‘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.
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.