This was written for a proposed tenth anniversary re-issue of Time's Long Ruin in 2020. It explores some ideas about the book.
Time’s Long Ruin starts with long walks around Croydon, a city fringe suburb in Adelaide’s west. Down-at-heel, nonetheless, it allows me a backdrop – homes to fill with families, a row of shops that have been empty for years, since the first supermarkets destroyed this perfect blend of cold store, house, gossip, shared plums and an envelope, with five quid, slipped under a neighbour’s door when he was out of work. On my way to the train every morning I pass a cottage and bungalow in Thomas Street that soon houses the Rileys (three kids, mum and dad) and the Pages (nine year old Henry, his detective father and troubled mother). Despite ten years of media tags, running something like, ‘Stephen Orr’s Beaumont children book’, the story was always about Henry, how he grows up, his friends, Adolf Eichmann, the couple across the road who’ve lost their son, the neighbourhood clairvoyant, and a dozen others. It’s Henry’s take on the world, how this boy – wanting to see the best in everyone, to believe in his father, to love his mother, needing whatever passes for normality, a set of values – learns that life isn’t always contained in, or explained by, books, but in the way people act towards each other.
Henry is the most unusual of Australian kids. His club foot makes him slow, clumsy, happy to watch, observe, write things down and turn them into stories. This, of course, is a writer describing a writer’s childhood. The reluctance to bother with sport, to accept the agreed upon version of life most kids then, and now, receive at home and school. A critical thinker, but more importantly, someone who wishes for a different world. Sets out to see if his can be changed, and discovering it can’t (Australia, with its love of red meat, full forwards, sunny days and simple stories) retreats into his old house, his books, the small things that remind him of those days in 1960.
This book is hand-written on five hundred foolscap pages, typed up, edited (not much – every writer believes in an already perfect version of his or her world) and entered in an unpublished manuscript competition. Strangely, it’s scribbled in the basement of Adelaide University’s Barr Smith Library, within reach of books about molluscs, Ribbentrop and differential calculus. Just the sort of place Henry might spend his days exploring. As the boy becomes real, wanders the page, growing more defined and believable, demanding I keep writing, despite a sore hand and twitching finger, and the woman who takes hours to re-shelve a few books. But even she’s worth watching. The way she searches the shelf, finds the spot, widens it, blows the dust, inserts the volume, lines up the spines. Like all of this might add up to understanding – books telling stories, stories making books.
The book is named The Second Fouling Mark. Interesting, because it a) sounds arty and impenetrable and b) sums up another theme of interest: not knowing. Henry, unable to explain a distant mother; Bob Page, unable to find the three missing kids from next door, letting down his neighbours, his son, his city; Con and Rosa and the miraculous tree in their yard. And here’s me, on a tram, passing a sign that says THE SECOND FOULING MARK, and wondering what this means. I don’t know; no one knows. What if, I ask myself, it can’t be known? What if the kids aren’t found, Henry never recovers, we, none of us, really work out who we are, why we’re here? But of course the mystery makes it (doesn’t it, Henry?) worthwhile. I mean, explanations aren’t really explanations. And if you find out, and if you know, what do you know? Just things. Nothing that matters. Con and Rosa settle on God, old Henry chooses Voltaire.
The manuscript wins the competition, emerges, almost two years later, in its present form. The reviews are generally understanding, with one or two people saying it’s not my job, my right, to screw around with other people’s stories. Although when I explain that this is what fiction does (given, some stories with bigger gaps between the thing and the word), some can’t accept, or perhaps understand, my choice of material. Everything, apparently, has to be put through the wash, bleached, made generic, and if your story is too close to something that’s happened, then there’s a certain arrogance, a presumption (not to mention an obvious lack of originality) involved. I, apparently, had not covered my tracks enough. In the same way Patrick White mixed up Leichhardt and Voss, Jimmy Governor becomes Blacksmith, not to mention the hand that didn’t really sign the paper. This was hard for me to fathom. I concluded, later, that certain stories should be left lying, quietly, in the shade, because the events, and their implications, are too uncomfortable. But I don’t think anything is beyond the grasp of fictions that attempt to tackle the unspeakable, the unthinkable. What’s unthinkable? Nothing. In this (and now I am talking about the disappearance of the Beaumont children in 1966) lies a chance to make sense of a moment, a few whispered words that have been obscured by niceties that have done nothing by way of correction.
The book sells well, is reprinted and, in 2012, becomes the South Australian selection for the National Year of Reading’s Our Story promotion. Many people hate this. I mean, there are happier books, aren’t there? I speak at libraries, the standout being the wonderful people of Yorketown, who turn the Melville Hotel into a sort of reimagined Thomas Street. I take Henry to Port Augusta, Roxby Downs, and beyond. Since then, the story you hold in your hands has led to piano music, a yet-to-be performed opera (libretto by Adam Goodburn, music by Anne Cawrse), and the usual film interest that dissipates in the haze of the next bloke-dog yarn.
