GORDON URQUHART – A Voluptuous Story About a Voluptuous Woman in Search of a Voluptuous Title

When my mate Max suggested I write a short story I thought he had gone mad: eccentric mad, not thinks he’s Napoleon mad.

He has controversial views on some social issues, and he’s always been old-fashioned – if old-fashioned means only employing secretaries who are under 25, female, and blonde – but these things were never a problem. His wife never complained, to my knowledge, but then I don’t think he ever told her – or his three previous wives – about his requirements in administrative support staff.

Until recently Max had been a very respectable barrister, well-connected (we know many of the same people), solid, a proud burgher of his city and citizen of the world. He abided by the law, or course, and I would say he paid his taxes, but certain matters are sub judice at this time, so you will understand if I don’t express a definite opinion on that subject here. I will say his art collection is more than impressive and the comically bad performances of his racehorse Twiggy’s Dancer provided an excuse for a number of amusing days at the track with plentiful champagne.

In his professional life he represented premiers and jockeys and adult entertainment impresarios. At the Opera he sat near a former governor-general and clinked glasses at interval with a man whose mining company owns forty per cent of Western Australia. He still does.

Then came the change.

None of us knew it, but there was a secret in his armoire, only revealed when we received invitations to his first book launch. The tome was called Bonfire Of The Bar, and it became the start of a very successful series of Walter Prendergast’s barresterial adventures. Walter is a lawyer who does things his own way: he’s a rebel, a black sheep, charmer of judges, breaker of rules, and enjoyer of three-hour lunches matched with superior wines. He frequently ends up in bed with his charming assistant or some other willing accomplice of the female persuasion. Walter the ladies man reminds me of a ladies man I know, but this is no coincidence: writing from experience is the advice they give to budding scribblers.

“All lawyers want to be writers, Gordy,” Max said. I suppose he’s right.

There have been four Prendergast adventures so far, and loyal readers want more. So successful has Max become that he has given away lawyering. Well, you never really give it away, but he’s strictly part-time now, spending most of his time in chambers indulging in something creative, with Miss Palmer his clerk in close attendance. (Max writes long hand, and Tiffany types up his pages. He never learned to use a machine of any kind, after mastering the tricky clutch on his 1967 Aston Martin.)

Which brings the story to me.

At his publisher’s suggestion, Max decided to edit a collection of short stories by lawyers, shamelessly designed to appeal to the lawyer-turned-writer market. In my case, it should more accurately be described as lawyer-turned-mining-magnate-turned-political-consultant-turned-turned-real-estate-investor market.

My distance from the profession didn’t bother him though. Just write a story, he said.

So I did, and it’s rather good. When inspiration wouldn’t come I decided to base my tale on a lurid case from the early 1980s. It is about the time I met and represented Conchita Diaz Furioso, a noted flamenco dancer who worked late nights in a restaurant with her partner Ramon. The proprietor thought this added colour to his establishment.

Unpaid wages led to an accusation of fraud and events took a decidedly criminal turn after that. Vandalism, mysterious assaults, and a suspicious death were all involved. I found that Conchita and Ramon were partners in a professional sense only, despite being technically married. It emerged that Ramon had a collection of passports with different names on all of them. As I got closer to Conchita I learned the the full meaning of “fiery Latin”.

“There are no male friends. Only lovers,” Conchita told me. She convinced me of her sincerity on this point, several times.

She could crack a walnut between her thighs, and she had … well, other skills too.

It was a torrid few weeks, and it makes a rollicking story. The temptation was to use phrases like “throbbing member”, “pleasure cave” and “love truncheon” in certain intimate scenes, but I cut most of those phrases, and only twice used “moist”, which I believe is a technical term in scenes of this kind – as technical as sine die is a courtroom scene.

One crucial element it missing: an appropriately romantic, legal, adventurous, dangerous title will not come to me, and I don’t know what to do. At this stage I’m leaning towards “Criminal Passions From The Courtroom To The Bedroom”, but I’m not sure if that works.

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Published in: on October 8, 2019 at 6:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Possum Man

Summer at our place is a hateful time of year, in which the only relief from the heat may be found in the lounge room, where the small, theoretically portable, and very loud, air conditioner is. This device makes watching TV or having a conversation a chore, as you need to compete with its mechanical rumble, but it’s the best solution for two people renting an old house which is falling down around them and their small menagerie of pets.

Only our big dog Domino can be easily heard over the air conditioner, when she vocalises a kind of whiney moan which has been known to go on for hours, increasing in intensity if hunger is present – and Domino is pretty much always hungry.

On the vilest Sydney summer days, sauna hot and lacking even the merest breeze for the illusion of comfort, the temperature remains high all night long. Even the lows are high, and then the sun comes out, early, and it begins to warm up all over again. On days like this the air conditioner doesn’t help much, and it was on one of these days that our story took place.

