Steeped in melancholy

I went to the city late yesterday to do some last-minute shopping and catch up for dinner with a friend. I sat in a pub with a beer in my hand, waiting for her before we had dinner at a Korean barbecue joint.

She offered to drive me home afterwards, and when I refused, she insisted. I sat in the passenger seat watching Melbourne pass by my window, and it struck me how long I’ve been looking out upon this town. I think it was the changes I observed that brought it to mind – old buildings demolished and built in their place, historic facades kept while the innards were gutted, and so on. Among it all, there was still much familiar.

As I looked out on the passing parade, the thought occurred to me: we’ve grown old together. You become a part of the city as much as the city becomes a part of you, and it seemed reassuring. What seemed strange was how much remained vivid to me. When I was young, I looked at older people and pretty well figured their memories must be in sepia, so vast the gap in time seemed.

The game is not so vast from my vantage now, and so much fresh in me – as if I might have stepped from that moment to this without interruption. But, it’s not as simple as that.

Looking out the passenger side window, I spotted an apartment building that looked familiar. Was it this, or one very similar, I wondered? It didn’t matter, it was in the area – and what I remembered was sharing a bathtub with a brunette about 2am on a weeknight, her name escapes me. She dropped me off in the city for work early the next morning, the one and only night I spent with her. I never saw her again.

Driving on, we passed through East St Kilda, close by the poky little flat in Crimea Street of the woman I first fell in love with. I spent the weekend there in 1988, close on after a work party the first time we got together. It was a wondrous, romantic weekend we spent most of in bed together, first in our underwear, and then without it. (Coincidentally, it was where I first discovered it was practically impossible to fuck in a bath). I remembered waiting for the tram late on Sunday that would take me home, and being filled with possibility. It was the first time my heart ever caught.

We drove through areas near where I’d lived at one time or another, and by places I’d shared moments drinking or eating, laughing or loving.

I wonder why I made no reference to this as we drove, but it never occurred to me. It’s rare for me to travel through such parts as a passenger, but as a passenger, you have a different perspective. I looked out upon it as if it was a theme park of my own memory. Why did I choose not to share any of it – until now? I don’t know.

I was in a receptive mood. For reasons unknown, I was struck hard by a bout of melancholia from mid-afternoon yesterday. It’s an internalised state that sensitises you to memory and nostalgia. You see in a different way; you feel more deeply.

Though the memories seemed so detailed, I struggled to understand how I’d travelled from those times to this. In keeping with my state of mind, I felt aware of everything I had lost along the journey. I’m not one for regret, but once or twice, I wondered if I had done something different how things might have turned out? And, momentarily, I yearned to be back in those times so that I could look out with those eyes and feel with that heart and have hope unfettered by reality.

In the end, it’s episodes like that which steel my resolve. It’s nice to have memories, but much more important to make new ones.

The things you remember, and the things you don’t

I was in bed reading last night, and the book changed scenes from London to Casablanca. Without thinking, my mind cast back to when I was there.

What surprised me most is how little detail I remembered of it. My experience of Casablanca was nothing like the romance of old movies, and there was no mystery to it, that much I remember. It has such a name that I felt I had to touch down there, but it’s a dull place – certainly in comparison to the rest of Morocco.

I remember the hotel, but not my room. I can recall visiting the vast and impressive mosque there, but none other of my tourist activities while there. I can’t even remember eating out, though normally that’s a highlight.

As I lay there reading my mind worked away at my memory: where did I go after? Was it Marrakech or Essaouira? And how did I travel – was it by bus or train?

I remember catching the train at least twice. The first time it felt like a suburban train travelling between cities and so crowded that I couldn’t find a seat. I stood near a door with my bags gathered around me, shoulder to shoulder with the locals. I think that was the train to Marrakech. And yes, it was, I remember now, recalling the taxi that picked me up and took me to the riad I would stay in. It was on the outskirts of the Marrakech souk – so big, so labrynthine, that it was easy to be lost within it. But delightful.

And so I remember the French woman who owned the riad – what was her name? We connected later through social media. She was attractive and elegant, very French. We flirted in a sophisticated way. Was it Catherine?

The other train was to Fes, which was my last stop in Morrocco. I had a compartment on that train and shared it for most of the journey with a couple of young Americans spending a year abroad working for the Peace Corps, I kid you not. They were very pleasant and innocent in that very particular way of good-hearted Americans. They were very earnest about doing good and open-hearted in discussing it.

Marrakech I loved, and I thought that Essaouira was great also, though very different. And Fes was interesting.

But then the book referenced Izmir and that’s another place I’ve been, though the memory was muddled in my mind. Was that the place where storks roost upon the tops of old Roman columns? I recalled sitting outdoors at a bar there, drinking an Efes, or perhaps a Raki, and looking upon the grand storks sitting in their nests. But is that Izmir, or have I mixed it up with some other Turkish city?

