Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

My Pet Baby

I’ve had some pretty interesting pets in my time – not so much for variety, we’re talking dogs and cats – but insofar as they had very entertaining and distinct personalities and lived to ripe old ages. We tend to anthropomorphise pets, seeing distinctly human traits in their behaviour, and, ironically, in return, they zoomorphise us, reminding us that we too are animals. This anthropomorphising is hardly surprising with dogs, considering they are humanity’s first experiment in selective breeding and have co-evolved with us from a species which already lived in social groups and understood social dynamics. Cats, on the other hand, are largely wild and transit between the domestic realm and the night-time hunt with ease. We still tend to humanise them, but they are too independent to be anything other than selfish parasites much of the time and, whilst they can be loving and loyal in their own way, it seems largely to gravitate around their own gratification.

It has been almost twenty years since I last had my own pet and have, in the meantime, had to make do with the cats at my parents’ house, or stolen moments with other people’s pets. Recently, however, around fourteen months ago, my partner V and I got a rather special kind of pet – a human baby. We acquired him by fairly traditional means – insemination, gestation and then, nine-months later, birth, and he is, without a doubt, far and away the most interesting pet I’ve ever had.

Magnus - dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Magnus – dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Never before have I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an infant primate – an animal, just like all the other pets I’ve ever had, but one with the potential to do quite incredible things – including rocket science. Let’s face it, however cunning our old Poppy might have been, she was never likely to create an ap or design a new form of propulsion for interplanetary probes. Not that Magnus has done any of these things yet, and, of course, he may never do. But so much is possible, and the possibilities, when contrasted with the present period of utterly dependent infancy, are a constant reminder that Homo Sapiens is, far and away, the most sophisticated animal on the planet – and, initially, the most helpless.

Before Magnus was born, before we even knew his sex, I jokingly referred to our child as ES1 – Experimental Subject  # 1. Because, despite being a very small sample size, I knew that what awaited me was a fascinating opportunity to study a human baby and get a truly intimate sense of how skills and knowledge develop, and to see the process happening before my eyes. This has been one of many saving graces over the last year and a bit; gaining detailed first hand knowledge of something I only understood in an abstract manner.

It is, however, a frustratingly slow process. For the first month he just lay there, moving his mouth like some automated grub, whose only form of communication was to indicate that he wanted feeding. Both V and I were unprepared for how animal-like he was – his eyes even seemed blank, like there was no one home.

7499 Magnus

Hello, anyone in there?

I’ve heard that some people refer to this period as “the fourth trimester”, as though the baby is still, in effect, in the womb and undergoing an extension of gestation. He certainly didn’t seem human and it was a little alienating, though we loved him to pieces and felt nothing but the deepest care and affection for him. Once he began to smile, after roughly a month, he acquired a whole new level of humanity that had been sorely lacking.

From that point forward, it has been a long slog of small milestones. Yet, whilst it is amazing to see him display new skills: Babbling, laughing, holding things and putting them in his mouth, rolling on his side, crawling, standing – there are such long gaps between these developments that one starts to focus on how long it takes for him to realise how to do something very simple. It is a very longue durée approach and I often find myself wondering why the process is so darn slow. At the moment, when playing with one of those toys where one places different shaped blocks through different shaped holes, despite three months’ practice and a couple of very patient teachers, he still doesn’t really get it. Humans are celebrated for their skill at pattern recognition, yet Magnus hasn’t quite grasped that only the triangular block will fit through the triangular hole, the square block through the square hole and so on. He occasionally gets it right, but this seems more random chance than anything else, a lucky hit. It’s also possible that he just doesn’t see the point, yet that doesn’t explain the bashing frustration he sometimes experiences when it doesn’t fit.

He has another toy, which took him about a month to master – a simple wooden triangle with three round holes in it. This came with three round wooden pegs in the primary colours which could be pushed through the holes. If I placed the wooden peg in the hole, he would push it through, no problem.

Pushing through...

Pushing through…

But, when handed the peg and left to do it himself, he continually tried to push it through the wood where there was no hole at all. In fact, he seemed to have the idea that the pegs had special properties which allowed them to be pushed through anything, because he tried for a long time to push them through the floor, through the wall, and, indeed, through me. This experimentation is admirably human, sure, yet the length of time it took him to understand that the pegs went through because there was a hole there already was surprising.

There is, apparently, no cause for alarm with any of this, as it seems most babies are pretty slow at picking some things up. Rather, it is simply the case that with so many complex fundamentals of the world painstakingly learned in our own infancy, we forget how many concepts need to be understood to make sense of something like this.

What's it all for?

What’s it all for?

The only thing I have to go on as to how bizarrely naive Magnus’ view of the world must be, is my own inability to understand basic physics when I was a child. One of my earliest memories, which I have mentioned before, is of being in the bath with my father, around the age of three, possibly slightly younger. When he stood up to get out, naturally the water level went down. Yet this made no sense to me and I asked him why it went down when the water now had so much more room to move around in. My father explained Archimedes’ principle to me and I remember having to really think about this to adjust my understanding. What that memory tells me is that babies, and indeed, toddlers, have almost no innate understanding of physics and geometry. I don’t mean complex maths, but rather, very basic stuff like gravity and motion, shape, mass and the like. They just don’t get it, and it takes at least a couple of years for them to work much of it out. We worked it out so long ago in that early automatic phase, that we forget we had to learn such things at all.

Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on these slow-burns when there are areas which he has mastered much more quickly. He worked out how to swipe touch screen phones to unlock them in a jiffy; it took him just two goes to learn to turn the light switch on and off, and he patiently taught himself how to remove and click my camera lens cover back into place in one session.

I've got this...

I’ve got this…

It took him about a week to work out how to replace the plug in the bath after having removed it. He went about teaching himself this with admirable determination; practising positioning and balancing himself in the water so that when he bent down, his face did not become submerged. Once he got it right, he continued to do it, over and over again, until he was completely confident in his new skill. Now when I say “plug, plug” he will crouch down carefully and pull the plug out – most of the time.

What impresses me most of all with all this is the sheer diligence and determination with which he will approach these tasks. Sure, he doesn’t have much else to do, but when he is determined to learn something, he will go at it for literally hours on end. This was the case with learning to go downstairs backwards. He mastered going upstairs in no time, clambering from step to step like a crazy crab. Yet, as with mountain climbing, coming down is the hardest and most dangerous part. Magnus applied himself to this task admirably and after a week or so of patient training and dedicated effort on his behalf, he nailed it.

Stair champ

Stair champ

As with adult learning, often the best results come after one has gone away and slept on the problem. This was certainly the case with the stairs. One morning after we got him up, he crawled out into the corridor and, first thing, without being shown, just turned around and went down the stairs backwards. Go synapses! For several weeks after that we just walked up and down the stairs, following Magnus while he improved his climbing techniques, poised like wicket keepers to catch him if he slipped and fell.

These achievements all mark great cognitive leaps; seemingly simple ideas such as that things have a place, that things can be pushed two ways, that some things bounce and some don’t – these are pretty radical concepts, especially when your operating system doesn’t come pre-packaged with software and has to write itself. To extend the analogy, Magnus is like an automated unit that crawls around hoovering up data, then processing it into functional software that enables him to perform basic tasks.

I can crawl!

I can crawl!

Another thought that has come to mind in observing Magnus is how, at this stage of life, without any understanding of the trappings of human culture or its meaning and purpose, the developed world in which he is growing up is just another environment. It might be very different to the forests, savannahs and shores of his ancestors, yet, without language, and without any sense of the origin of things, the world must, to him, bear no distinction between the natural and the manufactured. In this sense, his way of interacting with his environment is probably no different from that of Homo Sapiens children of a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. He crawls around, puts things in his mouth, babbles nonsense, picks things up, examines them, throws them, tries to eat them a second time, and then moves on to the next thing. I don’t doubt that this is precisely what human babies have done since our species first assumed its present form. We’ve hardly evolved since then at all – just a few tweaks like lactose tolerance – instead, our culture has evolved and we have shaped our environments.

What's this? Fruit?

What’s this? Fruit?

This morning I was letting Magnus wander about in the front yard, playing with the neighbours’ cat, Oliver. Magnus pulled the gate open – he’s nailed that – and crawled out onto the pavement. Oliver followed, and this cute little pair of quadrupeds drifted about, followed by me, an adult ape. They seemed somehow an appropriate pairing; roughly the same height when on all fours, yet there was no doubt which one of them understood his environment more intimately – the cat. Oliver, who has lived with a human baby already, is very patient with Magnus and follows him around like a world-weary feline chaperon. It seems almost unfair that one day soon Magnus’ intellect will far outstrip his, that he will eventually wield so much more control over his environment than a cat could ever hope to do. For now, however, the cat definitely has the edge on the ape. A strange inversion of what is, let’s face it, the perfectly natural order of things.

Read Full Post »

Taking the TARDIS to Asia

Having an almost ten-month old baby means we don’t get out very much. Sure, there are plenty of outings, visits and excursions, mostly revolving around family, but not many evenings on which it’s possible to go out to dinner, to the cinema, or anything for that matter. We could certainly be more proactive in this regard, organizing Nana, Granny-ma or some equally benign soul to take care of Magnus, yet much of the time we’re both too exhausted to do anything anyway. The one regular exception, however, is taking the Tardis to Asia.

2120 Tardis doors

The Tardis…

Every Saturday night, unless some other occasion gets in the way, we drive to Chinatown and head upstairs at the Sussex Centre for what is universally accepted as the best laksa in Sydney – at the Happy Chef. This hole-in-the-wall in a food court seems an unlikely place to find something so magnificent, yet the Happy Chef has long been favoured by laksa aficionados and ranks in the top ten Asian eateries in Sydney on Urban Spoon (now languishing under the appalling name of Zomato) – and that’s saying something, considering how much incredible Asian food one can find in Sydney – alongside, it must be said, a lot of mediocrity. I recommend the vegetable and bean curd laksa, with small egg noodles and extra spicy beef and barbecued pork – but you can customise to your fancy.

Laksa 20150328_191002

Happy Chef Laksa – the finest

The great thing about Happy Chef being in a food court is that we can take Magnus along and not feel too conspicuous should he cry or moan, on account of the place being full of people and, indeed, other children. Magnus, being the good sport that he is, rarely cries or moans on these occasions and, with the handy high-chairs, we can feed him while we eat. As it is difficult to find a park in the city on Saturday evening, though by no means impossible, and surprisingly cheap, we always park downstairs in the car-park and take the elevator up to the food court on level 1. It is at this point that we “take the Tardis to Asia.”

2126 Closing doors

Goodbye carpark

Consider this from a baby’s perspective. One minute we are in an underground car-park, dimly fluorescent, with low concrete ceilings, cars and stanchions all round. We approach a pair of sliding doors and press a button. The doors open, allowing us into a small, enclosed space with mirrored walls. Another button press and a faint, almost indistinct sense of motion occurs. A moment later, the doors slide open and – amazing! – the outside world has changed utterly. From a car park in Sydney, we are in an Asian food court full of exotic smells and mostly local Chinese people. It must be baffling, to say the least.

2137 Arrival in Asia

Hello Asia!

Of course, Magnus is far too young to make much of this at all. Without even words to put names to things, or grammar and syntax to string narratives together, he’s not in much of a position to explore this phenomenon with any real sophistication. I wonder whether he can even deduce that we have travelled upwards – he may have a better grasp of motion than I give him credit for, yet it’s a pretty smooth ride in the Tardis. So, really, his fascination is, as much as anything else, an imaginary affectation of his father. Yet I do like to think that he does at least find it curious – he certainly looks curious on emerging from the lift. Again, as with so many things that Magnus experiences and I experience vicariously through him, I long for that moment when he begins to ask me questions; when his clear fascination and curiosity are framed in that most human of cultural phenomena – words.

Read Full Post »

This story was first published in Island Magazine #116, Autumn 2009, then republished on Tragicocomedia in 2011. I am re-posting it as the title wasn’t included in the URL and it wasn’t coming up in searches.

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Tortoise Kiss

“We haven’t had an argument in months,” said Sarah.

“I know,” said Paul. “It’s great. I hate arguing.”

“Really? You always seem to like arguments.”

“Not exactly. I just don’t like letting things go. It’s not about winning, or being right, it’s about clarifying.”

“Maybe,” said Sarah, “but only if it’s something you want to clarify. Not always with things that I want clarified.”

Paul shrugged and Sarah fell silent. It was Christmas day and they both knew the danger, so they turned their eyes back to the water. The little humps of brine shone white against the inky dimples.

They were sitting in the Venetian harbour of Chanea, Crete. Across the water, to their right, lay the long arm of the harbour wall with its lighthouse. Behind them was the white dome of the Mosque of the Janissaries; supported by four curving buttresses and situated behind four smaller domes above the façade, it looked like an octopus squatting on eggs.

“I do feel more at ease,” said Paul. “Like we’re friends again.”

Sarah took hold of Paul’s upper arm with both her hands and pulled him closer.

“It has been very peaceful.”