 

The suburb where we live, a place where we couldn’t possibly afford to buy, is leafy and sedate and has a profusion of brushtail possums, which like to eat foliage and lovingly tended flowers, and take advantage of the shelter afforded by large houses, with their eaves and roof spaces and other vacant areas roomy enough to accommodate a marsupial. At first you may hear the noise a possum makes – it’s a kind of roar, a surprisingly accurate way to describe the sound – or you may notice branches and greenery and hollowed out fruit begin to appear, scattered on the ground. Both indicate possums are around. But it’s the countless tiny, football-shaped pellets of shit, which may be walked into your carpets unawares, that tell you you’ve got a boarder.

A few possums have lived with us over the years. There was the one which scratched and called, very noisily, provoking ineffectual barks from our dogs in response. My partner Laetitia drove it away by turning the volume on the TV up to a deafening level one morning and leaving the appliance on for several hours. The animal was within a boarded up fireplace, where they always end up at our house, and therefore just on the other side of the wall. They desire a dry, safe place to sleep during the day, which means that their activities, their eating and pooing sorties, and the sounds they make, are nocturnal.

Another was found dead under the hydrangea in our front yard one rainy Saturday. It was my job to remove the body in a plastic garbage bag, an unpleasant job but still relatively comfortable work for me. Seen up close it’s always striking how handsome these animals are. They have a beautiful coat and piercing eyes and it’s tragic that an untimely end can result from their life in the human world.

And a third also made its home in the boarded up fireplace. When the sounds of activity went quiet and a smell came from that corner of the room it seemed reasonable to surmise that the creature had passed away. Fortunately it was winter then and this helped prevent the odour becoming unbearable.

 

On this summer day, though, the fragrance of decomposition which had been wafting from the direction of the fireplace picked up intensity until it could be smelled strongly throughout the house. It was overpowering to be near and it was almost impossible to spend any time in the lounge room.

A note of panic entered Laetitia’s voice: “What are we going to do?” She had already sprayed the special disinfectant spray which deodorises by destroying the particles of bad smell, a product we have found useful at times with our four cats. Laetitia sprayed more and then talked about using some tape around the outside of the board which had been fixed to the front of the fireplace. One of these strategies was about getting to the smell and neutralising it while the other was about preventing it from coming into the room – but the contradiction didn’t matter. We had to try something else.

I bought the only wide tape which was locally available. It wasn’t the best quality fabric tape which you can just rip off, but it wasn’t too bad, and I hurried home and started taping. It wouldn’t all stick down. Partly that was the tape, and partly it was that I was trying to stick it to surfaces wet with the spray.

While all this was going on, Laetitia picked up her friend, who had planned to spend the day with us. It was too unpleasant to invite her into the house, and so we decided to go to the local shopping centre, to get cool and make a plan about what to do next. It reminded me of when the principal characters all go to the Plaza Hotel in The Great Gatsby for no good reason:

“But it’s so hot,” insisted Daisy, on the verge of tears. “And everything’s so confused. Let’s all go to town!”

It is also the case that when I’m not coping very well in a situation one of my mental refuges is to think of a similar character or scene from literature as a way to not think about whatever horrid thing is actually happening.

Laetitia called a possum removing professional and made it clear that our problem was behind a wall, albeit a temporary one. The man spoke of methods to reduce the smell but made it clear that these are not terribly reliable.

He said he would come straight over and we drove home to meet him there.

We’d seen him before. He had removed a possum which had entered our dining room via another fireplace, this one unblocked, and become electrocuted when it crawled under the shade of an old standard lamp we had bought in a junk shop. I went into this room to pour a drink, and found myself face to face with a native animal, sitting perfectly still, but looking across the room at me. It seemed to move, very slightly, although I couldn’t be sure, and this meant several abortive attempts to dispose of the body, as I ran from the room, slamming the door, and yelping, “I think it’s alive!”

On his first visit, the possum man had smiled his big mad smile and stomped into the room and told us about the damage he’d seen possums do when pursued through domestic interiors. Then he focused on our problem. “It’s dead,” he said, walking over to it without a hint of fear. “Rigor mortis has started. You can smell it.” I felt silly for missing something so obvious but it didn’t matter: someone who knew what he was doing had taken charge.

In fact it wasn’t dead. It was stunned and squirmed a bit once I had helped the man put it into an old cat cage. The man wrapped it in a blanket first and said he would release it very humanely in a park near where he lived.

 

It didn’t matter that the man had been wrong then. He was confident and experienced and solved our problem, which was exactly what we needed now, in this stinking room, on this stinking hot day.

