Comes and goes

The memories keep coming, slipping by the triggers that otherwise keep me in the moment. They come when my guard is down, when things are done and I’m relaxing into the night – sitting watching the TV, or as I lay in bed reading.

Last night two disparate memories returned, one from when I was a child, and the other when I was a grown man travelling the world.

From the time I was a baby until I was about 12-13 my grandparents on either side would mind me, and later my sister, through school holidays and other random occasions. When I was a baby, my mum would leave me with her mother – Nanny, as I would call her – while she went to work. I have no memory of that, though a strong bond developed between me and Nanny. Years later, mum would often tell the story of how I would cry having to leave nanny when mum collected me every night.

We were always close, right up to the day she prematurely died. I was about 16 then, and though I’d held it together through her illness and even at the news of her death, I bawled at the sight of her lying in her coffin at her funeral. It wasn’t her, I thought. It looked like someone different, someone hollowed out without even memory of life in her features. I made a vow on that day that I would never choose to look upon the dead features of a loved one again. It broke me at the time though, until I was wracked with sobs I couldn’t control. I loved her so much, and she, me – I was her favourite, she would tell me, don’t tell anyone.

I recall now how mum disapproved of my tears, though I don’t understand why. Did she think it innapropriate? There was a man there, the husband of one of mum’s best friends. He was always pleasant, very handsome – a runner who’d competed at Stawell – but he’d always had a veneer of the superficial. On that day, though – and I’ve never forgotten – he came up to comfort me. I don’t remember what he said, but he allowed me my grief, and for that I was grateful. From that day forward, I had a soft spot for him, and great respect for those who seek to comfort others in moments of sadness. I’ve tried to be that man, myself.

That was not the memory, though it’s not unusual that one memory triggers others.

The memory was well before that when Nanny and Gramps lived in Reservoir in a small house built in the rear yard of her sister’s home, Auntie Elsie and Uncle Bill. I used to love going over there. Nanny would make pancakes and chips. Gramps would tell me about the war (he was a sapper and fought in New Guinea and Borneo), and we’d share his Parade magazines. On the wall – very seventies – was a print of a galleon under full sail, blue-tinted and dramatic. And Nanny was always great fun to be around.

What I remembered is banal in a way – but sometimes it’s the banal that is most affecting because it is the most commonplace. Nanny used to listen to a program on the radio called the Gong Show. It was a talent quiz and performers would be rated by how many gongs they got. I remember so well how she would avidly listen to this in the mornings before the day had properly started (and in the night, too?). I recall there seemed few talented performers, and it was depressing all round – and not only because I could sense the small hopes of mediocre wannabes being crushed. The whole thing felt deathly to me in some way – this was the radio of another time it felt, a sepia-ed past that seemed small in my childish mind. And it felt like old people’s radio, for people who’s life was nearly past, and I didn’t want to think that.

That memory came to me last night watching the cricket. An hour or so later, in bed, there came to me the distinct memory of an evening spent in Hanoi. This must have been 2006. I was there for business, and would fly onto Bangkok and Delhi. The night before the Hanoi office had taken me out for dinner to some lively restaurant where the food was great, and on the way back I clung to the back of a moped taking me to my hotel.

This memory is the night after and left to my own devices. I wander into the heart of Hanoi, which is situated around a lake. It was lively again, and bright, and I wandered up streets and down laneways. I was looking for somewhere to eat and couldn’t settle on anything. It feels like I wandered for hours – and it was quite some time – but now I can’t recall where I ended up eating. I remember people about and the mopeds scooting by and scooters and lanterns and great trees and the light reflecting off the lake seen in glimpses. It was balmy and I remember the chatter of the locals as they went about their nightly routines. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a store and bought a silk tie – mauve, and something for mum. And that was it, a night in a foreign city, the tall, white guy wandering around and no-one sparing him a second look.

Why am I remembering these things? Memories come and go. They return randomly. This feels different, somehow. As if I’m allowed to remember, as if it is a reminder wrapped up in the gift of memory: you did this, this is yours, savour it. But then there’s a twist: you were there, but you’ll never get back there again.

The memory of Hanoi triggered another, a snapshot really, years later in Shanghai, and I’m in a bar on the 60th floor or something of one of the dazzling skyscrapers there overlooking the Bund. It’s a great view, and with me are two Shanghai women having a drink with me.

