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.

In the eyes of yesterday


Last week I woke up one day to find that my wi-fi was doing strange things and that my devices couldn’t connect to it. Turns out that the network name had magically reverted to default overnight, and so my devices, searching for the secured network I’d set-up, couldn’t find it. It was a bit of a mystery and a tad suspicious, but I got it sorted out soon enough.

In the course of this, I had to reset the Lenovo google device that sits on my bedside table, and which acts as a glorified clock radio. In the morning I tell it to play the radio. Occasionally I connect to Spotify through it or stream from my phone. I’ll ask it the odd question, and the rest of the time it cycles through photos on its bright screen.

I had to reset the photo album for it scroll through and, unable to decide but wanting something different, elected to go with what it suggested to me. Turns out it was a range of old film photos I’d digitised over Christmas. These dated back to the eighties and nineties. Because they came from film and because I was scanning by phone the quality was dodgy but adequate. At the time, I’d glanced at the photos, remembering, and indulging in some occasional nostalgia. I didn’t really think about them much.

Let me tell you when they’re scrolling continuously at the corner of your eye you find yourself looking more often, and thinking more deeply. You remember things forgotten. Or else, it sparks other thoughts and reflections. You begin to join dots and maybe it’s a form of narrative fallacy, but it loops together and begins to integrate into your life today, and your perspective of it.

There was of a photo of one Christmas, I think, and in the foreground is a smiling character of someone now long dead. He was an affable, slightly hopeless person, but good-hearted. He came from the other side of the joined family and was only an occasional presence, so never featured much in my life, and rarely in my thoughts. Seeing him again after all these years sparked an unexpected pang of regret.

What I remembered was a 50th birthday party he’d arranged at a restaurant in Tullamarine. I was invited, along with everyone else. It was unlikely I would consider going. I wasn’t close to him, and Tullamarine was miles away. As it turned out, very few went, and while he was disappointed, his partner was upset. I was sorry when I heard, but that was that.

All these years later, with him long dead, and his partner, it occurred to me that I’d never really been fair to him. I was always affable and friendly to him. I’d stop and have a chat and a laugh, but I realised I’d marked him down in the back of your mind. You do that. He was a bit of a no-hoper, you see, inoffensive, a bit drug-fucked after years of living badly, but with a heart of gold. I made no moral judgements on him. My judgements are intellectual. I acknowledged him as a decent bloke, but he never figured in my mind because he had nothing interesting to say or contribute, not by my lofty standards.

I thought none of this back then. I wasn’t a bad person – I always tried to be decent and fair. But sometimes you’re oblivious, aren’t you? You only see what you see, and you don’t peer too deeply in the mirror. But now, today, much too late, I felt regret. I should never have been so dismissive and arrogant. That was not my right, but I recognised it well. I can accept character flaws, but for some reason, I’m less tolerant of intellectual flaws. It’s not a conscious thing. I know full well that there’s a wide range of capabilities and whether you’re at the top or bottom of that is largely a matter of luck and genetics. I know that full well, but most of my frustrations in life are with people who don’t measure up to my expectations in that regard. It makes a control freak in general, and an arrogant prig otherwise.

I wished I’d gone to his party. And wished I’d been capable of looking past my shallow preconceptions and recognised him as the human being that he was. These are things worth remembering.

Then there were other photos, a whole succession of them, of me out in restaurants having dinner with my family. Outside of the day I scanned them, these are photos I hadn’t set eyes on since the films came back from being developed, 25 years or so ago. I’d forgotten they existed, forgotten the occasions, forgotten myself really, in a way. But there they were again.

There was a range of memories that came to mind, but there was one thing that struck me as I looked at these. Well, two, really. Superficially, I thought how nineties slick I looked, very much with the times – I was a tad disappointed by that. I had that look, too school for school man about town. I probably believed it, too!

But then there was the other thing, and it would never have occurred to me except that I’d had a minor revelation the day or so before. I’m a great reader and have been all my life, but it occurred to me suddenly that I read differently now to what I used to.

