Sunday, June 18, 2017
JUST caught a train back from the city. The train journey goes so much more quickly when your mind is fully engaged with something. Helen Garner does that to you. I found this when I read the Farquarson drowning story in This House of Grief. Even more so with Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The idea of who Joe was, very intriguing. You felt like you got to know him. The bits at his parents’ house in Newcastle were riveting. Now I am going back in her oeuvre further with The First Stone (I can see I have the ‘trilogy’ backwards).
So I am on this train today, as I said, just getting back now, reading very late into the book, based on the story of the inglorious end of Colin Shepherd’s reign as Master at Ormond House, Melbourne, in 1992-3 (real name Alan Gregory). There was some sort of end of year function- a ‘Smoko’ is what it is apparently called- after a formal Valedictory dinner, where staff and students living at the college get together and drink and dance and probably loosen their inhibitions and have what one would hope would be a fun and scandal free evening for all. During the course of the night, two young women claimed, in separate incidents, that Shepherd touched their breasts. ‘Cupped’, I think was the term they used. The allegations stated that Shepherd began making personal remarks to Elizabeth Rosen when they were alone in his office at some point during the evening. ‘I have indecent thoughts about you’, ‘can I have a real kiss before you go’, etc. This, accompanied by getting on the floor, grasping her hands, then moving his hands to her breasts. The second allegation referred to an incident on the dance floor with one Nicole Stewart, a friend of Elizabeth Rosen. Shepherd agrees he danced with Stewart, and did have a hand on her back during the dance at one point, but vehemently denies moving his hand onto her left breast.
There were complaints made, I think, to the Equal Opportunity Board of the college, and somehow the women felt affronted enough to eventually go to the police. A court case ensued- I am, for some reason, very hazy on these details- however, Shepherd was found not guilty, but the damage for all parties had been done. The two women documented their own personal cost over the ordeal, and Shepherd lost his job- or, rather, he was given no choice because of the scandal but to resign- and the book details the personal cost for he and his family as well. There is a gripping moment in Garner’s research where she visits the Shepherd’s East Malvern home, and Mrs Shepherd cannot stop crying.
The biggest frustration for Garner was the fact that she was unable to gain an interview with the women. The same thing occurs in Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The female murderer in this saga will not reply to Garner’s letters, and in the end the book becomes unbalanced and ends up being a tribute to Joe. In the case of The First Stone, Garner is ‘on Shepherd’s side’ the whole time, but not just because she cannot properly craft the accusers’ story, but the very nature of what happened made her appalled. We get it very early on- from the point of view of a solicitor at the trial who asked one of the women ‘why didn’t you just slap him?’ then Garner herself, who wrote a sympathetic letter to Shepherd- ‘…I’m writing to say how terribly sorry about what has happened to you.’ Again, from Garner, ‘…why didn’t she get her mother or her friends to help her sort him out later, if she couldn’t deal with it herself at the time?’
The implication here, of helplessness or weakness on the women’s part, and solidarity with Shepherd because of the big, damaging fuss that was made of it when a few terse words might have been the outcome, and indeed is probably often the outcome (how many times a day does this kind of thing happen?)- all of this was apparently viewed outrageously by feminists at the time. Although I cannot remember it, I can well imagine the backlash that a well-respected and talented female writer in her fifties must have encountered.
Here, then, on my train, I am looking about, furtively, whilst I am continually dipping, riveted, to the pages. I am sitting opposite an attractive woman, not too far off my own age, thinking about beginning a conversation because she looks nice, and interesting. She has a compact suitcase on wheels with her, and looks slightly out of place as travellers often do when they are travelling to far-flung places. She spoke into her phone a couple of times, with a thick, possibly Spanish or Portuguese accent. I caught her eye a couple of times but I felt awkward and too shy to speak to her. She didn’t encourage me enough to start a conversation. I needed a return smile, or a long glance from her at the cover of my book. How I longed for her to say ‘Ahhh, Helen Garner, she’s an interesting one!’ Of course, no small part of my shyness and reluctance came from the fact that I am a male and she is a female. Will she think that I am ‘making a pass at her’ by opening up a conversation? Will the assumption be that I want to get to know her better and will probably ask for her number if she reciprocates in conversation too often? Am I in some way possibly a danger to her? There was no-one else in our corner of the carriage. Do strange men start up conversations with her all the time, and does she hate it? Conversely, would she be grateful for the energy and interest, and take the opportunity to ask lots of questions about Melbourne and perhaps my life and my book? Sadly, I am one of those people who are cautious and worry that I might offend.