Through all this, Henry persists, wandering his lounge room, vacuuming the Berber that should, he believes, see him out. I’m not sure what works, or doesn’t, in this story; what causes people to pause, place the book in their lap, and think for a moment. I certainly don’t know if it has any chance of lasting. I didn’t set out to answer any questions, least of all what happened to Jane, Arnna and Grant. Some people think I should’ve. I’ve had them at my front door, emails, letters, photos of where the kids were supposedly taken, and kept, and far worse. I’ve been attacked (as have the makers of Innocence, the opera) on the front page of grotty newspapers by commentators (having never read the book) who seek to misrepresent the story as gruesome, tasteless. I’ve heard the curses on talkback, the Goebbelish rants of shock jocks continuing the fine Australian tradition of kulcher-bashing. All because I was fascinated by the problem of continuing (as Samuel Beckett said: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’), when this seems impossible. And isn’t that all of our lives from time to time? In exploring Thomas Street, in life and in the literary dream, I tried to understand something big by describing something small. Any failure to do so is entirely my, and Henry’s, fault.
SO February 2019
The best way to spend a cold, grey Paris afternoon: walk the twenty minutes along Rue de la Republique from Place de la Republique (or get the Metro, if they're not on strike). Find the gate, make your way up the hill, surrounded by centuries of Paris's dead. I went for the writers, but found Chopin, Jim Morrison, and plenty of others.
You can try and use a map, but you'll get lost. The roads, lanes and small, overgrown paths; the ruined family vaults; the crematorium. But that's the whole point. Get lost. The dead aren't going anywhere.
A few locals, with flowers for some dead aunt or uncle, a couple of American twenty-somethings in search of The Doors, but mostly just people succumbing to the views of Paris, the overgrown bushes and wild, ankle-deep forest of dead leaves and stray rubbish.
Sleeping under the piano, close to the rosewood, night sounds amplified by eighty-eight strings. So imperceptible I can’t really tell, but they’re just outside the window. The scraping of a leaf on a concrete path, until the breeze stops. The movement of a lizard in litter; the way wind works on canopies. Each singing, vibrating, resonating and, when I step outside, the once-a-minute bark of a dog filling the void, and this sound moving across the land, through yards, down to the river. All suggesting something else is going on. Muffled voices and cries and songs that are only ever, rarely, heard through the layers of night. A party in a basement, through walls, blocks away, so that only the sense remains. And if, if we’re attuned, we start to listen, to hear this, to suspect what’s going on: that there are multiple times, places, people. And if this is the case, what’s to say we’re in the correct place and time? The sense that I am lost, in the wrong house, with the wrong people, cooking the wrong meals, the wrong job, certainly, because no one feels they’re doing what they want to be doing. The wrong mortgage and dreams and routines. Our insistence on getting used to things, accepting them, and worse, refusing to hear the bark. Leaving us unhappy. Not in the didn’t-go-to Bali sense, but something else. The same unhappiness that manifests when we have everything, every dollar, every device.
The idea starts with a box of postcards, mine, collected over the last ten years on overseas visits, old postcards from op-shops, photos, leaflets, programmes, anything with an image that seems to suggest a place, a time, something or someone I might have known. A (mostly) black-and-white songline I follow, preserve, curate. Idea being, it should all add up to something, tell some story. Bert and Stefan Brecht sharing a tangerine (a postcard from his house on Chausseestraβe), a copperplate Keats (‘Was it a vision or a waking dream?) from the Spanish Steps, my five and two year old son babbling, a small pic of a baby with her ghost grandma, a Berlin bunker, DDR Jugendweihe (in thrall of communism), Percy Grainger on 3LO, the man I met in San Francisco with the CUT YOUR WHORING NOW billboard. Me thinking, What? What sense?
Diane Arbus said, ‘The farther afield you go, the more you are going home …’ I’ve always felt this. Like all of the plans I’ve made (under direction from parents, school, jobs, books, common sense) have meant nothing. That I’ve never come close to whatever I’ve been aiming at. This, of course, is the prerequisite for becoming a writer, a person who invents as an attempt (always unsuccessful) to answer this question. But it’s not limited to creative people. Millions of us drift, little Celeste-type bodies bobbing over the ocean until someone finds our empty shell, wonders how it got there, what happened to the people inside. In fact, I know I live somewhere else, with other people I’ve never met. We all know this, when we travel and arrive somewhere that feels like home, and can’t see why, can’t explain. Sigmund Freud talked about this sense of uncanny, unheimlich, unhomely, the gap between the familiar and unrecognisable. Once, apparently, we were somewhere that made us happy, and had to leave this place, these people, these past-times. This might have happened suddenly, or gradually. Either way, the feeling persists, for several, hundreds, thousands of lifetimes perhaps. The barking dog so distant we hardly hear it. Or is it more than this? Is it, as Arbus suggested, that ‘the gods put us down with a certain arbitrary glee in the wrong place and what we seek is who we had really ought to be.’ So we drift through life looking for something we can’t recognise. The hints are the smell of PVA, presents from K-Tel Christmas mornings. As the same acetate wafts from our shampoo, mixing with the smell of roast lamb and cinnamon. The coalescence, as I step out at midnight and the clouds and grey-blue sky form an unlit theatre, the improbable acoustics, the bark, again, from a dog that died before Jesus. And this recurring dream of seeing my children with other parents, holding hands, singing, pointing out this or that feature in the cityscape. I call, but I’m not heard, chase, but never manage to catch up.