It’s funny how your memories are scattered. Some things are vivid, many more vaguely recalled, and much else – no doubt – almost completely forgotten. When I travel I always think to myself I should take a photo of my hotel room, though mostly they’re pretty ordinary. It’s a way of anchoring my memory in place though, I think afterwards. It’s funny how few hotel rooms I can remember – only the very good, and the very bad.

I’ll never get back to most of those places. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it feels a strange thought. And I wonder – what places will I get back to?

Days of grace

I’m about to be sentimental. That’s fair warning for those of you who’d rather not read such things. I understand, and you go with my blessing.

For the rest of you, well, Christmas is coming up, which is just about the most sentimental time of year for most people. It is for me also, but more so in memory than practice these days. I’ve come to terms with that, and though I’d wish it different, I can go another year without the true embrace of Christmas with loved ones.

What’s in my mind at the moment is the period after Christmas. For some reason, the last few days I’ve got it in my head days of yore when post-Christmas celebrations my mum and my step-father would head up the bush to the property they had at Yarck. A few times I’d join them, though generally for no more than a week. I’m yearning to do it again but, of course, cannot.

I’ve said it before, how times can be defined by the everyday things you do and think no more of. Your life forms a loose pattern, marked by regular milestones and activities, and the people around you. You’re hardly conscious of it at the time because it’s all so normal – this is your life. You only really understand it when it changes, or goes altogether – when the times shift.

So it was for me. I reckon for about a period of 16 very good years the structure of life around me was great. I lived well and had good friends, but, most importantly, I was a part of an extended family group. My mum had married again in 1990 and with it came another family.

I wasn’t sympatico with all in the other half, but then I wasn’t sympatico with all my in my half either. Never mind, because the rest made up for it.

I’d always been close to my mum, and now that she’s gone, I miss her dearly. I miss her most around times like Christmas when she was in her element. She took a child-like pleasure in the festivities and the joy of family around her that was infectious. This was a time of celebration, and no-one knew how to celebrate better than my mum.

I grew to adore her new husband too, my step-father, who accepted me as if I was born to him. In certain ways, we were different, but in so many other ways, we were in tune with each other. I had great times with him, and with the family in general, too numerous to recount now. I miss him also.

Also part of the package came a step-sister who I became very close to – much closer than I was with my own sister. She was modern and vivacious, and we were very much on the same wavelength.

One of the abiding features of our life as a family was the time we’d spend at Yarck. The property there nestled between the hills on the road to Mansfield. The house was cosy and comfortable. There was a pool out back and an in-ground spa and a tennis court as well. Later on, they built a log cabin, which is where I would sleep.

Mum always said that it was enough to turn into the driveway to feel totally relaxed. I’m generally sceptical of such remarks, but I felt this too. It was a place of comfort and tranquillity. It was somewhere were you dropped all pretence, and where many of the concerns that dogged you back in the city seemed irrelevant. It was a haven for all of us.

For probably a dozen years we all as an extended family would make our way there for Easter. It was a ritual we all craved. There we would eat well – we always ate well – and drink bubbles in the spa and drive up to Mansfield for the fete, or sit around the fire reading.

Otherwise, Mum and Fred would be there once a month probably, and I’d probably join them for the odd weekend two or three times a year. Then there was Christmas.

Generally, they spent a month there after Christmas. A few times, I joined them, but never for that long. I remember the sun blazing down in a perfect blue sky and swimming for hours on end in the kidney-shaped pool or reading on a banana lounge in the shade. We lived a civilised life, and there was always a G&T from about 4.30 in the afternoon, and a bottle of wine or two with dinner.

I always took a bag of books with me and would progressively work my way through it. We slept late most days. Sometimes we’d go for a drive, but mostly stayed at the property, and occasionally would drive the winding track up into the hills, were the kangaroos bounded and the smell of wattle was in the air.

There was work to be done as well – fixing a fence or mowing the lawn. Mum would work in the garden, and there was always firewood to be chopped. But then we’d break it up with a cold beer, and maybe fire up the BBQ.

The point I’m making is that it was a life away from life. The place wrapped itself around you, and you shared it with people you loved, and who loved you.

Somehow, this is what I crave this year. Fred died in 2007, and mum a few years later, and that time – which felt eternal – conclusively ended. Now, there’s nothing more I would rather than to pack up the car with Rigby beside me and spend 2-3 weeks doing fuck-all in that magical place.

Like I said, it’s sentimental. How I miss it. How I miss all of it, particularly now.


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 you find meaning

One of the salient aspects of lockdown is how everything slows down. You’re contained within a location and constrained from meeting others face to face. Every movement is small – from bedroom to study to kitchen; from home to shops, or the circuit in which you exercise or walk the dog. Your window on the world is literally your front window, or those brief occasions you get out, or via the TV screen. Routines barely waver because there’s nothing to disrupt them. External distraction is barely a thing.

