Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Nightingale Film- The Black Wars


The film THE NIGHTINGALE has earned itself a reputation for unsettling its audience and provoking extreme reactions because of the brutality it depicts on the screen, including visceral stabbings, shootings, infanticide and multiple rapes. When I went yesterday at the Nova, the film was freeze framed fifteen minutes in, on a shot of a bewildered Clare, the Irish convict, grappling to come to terms with sexual assault and the dual murders of her baby son and her husband. This was because of a distraught woman several rows behind me who had something akin to an episode of panic or fear, who was escorted outside by friends and staff. Others took the opportunity to walk out at this moment. Then the film rolled on again with Clare wandering the jungle of early 19th century Tasmania, in search of an Aboriginal tracker to enable her to find her family’s killers and seek revenge.

I left the film feeling rewarded and challenged, and grateful for films like The Nightingale that take risks in order to tell important stories about our past in a truthful and unflinching way. I say our past because it is refreshing to see an important Australian story unfold rather than something that happened in Poland in WW2 or America in the 1950’s or South Africa during apartheid. I saw Mike Leigh’s Peterloo recently, and as much as I appreciated the craftmanship, I couldn’t help feeling that we are so often subjected to other people’s stories.  I read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (NSW), now I’ve seen this film (Tasmania), and now I am hungry for a colonial story about Victoria.

The film shows Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825 to be a completely lawless society where those in power (the British), think nothing of treating those ‘beneath them’ with utter contempt. Very low on the scale are the Irish women convicts, like Clare, who has earnt the right to become a free settler. She is married, with a baby, simply asking for her freedom three years after it is overdue. Firstly, she approaches her overseer (the principal antagonist in the film) asking for her rights, only to be struck across the face and raped. Then her husband sees the same British officer on their behalf, and we, the audience, hold our breath as he confronts his ‘boss’ assertively, demanding their release, and is forced to watch his wife get raped again, and is then shot dead for his troubles. Their screaming baby is suddenly put out of its misery. This is no place for baby, mother and pleading husband, Irish convicts.

Then we have the original settlers, all victims of the Black Wars, the Tasmanian aboriginals. The small British troupe led by murderous officer Hawkins, on their way to Launceston with their own black tracker, encounter aboriginals on their path.  One such helpless woman, alone in the bush with her small child, has the misfortune to fall across their path. One of Hawkins’ subordinates sums up the situation with a gleeful look in his eye. He pleads with Hawkins to be allowed to rape her, and Hawkins agrees to his demand, but only if he is prepared to go second. The terrified aboriginal woman screams in horror and lapses into her native tongue calling upon spirits to defend her and her child.

This is just one of many horrific crimes perpetrated against both the Irish and the blacks. Clare’s black tracker, Billy, finds it easier to accept his navigational task once he realises that Clare is Irish, and that they both have in common a deep contempt for the British. In what might be the most telling scene in the film, Clare and Billy come across a separate group of British officers marching away from Launceston, guns pointed at their black prisoners. Billy converses with them in his native tongue and discovers that his tribe, the Linetemairrener people, have all been massacred. This is an incredibly weighty moment for Billy. His self-control becomes extraordinary when he witnesses these black men being shot in front of him for speaking their native tongue, with one of them even getting his head cut off for as a trophy for one of the British officers. Billy walks on with Clare, shock, but at the same time, deep resignation, scrawled all over his face. Afterall, he has very little choice. It is not until later in the film that he breaks down, sobbing painfully for the massacre of his people. He is so acutely aware that it is his land, the land of his people, that is being desecrated unflinchingly with murder and abuse.

I never read any of this in the Australian history books at high school. There were brief mentions of aboriginal history. However, much of it was taken up with the various ways that New South Wales and other states were settled, seemingly painlessly and with precision. Larissa Behrendt, the well-known aboriginal academic from Sydney, has written a piece in The Guardian about Hannah Kent’s misguided approach to the whole colonial issue- https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/aug/20/the-nightingale-review-ambitious-urgent-and-necessarily-brutal-but-who-is-it-for

Behrendt admires the film, however, she does have some strong misgivings. She objects to the fact that ‘this is clearly Clare’s story: the film starts with Clare and ends on her gaze, privileging her point of view. It is from Clare’s perspective that the connections between her situation and that of Aboriginal people like Billy are explored.’ I understand her concerns. Some in the audience would leave the cinema with perhaps more of a feeling of the abuse and injustices metered out to Clare, the Irish convict, than for Billy, and I can see why this might be a problem. The fact that she thinks Billy’s story, and the story of the aboriginal people, are somehow subordinate to newcomers, like convicts, naturally grates with her. But I can imagine asking Hannah Kent about this. She would tell me that she was conscious of the black story all throughout. Otherwise we would not have scenes as described above. I for one was more conscious of Billy and his story than I was of Clare’s. it’s all about our individual perspectives. My heart bled for both, but I would say Billy and his people in particular. His life, and his people’s lives, seemed to be the most disregarded, trashed, insignificant to me. The attitude of the British officers to Clare and Billy both was appalling.

 A feminist reading of the film, and Behrendt’s perspective as a woman, would lend itself to becoming more conscious of Clare’s plight than anyone else’s. But now, thinking back to the film, and feeling quite changed by it, I am thinking of the way land can be ripped away, the way an old order can so swiftly be altered to become a new order. I feel more aware than ever of the atrocities of the past and the way they keep continuing on to the present and the future. That is why we all need reminders of whose land we live under. This is why we should not always be submerged with stories from other countries and other continents and become much more aware of our own stories in our own backyards.

The film informed me, as much as anything else, that there are periods of utter lawlessness in our history where people can somehow be allowed to become corrupt, cruel, unforgiving. The British officers behave this way partly because they are given the opportunity on a platter. In their minds there is no recourse for their actions. They brutalise the men, and they take the women, because the opportunity presents itself to them and they cannot resist the feeling of power this opportunity gives them. You watch the film and you think of the victims equally. Clare may be white but she did not choose to go to Van Diemen’s Land. As for Billy and the other black men like him, well, it is their home. Or rather, was their home.

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.