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.
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.
Sleeping under the piano, close to the rosewood, night sounds amplified by eighty-eight strings. So imperceptible I can’t really tell, but they’re just outside the window. The scraping of a leaf on a concrete path, until the breeze stops. The movement of a lizard in litter; the way wind works on canopies. Each singing, vibrating, resonating and, when I step outside, the once-a-minute bark of a dog filling the void, and this sound moving across the land, through yards, down to the river. All suggesting something else is going on. Muffled voices and cries and songs that are only ever, rarely, heard through the layers of night. A party in a basement, through walls, blocks away, so that only the sense remains. And if, if we’re attuned, we start to listen, to hear this, to suspect what’s going on: that there are multiple times, places, people. And if this is the case, what’s to say we’re in the correct place and time? The sense that I am lost, in the wrong house, with the wrong people, cooking the wrong meals, the wrong job, certainly, because no one feels they’re doing what they want to be doing. The wrong mortgage and dreams and routines. Our insistence on getting used to things, accepting them, and worse, refusing to hear the bark. Leaving us unhappy. Not in the didn’t-go-to Bali sense, but something else. The same unhappiness that manifests when we have everything, every dollar, every device.
The idea starts with a box of postcards, mine, collected over the last ten years on overseas visits, old postcards from op-shops, photos, leaflets, programmes, anything with an image that seems to suggest a place, a time, something or someone I might have known. A (mostly) black-and-white songline I follow, preserve, curate. Idea being, it should all add up to something, tell some story. Bert and Stefan Brecht sharing a tangerine (a postcard from his house on Chausseestraβe), a copperplate Keats (‘Was it a vision or a waking dream?) from the Spanish Steps, my five and two year old son babbling, a small pic of a baby with her ghost grandma, a Berlin bunker, DDR Jugendweihe (in thrall of communism), Percy Grainger on 3LO, the man I met in San Francisco with the CUT YOUR WHORING NOW billboard. Me thinking, What? What sense?
Diane Arbus said, ‘The farther afield you go, the more you are going home …’ I’ve always felt this. Like all of the plans I’ve made (under direction from parents, school, jobs, books, common sense) have meant nothing. That I’ve never come close to whatever I’ve been aiming at. This, of course, is the prerequisite for becoming a writer, a person who invents as an attempt (always unsuccessful) to answer this question. But it’s not limited to creative people. Millions of us drift, little Celeste-type bodies bobbing over the ocean until someone finds our empty shell, wonders how it got there, what happened to the people inside. In fact, I know I live somewhere else, with other people I’ve never met. We all know this, when we travel and arrive somewhere that feels like home, and can’t see why, can’t explain. Sigmund Freud talked about this sense of uncanny, unheimlich, unhomely, the gap between the familiar and unrecognisable. Once, apparently, we were somewhere that made us happy, and had to leave this place, these people, these past-times. This might have happened suddenly, or gradually. Either way, the feeling persists, for several, hundreds, thousands of lifetimes perhaps. The barking dog so distant we hardly hear it. Or is it more than this? Is it, as Arbus suggested, that ‘the gods put us down with a certain arbitrary glee in the wrong place and what we seek is who we had really ought to be.’ So we drift through life looking for something we can’t recognise. The hints are the smell of PVA, presents from K-Tel Christmas mornings. As the same acetate wafts from our shampoo, mixing with the smell of roast lamb and cinnamon. The coalescence, as I step out at midnight and the clouds and grey-blue sky form an unlit theatre, the improbable acoustics, the bark, again, from a dog that died before Jesus. And this recurring dream of seeing my children with other parents, holding hands, singing, pointing out this or that feature in the cityscape. I call, but I’m not heard, chase, but never manage to catch up.
Were we happier then, or is it because only children have a home, and when this place is gone we spend our lives trying to rediscover it? The lucky ones have the physical remains, but mostly, these places are lost. So it’s the sense of home, and if it’s not there, beside the piano, resonating, then we’re lost. Berlin has this effect on me. I walk down its streets, like they’re my streets, like I know where I’m going, like I’m a native. I can do this in Berlin, or spend hours on Google Earth, or read the books set there, the music made there, the history endured. Again, Arbus said our favourite places are where we’ve never been. Although then again, maybe it’s not about the places, but us. Maybe we’re searching for ourselves, who we were, are, could have been. The feeling that we’ve got such a short time to gather the clues, come up with a name, a locality, although I doubt it’s in Berlin. I tried Edinburgh once, but the feeling faded when I realised I’d never find myself in the thousands of streets and laneways.
