Building my legacy

There was a TV program on Tuesday night called Building a Legacy which I tuned into and loved. Fundamentally it was about architecture – one of my favourite topics – and featured notable Australian homes built over the last 80 odd years. It told the architect’s story and the inspirations for the buildings and took us on a tour through them, with interviews with the architect or, more often, their surviving relatives or current residents.

There were some beautiful homes, some quite simple, and others quite bold. I love these things so much that I felt a sense of yearning as I watched. I’ve thought that given my druthers I might have elected to become an architect instead. It appeals to a sense in me perfectly combined of creativity and science. I missed that boat, but as I watched on Tuesday night, I thought to myself I would happily settle for living in a home like these.

It stirred up memories also. When I was just a young boy, my parents built the house that would become our home. I can recollect being picked up from primary school by my dad and on the way home stopping by the building site as our home to be went up. I can only imagine the satisfaction it must have given him to see it come together. It’s a rare pleasure to observe all your plans and careful designs come into being. As a kid, I remember I felt excited too – but then, most construction sites are exciting to boys.

I have memories too of our family group venturing out on weekends to visit display homes. That was once quite the thing. I don’t think I always enjoyed this quite so much – being dragged around to view empty homes every weekend. I’m not sure when this happened – my dates seem muddled. Logic suggests that it must have been before we started building our house, but I’m sure it was later than that. It begs the question – was there plans to build another home? I can’t recall, though I remember there was a house from one particular architect or builder that they were keen on – and I can see the house in my mind, modern and stylish.

I should have asked my dad the other day.

By chance, the first thing on Wednesday morning I finally interviewed for the role I applied for over Christmas. It’s with a company specialising in urban design.

Apparently, recruitment did what recruitment often does best – it overlooks the best candidates. When my application came through, it was put in the do not contact pile. It was only picked up when the guy filling the role asked what had happened to my application. I’d sent him my CV initially, and so he knew of me and asked HR to track me down.

The interview went well, and apparently, I’m now on a shortlist of three. From what I can gather – and this is from my mate who works there – the frontrunner is someone who has direct experience with their (quite obscure) ERP system, as well as Power BI – I don’t have either. I’m behind the eight ball there, but they see me as someone who can get things done.

The thing is, when they asked what appealed to me about the role I was quite honest in telling them I had a great interest in their industry, and actually made reference to the program I watched the night before. It’s too late for to become an architect, but to be in a position to facilitate great things and feel some part of it would be very satisfying.

Right now it’s my standby option. In theory, the promotion should come through where I am now, though nothing is ever certain with them – a point I reiterated to their face yesterday. It’s at a higher level than the role I interviewed for, and common sense dictates that it should be the preferred option. I’m not always sure about that, though.

Let’s see how things play out. I could be offered both. Neither may eventuate. As so often, fate will decide.


I finished reading Mephisto last week, written by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas. It’s probably better known these days because of the movie made of it about 40 years ago – which I went and watched straight after finishing the book.

The story is about a German actor in the 1920s starting out in Hamburg who, through a combination of talent, ambition and the right connections makes his way to Germany as the Nazis come to power. Once a Socialist, he becomes complicit with the Nazis to serve his career.

His famous role in the book is Mephisto. If you’re familiar with the story of Mephistopheles – or Faust – then you’ll recall that Mephisto was the diabolical character to whom Dr Faust sold his soul to in return for earthly success. In terms of this book, Hendrik Hofgren may play Mephisto, but it’s he who has sold his soul to the Nazis.

It’s rare I say this, but I thought the movie was better than the book. I found the book quite pedestrian and pretty obvious for the first two-thirds of it. I thought the writing a bit muddy. It really becomes compelling only when Hendrik achieves some measure of success in Berlin, and is drawn into the clutches of the Nazi hierarchy.

In my view, the best villains are those with a conflicted soul – neither all bad, or all good. Hendrik Hofgren is such a man. His overweening desire, and the ultimate justification for his betrayals, is his love for the theatre. As he says many times, he is not a political man. Art and theatre are above politics, as he often proclaims as if to ease his conscience. That isn’t true, and you suspect he knows it in his heart. As the Nazis showed better than anyone, art is a prime tool of propaganda and submission.

