Mrs Mac Tells All

The river water is a jolly poo brown. The bridge, which I would usually cross to get to school, is entirely obscured. The clubhouse by the soccer fields is visible only by a single layer of breeze blocks and the tin roof. The waters lap midway up the walls and windows of a dozen houses that stand opposite the soccer fields and the gardens where cabbages grow. The water carries a melange of scum: sticks, leaves, litter, and a vast hodgepodge of buoyant possessions now separated from their owners. There’s a watering can; many thongs; denuded tennis balls; a few battered witches hats; a plastic Colt. 45; pieces of plasticised cardboard that might once have been photographs; some crap held up by bicycle inner tubes. The river has claimed it all but doesn’t care to keep any of it. The scum will be left behind when the big water heads downstream, a stinky levee of detritus. The big water is noisy, rushing to appear and rushing to depart, it’s a narrow valley: a precise funnel out to the flat lands further west.

Still, school’s out and the excitement I feel is alibied by the dozens of cars parked by the road. A few semis have parked and their drivers and dogs are consulting NRMA maps to consider alternate routes. Boot-shod blokes and sturdy women with squinting eyes and a jumble of their kids all stand around listlessly to assess the scale of it. “Not as big as ’72 or 68” they say, or “the river reached the pub in 1876, you seen that picture?” Someone on the other side has brought down his tinnie and outboard to ferry animals to dry land, startled looking donkeys and, mysteriously, a lama shuffle nervously on so small a craft. The boatman takes it all in stride, DK Lillee moustache and all he doesn’t even work at ignoring the lurching beasts.  Old fellas take off their terry towelling hats and stare. It won’t last, they say, couple days at most and all the water will be gone. And having made their judgements people start heading back uphill to the bowlo where the CWA ladies are making tea in an urn big as rainwater tank and the cops are frying up bacon & eggs for those stuck on our side of the bridge.

Next day the water is all gone. Just gone, the river is back as the piddling stream I had always taken it to be. The mess is still there and as the day warms up the smell of drowned sheep is enough to make me gag. Both the trucks and the cabbages are long gone. The soccer fields are a sponge of dead grass and bent metal goalposts. The houses look as if someone has painted a brown stripe two thirds of the way up their walls. They are ruined houses for the time being. As the day goes on a fascicle of fireys and police and RSL figures and SES types have gathered to pull out the carpets from the affected houses. Later the fireys hose out the blancmange of ruined things as necessary with all the other blokes manning brooms to push the water out. The heat is the dryer of necessity and it doesn’t take too long for things to look roughly like they did before.

I hover all day long, too small to be useful and eventually judged not trouble enough to be sent to attend the women who come down the hill with sandwiches and long necks. I like the food. Mrs Mac our neighbour brings her shortbread and orangeade. She snaps the top off a bottle and sits with the blokes. She’s eighty odd if she’s a day. She wears a flowery house dress and a pinnie decorated by vines. The consensus, as I munch a biscuit, is that we got off easy. Mrs Mac listens and downs her beer. When she’s done she stands and fixes the sergeant from Cowra with her aged gaze: “There’s more devils than God made,” she says and waddles away in her wellington boots.

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the heist

It’s Sunday morning and the sky is clear. The football season is over and the cricket hasn’t started. I have no deeds to do and no promises to keep. I mooch around the house for a bit. I consider getting stuck into re-alphabetizing the shelves of compact discs which resemble a tottering stack of teacups. I don’t, saving that job for a rainy day. I tour the estate. I could deal with the veggie patch and prepare for summer plantings. But I only really like gardening with Dr Sternlove and she has an extensive desk bound to-do list, so that’s not going to happen. Sulkily, I do a few loads of laundry and hang them in the sunshine. I’m getting morose at the prospect of more laundry and the likelihood that this will represent my greatest achievement today.

The Chook scarpers past me, onto her bike and down the street for a day of tree climbing and creek side mischief. She doesn’t even look back I’m strangely pleased to note. In contrast Sputnik, in classic teen style, is yet to emerge from the pile of clothes and duvet in which she sleeps. Good luck to her, it’s a great blessing to be able to sleep so free, so unencumbered by limitations of mind and body. Swallowing my envy I do the dishes and sweep the kitchen floor. Domesticity, yeah it’s cool, but I know it quickly segues into shopping so fast that I begin to feel uneasy at the likely prospect of going to the mall unless I can find something to do with this fine Sunday.

Beargirl is also fidgety. She could clean her room; she could do her own laundry. I consider saying this to her but think better of it. Instead I propose we join forces and double the power of our indolence. The two of us google things to do, local events, and free fun which might make this springtime Sunday a day to remember. Then we choose. We’re going to go and see the tulips in Bowral. This is Beargirl’s wish and while it doesn’t ring my bell sometimes it’s just fun to make a wish come true. Tulips it is. Within ten minutes we’re in the car and headed west onto the tablelands. The music is loud, the windows are open and we turn down the highway.

We talk. She asks questions, very good questions.  I try my best to provide answers, but probably not quite up to the standard of the questions. She’s focused on France, where she’s headed in just a few weeks, and her curiosity is happily rampant. I worry silently that my answers aren’t quite up to par.We cover a lot of ground. The French revolution; the Committee for Public Safety; guillotines and the First Republic; Robespierre and St. Just; sans culottes; the Vendee rebellions; the early campaigns against the First Coalition; Carnot, Valmy and the fate of Louis XVI; Tuileries Palace; Marie Antoinette and the cake thing; Thermidor, Marat and Danton.  I haven’t given revolutionary France much thought for twenty years but I recall the narrative as a kind of vast political soap opera so that’s how I tell it. Beargirl has always liked my stories and she seems pretty satisfied with what she’s hearing. We stop for coffee.

