Mistah Kurtz’s latest affliction

For a while in the early noughties I worked in the back office of an engineering firm doing back office stuff: procurement, dispatch, marketing, web stuff, travel and tender arrangements, and so on. One of my duties was to ensure matters of occupational health and safety were appropriately addressed for staff involved in onsite operations and in executing this duty I was required to come to terms with the surprisingly arcane world of PPE, Personal Protective Equipment. There is a vast array of PPE to choose from depending on what the circumstances require.

The company I worked for provided end-of-pipe solutions to nasty emission problems arising from industrial production. The company provided filters, extraction, storage and disposal services (all the same really). These toxic nasties required all sorts of PPE. The range and variety of things that onsite staff might need protection from was an eye-opener for me. There was PPE for heat, for cold, for vapour, for dust, for remote breathing apparatuses, for confined spaces, for gaseous environments. Similarly, there was PPE for the whole body, as well as PPE specifically for eyes, hands, mouths, ears, skin, lungs, knees, forearms, and the head. And for those times when the PPE didn’t quite fit, or wasn’t quite right, there was always gaffer tape. After a while in the job it was clear to me that PPE worked. PPE protected, it provided an effective barrier against most toxic materials, and the onsite staff went home safe and sound.

So I’ve watched the footage out of West Africa, Texas, and elsewhere of the Ebola outbreak with great interest. I’ve been looking closely at the PPE and it is not enough. It is inadequate PPE, which is really shocking considering that Ebola doesn’t transmit easily (it’s infectious but not particularly contagious), meaning that PPE on a patient-carer level will be, for the most part, effective in shutting down outbreaks, as it has been on numerous occasions since 1976. I saw a news story from CNN about a young Liberian woman, a trainee nurse, used garbage bags and gaffer tape as PPE while she was caring for her Ebola affected relatives. It worked; three of her four infected relatives survive. PPE works, gaffer tape works, but you wouldn’t know it when you watch the evening news.

This is because lurking behind every story about Ebola is Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone. Full of haemorrhagic splendour The Hot Zone evinces the horror which is attached to filoviruses and the bloody fevers that result from infection. In The Hot Zone being infected with a filovirus (such as Ebola, or Marburg, or Hendra, et al) is characterised as a process of liquefaction in which infected persons literally dissolve on their beds, patients “bleed out” and the virus rapaciously moves onto new victims. That Preston’s book is not really accurate in this regard is not relevant because what the book is really about is fear: fear of the unseen killer, fear of exotic horror, fear of otherworldly-ness, fear of some unprotected vulnerability.

The Hot Zone suggests something apocalyptic; the viruses are a keyhole through which our end might be unlocked. By situating the virus outbreak in suburban Virginia, a mere fifteen miles from Washington D.C, The Hot Zone suggests that harboured deep in Africa (a cave in this instance) are horrors that, once unleashed, might reveal our terrible vulnerability, even at a point so close to the centre of power and authority. Watching the stories played out on the evening news regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa it’s pretty clear that a similar set of tropes is being deployed despite The Hot Zone being not very true. In this schema Ebola is simply Mistah Kurtz’s latest affliction, it is the latest breakage in the quarantining of civilisation.

What’s striking is that instead of sending Marlowe up the river to contain the breakage as per Heart of Darkness this time there is an urge to quarantine whole countries, as if there can be a kind of national or continental PPE applied by closing borders or ceasing flights, as if patient isolation can be duplicated on a national scale, throwing up as many Berlin walls as required to ensure the safety of the civilised world.  National isolation is a pre-emptive practice of PPE for the rich, rather than for the sick or their carers, a prophylactic protection for those not afflicted. It is a suggestion that involves turning away from those in need.

This doesn’t seem very civilised to me: let’s prioritise the sick and provide as much PPE as possible to those caring for them, doing otherwise is simply turning our backs and ignoring the problem.