I preferred the movie because I thought the themes were tidied up and better expressed. Hofgren is presented more sympathetically, but in so doing the ambiguity of his personality and situation are highlighted. He’s not a bad man – in fact, he’s probably pretty normal in many ways, but that he has a particular talent and an ambition that matches it. He’s not without conscience, nor a kind of courage, but ultimately he is damned because he plays along.

The choice he faces is to make a stand against creeping fascism or complying with it. Instead, he attempts to compromise with it, giving something, and trying to take something back – but you can’t do deals with the devil. While some resist and pay for it with their lives, and others exile themselves abroad, he becomes a part of the system. For convenience and ambition, he has sold his soul.

The events described in the book and the movie both conclude in 1936, with most horrors still to come (Mann published in 1936).

At the heart of the movie is Klaus Maria-Brandauer’s performance, which is magnetic, and a good reason why the movie is so good.

The book has a great, though plain-drawn and simplistic story. At least in translation, it’s not as good as you think it could be. The movie cleans a lot of that up and adds a layer of complexity to the storyline that makes meaningful for many more of us: how normal people come to collaborate.

Old TV

Last night, I finished watching the BBC series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness. It was made in 1979.

I suppose I must have seen it before. Certainly, I was familiar with Alec Guinness as Smiley (I used to picture Arthur Lowe as Smiley when I read the books, but Guinness is perfect). I have no memory of it otherwise, and the reason I chose to watch it this week was curiosity and because it is a great story – but also, nostalgia.

It always strikes me watching the difference between observing an era as defined by programs contemporary to that era instead of those made years later, looking back. Oddly, it seems to me that there is more detail in productions made decades after the actions portrayed. That’s probably because there’s such an effort in production design to make it authentic and to ramp up the atmosphere after the fact. Contemporaneous productions take it for granted, and it’s all very matter of fact.

Watching a BBC production from the seventies highlights some differences very quickly, starting with the aspect ratio. The video quality is poorer also – no HD in those days for TV. Otherwise, it’s a bit drab to look at – the colours used, the skies overcast – but then that’s both England and the BBC, I suspect.

Everything is a bit less glam, and I would guess that is authentic. England was struggling at the time, and much of the wealth and the polished lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to since would have been a very remote possibility. A lot of the interiors look like they could have been decorated by my grandmother.

I need hardly to say that the show was great. I’ll be watching the follow-up, Smiley’s People, sometime over the next few weeks.

Now that I’ve come across a whole bunch of old TV, it’s my intention to revisit a lot of it – and mostly out of fascinated sentimentality.

There’s a bunch of Australian mini-series from the eighties available for viewing. Mini-series were the big-ticket item back then, and there were heaps of them. I would have watched many, if not most, and to go back and watch them again would interesting to see how I respond to them all these years later. Do they hold up? What do I recall?

I’m also rereading Dune at the moment, about 30 years after I read it first. It’s good. I remember of it coming out in the eighties and thinking it was crap. There was a mini-series made of it in 2000 which I never saw, and have mediocre expectations of – but I’ll look to watch that also once I’ve finished the book.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

The Bond of my youth

The news came yesterday that Sean Connery had died at 90. It was sad news for much of the world, and certainly for me.

Without having to think about it too much, I’d have to say that Sean Connery is my favourite actor of all time – as much for the man he was as the movies he made.

I grew up on the James Bond movies, and Sean Connery was always the best of them. He became a bit of a style icon for me because I wanted to be just like him. He even had the sort of handsomeness that appealed to me, a heterosexual male – hard-edged, rather than pretty.

Connery had an aura that went beyond his screen performances, though in some ways 007 epitomised a lot of that. He combined great masculinity with wit and charm. He was capable and confident and never flustered. It was the model of a man I aspired to be.

James Bond appeals to many men, especially when they’re at that impressionable age. I only ever felt that myself with Connery, though. It was the man that drew me. There seemed an edge of danger to him, even violence, cloaked within an ever-stylish and attractive exterior. It made him interesting and hinted at an inner-substance – the real man playing a part on the screen, but knowingly.