He took charge, removing the board from the outside of the fireplace, without asking, and I found myself holding open a garbage bag to take outside the skeleton and the more recently deceased body he found in the cramped space beneath the grate. When I returned he was hammering the board back into place with the butt of his heavy torch and a sense of calm started to return, like a drug entering your system.

It was all so quick.

We turned on fans in the room to dissipate the smell and went back to the shopping centre.

For some of us after the calm comes the doubt, as the anxious mind searches for the next possibility of drama. I hadn’t checked the nailing in of the fireplace board and couldn’t shake the idea that our cats might somehow escape from through this possible weakness in the wall. So I walked home in the heat to find out.

But of course it was secure. The possum man can do anything.

Published in: on August 17, 2019 at 3:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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GORDON URQUHART POSTCARD – After The Inquiry

“Treat inquiries of all sorts as if they were a minor vexation,” my mate Cameron used to say. I’ve known Cam for years. I went to school with his brother Dougal, who distributed my wine label for a while, and who allowed me to accompany him to Hobart one year when his maxi Panama Papers came in fourth.

Cameron has been before the Bar Association and has needed to argue himself into and out of bankruptcy at various times in his career as one of the titans of the Sydney business community. There were also a few interviews with the constabulary, who treated him very respectfully, which may have been something to do with his mention of an uncle who had been a Supreme Court judge, and it may have had nothing to do with that at all.

We studied law together at uni, Cameron and I, and invested in a few ventures after we had both decided that law lacked the challenges we could find in buying and selling companies.

He was always a great guy, very hospitable and really splendid company. I miss him but understand that sometimes people’s circumstances change and it’s often best to just accept the new reality. Besides, when Nancy and I are travelling we usually stop off in the Cayman’s and stay with him for a few days.

We were there in January. His golf swing is still immaculate.

Published in: on February 7, 2019 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The West of Sicily

sicily statue

Last year was crowded with incident, by my standards at least, and that, perhaps, is a reason why this blog has been neglected somewhat.

There are all the usual reasons why nothing has appeared here for some time, but none of them are worth really going into in any detail. Suffice to say things have been written, and submitted, and there have been quite friendly conversations with editors letting me down gently.

The highlight of 2018 was a trip to Sicily, meeting up with a friend during the six months he spent travelling, and driving around the Western part of Sicily for two weeks. My focus here, as always, will be with the literary aspects of this trip. But here is a picture of a beach we went to on the day after my arrival:

sicily beach

The water is incredibly blue, something which isn’t adequately captured in this photo, and it’s all like that, except when it’s simply unbelievably blue, somehow pale and bright at the same time. And swimming in the Mediterranean is something that I’m very glad my mate cajoled me into doing.

The food is exceptional and the people are friendly and it is a place well worth visiting, but when I return it might not be during the heat of July, which was taxing at times on a fair-skinned bloke who usually thinks of warm weather as something to hide from.

In some ways the story began before the idea had ever been raised by my wife Laetitia. I keep returning to Peter Robb’s book Lives, a series of biographical portraits, for the quality of the writing and because it can be a comfort when the my mind is too active and becomes a bit addled. It seemed a good idea to read more of his work and so I was given his Midnight in Sicily, which is about his time living in Palermo and going to places and meeting people all over the island. It’s part memoir and part history and part reportage as he traces the trial of the former Prime Minster Giulio Andreotti over his connections with organised crime. Again the writing is beautiful and I was reading this book when it was suggested that I do some travel and maybe meet my friend, if he was amendable to the idea.

He was, and planning swifly got underway. This process was daunting and exciting. It was an odd thing in some ways for Laetitia to suggest this, as I’m not really a natural traveller any more than she is, but I think she thought that flying overseas was something we wouldn’t be doing together very much as she she’s a nervous flyer. I’m more a nervous human than a nervous flyer, but by the time passports were issued and tickets bought the only thing to do was to just go, and I’m very grateful for her generosity in thinking of me in this way and helping me to make it happen.

I knew that the part of Sicily I was going to see had a lot of ruins and history and I’ve always been fascinated by the history of this place in any case. There are well-preserved Acient Greek temples and other remnants of the several civilsations which have been present on the island at some time over the last three thousand years or so. But, for me, preparation meant reading, and so I started with Sicily: A Short History, from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra by John Julius Norwich. It’s a fun book written by a serious and scholarly historian whith a very soft spot for the place. Having read it you want to read more, to know more, but it’s all there, albeit briefly – all the invasions and colonisations: Greek, Carthaginian, Byzantine, Roman, Norman, French and Italian. The Normans seemed most fascinating – their reign was multicultural and cosmopolitan, with Arabic and Byzantine influences in public administration and art and architecture – and this people seemed to interest the author too, for he wrote about their time in this part of the world earlier and in more detail, in The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun. But then he wrote about a lot of things over his long career, including Byzantium. Sadly John Julius Norwich died in 2018, but I shall be reading more of his works, when I can.