Paul continued to look ahead into the water; kicking his feet idly.

“Anyway,” said Sarah, “you don’t try to run away now when I kiss you.”

“No,” said Paul.

She kissed him. He smiled.

The awnings of the buildings around the harbour hung like droopy eyelids. They left Sarah feeling sleepy. Behind them was the gradual, yet dramatic rise of the White Mountains; dusted with snow from the peaks to the hills behind the town. It was blinding, inspiring, exhausting.

“I’m glad you like me again,” said Sarah. “It’s easier to believe you still love me.”

Paul grunted.

“Of course I still love you. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much noise in my head I can’t separate it. You know what I’m like. Gus reckons I have Aspergers. I sort of one-track everything and the confusion of all the rest, well, I hate it. It makes me uptight. Being on the road is different. I don’t feel petty. I feel mature.”

“You certainly act more mature.”

“Then I guess it’s true. Really, what it is,” said Paul, “I feel so uprooted. All the accretions of stagnation, the quotidian, all the bullshit, it’s gone. Gone in the drift of things. I mean, how long ago does work seem? Or even England, or Spain? We’ve been away four months now. It’s like an eternity.”

“Working was horrible. All that effort just to get here nearly wrecked everything. With us, I mean.”

Paul locked his gaze more firmly on the water.

“Well,” he said, “after we moved apart I didn’t go out much. There was all that tension.”

Sarah seemed to be looking down his line of sight. Perhaps she could see something of what he was thinking in what he was seeing.

“I guess it did sort of wreck everything,” said Paul, “But, then — ”

“Anyway,” said Sarah, holding tighter to his upper arm. “I hated working. I don’t ever want to have a job again.”

“No,” said Paul. “Neither do I.”

“We needed to get away.”

“We need to stay away.”

Later they walked past the mosque in the brilliant sun. The stones and pavement reflected clean, dry light. They had noticed, since arriving in Greece, how familiar the light seemed. Not softened by haze, or yellowed as it was in the angled north, the light in Greece was white and reminded them of Australia. The air was still.

Just past the mosque lay a row of Venetian storehouses. The long sandstone wall fronting onto the docks was capped by five triangular peaks that followed the shape of the roofs. It looked like a parapet. Standing out the front of this was an ancient, grey-haired man in the fisherman’s caps so common around the Aegean islands. He wore tightly pressed trousers, a white shirt, cream sports coat and polished brown shoes. He seemed both peasant and aristocrat in one. He was portly and dignified and toying with a set of amber beads.

The old man watched as Paul and Sarah approached, then began to walk towards them. After a few steps he held up his hand in greeting and said “Hello,” in English.

“Hello,” said Sarah, smiling.

Paul nodded. He did not feel like talking to strangers.

Reaching them where they had stopped, the old man held out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” said Sarah. She took his hand and shook it.

“You are travelling?” asked the old man.

“We’re from Australia,” said Paul.

“Australia? I have a grandson in Australia.”

“Oh, right,” said Paul. He had heard it all before; it was a common enough story in Greece. So common that he didn’t any longer believe it.

“How do you like Crete?” the old man asked.

“I love it,” said Paul. It’s a beautiful place.”

“And today is a beautiful day. In Germany now it is snowing. But here, Zeus is happy.”

He beamed, flashing a fine set of false teeth and suddenly Sarah and Paul were glad he had approached them.

“Yes, he’s been happy for days,” said Sarah, and they all chuckled diplomatically.

“You are walking to the harbour? To the lighthouse?”

“Maybe,” said Paul. “We walked to the lighthouse yesterday. We were just taking a stroll before lunch.”

“My mother is buying us lunch!” said Sarah, gleefully.

“Your mother is here too?”

“No, but she sent us some money.”

“For Christmas?” asked the old man.

“Yes, to buy us Christmas dinner.”

“That is nice.”

“I like to walk to the lighthouse,” he said. “Can I walk with you?”

“Yes,” said Paul, who hadn’t exactly said he was going there, “if you like.”

They resumed their walk along the waterfront. It was not at all busy, with only a few families and three or four other tourists. The old harbour of Chanea was larger than those of Rethymnon and Iraklion, also built by the Venetians. Here the sea entered deeper into the town, which hugged it like a lake. It was still and flat, with the water slightly latticed by the faint, occasional breeze. Just a week before, while Paul and Sarah were in Iraklion, a great storm had struck right across the Aegean. Watching at dawn, they had seen the ocean heave and seethe. Outside of the harbour wall was a leaping mass of water, yet behind it, on the inside, was complete calm. The yachts gently bobbed and swayed, but the violence stopped abruptly at the wall. Never before had the utility of a harbour been so apparent.

Since Iraklion the weather had remained fine. Just last night they had witnessed a wide, red sunset; the water ripening to deep aubergine. Sarah thought of fishermen, while Paul made an ineffectual sketch. They had hardly spoken; the long weeks of space had rebuilt the comfort of mutual silence.

“What do you call the beads you have?” asked Sarah of the old man. “All the men seem to have them.”

“Yes,” he replied. “They are Komboloi, worry beads. All the men have them.”

All the old men, thought Paul.

“Here, you try.”

He handed the beads straight to Paul, who was taken by surprise and took them reverently, as cautious as if handed a child.

“Komboloi?” he asked, handling the smooth, thick amber. The old man said nothing, he just smiled at the beads in Paul’s hands. They tapered in size and were strung on a yellow cord, ending in a soft tassel. Paul wanted to hand them to Sarah, but perhaps they were only for men. Sarah feared the same and looked closely as Paul spread them across his open palms.

“These are beautiful,” said Paul. “I can see how they might be calming.”

He was used to choosing his words carefully now; trying to limit his vocabulary to the basics. It was, in its way, exhausting. He wondered if “calming” was simple enough, wondered about the conditional, the subjunctive. Still, the old man’s English was unexpectedly good. He handed back the Komboloi.

They walked around the turn at the narrow elbow of the harbour. The old man remained silent and, after a minute or so, Sarah and Paul began to feel the choke on their conversation. No longer free to be at ease with saying nothing, they could think of nothing to say. They had explained themselves so many hundreds of times in the preceding months; where they came from, what it was like, what they did, who they were and why, that apart from beginning to wonder at the truth of it all, they were frankly quite sick of it and no longer wished to volunteer the information. In other towns they had met with many travellers, which they had appreciated, but here in Chanea, the last two days had been a pleasant void.

Half way along the harbour wall they stopped to look out to sea. Paul had a sensation he’d not had in years, of being chaperoned by a boring grandparent. Watching the seagulls in silence, however, he soon ceased to care. As the minutes ticked by, smoothed by the wash of the waves and the odd resounding echo of the town, any sense of concrete understanding vanished altogether. Sarah felt it too. An air of dissipation hung over everything, as though purposelessness were slowly lessening the gravity that held all the atoms together. Then she remembered lunch. It was something to hang on to, something to steer by.

It was at this point that the old man surprised Paul by touching him on the shoulder and saying, “Can I kiss her?”

“What?” said Paul, more abruptly than he would have liked.

“A kiss?” said the old man. “Can I kiss her?”

“Well,” said Paul, “you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask Sarah.”

“A kiss?” said the old man, turning to Sarah. “For Christmas.”

Sarah was as surprised and bewildered as Paul. The man seemed so old to her, even beyond grandfatherly. She had almost forgotten about him entirely.

“Well,” she said, reddening, “I don’t see why not.”

Sarah turned her face sideways and offered him her cheek. The old man was slow in his movements, but determined. His wrinkled neck strained and quivered as he leaned slowly into the kiss. He closed his eyes and puckered his mouth into a beak, while his liver-spotted hands reached out with the rigor mortis of a golem. He clumsily took hold of her shoulders and brought his face close to hers. Paul watched all this in profile; saw his girlfriend being taken in the arms of a mummy.

Sarah knew instantly what the old man was about and was having none of it. He had taken too long in crossing the distance. She was gorgeous and voluptuous, wearing a knee-length skirt. It was all so clear to her now. When he placed one of his dry, papery hands to her cheek and tried to turn her face towards him, her charity vanished. His stiff upper body was craning like a tortoise. He came in close, his nose brushing hers, but she snapped her head back in time and shook it from side to side, emitting a weak “no” in protest, ducking from his grip.

“Hey,” said Paul, reaching forward limply. He was paralysed by the man’s age, and, rather than reaching for him, he reached for Sarah, to help extract her. Yet she had, by then, extracted herself, stepping back several paces.

“No, not like that,” she said, out of breath with fright and embarrassment.

“What do you think—” said Paul, but something stuck in him; something about himself.

The old man was entirely unmoved. He stood in the end point of his manoeuvre as though nothing was amiss. He remained silent and lowered his arms; recomposed himself.

Sarah and Paul began to walk slowly; away from the man, away from the lighthouse, back towards the town. They stepped deliberately, as though tied in some way to the location of the incident. It was courtesy that kept them from running; courtesy, embarrassment and the length of the stretch, for the harbour wall ran for another hundred feet, open, exposed. They were trapped in the aftermath.

Sarah was inwardly fuming. It was the assumption that angered her so much. That man, that ancient, rubbery brothel-creeper with his revolting, antiquated misconceptions.

“Why didn’t you do something?” she said, thirty feet on.

“Do what?” hissed Paul “Do what?”

“I don’t know. Just make sure it never got to that.”

“But, but it all just sort of happened.”

Sarah was looking at her feet. She was ashamed and angry that she should feel something so contrary to her role in the matter.

“It’s easy for you,” she said, “you’re always kissing other people. I don’t… It’s horrible.”

“Don’t start that again,” said Paul.

“Why can’t I start that? I never get to start anything.”

It was all back in her, all the burning ‘errors’ she’d forgiven. She knew this wasn’t his fault, but it was just the sort of thing that happened to them now, and only because of him. Must everything always fall so short of what she hoped for with Paul? She allowed herself to believe his assurances, unable to see how far his bleakness and sabotage went, but her belief was no longer tempered by trust. It was simply that when he was on her side she felt stronger, safer. He was a useful ally. She hated that her love for him had deteriorated into something so utilitarian. He was as cold as a stone buttress.

“Just…. not now,” said Paul. “Not today. It’s fucking Christmas. Let’s just forget it. The whole thing was an innocent, silly mix-up. I thought he was going to kiss you on the cheek.”

“So did I.”

Sarah looked at Paul. Paul opened his mouth but said nothing. He was always in the wrong, and quite genuinely. If he hadn’t learned to avoid being in the wrong, he at least knew it wasn’t in his interest to start discussing why he was in the wrong. He had only learned this recently. Naively, he had always primed excuses and deployed them pre-emptively. He was good at excuses, but Sarah was better at truth and the one always countered the other.

His eyes relaxed. Her eyes relaxed. They both began to smile. They had reached the end of the harbour wall and turned around its hairpin to the stretch beside the storehouses.

“I’m not,” said Paul, “saying anything.”

“Let’s just say nothing,” said Sarah.

Paul looked behind him. The old man was ambling along, about twenty metres behind, toying with his beads.

“Fuck that old goat,” said Paul, “what’s his game anyway? Let’s make a run for it. Come on!”

He grabbed Sarah’s hand and broke into a run, pulling her with him. She skipped and hopped and then she was running as well, running with a widening smile. They ran until they came to a junction beside the weathered Venetian warehouses.

“This way!” shouted Paul, growing hysterical with mischief, turning away from the harbour. They came to a half-collapsed and roofless building. There was a boarded-up entrance that had been pried open, kicked in. Sun was streaming through the open top and the inside space was light and warm.

“Come on,” said Paul, “let’s hide in here.”

They stepped through the opening and placed their backs against the wall beside the doorway. Now they really started laughing, big gulping laughs and exhalations. They looked about. The ground was covered in rubble and overgrown with tall weeds. Half-broken planks hung from the wrecked floor above. It seemed a beautiful, happy ruin.

“Let’s go up the stairs and hide properly,” said Paul. “Just for the hell of it.”

“Is it safe?”

“I don’t know. The stairs look sturdy enough.”

They climbed up the stairs to the landing and stepped along the remaining edge of the floor, where a few beams protruded. Here they stopped, still breathing out the flurry of excitement.

“Seems pretty solid.”

The post-holes in the walls shuffled with nervous pigeons; seagulls cried overhead like polished glass. The sandstone was pocked and crumbly; honey-combed like frail conglomerate. Paul was drawn to its wear, to its ruin. He fingered the loose fragments of wall; it was bound here and there with dusty web. Sarah peered over the wreck of a window ledge to the street below. She sought the old man, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was likely still meandering by the harbour; likely still feeling the brush of her nose, the softness of her shoulder. She shuddered.

Paul sat down on the stairs. He was calm again now, overlooking the warm ruins. He had come to Europe to look at ruins; come to see the relics. He felt right at home with ruins. For one thing, they were never pressing, having lost all their urgency. He kicked his foot against a pebble on the stairs. It skipped down into the matted, weedy rubble.