I read the same books now, but back then I read them hungrily, eager to absorb and to learn from them for the journey ahead. Books were entertainment, they were perspective, and they were a kind of education. I felt so empowered. I felt as if every word I read improved me. They were relevant in the ways books aren’t now, because they informed who I wanted to be. I was confident and ambitious and lusty – I wanted to eat the world up, devour experience, feel every sense in me explode. There was a sensuality to it, but at its bedrock, it was – as always – intellectual. I would learn, I would get better, and I would take this into the world with me. And, looking at these photos of me from back then, I felt as if I could see that appetite in my eyes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have a policy of not sharing personal pics of me here – I’m anonymous after all, right? But on this occasion, I’ll break the rule. This is me in my late twenties, I guess. I had the world ahead of me, and I knew it. What adventures I would have! And I was already having a few…

But so, today. Books are just books now. Vital and important to me, but they’re background. Not relevant as they used to be. I learn things and facts, I might gain a perspective here and there, but there’s nothing anymore that defines how I live or what I think or what I aspire to. I was so certain then. Today, I’m not so sure.

Memory-keeping


As I’m sure a lot of people are, I’m taking advantage of this period of isolation to reorganise and tidy up. I’ve thrown out a heap of things, emptied the filing cabinet and moved it into the garage, sorted through sundry boxes and introduced some order. There’s still much to do, but I have more space and more method as a result so far.

In doing something like this you happen across things long forgotten. I’m a bit of a sentimental hoarder, so in amongst that stuff is a fair bit of family stuff, a lot of old writings, and a trove of sentimental jottings.

The jottings are just that – scraps of paper on which I’ve expressed a passing thought or observation. Some of them go deeper than that. On the back of old photocopied documents, there are postulations and ruminations and the occasional list. Here I am probing, searching for in words the answers I don’t possess. There are hypotheses and examinations and analysis, as well as the odd outpouring of feeling. Taken together, they paint a vivid picture.

Most of these go back to the nineties, inspired by a deeply felt but fraught relationship with a girl I called B. I’ve written of her before and don’t intend to rehash the story again now, except to remind you that she’s the one who would ultimately take her life. That was after we parted.

I didn’t know anything about that then. In fact, that’s one of the features of these jottings – they’re all in the moment. I don’t know where this will end up, though throughout it there is much hope as there is doubt. Reading all these years later, I know different. I’ve seen this movie, and I know how it ends. It only makes these fragments all the more poignant.

I was a romantic, lusty character then and probably 90% of the fragments relate to women. Some are more inward, a reflection of myself through these experiences. I seek to understand who I am, if I’m true, what my strengths are, my weaknesses, and what I aspire to in the long life ahead of me. They seem so fresh to me. I can hardly believe that so much time has passed, that the passionate young man I was then has become the questing, taciturn man I am today.

I flicked through it randomly, promising one day that I would return and examine them more closely. There were things I remembered, but equally, there were references to women that have since slipped my mind altogether. The most recent would be no more than a dozen years ago, but that’s telling in itself. These dozen years turned my life upside down.

I didn’t want to lose these things, and so I gathered them together and found a suitable container for them – a white, zip-up cloth box made for such mementoes.

It got me to thinking. Twice in my life, I’ve gone through the last possessions of loved ones – an aunt, and my mum. They’re gone, and you loved them so, but in their wake, there are things to be done. What was open must now be closed, but someone has to do the closing.

What that equates to in real life is going through the homes of the people you love and sorting every possession into categories. There are things that can be shared or given away. Much of this will have sentimental value for someone, but there’s also a lot of stuff that can still be put to good use. There are things that can be sold – a fridge, a dining suite, a desk, and so on. There’s stuff that can be donated to charity. And then there’s the stuff that falls outside of this – photo albums and old letters, souvenirs and postcards and the things that held value for the person now gone.

I remember my aunt had letters from a cousin (I think), writing from Vietnam. They were vivid, lively letters, and I wondered at the man who had written them. Had I ever met him? I was curious and sad in a way, and it seemed wrong to dispose of these letters in the common pile of things to be disposed of. These were worlds. I don’t know what happened to them in the end, but I know I don’t have them.