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awful causes and conscience

As a young man I was impressed by war. The scale of human action, the scale of humans acting in concert was the thing. Compared to the tiresome and repetitive tropes of politics, which to my teenage brain resembled nothing so much as a rolling maul in a game in which there was no tryline, war appeared to be something monumental and uniting. Every little country town I ever lived in had a cenotaph (sometimes it was the only ornamental thing in town and always the largest) and each case the local burghers pointed to the names of their forebears on the cenotaph at the biannual gatherings on Anzac and Armistice Days.

I can see that in some ways I was easily impressed, but my admiration for those who went off and did what is still euphemistically called service has never really diminshed. They did do astonishing things. Like many young men, naive in their admiration for older men who had been placed by history in harm’s way, I didn’t question the moral context for their wars, or any war, until I began to separate those servicemen who marched down the main street from the machinations of great power shenanigans which brought about those confluences of history and agency. In their hands and feet and fingers and eyes and hearts I can’t help but admire those who fought, even when fighting for some awful causes.

I was, for instance, also impressed by Breaker Morant as a teen. I read the bush ballads, the Kit Denton book (still an excellent read), visited the Handcock memorial in Bathurst, watched Bruce Beresford’s film more times than I care to admit. I once went on a driving holiday with Dad to a number of Breaker Morant sites in western New South Wales (not that there was anything Morant orientated at those places, they were just places he had lived and worked –my Dad always liked tooling around ghost towns and neglected pastoral manors). And yet ultimately Morant was shot by his own side for the greater cause of a British South Africa. Yikes. There’s hardly a worse cause in history, except for all the other ones. I also went with my Dad in 1987 to Gilgandra to watch the re-enactment of the Coo-ee March, a recruiting drive for the first world war. Twenty six men started walking from Gilgandra, calling out coo-ee to their bushmates to join them, and to go and fight the Huns. Two hundred and sixty three did so. And, of course, many did not ever come back to rural New South Wales and remain entombed in France. I was, and remain, moved by the whole affair.

The taking up of arms, in the context of a twentieth century that any historically inclined right thinking person would notice took up arms almost continuously (even more than the incredibly violent and militarised nineteenth century), hardly seemed a radical or extreme move. After all, every year, twice a year in all our little towns we applauded those who had done so and survived, and mourned those who had not been so blessed.

Later, as I thought more about the contexts for these and other military matters, I came to admire those who fought for causes. The usual anti-imperialist suspects: Che loomed large, ditto Giap, John Brown and the Osawatomie crew, the Weather Underground, Michael Collins, Augusto César Sandino, the Tupamaros, and so on. Similarly I was always particularly moved by the stories of the Spanish Civil War, and the volunteers who travelled there to fight the fascists. I read Hemingway and Orwell and all about the Abraham Lincoln and Washington brigades. Much later I also took the trouble to learn about Nugent Bull, the only Australian who went to fight for Franco, a no less moving gesture for my horror of the cause. But at the heart of all this I admired them all, for being connected to that big world and being agents within it.

So I wonder about these young Australians heading off to Syria and Iraq. I have no truck with their cause but I find it hard not to extend the admiration I have for those who march(ed) on Anzac Day to those who’ve decided to go off and fight for what they believe in. To point to the politics of their umbrella organization as being distasteful is no doubt true but so too were the invasions of Iraq. So too was the invasion of Afghanistan. The politics of the fight seem to me to rest with the conscience of the fighter when we’re talking about so and so from Bankstown, or whomever from Padstow. To tar all these thinking people, moved by faith (misguided or not), as evil-doers and potential terror threats is a dehumanising process aimed at some future point to enable something like extraordinary rendition, and eventually extra-judicial imprisonment. To listen to George Brandis and Tony Abbott it is clear to me that Australia is preparing the ground to have its very own Guantanamo.

It would be better, I think, to not do this.