On-screen he was always charismatic, off-screen he could be gruff and gave the impression that he didn’t much care what anyone thought of him. He had his own mind and his own views and went his own way. In the old parlance, he was his own man, which is what every man (and woman!) should aspire too.

The funny thing is, the day before I downloaded one of his mid-career movies, Outland, which I think is pretty underrated. Then I heard that he had passed away and it felt poignant.

Year by year, a bit more of what I knew is chipped away.


For a couple of years, I went to school in Sydney after my dad got a transfer there with his job. I started in term two, which was in Year 10 for me. School was a bit different, both in terms of curriculum, and culturally – I was known as the kid from Melbourne and stirred, generally, for being a supporter of ‘aerial ping-pong’.

I settled in pretty quick though and made friends, one of whom remains one of my best mates now. I did English, Maths, Physics, Art and History.

I liked History and was good at it. I still like it. (In the history exam that year we had a selection of five topics from which we had to write three essays. I finished my essays early, and rather than sit around and wait decided to write the other two essays as well).

The following year (I think – Year 11) we studied the Russian revolution, which I found fascinating. Our teacher was Mr Wolfers, in retrospect probably not much more than a dozen years older than his students. In memory, he’s short and plump, though very much an enthusiast.

We went way back into the 19th century to learn about the Tsars and serfdom and the origins of the discontent that led to the revolution. We covered, naturally, the events of 1905, the coming war, and then the revolution itself, the government of Kerensky initially, before the Bolsheviks seized power.

Perhaps not much has changed, but my sympathies were very much with the Russian people – historically docile, downtrodden and mistreated, finally rearing up.

In our class discussion, Mr Wolfers touched upon a famous book written about the Bolshevik revolution in St Petersburg – Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed. Later I would read it, and it’s a vivid and exciting account of the Bolsheviks coming to power.

John Reed was an American journalist and communist. He’s not someone much remembered today, though you might be able to picture him as the protagonist as played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds.

Last Friday I was subdued and weary after a long night at the vet and disinclined to exertion of any kind. I allowed myself to lay on the couch, from where I watched Reds – and all these memories came back to me.

It’s a good movie, directed by and starring Beatty, a famous progressive. It’s a movie that had to be made because Reed was such a fascinating character, and seminal in the telling of the Russian revolution.

It’s also a very long movie and as I watched I set about editing it in my mind. It’s all interesting, but the real guts of the story is when he heads to Russia with his wife, Louise Bryant. And so, I thought, I would cut the first hour in half, lose a couple of plot threads, and tighten up the others.

The movie was made in 1981, a year after I studied under Mr Wolfers. I didn’t watch it then, nor for many years after. I don’t remember when I did, but I’m sure I would have watched with studious attention.

I tried to remember my 1981. It was my final year of school, back in Melbourne. I was a defiant student at school, for whatever reason, though generally bright. The things I recalled were mostly sporting.

I remember one Saturday afternoon laying in a bath listening to the radio as my footy team kicked 4 goals in the last 5 minutes to win a famous victory against our arch-rival Carlton, at their home ground (we won 15 in a row that year playing thrilling football).

I remember waking up to the news of the so-called miracle at Headingly when on the back of some Botham heroics England had scraped an incredible victory against the Aussies. I was devastated and depressed for days.

I remember kicking the footy around on one of the school ovals when I should have been in class; and poring over The Age in the study room, which I would read from front to back every day. I remember another occasion when I stood up and argued a point with my English teacher and was banished from class; and another time, bored, how I climbed out an open window mid-class while the maths teacher was writing on the blackboard, and headed home.

I was way into girls, as you are at that age, but I can’t recall any particular crush I had. Realistically, I probably wanted to get in the pants of all of them.

Strangely, it was only later that I remembered that 1981 was also the year my parents separated. I went with my mum – my dad hadn’t uttered a word, or even acknowledged me, for months, so it was an easy decision. We moved into a brick unit in Main Road, Eltham. My dad started speaking to me again.

And thus, that’s how memory associate things.

Where is the great beauty?

