TIDE

It’s a nice room, full of sun-bleached photos of children now grown and memorabilia of other lives. It is comfortable and light. Runners and dog walkers throng the path across the road. Families and bicycles roll silently past the window. Glimpses of the dunes, ocean beyond. Big block, lots of gum trees. The boy and I play yard cricket some days.

The big gum across the road had a resident koala for a few days. People stopping and pointing up at its furry bottom, wedged in a fork. A lucky few saw it move. Once, as the boy and I stared upwards, it lifted its head; languid, stoned on eucalyptus. Saw an echidna, too. Curled up asleep at the border between scrub and beach. A young woman in Doc Martins, all in black at summer noon, pointed it out as she called back her dog. I was going to write a story about that because she was pretty and stuck out on the white sand like an emo princess in snow. I didn’t, of course.

Creativity expands into space, that’s the idea. A notion clung to, like flotsam on the sea. Or hidden behind, as a bulwark against lack of discipline. And now there is space. Wandering about in it, I seem to have bumped into myself. A paunchy koala stuck in a tree. How much of the low mood is the legacy of the past year? How much the miserable portents? How much the entropy of middle age? Standing on a low sandbar in the narrow estuary, I watch the creek outflow meet the incoming tide. It is turning, small wavelets just strong enough to hold the freshwater current, creating a momentary standing wave. For a second, all is in stasis but all moves; water, salt, sand, strands of seaweed in a stationary dance. Incoming and outgoing in dynamic embrace. Maybe that’s what middle age is. Exploring the moment when the glass is both half-full and half empty; being scared to drink in case the balance is upset, but knowing that it will evaporate anyway.

RICH

A newspaper article yesterday reported that Australia billionaires had become 50% richer during 2020’s COVID-19 epidemic. I tried to imagine what that meant.

“Honey, order the new fleet of Teslas!”

“Workers, bulldoze that block of flats. They’re blocking 5% of my view of the bay.”

It occurred to me I had no idea whatsoever that a 50% richer billionaire looked like. Or how they lived. Or how anyone could be worth such an unimaginable amount of money.

Capitalism produces ecological crises for the same reason it produces inequality: because the fundamental mechanism of capitalist growth is that capital must extract (from nature and labour) more than it gives in return.

– Jason Hickel

Nature. In this country we’re surrounded by it. It is part of national identity, despite our determined turning away from the invasion that netted this wide brown land for the British Empire. Yet in 2020, Rio Tinto, a mining giant worth thousands of billions of dollars, had no compunction about dynamiting a cave containing ten thousand years of indigenous heritage.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

– Dorothea Mackeller

Perhaps it’s easier to get a handle on capitalism from the bottom up. Look at all the people whose income evaporated at the onset of the pandemic. Look at the hundreds of small businesses either closed or tottering forwards only while the subsidies last. Look at the obscene numbers of deaths in profitable aged care ‘homes’. Look at how the country at the heart of capitalism values the economy so much higher than the lives of its citizens (despite convincing evidence-not opinion, evidence-that if you keep people alive, that self same economy bounces back much faster).

Nothing trickles down from the rich to the poor. The billionaires just get richer. Research-not opinion, evidence-proves it. Not that I’m suggesting for a millisecond I’m poor. I’m ridiculously lucky to have been born in a country and a time where most of the bad stuff happens elsewhere. I’m absurdly grateful for my home and family and have to work hard to suppress the guilt I feel doing so little sharing of my (relative) riches.

Yet when I think about 2021, I do have a Wish List. I do not want a return to ‘normal’.

  • I want leaders who care more about people than budget surpluses, who value principals higher than the bottom line.
  • I want to see religion respectfully retired as an obsolete medieval institution of misinformation.
  • I want a fucking government that looks after its people rather than fucking billionaires.
  • I want to not feel the depression triggered by the blasé adoption of the sound-bite “post truth world”.
I'm sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth 
Just gimme some truth 

I've had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth

- John Lennon

Although I do not know a solitary thing about Dorothea Mackeller’s politics, I hope someone tuned in to the environment (as her famous poem suggests) might forgive my clumsy re-write.

I love a suckered country

A land selfish gain

Of swollen-bellied billionaires 

Of poverty and pain.

I love her broad hypocrisy 

I love her “It’s for me”.

Her coddling of the rich folks

While starving equity!

 

– With apologies to Dorothea Mackeller

I am, I admit, more than a tad angry. Shouldn’t we all be? *

Happy New Year.

 

* Except for the 50% richer billionaires, of course.

 

 

SHIRT

The steam iron glides over the fabric, puffs of memory drifting upward. The label inside the collar: St Charles, patron saint of business shirts, early sixties incarnation. My partner soaked it in nappy wash and it’s come up remarkably well, white and bright as the ads say. I’m ironing it—a rare event—because I might wear it tomorrow for the special lunch. Then I think, no. Too many ghosts in the weave.

