Where you find meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes an impostor

You probably know by now that I’ve been agitating for a pay rise and a promotion at work for a while. I was pretty well promised this until the pandemic hit, when all such plans went out the window. Typical. I haven’t forgotten though, and I tend to be persistent even when I don’t plan to be. It’s in the genes to take another step, and another, and so on, and it boils down generally to an unwillingness to accept defeat.

There have been conversations throughout and vague promises of things that might happen one day, and I’ve eased off a bit because it’s hard to make commitments when we’re all sitting at home in lockdown.

Then, on Thursday night, I got a message from my manager pitching an idea to me. Basically, he was saying that he was proposing that he take over a larger segment of the business and that I should step up and move into his current job. I didn’t respond at the time as I got the message late, but I was theoretically interested.

The following morning I caught up with more detail, then had a meeting with him in the afternoon. Apparently, the department was doing some forward planning and focussing on roles and individuals. As part of that, every person had to be rated on their importance to the business. Previously I’d been rated as important, but that was upgraded to essential, or vital, or whatever the terminology is – anyway, the top level. That was nice.

By the time I caught up with him, he’d been in a meeting with the powers to be and had mapped all this out. During the discussion, he’d told them – the department manager and the divisional head – that I was doing work far in advance of my job title and was entitled to a pay rise. That was very good of him, but not a great surprise – he’s a very supportive manager. What surprised me is that the departmental manager agreed with that, the result is that they’re now, supposedly, reviewing my remuneration. That’s very welcome.

The other part of their conversation was what role was best for me going forward. There was either a product owner/manager role, but working in another team, or the role identified within my existing team but heading it up. Which did I prefer? In the end, I plumped for the second option. It’s not the perfect job, but I’ve yet to come across that beast. The bonus for me is that I’d continue to work with my current manager, who I think is excellent. We have a good relationship and have implicit trust in each other. Our working styles mesh well, and I love how he gives me so much freedom. And he’s a top-notch performer.

Supposedly, the outcomes of this should be realised sometime between two weeks and two months. I’m a sceptic, but we’ll see.

This would address a lot of my concerns. Even if I only get a pay rise out of it, then I’d be happy, and that seems more likely than not. And if I were to be promoted to the new role, I’d expect a pay rise in the order of $30K – $40K. That would alleviate a lot of my financial considerations with retirement looming in the next 10-15 years.

There’s an undercurrent to all this which I felt as we were discussing it. I’ve been pushing hard for something, much from financial necessity, some from a sense of a fair go – I deserved more, and my ego had a big say in it also, as always it does. But, as I’ve articulated here before, I’m not sure if my heart is in it anymore.

I remember many years ago, my best mate at the time telling me that he wasn’t interested in taking on more responsibility. He was smart enough, but he was happy to mooch along. I couldn’t come at that. It seemed weird to me. Why wouldn’t you? It seemed me that all the interesting stuff happened when you took on more. I didn’t fear responsibility, I craved it. I was always on the march, inquisitive and creative and hungry. The bonus was that it led to better jobs and more money.

I’ve still got that hard-coded in me as a kind of universal aspiration: this is how you should be. And so, often, I still think that’s what I want – which goes against the evidence of what I actually feel, which I’m not about to repeat again now.

I discussed this with a mate the other day, and we both agreed that I had to push forward. As I said to him, the evidence is that despite what I actually feel and the occasional doubts I have that I always manage to get it done. And the proof is easy to see – my performance review was five stars across the board, and now I’m rated as essential. Plus what I do works.

There’s a disconnect, nonetheless. There’s like two of me, the one that does things and the other who watches and comments on it. The one who does things is clever and effective, though even his motivation wanes occasionally. When that happens, he reverts back to habit and experience and sheer smarts. It takes a bit more elbow grease than it used to, but it works.