I happened across The Great Beauty in about January 2015. I was house-sitting at my uncles and aunts house way out in the sticks in a time when I was still homeless and unemployed and, seemingly, few prospects. Being there was like a holiday for me. I had a good-sized and fully appointed house to myself for six weeks. I had space at least, and a decent bed and time to set aside some of the fears that haunted me. By day I was writing my first book and watering the tomatoes and walking the dogs and cooking – I had a full-sized kitchen at my disposal also. By night I would sit on the comfy lounge with a dog to either side of me and explore what there was to watch on TV, or on the hard-drive of movies I took with me. That’s how I found this film. One balmy summer’s night, I was flicking between channels when I came across it. I stayed to watch for a few minutes, then kept watching. By the end of the movie, I could feel it inside me. It made me think and wonder. It made me remember myself. I went to bed, knowing not all was done.

It’s an Italian movie about a man who wrote a great and famous novel when he was young and not written anything since. He’s now 65, an elegant, sophisticated, witty man about town. His friends are intellectuals and artists and each night they gather at different places for different events and party until the early hours of the morning. It’s a hedonistic lifestyle full of intellectual discourse and sensual delights. Jep epitomises it. He’s charming and fun and touches lightly wherever he goes. (A generation before it’s a role that Marcello Mastroianni would have played with detached aplomb). As it is, the role is very well inhabited by Toni Servillo.

On the surface, it’s hard to know quite why I was so drawn to the story. It’s a great movie, no doubt, intelligent and vivid (it recalls Fellini in style), with great set-pieces and photography in general, and brilliant acting (and the musical selections are perfect and haunting). But I had a personal response to this, which is rare. I found something in it that seemed relevant to my existence – it seems unlikely.

When I first saw it, I had nothing, and the future looked bleak. But there I was, sitting in a house on the outskirts of Melbourne, kangaroos hopping by beyond the back fence, watching the story of rich and decadent Italians in the eternal city, Rome. Jep, the protagonist, I could relate to in some undefined way, but even so, his life appeared the polar opposite of my own, and even his style – some of which felt familiar – was ultimately different.

I watched the movie again last night and felt much as I did before though – thankfully – my circumstances are much improved from that time. I watched, trying to understand what it was that resonated in me. At one stage Jep says that his was always going to be a life of sensibility. No matter how much he engaged in the elegant, sometimes decadent, lifestyle he was part of, there was always something in him that was an observer. He had reacted to that with a dry and sometimes biting wit, as if to put distance between what he felt and what he wanted to portray. He had achieved early success and made himself light since as if it was an aberration. He skipped along, enjoying the fruit his wealth and celebrity gave him, but ultimately he can’t ignore that sensibility – the knowingness I’ve written of before.

This is the movie. He’s living this enjoyable life when he hears that one of his first loves from many years before has passed away. It affects him deeply and sets him off as he continues his life of episodic sensuality. He looks at the things he never had, the things he shunned but might have had if things had been different. He searches for some meaning amid the great ‘blah, blah, blah’, and returns again and again in his mind to the scene of his very first love.

In short, he undergoes a journey. The pristine and engaging facade he’s lived behind develops cracks. He finds himself wrought by unexpected emotion. The old, almost cynical formulas fail him. He wants a meaning to it. He searches for it outside, then turns back within.

This is probably something many of us can relate to. It may even be a condition of life – certainly for those who have any sensibility. And I think that’s what I recognised both before and now. My circumstances were just that – circumstances. My self, my sensibility if you like, was contained within me like a bubble independent of the circumstances I was in. I still thought, deeply, still wondered and felt, still questioned. What had become lightness in Jep had become heavier in me, but it was just a different way of responding to similar things. And I recognised his hedonism, knowing it well, drawn to the more simple life of sensation – would be if I could be. Though my path has taken me somewhere very different, I could appreciate his dandy-ism as self-expression and relate to his love of women – fleeting though it ever is. And the images of him wandering the empty streets of Rome in the early hours and as dawn breaks – that’s straight out of something I wrote 20 years ago. I know it.

So, what does it mean? I think we see beneath the surface reality and respond to what lies beneath. I think, like Jep, I’ve hidden behind a way of being for years. Many of us have. Ultimately, they’re the things we are. In our case, it’s a sensibility we can’t escape, and it’s bittersweet.