I remember because these things are true

I’m going through a patch at the moment when fragmentary memories come to mind seemingly without reason. They come as a surprise and, surprised, I dwell on them as if a novelty. Some of these things have not been in my mind since when they occurred. Years later, I get a different perspective on them.

One such memory was of me when I was a teenager and regularly clashing with my father. I don’t think we were ever close. The closest we ever got was when we’d go to the footy together year after year, but that was more companionship and a shared passion than true affection. My father isn’t the warmest character by nature and could be described as an alpha personality.

As a teenager, I sensed his need to dominate, and by nature, I rebelled against it. I say by nature, but I wonder if instead, it was something that developed in the abrasive interactions between us. Though we weren’t close, I admired him. He’d achieved a lot, was a mover and shaker, and was by far the most forceful personality in our ecosystem of family and friends. I respected his achievements, but it was the strength of his will that drew me. My father certainly wasn’t the most liked, but that wasn’t a consideration for me (my mother was the most liked, and so counter-balanced the equation). In my juvenile way, I liked that he was the man every one stopped for.

I might have liked it, but it didn’t mean I wanted to stop for him – or even heed him. I got it in my head that I would respect me more if I stood up for myself as an individual, and so I was an active resister. That was a naïve, idealistic belief – I’ve learned since that powerful people want nothing more than to be obeyed.

I look back, and I can admit I was probably a pain in the arse. I don’t know that I was ever really hostile, or even rude, but I was one of those annoying children who would ask why? And if the answer was unsatisfactory, or – more often – not forthcoming, then I wouldn’t cooperate.

That’s a stage a lot of kids go through. In my case, there was an element of wrong-headedness about it, but I can’t say I regret it much now. It was who I was.

Dad took another view. It infuriated him that I might defy him. I can hardly remember the things we argued about, but I remember how we would yell at each other and how, on occasion, it would lead to physical violence.

My mum always maintained my father treated me terribly. I never took that view. By and large, I believed that if I copped anything, then it was mostly because I provoked it, and fair play. I have the same attitude today. If you poke the bear, then you can’t complain if he gives you a swipe in return.

I suspect I’ve probably forgotten a lot, but I reckon too that mum exaggerated, and her recollection was likely coloured by how their relationship ended. We certainly came to blows, and by that, he struck me. He was the bigger man, my father, and I accepted it went with the territory – these were very different times – but I can understand now how someone in authority, the bigger man, should not act in such a way.

Most of my memories of our clashes are vague, but I remember one such when I was about 16, and we were living in Sydney. I can’t remember what we argued about, but I know it was a Sunday. One thing led to another, and he struck me with a clenched fist. The next day I went to school with a black eye and claimed I’d been hit by a cricket ball. Pretty classic.

Within a year, it all changed. One day we clashed again, and this time I was the bigger man. I cocked a fist at him, and I remember everything going still. This was back in Melbourne, in the living room of our house in Lower Plenty. He looked at me with steely eyes and said something along the lines that “the day my son raises a fist to me is the day he’s dead to me”.

For the next 3 months, he ghosted me. We lived in the same house, and he wouldn’t even look at me, let alone say anything – I know this is a time that wounded mum.

In the end, she left him, and that was part of the reason why. Not surprisingly, I went with her while my sister stayed with my dad – who now had started talking to me again. Years later, I came to understand that he had severe hang-ups about me, while – then at least – I was just a kid acting, more or less, like a painful kid.

I can date my unwillingness, or inability, to submit back to that time. The question is whether I was born that way or made it.

The other memory is much happier, more innocent, even inconsequential.

It’s years later. I’m out in the world about 23 or 24 and feeling at the peak of my physical powers. I decided to learn how to tap dance.

I used to admire dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They made it look so much fun, and the movies they made doing it so joyous. I thought, I want a piece of that, and I began lessons in a dance studio in Chapel Street.

In the end, I only attended 3-4 classes, though I learned enough to do some basic tap steps and moves, some of which I still use.

What I remember is that of the class of 7-8, there was only one other male besides the instructor, and he was just about the opposite of me – a slim, slender, retiring type. I was so full of male juice that I could barely comprehend someone like that. I wanted nothing more than to cut a swathe through life, and one had to be bold and fearless to do so. It was another type of naivety.

