Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas 2018, reflection

Christmas, 2018

ON this Christmas Eve, of 2018, in this spacious lounge room, in this moderately sized house, in this fairly large suburb and this fairly highly populated city of Melbourne, in this large country and continent called Australia, as part of an overall tiny little plot or particle of a much bigger world or planet, I sit here contemplating the year I have had and wishing, like Sylvia Plath, I could have more days of inspiration:

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, not seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.’

I look for inspiration in the joy that others give me- the words of Sylvia Plath in poems like ‘Contusion’ and ‘Medusa’, the comfort I feel from listening to ‘Astral Weeks’ and lately rediscovering the joy of Paul McCartney, trying to feel grateful for the prolonged time spent living in England and in my mind recalling the Yorkshire moors and the rugged coastlines of Cornwall and Northumberland, playing netball in the backyard with the family, gazing on my beautiful books through the glass of my treasured bookcase, feeling tired but nourished work-wise…

In terms of heightened feelings of joy or anticipation, or experiencing a sense of wonder, or being moved by the simplicity of a beautiful wave or the colours of a fallen leaf, or that sense of uncontrollable laughter or bliss and breathless awareness or serendipity, joie de vivre, even transfiguration, rebirth, enlightenment, effulgence, epiphany, transmutation… I will be patient and await another year.

Contacting my angel, contacting my angel
She's the one, she's the one, that satisfies
Contacting my angel she's the one that satisfies
She's the one that I adore
In a telepathic message for my baby
In a little village, through the fog
Here comes my baby, I can tell, I can tell
By the way she walks
Said I've been on a journey up the mountain side
And I drank the water from the stream
It was pure, pure water and I got completely healed
I met a presence on the mountain side
And he looked so radiant and he was the
Youth of eternal summers
Like a sweet bird of youth in my soul
In my soul, in my soul, in my soul, in my soul
In my soul, in my soul, in my soul

(Van Morrison)

Thursday, November 29, 2018


I RECEIVED the call at 10:00, I think it was. Night-time.
You were already gone a little time since then.
I waited in the hallway for my wife to gather a few things,
I was impatient to go. I already felt like something was missing. And
I felt this enormous rush or will to see you again.
The children were dumb or naïve
Upstairs. They had become Pa-less
And didn’t know it yet.
We decided not to tell them but left them a note.
If you awake, ring this number.
But they did not wake.

We climbed into the car and traversed the two or three suburbs to where you lay
And where you lived for the last couple of years of your life.
I am loath to call them sad years. I
Like to think that even in these times of
Immobilization and at times discomfort,
Of watery meals and forced socialisation,
Of your sideways view of the television and the hoped for
Social visits that came sporadically,
I like to think there was something in it for you even then.

We did not talk much in the car.
I felt my grief beginning to rise.
‘So it’s come to this then’,
I thought to myself. No, no reason for words, reminiscences
Or speculation.

I took an enormous breath before I slowly drifted in,
Like a ghost,
To the death room.
Mother was there as well as your eldest son, my brother, and my sister, your only daughter
It all felt so new. All new, all of
Us still slightly unaware of our emotions and our thoughts in this new experience
Suddenly transported in time.
The stillness in the room,
The grasping of trying to come to terms.
My first sight of my only dead body.
You looked strangely tranquil but enormously dead on your bed.
Flat on your back, your hands clasped together sitting on
 Your forever silent chest.
I wondered if you had been found like this,
Or were you rearranged, or toyed with somehow,
By the worker who found you there,
Suddenly not breathing.

I made some glib comment about souls circulating around rooms once they were dead.
We all looked at each other, all out of our depth,
Or me, at any rate.
I thought of mother and the long, sad burden, and my heart went out to her,
And my breathing changed,
Short sad gasps.

A couple of hours expired somehow with us all being
Unconscious of time. It was about midnight.
We all had to go- that is, the living, not the dead.
Two of us left, so just mother and I, sitting helplessly,
Strongly aware of this unexpected change,
The finality of it. I felt like I should go, but blurted out, aloud
‘How do I suddenly leave the room?’

