Call me Denis

“Call me Denis you fuckers!”

My sister and I hadn’t seen Mr Stanley since he was our junior school teacher fifteen years ago.  We’d been calling him Mr Stanley, I think partly because he caught me by surprise.  He had come upon me suddenly and I had called him that by some instinct.  But also, and I can’t speak for my sister here, for some Machiavellian retribution.  His position of authority was gone and now he was just a teacher.  And perhaps, even, he was subservient to us – campaign HQ. Anyhow, he hadn’t liked it very much and had invited us to call him Denis, actually. 

Denis was ‘holding down Stanhope’ and had quickly become a campaign icon.  The small town was now awash with our colours and we’d just taken our candidate out to the Politics in the Pub event he’d organised.  With his fiery beard now white he’d filtered through the crowd rubbing his hands and looking busy – handing out campaign buttons and adjusting the balloons just so.  The campaign was in its closing stages and we all knew it would be close.  Mr Stanley especially knew and would come to every event. 

On election day Camille and I were touring the polling booths to boost morale.  We took the route out to Stanhope even though it was one of the smallest booths.  Denis had laid our colours on thick and was handing out how to vote cards in the midst of one of the largest crew of volunteers organised for any booth.  As we drove out of town our candidate’s face peered from behind every window and our banners flapped from the bunting.  

In the evening we’d set up HQ with our results beaming instantaneously to two big screens, one in the amphitheatre of the convention centre we were in, another in the town square of the electorate’s largest city.  I was on the phone as the results were called in.  Booths we won were greeted with a cheer that washed into the small room and filled it with energy.  As the counting began to finish the results started to come quickly and a steady stream of places and numbers flowed from the two phones.  All of a sudden I was on the phone to Denis.

‘Denis calling in from Stanhope.  We’ve won it 89 votes to 64.’

The roar that came in from the other room filled the night with an improbable optimism.  Denis had taken Stanhope.  How could we possibly lose.

   

Knights of the Outback

1

Classical music is the best thing for the early morning.  The presenter on the radio is speaking softly, with diction.  The slow clarinet rises gently above the orchestra as the little breath of hot air clears a space in the thick frost on the windscreen.  The car idles patiently, waiting for my view to clear.  Outside it is still dark and the thick fog softens my headlights.  From the main road the gravel tracks take me between hard grazed paddocks protected by leaning, rusty, barbed wire fences.  The tandem trailer drifts behind the ute.  The two empty water shuttles catch the backdraft and the trailer skittles across the red dirt. Out the rear view mirror the leafy stems of tree seedlings drift to and fro as I cut through the heavy morning mist.

The Hazari workers are already at the padlocked gate when I get there.  We have been restoring the old farmland for the last month; planting trees into the hard, dry ground.  They are always early. The car is a white hatchback and the men sit jammed together ignoring the discomfort and cracking jokes and laughing.  Throughout the day the four men work steadily, digging holes in cracked clay with blunt shovels.  I water in the new seedlings but the cracked earth doesn’t hold the water.  The dry ground sucks it up into large fissures that pull the water away to someplace deeper.  By 9 am we have planted a small patch of trees and the mist has burnt off.  The day becomes hot and clear.

2

It is nice to listen to a story as we work.  Ali was telling me his story as we fixed the fence to keep the sheep from eating the new trees.  The job was an easy one and our actions fell into routine as his voice rose and fell along with our work.  His story was like this:

I was born in Uruzgan provence, in Afghanistan.

When I was five we left Afghanistan and went to Pakistan as refugees.