Soon we’re back on the road we’re rolling and my memory provides some meat to a spine of dates and places. Jacobins and Girondins, political lefts and political rights; red and green houses; the tricky position of the clergy; the Directory; what the rest of Europe was doing, especially the nation of shopkeepers; the increasingly fragile French economy and the decline of the assignat; 13 Vendémiaire and the whiff of grapeshot; the rise of Napoleon and the invasion of Egypt; the Coup of 18 Fructidor and its twin coup of 18 Brumaire; the Consulate and then the Empire. Beargirl has got more French history out of me this morning than she can possibly use but she’s grinning like she hit the jackpot with a five cent piece she found down the back of the sofa.

After a while we stop again. There’s a market and a sausage sizzle and a car show: a paddock filled with old blokes and beautiful shiny cars of many vintages. You can smell the love, it is more powerful than all the frying onions on the Southern Highlands. We wander around together; she asks more questions and doesn’t hesitate. We cover Napoleon; Josephine; Austerlitz; Tilsit; the Peninsular War; Nelson; the grand armee; Borodino; Berezina; the fall of the Empire; Waterloo; and by the time we’ve got back to our car I’m describing Napoleon’s lonely demise on St Helena.

Beargirl is loving it and teases me by asking if Napoleon had pets on St Helena, she suggests that maybe he had a little dog? Initially I don’t notice that this a joke and start talking about how remote St Helena is and how fragile the ecosystem is on small islands and that probably he didn’t…but then she’s cacking herself at my earnestness and I have to laugh too. Back in the car we take a series of lovely back roads through the highlands following a circuitous route to Bowral. I tell the story of Bill O’Reilly and Don Bradman as we slowly go through Wingello. A cricket story breaks the reverie and her interest fades. So before I’ve got to the bit where O’Reilly says “You don’t piss on statues” she’s telling me that she’s really hungry.

As it happens I am too. We look for a counter lunch at a pub but this is Bowral and the 1970s are long gone. We eat at an overpriced pub restaurant and sneakily we split a pint of Belgian lager. Satiated we cruise on foot through Bowral looking at patisseries, book stores and knickknack shops. It’s a wandering without timetable or purpose, the pleasures of the flâneur. Eventually we find ourselves approaching the queue to enter the vast garden where the tulips are and we tack ourselves onto the end.The crowd is thick and slow moving. There are thousands here and everyone is very well outfitted. Quality coats and ladies in Melbourne Cup hats, proper lace up shoes and older gentlemen wearing stripy ties.

I feel a bit conspicuous in my mucking about on Sunday outfit. I’m beginning to think it may have been prudent to shave but as the queue shuffles forward it’s clear that no one is looking at us. I’m the only one who is feeling a bit class conscious. Beargirl isn’t in the slightest uncomfortable, she’s loving it and when we enter the park she’s immediately entranced by the tulips. She stomps off in her doc martens and even though there isn’t room enough to take a proper stride she’s waving her arms around in joy and admiration for the tulips. The tulips are spectacular; the plantings are clever and deft. They are also a bit twee but shit they’re tulips, it goes with the territory.

I join a conga line of tweeded gents and buy coffee. In the rotunda a jazz band plays in support of a young woman who is, perhaps, attempting her best Ute Lemper impersonation. There are even little Teutonic echoes of Dietrich in The Blue Angel coming through in her vocal which speaks to the sincerity of her effort. I look at the tulips, I watch Beargirl meander through the displays and the crowds. Suddenly the band switch tempo and another singer is on the microphone, with enormous hair and brown leather pants she starts into Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide (“but time makes you bolder/Children get older/And I’m getting older too”). I don’t notice but then Beargirl is beside me, in time with the music we sway and lean into each other.

The performers start into something I don’t recognise and with a shrug we start off toward the exit. When we reach a point we can speak and be heard and Beargirl says “I want to buy some tulips.” We’ve come a fair way and had a lovely day so sure, why wouldn’t we buy some tulips to take home? Dr Sternlove adores cut flowers on the dining table and while we’ve been on the lam she has been hard at work so a little offering from our expedition could only be well received. Could we find a tulip for sale? Not a chance. Uphill and down dale we tried to find tulips. We found some plastic tulips and we found some paper tulips but cut flowers, none, not a single tulip. Resigned we go back to the car and begin our journey home. Exiting the car park Beargirl says with a sigh “I really just wanted a few tulips for my bedside table.” I commiserate and suggest that we can stop at our local florists on the way home and pick up the a bouquet for Dr Sternlove and something for a vase on her bedside table. Reluctantly Beargirl allows that this will do, but is clearly thinking that this is a very ordinary result, barely tolerable.

We make our way out of town and then beside the road is a vast planting of tulips. I slow down, cruising past them. I bite my lip and I check the mirrors. It’s a country town on Sunday afternoon so there is not a soul to be seen. With a quick and entirely illegal u-turn we’re back beside the tulip planting. I stop the car and, before I give myself a chance to think about it, I’m down in the garden bed using my keys to cut tulips from their green moorings. I notice that Beargirl has joined me and between the two of us we take a dozen flowers. Without a word we are back in the car and making our getaway like Bonnie and Clyde, accelerating away as if we might be pursued, and then we’re laughing, cackling with the adrenalin and the frivolity of what we’ve done. When we’re done giggling we turn toward home, travelling in silence as Sunday draws to a close.

“Thanks Dad,” she says as we pull into the driveway.

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slip & sprint


In his book about memory and the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien tells the story of his first love, at elementary school, and her subsequent death. The story is a neat piece of meta fiction in which the telling of the story is the point of the story. The story keeps alive his love, re-imagines her, and re-animates her. In the telling she comes alive again. O’Brien writes:

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness….. There was the sound of the wind, the sound of birds and the quiet afternoon, which was the world we were in. That’s what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk.

