‘The most effective deceit is the one which is never discovered.’
― John le Carré, A Small Town in Germany
K. was preparing to leave town. After many years of trying to understand it – fit in, contribute something, feel he had some purpose – he’d finally given up. To have his say, be understood, suggest improvements, point out the various ironies and hypocrisies, now he’d said, Well, there’s only so much you can do. But he was, after all, philosophical, and realised that sometimes, some places, things never changed. No matter how much you wanted them to, realised they should, tried to pull apart the various metal rods and reweld them in new combinations, sometimes you just couldn’t.
The small town was hot in summer. The water from the cold tap was hot. The streets were hot. And sedate, six overs before lunch and a decent Christmas Messiah. A place where war criminals came to retire. The high street in the centre of town was hot, made hotter by a lack of trees (where the council kept removing them, replanting them, removing them). The streets were wide. Wide enough to turn your cart and horse, or shoot invading Russians, all of these stories the townsfolk treasured but, strangely enough, had forgotten. People walked with their heads down, preserving energy and willpower to defeat the ever-present sun. There were parks, dozens of parks, but few were watered, and the grass died, the soil cracked, but still, it was better having some park than none, wasn’t it? There was talk of a burning coal seam, many miles underground, and several men were paid to stand and move hoses in the hope it could, one day, be extinguished. But this had never happened, and probably never would. A high street with stores for clothes and books about cooking curries. A fountain bubbling green and grey on long, languid afternoons smelling of caramel popcorn and Lynx, made almost bearable and beautiful by the rainbow lyrebird dancing for everyone’s pleasure. And decent, too. Methodist. The bars and prostitutes had been banished to their own street. This was a town that loved banishing. For example, much of the population had been removed to an area north of the city, and forgotten. The government, the members of whom lived east (conservatives) or west (unionists) of the city, had created a strange status quo, and no one wanted to do anything about it. Just as it was. As it always had been. K. had tried mentioning this, but nothing had ever happened.
There was an oval. There were many ovals. The people in charge (the Easterners, the Westerners) loved ovals because here the population could be gathered, given buckets to wear on their heads, encouraged to cheer their favourite sportsman or -woman. The people seemed happy with this. Their leaders, too: happy. Because this way people weren’t asking questions like, Why can’t my father have a knee operation? Or, Why don’t we build public transport like Copenhagen’s? The townsfolk had always been encouraged to drive everywhere. A race had been provided to show the benefits of doing this, but the townsfolk had tired of it, or perhaps, loved it too much. So the Easterners and Westerners had built roads and highways and tunnels and people had bought more cars that led to more roads, cars, and the government said, Let there be asphalt (registration, petrol excise, although, mostly, they were told, a sense of freedom, despite every journey taking longer, no matter how many roads or tunnels). This, in the end, was part of the deceit. The deception. To convince the population of their good luck. Their small town’s livability. Despite all the talk about no jobs, poorly paying jobs, giving up, why so many turned to drugs. Also, because of the number of cars, there were plenty of petrol stations. Wasn’t this truly, honestly, progress?
The town had a newspaper. K. had worked there once. He’d written stories about farmers and builders and talented children (who, for some reason, left town to move to other places). Now the newspaper mainly wrote about what went on at the oval. The people who played there, their wives, their children, their childhood experiences in small, seaside towns. Traditionally, editors of the newspaper had a close relationship with the Easterners and Westerners. No one knew how this had come about. Maybe it was all about keeping your enemies closer. At first, some people had said (something like) how can a democracy function without a) a critical media, or b) an educated population? But that was missing the point entirely. Cohesion was vital. It was everything. And this is why things had never changed in the town. In a sense, some sort of compromise had been found. The leaders had not always succeeded in raising enough money to employ so many followers, so a casino had been founded, poker machines, state lottos, a long list of mostly pointless taxes. No one disagreed. The leaders set the terms of the game – the opening hours, capacities, things like this.
Some had said, Well, the small town is just a country town, but others said, No, look, there, towers popping up everywhere! Towers were surely a sign of progress. The newspaper kept proclaiming this truth. And more games for the oval, all of it, progress! Although K. had decided they’d misunderstood. The ‘small’ in town didn’t refer to anything physical. More, a failure of vision, of imagination, of having faith in your own ideas, trust in your own people, the ability to take risks, real risks, ones that lost money and ruined lives. No, this was not a place of risks. More, a place of certainties. Of things that always had been, and would be, forever, amen. This is what made the town small. Despite all of the towers and petrol stations and stadiums, small.
Perhaps, he thought, as he prepared to leave, progress is defined by generational improvement? But this was the problem. Child A went to School A, met Friend B, Friend B’s father found Child A a job, he married a girl from School C, they had another child who might be called Child D, but was really Child A, they lived in one of Suburbs E-I. Repeating. There were ways to ensure this system worked well, repeated without copying errors. Stone-fronted, shuttered clubs. A network that was a spoken network. Meanwhile, Child J – living miles from the high street, from the clubs – knew no one. His or her parents were not ‘connected’. Child J had to invent him- or herself, or fail. There were only so many opportunities, and although the parents of Child A said (something like), Well, it’s all about hard work and perseverance, that missed the point entirely. It was really about where you were born. To whom. And if the machine was excellent (or not) in reshaping what had come before. Strangely, though, Child J was the child who, if he or she did achieve, achieved a sort of well-earned greatness.
The people of the small town knew what they liked and liked what they knew. Movies were brought in from America, screened in pre-cast concrete chasms. A shame, K. thought, because the town had a tradition of generating its own ideas, making its own movies about pianists, publishing its own books about jackaroos, composing its own music. Not anymore. Now, content generators were flown in to introduce the townsfolk to ideas they couldn’t possibly have thought of themselves. The leaders had given up on the life of endemic ideas. Too much bother. Too expensive. Too much potential for boat-rocking. After all, none of the questions, none of these problems fit the narrative that had developed in the small town that had once been the Capital of the Arts. Best to keep things simple. Best for the leaders to tell the townsfolk where they were going wrong. And just in case a few got stroppy – there were means. An experiment where people were kept in their homes, and watched. Or an even more ambitious experiment where the high street was surveilled by cameras that captured the townsfolk’s faces, fed these images into a database of known troublemakers, made sure things ran smoothly. Thereby, the population felt safe. This was important. To feel safe.