Then there’s the me that looks on and wonders if this is really what I want to do. He recognises how effective his other self is. When the plaudits come in, he understands the reason and logic of it even if he doesn’t feel the glow of it. He has less confidence than he should because it feels almost fraudulent to take credit for something his other self achieved. And that’s a frequent sense. It’s probably a variation on the impostor syndrome, which is not something I’ve ever experienced before. And, even so, I only feel an ‘impostor’ because I don’t own, or feel in myself, the things I’ve done. In fact, I know I’m in the top percentile when it comes to actual capability, and I believe in that, but I don’t feel it. It doesn’t live in me.

I think part of that is that I’m just not as interested in that as I used to be. I’ve become divorced from that aspect and because of that it feels both more tenuous and phony. As if, almost, for all I’ve done before, I’m not sure I can keep doing it – even though I do. The outcome of all that is deep inside I don’t want the responsibility. The irony now is that I look like having it thrust upon me.

I’ll deal with it. I don’t think I’ll ever be as interested as I was before, or engaged, which is a more apt term, but I don’t know that I want that. I hope I can reintegrate those two selves though because it’ll make life easier, and because the hard reality of it is that I have to. I’ve still got years ahead of me working for the man. Have to make it pay.

The butler did it

On Friday afternoon I took a break from work to sit down and watch Dan Andrews testify at the Hotels Quarantine inquiry. I sat there for over two hours watching, fascinated by the process in general, and by the slow reveal of information.

It’s pretty basic. You could even call the process ‘dry’. The assisting counsel asked a series of reasonably simple questions, each building on what has come from before. She was polite and friendly. Her probing was gentle, hinting at times, nudging at others, seeking the basic facts of the matter before teasing out an interpretation from the premier, and occasionally a statement.

Throughout he was as we have come to expect from him – calm, deliberate, never flustered, and seemingly in command of the situation. Occasionally there’d be a glimpse of humour, just as in his press conferences. As ever, he was well mannered and courteous.

I found myself drawn into the narrative as the pieces fell into place and some kind of sense began to emerge. Throughout the inquiry to that point, most witnesses had denied knowledge or obfuscated their evidence. A thread was disseminated that there was shared responsibility, and therefore shared accountability, for the hotel quarantine operation.

It wasn’t a pretty picture and one was left to wonder what the truth was. Like most, my take on the inquiry was second-hand, from news grabs and commentary. That is often misleading and subject to manipulation, however, many before the inquiry seemed to condemn themselves with their lack of candour. It wasn’t a good look and led me to wonder at what the truth was. No-one put their hand up, no-one claimed ownership, and without exception, everyone said they didn’t know who had decided to use private security guards. Either the structure was so bad that everyone thought that someone else was doing the job, or those who were responsible didn’t want to admit to it.

We know now, as far as the premier is concerned, that it was the DHHS who should have been controlling the operation, and that their minister, Jenny Mikakos, was responsible. You’d think Andrews would know as that would have been his departments’ decision. The result of that is Mikakos resigned on Saturday, quite appropriately, but not before insinuating that it wasn’t her fault.

I like Mikakos. I think she’s one of a number of very talented ministers the Victorian government had in their ranks – more of them women than men. I think she’s a very decent human being and no-one disputes that she is hard-working and passionate. It’s sad that it comes to this. As she alludes to, I’m sure she’s been badly let down by her department. It seems that not everything was communicated to her as it should’ve been and that the model – basically outsourcing expertise (a neo-lib scourge on politics generally these days) left the department short of expertise and muddied the lines of communication. I think a re-structure is required generally, and other heads should roll (including the department secretary, Kym Peake). I doubt any of that will happen until the report is out in a couple of weeks, but even so, Mikakos has to take responsibility for her department.

(Donna, who works in the Victorian public service and who is well connected, was telling me all sorts of horror stories. She’s unsurprised by some of the bungling, for the reasons given above – because of outsourcing, and because some bureaucrats have been elevated beyond their competence and enjoyed untoward power).

I have no doubt that there were decisions made without proper consultation. Reading between the lines, the Emergency Commissioner appeared to go off on his own tangent at times, and it seems the answer to the timeless question regarding who decided to use private security guards is that it was Crisp, but pushed into it by the police commissioner of the time, Graham Ashton (who suddenly resigned soon after).