It was very dangerous for us, because we are Hazaris.  Our religion is Muslim, but the Taliban say we do not follow the true religion.  We do not believe in hiding women.  Where in the Koran does it say that?  When I was five my family went to Pakistan and we were in a refugee camp for 17 years.  My family are still there.  Did you hear about the bomb that killed 130 people one month ago? That was on the block where my family live.  It is very dangerous for my family.  When I talk to my family I tell them that in Australia religion doesn’t matter.  You can be Hazari, or Christian or such and it doesn’t matter.  People will leave you alone.  I am trying to bring my family to Australia so I am working very hard.  Do you know Wagga Wagga?  I have sent for a job in Wagga Wagga to work at a meat factory.  It will be full time work and I can work very hard.  I was a business-man in Pakistan, but I had to leave everything behind.  My family had to leave everything behind twice:  when we left Afghanistan, and when I left my businesses in Pakistan.  I owned two shops, a grocery shop and a clothes-making shop.  The police started asking for money, not just me, but everyone.  So I gave them some money.  Then they came back next month and asked for more money.  The police in Pakistan are very corrupt.  There was nothing we could do because we were refugees in a refugee camp.  I had to close my businesses and started to come here.  My wife is in Pakistan still.

When I left I came to Malaysia, then was in detention in Indonesia for a year.  Then I took a boat to Christmas Island.  It is very dangerous.  Many people have died.  Did you see the boat with over 100 people drowned?  In Darwin I was in detention for 3 years.  That is why I can speak English.  When I got out I didn’t know what to do.  There were some Hazaris here and people said there was a lot of work, but there is not much fruit picking this year.  I can become a citizen after four years on a protection visa.  It has already been two years.  It is very flat here and I miss the mountains and the snow.  We do not have fences like this in Afghanistan.  We walk the sheep to the pastures and a boy watches over them.  It has been five years since I have seen my family.

3

At lunch we sit in a circle.  The Hazaris sit on the mats from the floor of the car to protect themselves from the sharp copper burr.  Sitting across from me is Mirza, his droopy eyes and broad flat face constantly breaking into a smile and his round stomach stretching the buttons of his shirt.  His friends are immune to his chuckling but I can’t help smiling along.  Sitting next to me is Ali, with a serious face: a strong jawline and thick moustache – an eastern Robert Redford perhaps.  Mirza has a beanie sitting askew on his head.  It has the insignia of the local primary school emblazoned on the side; poverty can be conspicuous in the most amusing ways.  He smiles and hands me a cup of tea with a candy and pushes the bowl of lentils towards me.

4

Mark had gone away on holidays for a month, and I was filling in.

“I’ve got a bit of a conflict of interest”, he’d said before heading off.

“You see, those Punjabi guys are hard workers.  Because most young blokes you get around here are real lazy.  But they’re boat people.  And I don’t like boat people.  You see it’s a bit of a conflict of interest?”  It wasn’t really a conflict of interest.  And they were from Afghanistan and not Punjab.  It was hard to hold anything against Mark though.  Especially out here.  The red dirt and isolation made people distrustful.  Mark wasn’t nasty, but there was something malicious that had rubbed off onto him.  Sue and I had organised an Indigenous awareness day, and Mark had been there.  You could see him working hard to do things right, shaking hands with an awkward smile fixed on his face.  Later we’d taken a ride and we’re hailed down by a retired farmer.  We got out of the ute and the old man hunkered over to us, a sour smell lifted off of his polyester clothes.  His face had split into a leery grin revealing a set of black teeth, “Heard you blokes were having some Abbo day.”  I went and sat in the car and turned the radio up while Mark and this tufted haired fellow leant in close to one another, grinning and nodding.

5

The moon was pushing up through a thin layer of red dust that hung low in the air as I drove back to Melbourne.  The local news was playing on the radio.  A man wearing a suit of armour and menacing folks with a sword was loose in one of the local caravan parks.  I’d been staying in a caravan park and I wondered whether it was my one.  I could imagine the man stepping out of one of the derelict permanent caravans, perhaps taking in some stretches, before stalking the caravan park crying out for challengers.   Things sure were different out here.  I was heading back to inner city Melbourne, back to my friends who where lawyers, teachers, musicians and activists; to be comfortably enveloped by my people.

The quiet street

I can see right into the lane from my window.  And people can look back at me as I’m sitting at my desk.  People stop as they walk by and smile at me like they would if I were sitting at a park bench just waiting.  Because they have seen me, and have caught my eye, they  acknowledge that they have seen with, perhaps a smile or a nod.  But it’s a bit odd to be acknowledging men who are sitting at their desk inside their room.  Who walks the streets peering into people’s room?  This thought normally comes second and the initial smile of acknowledgement pops into a look of confusion.  As if to say – ‘shit’.  I can smile and release them back into the street.  Or I can raise my eyebrows, as if to say “now I’ve caught you”.  