What’s on the box?

I’ve had three nights out since March, and when I say ‘night’s out’ it’s very loosely defined. Two of those were early evening visits to pubs in Richmond where I would have a beer and a counter-meal in the two hours designated to me. On both occasions, I was home by 8pm. Cray, eh? The other night was a visit to the Cheeses in that brief period of relative freedom. We had dinner, a bottle or two of wine, and watched a movie. I walked home afterwards.

That’s the size of it. I used to complain about my social life. In my heyday, I’d be out 3-4 nights a week. Those days are long gone, and I don’t think I’d want to return to that. As a general rule, though, I reckon you need at least one night a week out being social. Though I complained, mostly I managed that over the last year. Until lockdown.

Being in lockdown means you have to find other ways to keep yourself entertained. In the absence of the give and take with friends, and the general distraction of other places – a pub or bar, a restaurant, a footy game or the home of a friend, and so on – the senses need something to distract from what isn’t there. There are few options.

For me, at least I read, but it’s possible to read too much. It’s like most things, you need a variety of tempo to keep things interesting, as well as different senses engaged along the way.

So I have books, lucky me, and I’ll listen to music too, and wending through my days are audiobooks I play when I’m preparing dinner or doing housework. There’s sport on TV these days, though much of it is uninspiring – the physical constraints of our times make for a poorer standard in general.

That leaves TV more generally, and streaming services more specifically. I reckon everyone has gone crazy watching Netflix and the other streaming services throughout this period. Listening in on social media, it seems that many have experienced the same as I have – we’re running out of shows to watch.

This is the uninspiring reality of our times. It exposes the shallowness of lifestyle but given there are few other alternatives, this shred of clothing is preferable to seeing the emperor in all his naked glory.

The other week I signed up to a month’s trial of Amazon Prime to find something new to watch. I found a few things, but there was one show particularly that was great.

Tales From the Loop is a funny sort of show. It seems as if set in a parallel universe to ours, very similar, but different in unique ways. The Loop itself – some groundbreaking technology unlike we have, is at the centre of the show. There are robots wandering the countryside and tractors that hover over the ground and everyday little things that seem quirky to our eyes. It’s very approachable though, almost modest, the technology accepted as if it is nothing special – which is what I guess what we do with the marvels we have come to take for granted.

The aesthetic is familiar to anyone who grew up through the seventies and eighties. There’s a cosy glow to it that made me feel nostalgic at times. At the centre of it are families, a small core group of them and their circle which the stories revolve around. It has a very relatable intimacy to it that is at times quite heart-rending.

As someone who writes, it’s the sort of authenticity you strive for. They’re the things you absorb more through your skin than you do your mind. You know them suddenly, you recognise the truth of something that perhaps you’ve never considered until that point. They’re like submerged memories coming to the surface. It’s a very human experience, and it’s our humanity these tales tough upon.

Some of these stories haunted me afterwards. They had a poignancy that comes from being real. You’re left afterwards thinking about them, and reflecting upon yourself. The music, by Phillip Glass, has a subtle melancholy that gets under your sin. It’s great music, and it is the perfect accompaniment to the story – non-intrusive, but it deepens the viewing experience.

I’ve watched the full series now and hope there will be another. It’s a hidden gem I probably not have encountered if not for the strange times we live in. I’d recommend to anyone, though I think the sensitive will get most out of it.

But, what’s next now? I’m watching The Marvellous Mrs Maisel and enjoying it well enough. Others are hit and miss. We’re going to be in this for a while yet, so I’ll need more recommendations.

The discomfort of men

It’s Sunday, and I’m feeling more lazy than usual. After I took Rigby for a walk mid-morning I came home and thought about the things I planned to do, but my heart wasn’t in it, and so I ended up on the couch watching a movie.

I watched Lantana, which is a classic Australian film of sorts made about twenty years ago. Memories muddle over time, but I remember being deeply affected by the movie when I first saw it. I think I saw it at the cinema in St Kilda with a woman a few years older than me. I can’t remember her name, but I remember how casually sophisticated she was – full of stories and good living. We’d go out for dinner and the movies and would catch up for the occasional drink. We liked many of the same things, though we never ended up in bed together – our relationship wasn’t like that.