Who I could have been. Because the answer’s already there, isn’t it, when you’re born? We call it character, personality, but maybe it’s just the accumulation of all the searching? Here’s a postcard dated February 1927, showing the Weald of Kent, and someone called Granny writing: ‘What a nice lot of presents you had … I do hope your nose has got back to its right shape. Let me know how you like your new school.’ More black and white images: the Yass Post Office (Kay explaining: ‘We’ll not be sailing before Monday, 4 pm. We are all doing well …’), Regent Street, Sydney, a colourised Arc de Triomphe, Victoria Street, Westminster, Horace Trenerry’s Piccadilly Valley, Bilson’s Beechworth Brewery, Fontana di Trevi and, my favourite, the twenty cent programme for the Port Pirie Trotting and Racing Club’s Saturday night meeting (15 January 1972). Directory of stalls, scratchings, officials (Condon and McBride) and Race 1, Underwood and Smith Handicap, with the results written in red: 1, Gilt Archer (1), 2, Spring Action (10), 3, Bold Safari (7). This little book I’ve studied a hundred times, determined I was there, memories of arc lights over Pirie, the glowing track, the sweaty punters and carpark stretching out, ambitiously, for miles, always reminding me of the ambitious 1960s Target carpark in suburban Newton, these two places substituting each other, moving in and out of phase, Pirie becoming Newton, Newton Pirie, a small boy I don’t recognise wandering towards the track with people I don’t know. The focus of my quest, or our quests, becoming more confusing but at the same time more tempting, more necessary, as the years pass. So that we grow old, die, and have to start the whole search again in some other time, some other place. Or maybe it’s just Arbus’s gods laughing, as we chase our tails, trying to make sense of the insensible? Someone else on the ground, under the piano, trying to make sense of the single, singing crow.
To go back to the beginning. To try and find something familiar. Which, subconsciously, we do every day. Déjà vu has become comical (‘This is like déjà vu all over again’), but most of us sense there’s more to it. Freud explained that ‘in such moments something is really touched that we have already experienced, only we cannot consciously recall the latter because it never was conscious.’
In an age that seems embarrassed by gods, we look for other explanations. We have visited such places, seen such things, played with the toy, driven the car. Or perhaps the feeling derives from a film we’ve seen, a song we’ve heard. The alternative to reality is spirit, and that’s too much. Religion was done away with (neatly) long ago. In The Rings of Saturn, a meditation on walking, discovering, experiencing past worlds in the present, WG Sebald recalls a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that describes death in Holland. Where it was custom to drape black ribbons over mirrors in the homes of the dead. Also, over paintings depicting landscapes or people, ‘so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.’
Lost forever. Is that the key? As I stare at the black and white photo of my Grade four class, 1976, grins, smiles, although I suspect the photographer might’ve asked for straight faces. Is that what Sebald meant? Are all of these kids still alive? Fat, miserable, suicidal, redeemed, found God? And what are they up to? Either way, lost to me, as I continue my journey, always taking glimpses that are last glimpses.
Does thinking about endings make you miserable? Is it a sin to be morbid in the land of doing things, getting ahead, making money? Better always to act, than think. Better to kick, than read. Because reading (despite how we’re told it’s good for us) leads to thought, questions, regrets. And what good’s that in a world where the sun shines every day?
I start with a hankering for charity shops. I’m always drawn, wandering, searching ties, the sad, limited bookshelves of Margaret Fulton and Virginia Andrews. Jackets, but they’re always too old, dated, embarrassing, even for someone with no sense of fashion. I search the knick-knacks – the glass swans and toast holders, costume jewellery, electric can-openers – and feel content. I smell the place. Old, finished.
It’s not so much a textbook, subconscious déjà vu, because I can remember when it began. Somewhere around 1972. A year or two, perhaps, before I started school. My Gran, and our neighbour, Mrs W, an old Pom with nicotine fingers. They’re standing behind the counter at a charity shop on OG Road. Perhaps they’re pricing items; sliding shirts onto hangers. Either way, Peggy’s got a fag in her hand. I’m mostly forgotten, on the floor, in the womb of security: reading the books piled in the corner (Boys’ Own, old, even then); trying on the shoes in the mountain of footwear with a sign (something like): $2 a pair, three for $5; playing with the broken toys (jigsaws with missing pieces, a metaphor twenty years too early). And then standing, in the middle of the dress rack, sandwiched by naphthalene frocks and knitted dresses, touching them, holding them, like the thousand phantom mothers we have as kids. Someone coming in, looking, surprised to see me behind the suits and jackets. Hi, sweet, what are you doing back there? As Gran or Peggy said, Don’t mind him.
