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.
There are some things in life we'll never achieve. For me, it's playing the extended guitar solo from The Knack's 'My Sharona'.
Despite this, we keep trying. So a few years ago when the South Australian government announced it planned to close my old primary school (opened in 1901, having educated tens of thousands of kids), I was peeved, attended meetings, wrote columns. Short story, they're closing it anyway (at the end of this year). Then it sits empty for a few years, attracts vandals, before it's flogged off to the highest bidder. So, despite Phase 1 failing, Phase 2 will consist of me trying to persuade our government to preserve one small red brick building on the site. This was the school's original (1901) classroom. Seems to me it's only taking up a half a house block, so it's not that big a deal. The building signifies everything about the school, the lives it shaped, the students, the teachers, the community and its values, the public faith in public education that's being eroded, day by day. So come on, Education Minister! Tell us what you're going to do with the little red brick building on North East Road.
Watching others – studying how they move, speak, relate to one another – is a bad habit of mine. For example, every day when I should be supervising a class, there I am, staring out of the window, observing the head of this or that department walking across the yard, stopping, remembering they’ve forgotten a document, or perhaps their coffee, and returning to their office. Or I sit at my computer, always distracted by people walking past. Like the girl with Tourette Syndrome, fuck this and that, little yelps and high-pitched calls. That’s the thing about watching people – it always leads to a clearer understanding of how we work. By seeing how bodies move, how people are unsure of themselves (although we spend most of our time trying to disguise this).
So why do I tell you this? I’m a writer, so therefore an observer, a nosey-parker, whatever you want to call it. It was a moment in Paris. On the Metro line number four (I don’t know what it’s called, but it runs north-south, in the middle of the city). A train arrives, sucks in a few hundred people and shoots off into the darkness. Stop and wait, and watch all the people coming down from the street, or across from another platform. Two, three minutes and the platform is crowded again. Like this, train after train, all day, day after day. This obsession with getting somewhere.
Myself, my wife, with all these others on the platform. I think the stop was Châtelet, as we’d just been to Notre-Dame de Paris. What a place! Thousands of tourists trying to see what all the fuss is about. I wasn’t sure. I’d seen dozens of cathedrals, and this one didn’t seem any different. The train arrives and a tide of people pile on, find a spot (standing, of course), slide into this or that gap, adjust a leg to fit here, an arm, a skateboard or scooter. All irrelevant. Because now I’m standing with my wife, and the train doors close, and the train takes off towards Château d’Eau.
So as you can imagine, I’m studying faces. People avoid eye contact, but they’re very interested in each other. Sometimes eyes linger, and there’s a sort of smile, but I think that’s just me, this hick from Adelaide thinking you can do this in Paris. There are old people guarding their trolleys, businessmen, hipsters in tight pants and groomed beards. And the back of a head. A boy, three or four, with mousy blonde hair, a hand on the pole.
I watch the boy, because I think it wonderful how such a small child lives in such a big city (I assume, his mother's carrying bread and groceries). Imagine growing up in Paris. Lucky kid. All the opportunities, culture, theatre, everything. Compared to me, raised in an oversized country town with a few towers for the electrical and gas company. No culture, a sport-fuelled indifference to books, and ideas. Anyway, at this point the boy turns and I notice a strawberry nevus, or birthmark, across the left side of his face. (By the way, I’m leaving out the stations we visit). I look away in case the boy looks at me. Like the Tourette girl – it’s rude. But then I look again, and see this small, round face with its imperfection (from cheek to chin).
There, are you happy, Stephen? Have you seen enough? Have you learned to know this boy, his face, his life, his fears, his feelings? I know nothing about Etienne, or Baptiste, or Clément, although he’s probably John. Is he teased? Does the mark make him upset? Will this get worse, will he fail to cope with the blemish and become depressed? Or has he barely thought about it? Has no one really mentioned it? Is it just me, projecting my fears onto other people?
By now we must be at Strasbourg Saint-Denis. Several herds of people have gotten on and off, and I’m still watching the boy. And here’s why I write the first of my microgrammes. The train stops, and I have to get off with my wife, and we walk towards the stairs. Something occurs to me and I stop, turn, and look back at the train as the doors close. And there he is, this boy, looking at me. A few seconds, eye-to-eye, as something passes between us. Maybe we’re both old souls, reunited? He just looks, and I wonder if I should smile, or wave, or return. But there’s no point. I take the steps and the day is glorious and bright, and the boy, headed north, is gone.
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.