All in all, K. was glad to be leaving. As he’d predicted, the now unnecessary bookshops were closing, the schools, closing, the bands disbanding, the galleries becoming burger shops. But despite all this, the place kept growing. More towers, more suburbs stretching out to the horizon, serviced by more roads, cars, opportunities to live what was called the good life. He didn’t understand. More jobs working in more petrol stations, more ‘homes-away-from-home’ to look after kids whose parents worked increasingly harder and longer for less money, all for the dream. Drove to that sweet-smelling, amorphous lump of Australia with heavier hearts, in shinier cars. Maybe the problem wasn’t the small town? Maybe it was the big towns, too, the cities, the country, maybe the whole world? K. knew there’d be much he’d miss about his small town – water bubbling up from the roads (like miraculous springs), mole-skinned saints in the Members, the clipped privets of Stanley Street, the traffic lights perpetually on red, no matter where you were going, a job for everyone’s cousin in the public service, the improvised ambulances (in place of real ones), the too-small mad houses and hospitals, the Southern Goths in boots and black dresses becoming the thing they most despised, a close-knit Savannah, Georgia, craving the grace of God. But he had to go, and in so doing, consoled himself with his Aunt Flannery’s advice that the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
I wrote this about Australia's 'cultural cringe' (Mark II 1987-Present).
There have only been a few places I’ve felt the locals love their books, their poems, their films, their writers, their playwrights, their composers, their actors and singers and painters. Sitting outside the Vienna State Opera in a misty rain, watching Wagner, the wet hair (and bums), the stereophonic Rhine maidens, the Blitz-like camaraderie between viewers sharing wine and white sausage; or Paris, Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’ painted on a wall close to Saint Sulpice Church (a stranger telling me French kids are made to learn this and other poems at school); Dublin, anything to do with Dublin and James Joyce; walking the streets of Prague, in the shadow of the castle, or standing, head stooped, in shop 22 of the Golden Lane as Kafka stokes the fire and writes ‘A Country Doctor’. Real, visceral, warmed-air and finger-tingling (for me, at least) experiences. Back in Vienna’s Literature House, talking to Brecht in Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt cemetery, the whisky-smooth voice of the guide leading me around Stevenson’s Edinburgh.
As I return, and try to feel the same way here, in Australia, in Adelaide, in 2021. The feeling that a story, a song, can mean so much, can mean something, can mean anything to us. I’m writing because I feel we’ve entered the Cultural Cringe Mark II. I’m writing because I feel we’ve descended, again, into a haze of other people’s dreams. I’m writing because I’m worried that another generation of Australian kids are growing up along Wilshire Boulevard (now scattered with villages of the homeless, strangely enough, it’s we Australians who have become culturally dislocated). I’m writing because we don’t worry about Australian films, and they go barely watched, or unwatched, and the telly keeps flogging more American dreams because they’re flasher and louder and more colourful and some corporate goon can co-brand burgers and kiddy toys. And these stories would, will, certainly must contain people we recognise from the down the street, Uncle Harry from The Sullivans, the loner who sits on the edge of a school yard reading a book, refusing to participate in the Great Australian Frenzy (that, mostly, stands in for what other countries call a culture), all the time, an anaemic, second-rate media shifting any hint of spotlight away from outstanding actors, singers, playwrights and authors onto the usual hamstrings and variations on the Spiderman trope.
Point being, we could do something about this. We could program the plays, we could give more screens to film-makers, we (our political ‘visionaries’, our arts ministers) could read local poetry in zoos (as Donald Dunstan once did), we could subsidise small publishers that keep the fritz-smelling stories alive (instead of making them beg, like small, hairless dogs, at the table of Greater Visions). We could accept that culture needs a hand-up, that (in such a small, culturally-diverse country) the ‘make-it-pay’ model doesn’t work for plays, ballets, classical concerts, that this area needs proper support, needs funding, even if it doesn’t buy votes, even if the weariest journalists resort to the usual ‘elitist’ tags to summon the blokes to sell a few newspapers (which, in their death throes, discount the very values they once claimed to serve). Why, I wonder, does Australia luxuriate in its own indifference? Make a culture of this itself, celebrate it, steel itself against the forces of change that night make us braver, wiser, more generous, more understanding of our own history, our strengths and weaknesses, our nastiness, our glories and glimpses of humanity. We could, at last, become something our ancestors imagined – a civilisation of the first order, so proud of its own achievements it paints them on apartment walls, or broadcasts them the length of shopping malls.
Don’t believe me? Go into a typical Year 8 classroom and ask the kids what they’re reading, ask them to name a few Australian writers, ask them to name a film they’ve seen in the last year that doesn’t involve a Marvel superhero, ask them (by extension) how any of these artforms help them through their day, help them understand how people function, why their uncle and aunt don’t get along. Ask them what it means to be Australian. Or, alternatively, ask them what it’s like to live in a (pre-1960s) culture-of-other-people-and-other-places, where books were published overseas, where we needed festivals to focus attention on proper musicians and composers and poets, where there was no idea that we were unique, and could tell our own stories just as well as Ealing Studios or MGM.
I wrote this about my 2021 kids' book, The Lanternist, but it was never used anywhere, so here it is!
Books are not about the bothersome business of becoming an adult, so much as the desperate desire to avoid growing up. Although bodies get bigger, dream worlds don’t change, and it’s here that most of us feel most comfortable. So, halfway through my supposedly grown-up life, I’ve decided it’s time to write stories for the little person I was, for the kids I’ve taught for twenty-five years, but also, for the sulking, not-quite-happy adults who inhabit a world of tax returns, lawnmowers and sensible things.
When I was very young I sat on the floor in a charity shop (the sort full of musty clothes and Perry Como records) and leafed through a book about an elephant hatching an egg. My gran volunteered at Vinnies once a week, dragged me along, placed me in a forest of old frocks where I worked out that wardrobes weren’t for clothes, but entering other (more interesting) worlds. The back of my wardrobe didn’t seem to budge, but in a way, it did. Children’s books, after all, are the first stories, the original images to fire our imagination, take us around the world in eighty days, or twenty thousand leagues under the sea. So I’m excited to have MidnightSun publish my story, the story of Tom Eliot, the lanternist’s apprentice.
The Lanternist is set in 1901, an era of unstoppable change. Australia is about to become a federation, our cities are growing, immigrants arriving, the first cars replacing horse-and-cart. War, and a century of change, is just around the corner. Tom and his dad travel the country giving magic lantern shows, animating wild lions and sinking ships on the walls of institutes and town halls. This book is about the art of story, and imagination, something all of us risk losing in the age of white noise. After his dad sets off in search of his lost mother, Tom fends for himself, surviving the back alleys, the bear baiting, the crime gangs of Adelaide’s inner-west. As with the Eliot magic lantern shows, each chapter is framed by a slide, a glimpse of colour, movement and magic.
I’ve tried to capture the feeling of listening, of seeing, of succumbing to story for the first time. The voice in your ear, leading you through strange places, describing wild animals, but also, the kid sitting in the corner of the room, abandoned, shivering, waiting for love.
Recently, I’ve returned to the books of my childhood: The Human Comedy, The Little Prince, even the day-dreamish verses of When We Were Very Young: strange, unexplored worlds that turned me into a writer. I hope other kids, and adults, find some of this in The Lanternist. You never outgrow the need to know what’s in the darkest part of the forest.