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stop making sense

Earlier this year, or perhaps late last year, a correspondent, one of my boon companions from my undergraduate years, asked me where Marx went wrong. It wasn’t that broad a question in the asking but over time and consideration it became a question to that effect. And having turned the question into a double or nothing, use it or lose it, scenario I’ve spent a good many of my quiet moments throughout this year trying to construct something like an answer. My correspondent had his own answer, that Marx was wrong because he failed to anticipate the growth, impact and power of consumer choice and spending of the working class.

I think this understates what Marx got wrong. What he got wrong, to my mind, is that he understood people as being determined by their social and economic circumstances. The whole class based analysis enacts a deterministic structure and systematizes the possibilities of human existence by limiting the scope of that existence. Marx allows for no otherness: there is nothing outside the economy. And having made the world so neat and tidy and straight the conclusion that by arranging x and y in such and such a manner will result in the Revolution after which justice prevails, ceteris paribus, is a comforting basis on which to proceed through the uncertain ethics of being part of a vast repressive apparatus and, perchance, mitigate a little of that repression and its consequential harms.

The whole box and dice is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the working class are disempowered because they are working class, the bourgeoisie are powerful because they are the  bourgeoisie, and no-one can escape the prison house of structure-superstructure. Materiality is a very small world, and by making it so orderly it is rendered but a suggestion of the complexity of being here now (or not yet, or not anymore) and the wonder that should rightly produce. The materiality Marx places at the centre of his analysis is the same terrible narrowness that capitalism similarly imposes. Marx has not misrecognised that capitalism is all about the material but in both contexts the material is nothing more than sepia-toned obfuscation, a function of reductionism. Increasingly, I am no longer willing to speak of the world in manageable bite sized chunks, nor to affect some gesture of mitigation, as these rationalisations feel more and more like doing an injustice. The impost of a discursive poverty.

As these reflections might imply my head has been in a dark place for some time now. It’s hard to say what shape this darkness takes, if shape is what it has. I’ve waited a good long time for the darkness to lift, to fade up to a dawn. But it hasn’t. It’s also hard to say why this isn’t just depression of the usual kind and with which I am familiar, however this is not like that. When I’m depressed I can’t bear to look around, I don’t want to see or be seen. I just want erasure. Presently, that is not where I’m at, rather I am frantically looking around for orientation but cannot locate an horizon, there are dark clouds and dark earth and dark light. There are only moments of distinction between from which I might half-step, half-stumble toward something. I am patient with this, I am practised at waiting. And, as I stand at this particular bus stop in the rain, I have been trying to make sense of things but for a little while now I’ve thought that this was a mistake.

I think that making sense of things is the impost of that poverty of view, it makes things smaller, makes them manageable and discreet. The rationality of the conduct of human affairs is nothing but chancellery, a veil thrown over a field of thought and action so complex that nothing, no discourse, will ever  garner sufficiently robust explicatory force to deliver justice to the producers of that complexity. Charles Bowden, who died recently, remarked in podcast that to live a moral life was an irrational act, that morality isn’t rational. I didn’t get this when I first heard it but now I am beginning to see its wisdom. To believe in the order of things is to look at the world as a snow globe, and you can make that work, it’s all structure and superstructure. But maybe it would be better, maybe it’d be more caring, to not impose order and not construct models of that order. Maybe if I stop trying to follow a rational path I will see an horizon of my own making.

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that chill divine

Somewhat to my surprise INXS are having another moment in the sun. They are everywhere. A miniseries in the classic Australian 10BA style, a number one greatest hits package, and a tribute band (INEXCESS) endlessly touring the holiday spot RSLs. They’re getting picked for up ad tv ad soundtracks (South Australian tourism, NRMA, John Lewis). Plus, of course, that strange dotted line connection to Peaches Geldof. I suppose that in a lot of ways it’s about time. Those who fronted up to early and mid-eighties gigs must be in their fifties these days, and well positioned in terms of disposable income. And those youngsters who sat at home watching INXS on Countdown are in their forties, and probably similarly well positioned.