Garner’s book is laced with the stories of women who have had unfortunate encounters with men. Men who have dived their hands under their skirt when they are young and working in shops. A woman raped by a doctor when she was wanting to find out whether or not she was pregnant. Garner herself who was kissed by a male stranger on a country train when she was a teenager, only to be rescued by somebody walking past her carriage. Her numbness and uncertainty and passivity in this encounter was incredible. She also tells a similar story, as an adult, of not having any idea how to deal with an unexpected kiss from a masseur during a session, whom she had already been to on a number of occasions. Completely vulnerable and naked except for a simple towel, she was unable to do anything but clam up, thank him, and leave.
The by-line for the book- ‘Some questions about sex and power’, throws an extraordinary array of different women’s reactions to unwanted gestures by encroaching males. It seems some men are just incredibly lucky, they get off scot-free- maybe they choose their ‘victims’ carefully- women who do not have the confidence or the will to speak up. Or bold women who think they can handle it themselves and say ‘fuck off’ and move on quickly from the whole experience. Or even women who are in some way ‘flattered’ by the approach- (yes, there are some in this book)- and therefore there are no repercussions, and there is no damage done. The men are just ‘finding out’. Some men will say they don’t know whether or not their actions will be welcomed. I dare say, though, that there must be many ‘wolves’ who have no interest in gaining the approval of the other person, that they are simply after gratification, or seeking power, and have no interest in the considerable cost due to their actions.
Then there are those men who I might say, somewhat sheepishly, may be considered quite unlucky. Was Shepherd one of those? If the allegations are true- and I am guessing Garner has her doubts- did Shepherd merely take on the wrong women in his inebriated state, where many, many males before him may have merely just been put swiftly back in their place?
I am also thinking, in very, very modern times, of Rolf Harris, who I have no sympathy for, and a little earlier the British con-man, Jimmy Saville, Bill Cosby for a very contemporary case. Here we are in different territory. The shocking abuse of power, and the multiple damaging acts. It is completely different with Shepherd, isn’t it? Did the women need to go to the police? And, interestingly, in these situations, where does the power lie? Is it with Shepherd, older and more experienced, and in a position , as ‘Master’ (interesting title) of authority and respect, possibly admiration or charisma, or is it with the women, young, attractive, possibly beguiling, Rosen for example described by Garner in a photo as ‘a goddess’, ‘daring beauty’, ‘a woman in the full glory of her youth’, even a reference to the ‘the double mass of her splendid bosom…bursting.’ So isn’t she allowed to be enchantingly beautiful?’ one might say.
We keep going back to why the women chose such a strong form of retaliation. I can’t remember who said it, maybe a friend of Garner’s, but somebody said she would hope, if it was her daughter, that she would have the nous to deal with it efficiently, a no-mess implication.
On the train, with all of this on my mind, and my potential friend having just departed, we stopped at Brunswick. A whole lot of hungry-looking, energetic males got on, wearing some kind of haphazard uniform from the local secondary college. They all looked about sixteen, so in about Year 10 or 11. It’s a potential school for my eldest daughter, two years away from high school. The thought struck me. Did I want this collective male gaze settling on her long, brown hair, her wide-eyes and fair complexion, her slim fingers and slender frame…
The title of the book, The First Stone, implies women are equally capable of inappropriate behaviour, that they use their sexual prowess when it is convenient and should be merciful when those of the opposite gender ‘get it wrong’. This line of thinking might consider that men are sometimes clumsy, and awkward, and poor at reading signals, or perhaps oblivious to signals, and that women sometimes ‘send off’ signals, perhaps inadvertently.
Personally, I can’t help but think about those women who reciprocates friendliness- there is no reason to be outright rude, for instance- and smile back, and engage, and even allow the male to buy a drink for them… then the signal is ‘you want to be with me’, ‘you find me mutually appealing’, ‘you want to have sex with me as well…’ It is this part of everything that makes me sad and a bit angry. It’s where, as a woman, you can’t really win.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
MOONLIGHT is a newish American film with an all- black cast that deals with drug addiction, family dislocation, struggles with personal identity and, especially, the human need for love, connection and physical touch.
It charts the changes that take place in the life of one male and his continual struggles with his identity as a young boy, through to a painful adolescence, and an uncertain adult. Unlike the intelligent film BOYHOOD, which charted growth over a long period of time, played by the same actor, and therefore filmed over many years, MOONLIGHT features three separate actors of different ages representing the main character.
As a young boy, Chiron lives on a council estate in a poor black section of Miami with his crack-addicted mother. She can barely look after him, and the bullying he attracts from his peers goes unnoticed and untended. He is just unable to quite fit in. He has a promising relationship with a surrogate mother and father (Juan) around the corner, and much to his mother’s chagrin, he spends quite a lot of time there. It is here that his issues are sensitively dealt with. He asks for the meaning of ‘faggot’, and is told that it is an unkind word for someone who is gay. It is almost verging on a Scout-Atticus relationship, until the boy finds out that Juan deals in drugs. Not only that, but he supplies the boy’s mother. It’s a depressing coda to the first story. A cut throat and desperate society.