In this world we have, it seems, and by necessity, become much more internalised. I was discussing this with someone the other day and we agreed that it’s not necessarily a bad thing and, in smaller doses, perhaps even a necessary thing. In times before we were sadly lacking in this. It’s been welcome to return to ourselves and to the smaller movements of domestic and family life. The problem is, there’s little balance. Hopefully, in times to come, there’ll be a healthy balance between being in the world and feeling it.

Fair to say, I’ve always had strong internalised tides. I used to think that I felt things through my skin, even as I led a pretty robust lifestyle. I was always aware or was most of the time. I thought and pondered, I considered and contemplated, and I could feel it in my stomach as something tenuous but precious. This situation has only accentuated this tendency.

I’m sure a lot of people find themselves reflecting in times like these. I have too, though without particular intent. It’s a bit different for me because while many others have become more conscious of their family around them, I have become conscious of how little family I have. It’s something I’ve become accustomed to over recent years and so I don’t miss in any practical way what I don’t have. There have always been occasional pangs when I feel the absence, and that still happens, but no deeper or more frequent than before. I have grown more detached from it if anything, but the context feels different – more historical almost.

One of the constant reminders is the constantly changing photos on my bedside smart device, as I’ve written before. It seems to me that every week a different photo catches my eye and slowly insinuates its way into my thoughts. Almost all of them are family photos and from family occasions. I walk around while at the back of my mind I carry the image from the picture. For the most part, the occasion is lost to memory – dinners at random memories say, though others I remember, such as when I became godfather to my nephew. It feels strange to me and often quite distant. I wonder sometimes, was that really us? Was that really me? I can recognise myself, but looking back I look different from what I remember. The space of time – up to 30 years – has given me an entirely new perspective, but at the same time, it feels as if I’ve carried a story all this time which has grown and shifted over time until it bears little relationship from how it started. It feels as if that would forever have been the case if I hadn’t set eyes on these old pictures again. In a way, it feels like a reset. It feels as if what I see with my eyes is truer than the memory.

That’s a funny feeling – almost as if you have to review all that you’ve taken for granted. And, yes, I know, some of that will be false or exaggerated. It’s natural to feel more sentimental now, say when you set eyes on people no longer with us. But it also causes you to re-balance the things that have important in your life.

This weeks photo was taken at some indeterminate restaurant sometime in the early to mid-nineties. There are six of us at the table and, as I glanced at it, I realised that three have since passed away. It’s an incongruous thought when you peer at healthy faces with beaming smiles. It’s a moment caught, which is one of the things about photos obviously – they don’t change, while the people in them do.

I’m sitting at the table at the end nearest the camera. I’m wearing a jacket that looks pale in the photographic exposure. I remember the jacket well when I look at the photo – an oatmeal coloured linen jacket that was a favourite for many years. I have a cocky smile on my face, leaning forward slightly, handsome and dashing – like a Spitfire pilot out on the town. I look so certain of myself.

Opposite me is my step-sister. I’ve noticed in these photos that she’s always close to me. She had a thing for me when my mum met her dad and thereafter we were close. That was the case for many years, a dear person to me until mum died and everything went. In the photo, she’s good looking and a little plump, as she was in the early days. Later she loses the baby fat and blossoms into an attractive and intelligent woman. I miss her.

My sister is there, as is her husband. They’ll part about 15-20 years after this, and he’ll abscond to England to live with a woman he met through Facebook. Very modern. Very tawdry. Later he’ll die over there from a massive heart attack. It’s a shock, but not altogether a surprise – he had unhealthy habits and a tendency to binge. And there he is, locked away in an old photo.

Also there, as in most of these photos, are my mum and her husband, my step-father, both dearly loved. They’re smiling, as always. For mum, there was nothing better than being with the people she loved most.

I caught sight of that photo on rotation last night. I leaned in to study it more closely. As often, I felt a sense of wonder and a vague melancholy.

I wonder: what was my life then? What did I think? What did I expect? What restaurant was that? What did I order? Who was I? And: how is that me?

I went away from it and I thought, that photo will continue rotating, and with others, even when I’m not there to see it. Even after I’m gone as long as someone plugs it in. It’s a fragment of memory that’s broken off and lives on in cyberspace. It’s me that gives it context – without me, it’s just a photo of a bunch of unknown people having dinner together. There’s no history. No meaning. But looking at it again there’s a historical perspective I didn’t have before, and from it erupting other moments and possibilities and revisionist conjectures. But only in me. I give the photo meaning. I suspect that’s true of much of life: we give it meaning.

That may be a realisation many are now experiencing in this lockdown. It seems a simple and obvious thing, but those are the things we forget or take for granted. I only have photos, but I reckon lots of others with family around them are feeling a lot more present without the distractions of former times. You don’t want to lose that or let it drift out of shape.

Twenty years of going backwards

Twenty years ago we were in the middle of the Sydney Olympics. I remember it so well.