Sarah watched the pebble bounce. How good it had felt when they ran together! It was so long since they had been in such unison. Ever since she had read his diary, when the dust finally settled, everything had been so cautious, so careful. She longed to be free of this deliberateness. Her eyes moistened and she fastened her grip on the weathered window sill. She was always waiting for Paul now. It wasn’t fair, but she could not face leaving him. Just now, she could not face him.

Paul began to think about lunch. He was a man of strong appetites, even at his most apathetic. How he loved the novelty of foreign menus.

“What do you want to eat?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Sarah. “We can have a look in town. You decide.”

She held tight to the sill, wanting to place herself back in the happiness of running. It had flushed her like a sugar high, and now she was coming down. How like Paul to have moved on already; to be thinking about something else. Slowly, silently, she began to cry; saddened by her weakness.

Paul failed to notice. He was thinking about pork chops; staring ahead into rubble.

Read Full Post »

Having a Baby is OK

Flying Magnus

I now have a son. This is a pretty radical thing on so many levels that it’s taken me until now, seven and a half months after he was born, to know what to write about it. Only, in truth, I still don’t really know where to begin. Probably the most appropriate place to start is to point out that having a son is a truly great thing – possibly the best thing that has ever happened to me, though I wouldn’t want to blindly elevate this in the pantheon of life’s pleasures without more perspective – after all, seeing the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy is hard to beat. The key thing here is that having a baby is OK. I love my son more than anything in the world and am very pleased to have him, which is especially important considering that for much of my life I feared I would never be able to connect with, relate to or, indeed, love a baby.

I have always considered myself to be very empathetic, though it took some time to develop this faculty. As a young man I suffered some spectacular failings of empathy and behaved with incredible selfishness at times, yet the shivers and shocks of exploding relationships taught me to understand all the nuances of others’ emotions, desires and motivations. I became highly skilled at interpreting the feelings of others, which was especially useful in predicting the outcomes of narratives, both in life and in fiction. This did not mean that I always acted accordingly. Indeed, at times, rather like the psychopath, I confess I exploited my understanding of other people to my advantage, or simply ignored the signals I was receiving because they were inconvenient. Sometimes it was easier to maintain the fiction of not understanding people, to avoid having to acknowledge a situation in the hope that it might pass or could be dealt with later. I still made some rather clumsy errors of judgement, yet my greatest and without a doubt most significant failure of empathy was the inability to imagine the feelings of a parent towards a child. No matter how hard I tried I could not even get close to understanding this particular, intense emotional attachment. It was simply too difficult to put into proportion.

Part of the problem was that I never really wanted to have children, except in some abstract way – and the fact that I didn’t fondly fantasise about being a father was a barrier to intimately understanding the emotions of the situation. Yet even when I learned that my partner was pregnant and that this was, in fact, going to be a reality, I still feared, throughout the entire pregnancy, that I would be unable to connect with my baby – largely because I had never connected with a baby previously. Indeed, I had never even held a baby before my son was born, such was my fear of dropping them, but also on account of the fact that I had no idea what to do with them or how to relate to them. If anything my feelings towards them are best characterised as a sort of impatient resentment, even though I rationalised that this sentiment was entirely unreasonable and inappropriate.

Even when I saw the first scans of my son and learned his sex, while this made it much easier to imagine him as a person and to visualise better what was coming, I still felt disconnected and uncertain as to whether I would be able to connect when he was born. I tried to reassure myself in all manner of ways. I had grown up with dogs and cats and have always loved and respected animals – despite eating them – and could remember all too well how much love I had felt for the dogs and cats of my childhood. They were not merely family, but best friends. I was utterly heartbroken when our Dachshund, Jason, was run over when I was nine years old – I still miss him and wish he would come home, just as I miss all the other animals. Surely, I reasoned, my love of small, cute, vulnerable animals could extend to encompass babies, who are, after all, small, cute, vulnerable animals. Yet, before Magnus was born, I didn’t really think of babies as cute. Indeed, they seemed rather the opposite – noisy, disruptive and utterly demanding, and I never found them attractive to look at. They were categorised alongside Chihuahuas and Silky (yappy) Terriers as the kind of pets I didn’t like.

This fear of not connecting was the one fear which lingered throughout the pregnancy. Most of the others – such as fear of not being able to go out to dinner, not drinking, not being able to travel, not having sex – all evaporated in a puff of triviality as time passed. I found it easier and easier to accept that situation, but grew more fearful of what would happen when our son was actually born. A woman I had gone to school with had, only a few years ago, committed suicide just three weeks after her baby was born, and whilst I knew that she must have been under a very different and far greater kind of pressure, emotionally and physically, it reminded me that some people do have a real and debilitating difficulty connecting with their babies.

Fortunately, however, once Magnus was born, I felt an almost instantaneous and immense love for him. In a manner not unlike the scenario proposed by the Theory of Inflation, when the universe expanded exponentially within a fraction of a second, my love for my son seemed to explode at an incredible rate. When he first washed up on the shores of the world, with his face all red and squashed and his few strands of wispy hair slicked with blood, I was overcome by a great desire to protect and nurture this tiny, exhausted and utterly helpless creature. In 1981 I had seen my dog Poppy give birth to eight puppies, and little Magnus lying there was just another puppy, as cute and adorable as they had been. How could I ever have doubted that I would love this child? It struck me immediately what a gulf there was between what I was capable of thinking emotionally, and what I was capable of feeling.

In the months after Magnus was born, I have only grown to love him more and more. Indeed, those initial feelings for him now seem strangely naïve and undeveloped, like reflecting on the first time one says “I love you” to another, which can, in retrospect, seem premature. Not only do I dearly love my son and feel immensely glad to have him, I have become something of a baby fancier. I can’t stop looking at babies and small children and wondering about their stages of development, thinking backwards and forwards on Magnus’ journey through life. I can now understand babies, and this is a great thing to have learned. They always seemed to exist in a kind of pre-personhood state, yet I can say definitively that while, in the first few weeks babies can seem entirely animalistic and devoid of even the emotional sophistication of a dog, once they begin smiling and interacting in ways that are more reminiscent of people, they suddenly morph into people. This, despite their ongoing dependence and completely instinctual, needs-based relationship with the world. I already thought I was deeply connected to Magnus in those first weeks, but when he began to smile upon seeing me, and then began to laugh, my heart erupted with a love so intense that I felt completely reborn, emotionally. And that is perhaps the most extraordinary thing – I am completely in love with my son. Of course this love is entirely devoid of any physical desire, yet otherwise it is no different from the love I have felt for the great women in my life. It is a wonderful thing to fall in love again and Magnus is indeed an adorable little cutie.

Having a son has finally allowed me to understand what my parents went through, and, indeed, what the entire human race has gone through in the history of humanity. This, funnily enough, was always one of my goals. I said above that I wanted children in an abstract way – it was largely because I feared that if I didn’t, I would go through life without having one of the most key human experiences – indeed, one of the key experiences of any living organism. Having a son has also opened up thousands of memories of my own childhood; recollections I’ve not had in years or never knew were there. It reminds me how strange this period of Magnus’ life actually is – he will not remember any of what he is going through now, though it will shape his development. For this reason, as soon as Magnus can understand the question, I long to ask him what the first thing is that he remembers. Perhaps he will be able, at just the age of two, to tap into some of those early, amorphous memories, before anything in the world had a name, and before words could prioritise and shape the narrative of what was happening to him. So much to consider, and considering the sheer excitement of each milestone so far, I long for these first conversations with an expectant heart.

On a final note, I hope that any expectant fathers who might stumble upon this can have their fears allayed. Put simply, what is gained is far greater than what is lost. Babies might seem annoying and life-destroying to the man on the sidelines, but it truly is different when you have your own. It’s by no means easy, and there is also much that sucks about the business, yet overriding all of the petty irritations and disruptions is something so incredible that it is, as my own failure of empathy indicates, impossible to articulate. Sow your wild oats first, travel the world, live a life of adventure, but when then time comes for having a baby, fear not – it’s all good, bro. You will not only fall in love again, but have the chance to relive all the long dormant tenderness of your own childhood and infancy. You will also make your mother a very happy woman indeed.

Read Full Post »

Easter Road Toll

In February 1988, at the tender age of 15, some friends and I decided to form a punk / thrash band. Like so many young people going through puberty we were electrified with the spirit of rebellion and longed to make ourselves heard. After some lengthy lunch-time discussions of possible band names, one good friend, Owen, suggested Easter Road Toll as an appropriately offensive moniker and we were all instantly taken with it. Six of us agreed to meet at Owen’s place on the following Saturday and, keen to drive the project and play a leading role, I went home that night and wrote 10 songs in a couple of hours.

Having no musical training whatsoever, being practically tone deaf and entirely unable to carry a tune, I just wrote lyrics with simple rhymes and meters. When I showed these songs to “the band” at school the following day the excitement around the project grew to a fever pitch and we eagerly awaited that first “recording session.”

What followed on that first Easter Road Toll Saturday was an awful mess of teenage boys screaming into a tape-recorder and making a tuneless, discordant racket in Owen’s bedroom. Only three of us – Demitri, Max and Chez – had any recognisable musical ability, yet with no preparation or rehearsal, very little of this shone through on the day.

That first “album”, which we titled Gate Crashing at the Doors of Hell, is really very painful to listen to. A series of poorly chosen drum beats on the Casio, the squealing of boys on the verge of adolescence, the hammering of misshapen chords on poorly tuned guitars, the thumping of various items of furniture and the gang shouting of incomprehensible lyrics, does not make much of an album. It was, however, a first attempt and it got us excited enough to strive for something more orderly and complete.

Easter Road Toll

Easter Road Toll, with “Chez” as guest bassist, c. 1988

Within a few months the band’s numbers had been whittled down to three – Demitri, Mike and me – and D actually took the time to compose music for the lyrics which I churned out at a rate of knots. I bought a guitar and started taking lessons, but I was far too lazy to practise properly and could at best provide a sloppy rhythm section. Mike, our drummer, couldn’t yet afford a kit and so we either recorded with a drum machine or got him to play – wait for it – chairs. The stretched pleather of the cushions had to suffice for any “live” recordings which were made in Demitri’s garage. Other noise-making implements were also employed, including a real whipper snipper, pots, pans and a bicycle, adding a hint of German industrial to something otherwise entirely unclassifiable.

The main problem with Easter Road Toll was not the lyrics, which were universally pretty awful, but the fact that I sang most of the songs. Whereas I’d like to think I could write some decent lyrics these days, and have spent years trying to improve my singing, I certainly couldn’t write anything worthwhile back then and I most certainly could not sing. We did improve over time – Mike got a drumkit and achieved a basic level of enthusiastic competence, Demitri developed into an accomplished guitarist and singer, and my guitar playing improved marginally, yet I remained by far the weakest link. The last recording we ever made was after a four-year hiatus – in 1994 – where we laid down a couple of old favourites – Schwarzenegger and Zombies are Philosophers on a four-track. Despite being drunk and stoned and the songs being unrehearsed, those two tracks are without a doubt the best standard we ever achieved, largely due to the fact that Demitri’s tradecraft had improved so much in the intervening years.

Easter Road Toll 8

Easter Road Toll 14

Easter Road Toll 4

The final line-up, D, Mike and Me – acne, angst and the garage

The reason I am summoning Easter Road Toll back from the grave is that recently I bought a USB cassette player and have begun converting all our recordings into digital format. I haven’t owned a working cassette player in roughly fifteen years and it must be almost twenty since I last chose to listen to the old ERT tapes. Initially, I was deeply moved by the process – the excitement of rediscovery, the very fact that the cassettes still worked, the deep nostalgia of hearing sounds from a time now long ago – but this soon deteriorated into a sense of impatient disappointment. Why? Because most of the songs were so utterly dreadful and reflected embarrassingly intolerant stupidity and naivety.

The basic remit was to shock and offend as much as possible, something embodied in the deliberately insensitive band name. As big teenage fans of 80s action movies, many Easter Road Toll songs revolved around killing people with shotguns, whipper-snippers, chainsaws, hacksaws and pretty much any other household implement you could get your hands on – an immature celebration of gratuitous violence. Somewhere, Somehow, Someone’s Gonna Pay – a title ripped off from the rather cheesy song at the end of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando – is about killing the conservative premier of New South Wales and taking his whole damned party with him. Blow up your Relief Teacher is a song about having a relief teacher at school who makes the class do work, rather than letting the students “bludge”. Like most Easter Road Toll songs, it advocates an entirely disproportionate response: “Blow up the whole fucking class, burn down the school and blow it up with a howitzer!” Indeed, it finishes with a line about delivering the “coup de grace, with an 80 megaton ICBM”. Yep, pretty disproportionate stuff.

Rather too many of the songs focussed on the band’s title and featured people “increasing the road toll” by running over “peds”. Songs such as Hitch-hiker, Testing a Tank, Top 50 Victims, Roadtoll Rap, Car Accident, The Morgue ain’t a Bad Place to be and Shopping Mall Massacre all involved running people over just for the hell of it.