This piece was originally published in The Australian in March 2021. It was never put online, so here it is. It concerns the German writer Hans Fallada (Rudolf Ditzen), and the price he paid for being honest.
Of all the possible professions, careers, whatever you choose to call them, making up stories seems to me the most time-wasting, money-sapping, mentally-damaging and unglücklich (a. unhappy, sad). My interest in the most unfortunate writers has led me to the kings of twentieth-century angst: the Germans (to be fair, German speakers and writers). So that, as I get older, my book shelves groan under the weight of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the sanitorium-dwellers, the over-thinkers, the noose-makers of middle Europe.
There’s Ernst Haffner, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, the Roberts Walser and Musil, Lion Feuchtwanger – and then there’s the special case of Rudolf Ditzen (Hans Fallada). The writer who, to me, seems most mid-century German, most complex, most unglücklich.
It starts with eighteen-year-old Ditzen standing in a field. Opposite him, his schoolmate Hanns Dietrick von Necker. Ditzen with a pistol; von Necker with a hunting rifle. The young men’s feelings for each other are beyond disgraceful in imperial Germany in 1911. So a ‘duel’ has been organised to end things, with little fuss (Ditzen’s mother later said, ‘Thank God, at least nothing sexual’). According to Philip Oltermann: ‘With their first shots, they missed completely. With their second, Necker’s bullet missed, but Necker himself was hit in the heart, though he remained conscious enough to beg his friend to shoot him again. Ditzen … fired three more bullets: one for Necker, two for himself. The first entered his lung, the other narrowly missed his heart.’
Ditzen survived and his father, Wilhelm (a retired Supreme Court judge), used his connections to ensure his son was declared mentally unsound, and placed in Tannenfeld Sanitorium. The template for a man who lived his life between the real and imagined; pain, and medication; a love of country, and the shame of necessary compromises; the need to keep writing, and giving up (seeing his work forgotten in his own lifetime).
Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen was born on 21 July 1893 in Greifswald, on the Baltic Sea. A close family, the house full of music and literature. When Ditzen told his father he wanted to write for a living, Wilhelm demanded he use a pseudonym. Ditzen settled upon Hans Fallada. The young man was unglücklich from the beginning. In 1909, he was run over by a cart and, for good measure, kicked in the head by the horse. He survived, but went on to catch typhoid in Holland the following year. This – as well as his duelling injuries, the death of his brother Ulrich in World War I, and several failed suicide attempts – provided a conclusive end to childhood, as well as his introduction to a life-long morphine (alcohol, cocaine and sleeping pill) habit.
Ditzen published his first novel, the coming-of-age Der junge Goedeschal (Young Goedeschal), in 1920. He worked as an agricultural labourer, in part to support his growing addictions. After Anton und Gerda (Anton and Gerda) in 1923 he was convicted of theft and imprisoned for six months. Released – returning to drugs and alcohol, more stealing – back in prison from 1926-1928, after which he emerged drug- and alcohol-free.
1929. As the Germany economy crashed, Ditzen’s life improved. Bauern, Bonzen and Bomben (1930) was a riff on the Landvolkbewegung (Rural People’s Movement), a late twenties rural protest movement. Ditzen showed a keen eye for social injustice, a theme he pursued in his 1932 commercial success Kleiner Mann – was nun? (Little Man, What Now?) Here, Johannes Pinneberg marries his girlfriend when she finds out she’s pregnant. Johannes loses his job, eventually finds work in a department store, fails to meet his quota, is sacked again. The struggle most Germans knew; the same conditions that would soon lead to the rise of Hitlerism. Little Man ensured some measure of economic stability for the writer and his new wife, Anna ‘Suse’ Issel.
But an undercurrent was forming. Goebbel’s censors had cut Kleiner Mann before its 1933 release; Ditzen was imprisoned (again) in April 1933 after being denounced by a bitter neighbour for ‘anti-Nazi activities’– and by 1934 the propaganda ministry had recommended the removal of Little Man from public libraries. Ditzen’s next novel, Wir hatten mal ein Kind (Once We Had a Child), was criticised by the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter; in 1935 he was branded an ‘undesirable author’; and in 1938 he re-wrote his sprawling saga about the life and family of Berlin ‘cab-man’ Gustav Hartmann (Der eiserne Gustav, Iron Gustav) to include the rise of the Nazis.
Later, Ditzen regretted his decision to stay in Germany. ‘But if we happened to be in Berlin and came across formations of brownshirts or stormtroopers marching … singing their brutish songs … [then] we would turn off at the next corner.’ But, unlike Mann and others, he couldn’t convince himself to leave the country he loved.
In 1944, Ditzen wrote the autobiographical Der Trinker (The Drinker) in an encrypted notebook in an asylum after being arrested for threatening Anna with a gun. The story describes Erwin, a small businessman losing control of his life (as was the 51-year-old Ditzen). At the same time he wrote (in intentionally indecipherable lines), In meinem fremden Land (A Stranger in My Own Country). A secret credo, a message to the future, that wasn’t published until 2009.
After the war, Thomas Mann made it clear what he thought of Ditzen. ‘… in my eyes, any books which could be printed at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are worse than worthless and not objects one wishes to touch.’ But in 1944 Ditzen had explained, ‘I’m living here with eighty-four men, most of them quite deranged, and nearly all of them convicted murderers, thieves or sex offenders. But even under these conditions I still say: “I was right to stay in Germany”.’
During the war, Ditzen limited himself to writing children’s stories. Meanwhile, Anna discovered he’d been having an affair with 22-year-old Ulla Losch, and applied for a divorce. This led to an argument in which Ditzen pulled a gun on Anna, fired a shot, and was arrested. Ditzen was sent to a mental asylum where, claiming he was writing an anti-Semitic novel for Goebbels (Kutisker), he was given pen and paper, but instead, started upon The Drinker and In meinem fremden Land (the contents of which, if discovered, would have led to a death penalty).
The epilogue is no better for the unglücklich Rudolf Ditzen. He separated from Anna and married Ulla on 1 February 1945, and they settled in the small town of Feldberg, near Carwitz (spending their days in a drug-induced haze). After the arrival of the Red Army, Ditzen was appointed Feldberg’s mayor for eighteen months. Depressed, the glory days of Little Man behind him, he slipped into depression and dependence.
But at such times Ditzen always returned to writing. The habit. The addiction to words, as much as anything. Der Alpdruck (The Nightmare) tells the story of the morphine-addicted Dr Doll and his wife fleeing the rubble of Berlin for a small town in north-east Germany. Ditzen describing his own dilemma as much as Dr Doll’s: ‘But what Doll had not seen was a loss of self-esteem … They would be left naked and empty.’ Between September and November 1946 he produced what he claimed to be his ‘great’ novel. Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) was written in a fury, in an attempt to recapture past glories. Here, the story of Berlin couple Otto and Elise Hampel who, after the death of their son (actually Elise’s brother) during the war, leave anti-Nazi postcards around the capital as a protest against der Hitler Krieg.