I felt so commanding. I was strong and fit, and I moved well. I remember, I wore a charcoal grey tank-top to class, a favourite by Saba that showed off my build. I was tall and lean, but my bare shoulders were balls of muscle, and my biceps as big as melons. As we skipped across the floor, I could feel vitality flow through me, like electricity.

As you can probably gather, I was pretty cocky. In my defence, I was also smart and sensitive off-screen, but it was hard to contain the abundance I felt. It didn’t help being in a class full of fit and attractive women. I was in my prime and knew it.

That’s a memory that hadn’t come to mind in all the years since, until Wednesday night. It happened though. I was there.

The last time in 1987

The Boxing Day test match against New Zealand has just concluded with a resounding victory to Australia. Throughout the game, there was a lot of commentary about how New Zealand hadn’t played a Test in Melbourne since 1987. That was a famous match, and all the talk reminded me that I was there.

Actually, I was only there for the last hour or two. I may have attended a day earlier in the match – I don’t remember, but what I do remember is getting off work early in the city and walking down to the MCG on the last day to catch the exciting conclusion.

It’s a famous match because New Zealand was heading for what appeared a certain victory when the last two Australian batsmen came to the crease – Mike Whitney and Craig McDermott. They were up against Richard Hadlee at the peak of his powers. He took ten wickets in this match, and a whole pile more through the series – and I still reckon he’s one of the best five quick bowlers I’ve ever seen (Dennis Lillee and Wasim Akram head that list).

I was working at NAB at the time and probably following the match in the office. This was a tough era to be an Australian cricket fan, probably our lowest ever ebb. A bunch of champions had retired, a rebel tour to South Africa decimated our cricketing depth, and the very reluctant captain in Allan Border had taken over from a tearful Kim Hughes. At best, the team was competitive, though it was building (and it did win the World Cup in a shock result).

I got down to the ‘G with the team about eight down and staring down the barrel. The doors had been flung open, and the crowd had swelled with people like me dropping in on the way home from the office.

I think I was by myself – funny the things you forget, and the things you remember. I do recall how gripping a contest it was when the ninth wicket fell, and it looked odds on that the Kiwis would win.

The game went on, though. In my memory, it was about 30 minutes of steadfast defence. With every ball, you held your breath. Each ball survived meant you could breathe again. There was a big appeal at one stage, LBW against McDermott. Had there been DRS those days he might have ended up out. The umpire ruled not out though, and the game went on.

Finally, it came to the last over, Richard Hadlee bowling to Mike Whitney. Again and again, Hadlee probed, again and again, Whitney defended. With every ball survived the crowd would clap. Then came the last bowl – and Whitney prodded the ball back down the pitch, and raised his arms.

It’s a famous moment; a famous image. I remember the feeling, as if we’d won. We don’t normally like to celebrate draws, it’s un-Australian, but this time it felt pretty ripe because the team had managed it against the odds.

For me, in the crowd, it was a great day to finish a working day.

Sadly, a few years later, I rocked up after work on a similar occasion against England and watched as the much unheralded Dean Headley swept through an Australian side searching for victory. I reckon I saw the last four wickets fall, and the loss that resulted. That was a much different feeling – though it was a much different side. By then we were top of the heap. We lost that match but won that series, and most series after for the next 15 years.

This year, 30 years on, we flogged ’em.

Another scorching day

When I was a kid, I used to love the hot weather. The hotter, the better. You’re pretty carefree as a kid, and I took the baking summer days as an excuse to hop in the pool and splash around. In a funny way, I was pretty patriotic about it, too. I loved it that we had it hotter than most places on earth, and believed it made us more rugged and hardy as a people. When you’re that age, you have a pretty immature grasp of the world, and it comes to you simply – which is much of the charm of being a kid. I guess they call that innocence.

When I cast my mind back, I can recall many a hot day, the sky a pure blue and the sun blazing down. Every year for ages we’d go down the peninsula for our summer holidays straight after Christmas. For the most part, we stayed in Blairgowrie, which remains a great spot today. Hot days then were an excuse to go to the beach, and mostly the surf beach at Gunnamatta. I was a good swimmer and would go out beyond the breakers and look back towards the beach as the swell would gently lift me before crashing down upon it. I’d swim in then, body-surfing the last bit of it, and it was a thrill.

