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.
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.