The second story features the boy at about 18. Things are no better. He is still pretty much monosyllabic in his responses to things. There are years of pain in his inability to communicate. His mother is still around, but she is a sad, hopeless case. She demands money from him to support her habit and has taken up prostitution. His relationships with his peers is still pretty much disastrous. Two other boys stand up. One, who calls him ‘black’, but is nevertheless sympathetic, introduces him to weed, and sex. There is a rare moment of softness in the film when the two young men kiss tentatively, and one masturbates the other. The other male is not so comforting. He takes a homophobic stand against him and seems to somehow resent his softness and sensitivity. He bullies the gay friend into bashing him, and after several blows, when he is down on the ground, the cowardly mob kick and continue to bash him. It sparks some sort of resolve and anger because, shortly after somewhat recovering, he marches into school filed with revenge and determination, and smashes a wooden chair over the bully, just as one desperate prisoner might do to another prisoner who has stepped over the mark one time too many. Incarceration follows, although this is a period of his life that is left unexplored.
Flash forward to when he is at least 30 but possibly more. Not much has changed spiritually. He seems even more distant and empty. He is, however, a mountain of a man, a bit implausibly so. He was always skinny, of slender though tall stature. His mother is sad and regretful for her crap parenting skills, apologizing to him in rehab. She’s quite broken. If he has any purpose now, it is in his huge muscles, gold chains and aggressive exterior, including ‘grills’, or gold false teeth covers. Out of the blue, a phone call comes from the person all those years ago who introduced him to tenderness. It seems neither of them have forgotten it.
It is a long drive to the café which his old friend runs. The men are very tentative, and this is all nicely and authentically, and touchingly done. Where do each fit now, with the other? The conversation is filled with probings and uncertainties. It has been a long time. Is there still an attraction? One of the final frames of the film show the men holding each other. It is the love, and understanding, and simply the art of comfort and touching, that we all crave. This is probably the most interesting Chiron. Trying to prove himself, in his masculinity, but the same numbness and softness underlies everything.
The story itself is quite good but not overly flash. The film has won plaudits for its ‘brave’ and original take on homosexuality in the black world. The film deserves the most credit, however, for the beauty of its lens work. It is lovely to look at throughout. When the camera glides around, and is hand-held, and the unusual point of view shots are chosen, it’s not because it is trying to be clever and arty. It is part of the way of telling the story in a powerful way. The film begs to be a part of some high school or university film course.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
WE climbed into the car and headed south-east, the four of us just last week. I drove, frustrated at times on the journey to one of our favourite haunts, Gippsland. Frustrated because I was outvoted and had to listen to the strident voice of Adele for much of the way. She’s bitter, it seems, over broken relationships.
Still, it didn’t take as long as I expected. Wilson’s Promontory- specifically, Squeaky Beach. M has always wanted to go there, often asking if it really squeaks. We snacked at Fish Creek (Alison Lester, author, has a bookshop there). The weather was ripe for our swim. We followed some German travellers to the shoreline. They spoke of crocodiles. I told them the story of the bright red fingernails found in a crocodile’s belly several years ago in the NT.
We stripped off. Children straight in. Me, holding back like I seem to do more and more these days. Is it my sight? Some newly formed trepidation. The water, up to my thighs, was incredible though. S wanted to go deeper and deeper. She watched the ‘boogie boards’. Her mind ticked over. M was in shallower water. They both sat down at times, making the waves rise to impact their body, and make the waves feel bigger than they were.
I looked over my shoulder and took in the lovely, large boulders and distant mountains. It occurred to me that this must be one of the world’s great beaches. Perfect crystalline white sand. Translucent, sheer, silken water. Tiny dark fishes. Sans seaweed and sharp shells.
I walked over to the marble-like rocks and stood between some, in the deep little watery gullies that they formed. I met a boy that told me there were giant crabs underneath. A man with an impressive-looking camera was taking portraits of his girls adjacent to the rocks. In some shots the thin horizon was behind them, and then he turned them around, and had the mountains as a backdrop, in the opposite direction.
I focused on the smooth, rocky ground and the magnificent boulders. Marvelling at the colours, I called M over, and to my delight she also found them fascinating. The rocky bed beneath our feet was predominately gold. The sides of some of the rocks were a reddish rust-brown in colour. M and I talked about where we had seen that colour before. We couldn’t, however, remember. Was it on a horse?