I remember the feeling in the week leading up to the Opening Ceremony. There was a great sense of anticipation mixed with wonder. As Australians, we were aware that this was a big deal and that the show we put out to the world would come to represent us as a people and nation. It seems a heady thing, but I think we all felt that. At work, we would come together, getting a coffee or over lunch and wonder what we would see. There was some wariness, but also great excitement. Myself, I was confident that it would be fine.

Rather than going for a drink on Friday night after work, most of us headed home to watch the telecast. I ordered takeaway and settled down to watch it.

What I remember is thinking: we pulled it off. The ceremony was quirky and entertaining and touched upon Australian iconography, and all of it seemed true to our history and nature – or how I perceived it, at least. I laughed at times, partly because I was entertained, and partly because my relief had become fulsome pride. I had tears in my eyes at other times. I felt it fill and expand me. This is the Australia I believe in, I thought. When Cathy Freeman was revealed and lit the Olympic flame, it was a moment that transcended the event.

Over the next fortnight, I watch all the big events cheering the Aussies on, and we did well. I didn’t travel to Sydney, but I went to the MCG to watch the opening match of the soccer competition. There were fantastic moments that have since been inscribed upon the national consciousness. One was the 4×100 metre freestyle relay final in which Ian Thorpe guided Australia to a win in the final 5 metres. It was the event where Klim said we broke the Americans like guitars.

The biggest event of all was the women’s 400-metre track final. It was the event the whole nation held it’s breath for. In it, Cathy Freeman took on the world. She was favourite, having only been defeated only once over the distance since 1996. She was symbolic of many things – not just a rolled-gold medal chance, she was an indigenous woman representing much more than Australian sporting prowess. That she was also a charismatic figure added extra weight to the occasion. Every one of us wanted her to win. Every one of us tuned in to watch. Every one of us carried inside us a cruel knot of emotion, mixed equally of the fear that she would lose and the belief that she must win.

I wonder what might have happened had she lost? She didn’t, though. She opened up on the back straight and won easily. It was such a controlled race in the midst of all this crazy. The crowd simmered and roared, flashbulbs popping like crackers and broadcasters rode the emotion as they called her across the line. She seemed so calm. In retrospect, it seems like she was never going to lose.

It seems a funny thing to say, but I think it was a great moment in Australian cultural life. There was an excellent documentary on TV last week that commemorated the event, and which explored the symbolic intent of the win.

Australia has won many Olympic gold medals. We’re one of the most successful Olympic nations over history. There are many – dozens – of memorable gold medals to celebrate. This was different though because it caught a moment in time.

This was our Olympics. We came out in droves to support it, and in years to come it would be declared the best Olympics ever. One of the reasons for that is that we as people gave so much to it. It was our Olympics, and competing on our behalf was a young and charismatic indigenous champion. It was only a few years before that Mabo had been made law, and long-overdue steps towards reconciliation had been taken. Cathy Freeman was timely because she was a part of that wave – included, one of us, not excluded, as before. I think finally she represented hope, which is a grand statement.

It was the year 2000. A new millennium. We were riding high, economically and culturally. We had an LNP government, but the ambitions and vision of the previous Labor governments of Hawke and Keating were fresh in us. Life was good, and when Freeman won it felt meant to be, yes, this is our time.

It’s been a different story since. It’s almost heartbreaking to look back ad see how much has changed. I engaged with a journalist during the week when she brought up much the same. Yes, I said, we fucked up. She agreed – but pointed out, not just us, but everyone. She’s right.

I tend to look back and consider that things went wrong when John Howard became prime minister. He’s celebrated by the conservatives like royalty, but I tend to think in the pantheon of shithouse leaders – and we’ve had a few lately – then he is the very worst. Not because he was less capable. Incompetence is an excuse. He was always capable, but he’s always been a narrow, bitter, possessive type, more inclined to put his mark on things than to seek what’s best for all of us. He started the so-called culture wars. Where the government before him had been inclusive, he was exclusive. They had ideas and ambition and a concept of Australia as something more than a country at the bottom of the globe living off natural resources. But Howard rejected that because he was threatened by ideas he couldn’t grasp. Famously, he aspired to the ‘relaxed and comfortable’ world of the fifties. Very deliberately, he killed off the progressive policies of the government. Hawke and Keating had grown us as people, but Howard made us smaller.

As an Australian, I’ll never forgive him, especially when you consider what has come since. He corrupted our politics and lowered the bar to a degree that such utter fools and mediocrities like Abbott and Morrison could become PM.

It was not just Australia, though. I think a lot changed on 9/11. I know I never felt the same after that. Suddenly, there was the knowledge that I wasn’t safe. It felt as if we’d been naive before not knowing it, but what delight there was in that innocence. 9/11 ushered in corrupt politics and fear and the neo-conservatives taking over and a narrower, more partisan view of the world. Something had opened. Now it closed. It led to a succession of incompetent conservative governments in much of the world in recent times and in the background the looming spectre of climate change – now in the foreground.