Those of us in this position, we’ve got cash to spend and a fairly limited array of nostalgic items to (re-)buy. Sure, we could buy World Series Cricket coloured shirts, or Newtown Jets jerseys, or Datsun 180Bs, or Bob’s a Bottler tshirts, or Neighbours dvds, or endless books about The Dismissal or mutually assured destruction. But these exotic specimens of eighties paraphernalia aren’t going to satisfy. They don’t add up to much except the fetishes quietly formed by teenagers in fibro boxes surrounded by dead couch grass and Christmas bushes. Australian suburban grotesques. For nostalgia to really work you’ve got to share it, It’s got to be something already shared. The thing that is obviously shared in this case is absence. Michael Hutchence is dead and so is the thing that might be nostalgised.

Since that day in 1997 INXS have been something I couldn’t bear to look at too closely. They continued in a hapless and embarrassing sort of way: Jon Stevens, Jimmy Barnes, JD Fortune, reality tv, all that shit. I couldn’t watch, I couldn’t listen. Didn’t want to, it wasn’t real, they weren’t really INXS without Michael Hutchence. Not to say I gave away those hoarded LPs, or that I didn’t buy that terrible Michael Hutchence album, or that I didn’t buy the two disc collection The Years 1979 – 1997. I kept my LPs (from Shabooh Shoobah to Kick) and I found myself unable to resist attractively packaged compilations, of which there have been at least half a dozen (mysteriously). Similarly I still find Michael Hutchence a figure I can stare at for quite a long time.

A long time ago I stood in Selinas at Coogee and watched him perform, as close to me as my cubicle buddy is here right now (we will fight like thissss, he spat at me leaning on a marshall stack). I was a believer before that night but I knew as we tucked into hot dogs, and walked back toward Clovelly to find the car, that I would always believe, that I just loved what they, and what he, did. I just loved it. I didn’t care about ordinary new albums, angled toward competition with Nirvana or Oasis. I didn’t care about Kylie or Paula Yates or Bob Geldof. I didn’t care about gossip or celebrity. I didn’t care about crappy music videos or chart success. I didn’t care about remixes or new packaging or rereleased on CD versions. I had those classic LPs and big speakers, what more could I ask for?

Then he died. I cried. That’s some complicated wanking. I remember Dr Sternlove rolling her eyes as I tried to figure out why I was crying. And over the last seventeen years at various points I’ve thought about INXS and why it felt like they mattered so much to me. And the answer is obvious now, as forty something with disposable income, it was the end of loving some distant other without irony being present. Michael Hutchence was a rock star I loved, without a comprehension of the distance elided by my hands holding those records. The space was incomprehensible, and then, behind the door of Room 524 at the Ritz-Carlton, there it was, the distance.

A dead love is all about the irony.

 

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moving on

Bruce played Darkness on the Edge of Town in its entirety back in February, at the concert I’ve already written about. I haven’t really stopped thinking about it. Helen Razer and the Melbourne crowd got Born to Run and if you’re interested she accurately and effectively maps out the despair and love that Bruce sells: the charm and the faff of those baroque seventies and early eighties, the before time. It’s an excellent review and probably nothing more need be said. But me, I’ve kept on thinking about ‘Racing in the Street’, obsessing in an offhand sort of way, to see if it manifests some resemblances to the life I’m living, to the despair and love I know. There’s a pleasure in picking the song apart, the de-rendering of the product into its constituent raw materials, and thinking about the craft required for such precisely emotive assembly.

There’s not much outcome from this process. You hear a flash of Motown, an echo of Martha Reeves; you hear the dextrous gurgle of uber-professional musicians underplaying the overblown romanticism of a contradictory narrative in which women become pictures of Dorian Gray; you hear aphoristic masculinity nurtured and celebrated through proxy combat; and you hear longing, layer upon layer of indeterminate longing, longings that might just be satisfied through robust action, and the struggle for that satisfaction given absolution in the same gesture. The passion of the joust is supposed to be a crucible. That the true man might be revealed as his unguarded, known and loveworthy soul. There’s also the beauty of the thing, which I admire with croon and swoon. But it’s not much for a couple of months of rumination.