Were we happier then, or is it because only children have a home, and when this place is gone we spend our lives trying to rediscover it? The lucky ones have the physical remains, but mostly, these places are lost. So it’s the sense of home, and if it’s not there, beside the piano, resonating, then we’re lost. Berlin has this effect on me. I walk down its streets, like they’re my streets, like I know where I’m going, like I’m a native. I can do this in Berlin, or spend hours on Google Earth, or read the books set there, the music made there, the history endured. Again, Arbus said our favourite places are where we’ve never been. Although then again, maybe it’s not about the places, but us. Maybe we’re searching for ourselves, who we were, are, could have been. The feeling that we’ve got such a short time to gather the clues, come up with a name, a locality, although I doubt it’s in Berlin. I tried Edinburgh once, but the feeling faded when I realised I’d never find myself in the thousands of streets and laneways.
Who I could have been. Because the answer’s already there, isn’t it, when you’re born? We call it character, personality, but maybe it’s just the accumulation of all the searching? Here’s a postcard dated February 1927, showing the Weald of Kent, and someone called Granny writing: ‘What a nice lot of presents you had … I do hope your nose has got back to its right shape. Let me know how you like your new school.’ More black and white images: the Yass Post Office (Kay explaining: ‘We’ll not be sailing before Monday, 4 pm. We are all doing well …’), Regent Street, Sydney, a colourised Arc de Triomphe, Victoria Street, Westminster, Horace Trenerry’s Piccadilly Valley, Bilson’s Beechworth Brewery, Fontana di Trevi and, my favourite, the twenty cent programme for the Port Pirie Trotting and Racing Club’s Saturday night meeting (15 January 1972). Directory of stalls, scratchings, officials (Condon and McBride) and Race 1, Underwood and Smith Handicap, with the results written in red: 1, Gilt Archer (1), 2, Spring Action (10), 3, Bold Safari (7). This little book I’ve studied a hundred times, determined I was there, memories of arc lights over Pirie, the glowing track, the sweaty punters and carpark stretching out, ambitiously, for miles, always reminding me of the ambitious 1960s Target carpark in suburban Newton, these two places substituting each other, moving in and out of phase, Pirie becoming Newton, Newton Pirie, a small boy I don’t recognise wandering towards the track with people I don’t know. The focus of my quest, or our quests, becoming more confusing but at the same time more tempting, more necessary, as the years pass. So that we grow old, die, and have to start the whole search again in some other time, some other place. Or maybe it’s just Arbus’s gods laughing, as we chase our tails, trying to make sense of the insensible? Someone else on the ground, under the piano, trying to make sense of the single, singing crow.
To go back to the beginning. To try and find something familiar. Which, subconsciously, we do every day. Déjà vu has become comical (‘This is like déjà vu all over again’), but most of us sense there’s more to it. Freud explained that ‘in such moments something is really touched that we have already experienced, only we cannot consciously recall the latter because it never was conscious.’
In an age that seems embarrassed by gods, we look for other explanations. We have visited such places, seen such things, played with the toy, driven the car. Or perhaps the feeling derives from a film we’ve seen, a song we’ve heard. The alternative to reality is spirit, and that’s too much. Religion was done away with (neatly) long ago. In The Rings of Saturn, a meditation on walking, discovering, experiencing past worlds in the present, WG Sebald recalls a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that describes death in Holland. Where it was custom to drape black ribbons over mirrors in the homes of the dead. Also, over paintings depicting landscapes or people, ‘so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.’
Lost forever. Is that the key? As I stare at the black and white photo of my Grade four class, 1976, grins, smiles, although I suspect the photographer might’ve asked for straight faces. Is that what Sebald meant? Are all of these kids still alive? Fat, miserable, suicidal, redeemed, found God? And what are they up to? Either way, lost to me, as I continue my journey, always taking glimpses that are last glimpses.
Does thinking about endings make you miserable? Is it a sin to be morbid in the land of doing things, getting ahead, making money? Better always to act, than think. Better to kick, than read. Because reading (despite how we’re told it’s good for us) leads to thought, questions, regrets. And what good’s that in a world where the sun shines every day?
I start with a hankering for charity shops. I’m always drawn, wandering, searching ties, the sad, limited bookshelves of Margaret Fulton and Virginia Andrews. Jackets, but they’re always too old, dated, embarrassing, even for someone with no sense of fashion. I search the knick-knacks – the glass swans and toast holders, costume jewellery, electric can-openers – and feel content. I smell the place. Old, finished.