Perhaps we were naive in 2000. Life will never be like that again. Even if the pendulum swung back – as it must do at some point – and we get some sensible, progressive government again, then I fear it’s too late. Climate change has done us in. Those vainglorious fools who refused to accept or do anything about it, who sought personal power before the good of the world, who rejected the science out of political expediency and led us down the garden path – that will be the legacy they leave to the rest of us who don’t deserve it. If there is to be a history, then that’s what it will record – too late.


Four men talking around a fire

You’re going to have to indulge me today. I’ve mentioned quite a few times now how the revolving photos from my Google device catch my eye. It seems there’s a different photo every week that draws my attention, and for various reasons. Sometimes, it’s pure nostalgia, even sentimentality. Sometimes, it’s surprise at coming across something I had forgotten, or wonder at beholding something familiar in a completely different way. Occasionally there’s an intangible emotion that has me looking twice.

I think that’s the case with this image. When I look at it, I think how well composed it is. It feels such an Australian picture, out in the bush with a kettle dangling over a fire, a few men chewing the fat, overlaid by the haze of woodsmoke. I look at it, and I’m reminded of one of the classic bush paintings by McCubbin or Roberts.

I’d only be guessing when and where this was taken. I remember in the early/mid-nineties we went into the high country of Victoria, around Whitfield, to hunt deer. It was a miserable few days. It hardly stopped raining, and at one stage it appeared our campsite would be flooded. We never saw a deer and spent most of our time huddled around the fire reading or talking or drinking. I was there with my step-father and step-brother, who both got sick, which was no surprise given the conditions.

I remember I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard sitting by the fire, and it seemed particularly apt to be reading it in such circumstances, and therefore special. I can’t say it was a fun few days, but I remained healthy, and it was an interesting time.

The terrain in the photo looks like that trip. We were camped nearby a stream with hills steeply climbing up from our campsite, thick with scrub. That’s not our campsite though, and I don’t recall that moment – that’s me in the red. My step-father is out of the picture and was obviously behind the camera. My step-brother is the man in the middle standing and wearing a drizabone. I don’t know the man on the right in the hat. The man sitting was our guide, I think.

But, it could have been another time.

I leave it here as a piece of Australiana. I feel like I could reach out and touch it.

Sweet and sour

Some weeks ago, I referred to the google home device that sits on my bedside table and which scrolls through my photo albums as a screensaver. I catch it from the corner of my eye as I lay in bed reading, and sometimes I’ll turn to it and gaze at pics that by now have become very familiar, though never stale.

The album it’s currently showing is mostly of old family pics I scanned over Christmas. Till then, I hadn’t seen them for years, maybe decades. You know how it is with old photos, they’re stuck in a box somewhere inaccessible and out of the way. You’ve forgotten about them, or if you remember it’s just the odd photo that comes to mind, and the pictures in between – the glue that hold those times together – are forgotten. That’s one of the great things about digital photos – they’re always close, and rarely a day goes by when you don’t catch a glimpse of some old memory.

Scanning these photos was one of the best things I’ve done in recent memory, but there were surprises that came with it. I saw things again I’d forgotten about completely. Other moments remain a mystery. There are faces there I’ve not seen for years, and a surprising number are now among the dead. I was initially surprised to see myself in a different way to what I remembered, which caused me to reflect on what identity is. More than anything, perhaps, it brought back to life a time which seems so foreign to current times. I was there, I’ve lived through then and now, but still I find it hard to reconcile.

By and large, the photos are of family and friends. There are the usual occasions recorded – Christmas, birthdays, a christening, many family meals. There are photos of us heading off to the Melbourne cup one year, all smiling faces; and other photos showing us working on renovations or in the garden at Yarck. We’re taking a break, leaning on a shovel, a beer in hand and another grin. And there are scenes from hunting trips and skiing and holidays in general and the date range covers from when I was about seven years old until I was a little past thirty.

Over time, I’ve grown used to the photos scrolling by and enjoy the moment of nostalgia I often feel. It’s not always nostalgia I feel, though. Sometimes, it’s wonder. I’ll turn and watch as if unsure it’s true and wanting to return to that moment to understand. Over time my gaze has shifted from the oddity of seeing myself in a different way, to look upon my wider family, and more than anyone, my mum and her second husband, my stepfather.

It’s a measure of my affection for them that among the photos I chose to scan are those with little to do with me. I wasn’t there, I don’t even know how I came to possess the pictures. But maybe it is that I wanted to capture a memory, or a perspective, of my mother particularly. There are some from a time before she met Fred. She’s out, socialising, with friends and doing things. She’s younger in those pics, and I try to remember that because my lasting memory of her is from the end. I look at her in the photos, at her smile and the way she looks in the camera. I knew her then, I think, which is an absurd thought, but somehow natural, too. I wonder what conversations we had then.

