Romance and tragedy


When I was a kid, one of my favourite movies was Dr Zhivago. In retrospect, it seems a strange choice for a kid when more often boys that age go for action movies. It’s a sweeping, historical romance, gorgeous to look at and lusciously framed. It also deals with an epoch-making era – the Russian revolution – that is confronting and brutal.

It appealed to me for different reasons, I think. The leading characters, and the actors playing them, were very alluring. Both Zhivago and Lara are great characters, but the actors playing them, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, had their own charisma. Sharif was on a golden run. Before this he had appeared in another David Lean classic, Lawrence of Arabia. He had a beautiful, sensitive face, with the deep brown and expressive eyes of a devoted pet. And around this time I was in love with Julie Christie. I can’t hear the phrase ‘cornflower blue’ without thinking of her eyes.

It’s hard to get into a movie if you don’t get the characters, and that’s particularly true when you’re an impressionable kid. You want to like and identify with the protagonists, even if only at an aspirational level. Lara was someone I could love, and Zhivago was a man worthy of her.

I studied the Russian Revolution at school in year 11. Mr Wolfers was my teacher. I don’t know if I’d watched the movie by the time I went to history class, but I remember being fascinated by the story of the Russian revolution. It was a tale full of drama and vivid characters, it had intrigue worthy of a spy movie and brutality enough to impress a kid learning about the world. It was a tragedy in many ways, combined with realpolitik, and against a backdrop of the First World War.

I was a smart kid, though it didn’t always show. I wouldn’t only accept what I was being told. I’d think about it and wonder – I had a colourful imagination as well as a sensitive nature. One day I had to write an essay about the causes of the Russian Revolution. There were many, and it’s a story rich in incident and drama, but I sheeted home the blame to the Tsar. It’s hard to dispute, but it wasn’t the simplistic answer my teacher was looking for. Without the missteps and misjudgements and general stupidity of the Tsar, the monarchy would have survived a while longer, if not forever. But then without the war, he would have survived too, even with scandals such as Rasputin. But not forever I think, for the times were changing and the seeds of discord had been sown and nurtured by an oblivious regime. Even so, had the Kerensky government been better founded it might never have turned out as it did, and the world today a far different place…

It’s a fascinating era of conjecture and what-ifs without clear precedence. My answer, in the end, said much about me – I disapproved of the Tsar, not just because of his ineptitude and ignorance (he wasn’t an evil person, just very stupid), but because of the system. I doubt I would ever have been a Bolshevik, but having studied the period, I couldn’t abide by a society so lacking fundamental democracy.

The Tsar was near to God, but at the other extreme were the serfs, ‘souls’ effectively owned in a patriarchal society that even when benevolent was fundamentally wrong. Ultimately the lives of the ordinary people were disposable and irrelevant and had been for generations.  Needless and foolish massacres had fomented resentment for decades, and the waste of life in the war against Germany was the culmination of bitter experience. I was 16 when I wrote that essay, and a good part of my outlook was forming.

Dr Zhivago was a thrilling explication of those times. You could watch it as an adventure. As a kid that was probably the temptation, but I saw more than that. It was a terrible adventure. Human life became cheap, and the structures that held society together were destroyed. It was a nihilistic, anarchic period of history in which human individuality was subsumed in the gears of history. This I learnt watching this: that individuality was a precious thing. This is a romantic movie in many ways, but it’s also the tale of human tragedy.

I watched the movie again on the weekend. It’d probably been twenty years since I watched it last. I was curious to see if I would respond in the same way. So often, these days, I find myself disappointed in revisiting old books or movies and discovering that whatever had made them special to me once was no longer special. The difference is me. I’ve moved on. Whether that’s for the better or not, I don’t know, but I feel the loss. Thankfully I found Dr Zhivago just as enjoyable as ever.

What I remembered watching this was what a great film-maker David Lean was. It’s so clean to look at that you could imagine it happening just like that. The vividness of his storytelling reminds you that’s more than just entertainment – this is how things were. If these characters are fictional, then it’s also true that the events depicted were true to type, and characters like these lived and died and were swept under the wheels of time. As an adult, certainly, it hits you. It draws you in, and you find yourself thankful that you didn’t have to live through such a time.