That this magic can be so easily contrived in speech and writing obscures the burdens incumbent on doing so. To make the dead walk and talk again is a serious business. It is a responsibility. It is the taking on of a duty of care and no simple matter. It is very difficult to not speak over the dead. To call up those who cannot speak for themselves, to do that you’ve got to care. Care as in give a shit, and care as in close attention. Miss out on one of these and the dead are just stolen caricatures, and your story evidence of theft.


Peter Jackson was a footballer, a good one. He played for the Canberra Raiders, the Brisbane Broncos, and the North Sydney Bears between 1987 and 1993. Centre, five-eighth, pretty much anywhere on the backline Peter Jackson could play and play well. He was a regular for the Maroons and played a few tests for Australia. The usual tabulated set of stats and pithy career summaries don’t speak to his magic on the field: the way he would make visible his decision making process and then invisibly change his mind as he took the ball to the line; the way his long pink legs would crank up and go; the way he would run in such a way as to bring his teammates into the play as space opened in front of him; the flailing of arms and legs as he went in for a ball and all tackle; the deftness of his passing (and often his not-passing); and the gorgeous awkwardness of his efforts in kicking.

With the ball in hand you got the sense that he was a man with a few more seconds than others, that he had enough time to do things slowly and still win the contest. My clearest memory of Peter Jackson is of him running down the western, shadowed, touchline at a windswept Bruce Stadium (in those days you could barely hear for the sound of the wind through the eucalyptus at the southern end) on a bitter Canberra Sunday afternoon, the ball held high against his left breast and his gaze drifting back over his right shoulder as he cranked up those spidery legs and made his way to the try line, after a brief dummy and fend against the defending fullback, to score. I can’t remember much about this game, not even who it was against, but I recall rising to my feet and cheering, completely unselfconsciously, as his lanky figure wove at speed in and out of the grandstand’s shadow.

Jackson had a pretty decent career, weighty enough, in combination with a world’s best aww-shucks grin, to see him working successfully in television as a talking head and occasional commentator after his playing days were done. He was a charming bloke, he was often described as a larrikin but this really meant that he was quick to laugh and looked imperturbable when things didn’t go his way. But he wasn’t imperturbable at all. He was cut up inside. Football had done Peter Jackson significant harm. Football coaches and Catholic brothers between them had messed everything up for Jackson. Even football was fucked up because football got the attention that led to the harm. Especially football.

His energy and his timing, the laugh and the grin: these were defences as he bought time to figure out how vulnerable he was. This didn’t occur to me at the time. I didn’t consider footballers to be vulnerable back then, it would never have occurred to me to even think about it. Watching some of the YouTube footage of the Raiders in 1987 and 1988 you can see Jackson’s gawkiness in the moments before he receives the ball, you can see his worry. In those moments he invites the defence in, to close upon him, before using those few extra seconds to slip and sprint from capture.

With the clarity of a long view you can see the harm on Jackson’s brow, his puzzlement and confusion. What. The Fuck. Happened to me? What. The Fuck. Do I do now? It’s written on his face. Written in the way his body would curl to receive a tackle. It’s right there in his ruses to beat the tackler. It’s there in the ferocious spitting force of his zeal when he scored or his team won. The roar and the over exuberance often seemed a bit over the top but you know it’s football and footballers take football seriously, and when you’re a believer you take it seriously too, so the zealotry seemed fitting (and by today’s standards his celebrations appear relatively muted). Those moments are transparently easy to read now. It was a kind of revenge, of success despite. Retrospect only offers heartbreak on view. Fuck you football. Fuck you. You can see that Jackson wants to hate football but can’t do it. He can’t hate it. So he hates himself. Depression ate him and never stopped.

4 Jackson

In 1997, aged 33, Peter Jackson died alone in a Sydney hotel room of a heroin overdose.


This story doesn’t do justice to the human being who was once here called Peter Jackson and played rugby league. This story can’t be a husband, a father, a son, a teammate, a friend. This story can’t meet you at the pub for a beer. This story can’t call you on Sunday evening for a chinwag about the Raiders. This story can’t barbecue you a steak. This story can’t vote or remember your birthday. This story is not available for a reunion. This story is not a person. This story cannot choose. This story is not sovereign.


Tomorrow is International Overdose Awareness Day. Lots of stories will be told. Many of those stories will be about the dead. The stories will be framed by love, by loss, by horror, by anger, by disappointment, by confusion, by passion, by lost hope, and especially by grief. The rich incandescence of these often gives rise to a kind of piety, a righteousness about the terribleness of it all. So many parents and partners, lovers and children, all muttering like Kurtz: the waste, the waste. And there’s some justice there, loss is not felt by the absent. But for all the good cause of it, for all the activist ardor about saving lives and reducing stigma, for all the heartbreak nothing should disguise the sovereignty of those who made those choices and those who lost everything when they did so. That’s the respect they are due. That’s the sovereignty we should acknowledge when we tell stories about them and their deaths.

It’s a complicated gesture, not speaking over the dead, but if we can pull it off we can share a little bit of the world that we shared with the absent. For a little while we can share what it was like when the dead walked and talked, what it was like to love them and be loved by them. What it was like to be in the world with them. To share that, that’s worth a little complication I think.

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words overwhelm

In 1881 the Pretoria Convention established British suzerainty over the youthful republic of the Transvaal, a matter which would be disputed for the next twenty years or so. A small part of this agreement was a guarantee of the independence of the Kingdom of Swaziland, the sanctity of Swaziland’s borders and the sovereignty of the Swazi peoples in their country. It didn’t quite work out that way: in practice Swaziland was reduced in size and a considerable number of Swazi people were rendered non-citizens of the Transvaal.