So I find myself here wondering what I’ve been thinking about for three months. I’ve been playing Bruce over and over: in the car, in the kitchen, at work, over the pc speakers right now. And the answer is simple, I’ve been thinking about myself. What it has come to mean to me, racing in the street as a trope, is the passion for life blind to all else, a passion for my life, passionate me. A passion is not without cost I cannot help but know, a me whose being implies cost to others. Wanting this, not wanting this, has sent me deep into a pointless hall of mirrors. Second guessing myself at every turn, I’ve wondered if I’ve not gone racing in the street enough, or maybe too much. Or maybe I did and I faked it, and an untrue guardedness is revealed, maybe I’m unmasked as a fake racer. A true fake. Or maybe I went racing in the street and I lost and I can’t make it matter. Or maybe I didn’t do it and I don’t know why, and so I told everyone I was racing in the street.

So fuck it, it’s a song and it’s not about me.

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a sense of north

I’ve been to a couple of gigs lately, Don Walker and Bruce Springsteen. Both were supporting new albums that no-one is really that fussed about. Bruce played in front of one hundred thousand or so, and charged a couple of hundred dollars plus. Don played in front of about eighty and cost thirty eight dollars, including booking fee. Both practiced old school musicianship and valued the tight intensity of playing with other musicians. Bruce was lifted high and was carried across the mosh pit on a thousand adoring hands. Don got on his hands and knees, plugging and unplugging cables, trying to fix his sustain pedal. Both inserted happily self-deprecating anecdotes to mollify the gap between the staged and seated. Bruce provided chorus after chorus, taking the power back from loneliness as we all sang along. Don offered wan wisecracks and muttered that tomorrow it was supposed to be a sunny day. It would be true to say that Bruce used his celebrity and Don used his anti-celebrity for roughly the same purpose, to suggest that hope and love are redemptive no matter the injustice of circumstances.

Nothing much was surprising about either gig; I got what I went for. Sputnik, who accompanied me to both, saw other things. Mostly me offering up something akin to faith, me in the role of a believer.  Me in the congregation. This is not something she sees all that often. I am cautious and reticent and contingent. Especially about big things. The world. People. Physics. Truth. Justice. Complexity is a maze of blind corners, and I’ve learned that my navigations of them aren’t entirely accurate. And as a nervous self-doubting navigator of complexity, a navigator faintly aware that there is every chance I’m wrong, I’ve got to come up with something to keep moving, some shifting and malleable sense of where north might be. This sense is the central hook of Bruce and Don. Their characters, especially their many flawed and incomplete blokes of a certain age, are bannermen for this sense of north: hope as a bulwark and rampart. A rhetorical defence against self doubt and the likelihood of error, the terror of error. Or that everything’s already too far gone to fix now.

I quoted Henry Giroux on hope some months ago, in another post, about how hope expands the space of possible. And it does, it says we’re not done yet and good may come. It says the future is an available space for projection of getting better, being better. Better selves, better others, better relations, better care. Better resistance, better dissent, better struggle. Better management of the almost complete inconsequentiality of our surprising presence.

Then, on twitter, an admirable fellow blogger  (@HallyMk1) made the point that”we over-stress hope as whatever. courage is the thing. courage is an act of love. it presages hope.” Almost immediately I thought he was right, but then as a navigator in the maze I wasn’t sure. Hope, courage, love, redemption. I’ve been thinking about these a lot, pretty much since November last year: in waiting rooms and at traffic lights, in the dark of night and as I watch the cricket on the telly. I thought about them as I sang and swayed my way through Bruce and Don. I saw and heard them all around me. OK cool, I thought, good stuff all around. These good things will be sustaining, these good things will make it better. My bulwark and my ramparts seemed in good shape I figured. But over the summer they were all drawn down on pretty hard. Thrown down like stakes in card game I didn’t want to play and suspected couldn’t win.