Back home we’d play street cricket or go on long bike rides, or else hop in the pool. We had the only pool in the street, and the neighbour’s kids would often join us for hours of shenanigans. It was an above ground pool, four feet deep, and I can remember dad putting it up bare-chested in the summer heat. In my small way, I helped – wielding a shovel as dad excavated the ground before levelling out the surface, and then holding things in place as dad put the pool up.

My last memory of those hot days are the meals mum would prepare. Often it was salmon patties with salad. I hated salmon patties. More often, it was a straight, seventies style, salad. There’d be a hard-boiled egg, grated carrot and (Kraft) cheddar cheese, a slice or two of tinned beetroot, maybe some potato salad, a selection of cold cuts, and the tomato, white onion, cucumber combo steeped in vinegar. How many people remember that?

It’s many years on now, and my perspective on hot days has switched around completely. I dread them.

We’re looking at another 43-degree day today, which is a total waste of time. Unless you’ve got a pool or are at the beach, there’s nothing to do, and it’s probably even too hot for that. Instead, you’re confined indoors, the air-con going steadily and the blinds and curtains drawn shut to keep the heat out. It’s gloomy and artificial.

I’ve been out, and for the rest of the day, I expect to take it very easy. I reckon I’ll end up pretty bored, but I’ll probably do a bit of reading and, if I can rouse myself, maybe some writing.

Quite aside from being unpleasantly hot, in recent years the heat has brought with it angst and existential pangs. The simple days of my summer youth now seem very innocent. Times have changed.

On days like today, when it is windy as well as hot, I fear what else it may bring. The bushfires are ongoing in NSW, another has sprung up in WA, there’s the risk of the SA fires re-igniting, and here, in Victoria, an area the size of a small US state has received evacuation orders because of fire. I fear for and pity the fire services once more called out to deal with these catastrophes, and I hardly bear to think of all the wildlife that will perish.

There’s no such thing as just another hot Summer’s day, anymore. Each day is loaded with portent. Summer has become an existential test. Where this is all heading I don’t know, but I’m not optimistic, and often I find myself wondering “what have we done?”.

And with that comes blazing anger, pointless and impotent. The leaders we elected to act on our behalf have betrayed that trust. It’s not the first time that’s happened, but this has disastrous consequences: our very future rides on the decisions made by these people. But leadership is either absent, inept or inherently corrupt – or a combination of all three, as we experience it here in Oz. I can’t overstate my contempt for these people. One day, I hope, they are held to account for they’ve done – and didn’t do. That may be small satisfaction as chances are, come that day it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

Things pass, but they’re never gone

A couple of months ago I ordered in a book from a rare and secondhand bookstore in London. The book was The Torrents of War, by Igor Sentjurg – one of the better novels to come out of world war two, but long out of print and hard to find.

I first discovered this book many years ago – shall we say 40 years? My grandfather was a gentle, learned man whose passion was books. At my grandparents home in Strathmore, a whole wall in the living room was given over to bookshelves crammed with hundreds of books. We were regular visitors, and on school holidays I’d spend a week there with my grandparents. I can remember bits and pieces of my visits there – the roast meals, my grandmother’s Anzac cookies, a day out shopping with my grandpa, my grandma driving an old silver Holden. I remember the elegance with which my grandfather always dressed, and the severity of my grandma (doted on me nonetheless).

There’s a vivid memory of one day being dropped off in Joliment near the Hilton hotel with my grandpa and walking to the MCG the day of the Boxing Day test when Kim Hughes struck a magnificent hundred, and Lillee bowled Viv Richards on the last ball of the day. I remember the garden – roses in the front, and fruit trees in the back my grandfather had grafted one on another – and taking the border collie, Lassie, for walks in the evening. I remember how he would measure me against a piece of timber, scratching in it my latest height. How tall am I? I would ask, and I remember the last time he measured me before he died telling me I was six foot and three-quarters of an inch – how I cherished those three-quarters of an inch!

All this was true.

An abiding memory is my grandfather’s books. I was a book-loving kid and I would browse his shelves every time I visited, plucking books from the shelves to check out, returning some, and taking others to read myself. Often I would find myself in the rear bedroom that had been my uncles growing up, but which I would sleep in when I stayed. The bed had drawers beneath it, and a rug across it broadly striped in yellow, white and red. I would lay on the bed with the book on the floor and my grandma going by would say, “can you read that? Aren’t your eyes good!”