In 1884 the London Convention affirmed Swaziland’s independence and system of government but again more land was carved from Swazi sovereignty and more Swazis were lost to the hungry depredations of the Witwatersrand labour market. In December 1894 Britain and the by- then independent Transvaal signed the Third Swaziland Convention. This convention paid lip service to Indigenous sovereignty and independence but Swaziland was effectively made a protectorate of the Transvaal Republic and would remain so until the defeat of the Boer republics in the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

During this time, the last years of the nineteenth century and the early days of the twentieth, in the scramble for Africa, conventions were not the only documents at work. Many now forgotten pieces of paper affected the destiny of Swaziland. There were treaties, concessions, contracts, proclamations, maps, surveys, censuses and the myriad other paper tools used by the British colonial regimes and the Boer republics to steal and fence much of what was thought to be of value in Swaziland.

The Swazis called this “the time when documents killed us.”

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haunts and haunting

The Chook and I have returned from our sojourn in the west. It was a good long drive, over 2000 kilometres in all. We headed off north through the city, up the central coast, taking a left up the Hunter Valley following the river for several hundred kilometres. We stopped in Scone and The Chook got her picture taken with a bronze horse (don’t think about a bronze horse). We were unaware that Scone is the horse capital of Australia and while this is not something I really needed to know it also means I now know we don’t ever have to return to Scone. It was impressive to follow the narrowing walls of the valley, and where it gets narrow the rocks have all the authority of heading up a Himalayan valley (Langtang, say) but with the yellow sepia toned glare of the Blue Mountains.

We made Gunnedah on the first night.  We sat up late into the night and watched the world cup rugby, snacking on our leftover KFC and adjusting the air-conditioning.  Next day we kept on heading north stopping in Narrabri for morning tea. Not much to say about Narrabri except: it is over supplied with swimwear sales, Chinese restaurants and personal trainers. We kept on until we reached Moree where we admired its classic art deco main street and had a schnitzel in the pub. In the afternoon we check into our motel which we selected because it had its own hot springs and after two days driving I can tell you that hot springs really do good work on my sorry arsed spine. Again we got take away and watched the rugby. The Chook was trying hard to be enthusiastic about the rugby, trying real hard.

Next day we kept on our northerly course to Mungindi, a NSW-QLD border crossing in the middle of nowhere. Mungindi was one of the places that strong childhood memories had romanticized and that I was showing The Chook. But there is even less there now than there was in the mid-eighties. It had always struck me as being the arse-end of the earth, and that was when it managed to have a pub and post office independent of each other. Now there is a servo which is also the post office, the bottle-oh and as well as being the place where people buy milk.  Apart from the dilapidated and moribund RSL Club (open Thursday night, Friday night and Saturdays) that was it. We crossed the mighty Barwon River and I photographed The Chook in Queensland. Again the only saving grace was the hot springs and again I plunged in before we turned tail and returned to Moree where The Chook could at least get a pie. More hot springs, more schnitzel.

Having reached our furthest north we headed west into the saltbush country and made for Lightning Ridge which was fearsome hot and as ramshackle as you’d expect a frontier mining town to be. A patchwork of claims, counter claims, caravans and tarps stretched between straggly eucalyptus. Every second house, about eighteen of them, had a hand painted sign out front saying “BUYING.” There was very much a frisson of down on your luck meets welfare reject meets silver dollar saloon. It was a hard drinking town with a surprising number of ethnically diverse churches (the Serbian Orthodox compound was particularly impressive). The Chook and I found a guide and went down quite a deep shaft, where the relief from the heat was wonderfully comforting. The Chook loved it.

We bought some opals from a very down at heel miner and then went to the (really quite extravagant) Lightning Ridge municipal swimming pool. Kevin Rudd’s GFC infrastructure spending clearly had enabled the burghers of Lightning Ridge to get a swimming pool with at least a couple of square metres of cool chlorinated water for each of its 2000 citizens. When we were done we went to the pub and The Chook learned no one ever wins at Keno and also that Chinese food in Australia is both not Chinese and is identical to all the other versions of Chinese food throughout Australia. Fried Rice and spring rolls are Fried Rice and spring rolls wherever you are in the wide brown land.

Then we went to Brewarrina, a place I lived for a good portion of my childhood and The Chook’s eyes went really wide. There really was bugger all there; much less than I recalled and what was there was so sad that it was wasn’t worth visiting. Of course, I dragged her around the town pointing out all sorts of nostalgic bollocks. Houses I lived in, the school I went to, the spot where the take away used to be before it burned down, the place where we used swim in the river, the track where we rode our bikes. What really shocked her was that Brewarrina was a town where not only could you not buy chips, she couldn’t even buy a pie. Added to which there wasn’t any mobile coverage, so her ipad was next to useless. She was reduced to watching Family Feud on the motel television. I could see she didn’t quite believe me when I told that in my day Brewarrina only got one channel, the ABC. But her eyes widened with every gap in the accoutrements of civilisation, with every expectation that Brewarrina could not live up to, not even close. Forty thousand year old archaeological treasures weren’t impressive when there was no food but that which we brought with us. After cereal and peanut butter sandwiches she was only too pleased to hit the road. I don’t think she’ll ever ask to go back.

Then we turned south and took in a few more of my childhood haunts as we made our way to Dubbo. We stopped in Trangie and Narromine and again I showed her the places I lived, the ovals I played cricket on and the schools I went to and the rivers I swam in. The Chook’s eyes were rolling back in her head by this point and she was only too pleased to get to Dubbo where there were fizzy drinks and schnitzel. She was over the heat and the distance and the car and my nostalgia by this point and after six days on the road just wanted to be home. The next day we were.