Thing kept pressing against my head, all that good stuff: it was not enough.

Hope, courage, love, redemption. Not enough.

Resistance, dissent, struggle. Not enough.

Bruce and Don. Not enough.

Better. Not enough.

So what do you with that in the sweaty early morn? At what point does the failure of rhetoric to salve the friction of being represent my failure as a person? At what point does the failure of courage and hope reveal the obvious terror they were designed to obscure? And in the clear sighted face of that terror how do you not just stop? Call it quits. Finito. Line ‘em up bartender and let me go until there’s no more. How? Head to some Walden’s Pond and make my apologies? Just join a crusty crew and let the currents take me where they might? Take a shopping trolley into the misty uncertainties of being off the grid? Or the opposite and get myself a herringbone suit and another couple of mortgages and just be the Sararīman I’ve fought so hard against becoming? Get myself an Audi or one of those nice Renaults, a few trophies for the sale of my conscience?

And where can I do that anyway? Are consciences rolled out like wares at a flea market, on blanket over concrete, for fanciers to acquire? Or swapped, briefcase for briefcase, in undercover shopping mall carparks. Or delivered by uniformed parcel people, signed for on little signature tablets with a plastic stylus, upon receipt of a direct deposit. But in the early morn, when kidneys and livers are busy at work, I’m too paralysed by terror to ever think that I could pull any of this off, one way or the other. There’s just me in my head. And there’s just the world out there. And there’s not a resolution. No teleology of transcendence. No big unity. Not enough.

So what do you do? Fantasy seems the obvious path. And so I have been reading a lot about Leninism. Since Dr Sternlove got cancer I’ve spent a lot of time in plastic hospital chairs reading Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest and coming to the conclusion that the Bolshevik project was a cult. Party. And like most cults there was a fair bit of hope, courage, love, and redemption involved in manufacturing the faithfulness that is required for a seventy year regime. That faith was fantastic, in both its sincere and faux manifestations. People believed, some still do. They had faith that the proper arrangement of things, materiality, could be provided through the investment of hope, courage, love, and redemption in the rhetorical frames of managing that arrangement of things. Even reading those critical works I saw lots that I admired, lots that made one feel loving toward the Russian Revolution. Even knowing that the twenty million were waiting their turn. And it’s not like the faith that the Bolshevik cult used is substantively different from the faith of late capitalism. After all the market is just a mechanism for the arrangement of things, what was sought through the Leninist state is much the same as is sought today: utopia through things. Sweating into my plastic chair over summer it didn’t seem to me that either system was any good. Cult after cult for making better. And looking at the effectiveness of these cults, especially the ongoing enterprises, seems to me that they’re not much more than tools to make ourselves feel better about shit knowing it won’t make much difference in the long run.

The world is too big for personal sacrifice to matter at all. Join any cult you like, they’ve only the weight of words for mass. Just like Bruce and Don, they’re there to mitigate whatever soul disquiet might come upon us if we allow it do so. I reckon I’ve allowed a bit too much in lately. But now it’s here. That ripple on a pond not made by the hands of men. Yeah. That one. What’s going to be adequate handling of that? It’d have to be a damn fine cult to get me to check my baggage, even supposing I could. It’s more likely that I’ll be in the crowds of blokes at gigs where these troubled narratives are rendered a show, a performance. An enormous ritual theatre of unease ameliorating the angst of the members of a cult so vast no one even knows they belong. Classic Debordian outcome I suppose, the only way out of the spectacle is to acknowledge membership of the cult, accept its inadequate absolution, to play along until suddenly redundant, and slip away from spectatorship.