Melbourne is good from a inside a room that looks out onto a quiet street.

The the girl from next door could walk past.  And perhaps it would be late at night and I’d have had a drink or two as I sat at my desk.  And I would be thinking of going to bed and she would walk by and stop and smile.  She would just rub her fingers against the glass because she knew I knew that it would be her and I could look up.  I would look up slowly so I could think of something to say, but I would only smile.  And she would rest her fingers on the window and i would smile and look up from my books.  I would get up and lean over to open the window and ask her something.  Then I would tell her how I’d been inside at my desk and she would tell me where she had been: working, with her friends, drinking cocktails at her friend’s bar.  Then she would say that she was tired and had to get a slice of toast and go to bed.  

You can see the piano from the lane as well.  I would play in the summer with the window open wide, the notes drifting out into the day, lifted by the hot eddies that rose from the hot pavement, the music carrying down the lane to the child care centre.  I could play chopin nocturnes badly and the music carried a long way in the warm air.  But when I first met her it was winter and I was wearing my green shirt.  It was raining outside and I was playing a nocturne badly.  She knocked on the window.  I was not expecting a knock on the window so I kept playing and so she knocked again.  

But I was going to tell you about some other things and I got caught up in how she was standing in the rain knocking at the window.  At that time there were rallies all across the world.  And also there were revolutions in the middle east.  

But it’s nice to be in Melbourne with a room looking out onto a quiet street.

West of nowhere USA

‘G’day’, that’s how I start.  Up high with a buoyant G, sending the D down into the lower register before ending with an upward inflection.  G’day.  Then I could lean in with my country smile, or lean back with my thumbs in my belt buckle for a belly laugh.  I can turn anyone’s ear but could really knock ‘em out in America.  We were on a road trip, my sister and I, on the back roads west of nowhere USA.  I’d lean in over coffee shop counters to aproned waitresses and get an extra large slice of pie.  ‘G’day’, and I’d get a free Smokey the Bear Frisbee from the park ranger.  ‘G’day, nice fish you’ve caught there’, and I’d be cooking  one for dinner.  In the country they loved to chat, and so do I.  We drove through Oregon, high along the coastline until the fog, rolling thick off the rough ocean, drove us inland to the mountains.  We stayed in old saloons with swinging doors and crystal wine glasses.  We drove through redwood forests and swam in icy rivers flowing from snow-capped mountains.  But chatting was the best.

There seemed to be only three radio stations: Preacher Joe, Christian rock, and top 40 pop.  We would flick inanely between them and let the open windows wash the sound away.  Preacher Joe would rev me up in the car and by the time I strolled into the diner I was a Christian in full song, and so was everyone else.  We could chat about family, America, the orchards, the mountains …  But there were some things we couldn’t talk about out there, and those smiles would suddenly disappear if my conversation wandered into forbidden territory, with a narrowing of the eyes, the mood changing like the shadows of clouds sweeping before the sun.

The rain never falls on the dusty Mallee

ImageTo hear a badly abused word repulses me; epic for instance.  When I want to use them, I find I just can’t.  When I was a teenager I used to go camping  in the Snowy Mountains with my great-uncles.  I was surprised to hear them describe rivers, landscapes, cliffs etc as unreal – where they up to date with my teenage idiom?  They used the word with such septuagenarian sincerity and I was sure that they were entirely ignorant of its current popularity, and so the word held an honesty.  In this way I’d like to use the word epic.

Winter in the Mallee.  The sun’s still there, relentless, but further away at this time of the year, and there is a winter moisture in the air.  It was sucked out of the ground from somewhere else; there is little here.  The clouds hang above the flat red landscape, hugging low and billowing upward – epic.  Here and there the dark mass reaches down to touch the ground briefly.  The drift of rain swaying across the land.  It drops a few spots on the windscreen and the ground is immediately slippery.  I’m carrying three tonnes of water behind me on the tandem trailer and I can feel it begin to reach and pull behind me.  I’m deep in the shadow of the cloud but am offered little rain as it rushes off to another place.  It joins the many others heading east.  The task at hand remains urgent and I continue watering my plants as they pull at the dry soil.  No rain today, but those clouds are epic.