Of course there was a Lonely Planet guide and reading of that sort to do but I tried to follow up all the references which stood out and this meant fiction. The work of Leonardo Sciascia cropped up in a few places and so it seemed to right to have a look at him too. The Day of the Owl is a novella – he wrote short books, characterised by compressed expression and leaving out details he deemed to be not absolutely necessary – about organised crime and its investigation and the links to politics, and it is simply masterful. Sicilian Uncles is a collection of short stories worth a reader’s time. I want to read more of him.

It is often said that to understand Sicily one must start with The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a novel about the period immediately after the invasion of Garibaldi and the beginning of the process of unification of Italy. The story deals with the effects of these historical processes on a noble family, based on Lampedusa’s own ancestors, but it is about so much more than that and this was already one of my most treasured volumes. So I read it again.  My view of The Leopard was that it was a truly great work of art, and that view is unchanged after another reading (or two). It should be read by more people, even those who aren’t “studying” for their vacation to Sicily. Reading the story led to a desire to read the life and so David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: The Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa seemed to naturally follow. He was an odd man, in some ways, a quiet presence, even to those who knew him well, with a passionate interest in literature (particularly Shakespeare), and the fact that he created his work of genius late in life, and it was not published until after he died, is tragic but also gives hope to all those who feel like opportunities to make one’s mark are only given to the young. I have a volume of his Letters from London and Europe (1925-30) edited by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi which I look forward to reading.

My mate surprised me one day by taking us to Palma di Montechiaro, a town not on our itinerary, as some key events in The Leopard took place at locations based on buildings in the town.

This is the Mother Church:

sicily palma 2

And this is the Benedictine Monastery:

sicily palma 1

This brief visit to this small town was one of the most thoughtful acts of generosity that anyone has offered to me and I really couldn’t thank my friend enough. I’m still not sure if he knows what it meant to me.

While I was gone – swimming and climbing monuments and taking photos and eating splendid food – Leatitia held the fort, worrying for my safety and building several Ikea drawers and shelves, transforming the room we dress in (it’s also the room I’m writing this in now).

When I arrived home, Laetitia was waiting for me, with a scarf and gloves, as it was still winter in Sydney, and there was chilled Guinness and wine in the fridge and classical music playing in the refurbished dressing room on the new radio she had bought me, and I couldn’t tell her how much all these things meant and how much I had missed her. We hadn’t been apart for more than a day or two before this fortnight of separation.

The next overseas advanture should be together, and hopefully it will be somewhere with half as much history and art and reading and I won’t have to tell her about it because the experience will be shared. In the meantime, there is so much reading to do.

 

 

Remembrance Of Dinners Past

It’s funny how these memories come to you. Their source is unknowable yet the sensations are vivid, as if it hadn’t been decades since experiencing those feelings, being in those places and doing those things.

This time it was linked to food and specifically to dinner. I was thinking about some of the things I used to look forward to and even get a little excited about, when I knew my mum was cooking them. And then I was back there: the four of us – dad and mum, my sister and me – at the breakfast bar. On our plates were peas and baked beans and sausages (a thick, brown sausage, probably beef), and an egg (fried). Mum would ask if you were hungry enough for two eggs and it seemed that adults might have two, while kids should have one, but we were still given the option. The baked beans sauce merged onto the egg part of the plate but the yolk didn’t merge back because I used to eat the yolk first, having been told by an adult that it was the best part. This was the period when I developed a technique for cutting sausages which resist the sawing action of weaker childish hands. You stab the sausage first, with your knife, in the place where you mean to cut it, and then saw it through the cut part which now has compromised structural integrity to the extent that it is relatively easy for a five year-old to complete the job. I would apply tomato sauce to my sausages in the early part of dinner – in the feasting your eyes on the meal phase – and would eat the cut segments with huge satisfaction as we watched Doctor Who on the TV. The Daleks and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart were particular favourites of mine.

It may be that this only happened a few times. It may be that it happened once. But the strength of the collection of smells and sounds and the feeling of satisfaction, of happiness with the food and the TV show and with hardly a thought of school again the next day, was overwhelming, and I think that in that time and place I must have been happy.

Published in: on May 25, 2018 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Published: Mr Mu Narrative

I have a small piece of nonetheless rather pleasing news. A new literary journal called Cagibi, based in New York City, recently published an essay of sorts, written by me. It’s about Mr Mu, our departed feline companion, about his life and death and what happened next. It was refreshing to be allowed the space to write something of this length for publication and this would be a good place to thank the editors for their enthusiasm and support. Here’s a link: cagibilit.com/friends-of-mr-mu/

Published in: on April 23, 2018 at 7:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Generation With No Name

People Stand On The Berlin Wall

This hostorical perspective of a member of Generation X in Australia was offered to a number of publications with a certain confidence, but those who were offered the essay declined to run it, and so here it is.