Soon after completing the manuscript, Ditzen had a heart attack and was sent to a Berlin hospital to recuperate. While there, he wrote to his mother, explaining: ‘I always work hard, and long, and carefully, and I really love my family, but then I myself often destroy in a few hours what it took me months and years to create.’
Ditzen died on 5 February 1947, aged 53, a few weeks before the publication of Every Man. Even now, unlucky. In his final novel he believed he’d written a book as good as Little Man – an inner focus, a strong, driven narrative that made no concessions, this time, to anyone. Maybe he’d worked out it wasn’t a case of lucky or unlucky. Maybe it was more about priorities. If not for him, or Ulla, then for his children – Ulrich, Lore and Achim. ‘I’m really only living for the children now, and I’m glad that they’re both such good and promising children, and I wish so much that their lives will be rather easier than their father’s.’
More than anything, I think, Ditzen was brave. In facing the slow physical and spiritual destruction of his country, his body and mind, and dispassionately recording what he saw, and felt. He might have died of a weakened heart, but not will. And in this sense, Mann (and many others) misunderstood the nature of a writer’s life.
A particularly weedy looking child. Like someone had planted me, and I’d sprung up in the back yard – a little bit of water, and there I was, fully-formed. I didn’t function as shop-bought children should. No start button, no running around the playground, up and down the slippery dip for no particular reason. I was the child who stood watching the other children, saying, ‘What’s the point of that?’ My mother telling me it was fun, I should try it, before I shrugged and went inside to escape the sun. My world became a strange, threatening place full of big people called Bazz (who coached the Under-13s) and Gwenda (who ran the dress shop with its leering mannequins). The world, I decided, was a bad, bad place.
So it didn’t help that when I came home from school our glowing Magnavox always seemed to be screening episodes of Land of the Giants. Because, in a sense, mine was a land of Aussie giants. And like everything bad for you, I liked this show. Who’d had this idea? Who’d made this world of giant cats with K-Tel steak knife claws threatening people a twelfth their size? Did they know what children were thinking, how we’d carry the fear of decapitation by crab claw through life? Still, I sat glued to the green screen, eyes burning from plutonium-strength phosphorus, mouth open (and aghast) as Don Masterson struggled to escape the giant hand (always the same one) while warning his fellow stranded travellers: ‘One squeeze of its fingers is all it takes.’ To six-year-old me, one squeeze was more than enough. I was struck dumb by the 1983 (although it was nearly that now) giant phone, the hungry ferret left over from some nature doco. The message was clear: if you were small and weedy and susceptible, the world was coming to get you.
Proof – between the Hungry Jack’s and Pea Beu ads, as Don Marshall struggled to escape the giant spider (that was really Trevor, my most loyal bully) – that life was coming for me with big, venomous fangs. I wasn’t scared of the redback in my wardrobe, but I was scared of this world of horse-sized Colt 45s and mutant turkeys (as I wondered, do they actually eat people?). As the baritone in the background explained: ‘There can be no sanctuary in the Land of the Giants.’ Really? And if that were true, where did it leave me? I could, I thought, lift bricks to develop muscle bulk, or start playing actual, you know, sport (although was I that desperate?). And anyway, would this really protect me from these big things (real and fictional)?
So I tried another option. I took up making models. If the world was big, and I was small, what better way to cope than building a world of small things? Then I, by definition, would become my own giant. To my pre-pubescent mind, this made a lot of sense, so I started building a 1/72nd scale Wehrmacht (I mean, if I could control Nazis!): Panzer tanks, 88 millimetre guns, little soldiers running around with MP-40 machine guns. But now, I was running things. People went where I placed them, and they stayed there. No Trevor, beside the incinerator, telling me I looked like the new Concorde, or Gonzo from The Muppets. Now, I got to decide. And anyway, what a stupid idea for a TV show. Giants? Who was this Irwin Allen idiot?
As a little man, even with my tomato stake legs, I learnt that all big things, all bullies, were as fake as (and smelt as bad as) the oversized turds in the giant zoo. My world was nowhere near as threatening (or, as it turned out, as exciting) as this world of (actual) spaghetti vines and chin-whiskered mad scientists who looked like Mr Truscott the woodwork teacher. Big people were generally as good as the small ones, sometimes better. Trevor would have to be tolerated, the nose jokes dealt with, but there was an easier way to deal with the Land of the Giants. His name was H.R. Pufnstuf.
The real world, I’ve found, in the intervening years, has been harder to change, but I live in hope. I have learnt to thrive in the giant egg carton in which all weedy, bookish kids are dumped in Australia. But I’ve found this place is nowhere near as bad as I thought.
First published in the Journal of Wild Culture.
As you were named, you will know your world by names. People (Mum, for love), places (Woolworths, for food), ideas (spite, for Jacinta), dangers (‘Look Right Before Crossing’), pain (greenstick fracture, aged seven), hope (Mildred Wong, aged thirteen), nature (watching ants consume a chick that’s fallen from its nest). I never named a thing, but names just happened. Common, then scientific, as they thought it’d be smart to call (for example) the ponytail palm (which looks like an elephant’s foot) Beaucarne recurvata. But it is what it is, with or without a name. All things are. Unfortunately, the world you’ve been born into is all crash repairers and milkshakes, cars (and their many names) and fast food.
Go into the world, the sun on your arms and face; squeeze into the gap between honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and fence; pull onion weed bulbs from the ground. Hide inside a golden diosma (Coleonema sp.), chaste bush, or hibiscus (one day you’ll pull one apart in a Science IIC to learn about anthers and filaments, stamens and petals). This will be your shelter, your hiding place, your observation post. Here, you’ll be able to watch the battle of man versus nature, the standardisation of unreliable ecologies, the making of things to be the same as other things. You’ll see your father mowing his soft-leaf buffalo, going up and down, then across, until the lawn is smooth (watch how he admires it), pleasant to the neighbours’ eyes. Then (perhaps another day) you’ll notice him on his knees forking dandelions (Taraxacum sp.), but he’ll miss one, and a week later you’ll find the seed head, pick it, blow the thousand seeds across his lawn. Just don’t let him see you doing it. He’ll mix poison and spray ryegrass, paspalam, marshmallow and lambs tongue, from the patchy couch on the nature strip. This grass (you’ll see) is different. Santa Ana. Drought tolerant (although he’ll water it every night with a sprinkler Jacinta will throw at you when you’re nine, splitting a lip, chipping a tooth). Santa Ana, with its religious connotations, because to your father, this is an ecstatic experience. One day, when a dog pisses on this lawn, your father will go out and say to the old woman: ‘That leaves patches, you know,’ and she’ll reply, ‘Well, don’t plant it.’ Then there’ll be muttered insults.