S came over to see what the fuss was about and posed for pictures. We began to leave, reluctantly. I thought about other great sea adventures of my own. Cornwall, UK, 1987. After a long journey by train from London, I arrived in the late afternoon at Bodmin Station. There was barely anybody there. It was a Sunday and a camp leader allowed me to return with him to a nearby camp consisting of young adults. The alternative was to be stuck at the station until the morning, and sleep there. I shared a lovely evening with them, and then the same man drove me to Wadebridge in the morning so I could connect with a bus heading west to see my friends who had organized a little yellow cottage called ‘Wave’s End’ at Port Isaac.
I arrived, at around dusk, in an exalted mood, buoyed by my camp experience and fellow kindness, and the sheer beauty and expectation of being in Cornwall. A short distance from our cottage was the bay and shoreline of Port Isaac. A heavy anchor lies beside the water. You can see it in the original series of Poldark, and apparently in the current show called Doc Martin.
This must be what paradise is like.
One night- it must have been the first night- or hang on, I think it was the second- it was by moonlight, just after the period we call dusk. We were there in winter, January 1987. It was pretty cold, especially by Australian standards, which is of course what I was used to. The adrenaline flowed as I stepped outside the door, and I ran the 400 or so metres down to the inlet madly and exalted. I stared out at the calm, black water, and the dark green mountains surrounding I, and felt the crashing winds. I thought of my childhood dreams which were all centred around Cornwall. Books, mythology, adventure, smuggling. I could scarce believe where I was standing. The old, ancient and rusted anchor on my left, I thought about the centuries lived in that very spot. The majesty of the scene made me blink back tears. Not long afterwards, I wrote a postcard to my English aunt in Melbourne, and told her, with absolute sincerity, that Port Isaac was the most magical and beautiful place I had ever visited.
I thought about all this as I looked at the mountains and smooth rocks of Squeaky Beach, Victoria. The crystal clear water, yellow pristine sand. Beware of the power of moods. It was the night time and coldness and wildness and ruggedness that made me love Cornwall. But in a different mood, and at a different time, I could see that Squeaky beach could be the most magnificent place on Earth as well.
We left, reluctantly, all four of us, and headed off to east Leongatha- our home for the next two nights- Walnut Farm Cottage. Lovely gardens filled with avocado trees, five gaggling geese, and a run down but adequate tennis court.
Next day, the dawn was a brilliant fiery red.
Somewhere in Gippsland there lives a man who ‘owns’ about 60-70 dogs. He sells them not too long after they are born, sometimes for several thousand dollars. They are housed in concrete runs and bark excitedly when you put your fingers through the metal grate. He has one small pup with an unusual blue tinge in its fur. He says there is something rare about it, and that he might get a bit more for it.
The dogs are all associated with poodles. The letters ‘…oodle’ are all in their breed. A man with 60-70 dogs, the number increasing by the day. A man with about 60-70 dogs. All ‘oodles’. You could say there are ‘oodles’ of them. He has 60-70 dogs. He sells them when they have grown up a bit. They are being born every day. The poodle influence is everywhere. He has 60-70 dogs, which he regularly sells as new ones are born. You can see the poodle influence in them. And the cavalier… dogs everywhere held up for inspection for potential buyers. He has at any one time 60-70 dogs, and this number might grow. The dogs have soft fur and kind clear eyes. There are a good number of them. For sale.
At the pub near Foster. A young girl is dressed up as the main character from the film ‘Frozen’. Families are inside sitting at tables waiting for meals. They are mostly over 65, 70, probably retired. I don’t like this pub much. There are more people outside. They look like they haven’t a care in the world. A much younger crowd, drinking and smoking, and swearing. For someone from Melbourne’s suburbs it’s a different experience. They are probably nice people. There is just something about their casualness and indifference to everything which is slightly repugnant. Difficult to put your finger on. I’m thinking of farms and cattle and utes with kelpies in the back. I don’t know if I am ready for this lifestyle, but at the same time I don’t like the city much. I am in no man’s land. Everything seems wrong, somehow.
The meal comes. It is supposed to be pork medallions. It might be pork, ugly and hard and burnt as it is. And flavourless. But it certainly ain’t medallions. They are supposed to be round. The waitress comes, and I am alert and expectant. But she doesn’t ask the customary ‘how was your meal?’ She must think better of it.
Inverloch is nice, on a barely bearable hot day. How lucky we are to find that park. How skilful we are at getting in our bathers either inside or beside the car. The waves are inviting and cool. But I had that scare years ago. I don’t go far in. Still, it’s beautiful. S and I stay in for eternity. Magnetised. The sky and the horizon are worlds away. We are just little dots in an expansive ocean, boogie boards flying harmlessly around us. Will we ever feel ready to get out of the water. I have had this feeling on other trips, wanting time to stand still. Bobbing and drifting like we are self-contained little boats.