As I drove I thought a lot about my Dad and how he dragged my Mum and my sister and I throughout western NSW for the best part of fifteen years. To what end I still can’t tell, but I reckon it was something to do with belonging . Not that he can tell me now, and even if he was alive I don’t believe he’d have the words for explanation. Maybe none of us do when it comes to that. How do you explain longing? How do you make that material? Make it real? How do you turn it into something you can share?

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sixteen kinds of hurt

When my Dad was mad he’d threaten me with sixteen kinds of hurt.

There was the clip over the ear; the smack on the chops; the belt across my buttocks; the gut punch; the double fisted shirt grab; the single handed throat grip; the thrown object; the arse over tit shove; the chair knock over; the millimetre-close door slam; the bookcase pulldown; the plate slid across the table to smash and send food into my lap. There were probably others. Who was counting? The whole show was all about his abandonment to ferocity, the strength of his feeling and the feeling was entirely of the moment. Wherever he was  and whatever he had to hand, right there and right then.

Thinking back, the hurt never changed much. To me it was always the same goulash of surprise, fear, humiliation, shame and bewilderment. Even today, in moments of stress, these same churning peppery sensations are instantly present when I see hurt coming. It doesn’t have to be a physical blow. The hurt can be emotional, financial, professional  or anything really, they all produce roughly the same effect. My face flushes, my eyes look to the floor, my scalp itches, my hands shake, and my gut goes in all directions at once. I go mute and rag doll: can’t speak, can’t move. I’m thinking “just hit me already.” If I see it coming I am a duplicate of my frightened eight year old self, paralysed, not even able to brace for impact.

As a child this rag doll passivity served a dual purpose.  Firstly, it got the impact over with and I could retreat to wherever might be safe, usually my room or outside with the dog. Secondly, it made the injustice I felt and suffered concrete, and from that materiality I could righteously absolve myself of whatever role I may played in producing the circumstances, in causing him to hurt me. My consoling righteousness enabled fantasies of revenge: hitting back, withdrawing love, stealing hope, sabotaging comfort, crushing dreams, undermining confidence, trivialising joy. I imagined inflicting all of these and, perhaps, with the shaky hands of the afraid, tried to do it once in a while.

But he was my Dad and he wasn’t like that all the time.

He didn’t say sorry, ever that I recall, and he didn’t do remorse, but he was loving. He wasn’t very good at it. He really sucked at it. I didn’t know why this was for a long time, and during that long period of not knowing I was not inclined to be forgiving. I didn’t want to know why he was so terrible at love, or how hard he tried. I was too busy trying not to be terrible at love myself and forgiving him might have required me to directly address the limits of my own capacities for love, as well as acknowledging that my own deliveries of hurt to others were similarly unforgivable, modelled as they were upon his. I didn’t care what broke his heart. I only cared that he broke mine and that my broken heart had led me astray, making hurt a big landmark in my topography of love.

I thought he should pay for this. I thought that whenever I came into view the hurt he did should block every path in his future. I can’t remember when I realised that revenge was an unreliable compass, when I understood that my hurt could be duplicated in my loved ones and it could block all our paths. Later, I knew that my hurt was a duplication of his and that the course laid out by my revenge for this could take us all back to square one. Whenever it was that this became known to me it was already too late for Dad and me. His journey, his hurts and his burdens, demanded a heavy price in health and then he was gone.

I’d like to think that the cycle has been interrupted, that there is no more duplication of his hurts, that violence need not be a gift the men of our family keep on giving. I hope that the hurt and violence he gifted me is quarantined in my dreams of him, and not in the architecture of my children’s lives. I’ve worked hard to this end, to untether violence from a father’s love, from a man’s love. This is a worthy project that can only expand the prospects for loving well, and for being justly loved. It’s not without cost. There’s a weight to carry and not put down: a sadness that the past cannot be reconfigured in a similar light, that hurt cannot be undone, that we can’t go back and find a way for our fathers to forget all sixteen kinds of hurt.

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heaven knows

The day starts with Sex Machine. James Brown shouting his chorus to my sleeping children (Get up! get on up/Get up! get on up) and I feel Bootsy’s deep bass begin the snaking energy transfer from the cold airs to the warm bodies. I make their school lunches and pour one more cup of coffee. Drinking it I dress myself and prepare my kit bag. I checklist the schoolgoers and their necessities. Shoes. Hair. Teeth. Lunch. Afternoon rendezvous. Then kisses and wishes. Off they go, my own little F-Troop, leaving Fort Courage for the vast plains of the playground. Into the Subaru and I join the traffic queue heading south, anxiety a rising tide as I creep through the lights, ever closer to my workplace.

Arriving, I navigate my way from the parking station to the cubicle farm. Good mornings all around, taking my seat behind the partition I slide on my headphones. It’s Wilco (Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns) this morning.  Inbox checking: cull the unnecessary, delete the irrelevant and flag the unavoidable. I build my to-do list in my notebook, transferring unfinished tasks from yesterday’s  list to today’s. I answer the easy questions first, get some momentum going. Yeah, I got this, I think checking the time in the lower right hand corner of my monitor. Seven hours to go. Not too long, I can make it. Fingers crossed. I haven’t gone postal yet.

There’s a poster on the door. Today is R U OK day. No shit. From a previous life the Dixie Flatline speaks: what bothers me is nothing does. Switch on the word-smithing. Policy, procedure, guideline, briefing note, file note, clarification, obfuscation, thank you for your inquiry. The tools of the trade. The words come down like data in the Matrix: discovery; learning; transform; intensive; reputation; environments; disciplines; capabilities; global; network; centres; partners; connected; communities; vibrant; ambition; complex; inquiry; earning; collegial; empowered; diverse; inclusive; success; initiative; enterprise; appreciated; fearless; creative; challenge; passionate; collaborative; proud; exceptional; infrastructure; priorities; demographics; skills.

