into another casino wouldn’t they?

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org