I went over to you, father,
And placed my hands under the blanket.
An overwhelming urge to touch you, like I did,
The day before, touching the hands and arms of the living.
Except this final time,
The dead. I tried to unclasp your hands,
Fascinated by their new rigidness. The fingers already stiff,
The warmth and breath of life expired two hours ago.
I went out into the hallway with the others,
Right outside the door, and leant against the wall.
We all gave mother some time alone. Again,
The enormity of it all. How does one say goodbye
To the one you have been married to for over sixty years.
What do you remember? What is replayed at this time
Round and round your mind?

As we left I thought again of yesterday. The mouth of yours,
Opening and closing, trying to form words,
Without sound coming out. An me just smiling back like a fool,
Desperate for anything that might make you feel better.
And then telling the doctor just a half hour later
That we want morphine to kick in.
We want  to help accelerate our father’s death.
And the awful deep gasps in finding yourself using these words.

I remember, powerfully, the sight of a new born, the watery
Tumbling out onto the bed. And now this,
This newest sight which will also never leave me.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

In The Company of Men

I HAVE been in the company of men quite a lot lately, unusually for me. Usually it’s women. Women and girls. Women and girls at home. Women and girls at work. Lots of sensible conversations about food and travel, and maybe hopes and regrets. But generally safe topics, and certainly nothing sexist, or sports-related, or too controversial. Rarely politically motivated.  I don’t mind it not being sexist. I don’t particularly find sexism interesting. For me it’s like racism. Something else I don’t tolerate too well. But sometimes I am starved for conversations about sport.

So being in the company of men quite a lot more than usual has been fun, and rewarding.  And a little bit different. Fresh topics, a different way of talking and thinking in a sense. Talking to men a lot has been a sort of thrill in a way; a thrill I don’t often experience with women. I come out of these conversations with men with a kind of buzzing feeling. Maybe because it feels so normal and makes me feel normal. Maybe we’re all supposed to spend a lot more time with our own sex. It’s something like D H Lawrence would say.

I joined this book club months ago, and coming away from this, on a Wednesday evening once a month, I’m often buzzing. I am sometimes a bit lazy about wanting to go. Especially if it’s cold. But it’s only in Brunswick, and the pub is lovely. It’s all men. The number varies. You find out the name of the book for next month at the end of the night and you have one month to supposedly read it. There is a kind of circle. We introduce ourselves by making a few comments about what we have done that month. Most people have done something. Except for me. Often I have done nothing of any interest to anyone, but I try and find something to say. This is a great part of the night. Sometimes someone has struggled a bit the past month, and that’s interesting. Others may have had a quiet month like me. Others, still, may have gone somewhere interesting or experienced some joy or tragedy. 

Last month somebody’s mother had just gone into hospital. Somebody else is sleeping at different houses on various nights of the week. A man always brings his dog, and you can just the love between them.

We have a kind of leader or presenter who has questions. He invariably starts with ‘who has read the book?’, and funnily enough, quite a few people haven’t read it. They’re not just there for the book. See we go off on tangents. If I haven’t read the book, I still manage to think of something useful to offer. You don’t agree with everything, but it is so sedate and supportive that it doesn’t matter. Everyone seems intelligent and experienced and they say things that make you think ‘wow, he really knows what he is talking about.’

It’s the same book for everyone, across all these groups called ‘chapters’. That term is probably the only pretentious thing about the whole group. Men swear and laugh and make personal connections, and drink beer. But nobody scoffs or teases or makes you feel a fool. We like it when we get to see a sliver of pain, or uncertainty, or weakness. Or at least I do. There are not many cocksure men there. If they were to be cocksure, why would they feel a need to attend?

The books have included works by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, David Malouf, Toni Morrison, Sophie Laguna, Douglas Adams, Ernest Hemingway and whoever it was that wrote Sherlock Holmes. Besides As I Lay Dying, I haven’t really liked any of the books that much, but it hasn’t spoilt the experience for me. I have left feeling this lovely, real or imaginary, connection, like I have a place somewhere, that there are others on a similar level.

The other all-male experiences include men I have met whilst my daughter is having swimming lessons. Two men, separately, in fact. A guy called Simon is really lovely. We have this rapid-fire conversation on topics most Saturday mornings that we both know we enjoy. Each other’s family, football, travel, education, and especially politics. We are similar in all of these things, and not being challenged, but instead vindicated, at every opportunity, is refreshing. Simon and I don’t meet up anywhere. Maybe we would if his kids were female like mine. But it’s lovely just to pick up that same thread each time on a regular Saturday morning.