Politics was in a shambolic state when some of us were born. The Dismissal had just happened, events of such moment they would be marked every year by debates, opinion pieces and re-enactments featuring versions of Sir John Kerr’s eighteenth century composer hairdo. Now that most of the dramatis personae have left us this anniversary doesn’t seem so urgent, but it is still discussed. Respect for the position of Governor General suffered. Politics became a hard game, played to win by a new breed of ruthless younger men intent upon replacing gentlemen legislators of a previous era.

In the 1970s terrorism was cool. Celebrity terrorists had appealing nicknames like Carlos The Jackal and their dreadful work was international. There were the PLO and the IRA and you couldn’t be considered a proper paramilitary organisation without an acronym. Although religion was sometimes a justification for atrocities, the operatives were secular in character. They wore headbands and open necked shirts with far too many buttons undone. They wore aviator shades and they drank and smoked and had girlfriends.

Things changed a bit in the early 1980s, when some of us started school. Labor won power, replacing a government which never really got over its role in the Dismissal. The task of modernising the economy continued under the stewardship of competent salesmen who taught us to understand economic graphs and use the terms they used in our own conversation. The dollar was floated, which modernised the economy a bit more.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led the US and the UK. To a little boy both seemed to be there forever in their quest to lead the free world in the struggle against the Evil Empire. There was excitement when the President revealed his Star Wars nuclear missile defence program, promising some kind of video game on a grand scale to defeat the Soviets,  at a fantastic cost, which somehow made it all the more exciting and likely, for America was huge and powerful and they could do whatever they wanted. We knew that the third and final Star Wars film was on its way, and wondered if there was any connection between the two. But the numbers were absurd and the plan had more showbiz than sense about it.

Meanwhile in both countries the poor were further disempowered as economies were forcibly modernised. Economists called these ideas “neo liberal” and they would soon be emulated by politicians in other parts of the world. Traditional factory jobs in traditional industries disappeared when it was realised that people in less-developed parts of the world could do them for even less money. This process was given the satisfyingly sophisticated name of globalisation, and presented as exciting, new and creative.

Free trade was a good thing, said all the countries which counted. There was no future in artificially propping up traditional industries with tariffs and duties. The market should be free and it should be independent and uninfluenced by governments. The alternative was Communism, which was no alternative at all. At the same time there were nightly reports on the news about what our entrepreneurs were doing. These men were heroes and we followed their hostile takeovers and mergers. Banks propped them up as their deals became riskier. Within fifteen years most of them were in gaol or bankrupt or had fled the country. Without them we would not have won the America’s Cup and Queensland would not have so many resorts.

Soviet news rarely reached us, but when we heard about the reactor malfunction in the town of Chernobyl it emphasised that the world was a dangerous place. Those of us who were about ten already knew that our lives would probably end in a nuclear war. Now we were reminded that it didn’t need to be a war: nuclear things could kill you. Sympathy for the victims was genuine – they didn’t seem like enemies at all.

But the adults didn’t let this worry them too much. They were busy being confident. In this era we focussed on the world, and thought we were good enough to be compared with anyone. This seemed right when the film Crocodile Dundee was a global hit for Paul Hogan. The stock market crashed in 1987, and this should have warned against the over-confident assumption of bottomless prosperity, but doubt was put to the back of our minds in the next year’s Bicentennial celebrations, where tall ships with advertising on their sales re-enacted the arrival of the First Fleet, and a deluge of government money poured into projects, some of which actually warranted it.

Some of us started high school at about this time and at this age thoughts naturally turn to adult things. But it was no longer easy to do the most natural thing in the world. No, AIDS would kill you if you had sex with anybody. The award-winning Grim Reaper advertising campaign emphasised that the disease would strike at random, that nobody was safe. Such were the new anxieties of our generation.

Soon the Berlin Wall came down and this happy occasion liberated the oppressed peoples of Europe, ending the Cold War. Except that now economic conditions were precarious: millions of Eastern workers desired their piece of the Western capitalist dream. China might be more economically open, but it was still an authoritarian regime with nuclear weapons, and many Soviet era warheads were still around.

The overall anxiety level had eased, but now we were anxious about the environment as well, particularly after the discovery of a hole in the Ozone layer and what the experts were calling the Greenhouse Effect. This hadn’t become a debate yet. It was a theory with a lot of evidence and we wrote essays about it in Geography exams.

In the early nineties there was a hot war. Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US led a coalition to stop their evil dictator, who was left in power because his regime was deemed stable enough to look after all the precious oil which the country produced. It was a brief war and some of us spent the last week or so of our Christmas holidays one year watching it like a TV show, which was entertaining enough if there was no cricket on. Australia was involved, as usual.