Maybe I was doing that when Sputnik watched me at the gigs, heard me sing along and raise my fist in timely emphasis.  Maybe. More likely I’ll take any comfort I can find, any foxhole is a good foxhole. Inadequate absolution is better than none. Even a temporary and anonymous solidarity is better than none. I kind of think that knowing that this is false consciousness, is a form of paying attention. A form of moral bricolage: scrounging the proper combination of bits and piece to make a life courageous and hopeful which, while not really making things better, tends an idea of space where that might become possible in some other incomplete present.

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the old park

There were two direct routes down to the river from our place on Dooral St. One, the Dairy Road, was mostly bitumen but was gated at the dairy. So you had to jump the fence into the paddock and leave your bike behind. Then stride confidently toward the river, not thinking of the snakes. Which we did, pretty much because it would have been super-cool to actually see a snake in the bushes and also because the heat was an incredible incentive to get to the shade fast. There was a good rope swing down there into a deep hole in the river and, when the river was strong, a hip-high sandy billabong to splash and lounge in. But no-one liked leaving the bikes behind and by the time you got back to them you were in need of another swim.

So mostly we went down to the Old Park. It was a crook in the river, fish all around (mostly carp in those days) and in the lee of whatever modest heights there might have been to the north where the hot winds begin. Shady river forest, gums that filled the horizon. It was a great place to mess about: in boats and on bikes; in trees and over rocks. I loved it, it was so accessible: a couple of blocks from our place you went down Walgett St all the way to the old pump-house. Even on my over-engineered Rep-co BMX I could be down there maybe ten, twelve minutes, in the water in fifteen. There was a little jetty, out over the river, connected to the pump-house from which you could jump, certain of a giddy little thrill as it was a bit higher than expected, once you were in mid-air.

The road continued down along beside the river in a north westerly direction – it petered out into a pair of tyre ruts and then it faded into something else, a suggestion that people used to travel that way, noted by the consistent distance between trees of roughly the same age. An avenue through and around the dips and hollows of the riverside. It wasn’t straight nor even but there was clearly a way there. Lots of ways, as the tracks and paths criss-crossed each other all over the place leading from one hollow to another, one billabong to another, one prime river spot to another. And a thousand little tracks from the trees to everywhere.

The Old Park was clearly old, the pump-house had the architecture of a Longues-sur-Mer bunker facing out over Omaha beach, but even a kid on a bike could see this was an awesome place. A vast park with a thousand camping spots by the water, spots to wash and play, spots to rest in the deep shade of the river gums, spots to get love and watch the sunset across the plains to the south, places to kill food and barbecue. It seems clear to me now that it was a town. It was a gathering place, a significant one. Just upstream from the fish traps where the river gets flat and broad. But at the time I loved it as a playground. It was a vast happy maze of BMX jumps and swimming spots. The people you saw were mostly kids, and blokes in land cruisers, fishing. I didn’t see the absent people.

When the big floods came in 1983 we were cut off by road for a fair while. It was really pretty cool, helicopters used the school oval as its base and every couple of hours, for a week or so, it would land and take off to carry lucerne and groceries and medical supplies to the cut off farms along the swollen rivers. We watched from our classroom windows, and envied those who got a ride. After ten days we got care packages, at school we stood in a line and each received a showbag with soap and pencils and sweets. As the waters slowly receded I would ride down Walgett St as far as the water would allow, to see how high it was I guess. I would look across the elbow of river as one vast lake, noticeably studded with high points, little islands of gums and dirt.

After the floods receded they left behind great puddles of dense mud as the silt brought by river settled, especially in the billabongs. Once my family went to a barbecue down in the park. There were maybe five families, it might have been a scout thing I guess, and when we arrive everyone is standing around this billabong looking at this sheep. The sheep is up to its neck in mud and bleating madly, crazily. And my Dad goes to the car and gets a rope. He wades into the mud and ties the rope around the sheep’s hind leg. He carries the rope back to the riverbank and all the blokes pull out this panicked sheep. My Dad has got mud on his glasses and everything about him is muddy and he can’t get his glasses clean. He looks at me. I can’t understand what it’s doing here, he says.

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