Bookshops. Which, sadly, have been the obsession of my adult life. The less organised, smellier, crappier the better. Rugs held down with gaffer tape. Perfect. The Keeper of Books making sardines on toast as he or she prices Rimbaud or a manual for a 1978 Datsun 120Y. Books everywhere. No organisation, except for Fiction, Memoir, Hitler. Strange, how you can start a war and yet get your own category in a bookshop, seventy years later. Piles of books, leaning, collapsed, haemorrhaging, decades after publications, like old soldiers with never-quite-healed war wounds. The impossibility of finding anything specific. Which is the greatest joy. Every discovery accidental. Much more potent. More scope for unexpected discoveries, which (I think) are the only ones worth having. In which case, bookshops are the repository of déjà vu, hints about who you are, where you’ve been, other lives lived, places visited.
Bookshops are doomed. Not because of online reading, Kindle, streamed movies, anything. Just because they’ve became too organised. Lost their potential to surprise us. Chosen genre over sardines. Neat, descriptive shelf titles, everything on a computer, so that, say, if you asked about déjà vu, they’d present a collection of volumes: self-help, academic, a biography of Freud, and so on. Worryingly, literature is doing the same thing today. Turning away from the unexpected (Let us Now Praise Famous Men), instead, choosing the product of someone’s market research. Dystopia. Jillaroos. Wizards with nothing particularly magic about them.
I have no memory of where the bookshop thing began. Libraries, perhaps. I was taken to the State Library on a Sunday afternoon, roamed, explored the forest of shelves, plucked random volumes from the foliage, read which mushrooms were dangerous, which dogs came from Pomerania, wherever that was (which led me to the atlases). This world of possibilities seemed superior to my world: braised steak and Paul Hogan, Baby Burgess and long division, endlessly, through stinking hot asbestos afternoons. Or Tea Tree Gully Library, where I’d watch the woman line up the books, photograph them, hand them to me. Mine, for a few weeks. No one else’s. Like the suits I’d wear on OG Road, becoming the Chairman of BHP, for a few hours, at least.
And the habit persists. Hours in Foyles and Watermans in London, or the excellent Scheltema bookshop in Amsterdam. Each with their five stories of other places, other lives. Me thinking, why can’t we have Scheltema? Writers’ handprints in concrete. Like they’re celebrities. Like someone actually values them. Maybe some cultures see writers as ciphers, ferryman between the real and imagined. People whose gloom somehow allows them to see more clearly. Again, wet weather boys who don’t like cricket.
Or maybe, maybe (and let’s make it clear, I’m not condoning this), maybe the Buddhists are right, and we’re just going round and round, and last time round I owned a bookshop, and died (one sunny day) between Theosophical and Cooking. Or the life before that? Each time, as I return, trying to define this fascination, becoming a writer so I might better describe it.
Or perhaps I was a writer? Joseph Conrad, sailing into Port Adelaide, catching a train to town, the hills, to convalesce from a long journey. As I scribbled Almayer’s Folly. Listened to the shrikes outside, first (and I’ve been doing it ever since) wiped the hundred degree heat from my forehead, ate frog cakes (did they exist back then?).
And the most powerful pull of all: graveyards. Not something you’re meant to admit. It shows a certain maudlin streak, apparently. Again, looking backwards, instead of the length of the M20. Darkness, instead of sunshine. Although, to devotees of burying fields, the whole experience is quite uplifting. And portable.
So, there I am, rising at six-thirty, standing at the window to our Edinburgh apartment, looking down at Dalry Cemetery. Resist, I say to myself, but it’s no use. I slip on my shoes, grab my camera, and head across the road.
Dalry is its own bookshop. No one’s laid out paths. The grass has grown, colonised the living and the dead. Rain has made mud, and pools, and it’s worse where someone’s come in with an excavator, trying to control the bramble. The trees are leafless, as they should be, the growth of another year rotting on and in the ground. Admitting the grey light from what promises morning, and day. But I like it like this. In the gap between night and day, life and death, real and imagined. All the spirits déjà vu-ing; settling for another sleep, or rising, seeking lives to colonise.