That may appease some, but I really don’t think that was ever the big issue for mine. The bigger problem was how the situation was managed when problems emerged from the program – and it seems likely that was lost in bureaucratic red-tape and incompetence.

The report comes out in a fortnight. I expect it will claim unclear lines of responsibility/communication, failures of key staff and processes in the public service, and – potentially – unilateral decision making outside of the process. Mikakos is gone, I hope and expect others will go also, and I hope from this it becomes clear the public service model in use all around Australia, of public/private partnership, is failing us badly. Reform is needed, but it really needs to be across the board and extend to the federal level, where it’s even worse.

I would hope this would be the end of all the backbiting and controversy as I’m thoroughly sick of it – as are most Victorians I reckon. We’ll see what the report has to say, but I suspect Andrews has come out of this well by staying the course. And that’s after the federal government and the Murdoch media throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at him.

At the end of the day, the good news story is that as of this morning the daily infection rate was down to five cases. We’re well on our way out of this, and there’s much to be grateful for and proud of. We’re doing this.

Professor Deano

At about 8.50 last night a notification came through on my phone saying that Dean Jones had died from a cardiac arrest. I looked at it and thought it can’t be true. Fake news, I told myself, more from hope than expectation. Dean Jones – Deano – was not someone I could imagine being dead.

Of course, it transpired that it was true. Deano was in India to commentate on the IPL when he had a heart attack. One of his fellow commentators, and another ex-Australian cricketer, Brett Lee, attempted to revive him, but without success. Deano was dead.

People die all the time, even famous people. Some are shocking, many seem surprising at the time, but mostly we come to accept within a short space of time. That’s the deal, after all, it comes to an end for everyone one day. It’s the next day, and I’m a long way short of accepting – understanding – that Dean Jones has passed away.

I think that’s the same for many people. In the hour or so after the news was announced it was treated with disbelief and shock. Then the tributes started rolling in from around the world, from ex-teammates and opponents, from colleagues in the commentary box and players he’d coached, as well as from the likes of you and me. Tributes can be formulaic, but every one of these seemed heartfelt as if drawn up from deep inside. And some of the names – Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, and so on – huge names in world cricket. Then to read this morning the reaction from Allan Border, his great mate and former captain, how he loved Deano. This is a big moment.

Sitting on my couch last night, I read the news and reaction as it came through. I sent messages to friends I knew it would resonate with, Donna and VJ. VJ couldn’t believe it – Deano? The cricketer? – Yes. Deano was just 59, and that’s something else that gave pause to us.

I’m a few years younger than Deano was, but I grew up watching him play cricket for Australia through the eighties and into the nineties. The early to mid-eighties was a bleak time in Australian cricket. It marked the changing of the guard from the great names of the seventies – Lillee, Marsh, Chappell – to a bunch of relative unknowns who struggled to make an impression initially. I was there, I watched it, I went to the games, and though there were hard times there were also some great moments, and Deano was in the middle of a few of them. When I look back on Australian cricket in the eighties, there are few names that really stand-out. AB was one, and he was immense. Possibly Steve Waugh, but more into the nineties. But definitely Deano. He was impossible to miss.

There were great onfield moments. He was part of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, which came out of the blue. And there is the epic tale of how he made a double century in India when he was almost delirious. It’s an oft-told story, and none more often than by the man himself. He spent that night in hospital on a drip, and the match ended in only the second-ever tied test.

Deano was a talented cricketer whose international career ended prematurely for reasons never adequately explained – I suspect he probably rubbed up the wrong way with the administration. I think he always thought that too and was aggrieved by it. He was charismatic, but was always forthright and could be abrasive. He was one of those dashing characters popular with fans but less so with administrations. Thought it ended too soon, he had a fine test career and was a revolutionary ODI player, which is how most people remember him, I think.