There was a particular scene I remembered from the movie that resonated when I saw it first and which stayed with me in the years after. The main character, a detective, is out for a jog on a Sunday morning. He turns a corner and runs smack bang into a man coming the other way, their heads colliding. After the initial shock, the detective turns on the other man and starts abusing him for not looking where he’s going – though he’s at fault. The other man cowers, then stumbles away. The detective, perhaps regretting his behaviour, picks up the other man’s discarded shopping bag and takes it to him. The man turns, weeping, and I remember the shock I felt at seeing that, like an electric charge. The detective feels something the same I think, but then – their faces bloodied – the detective comforts the other man in his arms.

This is a sophisticated movie. The story is complex and deep, the performances across the board are fantastic. Most of the characters are damaged in some way and some more than others. It’s a story about relationships and the entanglements we find ourselves enmeshed in, seemingly powerless to do anything about them. For me, it’s also about masculinity and Australian masculinity in particular.

The detective is at the centre of the story, and for most of it, he’s teetering on the edge, barely in control. He’s deeply unhappy and lost, trapped inside himself, inside the maze of expectation and inability to be vulnerable. Like a lot of men, his vulnerability is expressed through violence.

There’s a scene where he’s telling an acquaintance the story of how he ran into the other man on the street. He’s almost disdainful when he describes the other man weeping, claiming that even as he’s comforting him, he’s thinking, what a weak prick. The acquaintance asks, don’t you ever feel like crying. Yeah, of course, is his general reaction, but you don’t, do you? And this the acquaintance understands, you’re right, as if it’s a rule of male conduct: you don’t show it. He nods his head in that casual way as if it doesn’t need to be said: fair call.

It’s a beautifully revealing scene set inside a men’s urinal. And you know, I reckon most men, Australian men, anyway, and men of my generation at least would recognise that. We’re brought up to be hard and tough. To keep going regardless and not show anything. I recognised it the first time and hit close to home because it was set in a milieu I understood, contemporary Australia

I lay on the couch with Rigby snuggled beside me and watched and felt myself affected in the same way I was the first time. It’s the sort of story I’d like to write, with the nuance and psychological depth that makes it both raw and authentic to lived experience. The book I’m writing now is not dissimilar – there’s a surface story that propels the action along, but all the real stuff is happening beneath the surface.

It’s nice to revisit a film you admired before and find it stacks up still. It’s not always the case. If you haven’t seen it then maybe you should check it out.

From history

After dinner last night I was in the mood for a long movie I could immerse myself in. I scrolled through the films on my hard-drive searching for one that would resonate with me at that moment. It’s a peculiar chemistry. Sometimes, obviously, you feel like one sort of movie over another, according to mood and biorhythms – say a comedy over something too serious. Sometimes the opposite. Even so, they’re broad categories, and it takes something more to decide you (though there have been times nothing has spoken to me). I go on gut-feel, instinctive reaction. It’s like looking into a woman’s eyes and sensing possibility there, or more – and nothing at all.

Last night’s winner was Lincoln, the Spielberg movie on the president. I’d watched it before and enjoyed it well enough without it leaving too deep an impression. That was not long after it came out, and maybe it felt time to review it again. It suited my mood in any case, and the need to engage with something that might stir the mind. I wasn’t looking for distraction, I wanted to think. It was only much later did I realise how apt a choice it was given the BLM rallies in recent times. If that had any influence on my decision, then it was purely unconscious.

I had only a dim recollection of the movie. though I knew the general thrust of it. Watching it this time, I was struck by a couple of things I don’t remember feeling the first time around.

This time I found myself admiring Daniel Day-Lewis’ seamless performance. It may as well have been the true Abe Lincoln on-screen because there was nothing visible of the actor. I imagine that takes a powerful gift of humility and dedication. You see actors who always ‘play themselves’, and to some degree, that is true of most. Most actors have their idiosyncratic ways – gestures, tics, habits. Most of them absorb it into the performance, but some never transcend themself. The great actors are different. They become the character they portray. To do so must take imagination and the rare ability to subjugate oneself to the art.

