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.

The marvellous Clive James


Very sad, though not surprised, to hear of the death of Clive James overnight. I thought he was marvellous.

It was a scruffy package, but what an incisive mind he had, matched with a wonderful way with words. He was a great communicator. Engaging as a personality, he had that rare ability to make high art and concepts approachable to the guy in the street. It was as if he shared with us his distinctive view of things, allowing us to share in the wonder he felt.

He was a great mind, but he was just as good with the everyday muck that is our media, seeing the absurdity in it and presenting back to us in such a way that we could all see it too. He was such a genial, affable character, the sort you can directly relate to because he wore his flaws so openly, and took such open visceral pleasure in popular culture, and the things that were common to us. I’d have loved to have met him*. I couldn’t imagine better company for a night out on the town – erudite, witty, intelligent and earthy.

For me, and probably for many thousands of others, I felt a connection to him merely by his presence through so many years of my life. He was always there, on TV, a beaming, bright presence sitting back in a lounge chair with a laugh in his voice as he colourfully highlighted some absurdity. And if he wasn’t there on TV, he was in the media commenting on this or that. Then there were his books. I started off with his Unreliable Memoirs many years ago, but I loved his essays also, which I think greatly underrated. Then there’s his Cultural Amnesia, both highly learned and entertaining, a great read. Even his poetry, some of which is sublime.

As an Australian, there’s another layer of connection. Though he lived in London throughout his adult life, there was something ineffably Australian about him – the irreverence perhaps, the larrikin tilting at windmills. He remained a proud Aussie throughout his life, and I was proud to have him as one of ours.

For me, there’s one final link – he’s the generation of my father. My dad had his 79th birthday a couple of weeks ago (I had lunch with him last week), a year younger than James. The world that James recalls in his memoirs is the world of my father (and mother, too). It’s a generation slowly thinning and, regardless of the disdain epitomised by the insult ‘hey, boomer’, there are many great members of it – and it’s a world slipping away. James would have a comment on that, though I suspect he would shrug his shoulders, accepting that’s the way of things and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

I’m sorry I’ll never see his jovial dial on TV anymore, or his amused voice. I’ll miss him as a character and icon, another one gone, and sad that nothing more will flow from that grand mind of his to share in.

*P.S. When I was in London a few years ago I imagined I would bump into Clive James and he would invite me back to his place where he’d have fascinating conversations over a bottle of red – that’s how much he meant to me. I knew by then that he would never return to Australia, which seemed desperately sad because he could no longer travel. Unfortunately, that encounter never happened, and never will now.

P.P.S. Not that many will know him necessarily, but another member of the fraternity coming out of English universities of the sixties died not long after James: Jonathan Miller. He had many successes, but I’ll always remember him for a fascinating series called The Body in Question. He was mates with Dudley and Moore as well if I remember right.

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.

 

Not my scene


On Tuesday night I caught up for a drink with a friend I hadn’t seen since late last year. She was at a bar at Southgate, Left Bank, with her husband, and I was there by 5 o’clock.

After about three beers, I was thinking about heading home. It was only meant to be a catch-up, and I had to get home to feed the dog. Then someone brought back another beer for me, then another after that and then my friend said, we’re going next door for dinner.

She’d been on the phone to her brother, who is a multi-millionaire business owner, and who just happened to be at a restaurant nearby having dinner. Come along, he’d told her.

At this stage, I tried backing out again. Gotta go home, I said, have a great night. But then she demanded I join them and her husband, a lovely guy, said I may as well join them. You might find it interesting he told me. Besides, it was a free dinner. So I joined them.

We found my friend’s brother in a private room with his friends and hangers-on. Apparently, he has a standing booking and turns up 3-4 nights a week for dinner. Hence the private room.

I looked about. As I already knew, it wasn’t my scene. There was a group of about six sitting around a round table, a married couple from the business and a few gay friends of the host. Bar one, they were pleasant. The host himself I’d met him a few times before and always found him a charmless character. He’s gay, short and plump with a nearly bald head and small eyes. He’s one of those people who don’t seem to say much but looks out on his entourage, occasionally speaking in a closed-mouth sort of way.

I had a glass of wine and thought twice about ordering a steak, uncomfortable to accept the generosity of someone I hardly knew. I joined in the conversation, but mostly I observed. In my imagination, I considered how 3-4 times a week the host holds court like this, watching on as others enjoy the fruits of his hospitality. It sat poorly with me all round. I’m old school in a lot of ways, but, you know, I’m not above accepting the occasional freebie if someone really insists. Sometimes it’s not worth making such a fuss about. Next time, you think. But to turn up night after night knowing that your meal – and your company – was being paid for is a different thing.