Another time, you’ll visit some distant cousin in a suburb that’s far older, more established, than yours. You’ll marvel at their lawn. You might, one day, come to know it as fescue. Tricky, thirsty, hard to maintain. And their garden will be different to yours. A sundial, perhaps, to link their world to the Greeks, or Romans (you’ll spend years studying these people, watching documentaries about their cypress-edged pools and villas). Rows of roses (Rosa – all different colours, no mould or yellowing or dead branches or spent flowers, because they have someone to take care of all this). Probably a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) to invoke the tropics – a Canary Island if they’re especially well off. And that’s what you’ll learn. Some people have more money, a better car, more interesting holidays than you. You just sit all summer watching your father obsess over kikuyu.
Are you learning? Truth is, you’ll only remember the name of a thing if you need to, if it means something to you. Aboriginal people named what was good, but also, what could kill them. Staying alive. That’s another reason. For example, there beside the smoke tree, an oleander (Nerium oleander). Every kid you know will have one in his front yard. Because they’re unkillable, covered in year-round, pale pink flowers, blocking the view of your feral neighbour. You will be warned by your mother – don’t eat it, don’t lick it, don’t even touch it. Oleander, you’ll see, is the tree equivalent of the man on Tamsin Street who killed his wife. But eventually you’ll become curious, and pick a leaf, smell it, break it, see the white, milky sap, smear it on your fingers, run after Jacinta saying, ‘This stuff can kill you!’ Then she’ll tell your mum, and she’ll come out and shout at you and say, ‘What did I tell you?’ And hold your hand under the tap and rinse it off. All of this will happen, because you’re curious.
Curiosity is important. You won’t get far without it. This will happen, too. Jacinta will climb the jacaranda (J. mimosofolia) at the top of your drive. By that point, it’ll be so high the power lines run through it. She’ll stand on the top branch, inches from a thousand volts, and say, ‘It can’t kill you.’ You’ll realise what she’s about to do and say, ‘You’re nuts!’ You’ll see it all happening – you’ll see her zapped, thrown from the tree, neighbours coming over to try save her life. You’ll think, I’ll remember this, in sixty years – the day my stupid sister died. But then, she’ll reach out, touch the line, and laugh, and say, ‘It can’t hurt you unless you’re on the ground.’ And you’ll say, ‘But the jaca’s touching the ground.’ And she’ll say, ‘That’s different, stupid!’ And this curiosity will continue. Walking home, grabbing a handful of soursobs (Oxalis pes-caprae), tasting them, grimacing, spitting out the acid, as your sister laughs and says, ‘Dogs have pissed on them.’ And you: ‘Have not!’ Her: ‘You ate piss!’ Running home, down the drive, calling, ‘Mum, he ate piss!’ (And when you walk in, your mother saying, ‘Sometimes I wonder if you were born with a brain in your head’ – and you’ll think of telling her about the power line, but you won’t, because you would’ve learnt how many forms of torture a sister knows).
Some days will be like heaven (not that you’ll know at the time). You’ll wake to the smell of freshly-mown lawn, mock orange (Philadelphus sp. – growing all over the pittosporum that shades your room) coming in your window, the smell of stewing tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) drifting in from the kitchen. And you will know happiness. The feeling that, for the rest of your life, anchors you to the earth, gives you a reference point for how things should feel. You’ll get up, you’ll run outside (by now, this world will be important to you), watch your dad weeding (chickweed, nutgrass) around the few carrots (over-fertilised, and fading) and say, ‘What can I do?’ And he’ll say (and you’ll remember this, every word, when he’s gone), ‘Well, you could put these weeds in the incinerator.’ Your job. Done with care, because he’s trusted you (despite your mother, standing at the back door shouting for you to come inside for breakfast).
You will become confident in this world. Despite what I said at the beginning, you will have already learnt to make the most of every stem, every leaf, every fruit. Laid in bed listening to the bone-dry leaves of the ghost gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) moving against each other in a hot, summer northerly, and you would have seen the shadow of its branches (the street light behind it) across your bed at night. This intruder in your room, reaching out (but never holding) you. And you would’ve associated this with fear. That you were only partially safe (and your parents could only protect you so much). You would have heard of people falling from trees, dying of cancer, hit by cars. So maybe your mind would’ve turned to defence. Having a bulwark against the world that gaveth (you would’ve been sent to Sunday school by now) and taken away. Tedious words on a hot Sunday morning in a cold Baptist hall. So maybe you would’ve worked out that you could protect yourself by gathering a fistful of bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.) or callitris cones, and throwing them at your enemies.
You might learn that not everyone has been as fortunate as you. I’m talking about Mrs W., next door, her husband dead a few years after the birth of the boys. Single mum, struggling, no time to keep a well-clipped yard (despite your father offering to help). Mrs W., with her fifteen, twenty, unfixed cats rooting in her pissy-smelling rosemary when they’re in season. You’ll learn about life. You’ll discover litters behind the viburnum near the back fence. Or in the lattice of unpruned fig (when you went through the fence, explored her yard). Six, seven kittens, abandoned by their frisky mother. All rib, bone. You’ll tell your father, and he’ll blow his top, but he won’t say anything to Mrs W. because she’s had so much to cope with. But one time, you’ll find six dead kittens, and one nearly dead (gasping its last), and you’ll know what it is to be well-fed and loved. And (without telling anyone) you’ll dig a hole and bury them, even the one that’s still alive, and you’ll press down on the dirt to force the last bit of air from its lungs, because you’ll think that’s the kindest thing to do.
Mrs W.’s yard will be full of mint (Mentha sp.) that got away. It will signify (as you grow older) disease. Goosefoot, purslane, bindii (your father still on his knees) will be interruptions, endings. You’ll learn that weeds earn names like goat-head, devil’s face (three-corned jacks, always getting in tyres) because they’re untameable. But you’ll also learn that the world will provide for you. That for every dead almond tree (the skeletons in Mrs W.’s yard), your father has planted a dozen apricot trees, orange and lemon (the bells, words making songs), plum, peach and apple. You’ll learn that plants tell stories, and stand guard (every school with a pepper tree – no one knows who planted them, or why).
But here’s the problem. One day (aged thirteen or fourteen) you’ll come in from the garden, sit in your room, switch on the television, and forget. You’ll know the names of things, but you won’t understand them (or care). You’ll have become bored with the journey you started (what seems to be) so long ago. You will (I suspect) be happy to sit and listen to brighter, louder, flasher words for the world. So I hope (cos I can only tell you so much) you will remember what you’ve learnt. Not from me, but by yourself. Somewhere in there (I guess) is the world your ancestors inhabited. They’re trying to tell you something, but after so long, they can only speak in whispers.
I wrote this after spending the day at Auschwitz in Poland in January 2020.