One of those books was The Torrents of War, but there were many others too. Forty-odd years later I own some of those books, history mainly, but also grandfather’s books on Muhammad Ali (I was with him when he bought the Wilfrid Sheed book) – I wish I had spoken to him about Ali – as well as the Sentjurg paperback. Its pages are brittle and yellow now, and the spine cracked from decades of reading, a keepsake rather than something I could read – and so ordering in a replacement (the same edition, the same cover) was as much an act of remembrance as it was of literature.

All this is recalled to me now because I began a book this morning about the great Australian correspondent, Alan Moorehead. Moorehead was one of the very best war correspondents covering the second war. It was a great observer, which he would render in evocative prose. He came to write several books thought to be classics now, but an author seemingly long forgotten – a man from another age.

My grandfather had Moorehead’s Nile books. I can’t remember if I read them, but I can picture them on the shelves still. No doubt I pulled them out and browsed through them (and I was curious enough to read Moorehead’s classics on the North African war as an adult). Memory was at play, but so too was imagination. These old books became a part of life in my mind, long passed.

Once upon a time, Moorehead would have been almost a household name. I imagined my grandfather, younger, hale and hearty, a doting father, a dedicated employee of the PMG, a quiet man of refined tastes and routines, spotting the Moorehead’s as they were being released and thinking to himself, that sounds interesting – must buy that. And he would, as he did for decades, his one real indulgence.

That was real world for him. Real life. And it was for Moorehead then in his own way, scratching out his books in a life that was current and vibrant – no matter how dusty and distant it appears now.

It’s not that you forget that there’s a time and a history before ours, but it doesn’t have the same pulse and vibrancy of today because, well, it was long yesterday. It doesn’t feel quite real because you weren’t there to see it. What was current and present and often in the balance has passed now into history. The outcome has been determined, the characters no more than names long gone, and all of it given a solemnity by being recorded history books and literature. It’s all true, but it has a flavour of hearsay because it’s not now.

It’s good to remember – and not just remember, but feel it – how there was a time before and it was real and people lived their lives as we do and probably thought much as we do and even if times have changed, and tastes and desires, then there are universal truths that persist, and probably do going back millennia. My grandfather would get out of bed and catch the train to work (probably an old red rattler), as I do, he followed the footy and cricket, and even if the players are different, it’s much the same. He read his books and made his plans and nurtured his children, and it was all real for him, though he’s been dead nearly forty years.

One of the things I inherited from him was a leather-bound scrapbook in which he had cut and glued newspaper articles of the day – the fifties mainly, the sixties – little home improvement projects, and carpentry tips, gardening, even architectural design. It’s always fascinated me because it was of another life – and now I could imagine him reading an article in the Argus and thinking, I’ll do that, before cutting it out and putting it in his scrapbook.

One day there may be someone reading this from a time when my today seems long distant and me, long gone. Let me tell you – I lived. Sometimes the days went fast, but mostly just one at a time. I can hear a bird sing as I write this, and the sun is shining. This morning as I walked by the foreshore, the sea seemed particularly briny. There are things in me – but you know that if you’ve read the stuff that comes before – as there was my grandfather, though I don’t know what they were. We all look, some of us see, we feel even if sometimes we’d prefer not to, we hope and cheer, grizzle and grumble. The trivial looms large before falling away, and the great bewilders us.

These are my times. And now I’m going to make myself a sandwich for lunch.

The times as they were

I don’t know what connects these, but in my mind, these two small things from yesterday appear linked.

I got a call in the morning from a friend who loves up near Byron Bay. He was in town and wanted to catch up for a beer later. We met at an earthy, excellent bar in Moorabbin called Grape and Grain, where we started on some boutique beers sitting on a couch in the corner.

Even before he shifted up there, he looked the part of an alternative, backwoods type. Tall and thin, with dark wavy hair that in the years since has grown longer and greyer, and a thick, greying beard that makes him look like a prophet from the Old Testament. He’s a good man, a good soul, sensitive and honest and passionate, even if a little absent-minded occasionally, a man too gentle in some ways, too idealistic and out of step with the striving, pragmatic world around us.

We talked about all the usual things, about politics and the deplorable state of world affairs, about his family and life up north and about what’s happening to me. Surprisingly, there was little about sport, but shared memories of times we would go out together on the prowl, surprised to find they were 20-25 years ago.