Time passes. Lunch. More coffee I reckon. The students are gathered on the lawn around a stage. There’s a youthful moppet sitting on a kitchen chair with an Ovation guitar. I stand in the sunshine, smoking. I catch a lyric wafting through the eucalypts: See, the luck I’ve had/Can make a good man/Turn bad. Fuck me, the moppet is doing Morrissey. The Smiths. Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want. There are signs all around for R U OK day and she’s singing: see, the life I’ve had can make a good man bad. I reckon she’s onto something, it’s just too close to home so I head off for the coffee queue.

Returning from the south face I again find myself compelled by the moppet. There’s a Paul Kelly tune, something Missy Higgins must have written. Another cigarette. And then she says that this is her last song. I look at my watch. Three hours to go. I’ve got the measure of this day, no problem. And then she sings: I was looking for a job, and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now. Christ with a dildo, Morrissey again. Momentarily there is a tear running down behind my sunglasses. Am I OK? I ask myself. Fuck. Jesus Fuck. I look at a duck on the pond. I see the eels sunbaking below the surface of the water. I steel myself. Back up stairs into my cubicle, their cubicle. Forget that shit.

Headphones on, anything but Morrissey I think, it’s a kind of Ryan Adamsish afternoon so I dial him up (Do you wish it was me with the windows clear and the mannequins eyes, do they all look like mine?) and I find the point where I abandoned my document. I turn the torrent on again: transition; renewal; technology; service; growth; engagement; deregulation; surplus; market; invest; standards; demand; evidence; quality; literate; mobility; institutional; attributes; innovation; responsive; assets; strengths; emergent; immersive; outcomes; enriched; embedded; performance; teamwork; adaptable; sustainable; optimise; complexity; mobility; enthusiasm; mission; enhanced; benchmarking; amenities; solutions; strategy; explore; impact; wellbeing; dividend.

Eventually it is 4.45pm. I review my list and cross off what can legitimately crossed off. Scratching the sweat from my headphone crushed ears I pack up my shit and go. To the bar. One drink, two drinks, three drinks. What the fuck. Another one for Morrissey. Am I OK? I might have been and I might be again. Good enough. Time for that afternoon rendezvous.

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the curiosity and the joy

Higher education is usually all about the piece of paper, a parchment with heraldry presented at the end. Institutions want their customers to think that without the parchment there is no education; no scholarship without the overarching curricula endorsed by learned elders, those minds trained in the pursuit of established standards derived from the long tradition of disciplined erudition going back to the Venerable Bede and further still to Herodotus and Homer and the painters at Lascaux. And while a fair bit can be gleaned from those traditions, from the ancients to Bede and to his successors, the learning is in our heads.

The growth of new knowledge is within us. It is ours regardless of it being endorsed by one institution or another. The production of knowledge is not an institutional KPI, nor some petty bauble to be counted alongside yield and efficiency. The creative construction of knowledge is a celebration of our own curiosity. Sometimes institutions may assist us with the means to celebrate that curiosity, and by doing so share the joy of learning new things with others known and unknown. But to my mind the knowledge, the learning, the curiosity, and the joy are always our own: we make them, we keep them, and we tend them.

And the parchment and the heraldry matter not at all compared to our own capacity for wonder that, at its best, education strives to imitate.

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It’s not about the baggie

It seems certain that Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran will be executed over the next few days, and there’s no question that executing them is a greater crime than importing all the heroin in the entire golden triangle.

It’s a simple equation to my way of thinking: the state can’t take away what it doesn’t provide and the state doesn’t provide life. That’s something much bigger than simply a by-product of national sovereignty. The  state will often say it’s there to protect life. This is a fallacy. As every good anarchist knows, the state is a self-supporting syndicate that goes through ritual electoral motions to provide implied consent for its activities: tax, defence, airports, welfare, health services and so on. The consent is little more than a comforter, elections simply due process for dummies.  Governments do as they do, whatever the laudable statements enshrined in constitutions, or bills of rights. Such documents are fig leaves to dress the operations of power in decent clothes.

Protecting life is usually about law and order. Law and order campaigns almost always end with the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens being incarcerated. A brief look at Indigenous incarceration in Australia and elsewhere makes this abundantly clear. A bit of statistical jiggery-pokery would also make the poverty-prison nexus so obvious as to be old news. The conclusions we can draw from this are straightforward. Relatively rich people, especially relatively rich white people do not go to prison as much as poor and black people do. Law and order is a barely concealed racist discourse that alibis an unjust apparatus designed to offer a sense of security to those with something to lose, privilege mostly.

It’s pretty obvious that Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran weren’t rubbing their hands together in anticipation of hundreds of millions of dollars coming their way or how they’d be able to top up the paltry superannuation they received as casual workers in the catering industry. They may have had a larger margin but they were just as big a pair of patsies as the other seven. They were better paid mules.

It appears likely that they invested a few tens of thousands (probably leveraged by the last deal, that is to say borrowed cash one way or another) in the dope deal that brought them down. Tens of thousands of aussie dollars is not global capital at work. The best that they could probably hope for was a return on those few tens of thousands that might enable a discreet taste of the conspicuous consumption they saw all around them in post-Olympics Sydney. Chan and Sukumaran weren’t even going to make enough money between them to buy one of Harry Triguboff’s endless apartments into which the beautiful young people of Sydney sunk their investment dreams throughout the early 2000s.

Chan and Sukumaran weren’t, and aren’t, the forces of capital. They were just some guys who saw money as being the key to a good time they weren’t having. They weren’t after a criminal empire, they just wanted a nice second hand BMW. Capital draws its strength not from the vagaries of supply and supply chain management that Chan and Sukumaran were engaged in, but from the revenue derived from demand. It is demand that produces profit, demand that provokes supply*, and demand that coughs up the cash for reinvestment and the capacity to meet even greater demand. And demand, well that’s me and you.