Down and Out in Paris and London

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When reading Down and Out in Paris and London my immediate intention was to run this memoir up against another of struggling younger writer of the same era.  But just now, I can’t find my copy of Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast so will let the matter reside after some quick observations.  Hemingway wrote his memoir during the later years of his life – it was published posthumously – after perfecting his limpid, crisp prose; a sharp contrast to the early, unsettled attempts of a younger Orwell.  The awkward phrasing in Down and Out in Paris and London stands out without need of comparison, however: ‘fate seemed to be playing a series of extraordinary unamusing jokes’, was a favourite clanger, and there was a ‘bitter cold’ cliché that stood removal.  In stumbling over some of these over-polished phrases one is drawn to a statement made by Orwell himself, ‘I am not a novelist’.  In fact, he had to work damn hard to turn himself into one.  Down and Out in Paris and London is remarkable as the first step in this process.  The first glimmerings of his analogy and metaphor are hidden in observations like this description of British hotels that ‘stare from the English coast like idiots staring over an asylum wall’.  But it is perhaps, unfair to judge an Orwell novel on its prose style, for his esteem is built not on this, but rather, on incisive social analysis.  In Down and Out in Paris and London we see the formative tender attempts at social analysis hidden in the rude structure of the novel.  Starting off as a gentle memoir, the novel finishes more like a dissertation with the second half of the novel punctured by musings on social equality.

Becoming Down and Out

The story of how a purportedly awkward, Eton educated, erstwhile public servant ended up as a fighter in the Spanish Republican army and a writer of subversive political polemics is a curious one, the crux of which might be found in Down and Out in Paris and London.  In the earlier, Parisian section of Down and Out in Paris and London – a section written a good time prior to the London section – Orwell lets slip his position of privilege as the Eton boy slumming it ‘a bug runs down your forearm … [and] falls plop! Straight into the milk.  There is nothing for it but to throw the milk away …’  The privilege of wasting food and avoiding shame – finding yourself short of money at the bakery – is ironed out of a ‘down and out’ Orwell in Britain and here one trusts his assessment of himself as ‘at last genuinely down and out’.

Politics

The comparison between Orwell and Hemingway can, for interest’s sake, also be used as an introduction to Orwell’s politics.  Fighting in the Spanish Civil War was an experience common to both, and was a crucial moment in the fermentation of Orwell’s disillusion with the Stalinist regime.  However, at the time of writing, Orwell laid claim to no political pretensions: ‘Tell me, mon ami, have you any political opinions? ‘No,’ I said’.  Looking back on the body of his work, there can be no doubt that Orwell was in fact, as his friend Cyril Connolly famously stated, a ‘political animal’.  The incipient glimmerings of Orwell’s politics are hidden in this, his first novel, despite his claims to the contrary.  In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell’s politics are evident as a form of socialist romanticism, with images of the heroic poor hinting at the early presence his later adherence to some form of Fabian socialism, ‘from six to twelve he sat on his bed, making a dozen pairs of shoes and earning thirty-five francs; the rest of the day he attended lectures at the Sorbonne.  He was studying for the Church, and books of theology lay face-down on his leather-strewn floor.’  Besides his life long dedication to a socialism that meant ‘ justice and liberty with the nonsense stripped out of it’, Orwell had a definite hatred of any and all authoritarian politics, represented in his description of the caste system of the Hotel X and the subjugation of the working poor: ‘a ‘smart’ hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want’.  In the end, Orwell’s politics could be aptly described in two quotes hidden in his letters and rifled out in an essay by Simon Leys (in The Intimate Orwell):’ The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries, but between authoritarians and libertarians’ and his observation that the first duty of a socialist is to fight totalitarianism, which means ‘to denounce the Soviet myth, for there is not much difference between Fascism and Stalinism’.   Down and Out in Paris and London suggests nothing as incisive as this, but sermonises loudly on questions of inequality and the righteousness of the wealthy, this soliloquy from the upper class acting as an example: ‘we know that poverty is unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of its unpleasantness.  But don’t expect us to do anything about it.  We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition.  We feel that you are much safer as you are.  The present state of affairs suits us, and we are not going to take the risk of setting you free, even by an extra hour a day.  So, dear brothers, since evidently you must sweat to pay for our trips to Italy, sweat and be damned to you.’  Such blunt and long-winded analysis disappears from Orwell’s later work, to be replaced with the thinly veiled, sardonic criticisms of authoritarian regimes.