I remember in my early twenties I read the book by Boris Pasternak. It’s an excellent book. I would read the book and relate it back to the movie, which was quite faithful to it. In particular, the young man I was, I was drawn to the relative tranquillity of Yuryatin, where for a while Zhivago the poet lived in a kind of idyll separate from the conflict consuming Russia. It’s beautiful writing. As a young man, maybe half a dozen years after leaving Mr Wolfers class, and full of hope and ideas I was drawn to the poetry of it myself. Amid despair here was the sensitive life lived with hope. Simple, good things, and hope. That’s all you needed in a pristine world. You could believe in that as a romantic, as someone bent on pure ideals. It was but an interlude, though, and the brute world has the last say. There is no pristine world.

Romance and tragedy in a nutshell. That’s this story.

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Mind and body


I’ve been quiet for the last few days because I’ve been crook. At one point, I was heard to say that it was the sickest I’d felt for years. Maybe, but statements like that are easy to make when you’re miserable with it. True or not, it wasn’t much fun.

I felt it coming on during the grand final on Saturday, around the time most GWS supporters would have been feeling sick. It was in my head and throat, my nose and chest were congested, and I just knew it was going to be a bad one.

I slept poorly because of it, which made it worse. I kept a low profile Sunday, and on Monday too – which was just about the worst of it – which I’d taken off as an annual leave day.

Sleep was a big problem. I was all blocked up and found it hard to breathe, and through the day would bark a hacking cough out every minute or two. And I was running hot. I knew I wasn’t going to work on Tuesday, but ended up going anyway.

Don’t know what it is, but I don’t like giving into these things, and staying home when I should feels, in a perverse way, like giving in. So I went in yesterday morning feeling pretty wretched, and looking (and sounding) it too, by all accounts. The excuse was an important meeting I had to attend. I left afterwards at the urging of my colleagues.

Today I feel better, though not completely. I dosed up before I went to bed last night and had the best sleep for a few nights, and that makes a big difference. I’m still sneezing. I still have a deep bass voice. I’m still coughing, though not as much, and not as painfully – I coughed myself raw previous days. There’s the odd coughing fit, and I’m not in a state where I can share an office with others, but I feel much better in myself than before, when all I wanted to do was curl up and forget about everything.

I actually went out for breakfast this morning. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and I sat outdoors eating a couple of poached eggs on toast. I watched things go by. Notwithstanding my health, I felt fine.

I’m in a funny place. For the moment I feel more together than in recent times, though I’m still aware of something untethered within me. It seems to me that before I was inside of life and I flowed with it without thought. It was easy, and I was easy, and sometimes I felt commanding as if nothing was beyond me. The world spread out before me.

Then things happened, and I was thrown out of that world and was very aware suddenly that I was now outside of life. It makes sense in a way, and it’s one of the things that people who have a comfortable life don’t understand about those whose life has become disarrayed. There’s a lot of obvious difficulties when you become homeless and/or unemployed, but it’s the sense of disconnection that goes unseen.

I think I believed that would pass once I got my life back on track. By most measures now I’m officially ‘back’. I don’t feel it though, not even when I get back to doing the things I would when I was inside of life. I was out last Thursday for pre-grand final drinks. It was a big night starting at Union Electric drinking cocktails and ended at Punch Lane drinking wine. I was in my element, and in good form, it was a fine night – but it feels like an outlier. Not part of my life, but a diversion from it.

I wonder if all it is is a state of mind. Maybe I just need to decide that I’m back inside life and the world is my oyster again? What makes that difficult are the little crimps that remind me it’s not as it was – the limitations of my authority at work that run counter to instinct, the financial inhibitions that exist still despite increased salary, and so on. I realise in saying that I was spoilt before, and had it better than most – I should just accept abbreviated circumstances. It seems churlish not to. But actually, my public utterances are that I don’t need to do what I did before. I don’t know if I have the appetite for it, let alone the attention span. I say that, but I sometimes think it’s my insides that are geared to something more. My reflexes. Like I said, my instincts. I get into a situation, and it’s natural for me to take the next step, to propose or do something, to assume leadership, to speak up.

It’s an interesting one, almost as if I’m out of sync with myself. And maybe that’s what I need to resolve, though I don’t know how. For me, it comes down to a question that has been present throughout my life: what is true? What is right?