I get how people like free things. And a free meal in a nice restaurant is a treat. But to do it, again and again, makes it seem cynical. Worse, though – for me – would be the sense of being owned. Rented, at least. And I think that’s likely a part of the appeal for the host. He knows their price, and he can easily afford it. He watches them eating from his trough and takes pleasure from it. It’s just money after all, and he has plenty of that. In exchange, he has power.

And yep, I may be being unfair and judgemental here, and just plain wrong. Maybe it’s not the same people all the time. Maybe they’re generous in return in their own way. Or maybe they’re just happy knowing it gives the pleasure host to entertain them – it’s made round to go round, as my grandmother used to say. It’s all perspective. To each their own. It’s not for me, though.

Despite this going through my head, I ended up ordering a steak. I wasn’t going to starve myself on principle, and I intended to pay for it.

In the end, I ate it but never got to pay for it. As I was finishing my meal, a fierce argument broke out. “Come on, mate,” my friend’s husband said, pulling me from my chair, “I’ve seen this before”.

We took our wine and left the room, sitting out in the restaurant proper. I knew it was a volatile family, and my friend herself was subject to fierce emotions. We drank our wine while it was explained to me that once these family conflicts start, they couldn’t be stopped. Best to get out of the way.

Long story short, we were soon gone. I had only the opportunity for a quick goodbye as I grabbed my coat and bag, ushered away from the fractured atmosphere. Then I was walking to the station.

The night only compounded itself from then. No trains were running on my line, and the three Ubers I ordered one after another never arrived. In the end, I got a taxi home for twice the price, and long after I should have been.

Father’s day


Maybe because it’s Father’s Day today I dreamt of dad last night. In the dream, I saw myself as he did: ever so reliable and intelligent, but prickly to boot.

I don’t know how true that is, but I’m sure it’s a true impression for some of me. If I am ever prickly then – I say – it’s in defence of my independence, or to assert a right. Or maybe to refute a nonsense I won’t abide.

As for dad, if he ever thought that, then the first part he took for granted while exaggerating the second.

Needless to say, I’m doing nothing for father’s day. I’m having lunch with him this week, I think. I think he’s mellowing.

The quirks of family


It’s a tiresome subject, but I have some updates on my cousin, as well as an unexpected development to come out of it.

I made the mistake last Thursday contacting my cousin to see how he was settling into Melbourne. I thought twice, even thrice, before doing so. He’s done nothing to endear himself to me in the short time I’ve known him. He’s graceless and rude and with a mighty chip on his shoulder. I’ve not said a cross word to him yet he’s walked out on me once, told me to fuck-off on another occasion, and otherwise imputed that I had benefitted at his expense. Basically, I don’t like him. On top of that he’s a manipulative opportunist and I was afraid he would seek to take advantage of any contact.

I contacted him nonetheless, setting all that to one side. The family connection means nothing to me, but I’m sympathetic to anyone less well off. And, I figured, I’d only seen him at his worse, at the bottom of the curve so to speak. It seemed unfair to judge him on that. He was entitled to get another go.

Unfortunately he was true to form. I started off bright and friendly. As always, he responded within seconds. He didn’t answer my question, instead launching directly into an interrogation of his own. Did you know what happened with our grandparents will? Did you get an inheritance? Where do you work? What do you do? What are your qualifications? What’s your office address? Are you on Newstart? Why does your side of the family have money when my side doesn’t? Where do live? What’s your address?

I should note that some of these questions were repeated 3-4 times, and came rapid-fire, before I had a chance to properly answer – even had I been inclined to. They came, one after another, until there was a line of them scrolling down the page.

At first I was patient, looking to answer appropriately. I was suspicious though, and soon his interrogative tone began to piss me off. I refused to answer the contentious questions for fear of further inflaming the situation, and because I felt no need to explain or justify. I let him go on until he petered out.

Throughout this I had the fear that if I gave him too much information it would be used against me. I was sure had I given my address he’d have shown up on my doorstep. Likewise, I was fearful of him turning up to work and either demanding to see me or making accusations against me. There was in his tone something hostile and resentful. It’s clear he believes we – being my side of the family – have derived some magical benefit denied to him. It makes him angry and sneering. Amid all his tendencies he’s also narcissistic and superior.