Easter Road Toll 2

Easter Road Toll “side-project” jam at Max’s, c. 1989

There was also a desire to express forthright political opinions, inspired by the fine example of Midnight Oil. The problem was, however, that when it came to writing lyrics, I knew absolutely nothing about politics – except that the conservatives were downright evil. At least I was right about something. There were a lot of songs expressing anti-McDonalds sentiments as well, mildly ironic considering how much I loved quarter-pounders at the time. Some songs were a genuine attempt at youthful wisdom and social commentary: You’ve got the Sack, Gun-toting Customs Officer, Fuck I hate Nazis, Drugs fuck you up and He’s no Value, all tried with astonishing naivety to make some kind of point that went beyond merely advocating massacres and banging on about “twelve-gauge shotguns”.

Most disappointing of all, however, was the degree of homophobia expressed in the lyrics of some songs. One such outing, That Winning Feeling, was about a guy running rampant through the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in a Mack truck and killing as many people as possible. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so deeply disturbing and so awfully ignorant. It is, however, curiously indicative of a time when attitudes to homosexuality were in a swift transition. Paranoia about AIDS and HIV was rampant and Australia was yet to tackle the problem of homophobia in its society. Indeed, the word homophobia was rarely ever used – the term de rigueur was “gay bashing” – and there was no education about it in schools and no public campaign to stop it – at least so far as I recall. As a teenage boy in a boys’ school I fell all too easily into the lazy use of the words “gay,” “faggot” and “poofter”, words I still continually hear from the teenage boys I now teach, despite the far greater degree of education and awareness of this issue.

I’ve written elsewhere of how, in part, in my case, this was a response to being a nerdy kid in my first two years of high school and being called a “faggot” pretty much every day by the jocks. My homophobia reflected a resentment that I should be stuck with a label that wouldn’t exist were it not for the existence of homosexuals. Go figure. My attitude at the time must also have been rather confused, considering I went to watch the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras when I was fourteen and fifteen and enjoyed the show and felt no dislike or resentment towards gay people on those occasions. Perhaps, in the desire to shock and offend, which is really what Easter Road Toll was all about, there was simply an absence of sense or judgement on this matter and everyone and anyone who could be labelled was an equally valid target. It probably goes without saying that my views are now unambiguously gay-friendly and I whole-heartedly support same-sex marriage in Australia and the rest of the world. This is the greatest source of shame and disappointment when I listen to these old Easter Road Toll songs, yet thankfully there are only two or three songs of a large collection which contain homophobic lyrics.

Easter Road Toll 11

Easter Road Toll’s gear – quite a collection of not especially great instruments

Fortunately there are a number of tracks which I genuinely enjoyed hearing again, if only for their energy and outrageous silliness. Lemmings Know What They’re Doing suggests that lemmings are right to jump off cliffs to avoid living an empty, meaningless life:

“What’s the point of living a life spent in a burger joint?” Fingers Don’t Grow Back is purely and simply hilarious – unless of course you’re an amputee. The chorus “Fingers don’t grown back, not even when you glue them back on, so be careful with chainsaws, and things like electric knives, cos it may cause your fingers to suddenly not be there anymore,” isn’t easily put to a tune, yet somehow, we pulled it off.

I’ve always had a real soft spot for Schwarzenegger, a celebration of the man himself, who was, at the time, our biggest action hero – and, dare I say it, my last action hero. This probably constitutes our most complete song, neatly structured and arranged, it flowed better than any of the others and I still find myself singing it.

Yet, after recently listening to all this “music”, I think my new favourite Easter Road Toll song, is, beyond a doubt, Car Alarms. Of course, it’s just another puerile attempt to make a rather offensive statement about how we all (fucking) hate car alarms, yet it is fast and punchy and has a certain verve about it. I reproduce the entire song here, with apologies to any law-enforcement officers.


One thing we all fucking well hate

is when people’s car alarms go off late

no wonder people steal their cars

the fucking Martians can hear ‘em on Mars.

Cobra, Piranha, they’re all the same

They all piss you off right out of your brain


Fuck I hate car alarms, they piss me off

cops should smash them, then go piss of somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.


But most of all I hate car alarms

in every fucking street

cops should authorise twelve-gauge use

so we can get some fucking sleep.

Steal the fucking hub-caps, slash all the tires,

smash the fucking windows and cut out all the wires – aaaahh!


Fuck I hate car alarms they piss me off,

cops should smash them then go piss off somewhere else cos I hate them.

Fuck I hate car alarms, fuck I hate them

Fuck I hate car alarms they’re buckets of phlegm.


I do still dream of having a re-union of some kind and trying to record a few of these songs as well as possible. Modern technology makes this a far easier prospect, as does greater wisdom and experience, yet I can’t imagine how or when this is likely to happen. Fortunately all the members of Easter Road Toll are still good friends, so there is little risk of “artistic differences” getting in the way. As for now, our three “albums” Gate-Crashing at the Doors of Hell, Loitering with Malicious Intent and From the Maw of Oblivion, are never likely to be available on iTunes, but that is probably for the best.

Read Full Post »

The Talking Pillow

One afternoon in 1977, a year before I began primary school, my mother and I went to pick my brother up from school. He was very excited about an upcoming school fete and couldn’t stop raving about it.

“There’s going to be a raffle,” he said, “which is this thing where you can win prizes. And the first prize is a Sound Pillow!”

“What’s a Sound Pillow?”

“It’s a pillow that talks!”

“A pillow that talks? Far out, no way!”

“Really. It’s a talking pillow.”

My mother, who was on the Parent and Teachers Committee, confirmed that there would indeed be a raffle with a whole range of prizes – including this fabled Sound Pillow.

“I’m not sure the pillow actually talks,” she said. “But you can listen to it.”

These words of caution, perhaps because they didn’t go far enough in detailing the exact nature of the pillow, failed to deter my brother from his belief that the pillow could actually talk. I implicitly trusted my brother in everything – because he was older and already at school, so it was only natural to assume he knew what he was talking about. Once the idea had taken root in my mind, I was utterly convinced that the words “sound pillow” could mean nothing other than that the pillow could speak. After all, what other sounds would it make? It wasn’t exactly going to bark or miaow, now was it?

For days before the event I constantly thought about the myriad possibilities of the Sound Pillow. Lying in bed, the sky still light in the early autumn, I would ply my brother with questions.

“Can you ask the pillow questions? Can it answer them?”

“I think so,” said Matthew.

“What does it sound like?”

“I don’t know. Like a person. An adult.”

“Does it know everything?”

“I guess. Or else it couldn’t answer questions.”

“Can it sing?”

“I suppose.”

“But how does it work?!”

When my brother got tired of answering, I lay quietly thinking of the incredible powers of the pillow. How great that it should be a pillow too, for pillows were such marvellous things; comfortable, comforting, soft and friendly. The idea of one that could converse on any topic was beyond my wildest dreams. If my brother did win the raffle, I’d have to make sure he let me have access to the pillow. After all, if it was as smart as all that, it would be just like a family member, like another brother – perhaps even more so than Jason and Lady, our dachshund and bitsa. It was only right that we should all share in the pillow.

When the day of the fete came, the only thing that mattered was the raffle. It was sunny and warm and we were gathered before a demountable table on the bitumen in the junior playground. Whilst we were all excited about the Sound Pillow, I had also noticed a large, red, soft-toy tortoise amongst the prizes. As a child, I was completely obsessed with tortoises and turtles and already had three stuffed ones of varying sizes among my “favourites.” The red “tort” would make a fantastic addition to the collection, and make a suitable wife for “Papa Tort.”

Fate must have been on the side of the Cornford brothers that day, or else my mother had rigged the raffle. For, when the ticket numbers came to be called, my brother won the sound pillow and I won the red tortoise. It is difficult to express the joy that my brother and I felt, suffice to say that if you’ve ever been to a children’s birthday party…

The Sound Pillow came in a light brown cardboard box with orange lettering, or so I recall, and as much as I wanted to rip it out of the box and start chatting with it immediately, my mother insisted we wait until we got home. Fortunately, I had “Mama Tort” to offer solace during the interminable wait.

When we finally did get home and open the box, my brother seemed to have already dismissed all his imaginings of the much vaunted pillow’s capability. In a disappointingly, yet still impressively pragmatic way, he showed me how you could plug the pillow into a television or radio and the sound would come through via a speaker inside the pillow.

“But doesn’t the pillow talk?” I pleaded.

“No, you can just listen to the television or radio.”

I was astonished. Not only by the revelation of the Sound Pillow’s less than spectacular abilities – though it was still worthy of some reverence – but also by my brother’s apparently cool knowledge of the reality of the situation. How long had he known? Had he worked it out days before, or had he just read the information on the box? If the former, why hadn’t he told me, or was it that he didn’t want to disappoint me, nor dispel the illusion himself?

Either way, that Sound Pillow, for a short time worshipped as potentially the greatest invention in the history of human ingenuity and a worthy rival to God in its infinite wisdom, was now just another curious item, hardly more amazing than a transistor radio. And worse, it wasn’t comfortable to lie on – having a rather chunky speaker inside which the stuffing and padding had not quite succeeded in softening. It was also, ultimately, practically useless. For, if my brother wanted to use it, it meant I could not hear the television, so it hardly saw any service. Indeed, the poor old Sound Pillow was even relegated from pillow fights – one hefty whack from the speaker could render a child unconscious.

Rather than fulfilling all our dreams and more, the Sound Pillow wound up stuffed in the corner of my brother’s bed, against the wall, and failed to live up to its role either as a (rather crappy mono) speaker or, indeed, a comforting headrest. The final indignity came when, during a bout of gastro, my brother vomited all over it and the Sound Pillow ceased to function. It lived on in the house for a while longer, a sad and sorry reminder of how brutally infinite possibility can be reduced to disappointing banality. Eventually, however, all sentimentality evaporated in the face of its growing tattiness and the pillow was out on the street.

Ah well, may the Sound Pillow rest in peace.

Read Full Post »

Gallipoli – Part 1

“Otogar, Otogar,” the man insisted. He seemed almost desperate, as though my life depended on it. If I wasn’t somewhat sympathetic to his situation I would have laughed at this exaggeration. Either way, I knew how to get to the bus station and wasn’t about to pay someone to show me.

The tram platform was raised above the street; the main drag of the Sultanahmet district, Istanbul. The man walked up and down, nose to the opportunity. All about were tourists, travellers, pilgrims; some were bound to be clueless.

The day was still crisp with breakfast; fine air ticklish with desiccated leaf. The order hereabouts – neatness, monumentality, soaring, ancient stone – was an island. Outside Sultanahmet the tides of Istanbul pulsed and surged; everywhere a little busier, a little dirtier. I was still in two minds about the place, though I was reluctant to leave. Love took a little longer these days, but I figured it would eventually arrive. It wasn’t, after all, my first time there. That had been five years before; tired after five months on the road; a sad, reluctant coda, oddly non-plussed.

The tram filled up quickly. The carriage was full of other travellers; pilgrims I suppose, come to pay a sort of homage. The purpose was still indistinct to me and the rationale unclear. It was homesickness, adventurousness, a good excuse to go back to Turkey and see more ruins. Anzac Day at Gallipoli.

I stood by the doors at the carriage’s end. Before me were a group of Kiwis and a tanned and freckled, blonde, weathered Australian. He can’t have been a day over thirty, but his face was lined from squinting against the antipodean glare. I hadn’t seen anyone who looked so Australian in a long time. He was accompanied by a young black man. I told myself he was Kenyan, a refugee, on no good grounds whatsoever. Another guess, but one far less informed. He smiled at the blonde Australian and smiled at me as well. I thought he looked nervous, something was in the balance.

“Are you from Australia?” the blonde man asked me.

“Yes. But I live in England.”

“Right. I’m an Aussie too. From W.A. Name’s Scott.”

He sounded very Australian indeed, dry and broad. There was distance in his eyes. Open space or tiredness? I couldn’t tell.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Gallipoli?”

“Yeah, mate, s’right.”

“Me too. Headed for the bus station?”

“Yep. That’s the one. This bloke’s takin’ me there.”

“Aha,” I said, unsure how to follow it up. “So, you know where to go then?”

“Yeah, well this bloke does. No worries.”

Scott had a tired and guarded look about him. The way he stood with his back against the wall spoke both of practical common sense, but also a certain deficit of trust. The “Kenyan” standing next to him kept smiling at both of us, almost sycophantically. I figured he must have latched onto Scott in the hope of getting a tip. Scott pointed a thumb at him and said:

“I gave him twenty US bucks. He’s helping me out.”

“Okay, nice.”

Twenty bucks. US. Phew. It struck me that here was a bloke who was really going to get taken for a ride in Turkey if he wasn’t more careful. Then again, Scott looked like he could afford it and no doubt the Kenyan needed the money more than him. I thought about saying something, but didn’t want to patronise him or insult the other chap. My mind wandered back to a scene from the film Gallipoli, in which gullible Australian soldiers get ripped off in the bazaars of Cairo. It was at this point that a thought first occurred to me that would stay with me over the next twenty-four hours – Scott was just like one of those original Anzacs.