Then there are the pics of her with Fred, both of them smiling and happy. This was a golden age, for all of us – if only we knew it. There’s one photo, they’re overseas somewhere I think, and in my mind, I imagine it’s Paris. They were often travelling. They’re sitting at a restaurant table smiling up at the camera and it’s a lovely photo. Then I realise the sports jacket that Fred is wearing – a black and white houndstooth – I now have. I wear it sometimes. I have it because it’s been a long time since he’s needed it. There’s a sour tang that goes with the sweetness of the memory. And that’s how it is, sweet and sour.

I am of a particular type that reflects deeply on such things. I try and find understanding as if it was a thing. What I’m really searching for is a kind of balance. What is there to understand, after all, but that all is ephemeral? People come, people go, the river of life continues. The balance you seek is acceptance of that, the sweetness of memory in one scale, the sourness of loss in the other. And, being human beings, it’s only rare that they’re in true balance.

Today is my mum’s birthday. Had she still been alive she’d have turned 79 today. Both she and Fred were sprightly, active types, but both went before their allotted span. If it were not for cancer you’d expect that mum would still be around, and Fred perhaps as well. But, cancer.

Perhaps what I seek to understand is how this becomes that – how happy photos become sad memories; how a full life becomes abrupt death. You know the answer – there are no guarantees, and its ever been this way. There is no understanding to be had unless you seek to understand life itself. And if there is an understanding of that to be had, then it’s not in a single answer but in multitudes of possibility. So, it’s balance and acceptance that you seek, the memory of happy times, and the wistful knowledge that nothing is forever.

And in the meantime, I just miss my mum.

The course of time

I wrote last week about how I’ve changed from what I used to be, how I don’t have the patience or will, the appetite, to go as hard as I once I would without a second thought. I wrote that on Friday, but it was in my mind all of Thursday. That night, as I went to bed, I found myself going back to my childhood and when a lot of this started.

It feels as if time and recent experience has given me a different perspective of when I was a kid. I would recall it in fragmentary bursts before. It would be colourful and lively in my memory, all golden, but. Thre was little connecting it into a narrative of development. Maybe because I’ve looked deeper into myself in recent years, I now look back differently.

Sometimes I see a photo of myself as a young teenager and struggle to understand how he and I can be the same person. I can close my eyes and picture any number of photos very similar in type. I’m a cute kid. I have floppy, chestnut coloured hair, an infectious, innocent smile, and clear blue eyes. I even have freckles! For the early part of my high school years, I was undersized for my age, and it was something I hated. I don’t know where or how I got it into my head, but I always wanted to be tall. Then one year, when I was about 16, I must have grown 4-5 inches, becoming a tall, lanky, paled skinned, and somewhat awkward kid. I wasn’t as pure cute as I used to be, but I went from being one of the shortest kids in the class to one of the tallest.

I always think my childhood was happy, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I was lucky that I had close friends and had many adventures – the sort of stuff that Spielberg puts in his movies. WeE lived in a deloping outer suburb where there was still a lot of bush and wild tracks. There was a heap of kids in the street I grew up in, but I was one of the eldest and so I, along with two others about the same age, became a leader. We went for long bike rides and built tree-houses and played street cricket and constructed makeshift rafts to sail the Plenty river and played games and kicked the footy, and so on. My best mate in those days was my next-door neighbour, Peter Woody, much taller than me – he topped out at about 6’8″. We did everything together, not all of it legal, but it was all in fun and from a sense of daring.

We had built our house, and I remember while it was being constructed how dad would pick me up from the local primary school and take me to the property to see how it was going. This was the early seventies. It was a good home, and even after a stint in Sydney for two years when I was about 15, we returned to it. I had a loving and close extended family, but looking back the family unit I was a part of was dysfunctional – and I wonder how much that impacted on me. My mum had had a nervous breakdown and was emotionally frail, though very devoted. Ultimately she would leave my dad and take me with her. My sister was a nasty brat who tyrannised my mum. My dad was the big businessman who worked long hours and travelled overseas and had an aura of impatient accomplishment. We had little relationship outside of the footy we would attend together most Saturday afternoons. In my final year of school, he actually stopped talking to me for a few months because of some slight (I cocked a fist at him in an argument).

I’ve always thought that I was pretty much the most normal of us, but my view on that has shifted in recent years. On the outside, I think that probably appeared the case. While things bubbled along at home I continued to have my adventures. I had my struggles, though, I think. I feel as if I struggled for confidence back then, and for years to come. I would deny it, ashamed even to think it might be true as if it was unmanly. I was a smart kid at school, but a terrible student. I was the sort of kid who’d turn up to do a test one week and get near-perfect marks, and the next week do another and be mediocre. I never studied, and my homework was cursory. I wasn’t interested in that, but there was an element of unconscious rebellion in it.

What was I rebelling against? What did I want? I think I took for granted my ability. I’d always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat when I needed to, and I gave it no thought until we moved to Sydney, and I was required to do an aptitude test before commencing school there. The result of that was that was declared to have ‘well above average’ intelligence. I can still remember the moment being told that and a sense of dawning realisation. Once it was in my head, I became conscious of it. It was like my get out of jail card – I was well above average intelligence, I’ll be right.