It’s not so much a textbook, subconscious déjà vu, because I can remember when it began. Somewhere around 1972. A year or two, perhaps, before I started school. My Gran, and our neighbour, Mrs W, an old Pom with nicotine fingers. They’re standing behind the counter at a charity shop on OG Road. Perhaps they’re pricing items; sliding shirts onto hangers. Either way, Peggy’s got a fag in her hand. I’m mostly forgotten, on the floor, in the womb of security: reading the books piled in the corner (Boys’ Own, old, even then); trying on the shoes in the mountain of footwear with a sign (something like): $2 a pair, three for $5; playing with the broken toys (jigsaws with missing pieces, a metaphor twenty years too early). And then standing, in the middle of the dress rack, sandwiched by naphthalene frocks and knitted dresses, touching them, holding them, like the thousand phantom mothers we have as kids. Someone coming in, looking, surprised to see me behind the suits and jackets. Hi, sweet, what are you doing back there? As Gran or Peggy said, Don’t mind him.
Bookshops. Which, sadly, have been the obsession of my adult life. The less organised, smellier, crappier the better. Rugs held down with gaffer tape. Perfect. The Keeper of Books making sardines on toast as he or she prices Rimbaud or a manual for a 1978 Datsun 120Y. Books everywhere. No organisation, except for Fiction, Memoir, Hitler. Strange, how you can start a war and yet get your own category in a bookshop, seventy years later. Piles of books, leaning, collapsed, haemorrhaging, decades after publications, like old soldiers with never-quite-healed war wounds. The impossibility of finding anything specific. Which is the greatest joy. Every discovery accidental. Much more potent. More scope for unexpected discoveries, which (I think) are the only ones worth having. In which case, bookshops are the repository of déjà vu, hints about who you are, where you’ve been, other lives lived, places visited.
Bookshops are doomed. Not because of online reading, Kindle, streamed movies, anything. Just because they’ve became too organised. Lost their potential to surprise us. Chosen genre over sardines. Neat, descriptive shelf titles, everything on a computer, so that, say, if you asked about déjà vu, they’d present a collection of volumes: self-help, academic, a biography of Freud, and so on. Worryingly, literature is doing the same thing today. Turning away from the unexpected (Let us Now Praise Famous Men), instead, choosing the product of someone’s market research. Dystopia. Jillaroos. Wizards with nothing particularly magic about them.
I have no memory of where the bookshop thing began. Libraries, perhaps. I was taken to the State Library on a Sunday afternoon, roamed, explored the forest of shelves, plucked random volumes from the foliage, read which mushrooms were dangerous, which dogs came from Pomerania, wherever that was (which led me to the atlases). This world of possibilities seemed superior to my world: braised steak and Paul Hogan, Baby Burgess and long division, endlessly, through stinking hot asbestos afternoons. Or Tea Tree Gully Library, where I’d watch the woman line up the books, photograph them, hand them to me. Mine, for a few weeks. No one else’s. Like the suits I’d wear on OG Road, becoming the Chairman of BHP, for a few hours, at least.
And the habit persists. Hours in Foyles and Watermans in London, or the excellent Scheltema bookshop in Amsterdam. Each with their five stories of other places, other lives. Me thinking, why can’t we have Scheltema? Writers’ handprints in concrete. Like they’re celebrities. Like someone actually values them. Maybe some cultures see writers as ciphers, ferryman between the real and imagined. People whose gloom somehow allows them to see more clearly. Again, wet weather boys who don’t like cricket.
Or maybe, maybe (and let’s make it clear, I’m not condoning this), maybe the Buddhists are right, and we’re just going round and round, and last time round I owned a bookshop, and died (one sunny day) between Theosophical and Cooking. Or the life before that? Each time, as I return, trying to define this fascination, becoming a writer so I might better describe it.
Or perhaps I was a writer? Joseph Conrad, sailing into Port Adelaide, catching a train to town, the hills, to convalesce from a long journey. As I scribbled Almayer’s Folly. Listened to the shrikes outside, first (and I’ve been doing it ever since) wiped the hundred degree heat from my forehead, ate frog cakes (did they exist back then?).
And the most powerful pull of all: graveyards. Not something you’re meant to admit. It shows a certain maudlin streak, apparently. Again, looking backwards, instead of the length of the M20. Darkness, instead of sunshine. Although, to devotees of burying fields, the whole experience is quite uplifting. And portable.
So, there I am, rising at six-thirty, standing at the window to our Edinburgh apartment, looking down at Dalry Cemetery. Resist, I say to myself, but it’s no use. I slip on my shoes, grab my camera, and head across the road.
Dalry is its own bookshop. No one’s laid out paths. The grass has grown, colonised the living and the dead. Rain has made mud, and pools, and it’s worse where someone’s come in with an excavator, trying to control the bramble. The trees are leafless, as they should be, the growth of another year rotting on and in the ground. Admitting the grey light from what promises morning, and day. But I like it like this. In the gap between night and day, life and death, real and imagined. All the spirits déjà vu-ing; settling for another sleep, or rising, seeking lives to colonise.