An economic recession resulted in many job losses and the failure of many businesses. It didn’t sneak up. We focussed on ourselves, laughed at nihilistic comedy, and were introspective as we regrouped and started again.

Interest rates were so high that you could make money just from having something in the bank. This meant that repayments on any kind of debt were crippling. Remedies adopted by politicians aimed to further modernise the economy. Economic rationalism was a phrase so overused as to be almost meaningless. It was the reason for everything. Government assets were sold and functions privatised, public service jobs were slashed and those who formulated these policies told us to trust them and said that if we took our medicine it would be good for us in the long run. An uncertain future called for advice, and the best advice said we should finish school, go to university, and get a good job. So we studied fearfully hard, hoping that things would improve.

At this time they started calling us Generation X, the cohort following the Baby Boomers, a mysterious group without a proper name who were said to be cynical. We had more than enough reason to be cynical in the ‘90s. Most of the certainties of the previous generation had been removed or were threatened. The social safety net had contracted, suicide was a growing problem, and traditional community values rejected kids who weren’t straight.

Within a few years the recession was a memory. Some of us had finished school and started university and saw protest everywhere. Everyone needed to work by this time, so marching had to be fitted in around holding down a regular job. But there were a lot of things to protest about and the number of things grew when the Coalition returned to office after many years in opposition. Government programs were cut and it was said that the user should pay.

At this time we turned on each other and pointed fingers at those who didn’t measure up to our Australian values. Comfortable members of the community begrudged assistance given those without their advantages. Once again, the economy needed to be modernised, this time with all stick and no carrot. And all in the name of achieving a budget surplus, the concept which enjoyed exalted significance as the only measure of financial responsibility everybody could understand.

Economic rationalism was pervasive. Efficiency dictated major restructuring in our winter sports, and after talks and mergers a few clubs disappeared altogether when experts tried to understand the world of culture and tribal allegiance in financial terms.

It was at about this time that some of us started losing touch with the fragmenting popular culture. Hollywood was dominated by special effects films with no plot and it became impossible to maintain contact with new music untainted by commercialism, so some of us decided not to bother any more.

We felt safer when strict gun laws were introduced, although it required the massacre of several tourists at Port Arthur by a mentally ill man with a semi-automatic rifle in order to bring about this reform.

As the 1990s drew to a close many parents bought big screen TVs, the newest status symbol, using government money designed to assist with new-baby expenses. It wasn’t the first appeal to parents. When government-owned bank and telecommunications companies were privatised “mum and dad investors” were encouraged to buy shares. The share market would keep going up forever, said braces-wearing experts on TV, sitting at their desks with Times Square in the background. Everyone was too eager to invest to consider that this wasn’t logical.

Aspiration was good and people were encouraged to improve their position by buying and selling. When this idea was applied to housing homes became regarded as a commodity rather than a place to shelter. We were told the value of real estate would never fall, and that this could only be a good thing.

Certain words took on a new importance: words like mateship and un-Australian and political correctness. When these words were used the message was about excluding people and disapproving of behaviour. Only a few years before the words had been Asia and reconciliation and republic, but some people grew tired of hearing those words and those people feared a multicultural future.

Words and symbols were important enough to be contested, and a disagreement of this type resulted in a failed constitutional referendum, which meant that Great Britain’s monarch remained our head-of-state.

It was a self-absorbed way to end the 1990s, but before long the Olympic Games were here and we revelled in being at the centre of the world. A lot of money was spent in anticipation of the festival and we congratulated ourselves that if we could do this well we could do anything. But the euphoria didn’t last. In the years following, economic confidence flagged in the Olympic city, as it does in all host cities after the games have ended.

We were a small demographic group, outnumbered by our seniors and soon to be overwhelmed by those reaching adulthood in the twenty-first century.  Some of us were working full-time by now, and had our heads down. Experience had taught us to take nothing at face value, especially if the story seemed too good to be true, and this meant we trusted politicians less.

Within a year a boatload of refugees bound for Australia had been picked up by a Norwegian vessel and promptly refused asylum when the rescuing captain attempted to have them accepted here. This event encouraged those who didn’t like the idea that anyone might be given special treatment, especially if they were from countries which did not share our values. The concept of queue jumping was used to buffer prejudiced views, but within a few weeks terrorist attacks on famous buildings in New York and Washington meant that you didn’t need to hide racist assumptions any more. Most arguments could now be reduced to us versus them.

Until this point the US president, the son of another US president, had been a figure of fun. Afterwards he was still considered a buffoon by everyone except the sizeable number of Americans who believed that domestic security could be strengthened by reducing civil rights and interfering militarily in Iraq. These people voted for him again four years later. World leaders who should have known better were complicit in his rather naive plan to bring peace to the Persian Gulf and gain control of its oilfields, and they joined in. Australia helped, as we always do.

