This is another little story about my train trip into the city this morning. It’s becoming a genre of its own, but I think that’s because in that space of time and making that journey you are in a state of transition, from the comfort of home to the density of work. In between you are in a neutral space, not quite yet up to speed, but receptive to the dawning day. Everything is fresh again, and though it’s far from being a conscious thought, with the new day everything becomes possible again.

This morning I sat there in the usual way. Across from me sat a mother with her son. The woman was middle aged, plain, a little plump. She was dressed in a heavy black winter coat, and in general her dress was more functional than stylish. Like so many women she had a big, black leather handbag, from which she took a copy of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Her son was about 10 years old. He wore a dark duffel coat with loops for buttons. He had an old fashioned haircut, like a fighter pilot from the 1940’s. It was cut short at the sides, with a distinct part and his hair neatly combed across the top of his head. Did he comb his hair, or did his mother for him, I wondered?

I’m listening to a story set in Morocco and I’m remembering my own journey there, how Casablanca was boring, Fez interesting, Marrakech fantastic, and Essaouira funky, but at the same time I’m curiously pondering the mother and her son. Is it school holidays? I thought not. What brings them out then? It appeared as if they were set on a trip together to town, for reasons I could never discern (they stayed on the train as I got off at Richmond). I recalled that these brief forays into the city when I was his age were like an adventure to me, remembered how with mum we might go shopping for school books or clothes or something altogether different and then end up having lunch in the Myer’s cafeteria, or perhaps somewhere like the Hopetoun Tea rooms.

As I’m thinking this the boy looked around curiously. He was not accustomed to the peak hour train crowd. There wasn’t much to see though, and soon he retrieved his own book to read – something called Bomber Boys.

There is something about such scenes that make me feel incredibly tender. Perhaps there is something nostalgic about it that recalls moments just as I described when I might have shared such a journey with my own mother. But that’s only a small part of it. I don’t know but it seems such simple scenes undo me – and it is the simplicity of it that does me in, or rather, the simple modesty of it. You see in something like that the established pattern of love and affection. It is known, felt, perhaps overlooked by the boy, but real for the mother. You imagine the small worlds, the boy spying the book he was interested to read and contriving to own it, the mother out shopping with her son and spotting the coat she decided to buy for him. Then there is the mother reading her book. You imagine this is an escape for her, a little bit of time all hers. I wondered, what does she think when she reads such a book? What does she feel? Is it just entertainment, or does it tug at something deeper?

And of course there is something in the very modesty and conservatism of her dress that becomes poignant. I don’t know what it is, but my imagination works overtime. Is that her nature? Or has she sacrificed something to be a mother? Or is it a reflection of self-image? Perhaps because I’m bolder in style and ambition I am often abashed by those who are not. I want to get around them. Celebrate yourself, I want to urge them. It doesn’t matter what other people think – or more aptly, what you think other people think. Live for yourself.

I feel that and it cuts deeply, but I know also there is something condescending in it – and besides, who am I to tell anyone how to live or what to feel? They know their life. Doubtless they are happy, more or less, with it. Not all lives are big, nor should they be, but it doesn’t make them less true, and what value fruitless striving when all you need and want is beside you?

I think it is the recognition of that which moves me. It puts me in touch with a corner of myself that is deeply felt, but neglected. I am straightened up and humbled by the simple truth of what I see, and envy, in a sly way. I feel strongly the urge to acknowledge it, to reach forward and look in their eyes and bless them – or ask for their blessing.

June 7

It’s just occurred to me that yesterday was B’s birthday, dear and long departed now, the woman I loved and wanted to spend my life with at one point. I wish she was still around, still walked the earth, even if I had nothing to do with her.

I always remember, even if, such as now, I remember after the fact. I always want to remember. She is worth my reflection, and much more. In this case perhaps there has been another prompt.

I had a long dream last night that in large part was about death. The details are scratchy now. I had some kind of terrible, fatal disease we were in a race against time to cure. It was a rare disease that when you get to a certain age the sun eats away at your flesh, like acid. The day approached near and there was a sense of frantic inevitability that became resignation. Even then there was the hope a cure might be found before too much damage was done. The surprise came in that when the day came, and after, nothing happened. There was relief at that, but a tortured confusion as well.

The dream was a result – I think – of news I heard late last night that a girl I had gone to school with had on Tuesday night committed suicide. I had but vague memories of her, but it came as a shock still. She was happily married and had two boys, but had apparently suffered from depression for years.