Finally

Orwell’s politics are more clearly defined elsewhere; his excellent essays, and the collection of his letters, for example.  But the beauty of Down and Out in Paris and London is its prescience; watching a young Orwell scratch for a rhythm and a voice is rewarding, and the book is the perfect reading companion to his most famous final novels: Animal Farm and 1984 respectively.  An example of Orwell’s blunt youthful reasoning will here, serve as a good close: ‘The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit’.

Virginia Woolf and the crowing rooster

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‘When I want something to be obvious I repeat it many times’.  My housemate had asked me a question, and I cannot remember what it was, but my response had been mundane and I went on with what I was doing.  She’d thought about it for a time, turning her face down.  Having found something in it which she’d liked she’d hugged me.  The startling response seemed disproportionate for the quotidian statement.  Well, that’s what I do.  Not to repeat the same thing in different ways, but to keep coming back to a thing, picking it up and studying it to find that it is still the same thing.  No, not quite the same thing; the same statement but with more invested.  Like the magician constantly inviting a check of the sleeves.  Firstly, there is nothing there – of course for he has done nothing.  The second time there is nothing where you expect there to be the five juggling balls.  And the third and fourth time that the empty sleeves are displayed one really is impressed.   At the time, my housemate’s unexpected gratitude had puzzled me, and I wondered whether my advice was sound, genuine.  I am not a writer, yet I’d given advice that was now to be worked into an English thesis.

But a gentle reflection builds confidence: just as the magician’s successive bare sleeves build acclaim, the successful writer imbues her phrases with gathering meaning.  I have, just now, finished reading Virginia Woolf’s long essay A room of ones own.  In the first instance the major and minor themes are introduced: a room of ones own and 500 dollars a month, and the sententious superiority of the male intellectual: that the female be reprimanded for her treading on the grass, that she not be permitted in the library etc.   But what does a room of one’s own really mean.  The reader understands the statement, but it is trivial: ‘yes, yes, a room of one’s own and … let’s have a profound statement on female fiction’.  At the closing of the last page, this bland statement carries 100 pages of carefully prepared baggage, which is packed simply with repeating symbols: the female is reprimanded for treading on the grass and she is not permitted in the library.  A mundane statement has been made profound.

Repetition is used throughout the writing for more than this practicality.  It is comforting to the reader to see the same things described: to have the season described (it is autumn); that the willows are still there; that the poems of Tennyson and Rossetti are often relevant; and that a meal either does or doesn’t ‘engage the lamp in the middle of the spine’.  In thinking of the romance of repetition my mind automatically strays to Roland and his horn.  His reckless bravery escalates each moment that he thinks to blow his horn but does not, until that climactic moment that comes too late.  Repetitions across works carry special reward for the reader.  One can delve into the essays of Virginia Woolf and look forward to her descriptions of a London street.  Reading A room of one’s own I recall the dark and cold of London; I go back to a passage from another of her essays:

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-springkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.

A room by the street

The piano catches a soft spot, fading into the warmth of the early autumn day.  Here it rises on an eddy off the black asphalt and carries into the child care centre across the way.  Trace the trail of the misplaced notes of a Chopin nocturne back to the open window.  A whiff of incense might invite you to turn and notice the ill dressed young woman, slender body draped across the piano.  I’d moved into the front room of the house last winter; when the old terraced house leans out and captures the coldest of Melbourne’s weather to store until spring.  Since then I’d filled the room with pictures and prints, Guatemalan and indian blankets, a piano, and milk crates stacked high with books; the room had gathered me in.  A neurotic, obsessive, tactless student – exploring the world through the internet and books, and gently residing.  What will happen next?