To admire the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis was, in a way, parallel with admiration of the man he portrayed. Now, I don’t know how true a rendering of Lincoln we see on-screen to how he was in life, but there’s plenty of history and commentary that give us a fair idea of who he was. We know he was a monumental figure in American life. We know what he looked like, and we gather his folksy, wise ways. We know he was a man of fortitude and persistence. And we know that his death was mourned by thousands of Americans, unlike any president until Kennedy. Even many of his opponents mourned him.

In this movie, as portrayed by Day-Lewis, he is a man of great humanity. We know that to be true, I think, though it never stopped him from prosecuting the war against the south. What drove him to do that was his innate sense of justice. As cruel as the war was (and it was more terrible than most), it was necessary to bring justice to his country. We see that in the movie,He had a clear-sighted determination that most of his advisors and contemporaries lacked. He navigated his way through party politics and bigotry and ambition, knowing what must be.

Earlier I spoke of acting and how ego plays a part in it. I think Lincoln probably had a decent ego, but it was in balance within him. Most of the battles with ego occur inside us, striving to be ourselves or to prove it. Lincoln had no need to prove anything, and so his path is gentler, willing to be open and humble and ever-sensitive to others, but never veering from the course of action set himself. It feels as if he takes in people with his folksy manner and home-spun stories, but he is cleverer than any of them. Gradually they come to realise that. He was a great man and a wise leader, and you wonder what further difference he might have made had he survived the assassin’s bullet.

As always, when I see portrayals like this, I feel wistful. Oh, to have such leadership now. I can think of no-one in the world today, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, who approaches greatness in any regard. Many have gone the opposite extreme – more terrible than we deserve.

Remembering Lincoln now given the tumult of BLM is timely. It was an education to watch and listen last night with knowledge of how it is now, and what’s been happening. What would Abe do about it? He would act with generosity, grace and wisdom – i.e. the opposite of what we’re getting.

These are times we can take lessons from a couple of great American presidents.

I was reading about FDR during the week, and how he came to power with the depression in full swing. The election that year was him against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who had presided since before the depression started. Hoover was of the austerity school of economic theory. He believed that private industry would drag America out of the depression, and steadfastly refused hand-outs or economic stimulus. Come the election the American people had enough of that and booted him out in a big win to Roosevelt.

FDR set about doing just about the opposite of Hoover. He’s famous now for the New Deal, which dragged America – and possibly the world – out of the great depression. What dd he do? He spent money by the barrel-load. To the millions unemployed and living in poverty, he gave hope, as well as the means to survive. He ploughed millions of dollars into great stimulus activities, the most notable being the Hoover Dam. In effect, he gave the economy a financial transfusion that got it up from its deathbed.

What’s less well know is that a few years later he reckoned the economy was safe, and at the Treasury’s insistence it was time to balance the books, and spending was cut. What resulted was something that came to be called the Roosevelt Recession in 1937-38. The reduction in government spending and investment led to a sharp economic downturn. It was only when Roosevelt defied treasury and launched into a new spending program that the economy began to recover. Money creates activity which makes more money.

This should sound familiar to anyone following the economic discussions today in light of the pandemic, though it’s a conversation that has raged since the 1980s. This is what we face now.

In Australia, JobKeeper and other stimulus packages are like a mini-version of the New Deal, but already the government is threatening to turn it off. If history is any guide – and most economists – then we know what will happen if they do that. This is not something we can risk for ideological reasons, or because our leaders lose their nerve. Go hard and keep going until we’re through.

Heeding the call

For the first time in months, I went out for dinner last Saturday night, this time to the Cheeses. Notwithstanding it was months since we’d done this, it was pretty typical. We had dinner – home-made pizzas (their kitchen – house – is completing renovation), a beer, a bottle of wine, then another, some cheese and some chocolate. We talked and shared stories and laughed and finally sat down to watch a movie together.

The movie we settled on was the latest version of Call of the Wild, this one starring Harrison Ford, and a CGI Buck.