I like the signs of actual life. Broken handlebars from a scooter. Blue twine strung from an old tree, a stick as a seat, muddy footprints. I can hear kids playing, laughing, falling on their arses. But now the twine just moves in the little bit of wind, a fresh spirit moving towards town.
Déjà vu. As I stand in the light rain. The street lights yellow, diffuse, muddying the morning, nearby apartments humming to breakfast television, and toast. I wonder why I’m here, getting wet. Looking for clues, still. Boys’ Own (describing the life I might lead); O’Connell’s, Treloar’s, even some bookshop at Murray Bridge, a hundred Year 10 Mockingbirds sold for a song. Where am I? West Terrace Cemetery. Looking for Percy and Horace Trenerry, the Mystery Man, but aren’t we all, living our recycled lives? Maybe that’s what they found on Somerton Beach. A muddle of life, between one person and the next. Or maybe Enfield Cemetery, where Gran lies, with her marked down dresses and the smell of Peggy’s smoke eternally in her nose.
Dalry’s headstones are already speaking to me. Here, Julia died at one month (1836), followed by Janet (seven months), Margaret Anne (seven months), and a son, who didn’t have a name, because he only survived a few hours on some cold morning in September 1863. Maybe he has a better claim to rebirth than anyone. As I walk around, the pattern continues: William burying William (four years), Cecilia (seven months), Nelly (ten years), William, again, although it didn’t end any better. No mention of how they died, because it’s too late for all that. Cholera, typhus, tuberculosis? What does it matter now?
Close by, beside the Burying Ground of William Campbell, I find the first of the soft stone memorials, where life has given up even the words that describe it. A family crest, worn away by hundreds of years of rain. And lines that used to be names, dates, no longer readable. The final indignity, or perhaps life’s last word (according to Edwin Muir, ‘Past all contrivance, word, or image, or sound, Or silence, to express, that we who fall, Through time’s long ruin should weave this phantom ground…’).
In the middle of the cemetery, vines have covered everything. No one seems to have made an effort to clear the vegetation. Thankfully. I take a photo of the chaos, but it blurs, and I leave it that way. I think of how much time, how many people, how much poison it’d take to reveal the headstones, the names, the stories. Obviously families have stopped coming. Probably, have no idea their ancestors are buried here. One wall, with its ‘Sacred to the memory…’ is being pushed over by a tree. A few broken headstones have been gathered, stacked neatly, respectfully. As though no one wants to throw them, but knows what to do with them. Can you just put them in a skip? Does it come to that? Family vaults, locked, full of beer cans and chip packets, as I try to work out how the local kids got in.
I stroll. I don’t want to leave. Eventually I’ll have to return to Australia, and it’ll be like I was never here. Like the dead. Gone. The sun is still trying to lighten west Edinburgh, and beyond, but the cloud, mist and rain persist. Above the one grave someone’s maintained. A six inch picket fence and white gravel, a few camelia sprigs, a heart. But I don’t read the inscription. Regret it now, weeks later. As I teach my Year eights about poetry, and fail to mention I saw it one morning in Dalry Cemetery.
Delboy graffiti, across a set of proud steps that used to led mourners from church to grave. More rubbish, the sounds of buses starting up, the capital coming alive.
I stumble across Thomas Campbell, asleep in God since 1891. Poet Author of ‘The Pleasures of Hope’. Reminding me that every word I write, you read, will go, just as surely as the broken stones. No matter how clever, how thoughtful, publicised, reviewed, distributed, discussed in book groups – gone, thank god!
A whole row of headstones, obelisks, pushed over. I can see this boy now: fifteen, Edinburgh-angry, kicking one after another, and the dead barely complaining.
Another plaque, set in the wall, although this one’s left blank. Maybe ready for me, you, the déjà vu of the little Australian with his camera, wandering, as the first rays of light emerge, revealing blue sky. Always blue, as it’s been since all of this began. Poet. Surgeon. Charity volunteer. Recycling, like jumpers on a rack, worn and re-worn beyond anything useful.
So I leave the cemetery. Through the big iron gates. The sign telling me 9.00 – 4.00 only, although no one’s heeded that, ever. It’s hard to go. Like the dead, leaving their rooms, their mirrors and paintings covered, so they won’t know what they’re missing.
When I was a kid, staring out of the window of Gilles Plains Primary’s Senior Open Unit, it always seemed to be raining. I’d watch the way one drop joined another, and another, making a teardrop that ran down the glass. As outside, the Infants were led into the library, where Mr Johnson would start on Zeus, eventually leading them (and us) to the AV room, where he’d show Super 8 of his most recent trip to Greece. All the time, rain, wet hair and the musty, not-quite-clean smell of P, doggy school jumpers and the way shorts stayed wet all day. Worse, when you were a pant-pisser, like me. You could never get that smell out. But I suppose it did stop raining, and the sun appeared, and we ran around the yard off Beatty Avenue.