I think there was some striving for identity. I was neither popular or unpopular at school. I was good athletically, I was smart enough, and I played most of the school sports. I think I was a nice, decent kid. But I remember times when I’d act up. There was a famous occasion I debated with my teacher in English class and was banished from it. Another occasion I was told off by my science teacher in the middle of a test because I’d got out my comb – I had a fold-out comb, just like the Fonz – and began to comb my hair when I finished before anyone else. On another occasion, I opened a classroom window and climbed out of it while the teacher was writing on the blackboard, and walked home (that was maths, and I hated maths).

Then there was the moment that changed my life, and which I found my memories gravitating towards last Thursday night.

It was my final year of school. It would have been about August, a few months shy of the exams. We’d had an economics test as a trial for the exams and had our results read out in class. I did okay without doing great – about 75%. It was good enough, but I’d achieved it without putting any work into it. While everyone else slaved away over their books in study period, I’d be out on the oval kicking a footy around (earlier in the year I’d actually skipped an economics class to kick a footy on the oval the classroom overlooked, and I knew it). On this day I’ll never forget, we were walking out of the class after the results were released one of my classmates (Ian T), turned and said to me with some bitterness “if only you’d study, H”.

There was a moral judgement in his words. Where’s the justice if his best effort was just good enough to achieve a mediocre mark when someone like me – lazy and indifferent – could swan in and without apparent effort do better? The inference was clear – if I put in the effort I might be anything. I’d done nothing and even so, had got a few marks better than he had – he, who diligently spent every available hour studying. I probably shrugged my shoulders then, but when I crashed and burned a few months later at the real exams, they were words that came back to haunt me.

I’ve never forgotten. There was a great lesson in that and, to my credit, I heeded it. It took me a while, but I realised that being smart wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t unmake the mistakes I’d made, but in time I learned to put the effort in and to apply the intelligence I had to a work ethic I learned. It almost became a thing for me, for many years to come. I was still capable of being brilliant, but that was a cheap trick I couldn’t take credit for. The kid that turned to me in the corridor at school was much more worthy than I was, and I recognised that. Character means taking on the hard yards. It means staying the course and doing the right thing before doing the easy thing. And it recognises that every effort counts. I used to glory in all that. I used to think I was harder than anyone, would go further, stay stronger. It was a belief system that contained its own validation, and which became self-perpetuating. Until I came tumbling down.

Which brings me to today. My failures over the last twenty years or so are not from a lack of effort, or intelligence, but judgement and hubris. I accept that. It was that ethic that kept me strong when things were bad because I refused to submit to despair. This was a test that I needed to pass. And I did, more or less. But now I find that I don’t have the conviction I had before, and with it, the appetite for the effort required has waned. It’s not because I fear hard work – recent events have proved the opposite. It’s more a mental thing, as if I have lost belief in the point of it. I’m fudging it still and getting away with it, but more and more I’m reverting to those old ways when I’d rely on natural talent to get me through.

I can only believe there’ll be limits to that, as there were before. And I have to wonder, in light of all this, if I’m on the right path? And – if I’m not – which is?

And, just to be clear, I don’t think this necessarily a bad thing, just a true thing. And if it’s indeed true, then I need to adapt to it.

Unforgotten years

Lockdown has eased slightly from midnight last night, and I can look forward shortly to visiting some of my friends in their own home. Here and now nothing is different for me. You go out, you see things from afar, you return home, and at home, you dwell. You live inside yourself much more because what’s outside is much less. I suppose that’s hard for some people, unused to turning inward, and those for which there is little inside. That’s not a problem I have.

You know how it is, the tiniest of things can set off a series of memories. That happened to me last night when I found myself recollecting the life I had early in the century.

For some reason, I think the last couple of years of last century forgotten in terms of my life. I don’t know why that is, except for maybe because there’s a 19 in front of it instead of a 20. Nothing remarkable happened at that time, but it was hardly uneventful. I travelled to Europe for the first time. I had my usual love affairs. Work was going well, and my social life was healthy. I remember the NYE party I went to to see in the new Millenium, down Frankston way at a house on the beach, everyone wondering if Y2K would strike, and in the meantime, partying hard.

That was not what I recalled last night. What I remembered was a time in 2001 when I’d just returned to Australia from travelling through Asia and Europe. It was a rambling, confronting holiday if I dare call it that. I’d left a few months before to go to Singapore to meet a girl.

We’d been lovers in Melbourne, and I thought she was marvellous. But then she got a posting to Singapore as corporate counsel with her work, just as she’d dreamt of. Go, I told her, selfless as always in matters such as this. At her farewell party, her mother came to me and told me to follow her. I hadn’t thought of it until then, but suddenly I thought, why not? And so about 8 weeks later I caught a plane having resigned my job, sold my car, and let out my apartment. All very H.