Through the eyes of others


So, I was pondering the sense of futility that seems everpresent these days. What is the value of what I do? What is the point of this existence? But then, on Thursday night, we had a work function after work when we went to the same bar I went to a few weeks ago with JV. Drinks were laid on, and tapas and the atmosphere was convivial. I had 3-4 drinks and spoke to different people, but more most of the evening was in conversation with my new manager.

I’ve mentioned before what a lovely bloke he is. He’s a cracker. He’s a couple of years short of 60, originally a Malaysian Chinese who’s been living here for about thirty years, and about a foot shorter than me. We’ve always got on quite well, but now our relationship has changed. I find him a straightforward and decent person to work with. Judging by our conversation on Thursday he’s quietly fascinated by me, and quite chuffed to have me on board.

When he interviewed me first, he hadn’t seen my CV, but obviously, he’s caught up with it since. He began to ask me about aspects of it, commenting on what interesting experience I’d had, and how strange it was that I had experienced both senior positions, and junior – I’d confessed to him how I’d started out there working on the phones.

It was not the time or place to give him the full story, so I skimmed over it, but it was enough to intrigue him more. As an individual, I’m very different from him. He’s always been the modest, hard-working family man, whereas he sees me as quite the adventurer – and approves of it. At the same time, he’s obviously excited to have me join the team. He realises that for the price of a middle-ranking role he’s got an experienced, and competent senior candidate. I’ve opened his eyes to possibilities, and suddenly he sees opportunities ahead.

It was almost endearing to see how enthusiastic he had become. He was like a kid believing in Santa Claus again. He’s encouraged me to do my thing from the word go, and the results are fascinating to him – almost as if he’s been made to think another way, and it’s revitalised him. To be blunt, I think he sees me as a bit of a meal ticket, though not nearly mercenary as that. He’s happy to ride in my wake and, as I’m always am when given my head, I’m happy to forge ahead. It so happens, as he is very conscious off, that with the senior Digital Manager leaving things are in flux, and the chance to stake out new territory is there.

I went home that night on the train reflecting on that. It was flattering to be seen in such a light. I knew I was capable of what he hoped from me, but it seemed particularly ironic considering what I had felt just the night before. I struggle to find meaning for myself, but here I am with my manager finding meaning in me.

Then yesterday. When I interviewed for the role I ultimately had to knock back, there was a woman involved. I hardly knew her then, but am now working close to her, though we work in different areas. She’s a lovely lady, kind, and obviously very smart, and takes every opportunity to be friendly to me. Yesterday we happened to be in the kitchen together at the same time. I don’t know how it started – perhaps she asked me how the job was going. Anyway, she said she thought it was a really good fit for me and that I’d be good at it – she’s like that. But then she said, “you’ve got a very interesting CV”. She said it positively. I was surprised and murmured something about having sought variety. “Variety is good,” she said.

So, in the space of 24 hours, I’ve had two different people basically validate my professional self, and express even how interesting that self is. It made me think about what I want. Did I want for me what my manager hopes what I can enable? The answer always is yes – I always want more, because more is interesting, and because it is better than less, and because what I never want is the dull, old status quo. But do I really want those roles? My ego does maybe, and probably my bank manager. I don’t need it, though.

What I want, I realised, is the room to be myself. I’ve been denied that, here, and in years leading up to this, but in the years before that was the source of satisfaction. I could feel myself, could be myself, without constraint, so much so that I took it for granted. My step-sister always said she’d never met anyone as comfortable in their skin as I was – but I felt that too, without knowing it.

My life was comfortable then. I’d achieved a level that made things simpler, but while there was comfort in that, the joy of it was not in the achievement, but in the freedom to achieve. I was given space, and I took it. Maybe the secret then is the doing, not the being. And maybe, judging by what others see in me, there’s another journey in me.

The epoch of the mass-man


I’m reading a book at the moment called Diary of a Man in Despair. It’s by a German author who recorded his thoughts through the rise of the Nazis and the second world war. His name was Friedrich Reck, and ultimately they caught up with him, and he died at Dachau.