It’s been a tough few weeks, but this made it more personal. Watching the nightly news I often find tears in my eyes, either depressed by tragedy or uplifted by acts of virtue. Lately there has been more tragedy, though there are always fine people.

Last night I felt tears in my eyes at the news of the two Australian women murdered in the London terror attack. The closer you can identify with victims the more personal it seems. I didn’t know either of the women and they lived in different states to mine, but they are of my culture, they grew up in the same environment as I did, would recognise the same touchstones that perhaps someone from somewhere else could never. If I had met either one in London chances are we might have exchanged a greeting as Aussies. Now what they had is stopped. It’s so unfair, so senseless, not just for them, but their families too, and for all the victims and their families. (It’s a great curiosity that of the 8 people killed in the attacks in a huge city such as London that six of them were foreign).

There was another news item about a man who had campaigned against the Catholic church and the cover-up of child sex offences. His own daughter had been a victim and had later killed herself because of it. This man had been instrumental in taking the fight up to the Catholic diocese, and by all accounts was a much loved man of exceptional character. His was a state funeral, and a worthy one. I felt tears come to my eyes listening to the tributes to him. I was sad at his passing, but grateful that such people exist – and hoping that one day that I might measure up to such an exemplary standard.

In winter, these are the times.


Random encounters

The last few days I’ve been witness to a couple of random moments which piqued my curiosity.

On Saturday afternoon I caught up with Cheeseboy for lunch. It was a pure winter’s day, cool, but the sky a pristine blue, and the sunshine like crystal. It was very pretty, and so we chose to sit outside at a café at the end of my street.

We sat and talked about all the usual stuff, about work, about our plans for the weekend ahead, about a golf weekend we’ll never have, gossip about mutual friends and, of course, sport. As we sat there going about our very prosaic activities a couple sat at the next table over from us, right in my eyeline.

He was a handsome man of about 30, dark skinned and vaguely exotic. She was an attractive woman of about the same age with curly brunette hair. At first glance I thought them a recent couple out for a coffee on a Saturday afternoon.

Cheeseboy and I continued our conversation. I paid no special attention to the couple, but as time went by it was impossible for me not to notice that they weren’t talking. They had coffee delivered to them, but not once did I see them exchange a word of conversation. They sat there awkwardly, neither seemingly willing to break the silence, but both apparently very conscious of it.

The man sat facing me, the woman was in profile. He looked out towards the road, and occasionally glanced backwards her, but without seeming intent. She seemed the more stricken. She looked straight ahead, her expression grim.

Finally I looked up and saw she had begun to cry. Her eyes were large and moist and had taken upon that puffy look that came with tears. She continued to look straight ahead, and still there was no conversation. It appeared that the tears had sprung from a deep well. She sat there knowing without a word having to be spoken. He knew too, without needing to comment. I was witnessing the end of something, and I wondered what their story was.

Then yesterday I’m in the lift returning from having picked up a coffee. In the lift with me were a couple of guys who work for the NBN (I always wonder why they don’t get out of the lift a few floors below and don’t walk the rest of the way, a la their tech model). As it transpired both of these guys were Filipino. They chatted about their respective weekends before one said he was heading back to the Phillippines on the 25th for a month. No kidding said the other, I’m heading back there on the 29th for a month too! Really, the first one said, I’ve got to go back for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. Get out of here the second one said, or something similar, I’m going back for my grandmother’s 90th birthday too! Both burst into laughter, and I couldn’t help but smile too.

The lift doors opened and they got out before I could find out if they had the same granny.

Another voice silenced

I couldn’t believe it when I heard Chris Cornell was dead. It couldn’t be true I thought, just one of those internet rumours that later turn out to be rubbish. It wasn’t a rumour, though. It was true.

It’s funny, I just wrote about him in passing the other day. As I did I wondered at the music still to come from him, thinking, at least he would do some good stuff. He won’t though, not now. He’s gone.

I saw him about 5 years ago at the Palace theatre with a couple of mates. He was great. He had that mighty voice, the best voice in rock music, but he had presence too, and humour. He was a good bloke.

That’s what makes this harder in a way. There’s a great sense of loss that another of the voices I grew up has now been silenced. That feels a real thing, but even so, it feels a little different with Cornell. There’s a lot from that great generation of musicians that have passed on, but – without being rude about it – many that didn’t come as a great surprise. Many had troubled or volatile lives, many with a history of substance abuse, many who – despite their fame – who lived on the edge. Chris Cornell was not like that – at least he didn’t appear to be so.