I’ve sat in cars, in dodgy pubs, in various McDonalds and food courts, in malls and service stations sweaty-palmed with cash and demand, sometimes overwhelmingly urgent demand, to buy the products that are deemed detrimental to the protection of life by the State. Mostly this kind of behavior is framed in two ways. Firstly, as a kind of freedom-loving, mind-expanding, fun-seeking surfeit of liveliness that is ultimately harmless, or no more harmful than a big night with Margaritas or endless jugs of beer. Secondly, as a kind of self-medicating practice whereby the illicit product provides the means by which some kind of life can be maintained: overcoming pain, or depression, or anxiety, or grief, or addictions arising from use to manage any of the former, or myriad undiagnosed psychological, social, familial and personal dysfunctions. Drug use is never cleanly one or the other; sometimes it is neither in particular but whatever the prompt, thrill or maintenance or thrilling maintenance, the result is demand.

On the demand side, at the point of sale, supply is about the man with the baggies: the ounce or so divvied up to dole out as the customers lay their perspiration-slippery notes on the kitchen table. The baggies themselves are neat and domesticated often featuring cartoon characters or scenes from nursery rhymes. They are reduced to value by weight, sold by reference to that weight: a point, a gram,  a half, an ounce, and so on. In many respects the domesticity of purchasing renders the process not too different from buying some other homemade, home-sold artisanal product: pickles, sourdough bread, coconut ice, orchids, or tea cosies. It’s easy to see the pot seller who provides RSO and medicinal strains as being in roughly the same movie as the neighborly compost fetishist selling their worm farm juice, or the old guy down the street who sells his tomatoes and aubergines from his veggie patch.

It’s not an accurate analogy though because nobody ever swallowed a condom full of aubergine and went through the customs gate at an international airport, knowing that aubergines could lead to a date with a firing squad. And sometimes, especially in Australia and New Zealand, that is exactly how the product in the baggie got to the point of sale.

It can be comforting for the drug user to think of the product as being something siphoned off from the vast scale of global industrial production and distribution. Just a sideline to the main business of Mexican drug lords and Russian gangsters: another offshore profit centre, a minor export market for a multi-billion dollar industry that is almost exclusively focused on North America and Western Europe. They’d be doing it anyway, so why shouldn’t a bit come our way? It’s not like we don’t pay for transport costs, it’s not like we don’t pay a lot more than everybody else. At any rate it’s easier to think of the shipping container coming through Port Botany, with tonnes of methamphetamine squeezed inside Bratz dolls because who got hurt there? There may also be some comfort in the Burroughesque interzone anonymity of an online marketplace. In which case it’ll be the postie or some courier who brings the gear, or a faceless nobody who puts it in your dead drop or PO box for you to oh-so-casually collect when the coast is clear. We don’t worry about the provenance of books and dvds and shoes that we buy online, why would anyone worry about something so anodyne that it can be delivered by StarTrack Express?

These comforts might be slightly shaken by the idea that ultimately Mr & Ms Bourgeois are actually handing over a portion of their disposable income to organized crime, since it is they who move the tonnes, but mostly this is not thought about. It can be put aside, very easily ignored, because, chances are, you’re still probably buying drugs from someone you know, went to school with, work with, or a neighbour. Communities are what communities do. It’s not like you’re buying an eightball from Tony Soprano or Nicky Barnes. You’re buying it from the son of the bloke your Dad used to play pool with, or some guy like Mike, or Mal, or Bianca, or Lorraine. You’re buying it from some other member of your community in a context as familiar as your childhood home.

And once that baggie is in hand nobody cares about the journey to that point. For the consumer, it is the journey ahead, the overpriced forthcoming internal transformation that matters. Besides, thanks to possession laws the user is instantly very conscious that it is not the dealer or deliverer who is at risk at that moment but the user who carries the risk in their pocket. Better to get that shit done, or at least out of public space, where, thanks to the discretion and privileges of private property, Mr & Ms Bourgeois can be reasonably sure they won’t get a knock on their door from the boys in blue.

If there is a dramatic moment it is more likely to involve the shipping container being delivered to some warehouse in Smithfield or the bust of Simon Bolivar constructed from cocaine shipped via FedEx intercepted at Kingsford-Smith. So even if this happens and Customs display those Bratz dolls on Seven News, or the FBI do their thing to shutdown sites like Silk Road or RedBook, then, as with all industrial scale scenarios, one can assume that the movement of tonnes of such valuable product is insured, legally or otherwise. Organized crime would have a pretty solid risk management framework, given the pulsing red intensity of the likelihood-consequence intersection on the international narcotics smuggling risk map. Further ease is probably derived from the thought that if the police are chasing down organized crime importing of tonnes and tonnes of product, or backlit pseudonymous IT guys selling it, then it’d seem a safe bet that no-one is really going to worry about a couple of grams here or there, which might remain in the sneaky stash spot until the next music festival.

But it doesn’t take much to figure out that if you’re buying a product traditionally associated with South Asia or South America then chances are mules carried your shit. The gear that ends the journey up our noses, started the journey to Australia up someone else’s arse. Or they strapped it on, or swallowed it, or concealed it in their luggage, or stuck it in a used diaper stuffed into a nappy bag ostentatiously paraded through airport checkpoints. Small loads mean small risks. Businesses, especially ones that involve possible firing squads, prefer small risks and, with the returns that a rich country like Australia can offer, even small risks mean substantial rewards. But none of this is given much thought once the baggies are paid for and safely stowed.  Probably it is given no thought at all once the requisite routes of administration have been followed. And most of us know that the next thought after following those routes is about heading back to that kitchen table where the baggies are weighed out, to get a extra little bit of the good stuff to tide us over or to put aside for some special occasion (like a Tuesday).