Of course, each time someone dies a unique world is lost to us. All those memories and experiences, of course, but also a perspective, a view of the world, an interpretation of it. I think it’s some variation of this knowledge that inspired me to write, and why I keep a blog – I don’t want my perspective to be lost.

Which brings me to these jottings. What happens when I die, I wondered? More than likely, there’ll be a forensic clear-out of my possessions. The jottings may be looked at, they may even appear interesting for a moment, but then – most probably – they’ll be disposed of.

It’s another form of death. After we’re gone we live on in the memories of others, until they are gone to. Then we’re just a name in a registry. Who were we? What did we mean? What was our story? There’s no way of knowing that unless our voice lives on.

When I wrote these fragments, I pored my heart into them. I felt the truth of my existence keenly. Everything was vital to me. Those moments were precious to me, and what they meant. They may have meaning for no-one other than myself, but they are my authentic voice, and I couldn’t bear to think they’d end up in a furnace with me.

I contacted a friend. I explained that he knew me better than anyone now and had lived through most of my story. I wanted him to take possession of these jottings after I’m gone, to be my memory keeper.

I think that’s a worthy concept I may one day formalise as part of my will: a memory keeper. Everyone deserves that. Someone to remember you and to keep the memory fresh and alive. This was H…

Passing eras


The news over the weekend that the great racehorse, Might and Power, had died, left me feeling sad. I’m not a committed horse racing enthusiast, but I’ve been following it for years.

My grandparents were big into horseracing and had membership at Moonee Valley. I have strong memories staying with them, and the radio in the corner with the form being discussed by commentators and tipsters in the particularly nasal voice people in the industry seemed to have. Each would get the form guide and do their homework, making scribbled notes. They would take me along to the races regularly, and I enjoyed it. I remember seeing Manikato race and wine. They used to attend the Breakfast with the Stars function in the Spring and took me along once.

I never got into it as they did, but I went to a lot of big race days and would keep an eye on it through the year. I would bet big sometimes – multiple hundreds – but it was mainly for fun (and I won more than I lost). Like a lot of people, the real attraction were the horses. That’s the thing about horseracing – you follow something living and animate. These horses throb with life. They’re beautiful, powerful beasts, sleek and elegant. They had personalities too, and it was hard not to fall in love with some.

I fell in love with Might and Power. I backed him a bit and he always won for me, but that was secondary. He was a big, good looking horse that forced the pace on the track and broke the will of the horses following. He knew he was good and come race day he wanted to reinforce that by leading from start to finish, cranking it up the further it went. Just look at his Caulfield Cup win – you won’t see a more dominant win in a big race than that.

He had a great record, but injury foreshortened his racing career. In the years after he would pop up in the news now and again, joining a parade of past champions, or visiting the sick. He was a spirited horse of great character.

He was a good age – 27 – but it remains a sad passing. I’m sure there’s a lot who feel as I do today. Horses like Might and Power bring to life vivid memories and recall to us times past. Memories of their great feats unlock the memories we associate with them, the people we knew and loved, the times we shared together, the stories and laughter.

The death of Tim Brooke-Taylor will likely invoke similar memories for many others. I grew up in The Goodies generation, though I was never an aficionado. I had friends at school who would rush home to watch it, and who the next day would share or regale us with the antics from the previous night’s episode.

It was a bit meh for me, but it’s funny how the news of his death impacts upon me – almost as if by association. For me, it’s like a song you hear that always reminds you of a particular time in life. The Goodies do that for me but through my friends of the period.

In a sign of the times, he’s another victim of C-19. Just to make me feel old, he was also 78.

Out of the past


Lying in bed this morning before 7, I saw a flash of light coming from the living room. It took me a moment to realise it was my iPad lighting up as it received a notification.

I got up about 20 minutes later and, checking my phone, found I’d received a Facebook friend request. I didn’t recognise the name at first, and I thought it was probably one of those random invitations you’ll receive every so often. Then it dawned on me that the person had the same name as someone I knew back at high school, thirty years ago. I clicked on the profile and studied it for evidence.