What right do I have to talk about this place? What do I know about it? How much can I feel, can I see and smell and hear the suffering? The questions I’d been asking myself as I and my wife and sons travelled through the Czech Republic on a Flix bus, the petrol station food stops, the highways and hotels, a winter world of neon signs and warehouses, power stations and the skies of middle Europe. Auschwitz: this place that lives in our consciousness, sticks there; these images of trains and ramps and dynamited crematoria. The guards and dogs and tragedy of lives, millions, destroyed. When the late Eva Mozes Kor (who, along with her twin sister, Miriam, survived Josef Mengele’s medical experiments) first returned to Auschwitz in 1984, she walked into Birkenau (Auschwitz II) holding a tape recorder, fighting back tears: ‘I see them taking mother and father directly, and she held her arms stretched out and … where did she vanish?’
I have no right, but as I grow older, as I see the power of populist politics, I think, perhaps, I have some responsibility. Not in the same sense as Eva, Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel or the hundreds of survivors who have spoken and written about Ha-Shoah, but nonetheless, in some small way. In uncertain times – immigration, globalisation, jobs – people return to the familiar. How it used to be. Recent elections in Europe have seen the rise of a nationalist parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz, Austria’s Freedom Party, Danish People’s Party, Spain’s Vox and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). A year after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris I witnessed a demonstration by Germany’s far-right Pegida in Munich. The blaring PA, the lights, the singing, the salutes. And to suggest history doesn’t repeat.
Kraków. Probably the most beautiful city in Europe. St Mary’s Basilica, Christmas markets in the old square, horse-drawn carriages full of rugged-up tourists, Wawel Castle and Cathedral. But history hangs heavily over the city. The capital of Nazi Germany’s General Government under Hans Frank. Stalin shutting down printing presses, building steel mills, smothering religion and free speech. These layers, dating back to Kraków’s Stone Age origins. Hints of this now, although I have the feeling (as with so many places in Europe) that people just want to get on with their lives. That history persists, and never really bridges the gap between the living and dead. Here is a city aware of its past, and future. Even buying a train ticket, discounts for Teacher (33%), Big Family (37%), Anti-Communistic Opposition Activists/Victimised (100%) and Combatant (51%).
The next morning, Kraków (Główny) Station, an amalgam of platforms, shopping mall (Galeria Krakowska), car park, tram line, Starbucks (of course), food hall and three levels of American Dreams. A shiny, new vote of confidence in the future of this reawakening city. To the bus station, and two dozen people waiting for the shuttle to Auschwitz, rugged up against the cold we’ve been warned about. And even now, a strange feeling. Not that we expect to enjoy the day; or become more enlightened, better, wiser people. No. That we might grasp what happened between 1941-1945. That we might, somehow, understand the capacity of our species to hate, and love. To destroy and, as with Eva, forgive.
No fighting for a seat this time. We all sit, quietly – American retirees, Chinese twenty-somethings, Australians, a sprinkling of European accents. Looking out the window, wondering what our day will bring. The first time (I guess) for all of us. The Orrs have been to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg (outside Berlin), Dachau (Munich), but somehow, this feels different. The bus pulling out, no words, no explanations, as we drive through the city, the suburbs, the Soviet-era apartment blocks, glimpses of nineteenth century gentility. A grey, drizzly day; a few kids on skateboards, an old woman heading for her local Lidl; a small park with birch trees, and see-saw. Ordinary. A highway heading west, the usual doof-doof from headphones, diesel vapours (it’s an old bus) and my sons, searching for missing Wi-Fi.
I’m just thinking about Auschwitz. Having taught (six, seven times) John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (and having felt something wasn’t quite right). Eli Wiesel’s Night. Even Peter Padfield’s biography of Himmler, thinking, perhaps, it might give me some idea how these things start. Although it didn’t. Just the voice of Eva on a scratchy tape, standing on the ramp at Auschwitz in 1984: ‘Mum, I will tell our story. I will tell our story because the world must know.’
A road running beside and through small towns, carefully-manicured gardens, a hardware shop, a bakery, the locals watching this daily stream of interlopers. A turn into a small carpark, the reception block for new prisoners, rows of buses, hundreds, a thousand or more people, tour guides with little flags raised in mute tribute, as groups tussle for a spot in the long lines. As we get off, as I think, It wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d imagined Auschwitz in the middle of the country, not in a town. I thought it had been a secret.
Then it dawned on me: this place has become a tourist destination. The taxis and cars, the souvenir shop, the struggle to find the right line, another wait for the toilets (everyone running from the unequipped buses), and the woman at the door with coin tray, EFTPOS machine. Was this what I imagined? So I pay, we regroup, present our bags, get our tickets and headphones and wait. Looking for clues in the terrazzo floor, the walls, glimpses of the red brick buildings outside. Watching a guard get angry with an Italian nonna.
All the history seems superfluous. Heinrich Himmler telling camp commandant Rudolf Höss: ‘It is a hard, tough task which demands the commitment of the whole person without regard to any difficulties … If we do not succeed in destroying the biological basis of Jewry, some day the Jews will annihilate the German Volk.’ The SS converting a Polish army barracks at Oświȩcim (Auschwitz) into a camp for political prisoners. The first gassing of Polish and Soviet prisoners in August 1941. Weeks later, construction starts on the nearby Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Killing on an industrial scale. Freight trains bringing Jews from all over German-occupied Europe. The horror of the numbers (1.1 million dead) masking the horror of each death. Each man, woman and child. Eva’s mother and father and two older sisters killed in the gas chamber at Birkenau. ‘But here the stink was over-powering … It was everywhere and inescapable. I did not find out right away what the smell really was.’
Eventually our group gathers in the yard between the reception centre and camp. We stand, looking over at the sign on the gate: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Sets You free’). We’ve all seen it before, but now the words have new meaning. A few people take photos, but I can’t. Not from any moral high ground, but just how it feels. As we’re given the introduction. Like thousands, every day. Facts, stand here, don’t do this, can everyone hear me? History stripped back to its basics. A sense of disorientation, of not believing I’m here, of the ghosts, waiting, like us, under very different circumstances. We cross to the gate, beside the SS guard house (and office of camp supervisor). I’m not sure I hear the guide. She keeps fading in and out.
We continue. Again, it all makes sense. This isn’t the Auschwitz I know from documentaries. That’s Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a mile and a half away. Then there was Auschwitz III-Monowitz (now gone), a labour camp for prisoners working in the IG-Farben factory. And dozens of smaller sub-camps. Auschwitz I was a dry-run, a trial, a collection of two-storey, red-brick blocks lined up with regimental efficiency. Connective tissues of dirt roads, and beyond the fence – trees, the Sola River, factories and train lines.