I thought I ought to make small talk and asked Scott what he did. He told me he was an electrician who worked in rural Western Australia. He’d just arrived that morning at the end of a horrifically long journey. He’d flown back to Perth from the States where he’d been on holiday, met his brother at the airport who had packed his gear for him for his three-month trip to Europe, and three hours later he set off on the twenty-hour flight between Australia and Turkey. No wonder he looked tired.

Scott struck me as an old-fashioned Australian; quietly spoken and with a country formality about him. He was curiously, almost stiffly polite, saying “thanking you, thanking you,” to even the smallest offer of help or advice. He seemed to be utterly genuine in what he said and did – devoid of pretence and incapable of telling a lie. He didn’t exactly volunteer information, but was willing to talk once he got started.

I had often imagined a character such as him sending a postcard home with a touchingly simple message on it – his first communication in months. It would read something like this:

Dear Mum,

I’m in Turkey and I’m alright. Don’t forget to feed the chooks. Hope the tractor hasn’t broken down again, love to Gran,


When we finally arrived at the bus station some fifteen minutes later, I gestured and offered Scott the door.

“After you,” I said.

He smiled and replied in his dry accent.

“Thanking you, thanking you.”

At the bus station we fare-welled Scott’s helper who had long ago realised he was redundant, but showed impressive loyalty for sticking it out. The main bus station, or Otogar, in Istanbul is a massive hexagonal affair of tall, brutalist concrete bays, accessed by spiralling overpasses. Like a temple complex for machines, the scale of it would be dehumanising were it not for the buzz of human chaos that fills it.

Scott and I followed the New Zealanders who had stood near us on the tram and bought tickets for the next bus down the coast. Having flown in first thing that morning and had next to no sleep, I really hoped I might be able to doze on the bus. Once aboard, however, I was too restless. The Kiwis from the tram ended up sitting opposite us and we all swapped stories along the way, taking in the dry landscape with its concrete communities that looked like so much scattered lego.

When we finally pulled into Eceabat, I was instantly struck by its scrappiness. The roads were full of holes, many of the pavements were dirt and rubble, and a considerable number of the houses and shops were half-derelict. Turkey is no stranger to that peculiar Mediterranean phenomenon of the concrete skeleton. Everywhere there are unfinished developments, many standing alone in the middle of nowhere – usually three to four storey apartment buildings, with the walls yet to fill the framework of concrete pylons and floors. Eceabat had a number of these skeletons on the outskirts of the town, and it was here that we headed after alighting from the bus, for at the southern edge of the town lay the famous “Vegemite Disco Bar.”

The Vegemite Disco Bar was ramshackle to say the least. Thrown up without symmetry or polish, the brick and breezeblock structure was a glorified shed, though in no way glorious. It was patched here and there with corrugated iron, fishing nets and pieces of board and was ennobled by a sloppy yet commercially accurate mural of the Victoria Bitter logo. The place had the feel of a post-apocalyptic survivors’ refuge; a last chance saloon of sorts. And so it was.

They did of course, sell dirt cheap beer – a snip at five hundred thousand lirasi – and it was cold. Just before embarking on this trip, the Turkish Lira had taken a nose-dive and was once again spiralling out of control. It lost half its value against the pound in little over a month and one pound now bought around two million lira. As a consequence of the insane level of devaluation and inflation that has plagued Turkey over the last few decades, they now have a ten-million lira note, which is truly spectacular to behold. The most alarming thing about the banknote, however, was that even for the seemingly impossible number of zeroes on it, it was still only the equivalent of a fiver.

Scott had worn a strained expression on his face for the last few hours, which I hoped was due to his epic trek across the world and not my conversation, but once he got a can of Troy Lager in his hand, he looked decidedly more relaxed. We were instantly accosted by a garrulous Kiwi who asked if we had anything to smoke. Sadly no, but he seemed an amusing bloke, so we walked outside and pulled in along the stretch of concrete beside the water, now crawling with southern hemisphericals. Some smiling Turks had a barbecue going and the smell of kebabs grilling over the coals filled the air.

We sat on a small, rickety wharf leaning out from the broken concrete, so rickety that we soon moved off it onto the concrete. Simon, our new-found Kiwi friend, proved a real barrel of laughs. He can’t have been more than about twenty-five years old, but he claimed to have just sold his house, left his girlfriend behind and left New Zealand “for as long as it takes.” I soon enough gleaned that the house had come into his hands as a consequence of some apparently very profitable drug-dealing. We chatted for a couple of hours, sinking cans of Troy in the warm afternoon sun. Clearly satisfied with the size of the crowd, the guys running the bar put on a cassette recorded off Triple J radio station in Australia. It must have been quite an old one, because after about half an hour the music was interrupted by a news flash in which there was mention of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who hadn’t been prime minister since 1992.

A light breeze blew over the water and I took great pleasure in watching the glittering ripples across the bay. It was joy enough to be beside the sea once again and the scene was almost picturesque. By around five in the afternoon it started to get a little chilly, and I realised that the clothing I had  was not going to be warm enough to get through a night sitting on a windswept beach. What had I been thinking in bringing so little – and no sleeping bag? Scott looked ready to move. I think he was feeling sleepy after four beers and a kebab or two, so we fare-welled our new friend and set off along the main drag towards the bus-station.

I wandered into the first clothing shop I saw and bought a discount jumper that didn’t fit me in the slightest, but had potential life-saving qualities. We grabbed a couple of bottles of water, some snacks, hot and cold, fruit, and a large bottle of raki for emergencies, before grabbing one of the many taxis buzzing around. Our driver was an affable bloke who told us this was his fifteenth run out to the beach that day. During the course of the conversation, Scott somehow found ample opportunities to roll out his charming mantra of “thanking you, thanking you”.

On the drive out of Eceabat, we passed lines of people walking to the beaches and a number of flat-bed, horse-drawn carts topped by beer-swilling antipodeans. We drove through darkening fields and copses of pines glowing a pale magenta in the westering light. As we reached the other side of the neck of land and saw the horizon again, the richly coloured sunset had such an impact on me that I asked the driver if he would stop a moment so that I might take a photograph. I caught the sun as it was halfway towards night; radiating echoes of burnt orange past distant hills. In the foreground, a sea of purple shadows was topped by dulled silver. It vanished quickly and the oranges darkened; the sky’s reflection faded into the blackening waves. We climbed back into the taxi.

North Beach, where the ceremonies would take place at dawn, was a well-landscaped site with neatly cut lawns and three flagpoles bearing the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand flags. A large crowd had already gathered, spread out along the lawns and the beach itself. Stepping out onto the newly bitumened surface, we spotted a bunch of blokes playing two-up down beneath the flags.

“Okey dokes, ladies and gentlemen, place ya bets!”

Having been away from Australia for a couple of years, I felt a mix of nostalgia and self-conscious embarrassment. It was, however, something of a relief that people had not come here to sit about in mournful silence. This more spirited, larrikin attitude to the occasion struck me not only as appropriate, but as being what the original diggers would have wanted. Scott and I had hardly dumped our stuff and taken a slug of raki before a game of Australian Rules football started up. We shifted our gear and joined in the game.

It was now about seven thirty in the evening and there were probably only a few hundred people about, spread over a rather broad area. Once the game had broken up, we sat down and had another hit of raki, but neither of us were in the mood for drinking. Scott seemed to be fading fast after so long without sleep.

“Mate, I’m butchered. I think I’m going to crash for a while.”

“No worries. I’ll take first watch.”

“Wake me up if anything happens.”

“Will do.”

Scott climbed into his sleeping bag and curled up on the grass. In a moment, he was fast asleep, like a cocooned insect.

Now a game of rugby league sprang up in the middle of the “field”. Being a New South Welshman, this was more to my taste and I volunteered my services. Two teams were immediately formed and, what started as a game of touch footy soon upped a gear into full tackle rugby league. A bunch of Turks who were sitting alongside the road watching the activities decided to join us, getting right into the spirit of it. Fast asleep in his sleeping bag, Scott was chosen as one of the corner posts. It was little short of miraculous that during the next hour of noise, mayhem and vigorous tackling, he not only avoided being stepped on, but did not even bat an eyelid.

When the game was over, things slowed down a little and everyone sat down in groups, drinking and talking. People continued to arrive in a steady trickle until all the grass we’d been playing on was covered. Some of the new arrivals couldn’t resist planting the Australian flag, which struck me as both unnecessary and discourteous. After all, the Turks had been kind enough to fly the Australian flag over this hallowed ground, and to want to claim it all over again seemed not merely arrogant and thoughtlessly nationalistic, but also naively disrespectful of the Turkish victory.

Indeed, I was struck by the ridiculous amount of Australian flags on shirts, singlets, bags, towels, you name it. One woman was completely decked out in the bloody thing. She wore a flag tracksuit, the top of which was undone to reveal a Tee-shirt with the Australian flag on it  – it was all over her socks and beanie, and just in case you hadn’t got the message, she had a flag draped over her shoulders. I have never ever been able to understand this expression of nationalist fervour and find flags horribly offensive and aggressive. Maybe it’s just me, but is it really necessary to shove your nationality down someone’s throat in a foreign country? Who gives a rat’s arse where you come from? A lot of people seem to think that the only level on which they can communicate with foreigners is to discuss their foreignness, rather than just assuming that they too are human beings and can be engaged on all manner of other subjects. They say travel broadens the mind, but for a lot of people it makes them increasingly militant about their own identity, which seems to be reduced to a bunch of symbols and clichés.

I sat there listening to people talking around me, bemused by the snippets of conversation I heard.

“Gee, it really makes you think, dunnit?”

“Musta been tough for those blokes on that first night.”

“Yeah, you can really feel the history, eh?”

I passed the time writing in my diary, listening to my walkman and occasionally taking swigs of Raki. I thought about going and making friends with some random people, but it just seemed like too much hard work, and from what I was hearing, I felt as though the conversation might be lacking something. I turned to look at the cliffs behind me, visibly outlined against the stars, and spent a good hour with my eyes fixed on a neck of land that looked like the head of the Sphinx. It might have even been called the Sphinx, I can’t remember. It had been beautiful just after sunset when the sky was still a darkening blue, and it was still beautiful now in the moon and starlight.

More and more people continued to arrive, and by around eleven-thirty at night, things had become a little ridiculous. Coach-load after coach-load was turning up, until the road behind was completely filled with huge tour buses and every inch of ground for a considerable distance was covered with people in various states of repair. As the evening wore on, so the sea-breeze wore on in, and gradually, it wore me down. I’d started out feeling vaguely warm, but by around midnight, I was freezing cold. I had no jacket with me, and so my only option was extra layers. I put on another tee-shirt, which got me through until around one. I then had to put on another and that got me through until about two. By three, I had no choice but to wrap my last tee-shirt around my head and put on a collared shirt under my jumper. By then it had become quite ludicrously cold and I was exhausted.

All this while, Scott had not moved at all, but had remained fast asleep. He was now surrounded on all sides by the crowd, and I lay down beside him in the small space that remained, head on my bag. I tried to sleep, but was far too cold and damp and lay there shivering miserably. It was so cold my entire body started aching, my head most of all. I cursed stupidity and bitterly passed two of the most miserable hours of my life. Why had I not brought a sleeping bag, or at least a coat? Hadn’t it occurred to me that Turkey in April was cold at night? Obviously not, and admitting my folly was no consolation. All I could think of was dawn. The sun would rise and so would the temperature. I would survive to see this great event, and gradually my body would thaw!

When things began stirring for the dawn service, shortly before dawn, I dragged myself from a despairing huddle and stood to attention. Imagine my displeasure when it was announced that the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was going to address us. I was certainly no fan of the man or the government of which he was a part, and was not pleased to be reminded of why I’d been so glad to leave Australia.

I woke up Scott and we both stood like zombies, watching the service. I tried hard not to laugh at Downer’s teddy-bear intonation, but could not take the man seriously. The New Zealand foreign minister was a little more inspiring, despite equally dealing in platitudinous clichés. One line stood out, however, and I got over myself and remembered the individuals who had come here in the first place.

“When they first got to the beach, there was no battle plan, no orders, just sheer heroism”

Sheer heroism indeed. And standing there, cold, exhausted, surrounded by a bunch of jingoistic antipodeans and having survived a speech by Alexander Downer, I felt like a bloody hero as well.

Read Full Post »

This short story was begun as long ago as 1998 and has since been through many revisions, rejections and further revisions, including changing its name three times. Apart from a quick run through before publishing it here, this draft dates from around July 2011. I’m unlikely to work on it again and don’t believe in it strongly enough to continue submitting it, plus, it rather fits the bill of tragicomedy, so here it is! 


Lady of Shallot - Waterhouse


For the Love of Seneca

“I have a bath again now,” said Oliver, sitting in his mother’s kitchen on a grey Sunday afternoon.

“Well, you know what I’ve always said?”

“Yes, I know. And if you say it again, I’ll come round next time you’re in the bath and throw the bloody hairdryer in.”


Oliver’s mother, Janet was making pastry for a peach pie.

“It’s true,” she said. “Hot baths are very good for you.”