I recalled a night I nearly got in a fight with a guy at the Prince of Wales because he kept dancing into me. I was in a mood over a woman and happy to express myself verbally, at least. It was unlike me – I’ve always been pretty controlled – and there was another guy with us – what was his name? Stuey, that’s right – who convinced me otherwise. We recalled going to the Corner Hotel to watch Weddings, Parties, Anything and pinging coins at the stage, a bit of a ritual, and seeing Hunters and Collectors at the Palais.

One of our haunts back then was the Provincial Hotel in Brunswick street, where we made an unlikely pair trying to hook a date. Now and then, we’d get in conversation with a couple of girls, whereupon my mate would start talking about politics or the environment while I rolled my eyes at him: time and place, mate, and this aint it. That was him, though, committed in every fibre.

Once we dated a couple we met there – or somewhere – and ended up one night watching Shakespeare in the Park at the Botanical gardens – The Taming of the Shrew, I think. We spread a blanket and had a basket of wine and cheese and what not. I remember looking at the woman with my mate thinking, ‘he’s in’. But he wasn’t interested. He always wanted a relationship but wanted it to be right.

Eventually, he met someone, and they married and had beautiful twins, now grown up (they’re at uni in Melbourne now, and he was here to visit them). His wife turned out very different from him, and they divorced, and he remarried a lovely woman. He’s been up there about 18 years now and has found his groove.

So we were talking about the old days, happily recalling things we’d forgotten. He asked how I’d been going and offered the standard compliment about how well I’d done to survive. I told him how things had changed for me since and suggested that maybe I’d become a harder man since.

He responded straight off to that in a manner foreign to his usual way. “You always had something hard in you,” he said as if it was fact.

I was surprised at how emphatic he was. It made me wonder. Now, there are probably few people in the world who think better of me than my mate, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative judgment. It made me consider our relationship in a different light though, and particularly those memories. I was the organised, decisive one. I had a stronger personality. I was just a mate, though, and suddenly I’m wondering if he saw me as fierce. You just are, then you realise that others see you differently from how you see yourself.

It’s all perspective, and it’s all relative. Compared to him, I probably was hard, and maybe that informed his opinion, but it was not something I was conscious of being. Driving home later, it lingered in my mind as things like that do. But then he had followed up his comment by saying he actually thought I’d mellowed since.

Then last night I had the news on. One news report showed a medical expert talking about something. I glanced at her and thought she looked familiar. Then I saw her name and yep, I remembered her.

You forget a lot of things. Not altogether, maybe, but because they’re not essential or particularly vivid, they slip back into the part of the memory not easily accessed. ROM instead of RAM, for the geeks out there.

I had sex with this woman maybe 22 years ago. She was from Sydney visiting, and we used to have these long, fascinating conversations full of wordplay. That was something I was able to do then (and have little patience for now) that many women of a particular type would find alluring.

We had dinner and a bottle of wine at Pellegrini’s in the middle of winter before we crossed the road to where she was staying, the Windsor Hotel. She took her clothes off there and I remember her body – tall and slightly awkward, pale skin and full breasts and distinctly unshaven. And the other thing I remember was how disappointingly drab the room was for such a grand and famous hotel.

Here she was again, twenty-two years later, looking not much different and an expert so well esteemed that she was being quoted on TV.

Maybe that’s what my mate meant. I had dozens of episodes like this. Fleeting encounters, flirtatious at the edges but basically sexual in nature. It was mutual, but it was easy for me because I could compartmentalise so well. I reckon I had 10-12 years like this and I’d probably have this type of experience 6-8 times every year, maybe more, in between having more considered relationships.

What can I say? I enjoyed it. Mostly.

My friend was always and remains an idealist, through and through. We connected on that level because we had similar interests and beliefs. I was an idealist, too, as I am now, but I wasn’t as innocent as him, and where he wore it on his sleeve at all times, I would pack it away when it wasn’t relevant.

Either way, I was always direct. Truth be told, I enjoyed the grit of reality and that burgeoning sense of self in earthly desires. I had a mind, but I had a body too.


I was innocent once

Most nights these days seem full of dreams or chasing down odd memories half asleep, triggered by who knows what, but leading down some strange or long forgotten byways. The night before last, I found myself down one of those rabbit holes, recalling a particular time of my life – a briefish period when I resided in Sydney when I was about 19.