Cars fly by in the traffic on the way home. In the heat of the car, our bathers slowly dry. It’s my turn for music and I listen to live Van Morrison. He is covering an old song by Sam Cooke and the charm of the words make me smile:
‘Eyes turned away, I know
And music soft and slow
With someone you love so
That's where it's at.
And music soft and slow
With someone you love so
That's where it's at.
Your world turned upside down
You're making not a sound
No one else around
That's where it's at.
Yeah, let me tell you
Your heart beatin' fast
You're knowin' that time will pass
But hopin' that it lasts
That's where it's at.’
Thursday, February 16, 2017
GEORGIA Blain’s first novel was set in Adelaide and was called ‘Closed For Winter.’ Quite a haunting novel, it was an accomplished debut, about a young girl who struggles with the fact that her slightly older sister has gone missing, perhaps due to foul play. Her mother also struggles to cope, neurotically cutting out newspaper articles about crimes, from memory. The protagonist’s voice, in first person, was steady, unblinking and plainly adorned, and was very effective as a symbol of uncertainty and suffering. I remember the great Australian reviewer, James Bradley, enjoyed the book, calling it ‘Beachside Gothic’ in his ABR review.
Well, Georgia Blain’s dead now. She died at the age of not much more than 50, and her mother died just a few days later, back in December last year. So she had a fairly brief writing life, although generous if you want to compare her with people like Emily Bronte or John Keats.
Her final book, ‘Between A Wolf And A Dog’, has its moments, but it isn’t, in my opinion, one of her best books. There is a mother, filmmaker, who is dying of brain cancer and cannot tell her two daughters. Her husband, an accomplished artist, has already died. She finishes herself off with a large dose of heroin. Of her two daughters, one is at a loose end but used to be a pretty good songwriter. She is estranged from her sister because she had sex with her sister’s husband. Naturally, her sister is estranged from her husband as a result. She is a family therapist, so we are introduced to the miserable lives of her ‘patients’, some of them crying because of failed relationship, another desperately sad and neurotic because she has never had sex. The sister, therefore, does not communicate with ex-husband or sister, and is beginning to conduct a new relationship which, admittedly, holds some hope.
This sister has two young daughters who are pretty obnoxious and play the parents off against each other, sometimes feigning illness to get out of school. One day she sees her father kissing her mother’s sister (it seems the taboo relationship might start up again), and won’t talk to her father as a result.
The father is pretty hopeless. By the end of the novel he is crying in synch with the rain being splashed on the car windscreen. He is some sort of pollster who is lazy and unethical, and he gets dismissed from his job and finds he has nowhere to go and nothing to do. The damaging sex he had with his sister-in-law was reckless and occurred because both were bored. He takes drugs and is a well-known womaniser, devilishly handsome, but best steered away from. He is only redeeming experience is at the end of the book, when he is surprisingly able to keep his mother-in-law’s suicide a secret.
The other thing about this book. On top of all these awful people, and the difficulty I had in finding pathos and empathy, it is constantly raining. Georgia Blain must have found at least 20 or 30 ways to describe torrential rainfall. It adds to the depressing, claustrophobic, despairing nature of the novel. Just like some dystopian Blade Runner-like atmosphere, this unrelenting rain. It seeps into the soul of the characters and weighs them down helplessly, just like some of Ray Bradbury’s characters.
I wished I had liked ‘Between A Wolf And A Dog’ more. The best thing I can say about it is that there is a certain boldness and truthfulness, as always, in Georgia Blain’s writing. An appealing lack of sentimentality, perhaps. But I wish she allowed the sun to creep in a little bit more. Sure, in the end, the characters do strive for equilibrium or redemption in some ways, but is all seems so submerged by their depressing worries and poor life choices.
I also wish I could find a truly great novel. It has been at least 7 or 8 books since I read something I really like. Alex Miller’s ‘Coal Creek’. He leaves most contemporary authors for dead.
Monday, January 16, 2017
HALF MOON BAY, 2017
WE arrived at Half Moon Bay at about 1:00 PM. The sun was at its peak then, the hottest part of the day. We were lucky to find a park, if you recall. There were those long, elongated car spots on our right. A number of them empty, I believe. I nearly took one, so desperate we were. Then we realised it was set aside for the cars towing the yachts. A regatta was going to begin later in the day. It would have been the height of rudeness to book it. An awful start to our little swimming in the bay adventure. Luckily, somebody was leaving behind a regular spot. We just had to be patient and zoom in when it became vacant.
We all walked down, then, to the little curved bay, the bay in a kind of half-moon shape, all four of us walking slowly, carrying things, beneath a weird, intense and vast blue, blue sky, and before the still waters and the soft yellowish sand. We placed all our things down in a little spot that had space around it, not far past the beginning of the swimming spots, only a hundred yards from the fish’n’chips stall, and fifty yards from the coloured bathing boxes.