Demand for drugs, as with all capitalism’s products, is a collective matter. We are the marketplace, we are the revenue, we are the profit. So when we’re watching the news tonight and there’s more bad news from Indonesia let’s remember that those nine young Australians were there at the behest of demands made by hundreds of thousands of other Australians. Very indirect for sure, but those two young men will be shot because of what me, and people like me, want and wanted.

We can excuse ourselves easily. Say it was all about how great that party was, or how awesome that Festival was, or how it was an extraordinarily blissful self-revelatory experience, or how trippy Game of Thrones is with a good blotter of 25I-NBOMe, or how much that powder was needed. All of those probably true things are covering for the fact that some other poor sap, who almost certainly had bugger-all choice in the matter, put their already fragile lives at risk to walk through airports with your special treat stuffed where the sun don’t shine. So it’s not just about the baggie. It’s not about buying or doing drugs. It’s about the fact we outsourced our risk to those least able to manage those risks: those with no choice, those who were already fucked over by the State or other shonky types with guns, and those who never got an opportunity to know better.

And yeah, we should feel shit.

*You can make an argument here about the Opium Wars if you like but given that China is going to be shortly top of the pops when it comes to executing drug offenders, if it isn’t already [smuggling, dealing, transporting or manufacturing drugs are all capital offences], the argument seems moot.

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way out west

It was a long drive, ten hours or so, undertaken in the heat of mid-February. Vinyl seats in the P76, dog at my feet, the handmade yellow trailer behind. It was the beginning of our long migration, our time of itinerancy through the byways of western New South Wales. We started heading west in the shallow cool of the morning, following the Lachlan through to Gooloogong and across to Forbes. Then the sun was up and the irrigated green of the river valley was behind us, we turned north up the Newell.

Familiar towns pass by: Parkes, Peak Hill, Tomingley, Narromine. Football fields and cricket teams recalled, petrol stations and takeaway-post offices, dirt turnoffs, no gutters and abandoned Holdens. The land has changed, a rustic brown low undulating series of pastures and crop paddocks pass by the car windows. Some orchards, rose fields, water storages too. The dish north of Parkes. It’s not green, everything is a hassled beige.

In Narromine we get out for a rest stop, it’s been four and bit hours, a long time for a nine year old, his six year old sister and fat dog to hold it in. But no charcoal chicken says my Dad with a shake of the head. It’s hotter in the car than outside. Next to the public conveniences near the library is the shire pool, tiled azure and shimmering seductively. We stare forlornly, we don’t even know how far there is to go, so blue. We turn northwest along the Mitchell, through the orange groves and past the aerodrome with parked gliders.

The Macquarie River is just over there, the line of casuarinas and eucalypts marking the sleepy waterway’s path, along with the irrigation canals that steal away the river’s flow. Then Trangie has come and gone and we stop at a rest stop which is nothing but heat, dust, a concrete picnic table too hot to sit on, and the stinkiest bins in all of New South Wales, perhaps last emptied by Charles Sturt in 1829.

My Dad provides sandwiches and a quartered orange each for the backseat team. He was always thrifty and thought fast food an unwarranted indulgence. Later in life he would stop for ice cream but he reckoned if you wanted chips you peeled the potato yourself. We sit in the shade of the car and drink orange cordial from a warmed bottle, the sweet stickiness in our mouths not dissimilar from the sweaty adhesion of our bodies to the P76’s vinyl. We spread towels over the backseat and then it’s all over pretty quick, our pause by the side of the road, we’re off again into the flattening brown. It’s a long straight from Nevertire to Nyngan and nothing much to see but the passing gates of the pastoral stations named, inevitably, after Scottish islands or manors of the English midlands. Cattle and sheep stand stunned in the heat in whatever shade they can find, as bored and uncomfortable as we are.

Pulling into Nyngan the trailer springs snap off the axle. The trailer is dragged along behind us for a while as my Dad looks for somewhere to stop and assess the damage. We pull into a huge park beside the Bogan River. He shakes his head and slaps his thigh. Deep in thrall to Billy Graham he doesn’t swear but he wants to. He ropes the trailer body back onto the axle.  He ties the dog to the trailer and we walk into town to eat at a Chinese restaurant in our sweaty clothes. My sister and I are silent for the most part, we can see the tiredness and temper on his brow.

We spent the night beside the river sleeping in the car, sweating and trying not to touch each other. The dog was outside with the mosquitos. Then we spend a half day in Nyngan negotiating with welders to jimmy the trailer back into mobility. We walk up and down the main street of Nyngan, we go to a park and my sister and I play on the equipment until going down the slippery slide is dare involving considerable buttock burn and the metal infrastructure is too hot to touch. Eventually we are mustered for departure, sandwiches handed back with the last of the piss-warm cordial. My sister and I look at each other and figure we can’t be too far away from our destination. But we’re wrong.

It’s miles and miles up to Coolabah and then when we finally got there we take the turn off I put my thongs on in readiness. But a road sign puts me right, it’s another hundred and thirty kilometres, I slide my thongs off again. No pasture now, no crops, no irrigation, and none too many trees. It’s flat and empty and I watch it pass by like test cricket without close ups or replays. The afternoon is hotter than before, and the glare grows ever brighter as the sun sinks, boring the heat into my head. It’s almost two days since we left home to find our new home. Signs for Gongolgon, I sit up expectantly, but there’s nothing, a building clad into yellow weatherboard sits on stilts and then nothing, just road and a turn off down another road. And then we’re there, a tin clad grandstand by the side of the road. Empty and still, like a vast lowtech Machu Picchu. Then a town, houses, gutters, cars, Mum.

We arrive as the sun sets. I remember the colour of the light. It was a glossy yellow that bounced from a thousand surfaces, everything emanated heat, and the tarmac burned my feet.

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