He always appeared to be very fit and healthy. Though he had lived in the heady world of rock music there was never any suggestion that I knew of that he lived dangerously. He had his moments with drugs and alcohol, but seemingly without the self-destructive intent of so many others. He seemed happily married and perfectly grounded. He was revered and successful, but he seemed real too, the sort who easily met my criteria of someone I’d have a beer with.

It’s emerged this morning that it was suicide. In a way it makes sense of things – how does a fit and healthy 52 year old die? It makes it even sadder though, and I’m at a loss. It’s an awful tragedy.

Last night it was in my head all night and I went to bed feeling an indeterminate anger. I lay there trying to figure it out. Maybe it was because it seemed so unlikely – or at least, so wrong. Maybe it was because it was another good person gone – and too many lately. Maybe it was more personal – I grew up with Soundgarden, and later Audioslave, and Chris Cornell was a regular voice in my ear. He is of my generation, almost exactly my age, and he has gone now while I remain and I tried to riddle that. Finally there was a sense that as time goes by it feels as if my team becomes depleted and me – and people like me – are left remaining, clinging to memories of a time fast fading, and the people of that time plucked from us one by one. Once it was our world, now it is not – and the world is much changed.

That night at the Palace I surreptitiously taped some of his performance. I have a heap of his music on my iTunes, but I reckon those recordings, more intimate, more gritty, will come to mean more to me because I was there and he spoke to me that night, as he did to hundreds of others, and many thousands more through his career. That much we share.

On a final note it seems I am writing a lot lately about people who have passed away. I wonder at that myself. It feels abnormal, but wonder if the frequency will remain at this level. Are these the times? I don’t want to write so much of these things and I’ve decided to refrain when I can. I’m not here to write eulogies, and it’s too damn depressing besides.

Goodbye to PM

It seems there’s someone of note dying every day these days. Again, it’s probably quite normal. I’m getting older too, and the generational bubble I grew up within are getting to that point – not to mention the big name outliers a generation older.

Mark Colvin was not one of those big names, and I reckon that most people who read this today won’t know who he is. He was an exceptional journalist and fascinating man. I interacted with him a few times on Twitter, where he was quite active, but it’s his voice I remember.

For many years Mark Colvin was the voice of PM, the daily radio program on the ABC covering current affairs and politics. His was a rich, melodious voice, and as a commentator and interviewer he was erudite, intelligent and incisive. It seems to me his was a voice I knew very well, though I was only an occasional listener. Now that voice is silent.

It’s sad – he died before his time – but as he said, it’s been bloody marvellous. Our misfortune is that we lose a voice of reason and a man of intelligence, in a time when both are in short supply.

Death of a Moomba king

It’s a fact of life that the older you get the more frequent comes the news that a notable figure from memory has passed away. Often times it’s no more than a curiosity. People die, even faded movie stars. It becomes more pointed when you know, or have met the person, but for me – outside of family – no-one closer than a forgotten acquaintance has died. Occasionally the news will come of someone dying that strikes home a little harder than the rest. They’re the figures that have resonated with you in a personal sense. They evoke a time or a slice of life. Or else they were someone you admired, even idolised, now gone forever. Sometimes it’s someone whose death seems incomprehensible, as if they always seemed outside of mortal laws – the irrepressible force of nature, the larger than life personality, the dominating character.

Lots of people die. It’s good for a news bulletin and a bit of kitchen conversation. Cheeseboy and I used to have a crass competition whereby we would nominate who we thought might die in the next 12 months. Extra points for the unlikely candidate. Sad, but true, even the deaths of notable figures from culture and history are soon accepted and forgotten. A person living yesterday is dead today. After the tributes life goes on, and next week they are of the past.

Who and what we remember is largely up to us – our individuality, our memories, our personal response. There have been some big name deaths in recent times, and some of them quite shocking. For me, personally, the deaths – and lives – that linger in me are that of David Bowie, who I admired greatly as both man and artist, and I suspect John Clarke, as I wrote of just a week or two ago. This was another death this week the long term impact of I don’t know yet; it’s immediate impact was significant, not just for me, but for all of Melbourne.

The death of Lou Richards shouldn’t have been a surprise for anyone. He was 95, and having lived a celebrated life his death is not the tragedy that it often is for others. Still, it became headline news here in Melbourne, and was subject to immediate and ongoing comment and tribute. He was such a Melbourne icon, and so well loved, that he is to be given a state funeral. He would love that.