On eating a rabbit (part 3)

When I was 19 years old, I worked at a piggery in a near bye town for one university summer holiday.  It was a summer that exhausted optimism.  I inured myself to the benighted pigs eating one another alive and wondered how  I could do this work?  Waking at 5.30 every morning, I’d drive down from the hills and along the flat one-lane roads and dirt tracks to the piggery.  The smell, the enormity of the piggery, the concentration of porcine bodies and muck; the sound of squealing pigs would carry from the iron sheds and across the empty paddocks in fitful bursts.  Each hot summers day I’d work in the sheds.

Mondays were the worst.  Left in the sweltering shed all weekend, pockets of foul miasma identified dead bodies.  Each dead pig was trodden into a sodden carpetbag by the marching of 40 indifferent hooves.  The flesh slipped down the skin as I picked up the body; a slick black slime enveloped the carcass if it had been by a drink tap.  Monday morning I’d heft three or four of these corpses, disfigured and with bulbous eyes, out for the collection truck.  But I was inured:  steel cable through mouths,  branding with fierce blows from a needled mace, crunched skulls with the sledgehammer and  the brains of sickly piglets laid bare on the pavement, with solemnity, with regularity.  And the pigs, what difference did it make: in close proximity they trampled the sick underfoot; ate the weak – through the tail, through the rump, into the spine.  To see a pig drag its useless hind legs across the slats, a compelling black hole where the pink, bristled rump should be.  I could do it because it was sanctified.  Consumers knew about industrialised farming – chicken, pork, beef – and it was Ok, everyone knew, and everyone said yes.

But I think now that I was wrong.  People should know, but they choose not to.

On eating a rabbit (Part 1)

My housemate has been a vegetarian for a long time, but she has, just now, started walking around the house with a compilation of Peter Singer’s essays under her arm.  I’ve never been a vegetarian, but have never challenged the logic; it’s always seemed an eminently sensible stance.  The reading of Peter Singer gave rise to an impromptu discourse as we sat enjoying separate lunches in our garden, the outcome of which was her willingness to attempt a situation based vegetarianism.  That is, vegetarianism for all instances, except the following one, which I had proposed: eating a rabbit pie from rabbits that I’d shot on our small farm in North East Victoria.  Very well, now I had to procure the rabbits, and as my housemate reviews and upgrades her ethics on the eating of animals, perhaps I should too (without the help of Singer for now).

I was heading back to the valley where I’m from, for Easter.  North East Victoria offers a panoply of bucolic delights in April: the first flush of green pushes through, the days are long, and the sun is warm and constant.  It is a perfect time for re-treading the old trails of my boyhood.  Good Friday afternoon found me marching down the hill with my small rifle slung over the shoulder and a pocket full of bullets.  I remember my first attempts at shooting with my Grandpa’s old open sight rifle.  I’ve never had any legerdemain and my shooting has remained clumsy.  Bad shooting, when combined with a bad gun, is an unlucky combination for the rabbit.  Aiming for the head or chest, my mark was often wide and I’d have to scamper across to a squealing rabbit, shot in the legs or gut, to break its neck.  The unholy sound always brought a curtain of guilt down on me; opprobrium for having broken a sort of contract between myself and the rabbit – shoot straight or deal with these, the grotesque and manifold panics and terrors of my painful death (or something like that).  Intimate encounters of this kind were often cause for reflection; the look of sheer terror in the rabbit’s eyes as I pulled to break its neck seemed to demand it.  By what right did I wander around with my gun blasting at the native rabbits and foxes?  My train of thought in such instances was well established and normally concluded with rational ecological arguments.  Being responsible for the introduction of these pests into Australia, and their insidious destruction of our native ecosystems, it is incumbent upon ourselves (Australians) to manage a problem we’ve created.  And, I eat them anyway – this of course predicated on the notion that it’s moral and decent to eat animals.  Rabbits, for me, is an easy one, and this appears to be true for my housemate as well.