“I know, I know.”

“So how is Rachel?”

“She’s fine I guess.”

“Don’t you know? The last time I saw her she complained she never sees you.”

Oliver sipped from his cup of tea.

“I’m busy, mum. Anyway, she’s just being melodramatic. She’s got a thesis to write and if she made better use of the time I give her then she wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”

“You give her!”

Oliver smirked.

“Well, whatever. I just don’t see why she can’t amuse herself.”

“Don’t you want to see her?”

“She’s hard to entertain. I’m tired of going out. The only thing I like is the cinema.”

“Haven’t you got anything in common any more?”

Oliver shrugged. He was tired and wanted to get home to indulge his lethargy.

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You seem to know about everything else. I hope you’re not misleading her. After four years, I’d like to think she could expect some honesty.”

Oliver shrugged again. Janet’s eyes widened.

“You little rat.”


When Oliver arrived home that evening there was a message from Rachel on his answering machine. The daily phone-call; it was as ubiquitous as it was dreary. Did she really need to hear his voice?

He sighed and phoned her nonetheless. She was in a good mood and he hoped it wasn’t his fault. It seemed so simplistic, this happiness she got from him. She wanted him to do Latin American dancing with her.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

“But you said you’d take dancing lessons with me.”

“I said I was willing to do ballroom dancing, not Latin American dancing. Anyway, I don’t have the right sort of shoes.”

“What sort of shoes?”

“Plus I haven’t got the right clothes. Whatever the case, I can’t go tonight. I’ve got half a book to read.”

“But you promised you’d go with me. Who cares about the shoes or clothes? Just wear anything. And this is ballroom dancing. I don’t see what the difference is.”

“There’s a big difference. Anyway, I couldn’t stand all that fickle, jaunty music. You know I only promised after you hassled me about it, and to tell the truth I’m annoyed with myself for showing such a complete lack of spine.”

“Don’t be so full of shit, Oliver. It’s not fair. You said you would go. Emily’s going and Johannes is going and I said I’d go and now I don’t have a partner.”

“You’re an attractive girl. I don’t think you’ll be a wallflower for long.”

“God, you can be a real prick. If you’re not coming just say so without being nasty.”

“I’ve already said I’m not coming. How many times do you want me to say it? I can’t tonight, I’ve got stuff lined up.”

“Well you obviously don’t need a girlfriend then do you?”

“If it’s a choice between sanity and Latin dancing, then you’re probably right.”


Oliver worked weekends and his Monday mornings were the height of liberty. It was then that he could shine and feel the world to be wide and glorious. This Monday morning was no exception. With so much possible he could afford a brief rest and chose to lie in bed with his face in the sunlight. He imagined basking in a rowboat, drifting from a bank of arching reeds. Further up the idling river he conjured another such boat carrying another such sunlit dreamer. There she lay, drifting towards him, a living Ophelia or Lady of Shallot, soft and quenching as a Waterhouse. If only their hulls might collide.

When he opened his eyes he was back in his room with its brown carpet and walls stained by the rotting wood of the window pane. Still there was every reason for hope, for today was all his and he might just run into her.

It had, after all, happened before; this longed-for extra-curricular encounter with Lucinda. Exactly a week ago, after a class, he had found her in the library, full of speculation. In her merry, assured voice, with its strong hint of English aristocracy, she explained how Walter Scott was to blame for the American Civil War; that Emma Bovary deserved respect for striving for titillation amidst a sea of mediocrities; how Levin in Anna Karenina was merely a self-portrait of Leo Tolstoy, and finally about St Anselm’s spurious proof of the existence of God. If Oliver had been in deep before, last Monday was the final straw.

Dared by her intellectual openness, he had mentioned his love of Seneca, unveiling his innermost vice. What raptures had filled him with her wide-eyed response.

“Oh I love Seneca,” she had said in his wake. “He’s such a tragic figure and so marvellously brave. There was such nobility in the way he took his own life. I do so admire the Stoics.”

Was it to be believed, that he should meet a woman, indeed a girl, so fond of someone as crustily wonderful as Seneca? He had to face the facts; he was hopelessly in love with Lucinda and he came away waving his arms close to his chest. These restrained gesticulations accompanied a revisitation of her words, for he smarted long after with her brilliance and reworked his way through her expositions. How she outshone everyone and everything that had existed anywhere – ever!

So it was that a week later, after a morning of writing and study, Oliver set off with a will to be lucky. On campus anything could happen; he would patrol the library and the cafés and hope that he might intercept her. If he could not find her on campus, then perhaps he might see her on the streets of Glebe. After all, she only lived a few blocks away and so long as he was out of doors and in their locale, there was a chance he and she might meet.

Once in the library, having collected a pile of books, he photocopied with vigour. He thought he looked very strong in a tee-shirt and positioned himself to be seen in profile by any who should enter the copy room. She did not come. Later, he wandered through all the levels of the library tower, walking up and down the aisles and formulating excuses for being where he did not need to be. Much to his disappointment, however, these jovial musings were never required to be uttered.

After two coffees at the one café she had told him she frequented, he resigned himself to defeat and set off to dawdle home. Along Glebe Point Road his eyes were hawkish and he ventured into all the book shops, yet failed to catch a glimpse of her.

As his door closed behind him and all possibility died, his mood sank quickly and he walked to his bed for a mope.


“You’re not seeing someone else are you?”

“No, mum, I’m not seeing someone else. What makes you think that?”


“Well, I suppose, technically speaking, I have seen someone else.”

“Bloody men.” She looked at him fiercely. “I hope you were discrete this time.”

“I haven’t done anything! I’ve just had my eye on someone. A girl from my history class. Nothing’s happened and it probably never will.”

“Why won’t anything happen?”

“I don’t know. It’s like she’s out of my league. I’ve never met anyone so interesting or intelligent, and we’ve got so much in common, down to the most trivial things. Though, with her, nothing seems trivial.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Probably nothing. I’m too much of a coward to corner her.”

“Well if you really think she’s so special, why not ask her out? And while you’re at it, why keep Rachel hanging on? You’re hedging your bets. If Rachel finds out you’ve got a crush on another girl it’ll be awful for her.”

Oliver shook his head. Why did Sunday dinner so often turn into an interrogation? It was his business after all.

“I’m too jealous to break up with Rachel. She’s so attractive, she’ll find some other bloke in no time. That would be a real blow.”

“God, Oliver, you’re as self-centred as your father. And what about this other girl?”


“If you really have everything in common, then she must know it as well.”

“Maybe she sees things differently.”

“Well, why don’t you find out? If it’s over with Rachel then end it and ask this girl out.”

“It’s not that simple, mum. If she’s not interested, then it’ll be bloody embarrassing being in the same classroom. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

“Maybe you need to think about being fair to Rachel first. Why not take a long hot bath, and think about what’s right, hmmm?”


Oliver worked hard over the next few weeks during which time he found little solace. Though he visited the library daily and patrolled the locale in spare moments, his hopes of running into Lucinda proved fruitless. When he did see her in class on Wednesdays he lacked the nerve to attempt to command her attention. This was usually directed to another chap called Cain with whom she already had a strong rapport. Oliver did not feel comfortable trying to insinuate himself into their chats and could barely find the courage even to hover by the notice board after class in the hope of being addressed. He would, more often than not, slink off with a honking, nasal farewell. The bravado that had netted him indiscretions in the past was merely the drunken scion of intense shyness.

One day, as he was playing tennis, Oliver saw Lucinda walking up the hill towards the library, bustling with her usual energy. He was turning to collect a ball by the wire fence and was so shocked to see her that he almost did something daring and cried out. Having intercepted his first would-be shout, he began to consider his appearance, which, sweaty and unsophisticated, lacked the stage management that went into his classroom attendances. Before long she had turned the corner and vanished from reasonable earshot. Her admirer remained staring a while, gripping his racquet impotently tight, ready to serve a fiery fault.

Oliver felt this missed opportunity to be a terrible blow and it sank his spirits further. His growing determination to pursue Lucinda added a marked surliness in his dealings with Rachel and he saw her even less than before. It would be just his luck that Lucinda should see him on the street with his girlfriend and that would be the end of that. The difficulties were great enough as it was, but to be revealed as a dud option was out of the question.

All the same, his surliness did not emerge free of guilt. Often he found his own obstinacy to be unpleasant and was afraid that he had hardened his heart too much. It was the sound of his own voice that most disturbed him. He found it difficult to like himself when he spoke to Rachel, but something inexorable prevented him from behaving charitably. He feared that he was really punishing himself and his regret stemmed not so much from an unrealised desire to please Rachel, but rather from the suspicion that a more active social life and less time in “the monastery” might be invigorating.

He had long ago identified the real problem in his attitude to Rachel. It lay in his resentment of her happiness, and that principally because he was the source of it. It struck him as pathetic how happy his mere presence could make her and insulting to him that she expected him to derive the same pleasure from her. No one should be entirely responsible for someone’s happiness, he mused. It was an unreasonable burden, an impossible burden and he wanted none of it.

What he resented most of all was that he had spent so long searching for “the formula” and he feared that Rachel had found it. Well, if she believed him to be the answer, then he would have no choice but to prove how flawed this idea of hers was.

“Why is she not plagued by philosophical questions day and night?” he asked himself. “Why does she not sweat as I do over the insoluble? How can anyone rightly be comfortable in this world?”

Despite being aware of the pretentiousness of his angst, he indulged in it, all the while telling himself that he longed to be more like Seneca; dour and joyous in his sobriety, heroically useful in his reasoned application. As yet, the only thing he had managed to put aside was his lust and physical passion, but he could not achieve a level temperament. He was all angles and jarrings, the mere elbows and knees of a personality. At best he was awkward and stiff, while at worst he was cranky and mean spirited. He felt at times that his selfishness knew no bounds. Worst of all, however, at the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy, was Oliver’s fear that he too had found the formula, only for him, the answer was the unattainable Lucinda.

Rachel continued to phone him every day to see how he was, understanding his outward moroseness to be the result of plunging himself into so much work. She was upset and worried at the absence of his old optimism. He was more ambition now than hope, and the one was a good deal more curt than the other. He was thirsty and faithless and sought too many memories to whisper subversively about the stale present. When the sun set, he fell into his soul and he saw the heavens and the claws. The morning would return to give him the confidence to forfeit his life to work and an uncertain chance. It was a hollow security, staid and forced; with little chance for air.


“I’ve half a mind to tell her what you think myself,” said Oliver’s mother one evening. “I just don’t understand why you refuse to do the decent thing. I thought all these philosophers you’re so fond of wrote about ethics and morality and personal decency. Hasn’t any of that rubbed off?”

“I’ve adopted the work ethic…”

“Well, that’s a start.”

“I can’t help myself, mum. I’m completely hooked. I don’t know what to do, but I feel I have to do something.”

“You can’t just keep Rachel hanging on. She’s going to find out the hard way and you’ll be in a right pickle when she decides to leave you for neglecting her.”

“Oh, she won’t leave me. I know that for certain. She loves me far too much.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”

“She’s told me so herself. She couldn’t leave if she tried. It would break her heart. Irreparably.”


One Wednesday afternoon Oliver arrived at class to find no one present. He sat in a chair in the vestibule where he often sat when he was early. It must be a coincidence, he thought, that everyone is late this week. A further five minutes went by, the clock passed two and still no one arrived at the classroom. Then he remembered and leapt from the chair.

“Fuck, shit, shit,” he spat, marching to the notice board. He scanned and flipped the hanging sheets, but he could not see what he was looking for. He pulled his course outline from his bag. It confirmed his worst suspicions. Their trip to St Mary’s Cathedral for a lecture on the Gothic architectural style was this week, not next week as he had somehow mistakenly recalled. How on earth could he have made such a monumental error?

He pictured his fellow students, joyous and smiling and Lucinda most of all, delighting in the upper galleries. They were probably touring the vault first, damn them – and he would miss the chance to see her moist with excitement and to charm her with his remarks, delivered on foot with a chance for theatre. The knowledge, the experience, the bonding would all be missed, and the week following he would seem out of touch; an outsider, and the rest all just a little closer.

He cursed again and moved to the stairs. If he took the bus and ran across town he would be almost forty minutes late. He would have to take a taxi and even then he would be at least twenty minutes late, probably twenty-five. But what if the tour was for one hour only? He would arrive flustered, be forced to talk to priests and be led like a lost lamb to his tutorial group, out of sorts and bumbling excuses. He would look a desperate fool, and his every effort would be sunk. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had decided that it was already too late. He marched off in the direction of his flat; frowning, sulkily barbaric.

Once at home, Oliver paced up and down his flat, regretting his decision not to go. Eventually he took himself to his desk to try to write, but he found it impossible to concentrate and decided to take a walk instead. He had a shower first, changed his clothes and set off for the park at Glebe Point with his camera, a blanket and a book. If he could not write, then so be it, but were he to take a good photograph, the afternoon would not feel so lost.

The sun was warm and a light wind flecked the water with a broken glare. The air was touched with damp scents from the fig trees. The grass was springy and welcomingly soft.