I have such vivid memories of this myself. He was such a busy, aggressive cricketer, in every facet of the game. I can picture him in his canary yellow Australian outfit, a lean figure stepping down the pitch to loft over the on-side, then haring down the pitch and back again (and he was just as quick in the field). He took the game on at a time when most teams sought to build an innings. He exploded that and was remarkably successful – to the point that I would place him in the top 15 ODI players for Australia.

It was his style that made him vivid. He played the game with a swashbuckling, almost pugnacious intent. In a lot of ways, he epitomises how many people came to see Australian cricket, but when he started we were on the slide, and confidence was low. I think his style was important to the team and to the ethos of being an Australian cricketer. In time, we rose to the top again and he was big part of that. The 1989 Ashes probably marks the real turning point, the team captained by his great mate, AB, and he played a big part in its success.

He was a bit of a lair – flash, confident, insolent, he did things his way on-field and off. He ran into authority throughout his career and after, because of that, and I suspect he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he felt he hadn’t been given his due recognition. He could be think-skinned, but I think that’s a fair call, too. He was a better international player than people remember, and he’s the second-highest run-scorer ever for Victoria. He was also a coach and commentator, but while he made it big in the sub-continent he wasn’t given the same respe,ct here. He was not one of the boys.

I followed him on Twitter. He was there as he was in life, vibrant and larger than life, but also very generous. He gave time to everyone, and though he was proud of his achievements, his humour could be self-deprecating. Because I followed him there, he remained very real to me. I could hear his voice in my ears. Just a few days ago there was a tweet of his with a photo showing the commentating team he was part of. It feels strange knowing his days were marked, and that he would never make it back from there.

For cricket lovers of my generation, this is a big moment, and especially if they’re a Victorian like Deano, like me. Deano was a proud Australian and a very vocal Victorian also. He was part of the furniture right from the time he stepped onto the international stage nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve just spent half an hour talking to Donna about this. She knew him personally. They had a relationship of sorts years ago. In reality, he was a lair off the field as well as on it. She’s told me stories over the years that made me smile, and recounted some of them today. I wish I’d known him. It seems hardly conceivable that he’s gone, and I’m very sorry.

White noise

The counterpoint to the movie I wrote of yesterday – The Great Beauty – is the book I’m currently reading – Going To The Dogs.

The Great Beauty is set in contemporary Rome, grand and ancient. It features the creative well-to-do leading a life of endless parties and dinners and intellectual discourse round and round. Going To The Dogs is set in Berlin during Weimar Germany, just after the stock market crash of 1929. It’s provocative and lewd and anything is possible.

On the surface, the protagonists could hardly be more different. One is a 65 year old Italian sophisticate and intellectual. The other is an unemployed German half his age. One has known success and has settled into a life of comfort and sensuality, as well as minor celebrity. The other is talented and intelligent, but lost in the mess and muck of an era in transition – before the Nazis. One leads a gilded life and possesses a manner of charming cynicism; the other is an affable moralist, but without a position in life, and no future.

The differences are obvious, but there is much that ties them together. The worlds they inhabit are vibrant and decadent, though in different ways. One has lost an essence and the other lacks it. Both are observers. Both experience a form of detachment. Both of them quest, one by belated circumstance, and the other by nature. And both possess that quality we called sensibility in the post yesterday.

I find them as two sides of the same coin, very different at first glance, but sharing fundamental attributes. I wonder if they met what they would think of the other, but in between them I find myself drawn to both.

In the case of Fabian, the protagonist of Going To The Dogs, the reasons for that are less clear than they were yesterday.

I like Fabian – he’s smart and thoughtful and a decent human being. He’s capable but unmotivated, though not because he’s lazy. His is more a existential lack of motivation, though he remains curious about what he finds in the world about him, and at times he’ll seek out difference as if to learn from it. He reminds me, in memory anyway, of Ulrich, from The Man Without Qualities. They’re the same age, and both are seemingly searching for the thing that might light them up inside. In their way, both are outsiders, though not by choice. It’s as if something present in most people is absent in them, though it doesn’t stop them from joining in and trying.