Last week the space occupied next to me was filled, so I only waved to Simon in the distance. It was filled by somebody called Eden. Another lovely guy, a bit younger than me, and funny thing is, we talked about much the same enjoyable things that I talk to Simon about, and the whole thing had the same effect of it being warm, and relaxing and life-affirming and gratifying. I’ve only met Eden once. Next time, who knows, maybe me, Eden and Simon can find a place to sit like we are in a triangle, somehow, and the conversation might swirl round and round like a whirlpool or a roundabout.

Finally, on the subject of the company of men, I had a very different experience just yesterday. The fathers (and a sprinkling of mothers) of my daughters’ school played football with the parents of children at a neighboring school. It was a fundraiser, so although it began fairly casually, with regular Sunday afternoon training sessions, it culminated in this big event at a nearby oval where a good number of both schools’ community attended and there was a BBQ, clothes stalls, food stalls, face painting, etc, etc. Although the actual match prohibited tackling, all the players played with a strong level of earnestness and there were plenty of physical encounters in marking and trying to trap the ball.

The rooms before the start of play had the atmosphere of a fairly serious football match: there were rub-downs, plenty of taping, Deep Heat, stretching, prep talks, strategies announced in the coaches’ address, and even a positional whiteboard. It was all a bit unnerving for someone like me who hasn’t played competitive sport of any nature for a good many years, especially a contact sport like football. I had younger and more physical and nuanced players bouncing off me, knowing when to run and when to hold back, attacking the ball with a vigour that I thought was reserved for professionals, and surging through tiny gaps. It was for me, needless to say, a bit like a foreign language, and by the end I had newfound enormous respect for every AFL or AFLW football player.

The whole experience was not as fulfilling as it might have been. I didn’t, at any stage, feel quite the camaraderie of previous all-male experiences. But I’m glad I did it and set myself little challenges. It is, however, my very final competitive football match. The legacy of yesterday’s three-hour journey is swelling and a large bruise on my left shin (someone fell across my leg), a sore foot where I accidentally kicked the turf instead of the ball, and worst of all, a swollen left middle finger that throbs intermittently and may possibly be broken. Here I sit, whilst starting and finishing this, at a medical clinic in Moonee Ponds waiting for some doctor to pore over my sorry x-ray.

Being with men might bring some physical pain, especially when there is a battle, but most of the time it is a battle of wits, a mind trip, a bond or connection that makes you feel real and good about everything and understood somehow. Now if only some of the men liked the same music as me. That would add another lovely layer. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

LOVELESS in chilly Russia

LOVELESS is one of those beautifully made, atmospheric Russian films that has garnered a lot of attention. Once upon a time I saw every Russian film on offer that was said to hold promise. My favourites were ones by Aleksander Sukorov. I bought a box set of Tarkovsky films. I remember Burnt By The Sun with incredible fondness. Another one called The Return by Andrey Zvyagintsev. 

This one I saw today, LOVELESS, is also directed by Zvyagintsev.

In the spirit of What Maisie Knew, the married couple (whose marriage has disintegrated and are in the throes of separating, but are still living with their twelve-year old son in a Moscow apartment) are continuously fighting and saying horrible things to each other and abandoning their responsibilities as parents. The mother, Zhenya, is particularly cruel in her open loathing of her only child, seeing in him the image of her husband, regretting not having an abortion and getting involved with Boris as an escape from her tyrannical mother.

The film opens with Alyosha walking home from school in a lonely, absent- minded way, cutting through the forest besides a lake on his way to the apartment. Unlike many schoolboys excited by the end of the school day and anticipating seeing his family at home, Alyosha must be dreading the evening he is about to spend at home. It is little wonder that his movements are languid and distracted. He finds a trail of long, plastic ribbon and hurls it into the air, watching it catch onto a suspended bough. It hangs, grimly, like a flimsy rope, and throughout the film I couldn’t let go of that haunting, potentially foreshadowing image… a hanging, from a tree…

The plot is pretty straightforward. It is a relief when the couple separate. After all, they are already cemented in new relationships. The deep loathing leaves no room for possible reconciliation. If ever a divorce was needed, it was this one. Unfortunately, though, the son has suffered through the fighting, and has overheard comments no child should ever here, of mutual parental abandonment. He hides, chillingly, behind a door, his face tortured with anguish. He takes himself off to bed sobbing uncontrollably about the unfairness of the world. No-one comforts him. Earlier, he is called a cry baby. From his mother, no maternal connection, just loathing. It is as though he is a nuisance and a stranger, somebody his parents were lumped with by a third party.