You and M quickly abandoned all sense of family responsibility and wanted to wade into the inviting water. But we still had the tent to put up, the towels to lay out, the chair to position and the crucial sun- screen to apply. Ouch, how hot it was getting already. We had most of the tent organised. Next it was time to cup our hands and place sand alongside the pockets so the tent wouldn’t blow away. Not that there was much of a breeze. It just wasn’t my sort of day. The fact that it was windless, and hot, and the mucking about with the tent, and the crowds of people- all this conspired against me. But none of this was impacting you or your sister. Or your mother, for that matter. You all anticipated cool water and hot, hot, hot sun!
Nothing I could do could get me comfortable. You and M went out quite far and were really enjoying yourselves. I tried not to feel anxious. I could see the submarine wreck out past you, somebody climbing on it. I tried to get comfortable. My sore limbs wouldn’t allow it. Sitting up hurt my back, and lying down meant my long legs would stick out into the dangerously hot sun. I tried to read, and did a bit more of the crossword puzzle. I could only think about how comfortable it would be, to be at home on my cool bed and my soft, soft pillows. I knew I was being a ‘beach wimp’, but I couldn’t help it. By 1:30 I was ready to go. But you were having too much fun in the water with your sister, and then your mother was venturing in, too. I hated it, but conversely I enjoyed the fact that you didn’t.
Many years ago, the 1920’s, in the world of fiction, two people talked about love on these very shores, overlooking the same wreck out in the water. The author Alex Miller explores the theme of growing love between a French engineer, Georges Elder, and a young Melbourne woman, Emily Stanton. They look out over the water, and, more meaningfully, into each other’s eyes, and upon each other’s skin. Her parents are also present, and the attraction is not lost upon them. These parents are probably thinking about their courting days. It is here that Emily has probably decided she will marry Georges, and go back to Paris with him, and begin, unbeknown to her, a dissatisfying life in the French capital.
I thought about these matters quietly, and then I began to have a good look around me. Most noticeable was the young woman in front of me right in my vision, about half way between me and the beginning of the water. She had a red bikini top with big, green bikini bottoms. The white tag was sticking out at the bottom of her back. Her hair was up and she wore sun glasses. She looked about 22 and under her glasses I could see she had wide, European eyes and a large, attractive mouth. Next to her on the adjacent towel was her little boy, no more than about three, wearing nappies under his little bathers. She had him mostly covered up by another towel, but his left arm and some of his naked chest was exposed. It reminded me of cooking a little lamb on the spit. Every now and then she applied a bit more sun screen to his body, so in places he was a slippery, milky white. He seemed to be asleep. She was dozing. Soaking up the hot rays and getting her copper-coloured body all bronzed. She had the phone in her hand at times, texting. Then taking a photo of her tired, little boy, shrivelling away in the sun like a prawn. I imagined her messages were then relayed to her husband, working somewhere like the Docklands, sweltering in the sun with a naked torso on top of some tall building adjacent to a crane.
I couldn’t get the woman and her little roasted boy out of my mind, and wondered if she knew what I was thinking. I wanted to share my fears with you, but you were still frolicking in the water, oblivious. I nearly said something to her. ‘Are you planning to cook him and eat him all up when you get home?’ Just then, an equally concerned person, a wiser, older mother, offered her an umbrella for shade, and the neglectful mother gladly took it. There was all ‘round relief.
Finally, all three of you came out, glistening, from the water. You and your sister played in the sand, thousands of little grains clinging to your still damp bodies. Your mother came back into the tent. I felt restless, and M, your sister, agreed to come for a walk along the water. We ventured as far as we could to the right, until we reached impenetrable rocks on the shore. We passed hundreds of people either in the water or laying at the mercy from the hot rays of the sun. Families, and lot of groups of friends, often all males or groups of four or five females. Different ages and different accents. It was difficult not to notice all that exposed skin. Some people wore the barest threads of clothing. It was like some sort of designer beach. You half expected a camera to be set up somewhere for photo shoots for Vogue or Cosmopolitan magazine.
M and I returned to find you quietly sitting beside your mother and letting sand sift through your cupped little fingers. I thought about the passing of life and had a visual update of the poor boy burning. Behind our tent a new group had gathered. Four of five young women lying on their stomachs, phones in hand, texting. I started wondering if there were any places where phones would be inappropriate, or probably more accurately, inconvenient or unsuitable. Perhaps the women wouldn’t take their phones into the water. I turned to ask you your thoughts, but you and M had already gone back into the water, just when I was going to make the suggestion that we might think about packing up and leaving.