It’s a rich vein of literature this, particularly in European art over the last century. I can only guess that it coincides with much of progress and modernisation and conflict along the way which, in combination, have had the effect of drawing us further from the fundamental and numbing our sensibility. Along the way, some get lost in all the white noise. Which is one reason why the experience of lockdown lately has been so profound in some ways – much of the white noise has been muted, and other things heard.

It’s always appealed to me this trope, and think this is the basic story here. Jep, from The Great Beauty, has coddled himself in lifestyle. He’s given way to the white noise. Then he hears something through the  noise and it harkenns to him things that were precious to him, but which he let go. In Fabian, he’s conscious of the white noise, though maybe it’s something he couldn’t articulate in so many words. He’s aware, all the same, of a basic distance between him and the world he has yet to reconcile. At times he thinks he will do the conventional but it appears the world is against him and won’t allow it. Even when he wishes it…

That’s a common part of this – fate has condemned…

Where is the great beauty?

I happened across The Great Beauty in about January 2015. I was house-sitting at my uncles and aunts house way out in the sticks in a time when I was still homeless and unemployed and, seemingly, few prospects. Being there was like a holiday for me. I had a good-sized and fully appointed house to myself for six weeks. I had space at least, and a decent bed and time to set aside some of the fears that haunted me. By day I was writing my first book and watering the tomatoes and walking the dogs and cooking – I had a full-sized kitchen at my disposal also. By night I would sit on the comfy lounge with a dog to either side of me and explore what there was to watch on TV, or on the hard-drive of movies I took with me. That’s how I found this film. One balmy summer’s night, I was flicking between channels when I came across it. I stayed to watch for a few minutes, then kept watching. By the end of the movie, I could feel it inside me. It made me think and wonder. It made me remember myself. I went to bed, knowing not all was done.

It’s an Italian movie about a man who wrote a great and famous novel when he was young and not written anything since. He’s now 65, an elegant, sophisticated, witty man about town. His friends are intellectuals and artists and each night they gather at different places for different events and party until the early hours of the morning. It’s a hedonistic lifestyle full of intellectual discourse and sensual delights. Jep epitomises it. He’s charming and fun and touches lightly wherever he goes. (A generation before it’s a role that Marcello Mastroianni would have played with detached aplomb). As it is, the role is very well inhabited by Toni Servillo.

On the surface, it’s hard to know quite why I was so drawn to the story. It’s a great movie, no doubt, intelligent and vivid (it recalls Fellini in style), with great set-pieces and photography in general, and brilliant acting (and the musical selections are perfect and haunting). But I had a personal response to this, which is rare. I found something in it that seemed relevant to my existence – it seems unlikely.

When I first saw it, I had nothing, and the future looked bleak. But there I was, sitting in a house on the outskirts of Melbourne, kangaroos hopping by beyond the back fence, watching the story of rich and decadent Italians in the eternal city, Rome. Jep, the protagonist, I could relate to in some undefined way, but even so, his life appeared the polar opposite of my own, and even his style – some of which felt familiar – was ultimately different.

I watched the movie again last night and felt much as I did before though – thankfully – my circumstances are much improved from that time. I watched, trying to understand what it was that resonated in me. At one stage Jep says that his was always going to be a life of sensibility. No matter how much he engaged in the elegant, sometimes decadent, lifestyle he was part of, there was always something in him that was an observer. He had reacted to that with a dry and sometimes biting wit, as if to put distance between what he felt and what he wanted to portray. He had achieved early success and made himself light since as if it was an aberration. He skipped along, enjoying the fruit his wealth and celebrity gave him, but ultimately he can’t ignore that sensibility – the knowingness I’ve written of before.

This is the movie. He’s living this enjoyable life when he hears that one of his first loves from many years before has passed away. It affects him deeply and sets him off as he continues his life of episodic sensuality. He looks at the things he never had, the things he shunned but might have had if things had been different. He searches for some meaning amid the great ‘blah, blah, blah’, and returns again and again in his mind to the scene of his very first love.

