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.
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.