Perhaps it’s just the way we choose to remember.
This becomes important when you’re about to lose everything. At the end of this year, Gilles Plains Primary School will stop teaching kids. For the first time in 118 years, no more students. Come that hot, late January day when we’d return, line up, learn which teacher we had for the year. Instead, boarded-up buildings, a few chip packets blowing across the tarmac where we used to play four square, skin our knees, and someone brought one of their dad’s magazines to hand around. No more voices, no more games, no more wheat seeds left in wet cotton wool to show us how life began and (when we forgot to water them) ended. All of this, now, an eerily apt metaphor for the progress of South Australia.
Mine was a childhood of half-pies and chocolate doughnuts, sitting in the lunch shed surveying the crates of school milk. At recess (after I’d fed Mrs Chittleborough’s yabbies) we’d line up in the sun, or rain, in front of the canteen, a small red-brick building fronting Main North East Road. The scent of warming pasties, and fresh rolls, the bags of mixed lollies we were forbidden to buy (but bought anyway). We’d walk in, bowl haircuts and knobbly knees, each holding a mug we’d brought from home. Inside, approaching the counter, telling Kenny’s mum whether we wanted tomato or chicken soup, the big ladle, the steam, five cents across the freezer lid of many Snips, and Sunnyboys. Outside, to the pine trees between the Infant School and the Junior Open Unit, there to discuss Combat and whose dad drove a truck.
Tail-end memories. Before the pebblecrete block, the open units, the loud speaker where Mr Mellanby called (‘turn that lady round’) and we square-danced in the rain, the canteen was the school’s original classroom. Tail-end, because thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds were educated in that small room. Which brings me to my point. When the school’s closed, when it’s sold off, when the graders level it and the surveyors work out how many houses they can squeeze onto it, I’d like to think (after all my complaining, the meetings, the unanswered letters to bureaucrats) that we could preserve, somehow treasure this piece of red-brick history. Since 1901, wide-eyed kids staring out at the same unstoppable rain, the same blue sky that called us from long division (Mr Meus was a genius!), a room full of ghosts demanding some sort of memorial to childhoods lost, or subdivided. Too much to ask? Today the building houses the North Eastern Community Assistance Project’s thrift shop. Let’s hear the SA government promise to keep them there into an uncertain future. Or, if other arrangements are made, to repurpose the building as a small library, arts hub, local museum.
Or should we just bulldoze more of our history? Should we leave the wheat seeds in a dark cupboard, and forget them, and be surprised when we find them, years later, dead?
The very excellent Operatic Everyman Adam Goodburn first approached me in 2011 with the draft of an operatic treatment of Time's Long Ruin (renamed Innocence Lost). He'd managed to take the large cast, the broad sweep, the essence of my novel and turn it into an opera. Contracts were signed, and Adam went on to refine the libretto, gain a grant from the government of South Australia and select a composer, the equally excellent Anne Cawrse.
So Anne sets to work and over the next few years produces a score that's fresh, new, and challenging. Then the struggle begins. What was meant to be a 2016 production becomes 2017, 2018, 2019. During this time there's a News Limited attack upon the unperformed opera (Goebbels would have been proud), changes of management at State Opera SA, a semi-staged piano-only performance under the direction of Andy Packer, the process of refinement of the script (cuts!), orchestration and, mostly, an untiring act of faith, of persistence, on Adam's part.
So, now it's time to move into the final stage of the opera's genesis. No full production yet, but it's time to buy a ticket to Anne Cawrse's Innocence Suite, to be performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in June 2020. And after that ...?
I’m intrigued by people who’ve left (without leaving) the world. Each very aware, very critical of their times. Hand-making their own orthodoxies that pass as sense, love, religion. I like the look of these people, their smell, the way they speak and disengage from everything everyone else thinks is important. I like the way their own internal logic, which is beyond any of ours, guides them through life like hovercraft people, ghosts, always caught up in their own realities. Not that they acknowledge, or even realise, their uniqueness. They just are. And we just aren’t.
Why do I tell you this? Do I want you to read books about people who drop out, make their own choices, live their own way? Not really. Responsibility has its own merits. And often these ghosts are mistaken for prophets. My people are different. Some are benign. Christopher McCandless, turning his back on work, money, house, wife, kids, retirement, setting out into the Alaskan wilderness. But in the end he starved to death. Or more malignant? Ted Kaczynski, (the ‘Unabomber’) who, again, lived in the wilderness, this time making bombs to send to airlines and academics.
This leads me back to the street I lived along as a child. Lanark Avenue, Gleneagles. Working class. Fathers drove trucks, or fixed them, or paid the accounts for new tyres. Mothers stuck to mothering, although in the nineteen-seventies most of them found some sort of job that allowed the family a trip to Bali or the Gold Coast every second summer. The homes were cheap, but reliable. Stumps, overlaid with frames, and onto this, asbestos sheeting that let in the heat. A tin roof when it rained. At the time this was the Australian Dream, although now, since we’ve all made money, the Nightmare. So the homes are knocked down and replaced with eight units. Enough room to eat, sleep and die in the same area that I used to fix my bike, and jump it on ramps.