Our group moves slowly. We patiently wait for each other as a tourist gridlock forms. All the time, faces searching for clues. Block 5: Material Evidence of Crimes. We’re warned. But this is what we’ve come for. What is necessary. After all, nothing could approach what happened here seventy years before. As Eva explains: ‘After we found out that the Nazis had made soap out of Jewish fat, I dreamed that soap bars spoke to me in the voices of my parents and sisters, asking me, “Why are you washing with us?”’ Cabinets full of hair, glasses, shoes. I try to read the names on the cases: ‘L. Bermann 26.12.1886 Hamburg’. People stripped of identity in a killing machine that ran efficiently, day in, day out, for years. Block 6: Everyday Life of the Prisoners. Rough mattresses laid on the floor, the image of hundreds of prisoners crammed into each small area. Block 11: the ‘death block’. A room where some semblance of a trial (with its inevitable outcome) took place, then the to the basement, the small cells, as prisoners sat (or stood in the standing cells – Stehzellen – no light, cooling or heating) listening to the executions, waiting their turn. Back upstairs, and out into a courtyard, and the executioner’s ‘Death Wall’, the windows of Block 10 (medical experiments) boarded over so no one could see what was happening.
Continuing around this honeycomb of buildings: a storeroom for poison gas (Zyklon B) and prisoners’ stolen property; an assembly square and gallows; political section (Gestapo Camp) and, in the distance, the commandant’s house. No Bruno and Gretel here. No chats through the wire (‘Vorsicht Hochspannung Lebensgefahr’). And between Höss’s house and the original gas chamber and crematorium, the gallows where the commandant was hanged in April 1947. Some sense of justice, but not enough, considering how few staff ever stood trial.
Either way, we are led into the gas chamber. Small, cold, dark. We look up at the vents. But there is no way to imagine, to understand. Surely this is what Eva meant when she promised her mother: ‘I will tell our story because the world must know.’ When she described the daily hell: ‘At Auschwitz dying is so easy.’ Past the crematoria. Outside into the light.
Because we have the choice.
Auschwitz I. The feeling these words are inadequate, as I feared. We return our headphones, exit the camp, the reception building, and wait for the shuttle bus to take us to Birkenau. I notice a few people from this morning. No one says much. Just long, vacant stares out of the window. Something perfunctory, perhaps. Lunch. The sun coming out. What’s for dinner? The bus pulls out, past more factories and warehouses, neat homes, people out gardening. And soon we arrive, the unmistakable arch, the entrance to some greater hell.
We walk through the main gate. The railway tracks intact, the selection platform extending into the distance, nearby forests, homes. German efficiency: 744 people per building, each structure colonising the grey landscape in Schindler-like rows and columns. The maths: 174 barracks (35 x 11 metres), 62 bays (or ‘roosts’) holding four inmates. An exercise in numbers, dreamt up at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, designed by SS architect Karl Bischoff, logistics courtesy of Adolf Eichmann. Birkenau had a capacity of 125,000 prisoners, and it felt like this. A city of death. And that morning, a freezing, horizontal gale as we walk the length of the platform, past one of the ‘cattle cars’ used to transport prisoners from all over Europe, as far as the gas chambers and crematoria II and II, hastily destroyed in the last weeks of war, before prisoners were returned to Germany in ‘death marches’.
It occurs to me that the end came in many forms – if not the gas chamber, worked to death (prisoners building their own barracks), starvation, disease, or hypothermia. Our tour group just stands, listening, huddling into each other, grasping umbrellas that do nothing to stop the rain. Eventually we arrive at the women’s camp, find shelter inside a single barracks, contemplate the days, weeks, perhaps, someone could survive without adequate clothing, food. Eva explaining ‘… the bread we ate each evening … contained not only sawdust but a powder called bromide that made us forget memories of home.’ The bunks, still waiting for the women who were due to be sent to the gas chamber. The ammonia-clouded windows with a view of more barracks, guard towers, wire. ‘People were yelling. There were screams. Confusion. Desperation. Barking Orders.’
Later, we return to Auschwitz I. By now, the crowds are thinning out, and it’s growing dark. We cross the road and eat cheap hamburgers in an empty café. An empty mall, too, built, I guess, in anticipation of tourists. A sad, lonely place with tables and chairs lined up like huts. Postcards. As I watch the shop assistants waiting.
So what do we owe the past? What can we learn? For a start: human life, human dignity, should be above laws, rules, the whims of leaders. The way German soldiers, today, need not follow orders (‘According to German law an order is not binding if … it violates the human dignity of the third party concerned’: Practice Relating to Rule 154: Obedience to Superior Orders). Second, that history keeps changing clothes, pretending it’s something else. This is what I saw in Munich in 2016. The sounds, the colour and movement, the visceral attraction of Pegida. The museum director at Buchenwald Concentration camp recently explained: ‘[Guestbook] messages glorifying Nazism or demanding the camps be re-opened for foreigners have become more common.’ Smiling selfies in front of gas chambers, provoking arguments with tour guides. All becoming somehow okay. As the AfD keep chanting: ‘Wir sind das Volk!’ (‘We are the people!’) Thirdly, that we are obliged to speak (however imperfectly) on behalf of those who can’t. A strange idea in a country that has little history, few reference points, an ethos of unfettered progress, individual prosperity. Finally, that we make some attempt to forgive. As Eva Kor points out: ‘Getting even has never healed a single person.’
We return to the camp, miss a bus, and by now it’s dark. The car park empties and my family and another dozen people wait in the cold, and misty rain. The camp is locked up. The lights off. I wonder about the hundreds of thousands. This place where they last saw sky, smelt grass, perhaps. I still don’t know any more than I did eight hours ago. I don’t understand. How this place was built, staffed, people brought in, slaughtered. I just don’t get it. And when the bus finally arrives, and we climb aboard, I feel like I’ve left something unfinished.
This piece first appeared in the June 2020 edition of Good Reading magazine. It's about the various ways plague and disease have featured in writing over the last several hundred years.
Disease never affects thousands, millions; it never leaves a ‘swathe of destruction’; it hardly ever destroys a way of living, whole industries, institutions. It never marks a generation or cripples anyone, upsets delicate mental states. It only ever affects people, or more correctly, a person. It takes away his or her reason to get up in the morning, shower, catch a bus, stop for a coffee; it dims aspirations, ambitions, and deconstructs dreams like some anti-IKEA plan for non-living. It dissolves the pillars of education, the teachers’ speeches, the essays, what-I-did-in-my-summer-holidays; it takes the book you’ve just written and rips it into small pieces, and it (the Contagion) doesn’t care. It sits outside your window, every night, on a ledge, or up a tree, watching you, enjoying your reactions. It feeds off your fear, and insecurity, and concern for others, mostly the people you love. It has no morality, no sense, no plan, no justification, no fairness. It just wants to find a healthy cell, invade it, use it to make more pimped DNA.
So it’s just us, coping, looking for reference points. We could do the whole Blitz thing, sleep in the subway, sing Vera Lynn (as is happening in London and Spain and Italy). We could say, ‘Well, I didn’t really like that job anyway.’ Or, ‘Maybe when this is over we’ll move to Wodonga and grow artichokes.’ Big, life-knocked-off-its-axis revelations. We could. We could spend our locked-down days reading The Tree of Man, listening to Ravel and asking ourselves existential questions. And through all of this, we might find answers, solutions to our patched-up lives.