The heat of the day became stronger. The population of sun worshippers began to grow larger. Another body appeared. Another woman. A blue one-piece bathing suit with white frills at the tops of the legs and around the neck. Broad, black sunglasses and black, glossy hair. She lay quickly, on her back, as the golden sun began to pour all over her warm body.
Many years ago, the 1920’s, in the world of fiction, Juliet lay, like this woman, feeling the soft air of the sea and feeling the sun penetrate into her bones and her thoughts, in Sicily, in the imagination of D H Lawrence. I thought about Juliet, and this woman, and wondered if she, like Juliet, was leading a dissatisfied life with a dull husband at home, dissolving unhappy thoughts through the rays of the blue, pulsing sun.
I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, share any of these thought with you as you still dripped with water, twenty or thirty metres into the bay. You and M were both beginning to practise handstands. You did not want to come in any time soon. Still, I had had enough and told your mother I wanted to go. I had have enough of the wearying heat hours ago. There was something ugly and alien about the water to me and I refused to yield to it by getting uncomfortably wet, with millions of grains of sand sticking to my toes. The people all around me bothered me. The silly couple that emerged to my right that giggled and reminded me of Georges and Emily. Juliet next door whose large eyes were closed under her wide black sunglasses. The four women begin the tent still texting away and marvelling at images on their phone. The cruel woman in front of us in the red bikini top who lay adjacent to her scorched, immobile son. All the petty people along the shoreline where M and I had walked almost an hour ago, shifting their positions and lifting their legs and their thighs to become ever closer to the harsh, all empowering sun.
Finally, finally, you and your sister clambered onshore, and with the promise of a take away meal, agreed to help in the exhausting process of packing up. The tent was awful to put away. It just wouldn’t collapse on itself and fold the way it was meant to do. There was so much luggage to take back to the car. Our accessories seem to have grown. Your mother and I picked up most of the things. You managed your own personal possessions, your thongs trailing out of your right hand. You told me you were refreshed. I said I was hot, uncomfortable, and tired.
All four of us walked back towards the car park, past the bathing boxes and the fish ‘n’ shop. My eyes were mostly averted, downcast, the pavement hot under my bare feet. Then when I heard some shouts I looked up. The regatta was returning. About a hundred lovely boats with their little white sails being hauled up onto the land. Lots of bronzed men and women pulling ropes and lifting equipment. It was a lovely colourful thing to see. I looked over my shoulder to tell you about it, to see if you could see. The bay looked beautifully curved, more beautiful than I could remember. There were people milling around everyone, from all walks of life, eating chips, standing at the shore, resting their tired limbs on towels. Those lovely, lovely white boats with their beautiful fresh-looking little sails. A hive of activity, a real community, a busy path. What a glorious picture it would have been. A photograph as a snapshot of the Melbourne bay at the beginning of the year 2017. People, adults, families. Lovely kids, all engaging in peace and goodwill, the best of modern summer life.
We reached our vehicle, stored everything in the boot, and pulled away. I turned to look at your face and could see the beginnings of a soft, slow redness already.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
THERE HAVE BEEN myriad references to Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. ‘We Are Not Such Things’ has been extensively researched. Four years to write. So many interviews and lots of travelling in the car.
Compelling observations, mostly about poor, impoverished lives, at least by our standards. Many of us have flowing incomes. We worry about proper clothes, nutrition, a good amount of sleep, gadgets and devices, books, travel, our health. Here in poor black townships it seems to be about camaraderie no place for much of the above. So it offers plenty of interesting social observations.
Then there is the relating of the story itself. Amy Biehl. Young, rich, white. Social conscience. Works for the ANC. Believer, deep believer in human rights. Abhors apartheid and is prepared to work hard for its end, and hopefully help the transition. Prepared to bleed for it? Perhaps not. The old cliché. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
Amy Biehl. Forging an interesting path for herself. Bright. Future looks bright. Rich, white American. Wants to do something great. Could be at home in America with mother and father and friends. Plenty of people love and admire her. Surely has friends from Stanford University. Plenty of opportunities for skiing or mall shopping. Maybe reading books.
‘Momma and Betsy say
Find yourself a charity.
Help the needy or the crippled
Or put some time into ecology.
There’s a wide, wide range of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
Yet all I want to do right now is find another lover’.
(Joni Mitchell ‘Song for Sharon’)
Amy Biehl is not looking for a lover. She has her cause. Something back home is stirred in her. It is 1993. Nelson Mandela will soon be released from 27 years at Robben Island. To become President of South Africa, no less. F W de Klerk will become his Deputy. How is that for Reconciliation?
Amy Biehl is in Gugulethu. August 25, 1993. The last place you would want to be if you are white and blonde on this particular day, fifteen kilometres from Cape Town. The air is arid, thick. There is a strong menace in the air. Black people are restless and hungry for the transition that is supposed to be taking place soon. Anticipation, hunger, tension, expectation. It is their right. This should have happened a long time ago. South Africa is about to catch up, at least a little bit, with the rest of the world. But we aren’t there yet.