Lou Richards, or Louie the Lip as he became known, is a legend in Melbourne. He was an ex-footballer who moved into media when it was still pretty primitive. Short, cheeky, generous natured and very funny Lou became a favourite quickly. He transcended eras. He started in the black and white days and ended his TV career just a few years ago. He was ever present, a football personality who had a much broader appeal. He was much loved because everyone could see what an utterly good bloke he was, no airs and graces, no pretensions, no real ego. Part of his shtick was to put himself in humiliating circumstances. He earned his nick-name by making outrageous promises – if so and so win this week I’ll eat my hat sort of thing. Except he didn’t eat any hats. Upon losing one such bet he had to piggy-bank an oversized VFL footballer down the street. On another occasion he had to cut the lawn of one with a pair of nail scissors. He had spaghetti poured over him, pizza rubbed into his head, buckets of icy water tipped on him, and so on. He became famous for it. Everyone laughed, and everyone loved him for it.

As a diehard footy fan I grew up with his face on my TV screen, his voice coming out of the TV, and his column in the Sun. He would commentate the match of the day for years and years – I’ll forever associate him with the game in that era, and unforgettable for me is his call of the 1984 GF when my team fought back dramatically in the last quarter to win, and Lou’s excited voice calling it.

Back in the day when the AFL was just the VFL it was a smaller, cosier thing. Games were played on Saturday afternoon and that was it. Saturday night you’d come home to watch the replay – a quarter each of the best games. On Sunday it was all about World of Sport.

My particular memories of this are after my parents split. My mum had moved out and I went with her. On Sunday I would go to dad’s for lunch. More often than not it would be a roast, and on the TV would be WOS.

I was having a laugh about it yesterday with a colleague. We recalled the woodchop competition, the handball, the cyclists riding off. It was a homely, almost amateur affair, but that was much of its appeal. Most of the presenters were ex-footy players, some dating from the forties, and others more recently and flamboyantly retired in the seventies. The coaches would come in from the games previously and be questioned about what had occurred on the field. Later the football panel would convene and amid much laughter and jibes would discuss the games.

Lou Richards was a central part of that cracking jokes and teasing his sparring partners. ‘Captain Blood’ Jack Dyer was his main combatant. I loved Jack. He was a famous and fearsome Richmond ruckman from the thirties and forties. A great player, he was also notoriously tough. He had become an irascible and outspoken football commentator with a unique way with words. He was another central figure of that time – I would listen to the ‘Captain and the Major’ on 3KZ to and from the footy on the car radio with dad. Such strong memories. Probably the third of that lot was Bobby Davis, who was an ex-Geelong player and coach. The three would host League Teams, another institution.

For years and years I watched WOS and the footy telecasts with Lou commentating. Later he switched to channel 9 where he would feature on the news, and on the weekends sporting programs. At some point through this he was named King of Moomba. You know you’ve made it as a Melburnian when that happens.

Lou was a feature on our TV screens for 50 years. Before that he was captain of Collingwood. He led a full, momentous life. Like so many others of my generation I witnessed a good part of it – and in that strange way he stood witness to my life. He was a decent, lovable, irrepressible character and with his death something ends. For a Collingwood man he was a great bloke, and I can’t say better than that.

A good man gone

We got the news yesterday that John Clarke had died over the weekend. He was just 68, and seemed to have many more years left in him.

John was a truly great comedian and satirist. Over the last 30 years in Australia he had become a staple of the scene on TV, the occasional movie, and through his writing and commentary. I can remember him many years ago writing about fanarkeling and Dave Sorenson, before he made the transition to TV. He became an easily recognised figure, and like he was for many others, he was a great favourite of mine.

I’ll miss his gentle humour and his often incisive satire. He could get to the essence of a piece of nonsense and with gentle humour expose the absurdity of it. There was never any shortage of material and for god knows how many years he had a weekly gig on the ABC with Brian Dawe skewering the pretensions and pomposities of our politicians.

In the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics Clarke starred in a truly great series called The Games. It was a satire on the organising committee of the games and the bureaucracy and political interference, not to mention incompetence they had to deal with – including, for example, the track for the 100 metres sprint being only 94 metres long.

If you haven’t seen it you should look it up – it’s one of those shows I’d happily watch again and keep for posterity.

His humour will be greatly missed and that’s reason enough for sorrow, but it goes deeper than that. I once briefly met him at some function I can no longer recall. He was then much as he appeared to be on TV – a very decent, wise and lovely human being. It feels to me that the world is a little less today because he has left it. I’ll miss him.