It’s a fascinating, entertaining read. Reck was a highly educated man with distinct opinions and a voice all his own. He’s haughty and derisive, he has a patrician air but is not above the occasional gossipy aside. His attitude drips with a delicious, acid disdain. He deplored the Nazis, as much for their uncouth manners as their politics. He was a proud German who saw decline all about him, and predicted disaster, and was right.

Throughout the book, he launches into scathing dissertations on the state of the world about him, like a grumpy old man, but he knew what he spoke of and describes it in coruscating detail. Reading, I could imagine him in his far ago hunched over his diary inscribing his bitter words. It was the end of everything, he knew, and he wanted to record it.

There are many memorable sections in the book, but there was one the other day that resonated with me. It could be said that I’m a bit of a grump too, and I’ve not been short of a bitter word or two in this blog. I can sympathise. But then I read this section, and I realised how little changes. What appeared true to him back then I could endorse equally today – and have, more or less, but in my own words.

He writes of ‘Mass-man’, who:

“…buys the products of technology in complete mindlessness, without involving himself, or even taking an interest in the intellectual work that made these things possible…

I do not believe this ‘New-Adam’ has the faintest idea of how completely dependent his existence is on the products of technology. I have an idea that at a beginning of the end of world he will want to know how the government proposes to hold next Sunday’s German-Sweden football match on schedule. His fate appears to me certain and unavoidable. The coming Second World War will be the beginning of the end: the end of an epoch in which rationalism was dominant, and the legacy of which – assuming the planet is still capable of regeneration – will be ‘X’, a new mode of life based on the nonrational.”

He wrote that in 1937. Eighty years on the technology has become omnipotent and dominates our life, though clearly, the strains of its insidious influence were plain even then. The ‘mass-man’ he writes of here is pretty much the same as what we see now, and perhaps it has ever been so. The only difference I can see is that he speaks of the end of rationalism, whereas as far as I can see, it’s been long dead in this modern era. But then he goes on to say:

“…the masses sensing they are doomed…will, no doubt, strike out against everything that is not masslike, but is, simply, ‘different’…”

Substitute mob for mass and this is the state of affairs in much of the western world. The mob – the degenerate mass-man – voted in Trump and in favour of Brexit. The low rent appeal of it swayed the election here, and it has adherents in every nation. It takes aim at everything different and not sanctioned by the mob – refugees and muslims, different coloured foreigners and clever elites, and whomsoever they are directed at to despise.

The problem is, we live in an age of intellectual torpor. Our critical faculties have withered. Too much easy living, too many low-bars, has made us soft. Great herds of consumers get carried away on social media over febrile linguistics, on inconsequentialities while the great things elude them. Outrage is the lingua franca of our times. The educated mind that once led curiously on is a rare thing these days, existing only in intellectual ghettoes, under siege from the commonplace politics of populist leaders who see danger in independent minds and urge their followers to the same. In the face of such hostile opposition, intellectual rigour has fallen away. The questions that should be asked are asked rarely, or not at all, lies are accepted as truth, and too much that once would have left us shocked has now been accepted as normal.

It all sounds very Orwellian – and me an awful grump. I find it hard settling in a society where the lowest common denominator rules, and sometimes I wonder how I found my way here, high and dry. Those of us who think similarly have been disenfranchised. We are part of the problem, not the solution – but the solution makes for greed and prejudice and a nation of drones.

Gloomy as I sound, I’m always hopeful that it will change. I’ve always believed that, but more and more I feel as Reck did, retiring to my ‘estate’ as he did, though mine is made up of books and old movies and music and good wine, and the occasional rant, like this. He knew his time was over. Though I know the pendulum will swing, I wonder if my time is done too. I suspect I may not be around when it corrects, when the educated mind is valued again, and independent thought encouraged. Of course, we might all be burnt to a crisp by then…

Singing along to Elton John


Since the election, I’ve become quite cynical. That’s what comes of being so drastically disappointed. The worst part of it is how I’ve come to see my fellow Australians. I meet people, and I wonder. There’s a fair bit of the side-eye going on, wondering if this person or that was one of the cunts who voted for the cunts. I can’t get over the fact that so many people did. I’m sure I’d be shocked to discover some of those who did, and it’s probably better than I don’t – but it leaves me free to speculate.