I don’t know where the memories came from, or why they came at all, but there they were, fresh to me, as if I could close my eyes and see, could feel the sun on my skin – for most of these memories seem to come from under bright sunshine.

Which was the first memory? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was the utterly random recollection of a friend of my uncles, Noel Gulliver his name was. In my mind, he seems a prototypical Australian, though not of the ocker variety. He was open and friendly, easy with everything he did, confident in himself. He was the type that people instinctively trust, the sort of man other men want to become mates with, and women are drawn to. He was a smart guy, had lived and worked in London (I think) at some stage, and had acquired a lovely English wife, Jane. She almost epitomised the English rose type, blonde and fair skinned and a delightful person. They had returned to Sydney to live – he was from Melbourne originally – with handsome twin boys (Tom and ?), with snowy blonde hair. It’s funny the things you remember – I’m pretty sure he worked with Schenker.

He was my uncle’s childhood friend, but after settling back in Sydney had become more friendly with my aunt (with whom I was staying). He also knew and respected my dad – my father was the type you would respect for his intelligence and more general gravitas. In fact, my father became a topic of conversation in those days, through me. I don’t recall it, but I probably still had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about him back then, and clearly, it was visible.

There were barbecues and drinks and social interactions, and they were light-hearted and fun, but I can recall at least once Noel taking me aside to talk to me about my dad. I can’t remember what was said, but the gist was to let it go. He was a good man, and they were good people.

I remember other parties and the like, trailing in on the wake of my aunt, who was a social creature well-liked by many. There was one party I remember at a house in Balmain on a brilliant, blue-skied day. We’d got there on the ferry, and I remember among the exotic offerings was Chinese hundred-year-old eggs – I was at a naïve age when I thought at first that the strange-looking eggs were actually a hundred years old. There are moments of that party that are vivid to me, though they probably only amount to half a minute, when I think we were near to the last to leave, 5-6 hours later. I do recall a very slinky, sexy woman a few years older than me I had the hots for. Her name was Cecile.

I remembered a night at a restaurant in Paddington, or perhaps Darlinghurst, and though I don’t recall spending new years in Sydney, think it was new year’s eve and a set menu.

There was another of my aunt’s friends, Young Jack, as he was called, who I’d first met years before and become enamoured by. He was a smallish man, highly educated and very smart, but with a wicked, irreverent sense of humour – a bit bolshie. He lived in a Paddington terrace house with his wife, Doris, but spent much of his time at the local pub, The Grand National. That’s where I’d first met him back in the seventies, WSC on the TV in the corner. We became quite close until an imagined slight divided us.

There were others, of course, names and places, moments in the sun, stimulating conversations and laughter and a cosmopolitan world that was exhilarating to the curious young man I was.

I lay in bed. I tried to picture myself as I was then, tall and loose-limbed, innocent but keen. At that age, you look out upon the world and have a robust sense of self – all the things you’ll do, the adventures you’ll experience, even the women you’ll fuck – but generally, you’re incapable of seeing yourself as others do. I think now my inexperience may have been seen fondly, and if sometimes I overreached myself, it was tolerated. I don’t know if I was particularly confident – I think I wasn’t – but I was striving and curious. I had a good heart, and for all my innocence, was smart. I think I was probably viewed as a kid with promise.

Now, all these years later, and those memories and that experience compacted by many more years of experience and adventure and it’s a rich tale, but all of it contributed to a sense of loss – for these nocturnal reveries are not pleasant reflections. They go to highlight the pointlessness of much I feel now. That’s my challenge.

I used to read all the existential authors, not long after the time I wrote of above. I absorbed Sartre and Camus and compared myself to the Steppenwolf, but I’ve never suffered the sense of existential futility as I do now. I struggle to understand the point of what I strive for if it is only to survive on a physical plane. I need something in myself, and my memories remind me that once I had a vivid life, and for many years, and for much of it I felt as if it was leading somewhere. But now I have arrived and found nothing, not even the old reliable sense of vivid experience.

I know this sounds bleak, but I record it because it needs to be recorded. This is the truth, now. But right at this moment, all I feel is ambivalence. I know it’s not fatal because, despite my grim words, I have hope it can change. I know, mathematically, that’s true. The question is not so much how it can change, but to what? What now will fill me, as I was filled before?

There’s a second part to this, but you’ll have to wait till tomorrow.