This is based on a classic story by Jack London, and one of my favourites (another of his stories, To Build A Fire, is one of the best stories ever). It’s set in Alaska during the gold rush in the 19th century and basically is about a dog that gets abducted from his safe suburban home and taken to the Klondike to become a sled dog. It’s all about his trials and tribulations, about the bond between man and dog, and ultimately about Buck giving in to the ‘call of the wild’. It’s a beautiful, occasionally harsh, tragic, but heartwarming tale that anyone who loves dogs must love.

I’ve watched several versions of the story made into movies, and the best are those who keep it simple and let it speak for itself. I’m a fan of Harrison Ford and, though he’s older than the original protagonist in the story, he’s the right type. I found it an entertaining hour or so, but much diluted from the essence of the story. (Let me warn of spoilers ahead).

This is a Disneyfied version of the story, right down to Buck not even being a real dog. He’s CGI, and pretty good, but obviously so all the same. It makes him a bit cartoonish and robs the character of the spontaneity a real dog would bring. It’s now a family movie, which means some of the harsher elements have been taken down a notch or two, and even a basic part of the story changed.

There’s a vindictive and quite foolish character who is integral to the resolution of the movie. He doesn’t exist in the story, and when the main human character – here played by Harrison Ford – dies, it’s quite different. In the story there’s a clean and simple brutality to it – he’s murdered by Indians and Buck, discovering the body, wreaks his vengeance. In the movie there are no Indians – perhaps they’re the politically incorrect option – and instead, the deranged character fatally wounds Ford. Buck arrives in time to kill the murderer (indirectly – no blood, no violence) and in time to comfort his friend and master before he dies. It may as well be in soft focus.

Buck then goes out into the wilderness to fulfil his destiny.

The movie is a long way from the direct and uncompromising language of the original story. I understand what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, but as a purist who loves the story, it seems pretty lame. It’s counter to the essence of the story also – that this is a harsh and deadly environment that only the tough can endure. Even for them, it can be brutal, but that’s the simple truth. In the end, it’s an environment in which Buck finds meaning because it awakens in him his primal self, and he ‘returns’ to the wild in which once he came from.

It’s a noble message and reading the story it’s uplifting. You’ve been devasted by the parting of man and master – they had a great bond – but the payoff is that Buck returns to nature, that great and wild thing we’ve civilised out of our life.

Walking home from the Cheeses afterwards it reminded me of a quote from Seneca:

Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible—no, entirely too common—for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.

Basically, it’s not how long you live, but how you live while you’ve got it. I guess we can all choose to live our life according to our desires, but for me, it’s always been a simple question. From very young, I was aware that just to be alive was a rare gift, and that one day it would end. The trick, as I figured it, was to live as well as possible in the time I had.

I was the adventurous type, and so for me that meant an enquiring life – travelling and reading and asking questions and trying things out and never backing off. From my current perspective, it feels that I’ve led an interesting life that at times has been challenging, and at times deeply rewarding. I don’t regret much, though I sometimes wonder how things might have been different. The life I have is a result of trying things, of plunging in and testing things out. It’s how I wanted to live and though there are notable gaps, I think I’ve lived a full life.

Most people are more cautious and conservative than me, and each to their own. I get impatient and restless. Others don’t. What seem to me lives that are happy but dull are perfectly adequate to the people who own them. Sometimes I find it hard to comprehend, but sometimes I’m envious too of such simplicity.

I wonder how much they have asked of themselves, or what their expectations of life were. Did they dream once, or never? Did they quest and give it up one day because it was too hard? Or not sensible? Or was it ever thus? We’re all different, but until we test ourselves, we don’t really know what’s inside us. So I reckon.

So it was with Buck. His life was set. He was happy and pampered. Then he was taken from comfort and thrust into the wilds of Alaska. There he found his strength and used it. There he found true companionship on the brutal edge of existence. And there he found the wild calling to that part of him deep inside and hidden from everyday view. In the end, he responded to the call to be himself truly, and to be amongst his type.

If that’s not a metaphor for human lif,e I don’t know what it is. For most of the time and for many of us, we’re happy and pampered and living in relative comfort, and that’s where it stops. Hopefully, the time comes when we hear that call, and respond to it. And maybe that explains something of what we’re seeing in the States at the moment. The moment has come to step out of the comfort zone and make a stand. It’s a worthy cause, and it’s good for our soul.