My mother mended this shirt; a small vertical tear by the second button down from the collar. Maybe my father brushed against something sharp in an engineering workplace and snagged the fabric. He would have been wearing a tie, but that didn’t protect the cotton. Barb, fix this will you? If she asked how it happened anger would spurt; the enquiry a challenge, an implication of clumsiness. We were never far away from his wrath, any of us.

The repair is intricate, painstaking. Was she scared when she was stitching? That her work was not good enough, some tendril of shame clinging to the thread? Still, it was good work, even though the repair is visible like a skin graft. Craft work. She darned socks, too, using a wooden mushroom and rummaging around in a box of odds and ends for the best wool match. Mostly grey. That was the time.

A well-made garment, though it would not have been top shelf. Nothing was, ‘round our place. (Except the toys the head of the household bought for himself. On those he never stinted.) Noticing the reinforced cuffs, the small darts in the waist hem, the collar stiff—though wrinkled—almost sixty years later. Is that why I’ve kept it? A reminder of things well made in a time of fast fashion and one-wear garments. A reminder of starch, of stiffness.

After the shirt retired from active service, my mother used to wear it to paint. Her wooden painting case, brushes and rags with multi-coloured stains. The paintings were not ones to dwell upon, yet there are still a couple in the garage I can’t throw out and am too embarrassed to take to the charity shop. Trans-generational shame. Hide things away. That’s a good one.

I notice a few rust-coloured stains tattooed into the cotton. What oxidised metal rubbed them into permanence? A reminder of his career in engineering sales, perhaps. On the internal canvas of our lives, what pictures, sketches, false starts and abandoned projects are layered? To scrape away the regrets, the resentments, the self-inflicted hurts; that would be good. A steam iron to smooth the wrinkles and dissolve the pain with a burst of water vapour. So much more modern than tears.

THE WATER IS WIDE

The on-line purchase arrived piecemeal, as these things often unfold; a kind of retail lottery with a reveal at the post office. What’s in this parcel? The order included two albums by veteran acoustic outfit Oregon, who have been playing melodic jazz-influenced instrumental music since 1970, way before the term New Age became part marketing strategy, part term of abuse.

Two albums released forty years apart. The structured part wants to hear the earlier one first, 1978’s Moon and Mind; now there’s a title to conjure with. But Lantern, from 2017, arrived first. I could have waited, but didn’t. I wanted to hear the delicate, introspective sound of Ralph Towner’s guitar and the undulating tunes Paul McCandless draws from his selection of wind instruments. The oboe is underrated in modern music.

It is delightful, played with great skill and layered with a patina of experience. Often the oboe—or the soprano sax—dances with the guitar and rhythm section in a way that evokes Baroque gentility (opening piece “Dolomiti Dance” is an example), but there is some gentle grooving too, like “Walk the Walk” by drummer Mark Walker. The jazz feel stronger; you sit up straighter.

Late evening, on the couch, trying to read but tempted to reach for the phone and sink into a pointless game until my eyes water. The CD plays unobtrusively but something insinuates… melody and memory. Me, fifteen maybe, sitting in classroom music singing an ancient Scottish folk song.

The water is wide, I cannot get o’er

Neither have I the wings to fly

Give me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row, my love and I

The room is light, warm-to-hot. Shirtsleeves weather. Sun slashing in from the bank of glass on my left, the rows of tables on the right. Some classmates sing, some mutter, some mouth the words, up the back they don’t even bother to fake it. I sing lustily, passionately. I’m communicating something, but what?

A ship there is and she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep as deep can be

But not so deep as the love I’m in

I know not if I’ll sink or swim

The giddy yet water-logged whirlpool of infatuation. No wonder Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren” clutched hard, a few decades later. Who was I singing to? No face appears, nor name-tag heart. But it was certainly unrequited. It was always unrequited.

I leaned my back against an oak

Thinking it to be a trusty tree

But first it bent and then it broke

So did my love prove false to me

Probably some poetic licence there for the young Vinyl Connection. The usual rules are that you need a relationship before falseness has a fulcrum, or so I now understand these matters. But the young, burning and shivering, will manufacture the details, including a phantasmal relationship.

Oh love be handsome and love be kind

Bright as a jewel when first it is new

But love grows old and waxes cold

And fades away like morning dew

Phantoms and love both lose colour, dim to a flickering will-o’-the-wisp murmuring “Then…”

The classroom has no doubt been demolished to make way for a modern educational building. Do teenage shades flutter in the corridors on empty summer nights? And when term resumes, does Music still invite disengaged teens to sing ballads from times past?

I’m too sexy for my car too sexy for my car

Too sexy by far

And I’m too sexy for my hat

Too sexy for my hat what do you think about that

Shudder.

“The Water Is Wide” closes the Oregon album, leaving a lingering sadness. Or maybe it’s a softness. A flame glows, pale gold like a Rembrandt face. Lanterns and shadows.