I like the signs of actual life. Broken handlebars from a scooter. Blue twine strung from an old tree, a stick as a seat, muddy footprints. I can hear kids playing, laughing, falling on their arses. But now the twine just moves in the little bit of wind, a fresh spirit moving towards town.
Déjà vu. As I stand in the light rain. The street lights yellow, diffuse, muddying the morning, nearby apartments humming to breakfast television, and toast. I wonder why I’m here, getting wet. Looking for clues, still. Boys’ Own (describing the life I might lead); O’Connell’s, Treloar’s, even some bookshop at Murray Bridge, a hundred Year 10 Mockingbirds sold for a song. Where am I? West Terrace Cemetery. Looking for Percy and Horace Trenerry, the Mystery Man, but aren’t we all, living our recycled lives? Maybe that’s what they found on Somerton Beach. A muddle of life, between one person and the next. Or maybe Enfield Cemetery, where Gran lies, with her marked down dresses and the smell of Peggy’s smoke eternally in her nose.
Dalry’s headstones are already speaking to me. Here, Julia died at one month (1836), followed by Janet (seven months), Margaret Anne (seven months), and a son, who didn’t have a name, because he only survived a few hours on some cold morning in September 1863. Maybe he has a better claim to rebirth than anyone. As I walk around, the pattern continues: William burying William (four years), Cecilia (seven months), Nelly (ten years), William, again, although it didn’t end any better. No mention of how they died, because it’s too late for all that. Cholera, typhus, tuberculosis? What does it matter now?
Close by, beside the Burying Ground of William Campbell, I find the first of the soft stone memorials, where life has given up even the words that describe it. A family crest, worn away by hundreds of years of rain. And lines that used to be names, dates, no longer readable. The final indignity, or perhaps life’s last word (according to Edwin Muir, ‘Past all contrivance, word, or image, or sound, Or silence, to express, that we who fall, Through time’s long ruin should weave this phantom ground…’).
In the middle of the cemetery, vines have covered everything. No one seems to have made an effort to clear the vegetation. Thankfully. I take a photo of the chaos, but it blurs, and I leave it that way. I think of how much time, how many people, how much poison it’d take to reveal the headstones, the names, the stories. Obviously families have stopped coming. Probably, have no idea their ancestors are buried here. One wall, with its ‘Sacred to the memory…’ is being pushed over by a tree. A few broken headstones have been gathered, stacked neatly, respectfully. As though no one wants to throw them, but knows what to do with them. Can you just put them in a skip? Does it come to that? Family vaults, locked, full of beer cans and chip packets, as I try to work out how the local kids got in.
I stroll. I don’t want to leave. Eventually I’ll have to return to Australia, and it’ll be like I was never here. Like the dead. Gone. The sun is still trying to lighten west Edinburgh, and beyond, but the cloud, mist and rain persist. Above the one grave someone’s maintained. A six inch picket fence and white gravel, a few camelia sprigs, a heart. But I don’t read the inscription. Regret it now, weeks later. As I teach my Year eights about poetry, and fail to mention I saw it one morning in Dalry Cemetery.
Delboy graffiti, across a set of proud steps that used to led mourners from church to grave. More rubbish, the sounds of buses starting up, the capital coming alive.
I stumble across Thomas Campbell, asleep in God since 1891. Poet Author of ‘The Pleasures of Hope’. Reminding me that every word I write, you read, will go, just as surely as the broken stones. No matter how clever, how thoughtful, publicised, reviewed, distributed, discussed in book groups – gone, thank god!
A whole row of headstones, obelisks, pushed over. I can see this boy now: fifteen, Edinburgh-angry, kicking one after another, and the dead barely complaining.
Another plaque, set in the wall, although this one’s left blank. Maybe ready for me, you, the déjà vu of the little Australian with his camera, wandering, as the first rays of light emerge, revealing blue sky. Always blue, as it’s been since all of this began. Poet. Surgeon. Charity volunteer. Recycling, like jumpers on a rack, worn and re-worn beyond anything useful.