The War on Terror was underway and we were told it would be a more successful enterprise than the War on Drugs, which had been attempting to destroy the international narcotics trade for decades.

At about this time, some of us decided that we needed to carry all of the music we had ever owned with us at all times, and luckily Apple made a sophisticated device for that. Personal entertainment had come a long way since Space Invaders and PacMan in the ‘80s, but strangely it was just that type of crude arcade game that we played on even more sophisticated devices – when we weren’t looking at pictures of cats or food or our friends’ over-achieving offspring – and you could make phone calls with them too.

Politics changed when the long-serving government was defeated and there was bold talk about the environment for the first time in a while. It didn’t last though. An apology to indigenous people was derided as both potentially dangerous and a hollow symbolic gesture, while the notion that a government might attempt to address the connection between pollution and climate change was ridiculed. Some of us had a serious girlfriend at this time, and our focus was on other things, but it was clear that politicians were less constructive than ever.

Citizens had lost faith in the system to the extent that elected representatives were no longer allowed time to learn their jobs. Just as voters turned on their politicians so politicians turned on each other, replacing elected leaders in the hope of improving opinion polling numbers, and this whole process did nothing to improve the quality of governing. Somehow in this period of instability Australia was affected only slightly by the Global Financial Crisis. The reasons for this are disputed, but may have had something to do with massive amounts of wasted money or prudent management of the economy.

Terrorism proliferated. The names of the organisations changed but the grievances and methods of dealing with them were the same. Religious zealots with a hatred of our society proved a formidable foe, yet we still refused to understand them.

We were living in bigger houses and talking less to our neighbours and had never been as incurious. We doubted medical advice about having our children vaccinated and gave them bizarre first names. And whenever asylum seekers arrived by boat they were treated as if they had done something illegal.

The future we had hoped for seemed unlikely to eventuate and the political present had turned very strange. Amid plots and feuding the Queen’s husband was given a knighthood. Some of us still rented the house we lived in, with no prospect of buying our own, and our more successful friends were doing obscure jobs in finance which were really about making rich older clients richer. Some of us got married to our sweethearts as an argument broke out between Baby Boomers, our predecessors, and Millenials, the cohort after us – a misunderstood group, as we had been, said to be disengaged, but at least with their own name. The two groups traded insults while we looked on.

And the kids who didn’t study hard and go to university but instead left school early and ignored the knowledge economy found themselves as tradesmen and women with golden economic prospects. Their response to the modernising economy was shown to be the right one. It made a few of the rest of us who had followed the sensible path wonder if we had wasted our time.

Those of us who were about forty might have had very little to believe in, but at least we had our heroes – until a huge number of them were swept away in the cultural holocaust of 2016. Then the Brexit and Trump election results showed us what a future shaped by traditional values might look like.

Sorting human beings into groups is necessary in order to understand our society, and our society has changed a good deal since some of us were born in the mid-1970s. The Millenial influence grows as they mature but ageing Boomers continue to shape our culture while they hold on to their positions of power.

Younger people, more than the rest of us, are deeply offended by prejudice and feel strongly about same sex marriage. We can only hope that their view prevails on this and many other issues1, for their commitment to social justice is genuine and this country would benefit from a little more generosity now.

For them to change the world they must not follow their elders, as we did, but assert themselves and create new Australian values for a more decent Australia.

 

1 In the postal survey on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry Yes prevailed with 61.6% of the vote.

A Very Short Story About A Man Named Donald

The literary magazine Meanjin decided to mark the expansion of Twitter messages from 140 to 280 characters by holding a little competition. The idea was to write a story within the new word limit. My entry, on the @Turdenmeier account, can be read here: https://twitter.com/Turdenmeier/status/928130682555056129

 

Published in: on November 13, 2017 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Saved By A Book For Adults

About a month ago I was going to bed on a Sunday night and realised that I wasn’t feeling the usual resentful, despairing feeling at bedtime on a Sunday night – I’m exhausted and won’t be able to sleep well, I’ll feel worse when I get up early tomorrow morning, weekends are always too short, I didn’t rest this weekend, I didn’t write enough this weekend, other people seem to be happier than I am, I don’t want to go back to work – but instead I felt sad. Outright sad. I could have cried.

There was a big week coming up for me and I was scared that some of the components might not work out properly. Dad would be in hospital and mum would be in respite care at a nursing home and I was scared, I suppose, about all the things which might go wrong, and unwilling to face up to my responsibilities, which I knew would pile up a bit, on a week like this.

As it happens everything went well. Both parents were home together again on the weekend. But it was only days later – weeks possibly – that I understood something deeper about what I was feeling. I’ve written elsewhere that my journey to work and back must be largely taken up by reading, or else I can feel mentally unsettled and even grumpy. If I don’t read on the train I’m usually very worked up by something.