Last night I went out for dinner and drinks with JV. His wife’s away and he wanted to make a night of it. We had a beer at a bar before heading to an Italian restaurant for some wood-fired pizza. We were in a quandary after that: where to next? There was a possibility we’d adjourn back to his home or mine for a bottle of wine while watching the footy, but it was too early for that. We ended up going to another bar a few metres away, where the pianist who’d performed at his wedding had a show. Turned out to be a great decision.

It was the most fun I’ve had for a long time. It was an intimate upstairs bar full to the gills. Most of the crowd there were women, maybe 60%, and the rest mainly middle-aged couples. We were probably the demographic outliers amongst that lot, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the show. We found ourselves a handy spot to listen and watch-on while we hopped into one drink after another, spirits for the night.

The pianist was great. He was a slick musician, and he was also a great showman. He worked the crowd firing it up and engaging in different parts of it, all the while taking requests and singing a bunch of old classics everyone knew. Naturally, everyone sang along too. There was a great and happy vibe there, and I was caught up in it too, sipping on my drink and watching the antics of the hyped-up audience and singing along loud.

At one point, I found myself thinking how good music is connecting people. It’s its own language. In a way, it was surprising to find everyone as attuned to the music as I was, and the knowledge that they knew the words as well as I did, and that these songs had been as much a part of their life as they had mine was a simple, but profound realisation. We shared this. We were a community. In that room, last night, singing along together, we were all happy and all a part of something together.

As I thought that I realised that among the crowd would be some, I have come to describe as cunts because of their political beliefs. And though that was a simple realisation also, it was shocking in a way too. How can someone vote for those cunts and still happily sing along so joyfully with the rest of us?

I would guess if there were a survey of the room most would’ve voted the same, or similar, to what I did. We were smack bang in the middle of the CBD after all, and the crowd was probably more ‘latte-sipping’ than most given the venue and the show. But, naturally, there would’ve been a few there who passionately voted for the others. What did I make of that?

You might think that the realisation sharing a sing-along with them might have mellowed my beliefs some. But no. There are some things you can’t excuse away just because you belong to the same club. These are awful times we live in, and I’m disinclined to glad-hand those who aid and abet the people who wilfully do awful things. Just because you sing along to Rocketman with me doesn’t mean we’re brothers.

That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything from it, though, more truly, it wasn’t anything I learned so much as was reminded of. Half the people who voted for the others did so I reckon from ignorance and apathy, and a few more out of greed. There are few true fascists between them. And even they take pleasure in the same things as the rest of us (and probably a few other things besides). People don’t wear horns. Sometimes you can guess at these things, but they’re no signs that give it away 100%, and the friendliest, most affable people you can meet can, sometimes, in their spare time, be the greatest bigots. You can have 90% in common with someone, but that 10% difference is telling.

Did I learn anything? Maybe I can’t be on my guard all the time and that there’s no point going around giving people the side-eye because I’m not going to know, and it’s done anyway. That doesn’t mean I forgive the cunts. This is our life. It’s too big to forgive.

An untainted heart


Google popped up with a memory this morning dating from 2013. On this day back then I was visiting Lords, in London. A few days later, I flew home, and I haven’t been abroad since.

I knew it had been a while, but to be confronted with the facts like that was disturbing. There was a string of about twenty years when if I wasn’t away every year then certainly I would be the year after. They weren’t just ordinary trips away either. There were a few long trips to Europe, a couple of extended breaks in Asia, another through North Africa, some working trips here and there, as well as the short holidays away to places like Bali and Fiji and New Zealand.

I’ve said it before, but this regular travel made up a part of my self-identity. I never felt more myself than when I was away. I’m someone who, in general, embraces change and difference. I’m naturally curious. I like to get beneath the skin of things and feel myself in it. There’s a restless inquisitiveness in all that, but also a desire for authentic experience. And I like to live by my wits – as a western tourist you’re a member of a privileged class, but I was always aware of that and sought to catch the same busses and trains the locals do, and eat the same food, go to the same bars. And I always did it off my own bat, bar once for a brief period, organising things myself and following the restless whim where it took me. Gee, I miss that.

At work yesterday, I was a part of an exercise in setting SMART goals. At one point we had to note down the things we hoped to have achieved by this time next year. I could’ve written down a hundred things. What I did write related to my writing – getting two books submitted for publication by then. But I might easily have put down more practical goals, of which I have many. An outcome of achieving some of those would mean more money and the hope that I could get back to travelling sooner rather than later.