Amy Biehl is rich, white, American. She is driving through the township of Gugulethu on a hot day that is filled with anticipation and expectation. Many men and women have stones and sticks, some have knives. Lethal restlessness. Lots of toyi-toying. Who is this passing through on the NY1 road in her orangey yellow-coloured Mazda. It is Amy Biehl and she is driving three black colleagues in her car. Stop the toyi-toying. ‘One settler, one bullet’. Someone hurls a brick through Amy Biehl’s windscreen. Possibly another. One hits her in the face, probably her forehead. Somehow she emerges from the car and runs towards the Caltex service station. There are no police, as yet. Yet, there have been incidents on the NY1 road earlier in the day. A car overturned, set on fire. And worse…
Amy Biehl stops, bleeding, exhausted. Facing her killers, sitting down in the gravel. She is inches from death and knows it. She reportedly apologizes. ‘Sorry. What did I do?’ One of the angry mob inserts a knife blade, towards her heart…
There are people nearby who have a different view. Who see her as ‘comrade’, even though she is white. They transport her to the police station, where she dies.
Out of all this tragedy, and mess, hope. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee is meeting. Somehow four killers were found and sentenced to long term imprisonment. They are about to be pardoned. Amy Biehl’s parents insist on it. It is all part of a process of rebuilding. Those who have committed crimes of a political nature in the now former apartheid South Africa may find themselves being pardoned for their crimes and released. It is healing. But their crime must have had a political bent by nature. Amy Biehl’s parents believe their daughter died for a cause, not just a rambling blood-thirstiness. Perhaps it is easier to accept. A death not quite senseless, but mixed up in disadvantage and despair.
Most of Justine Van Der Leun’s book deals with the aftermath of the commission’s findings. The years after the building of the Amy Biehl Foundation. How two of the ‘killers’ are offered jobs in the Foundation. They become good friends with Amy’s forgiving parents. It is important to the parents. It is what Amy would have wanted. One who understood helplessness and despair.
In a peripheral sense, Justine Van Der Leun gets to know the Biehl parents, but later (well after the father has died), becomes estranged with the mother. This is partly because the book follows new paths. There are interesting little seeds planted. Her book is long for a reason. She becomes a detective tracking down new information which comes to light. It excites her. And it excites her reader. She spends many an hour with the two men who work for the Foundation, and their families. It involves a lot of time in Gugulethu and getting to know the community. It is much changed, fortunately, in the post-apartheid era.
But there is more. Were the right people found, and tried, and sent to jail, and subsequently pardoned? Did the Biehl’s give a job to somebody who wasn’t even present when Amy was killed? Should it have been, instead, his look-alike brother? And therefore, why was he sheltered from everything? Furthermore, was there another attempted lynching in Gugulethu on the same day? Why didn’t this man ever receive justice? What has been the long-term physical and psychological effects of this trauma?
The author travels far and wide around Cape Town and other parts of South Africa in her pursuit of the truth. It is a fascinating story and it has stayed with me for days, even over a week now. She is an excellent reporter/ researcher who has taken copious notes and has asked many questions and has been brave on many occasions. There are many occasions when the reader is transported to various locations. As she talks to the people of the community in their own little homes you feel like you are sitting on the floor or the couch with them. Her detailed descriptions are such that you get a strong sense of who these people are. Their history, their struggles, their poverty, the way they have forged meaning in their lives, their needs (sometimes they ask for food). The way the author edges her way into their history and subtly nudges their conscience and their consciousness to extract as much truth from them as she can. Sometimes recollections clash. She unearths the reasons for these clashes of memory, and sometimes the reasons are fascinating. Not just fading memories, but protectiveness, of other people’s lives.
This is a story that appears to have been written as events have unfolded. The events become complicated and intriguing, therefore the book takes longer to finish and the pages multiply.
It leaves me thinking about Amy Biehl travelling along the NY1, heading innocently towards a maelstrom of grief and misunderstanding, her black companions seated beside her, her mind full of ambition and hope for the changes that are about to take place in South African society.
I also think about the amazing ability to forgive. The generosity of the Biehl parents. The mindset you can forge in order to make sense of turbulent events. To ease the pain. To think and feel that your very own daughter died for a cause, not, because, as one judge perceived, ‘it was wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood’.
And finally, I think about other people’s lives, where the place you are born and raised can determine the kind of life you lead. Where there are communities that are so generous and so tight with each other because they have to be. That the best books are those that teach us something important about life. Where we feel so much richer for reading them. That we want to share them with others after sumptuous Christmas meals in safe houses, accompanied by nice wines.