Oliver lay his blanket down and rested on an elbow. He lay like this for an hour, reading about the fall of Berlin, then sank on his back and placed the book over his eyes. He dozed off quickly with his camera stuck in his armpit. Over the next hour he drifted in and out of sleep. He felt serene lying as he was and for a time he lost his tension as the world retreated behind a few snap dreams.

It was five o’clock when he sat up in the lower sunlight. Straight ahead, across the water, stood two old power station chimneys. Before them was docked a jumble of half-scrapped ships. The fading green and yellow paint of an old harbour ferry had blistered with rust like red moss.

Across the face of this setting stepped Lucinda and Cain, strolling slowly beside the water. Oliver’s breath caught as he heard the sound of her voice.

“Oh and I just love what Suger has to say about vaulting. Isn’t it splendid that such books exist?”

Oliver did not move a muscle. Even when Cain, nodding, touched her upper fore-arm and directed her gaze to the boats opposite, he remained perfectly still. The moment their backs were turned he rubbed his eyes and adjusted his hair, then straightened up his clothes. His mouth opened and closed as the decision to speak was revoked. He could not be seen like this. His eyes were too puffy and his face un-alert from sleep. His throat needed clearing and the salt of dried sweat to be washed from his park-lawn limbs. He watched with horror and fascination as Cain and Lucinda stood pointing across the water.

“Look,” she said, “they’ve started removing the panels from the hull.”

“Yes, I saw that yesterday,” said Cain. “My favourite thing is that crane over there,” and he pointed to the horizon.

“Yes,” said Lucinda, “it’s a splendid crane.”

Then, as Cain stood admiring the scene, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Cain looked surprised.

“I thought you said not in public.”

“Well,” said Lucinda, “mostly. Just not on campus, that’s for sure.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and kissed her back.

Oliver lay straight back down on the grass. He picked up his book and held it in front of himself, blocking the view of his face with its open cover; ruins and a Russian tank.


Oliver lay in the bath, steaming. It was pleasant enough in itself to give him second thoughts, but on this matter he was quite resolved. Things had really taken a turn for the worse in the last three months. The decisions he made had left him disgusted with himself and there was little of which to be proud. Pulling out of his thesis was a tragic error, but when Rachel left him for Johannes, the floor had fallen rapidly away.

Despite what he had witnessed between her and Cain, Oliver’s desire for Lucinda would not let him rest. He stepped up his efforts, trying to drive himself like a wedge between the two of them. Oddly, like a man engaging in an undeclared duel, he targeted Cain. He played Cain at tennis and lost. He played him at chess and lost. He played him at Trivial Pursuit and lost as well. Nor could he equal him in a philosophical discourse; the way he was shown up for a fraud on Aristotle was quite the final straw. Lucinda still shone like a beacon, but Lucinda was gone; taken in hand by a lover with glowing credentials. Perhaps, had he not left his trying so late, he might have stolen a march. How different things might have been had he not hedged his bets! Compromise had stifled him and Stoicism had failed him, but this time, he would not fail Stoicism.

“No one else shall have the choice to kill me nor spare me.”

He wanted to laugh at himself for speaking such portentous mimicry, but he had lost his humour a month ago.

“Fortitude, constancy and self-reliance, versus avarice, greed and time-wasting.  Bugger.”

With the weighty results of his disappointment, his fortitude was failing. His constancy was long since tried and proven to be hollow. His self-reliance was exhausted if unflinching, yet he was tired of having to do everything for himself. Avarice, yes, in the desires of the heart; Greed yes, in the form of his lust; and time-wasting in the drinking brought on by his depression.

It is a terrible thing to forget to be nice to the right people.

He took the razor and held it to his left wrist.

In the pointed style, but again he was too heavy to find it amusing.

He squinted and clenched and drew it towards him, running smoothly with a bitter sting.

The red line rising in the wake of its passage took its time to flourish, yet from this deceptive innocence a gushing flow soon sprang.

Oliver blanched at the sight of his own blood and closed his eyes in horror.

“What have I done?”

He felt sick enough to vomit, though he merely gagged and tautened. He peered through his lashes and felt a strange tickle, but could not bear the sight of his wound. There was so much blood! When Seneca took his life he’d had to cut his wrists, then ankles, then the backs of his knees and he still did not bleed fast enough. Indeed from here, in what had been such an apposite and inspirational gesture for Oliver, Seneca was then thrust into a warm bath to accelerate the flow after a walloping dose of Hemlock. Yet, neither poison nor the hot waters were sufficient to break his constitution, so he was finally rendered unto Caesar via a suffocating steam bath. Such heroic misery was not forecast by Oliver and, in his case, as he now acknowledged with his slitted, frightened eyes, the hot bath was working all too well.

He took another look at his wrist; all scarlet and curlicued on the drop-studded armrest; it was scathing beauty, so perfectly bright. The wound pulsed and surged and he flinched from its slow throb. He turned it upside down then thrust it away from himself.

“Holy fuck, holy shit,” there was panic upon him, but with his eyes locked shut and his stinging wrist resting now cold and downturned on the bathside, he felt a certain calm regained through the warmth and faintness prevailing.

He sunk his head back and tried to think clearly, for he had indeed predicted that the action itself would unseat him. He inhaled deeply and felt his shoulders bristle with cooling sweat. He slid down further so the bath might cover him and turned his head upward so that when he opened his eyes, they would not behold a vision of horror.

There was no hope now of going through with his other wrist, for he could not look down at all. Surely it would not be necessary. If he lay still enough he would drift into cloudiness, then fade away for good. He had to overcome the immediate panic and consider his decision with the reasoning that had led him to this bath. And what was that reason, he asked of himself – an absence of hope?

The sting was growing and brought its own inevitable caveat. Yet, just as he had predicted, once the first step was taken, the consequences of living with the psychological ripples from a failed attempt would make his life all the more unbearable in any possible aftermath.

With his eyes still closed and the back of his head tingling with watery nerves, he forced himself instead to think of his philosopher heroes. When Thrasea took his life his friends gathered round as they had with Socrates, to watch and assist in ending his days. Likewise with Seneca. And these were the most educated men of their times. Even if branded traitors and told that they ought to kill themselves, or, like Socrates, sentenced unfairly to death, still they went ahead with it, with friends about and in good humour. And still, such a thing was acceptable, even honourable, even for young men.

How different the world was today, in which so few respected the decision to end one’s life! Certainly Oliver respected it – at least for himself – though perhaps not for everyone.

“And how might that be justified?” he asked, trying to regain some mental equilibrium. “If such a course is suitable for me, surely it is suitable for everyone. But what of those who are not ready? Perhaps they should only allow suicide for those who have a thorough philosophical education.”

He became quite resolved on this point and, momentarily, cheered by it. It would have been splendid if someone were sitting next to him and he could have sought a second opinion. Oddly enough, the most appropriate candidate was Cain – quite the sharpest mind he knew when it came to philosophical dialogues. And Lucinda, of course. She might have smoothed his brow with a cool washer and, if she were made of sterner stuff than he, which he didn’t doubt for a moment, then perhaps she could have assisted him by slashing his other wrist.

He liked this way of thinking, as the steam and heat began to ripple his skin. Lucinda would at least understand the bravery in all this. And she loved Tacitus as well, and Tacitus, after all, had told the best stories about suicides ever recounted. At least in ancient literature, and there wasn’t too much to be had from the moderns on the topic. Or so Oliver thought, for whom such certitude from a position of relative ignorance was not atypical.

Oliver was still too terrified to look to his wrist. He had not moved it since he had lain it along the bath’s edge, cut facing downwards. From those opened veins he could feel a vibrant pulse. His life! The blackness was still at a significant remove. There was as yet little of the static with which his eyes were flooded when he had fainted in the past. Perhaps because he was reclining, perhaps because his head was supported against the back of the tub – either way, he was not dizzy. Indeed, he felt particularly energetic, something he had not felt for some time. There had been the throes of bingeing to carry him briefly, but on the whole his spirit had been lacklustre and weighty.

Unsurprising that it should come back to him now, but he recalled a conversation in which he denounced suicide as pathetic; a spineless, selfish course of action. Had he not once declared that before taking such a measure one should try every chance at happiness? Had he not then said that should the sorrows grow so great, he would rob a bank, fly to Venezuela and burn his passport? Anything, however extreme – a chance must surely be better than no chance. He felt himself to be, to some degree, a hypocrite.

He had been right, he decided, but the words were spoken with energy and passion and not from a body that had become lethargic and moribund. He lacked the energy to rob a bank. Indeed, it was precisely that sort of effort that shamed him now. If he had the urge to get up and get on with things, then he would not have taken this course in the first place.

Oliver edged himself up in the bath with his feet. Perhaps he was now feeling dizzy. The corners of his vision were tingling with flickers of black, creeping like noise into a photograph. He was on the brink of wondering where he stood on all these matters, but a mild panic now arrested him. He felt too hot and prickled and, not wanting to fade in discomfort, he reached out carefully, without catching sight of his bleeding arm, to turn on the cold tap.


He had had something to say about suicide.

“Tell me then, Socrates,” said Cebes, “what are your grounds for saying that suicide is not legitimate?”

“No doubt you will feel it strange,” said Socrates, after a fashion, “that this should be the one question that has an unqualified answer.”

Oliver had been reading the Phaedo only that afternoon and found himself questioning the merits of the dialogues.

Socrates said: “I want to explain to you how it seems natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished.”

“But you weren’t an atheist!”, Oliver protested. “For all your quarrelsomeness, you thought you were going somewhere better. And if you weren’t, then hell, you were an old man. You had lived!”

Oliver took his hand from the cold tap and shook it in the ugly, leering face of Socrates.

“You claimed that a philosopher spends his life preparing for death, denying the visceral in favour of the intellectual and spiritual.”

The static was building behind his eyelids, accompanied by a mild and sweet nausea. The water was cooling quickly and his body temperature was spiking between heat and chills.

“You spent your life trying to divorce your soul from your body,” continued Oliver, reassuring himself not with his words, but the sound of his voice, “but I’ve spent my life improving myself for this world, not the next. As an atheist, how can I even fathom the end of myself, let alone sanction it?”

The cold flow was snaking across the surface water.

Wincing now against sharpening discomfort, he thought more on the matter. For all his qualities as a disputant, Socrates’ arguments seemed poorly structured and full of non sequiturs. He was like a television journalist who loves tearing people apart but never really asks the right questions.

“You were surrounded by sycophants! All your bum-chums loved rolling over and pissing on their bellies. They loved wriggling around in your spurious horseshit.”

Oliver began to giggle at the vehemence of these words. This was a man he had always admired! He was being so unfair that he was sure he must be getting delirious. Often, when overtired he found himself able to laugh or cry at the drop of a pin and just now he was shaking his head.

This was a time both for laughing and crying.

He was getting off track too, thinking about anything and everything. He needed to bring it on home.

“What would Thrasea have to say and do?” he asked. “Old Thrasea just went right on and topped himself. It was like he couldn’t wait, like he’d been itching all along to have a slash at his veins.”

Thrasea had gathered his friends around and called on the sharpness of a philosopher friend in the form of Demetrius, yet no one knows what the two men said. Unbelievably, in perhaps the greatest cliff-hanger in the entire history of western literature, the manuscript of Tacitus breaks off with the line: “then, as his lingering death was very painful, he turned to Demetrius…”

“What did he say?” asked Oliver.

Oliver had a friend called Demitri, perhaps he should call him up and say nothing? But seriously, what might Thrasea have said? Probably something dull, but profound. Then again, knowing Tacitus, some immensely subtle and scathing indictment of the emperor that would only stink of dissidence to those who could do cryptic crosswords.

Oliver’s wrist was killing him now. The sting was sickening and a dull ache had spread all the way up his arm and into his biceps, through his shoulder and along into his neck. This secondary agony, this sympathetic warning…

Christ, he thought. If I was Thrasea, I would have hot-footed it out of there. Perhaps what he really said was “get me the hell out of here. Bind my wrists, grab me a toga, get me some wine, roll me up in a carpet and smuggle me the fuck to Egypt, you doddering homo!”

Oliver laughed again, this time in a hiss of piping giggles. He hadn’t felt such levity in months! He lifted his head forward from the back of the bath and felt its weight on his neck; it lolled and his eyes rolled and he put it straight back down; fearful now of losing consciousness. He was closing in on dissent against himself and could not afford to lose the chance.

The more he thought about it, the more Demitri seemed an ideal candidate for someone to have by his side. Demitri always cut through his pretensions like a knife. Whenever Oliver got worked up about something, Demitri would call him “poofter”. It had been going on since high school and perversely, it gave him great pleasure. Indeed, so run of the mill had it become that whenever he phoned Demitri now, Demitri would answer “is that you, poof?”

How he relished it! Maybe he wasn’t a poof, but a fool, yes, indeed – for why was he now thinking he wanted Demitri beside him? To cut through what? His other wrist, or his immense stupidity? Had he not told himself that his sentencing must be carried out beyond the shadow of a doubt? There could be no doubt at all, either reasonable or unreasonable, and from the moment his wrist had begun to spill he had questioned both his motive and goal. He couldn’t even hold a decent philosophical discourse with himself without piddling about in childish tangents.