In short, he undergoes a journey. The pristine and engaging facade he’s lived behind develops cracks. He finds himself wrought by unexpected emotion. The old, almost cynical formulas fail him. He wants a meaning to it. He searches for it outside, then turns back within.

This is probably something many of us can relate to. It may even be a condition of life – certainly for those who have any sensibility. And I think that’s what I recognised both before and now. My circumstances were just that – circumstances. My self, my sensibility if you like, was contained within me like a bubble independent of the circumstances I was in. I still thought, deeply, still wondered and felt, still questioned. What had become lightness in Jep had become heavier in me, but it was just a different way of responding to similar things. And I recognised his hedonism, knowing it well, drawn to the more simple life of sensation – would be if I could be. Though my path has taken me somewhere very different, I could appreciate his dandy-ism as self-expression and relate to his love of women – fleeting though it ever is. And the images of him wandering the empty streets of Rome in the early hours and as dawn breaks – that’s straight out of something I wrote 20 years ago. I know it.

So, what does it mean? I think we see beneath the surface reality and respond to what lies beneath. I think, like Jep, I’ve hidden behind a way of being for years. Many of us have. Ultimately, they’re the things we are. In our case, it’s a sensibility we can’t escape, and it’s bittersweet.

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.


A year without footy

It occurred to me the other day that this year – 2020 – will be the first year since about 1979 that I haven’t attended a VFL/AFL game in person – and 1979 I was living in Sydney. I was in Sydney in 1980 also, but I remember attending a Swans game. And in the years before 1979, when I was still in Melbourne, we had reserved seats at Windy Hill and turned up for every home game. By my reckoning, I’ve been to a game every year since about 1971, excluding 1979, and this year.

This has not been by choice. The extraordinary circumstances mean that the games have been played in a bubble, and far from Melbourne. It’s the last round of the home and away season this weekend, but, excepting round one, every round has been away for us Victorians.

It’s been a strange year altogether, and that includes the footy. I watch every week, but it’s a different product entirely. Shortened quarters make for a different spectacle, and the interrupted season has made for a game of a distinctly lesser standard than usual. Add to that wretched umpiring – for which there is no excuse – and it’s only really habit and tribal loyalty that has kept me watching.

After this weekend, my team is out of it, and the finals begin. I don’t have a huge interest in what happens next, except in the usual way – I know who I don’t want to win it. I’ll be watching still, and I may even get excited at times, but I can’t wait for it to get back to ‘normal’, and to a time when I can sit in the outer again hurling abuse at umpires and cheering on the red and black.

There’s a lot of things I can’t wait for.

The Melbourne lockdown

These days of lockdown are full of routines, wanted or not. I keep hearing how important it is to maintain a routine, and while I understand it, I sometimes struggle when it gets too regimented and predictable. It’s taken me a while to realise that while I’m well suited to a situation like this in many regards – self-reliant, resilient, strong – there are parts of my make-up that make it more difficult. I’m one, for example, who thrives on change. I’m not someone content to sit in the corner and watch the world go by. I like to engage, I’m curious, and spontaneous possibility excites me. All that has been put on hold.

I struggle with some of the routine and repetitive meetings that are in themselves routine. I hate the fact that at a certain time every day I’ve got to sit at my desk and attend the same meeting as I did the day before to say much as I did the day before, and to listen to the same reports pretty much as the day before. And that’s every day. I tell you, it’s bad for the soul. Just randomly I’ll skip one now and then, and will try and change it up by joining on my phone and sitting on the couch. It’s all pretty lame.

There are more welcome routines. My first coffee. That hour I get to rea in bed before starting work. The tea-break at about 9.45 – I’ve gone from using a tea-bag to a proper brew, and even Indian style occasionally – brewed up on the stovetop until it just boils, like billy tea without the gum leaf. There’s the first trip outside at around 10.30, generally in the direction of the shops. I look forward to that. And then there’s the second trip out walking Rigby somewhere between 3 and 3.30. And I guess knock-off and the G&T that heralds it.