The negligent parents go about their daily lives- the mother pampered at a salon in a long scene, preparing to see her boyfriend, and later enjoying sex in his dimly-lit bedroom. The father is often shown at work, eating his lunch with a colleague, and fretting over the strict policies of his Christian-crusading employer who does not tolerate divorce from his employees. All this goes on while the child has apparently run away from home in search of badly needed solace elsewhere, and his parents take a long time to realise. The Moscow police do not take much interest so it is up to a diligent independent search team to try and locate the boy. This takes up a good portion of the film- searching the forest, asking another boy from school questions, searching an abandoned building and sticking up missing child notices everywhere. The director teases the audience with slow, forward moving tracking shots, encouraging us to think that he is about to be discovered, to no avail. To their credit the mother and father do take the three hour car journey to the city to see if he is staying with his obnoxious grandmother, however, once again their egos are front left and centre as they fight uncontrollably, harsh words spoken, their joint effort once again torn asunder.

There are the usual red herrings and moments of hope- those times that (from real life) Madeleine McCann’s parents might be able to relate to. Somebody of the boy’s age has wandered into a hospital. A body matching the description of Alyosha is waiting for them at the city morgue. Here, at the morgue, their grief is real, visceral, and it seems at last that perhaps the emotional cord that usually ties parents to their children might have surfaced. It takes the sight of the mutilated body of another person’s child for the enormity of their lack of responsibility to hit home. We see helpless, tortured sobbing from both parents. Initially we think it is their child. The fact that it isn’t, tells us that the enormity of their selfishness has hit home at last.

In his song ‘Raised On Love’, Justin Hayward sings of the bounteous joy of growing up in a loving home with a loving family:

We won't be sleeping on our own tonight
The star that guides us
Is still shining bright
And in the darkness
There will always be a light
I think I know now
What is wrong and what is right
‘Cause I was raised on love
Yes I was raised on love
And I thank heaven above
For being raised on love.’

John Lennon, on the other hand, speaking also from experience, sings in ‘Mother’:
‘Mother, you had me but I never had you,
I wanted you, you didn’t want me.
So I just have to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye.’

It is obviously the latter that applies here. This is the ‘Loveless’ that embodies the title of the film. But Russia seems ‘loveless’ in other ways as well. The absolute loathing that the mother and the daughter have for each other- Alyosha’s mother and grandmother. There is nothing between them. The landscape is cold and loveless. It if forever raining and the river and the forest seem incongruent with the city backdrop. The abandoned building that is explored in beautiful cinematography is cold and chillingly barren and wasted. There are those ubiquitous moments where everybody is on their phone. It seemed sad but reassuring in an odd way that people in Russia are wedded to their phones on public transport as they are in my world in Melbourne. Alyosha’s workplace is sterile, rows of people hammering at keyboards. And then there is that tragic image of the mother being pampered at the salon for so long, oblivious to the machinations of her son’s troubled mind. When she does finally realise the truth, she rings her estranged husband at work. His implacable attitude to needing to remain at work is sickening.
The boy is, by the way, never found. We never see him dangling from one of the trees in the forest after all. Which is of some comfort I suppose, but by then the audience is worn down by the relentless futility and shades of Gothic horror that we neither care or expect it. Victim he remains.

The final shot of the film is of Zhenya on a treadmill on the front porch of her family home. She has all the material wealth she could ever envisage, the creature comforts of bourgeoisie living, sans love and joy, and love-making in dimly-lit rooms. Her gaze is steely, steadfast. She is wearing a tracksuit top emblazoned with RUSSIA on it. The connection is unmistakable, and one wonders what Putin would make of it.

The father on the other hand? A new baby screaming in a cot in another ‘loveless’ state. The whole family straining, suffering, harrowed.