Now I realised that the reading material itself could have an impact. You see a friend of mine had leant me a book of the kind I don’t normally read. It was all explosions and escapes from certain death as the main character and his allies saved the world. The plot was somewhat convoluted and involved several groups of bad guys, all planning to kill the hero, and the deaths of many minor characters, often in spectacular ways (heads exploding when high-powered bullets struck them was very popular). This story would make an excellent film. It would be a little silly but there would be one-liners and the destruction of sophisticated military hardware and the good guys would win in the end. But it was exhausting to read. This means that fans of this kind of book undoubtedly felt that their desire for more improbable plans and races against time, more action, was delivered. But I found it really difficult to read.

It was difficult to read because there was little respite between the action sequences but mainly because it was all plot and very little character. There were no examples of reading a sentence and thinking, “That was beautiful. I’ll read it again slowly.” There was nothing to savour. There was no poetry, although the story had been assembled very artfully indeed.

And I’m not criticising this kind of book. Not at all. It just isn’t really for me. It was big and fat and heavy and when I was reading it I was thinking about other things I could have been reading. And this absence – the absence of what I usually read and what it does for me – was I think partly responsible for the seriously melancholy mood which set in. I had no release. The appreciation of beauty provides a release. But I also lacked the psychological interest in characters who act and speak in ways which can’t be predicted.

And there were such books to read. When Laetitia and I were on leave recently we went silly at a very good second-hand bookshop just out of Sydney. I was particularly pleased with my haul, which includes biographies of Proust and Evelyn Waugh, Mr. Norris Changes Trains to go with Goodbye To Berlin on the shelf (a book I’ve been looking for for years), EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which I’ve been dipping into when I get a few minutes spare and have been loving, and a handful of cricket books by the great cricket writer Neville Cardus.

Mr. Norris is finished now and was excellent and I wonder why people don’t seem to talk much about Isherwood. In any case, it was a book for adults, and it hit the spot and I’m feeling much better now.

Published in: on September 27, 2017 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Published & A Work In Progress Update

It has been a number of months since I have written anything here and there’s Mozart on the radio, so here goes. In fact, there isn’t really the time to do other writing work and one really ought to be efficient enough to use all available free time, so that’s a reason for this too.

Last time I was saying that I would try to get some non-fiction published. The truth is that I knew one piece was about to appear in (virtual) print, in a literary e-journal, and that another thing I had written was likely to be published on a website. The second piece had already been delayed and more delays were to come. For something written in the last quarter of 2016, and accepted well before Christmas, it did seem that waiting until May for it to appear was a longer wait than expected. But these things happen.

The first essay, a personal essay as they say, is about my family and me and why I’m not exactly a wacky funster and why it’s all their fault. Of course it’s not all their fault. And I’m not without wacky and fun. Life is rich and varied and no experience is normal. Also, an essay like this is necessarily partial, in that it’s my viewpoint, and others would see the same events differently, but also in that if I had written about the same upbringing years in a different context then the result would have read very differently too. In any case, the thing is available to read (for a fee) here: http://tincture-journal.com/2017/02/26/issue-seventeen-table-of-contents/

The second essay was something I wrote quite quickly when I had pitched something unsuccessfully to an editor who liked what I wrote enough to enjoy it but not to publish it. Which is fine. It was a very good reaction. So I thought, “I’ll write something you can publish then” and I began writing about what I knew and that was about catching the train to work in the morning and before I knew it there was a short essay about some of the less well-known aspects of the history of Sydney. I was still surprised that she liked what I wrote and not a little chuffed that she accepted it. The support through the editing process was invaluable, and turned something a bit unfocussed into something with a point to make, if perhaps a subtle one. The editing of the first piece was similarly a fruitful and more than worthwhile experience, and once again my admiration for editors should be recorded here.

The second essay, the train one, may be read (free) here: http://goingdownswinging.org.au/dark-tunnels/

Our time has been taken up largely by issues stemming from the family of pets who share our house with us, which has grown and now numbers two dogs and three kittens. Regular readers will be aware that our legendary cat Mr Mu finally succumbed to his many sicknesses after living to a great age at the beginning of the year. After a period of months without a cat in our lives a number of remarkable feline things happened over a few weeks, involving joy and tragedy and a very steep learning curve. It’s been fun and I’m writing about it, on an off, an essay which has already reached gargantuan proportions and is only about two thirds written.

And there are other things to work on. Some are nearing completion and are being shown to people and others make the amount of progress you would expect when you take a break from working on something: not much. But I’ll tell you any news of those projects when it comes to hand.

Published in: on June 26, 2017 at 8:38 pm  Leave a Comment