I’m aware that writing about these things might sound a little whiny. Believe me, in person, I’m anything but whiny. I give myself some grace here. This is my private space. And these things are real. These are the things that pass before my eyes, the thoughts that occur to me. And, you know, I like to understand, and the act of writing helps me do that. That’s why I write in general, I think, the desire to parse experience into some more meaningful. This is a record, and I want it to be true to my experience.

I’ll give another pretty innocuous example.

Last night I was in bed reading, and a poem by Rilke is in the text. I read the poem and appreciate it, but something is off in me. I’ve always read poetry, if not frequently, then at least regularly. Rilke is one of my favourite poets. I pause in my reading, wondering how things have changed. As I lay there, I realise that I was a different person when I read poetry before. I was never a dilettante, but I read from a position of comfort and security. Poetry was a pretty thing in my life full of pretty things. It was just as poignant to me then as it is now, I was sometimes moved and occasionally inspired. It would warm me. But then I would go off and live what was, generally, a pretty life – and that includes the easy travel.

I read these things differently now. Last night I began to articulate it to myself. Looking back, I was hardly innocent, but I was undamaged. I was worldly, but I had the easy expectation of things falling my way and the general belief that all I aspired to would, in due course, become mine. There’s a kind of innocence in that, really, and I’ve lost that completely and it changes the way I experience and see things. It’s a great loss.

This explains the general sense these many years. I am burdened when I wasn’t before. I’m healing, but I’m damaged. Where I was light previously and easy, I’m now hard. I wish so much it wasn’t the case. It feels tragic.

I’ve said occasionally that I still don’t feel like I’m living a ‘normal’ life. I don’t know if what I think is normal is long lost and unreasonable to expect now, though I tend to frame it in simple terms. I realise my life was privileged before, that what for me was normal was likely abnormal for most. I would like to return to that but have no expectations. I’m happy to expect the same as anyone else, that normal will do me.

I will get to that, I think, and perhaps beyond it. Unfortunately, in the time between – my lost years – the things I fully expected to attain, I know will never be now. I won’t be a father now, I may never become a husband.

In the end, it’s not about dollars or cents, but state of being. I want to be carefree again, to be part of the world without having to struggle, to be just another person. I’ll never reclaim my innocence, but I’d be happy to read poetry again with a heart untainted by loss.

Places of the spirit


Of course, there are things that run through my head all the time. Often I think I must write about that, but mostly I never get around to it. Until there’s such an application that taps directly into my mind that will be the case.

Today I want to specifically reference the fire that has consumed Notre Dame, in Paris. I feel for the French, and the Parisians particularly, for whom this must feel like a blow to the soul. It feels an unreal event, an affront to nature, something that could never happen and should never happen.

I first walked into Notre Dame about 21 years ago. I’ve been to many cathedrals in my time, but this has always been my favourite. I’m a history buff and knowing that so many momentous events had happened right here was a thrill in itself. There was a deeper, darker connection than that though. I remember standing beneath the high roof surrounded by the immense stone columns and peering at the beautiful stained glass windows and feeling humbled by the meaning of it all. It felt a great spiritual moment.

Places like Notre Dame are living reminders of the wonder and mystery of our existence. We live in the moment so much these days, but Notre Dame had stood for almost a millennia. It teemed with life and history. With luck, it might have gone on for another millennium, or more. I guess that’s true for many such buildings and there are dozens of others who have left me just as impressed – but not so spiritually engaged. Notre Dame felt like a living place to me, not just of history but of humanity as well. I think of only one other place off the top of the head I felt so moved, the Pantheon in Rome.

Notre Dame has not been completely destroyed they say, though the spire has fallen and no doubt the wondrous stained glass is gone – as well as the old, middle-aged wooden structure. It will be rebuilt, as it must, but will it be the same place?

Update: it appears that while the roof and spire have gone and much structural damage otherwise, the bulk of the stonework has been saved – in fact, photos from inside are almost eerie with the area around the altar a pile of blackened ruins tumbled from the roof, while most of the nave seems untouched. Most importantly – and almost miraculously – the famous, magnificent rose stained glass appears undamaged.