Once he’d subsided I quietly muted him. I had made up my mind that in time, once things had settled, that I would block him.

Then a friend of mine – the friend he had cottoned onto – asked if I’d seen his most recent Facebook posts. I hadn’t, and when I went to check found that he’d unfriended. I quietly rejoiced at that. He’d saved me the trouble.

In the meantime he’d posted a scathing take-down of his mother that ran to paragraphs. My friend sent me screen-prints and they were nasty. Regardless of truth they’re not the sort of thing that should be shared on a social media site for every friend and family member to read – but then I’m old school.

The next day my friend contacted me again telling me that my cousins sister had responded to his posts very eloquently. He sent me copies of those too. In them she basically refuted everything he’d claimed, adding that he had been abusing their mother for years, to the point she was afraid of him. There was reference to constant demands for money, among other more ambiguous, troubling references. It was quite compelling, and his response feeble. And he unfriended her as well as me.

So, that’s where I’m at with him – better off in a different orbit altogether.

But then there’s something else that came out of this episode. People often say things happen for a reason, but mostly it’s a case of applying a retrospective interpretation to explain a fortuitous happenstance. Sometimes it’s an easy thing to do.

When my cousin threatened suicide I contacted my father. He didn’t answer but responded with a message. That was our first communication for about four years. Having called him his number was now on my recently dialled list and on Wednesday the week following my bum inadvertently called him again. I caught it before he answered and disconnected. Awks!

That afternoon I was in a meeting when my phone rang. It was my father returning my call and leaving a message.

That left me in a quandary. I couldn’t ignore him, but nor could I tell him I hadn’t intended to call him – that would be too rude. I called him late in the day and explained that I’d been calling to update him on the situation with my cousin. We talked for about ten minutes beyond that when he explained his lifestyle – busy and unusually social. Maybe he’s mellowed. At the end of the call, unsure what to say, I said “catch up soon,” as you do. And having said I knew I had to do it.

Long story short we’re having lunch on Friday. Let’s see what happens.

Mulling it over


On Friday, as I prepared to head out for lunch, I contemplated dropping in on my dad. I haven’t seen or spoken to my father for about three years I reckon, maybe longer. I haven’t missed him much and even when we were talking we didn’t have much of a relationship. I don’t miss him, but I miss that functional relationship. It can feel pretty solitary when there’s no family network to lean upon.

Funnily enough, I was heading out to have lunch with a branch of the family I rarely see, my aunt and uncle and my cousins. They’re all decent, sensible people, unpretentious in every way. Growing up they were the modest wing of the family while we were glam – social, ambitious, striving, curious and challenging. I was very much of my family, but I found theirs almost an antidote to the occasional complexity of life on my side of the fence. It was lovely to see them again and it was a fine lunch.

The lunch venue was about ten minutes from where dad lived, though where exactly I didn’t know. I searched for him but couldn’t isolate him from the rest so never visited. Perhaps it was for the best – a friend tells me turning up on his doorstep like that might not have been the best idea. I’m not sure I agree – in ways I think it might have been the best way. And anyway, you can’t give up being ballsy.

So I didn’t visit him and mulled it over on the weekend. I didn’t seek a reconciliation as such, but I was conscious that he was getting older and anything was possible. I didn’t want to be the man who missed the important moments because of some petty dispute.

I wrote an email to him in which I expressed some of this:

We’ve had our differences but there’s nothing either of us can change or undo and I don’t waste my time thinking otherwise. Fact of the matter is we’ve never really been in each other’s lives, which is why this separation has been seamless – for me, at least.
I hope you’re well and healthy. Regardless of how we left it, I don’t wish for anything but good stuff for you. That’s what I wanted you to know. I don’t want you to think I’m bitter or angry. I’m none of that. Life’s much too interesting – and challenging – to be looking backwards.
I don’t know what I expected from this. There were times I have been bitter knowing what I was deprived of. Then I was disappointed that he didn’t fight harder to save our relationship. I think he was scared, so unlike the man I knew. As I said, there’s a time for being ballsy.
These now are no more than very gentle regrets. As I express, none of it can be changed now and perhaps that’s all I needed to say. I don’t think I could ever be close to him but I’m perfectly capable of being friendly and supportive.
So I sent my email and about nine hours later it came back to me, undeliverable. That was strange given I had sent it to an email address attached to his domain, and address I’d used before. So I tried another address with less hope and this too bounced back.
That’s where it stands. I can take it as the world telling me to give it away or I can try to source a current email address. That too I will mull over.