So I leave the cemetery. Through the big iron gates. The sign telling me 9.00 – 4.00 only, although no one’s heeded that, ever. It’s hard to go. Like the dead, leaving their rooms, their mirrors and paintings covered, so they won’t know what they’re missing.
When I was a kid, staring out of the window of Gilles Plains Primary’s Senior Open Unit, it always seemed to be raining. I’d watch the way one drop joined another, and another, making a teardrop that ran down the glass. As outside, the Infants were led into the library, where Mr Johnson would start on Zeus, eventually leading them (and us) to the AV room, where he’d show Super 8 of his most recent trip to Greece. All the time, rain, wet hair and the musty, not-quite-clean smell of P, doggy school jumpers and the way shorts stayed wet all day. Worse, when you were a pant-pisser, like me. You could never get that smell out. But I suppose it did stop raining, and the sun appeared, and we ran around the yard off Beatty Avenue.
Perhaps it’s just the way we choose to remember.
This becomes important when you’re about to lose everything. At the end of this year, Gilles Plains Primary School will stop teaching kids. For the first time in 118 years, no more students. Come that hot, late January day when we’d return, line up, learn which teacher we had for the year. Instead, boarded-up buildings, a few chip packets blowing across the tarmac where we used to play four square, skin our knees, and someone brought one of their dad’s magazines to hand around. No more voices, no more games, no more wheat seeds left in wet cotton wool to show us how life began and (when we forgot to water them) ended. All of this, now, an eerily apt metaphor for the progress of South Australia.
Mine was a childhood of half-pies and chocolate doughnuts, sitting in the lunch shed surveying the crates of school milk. At recess (after I’d fed Mrs Chittleborough’s yabbies) we’d line up in the sun, or rain, in front of the canteen, a small red-brick building fronting Main North East Road. The scent of warming pasties, and fresh rolls, the bags of mixed lollies we were forbidden to buy (but bought anyway). We’d walk in, bowl haircuts and knobbly knees, each holding a mug we’d brought from home. Inside, approaching the counter, telling Kenny’s mum whether we wanted tomato or chicken soup, the big ladle, the steam, five cents across the freezer lid of many Snips, and Sunnyboys. Outside, to the pine trees between the Infant School and the Junior Open Unit, there to discuss Combat and whose dad drove a truck.
Tail-end memories. Before the pebblecrete block, the open units, the loud speaker where Mr Mellanby called (‘turn that lady round’) and we square-danced in the rain, the canteen was the school’s original classroom. Tail-end, because thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds were educated in that small room. Which brings me to my point. When the school’s closed, when it’s sold off, when the graders level it and the surveyors work out how many houses they can squeeze onto it, I’d like to think (after all my complaining, the meetings, the unanswered letters to bureaucrats) that we could preserve, somehow treasure this piece of red-brick history. Since 1901, wide-eyed kids staring out at the same unstoppable rain, the same blue sky that called us from long division (Mr Meus was a genius!), a room full of ghosts demanding some sort of memorial to childhoods lost, or subdivided. Too much to ask? Today the building houses the North Eastern Community Assistance Project’s thrift shop. Let’s hear the SA government promise to keep them there into an uncertain future. Or, if other arrangements are made, to repurpose the building as a small library, arts hub, local museum.
Or should we just bulldoze more of our history? Should we leave the wheat seeds in a dark cupboard, and forget them, and be surprised when we find them, years later, dead?
The very excellent Operatic Everyman Adam Goodburn first approached me in 2011 with the draft of an operatic treatment of Time's Long Ruin (renamed Innocence Lost). He'd managed to take the large cast, the broad sweep, the essence of my novel and turn it into an opera. Contracts were signed, and Adam went on to refine the libretto, gain a grant from the government of South Australia and select a composer, the equally excellent Anne Cawrse.
So Anne sets to work and over the next few years produces a score that's fresh, new, and challenging. Then the struggle begins. What was meant to be a 2016 production becomes 2017, 2018, 2019. During this time there's a News Limited attack upon the unperformed opera (Goebbels would have been proud), changes of management at State Opera SA, a semi-staged piano-only performance under the direction of Andy Packer, the process of refinement of the script (cuts!), orchestration and, mostly, an untiring act of faith, of persistence, on Adam's part.
So, now it's time to move into the final stage of the opera's genesis. No full production yet, but it's time to buy a ticket to Anne Cawrse's Innocence Suite, to be performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in June 2020. And after that ...?
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.