There are larger routines. Yesterday I had delivered a couple of bags of coffee beans, plus a bottle of vodka and one of Noilly Prat (for the warmer months) from Dan’s, and I thought, it must be a month. Deliveries are almost a routine thing, too. It’s rare I don’t get a daily delivery of something, though they come at different times, and in very different shapes and sizes.

I read a bit about how tough it’s been in Melbourne through this lockdown. I think in theory, that’s true. It certainly hasn’t been easy – but it feels sometimes as if it’s been overdone, mostly by people who haven’t lived through it. There are noisy exceptions, but most Melburnians have accepted the situation. None of is relish it, all of us look towards a time when we’re free to move about, to visit friends, to sit down for a drink, and all the rest of it, but we know also why we’re doing this. By and large, we get on with it. It certainly not as miserable as some people make it out to be, not for me anyway. We’ll come out of this strong.

What happens after? I don’t know. Who does? The trend is positive currently and we can see a way clear. But I don’t think anyone believes we’re out of the woods with COVID. A vaccine is a while away, if ever, and there a few places in the world who have it under control – and, even so, we’ve seen how quickly it can get out of control again.

Here, I think this experience has bound us closer together as a community, and may make us more parochial – not everyone’s been happy with the commentary coming out of other states, and certainly the Federal government. The experience may just make Melbourne even more distinctly Melbourney. That’s no bad thing.

Uncle Don

I dreamt last night that I was Donald Trump’s ‘nephew from Australia’. I went to visit him, and we went on a road trip together and hit it off fine. At one stage we’re walking side by side along a busy road with a lake on the far side of it. It’s pretty, and we’re talking and as we go along, he takes my hand in his. Though I’m in my early twenties, I accept it as a fond gesture. And in fact, all through my dream my experience of Donald is that he’s a friendly, generous and fun to be around sort of guy. And actually, quite a basic character when you strip away all the bullshit – which is an awful lot.

I woke with this dream in me and didn’t know what to make of it. Then I thought some more and it didn’t seem so strange.

Like much of the world, I despise Donald Trump, but I also pity him. It seems a generous position given all the terrible things he’s done, but when I look at him, I see a man terribly out of his depth. He’s not smart enough to know it, and certainly not to admit it, and so he blusters and pontificates to hide his ignorance and to supposedly portray the sort of character he wants to be. Unfortunately, the real tragedy in this is that he’s been allowed to get away with. He’s a prime analog for the emperor with no clothes, and so he swans around naked while his cronies and the corrupt and imbecilic who follow him fall over themselves to exclaim what a splendid suit of clothes he’s wearing.

This is one of the diabolical aspects of these times. I don’t know of any other era when someone so profoundly incapable would attain such a position of power, and maintain such power throughout. It says a lot about the fierce polarisation of ideology these days when someone so inadequate and dangerous is preferable to the power-brokers behind him than some liberal alternative. And it says a lot about the usual checks and balances in society that have allowed this – a critical media and an educated electorate.

I wonder sometimes in his reflective moments – if he has them – if Donald suspects he might be such a strawman? Does he ever look in the mirror and realise he’s a terrible fraud?

I think the truth about Donald Trump is that he’s not very bright (and has probably some form of Alzheimer’s), was badly brought up, and learned early it was more important to bullshit and bully and barge your way through than to get your hands dirty. I suspect he’s a man without any real values or convictions.

He certainly has a history of bigotry, but I suspect little of it is firmly held. It’s more a matter of convenience or some perverted sense of being cool, which I think is important to him. He’s a populist carried away on the tide of his own narcissism. Everything is status for him, and he can’t bear to be seen wrong or ignorant, which is why he invents such fantastic tales and why everything is always the best or biggest. He’s really a child who somehow has become the most powerful man in the most powerful country on earth.

That’s just my opinion and none of it excuses his behaviour, though it might explain some of it. If not for all the bullshit he might be a reasonable guy – but then, there’s a lot of bullshit.