The Orrs, living a simple life of Rockford Files and Strawberry Pops. Welcome Back, Kotter. We used to sing along. ‘Your dreams are your ticket out’. Which was true of everyone in Gleneagles. Because now the homes have all gone, the units metastasised the length of Lanark Avenue (and beyond), the sixties parents moved out. A suburb of Kotters, gone, but always drawn back to a place that somehow represents lost things.
Except one. George X. Since he’s still alive, I’ll try and respect his privacy, because this is what he’s spent his life trying to have, keep, preserve – I’m not sure which word. He and his brother (I’ll call him Rodney, but he wasn’t) and his mum (Trish, but she wasn’t) lived next door to us. I’m not sure where the husband/father was. Probably dead. Men drunk heavily, smoked a lot and didn’t worry about salads in those days. See, again, the orthodoxy. Now we’re all meant to be at gym, watching ourselves in the mirror. Anyway, George and Rodney had law degrees, and Rodney left home and did well for himself, but George stayed at home, looked after his mum, practised a bit, lost interest, grew a giant Catweasel beard and got around the neighbourhood in old work shirts, shorts and thongs. This, to my sister and I, was very exciting. While most men left for work in the ‘TRUSCOTT STEEL FABRICATIONS’ shirts every morning, George wandered down to Economy Meats in some cruddy clothes he’d (probably) bought at Vinnies (Trish volunteered at the OG Road shop).
George was always smoking; he had yellow-tipped fingers. A soft voice, thought-out words, generous eyes. Educated. Most of us were drongos, so it was interesting when he started talking about writers, and ideas. God, what were they? Australian society then, and now, runs on a hi-octane mixture of apathy and sport, imported culture and rib-eye, plenty of it. Here was something entirely different. The family had originally come from England, so there was the accent, too. Like aliens had landed on our Teflon planet and tried to corrupt up with this strange thing called civilisation.
But Gleneagles was having none of that. Barbecues were lit, lawns mowed, and books thrown in the back of linen presses.
So that’s how it was, for years and years. George and his mum. Then we all grew up, left home, got married and had our own children in suburbs that were eerily reminiscent of Gleneagles. Yes, the building materials had improved, but not much else. Jimmy Garner was replaced by Rake, Ted Mulry by Justin Bieber, but apart from that, someone had just hit replay.
But not George. He’d dug in his heels. Time could just fuck off. Trish died, and he let the house go. The soil sunk, the spine broke, and the place settled into two halves. But he didn’t care. As the Tuscan townhouses grew up around him, he refused to water the long-dead lawn, or trim the hedges, these rampant bikini lines of good intent that hadn’t felt steel since The Music Man. Nothing. Weeds took over the yard, and every time I went past (for old time sake) I saw this house slowly floundering. I saw the old curtains, shredded and blowing in the breeze, destroyed (I guess) by the cats that Trish had never neutered (millions of them, flitting around the house like horny ghosts).
Sometimes you’d see, or do see, George, grey hair down to his knees, walking the streets of Gleneagles. Is that him? Is he still alive? He never learned how to drive, so he rides a bike from several lifetimes ago. He hangs his groceries on the handles and pedals home. Like, leave me alone, I have nothing to say, go away.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe his house is modern, maybe he has a woman, children, hidden away, never seen. But I doubt it. My vision is George sitting in his lounge room at night (there’s always a single globe burning), living this sort of Boo Radley existence, reading a book from his mum’s old charity shop, listening to his transistor radio, happy to be apart from, but involved with, the world. See, that’s the thing. You don’t have to make a lot of noise to be a player, you just have to keep breathing. That’s what we don’t get today. That’s why social media is shit. Happy is the heart and the home and a plentiful supply of honey (and a lifetime of memories, kept in an old shoebox).
I have no doubt George is happy. I don’t know what happened to Rodney, but if he’s dead, he’s still sitting in there, with his brother, of a night, reading Proust.
Then this happened: I was riding my bike down Lanark Avenue a few months back. I’d stopped to read a small sign saying the council was about to knock down the basketball stadium to build more townhouses. Fuck the council. Then George rides past. I go to say something, but it’s been thirty years. Will he remember me? Should I even speak to him? Thing being, he’s settled into his history, like an old elephant awaiting the end. A few seconds, and he’d cycled past, down the road, disappearing into his jungle. Then I thought, Jesus, I should’ve at least said hello. Told him who I was. He would’ve remembered, surely? He would’ve invited me back to his place, walked me through the debris, made me a cup of tea, asked what I’d been up to for most of a lifetime. I was shitty with myself for not speaking. But, somehow, I knew I’d done the right thing. Life lasted, and settled, and became the property of the people who’d lived it. Now it was just weeds, and cats, and talkback. I had no business invading this small, resource-rich territory. Had I? Did I? Can you tell me?