It didn’t give away much. The only school listed on his profile was not the private school we shared – but then I remembered that he left after about year 9. The school he listed was in much as the same area. There were no photos of his younger self, but I thought I could recognise the boy I knew in the smiling face on the screen.

I remembered him as a big kid with a mop of blonde hair. In his photos, he was burly and had the same open face, though probably looking a few years older than me (I can pass for 40). In all the years since I’ve barely thought of him, but in some strange way I recently had a random recollection of a moment we shared together – sitting on a bus heading to ice skating in Ringwood, ELO and the Sweet playing on the radio, and him showing me the yachting magazine he was looking at. He was into sailing.

I didn’t immediately accept his invitation. I thought about it first. All this time and I wondered what we’d have to say, and if it was still relevant that we know each other. And it set off a train of thought, much as trivial incidents like this often do.

I imagined having a conversation with him and explaining my life in the time since we last saw each other. I could tell him of adventures and the things I’d strived to achieve and there was plenty of colour and movement, but I felt at that moment that I came up short. I could see that he was married with children and I struggled in my mind to explain why I wasn’t as well.

I got myself ready for work with this thought in the back of my mind. I showered and put my suit on and prepared myself for another day in the office wondering, as I have many times before, what it’s all about? To all of this, there are no clearly defined answers. There may not be answers at all. We each go our own way, in while there’s often intent there is also much that is fluke and chance. With almost every choice we make, there’s an opportunity cost. Sometimes it only becomes evident long after the fact.

Before I walked out the door, I accepted his invitation. I was curious, naturally, and I have a general attitude that it’s better to do something than nothing. But courtesy played a big part, also – it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. I think I knew from the start I would click accept, but it didn’t take long for me to think twice about it.

It became clear that in the years since we knew each other that we’d diverged in other ways besides our families. We’d both been good private schoolboys, and though I was rebellious, I think it sat better with me than it did him. I didn’t like being told what to do and think, and chafed against the structure and regulation – yet I was also a curious child who enjoyed learning, and was sporadically good at it.

I don’t think he was as curious, nor as generally interested as I was (nor as rebellious). I think he had his eyes on other things for which a private school education was unnecessary. He was always more knockabout and, I suspect the technical school he ended up attending was a much better fit for him.

Most of the differences between us seemed unimportant except in the sense that we might not have much to share in common besides memories. What cruelled me though was to see some of the things he’d posted and shared in his news feed, up to and including from the notorious Fraser Anning.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m liberal and progressive. I believe in a fair go for everyone. I don’t discriminate by any measure. It’s not that I’m a great bleeding heart, it just seems to me stupid and unnecessary. I tend to think bigotry reveals much more about the bigot than the victim of it.

I tend to be disparaging of those who have such a mindset, which I see as weak. It frustrates me no end the simple-minded mentality that leads people into unconsidered thought and action – much easier to be handed an opinion than form one of your own. Most of those ‘opinions’ are broad and unsophisticated, the product of insecurity and fear.

It’s an infection that has spread throughout the community and which is fanned by corrupt governments worldwide who have no interest in ethics or truth. It’s all about power, and by any means. In the era of fake news and viral social media and a sloppy, often uncritical media, the bulwark against ignorance is knowledge and education, integrity and critical thinking (a skillset much in decline).

Reading his comments, it’s easy to see in him one of the quiet Australians Morrison lauds. And in his eyes, I’m probably an elite, but certainly an inner-city, latte-sipping leftie. Such is the world we live in.

It pained me to read much of what he posted – in the end, I snoozed him – but I didn’t want to judge him by that. We fall into traps of stereotyping people. We tar them with a broad brush. Certainly, I do.

I’m aware of it, but the shorthand is simpler when you generalise. It’s easier too when the stereotypes are others, not your own. It’s more complicated when faced with someone you know.

I haven’t seen this guy since we were both about 14. I don’t know him, clearly. And clearly, life has taken us in different directions. I looked at the smiling face in the profile, though. I remembered the generous, kindly kid he was. And though I disagree with what I see, I must acknowledge an inconvenient truth I’m fully aware of – that many of those I profess to despise are actually warm-hearted, otherwise decent people. It’s the paradox that’s hard to resolve when you view only along pure, ideological lines.