Or maybe the opposite? We could become miserable, competitive, revert to our knuckle-dragging origins, racing through Coles with a trolley full of sardines, hurry up, out of my way, time for a new mask? We could conveniently forget our decency, tolerance, ability to think and act beyond ourselves. We could forget we’re social beings. God knows recent governments have done their best to convince us it’s all about me, me, me, work harder, more hours, better pay, nicer house, posher school, screw you (insert name).
Not that we’re the first to wake up with a sore throat (or buboes). And maybe our best chance of understanding these days is in the words of those who have been there, written about it. Maybe Gustav von Aschenbach (Thomas Mann), watching fourteen year old Tadzio (Władysław Moes) in the dining room of Venice’s Grand Hôtel des Bains. Later, on the beach, a moment of unresolved ecstasy before Aschenbach sinks back into his chair and dies, victim of a cholera epidemic. Or Albert Camus describing the pestilence that attacked the Algerian city of Oran in 1849 in The Plague. An existential take on the game of Life and Death (or was it a plague of Nazis?). ‘… there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.’ Newark, New Jersey, 1944, a community sweltering through a hot summer, living in fear of polio, as it claims the locals kids in Philip Roth’s Nemesis. The Plague genre, perhaps? Geraldine Brooks’ 2001 Year of Wonders, or all the way back to Boccaccio’s The Decameron, ten young men and women escaping the Black Death, hunkered down in a villa outside Florence, telling each other stories to pass the time. A hundred yarns over fourteen nights, although for us, a billion tweets, home-concerts, Instagram-art, live-streamed albums, poems. The urge persisting over the centuries.
And what about the people we can safely dismiss? Thomas Vincent’s God’s Terrible Voice in the City! sets out to show the real reasons for the 1665 Plague and the 1666 Fire of London. Bad things always come in threes, and Vincent’s 1667 tome completes the trifecta. The Plague was, of course, our fault. ‘When God speaks by ordinary diseases and is not heard, then sometimes he sends a plague.’ And if not that, then Fire, because ‘he has other judgements in readiness – sword, famine and the like!’ Vincent lists a few areas needing improvement, including the usual lying, gluttony, fornication, drunkenness, pride, envy and lust. Given that, things will improve. I mean, he did include proof: ‘My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness ... My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease’ (Psalms 38:5). Giving Vincent the Twitteresque high ground: ‘Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets.’
But the great fear, still, is the unknown. How quickly, how widely will our virus spread? The final death count? Will it come again? After all, technology, science and medicine are only ever attempts to ward off the darkness. Bells tolling for thee (as Donne and Hemingway describe their own plagues). A reminder that none of us will live forever.
And talking of reminders, let’s move on to Nathaniel Hodges’ ‘Loimologia: or an Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665’. Hodges gives us a more objective account. Minus the science, still, but with some sense of compassion, objectivity, sanity. Telling us how it started, just like Wuhan: ‘… for at that season [December 1664] two or three Persons died suddenly in one Family at Westminster.’ Two others with similar symptoms were moved into the City of London by well-meaning neighbours (you know the type) and the rest is history: ‘Whereby that Disease which was before in its infancy, in a Family or two, suddenly got Strength and spread Abroad its fatal Poisons.’ The rest sounds familiar. Social isolation: ‘An Order was immediately issued out to shut up all the infected Houses, that neither Relations nor Acquaintance might unwarily receive it from them …’ Fourteen-day lockdowns: (after some sort of Bondi or St Kilda moment): ‘the Sick in the mean time to be removed to convenient Apartments provided on Purpose for them’. Doctors who were ‘too much loaded with the spoils of the Enemy.’ Officials ordered in to ‘[mark] the houses of infected Persons with a Red Cross.’ To stand guard, and to ‘restrain them from coming Abroad for Forty Days after their Recovery’.
Years later, Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) wrote about the Great Plague. Although he was only five years old in 1665 his ‘journal’ was written as an eyewitness account. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) drew heavily on the memories of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe. Due to its accuracy, and detail, the book was initially treated as non-fiction, but within sixty years it was seen as a work of fiction. The argument has raged ever since. Defoe’s writing is objective, but shocking when it needs to be. He describes a London ‘all in tears’. He transcends the numbers, the chronology and defines the plague in human terms: ‘Everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger.’ Writing two generations after the plague, he concludes: ‘A near View of Death would soon reconcile Men of good Principles one to another … a close conversing with Death, or the Diseases that threaten Death, would scum off the Gall from our Tempers, remove the Animosities among us …’
Not what I’m seeing in Coles, but maybe these are early days. Maybe this is our first response; maybe time will temper, and the images of Grace, of people handing strangers money, of others singing anthems from their balconies (whole neighbours united for the first time in decades), will define a New Age of Neoliberalism-rejected, backyard veggie patches planted.
Defoe recorded what we need to know, now. The importance of staying home (‘the necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city’); of sticking together, acting responsibly (‘the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their own destruction’); of hibernating (‘from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop’); of seeing the world, for a while, for now, as a different place (‘upholsterers, joiners, cabinet-makers, looking-glass makers … stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen and all their dependents’). Message being, it won’t be easy, but you, people of three hundred years hence, are not the first, and won’t be the last. Defoe said, ‘The face of London was now indeed strangely altered.’ The empty shopping malls, the boarded-up shops, the theatres and hotels, the places that background our lives. As we sit at home and say, ‘I don’t believe it was only three weeks ago when …’ Defoe imagined the same thing: ‘…all plays, bear baitings, 88 games, singing of ballads, buckler play, 89 or such like causes of assembly of people, [were] utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished by every alderman in his ward.’
But the good news was, and is, that darkness is balanced with light (eventually). ‘The Houses which before were full of the Dead, were now again inhabited by the Living; and the Shops that had been most Part of the Year shut up, were again opened, and the People again cheerfully went about their wonted Affairs …’
The past is always trying to warn us, to help us. These ghosts, leaving their mark in books, songs, treatises, like they were, and are, scared we might have to repeat history. Especially problematic in our Reader’s Digest world of sound bites, social media and thirty second attentions spans. Our belief that we are somehow unique. Maybe this is why there’s been a resurgence of interest in buying and reading (I hope) the ‘Classics’? So maybe, as Defoe explains, it doesn’t matter ‘from whence it came’. Maybe we just need to settle in with a good book, accept our isolation, like Crusoe, and Friday. Maybe imagine we’re the last man (or woman) in the world. Omega people. For now, ‘the minds of the people [are] agitated, with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things.’ Even though Defoe was never there, he knew that ‘Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.’
Good news is, in the end (Defoe explains), ‘a new City suddenly arose out of the Ashes of the old, much better able to stand the like Flame another time.’
This was written for a proposed tenth anniversary re-issue of Time's Long Ruin.
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.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.