I often return to Lanark Avenue, and see George, still walking, in some short-sleeved shirt our fathers wore in the seventies. I often walk past him, and wonder if I should say hello. And soon, I guess, he’ll be gone, and they’ll come and knock his house down, and I’ll always regret having stayed silent. But there’s always the same voice, telling me. For god sake, Orr, just leave the man alone.
There are some things in life we'll never achieve. For me, it's playing the extended guitar solo from The Knack's 'My Sharona'.
Despite this, we keep trying. So a few years ago when the South Australian government announced it planned to close my old primary school (opened in 1901, having educated tens of thousands of kids), I was peeved, attended meetings, wrote columns. Short story, they're closing it anyway (at the end of this year). Then it sits empty for a few years, attracts vandals, before it's flogged off to the highest bidder. So, despite Phase 1 failing, Phase 2 will consist of me trying to persuade our government to preserve one small red brick building on the site. This was the school's original (1901) classroom. Seems to me it's only taking up a half a house block, so it's not that big a deal. The building signifies everything about the school, the lives it shaped, the students, the teachers, the community and its values, the public faith in public education that's being eroded, day by day. So come on, Education Minister! Tell us what you're going to do with the little red brick building on North East Road.
Watching others – studying how they move, speak, relate to one another – is a bad habit of mine. For example, every day when I should be supervising a class, there I am, staring out of the window, observing the head of this or that department walking across the yard, stopping, remembering they’ve forgotten a document, or perhaps their coffee, and returning to their office. Or I sit at my computer, always distracted by people walking past. Like the girl with Tourette Syndrome, fuck this and that, little yelps and high-pitched calls. That’s the thing about watching people – it always leads to a clearer understanding of how we work. By seeing how bodies move, how people are unsure of themselves (although we spend most of our time trying to disguise this).
So why do I tell you this? I’m a writer, so therefore an observer, a nosey-parker, whatever you want to call it. It was a moment in Paris. On the Metro line number four (I don’t know what it’s called, but it runs north-south, in the middle of the city). A train arrives, sucks in a few hundred people and shoots off into the darkness. Stop and wait, and watch all the people coming down from the street, or across from another platform. Two, three minutes and the platform is crowded again. Like this, train after train, all day, day after day. This obsession with getting somewhere.
Myself, my wife, with all these others on the platform. I think the stop was Châtelet, as we’d just been to Notre-Dame de Paris. What a place! Thousands of tourists trying to see what all the fuss is about. I wasn’t sure. I’d seen dozens of cathedrals, and this one didn’t seem any different. The train arrives and a tide of people pile on, find a spot (standing, of course), slide into this or that gap, adjust a leg to fit here, an arm, a skateboard or scooter. All irrelevant. Because now I’m standing with my wife, and the train doors close, and the train takes off towards Château d’Eau.
So as you can imagine, I’m studying faces. People avoid eye contact, but they’re very interested in each other. Sometimes eyes linger, and there’s a sort of smile, but I think that’s just me, this hick from Adelaide thinking you can do this in Paris. There are old people guarding their trolleys, businessmen, hipsters in tight pants and groomed beards. And the back of a head. A boy, three or four, with mousy blonde hair, a hand on the pole.
I watch the boy, because I think it wonderful how such a small child lives in such a big city (I assume, his mother's carrying bread and groceries). Imagine growing up in Paris. Lucky kid. All the opportunities, culture, theatre, everything. Compared to me, raised in an oversized country town with a few towers for the electrical and gas company. No culture, a sport-fuelled indifference to books, and ideas. Anyway, at this point the boy turns and I notice a strawberry nevus, or birthmark, across the left side of his face. (By the way, I’m leaving out the stations we visit). I look away in case the boy looks at me. Like the Tourette girl – it’s rude. But then I look again, and see this small, round face with its imperfection (from cheek to chin).
There, are you happy, Stephen? Have you seen enough? Have you learned to know this boy, his face, his life, his fears, his feelings? I know nothing about Etienne, or Baptiste, or Clément, although he’s probably John. Is he teased? Does the mark make him upset? Will this get worse, will he fail to cope with the blemish and become depressed? Or has he barely thought about it? Has no one really mentioned it? Is it just me, projecting my fears onto other people?
By now we must be at Strasbourg Saint-Denis. Several herds of people have gotten on and off, and I’m still watching the boy. And here’s why I write the first of my microgrammes. The train stops, and I have to get off with my wife, and we walk towards the stairs. Something occurs to me and I stop, turn, and look back at the train as the doors close. And there he is, this boy, looking at me. A few seconds, eye-to-eye, as something passes between us. Maybe we’re both old souls, reunited? He just looks, and I wonder if I should smile, or wave, or return. But there’s no point. I take the steps and the day is glorious and bright, and the boy, headed north, is gone.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, microgrammes, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.