There’s little nuance in social media, and I shouldn’t judge too soon, if at all. I don’t want to be one of those people, particularly when I profess the desire to give everyone a fair go.

I don’t know what happens now. Perhaps I’ll tentatively reach out to him. Perhaps he’ll reach out to me.

At the newsagents


I was early for an appointment this morning to get my hair cut and killed some time by popping into the local newsagent.

I used to love newsagents. I could spend a half-hour browsing very easily. It’s the magazines that draw me. I remember being a kid and away at some seaside village over the summer holidays and I’d pedal up to the local shops for a bit of diversion. I’d end up at the newsagents where I’d check out the magazines and might walk out with a cheap paperback as well.

I’d buy a magazine occasionally, though it was constrained by how much pocket money I had. I’d get the latest edition of Inside Footy in the winter months, or maybe it’s cricket equivalent come the summer. Or else I’d buy one of the automotive magazines, which were always popular with teenage boys.

That’d be a random purchase, depending on the cover or if inside there was something on the latest Porsche or some extravagant sportscar I’d dream about owning once I got out of school. Generally, it’d be Wheels I bought, though sometimes Motor magazine. I don’t reckon I’ve bought either one of them since I left school.

Back in those days, and for many years to come, newsagents were treasure troves of magazines and information. There was something on every subject and from every corner of the earth. For a literate, curious young man I was, I couldn’t get enough. McGills, a newsagent in Elizabeth Street, was probably the pinnacle of that for many years and a Melbourne institution. It closed a few years back.

All grown and with money in my pocket I’d buy a magazine or two every week. I’d subscribe to a few, generally overseas publications – Esquire for a while, the Atlantic for a bit, and Rolling Stone for years.

I’d buy all sorts of magazines – Men’s Health, GQ, Outside, The New Yorker occasionally, cooking magazines of every stripe regularly, The Bulletin while it was still around and The Monthly more recently, as well as various PC and technology magazines, and even something like Commentary occasionally – a conservative magazine I’d read for contrast, and for some of their writers, like Robert Kagan (whose dad is a writer worth reading).

If there was something that interested me I’d pick up a copy of Harpers or Wired or Fast Company or Travel + Leisure, and so on. The point being, there was a shitload of choice and I was fully immersed in it. There was delight opening up the letterbox to find a new magazine nestling there, or settling down on the couch with a cup of coffee to spend an hour or two to read intelligent, well-written articles of interest.

Here’s the thing: I felt a part of it. You have your own personal culture, and this was unmistakably a part of mine. I liked being informed, but then I felt informed, too. I walked about with information in my head gleaned from the glossy magazines on my coffee table. It was important to me because I was a part of this world, and these were the things that made this world tick. I felt relevant.

McGills has been closed for over five years now. I still read magazines, but a fraction of what I did before. Like everyone else, I get much of my information from the internet – though often from the same sources as before. I’ll read an Atlantic article online rather than in print, or something from Mother Jones, or Esquire, or The New Yorker, though not nearly as much. And I’ll gather information from a multitude of other sources, many more so than before – and it’s possible I’m better informed now than I ever was before (though mindful of the fake news).

It’s different, though. Do others feel that? It feels more…disposable. I read, and then I click on another screen. Because raw information has become so saturated, the value of it has diminished, not to mention the quality.

I don’t get a sense of being inside the information as I had before, though maybe that’s the times, and where I am in my life. I’m probably better informed than 95% of people, but I don’t feel it – and it doesn’t feel like it matters, either. It’s like collecting stamps, nice but irrelevant. It’s not a part of my culture anymore because information these days is like white noise, everywhere and unfiltered. And none of it feels special anymore, or exclusive.

I spent 7-8 minutes in the newsagent today, and it was enough. The selection these days is much less than it was before, but it was an exercise in trivial nostalgia. Newsagents aren’t what they were, but nor are the times. Still, I nearly bought a magazine – the latest edition of Dish. But I didn’t.