It didn’t turn out as I hoped. It never does. We’d left it too long, she had a new life, and I always had the feeling there might be someone new in the background. I stayed with her a while and then left. It’d been a memorable fortnight for several reasons, but I left feeling distraught.

I couldn’t go home, so I did the next best thing – I went to Paris. I moped around there a few days feeling sorry for myself, before spending a few more days in Deauville and taking day trips around. Fortunately, Cheeseboy was in Europe at the same time visiting his parents. I caught a train to Brussels, then onto Amsterdam, and after a few days, met up with him. We had a great time, and it was just what I needed. We met up with a couple of his girlfriends of his from uni and went to Haarlem and Boomendahl, riding bikes everywhere, drinking big steins of beer, and smoking ‘super’ joints. Then back to his hometown of Rijssen.

I parted from him eventually and went back to Paris, and from there flew back to Singapore, and then onto Vietnam. Eventually, I made it home a few days before 9/11.

I had no place to live and no job, so I stayed with my mum in Canterbury. I remember watching TV at about 10pm and a newsflash reporting a plane had flown into the WTC. At that stage, it seemed a terrible accident. Then another flew into it.

They were momentous days. There was a sense that the world had changed forever with this monstrous act. Everyone was in shock. Everything else paled.

I felt in a fugue. I was unemployed and my life was doing nothing but watching the news reports. I was a frail state before any of this had happened. I was broken-hearted but yearning still, and the horror of 9/11 spiralled me into a deeper state of depression. I was distressed at what had happened, but when I cried – which was pretty regular – the sorrow was equally shared between what had happened to me, and what had happened to the world.

I remember one day mum and my sister took me out to lunch in a pub near North Richmond station. They were concerned I was depressed and spoke to me about it. They were right, but I didn’t realise till then that it was so obvious, or that my pain had transferred to others. I remember I broke down and wept at their kindness.

They were strange times. For a while, I was convinced I had to go back to Europe. My destiny, I felt, was following the art trail there, starting in Italy. It resonated with my inner self, the creative side of me that could look at a piece of artwork and feel immersed in it. Perhaps I wanted to submerge myself in a deeper meaning in a time that my heart was broken and terrorists had changed the world. For weeks, it seemed, it felt as if that was the answer if only I could get there. Maybe I just wanted to get away. None of that happened, and I felt surprisingly aggrieved.

Looking back it seems an unlikely and possibly preposterous notion, yet life is like that sometimes, and sometimes it’s meant to be like that. The straight and narrow leads us to places we already know. There’s not much fun in that, and no adventure. Thankfully, though I didn’t do this, I’ve spent a lifetime straying from the path and feel better for it, despite the tribulations along the way. I wonder though, what might have happened had I followed my desire then?

Instead of that, I got a job, and eventually a lot of my swagger back. I hooked up with a woman from New York and went with her for a while. She had high hopes for me, but though she was smart and attractive – and we had great sex – she had no sense of humour. I can recall, many times, I’d say something and she’d look at me blankly before asking, was that a joke? Of course, it was, but it kills the moment when you have to explain it. Like many Americans, she seemed to struggle with the subtleties of dry wit. It was never going to work.

Next was a consultant I met at work. She was sweet and lovely and thought I was wicked – she got my sense of humour. She was from Taipei originally, and for weeks there was this build-up of expectation. It was steamier for her than for me. All my frailty had passed, and I was very much at ease. Eventually, one night, the inevitable happened – but it ruined everything else. We fucked, and that was that.

There was another woman. I was a consultant brought in to look at something or another. My desk was in a pod with four women whose work had nothing to do with mine. Still, we’d banter all day.

One of them was the sort of cool beauty that other women look at with envy. Others gravitated to her for that reason, much as they do all over the world. She knew it too, though I think had become jaded by it. We’d look at each other and slip each other one-liners – she was very good like that. I remember one day all of them were wondering aloud why I was single and what they could do about it. There was a lot of teasing going on. The cool beauty piped up asking if I’d tried online dating, then, upon my prompting, proceeded to give a verbal profile for me to use. I remember her calling me handsome and witty, and I knew then that she liked me.

I should have done more with her. We circled each other for a while. I knew the secret with women who have men clamouring after them was to remain nonchalant. That was easy for me. Being cool was my default setting. And, predictably, it intrigued her. One night we all went out to a bar, and she had too much to drink and got a bit emotional. There was a mini-scene when it got too much for her.

I’d known for a while that things weren’t great for her. I won’t say she was tormented, but she was unhappy. I remember her family had issues. From what she’d told me they’d seemed dysfunctional and incapable of leading a sensible life. She alone, the beautiful product of it, seemed to have any self-awareness.

Something of all this came out that night in an outpouring of grief and anger. One after another of the men there went to comfort her. Roughly, she rejected them. I want H to tell me she proclaimed and came to me. I can’t remember what the question was now. I can’t remember what I told her, though I would’ve comforted her. I was good at that.

After that, we felt bound together somehow, but though I saw her a few times, I allowed it to fade away eventually. That was very H also.