He reached out and placed his hand under the cold tap which was still running. He cupped the cold and threw water across his eyes. He repeated this several times before reaching for a face washer lying on the bath’s edge. Folding it into a triangle with one hand, he raised his bleeding arm and shook with the image it brought him. He did not hesitate and nor did he flinch as he slapped the washer hard against it, wrapping it tight and binding it into a knot with his teeth. The water in the bath was colder now and he was starting to shiver. His eyes were holding out just fine, but he was fighting strong against the swoon.

With his foot he worked out the plug. He heard the lurching gurgle as the pipes took the flood, then reached for his mobile phone. He had left it on the bath-side stand and knew exactly what had to be done. It was there should he need it and he had hoped he would not, only why was it there were it not for his habitual failure of nerve? Bah! he was no Stoic, he was all cry for help.

Then, as he lingered in the bath with the water draining about him and his body growing heavier each moment, he hit Demitri’s number.

“Is that you, poof?” asked Demitri.

Oliver did not laugh this time, but rather, he explained himself by saying the following…


Read Full Post »

Rhinestone Cowboy

There are many songs which I have known throughout my entire life. Clearly, these are songs I heard when I was a child, either played at home on the scratchy old record player and woolly-headed tape deck, or heard on the mono AM radio. As with most toddlers and young children, the music you listen to is your parents’ music. Be it through choice or accident, or the inundation of regular exposure, many of the songs make a significant imprint and don’t ever go away, for better or for worse.

My parents primarily listened to country and western when I was a child. This seems oddly incomprehensible in retrospect considering they were middle class people living in the very middle and upper class suburbs of Woollahra and Paddington in Sydney, but it makes more sense when you consider my father’s country town origins, blind attachment to 50s rock and roll and my mother’s preference for songs that “tell a story.” Country and western, which I too can appreciate for its narrative elements, is not exactly one of my favourite genres these days, but pretty much topped the billing as a kid. I had no idea to what degree, even in the mid to late 70s, country music was marginalised from the mainstream.

My favourite singers were Tom T. Hall, Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins – singers who, unsurprisingly, no one else at school had ever heard of. I found them to be a mix of wonderfully wise and mature and pleasingly harmonious, but most of all I think I enjoyed the narratives. Consider the song El Paso by Marty Robbins, which tells the tragic story of a young, impulsive cowboy who, overcome with jealousy for the beautiful Mexican maiden Felina, shoots another cowboy in Rosa’s Cantina and is forced to flee. It was not merely the lyrics of the song which appealed to me as a young child, but the beautiful harmonies and inexorable momentum of the flawless cadence.

El Paso – Marty Robbins

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love but in vain, I could tell.

One night a wild young cowboy came in,
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring,
A drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina,
The girl that I loved.

So in anger I
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.
It looked like it could run.
Up on its back
And away I did ride,

Just as fast as I

Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the bad-lands of New Mexico.

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.

I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this
Pain in my heart.

And at last here I

Am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa’s cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward.
Down off the hill to Felina I go.

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting I can’t let them catch me.
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary,
Unable to ride.

But my love for

Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen,
Though I am weary I can’t stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.


Whether or not you appreciate country and western music, this song is a masterpiece of narrative song-writing with exquisite attention to lyrical technique – a natural, unforced rhyme, a constant, flowing rhythm, emotive language and genuine pathos.

One day in 1996, on my first trip around Europe, sitting in beautiful afternoon sunshine streaming through bay windows in a pub in Newcastle in the north of England, I found this song on the dukebox. I hadn’t heard it for years and simply had to put it on. When I did so I was so moved – as much by  nostalgia as  the song itself – that I listened to it three times. I made sure to get a copy of it a few years later and it’s now been on my iPod for some years – pleasantly surprising me here and there when it turns up on random.

Yet, as ever, I digress. Apart from country and western music, and the classical records given to my mother by a friend of hers, which I diligently went through at the age of 8 – settling on Tchaikovsky as clear favourite – there was the radio. My mother listened to AM radio stations, which played more classics than contemporary songs. Despite growing up in the 70s, I never, for example, heard Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or even any disco for that matter, but I heard a hell of a lot of Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Roy Orbison and the like. I remember how astonished I was at the age of 10 when we went away on holiday with another family and they listened to a more contemporary radio station. Suddenly, there was a whole other world of music  – Kiss and Meatloaf were topping the charts.

Amongst all this, two songs really stuck with me through my childhood and have come, in retrospect, to be the ones that bring out the most nostalgic feelings of all: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and Captain and Tenille’s Do that to me one more time. The latter was actually released in 1980, but was just the sort of easy-listening croony ballad that wasn’t going to cause any controversy and thus was safe to play on the rather conservative stations to which my mother listened. Rhinestone Cowboy, on the other hand, was, purely and simply, a massive hit that had never really been off the radio since its release in 1975.

Though I didn’t really understand it as a kid, I loved that song and always wanted to sing along when it came on the radio. It’s not that the song’s lyrics are especially complex, indeed, they are very simple, but the song’s sentiments reflect those of the struggling artist or performer dreaming of the big time when the chips are down. The romantic evocation of the struggle itself and the heartfelt jubilation of at last hitting the heights are perhaps best appreciated with a little more life experience.

As a child, I loved the easy rhythm of the verses and their gradual rise through minor flourishes to a soaring chorus. It wasn’t the lyrics that appealed to me – though the word “cowboy” was evocative enough to gain my interest and the song certainly is narrative – but Glen Campbell’s voice, which is fatherly and unpretentious and has a natural and beautiful clarity to it. As I grew older and continued to hear the song in various circumstances, the lyrics came to make a lot more sense to me. It wasn’t until about eight years ago, however, when I had lived a good deal more and been trying for some time to make progress as a writer, that the song became a sort of personal anthem.  The song was not actually written by Glen Campbell, but by Larry Weiss, for whom, in 1974, it fell rather flat. When Glen Campbell re-recorded it a year later, it went global.

Rhinestone Cowboy – Larry Weiss

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain
There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And a smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train that’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ card and letters from people I don’t even know


There are few songs which have the same mysterious impact on me as this one. Whenever I hear it I’m pretty well guaranteed either to tear-up and get very emotional, or to feel a powerful, uplifting desire to succeed and bask in the glory of having made it. I find the song incredibly, unbelievably, almost incongruously moving and usually, when it comes on random on my iPod, I have to go back and immediately listen to it again to try to enjoy the emotional stimulus once more. It’s never quite as good the second time, but it’s still good enough.

There are many things I love about this song that transcend my nostalgia for it. One thing is the wonderfully provincial nature of its interpretation of making it big. He’s not dreaming of being a movie star, or even having a number one hit as a singer, but instead the song is about becoming a rodeo star – something very American, indeed, but also very southern and western USA. I like the way it reflects a more local, regional cultural expression of the big time. The rodeo itself has no appeal to me, but I can deeply sympathise with how for the song-writer, it is everything. It tells us something about fame and how provincial it can be. Often the people we most want to impress are the people we know and understand, not the whole world who might not really get it anyway. This expression of success is so refreshingly particular and modest and so adorably unfashionable outside of the country and western circuit – a far remove from the usual – the currency of fast cars, bling and hot women. Don’t get me wrong, this song is about bling from its very title, but it’s not quite the bling we’re used to, and it’s less about the possession of bling than the experience and status it entails.

The lovably innocent line “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know”, offers a splendid vignette of how fame might surprise those unused to it. The word even is pivotal here for emphasising how curiously astonishing it is that total strangers might write to someone they’ve never met on account of their rise to popularity.

There is also something enticingly bohemian about the song’s expression of being down and out. The simple metaphor of walking the same old streets and singing the same old song celebrates the experience itself whilst lamenting the drudgery of it. I really don’t mind the rain either, and the song acknowledges that the struggle itself, the long road or slow train ride, are a mix of pleasure and pain. “And I dream of the things I’ll do, with a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe” further reminds us that the struggle is romantic, in its freedom and possibility, yet ultimately, without success, it is exhausting and demoralising.

There is always, for most people, a “load of compromisin’”, both in art and in life, but the goal of making it is great enough to keep on trying. And that, ultimately, is the great appeal of this song. When Glen Campbell leads into that chorus with “I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me”, everything is not merely okay, but everything is possible, and, hearing it, I believe, perhaps more strongly than I can believe at any other time, that one day, somehow, I too will be riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo, so to speak.

Read Full Post »

One Day in Nepal

You can’t really go trekking in a pair of worn-out thongs. It’s by no means impossible, but likely to result in discomfort, injury, or wardrobe malfunction. And let’s be clear here, I mean flip-flops or rubber sandals, as opposed to anal-floss. Despite this, I have many times in the past worn thongs under inappropriate conditions. On my first visit to India, I had nothing but a pair of thongs to wear, and, once in the mountains around McLeod Ganj in particular, put them to the test by clambering up and down a lot of rocky slopes.

My thongs, on Varkala beach

On my second visit to India, over December and January 2012-13, I once again took only a pair of thongs as footwear. Why? Because I was travelling light again with just a small bag and couldn’t fit a second pair of shoes in my “luggage.” Knowing too that most of the holiday would be spent in very warm and humid places, including a few stays on the coast, I figured I could get away with it and was proven right in the end.

The one concession I made on the footwear front was to bring a pair of socks with me, which proved invaluable when staying at higher altitudes – Ooty and Darjeeling, for example. Naturally I would have preferred not to be seen in cargo shorts, socks and thongs, but I have an amazing capacity to dispense with vanity when on the road – amazing, I say, considering how terribly vain I am most of the rest of the time.

The reason I mention all of this is that on our second-last afternoon in Darjeeling, as we wandered through the sun-drenched dark-green tea shrubs in the Happy Valley plantation, I made the decision to accompany V on her one-day trek to Nepal the following morning. The two reasons I’d opted out initially were that I’d caught a mild cold on the way up the mountain to Darjeeling and hadn’t been feeling especially energetic over the previous few days, plus I only had a pair of thongs, which made my attendance seem farfetched. The more I thought about it, however, the more it became clear just how much I wanted to go. Apart from the beautiful views and exciting exercise, along with the chance to enter Nepal for the first time, I knew I would regret not having shared the experience with V when she returned and told me all about it.

The task of buying shoes can be complicated, but this is usually because people are fussy about the look of the things and take their time deciding from amongst various styles. In this case, however, we soon discovered that irrespective of style – of no concern in this case – just finding a pair in the right size was going to be difficult. We began our search at around 1600, the tail end of a warm and sunny afternoon, and ran almost immediately into trouble. There were three or four shoe shops in the streets around our hotel, yet none of these had anything larger than a size 45. This was roughly two or three sizes too small and would ultimately do more harm than good, if I even managed to get them on my feet, which was not actually possible. With none of the closed-toed shoes fitting, I asked to try all the largest sandals, yet none of these were big enough either. I was willing to take a pair a tad too small, as sandals offered a lot of freedom anyway, but the soles were simply too small and I had some toe-overhang going on.

I was fortunate to have a welcome flashback at this point – to my last visit to Darjeeling when I had stumbled into a sort of shoe-emporium. One level of a shopping mall, just a little down the hill from the top end of town, which had several shoe shops inside. We made our way to this place at around 1730, and were very pleased to discover that, indeed, the ground floor contained nothing but shoe shops.

I felt certain I would find something appropriate in here, but still, after the first four visits to ask about size, we came away with nothing. Eventually, however, we entered a shop which had one remaining pair of size 46 sandals. I tried them on and they were a near perfect fit, with the straps loosened. They also felt sturdy and comfortable and seemed more than capable of doing the job. I thanked the cheerful gents in the shop and apologised for my long deliberations. I felt triumphant. The trek was on.

The car arrived at 0545 the next morning to drive us to a town called Maneybhanjang, roughly 32 kilometres from Darjeeling. It’s a common starting point for treks into Nepal, be they for a day or considerably longer. I had been concerned about whether or not we could enter Nepal as both of us were on single-entry visas, but the young man in the hotel had assured us that while the border police would check our passports and register them, they would not be stamped and no official entry would be recognised. Our trek would take us only a few miles into Nepal, which allowed some degree of flexibility.

Our driver was another lovely local man – friendly, welcoming and helpful. Like so many people in Darjeeling, he never seemed restless or impatient, but entirely at ease, which made his politeness completely genuine. We exchanged a few words, but sat quietly through most of the one-hour drive, taken with the shifting views of the mountains through trees and villages. There was a light haze in the air, but little sign of cloud, and the weather was predicted to be as it had been for the last three days – clear and crisp sunshine.

We were taken straight to the local police station to register our passport details. This took place in a very spartan, cold, wooden-floored room with tired old blue paint on the walls. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t have a big fire burning or a heater on. In fact, we’d noticed that the interior of several places around Darjeeling had also been very cold and people simply wore coats, scarves and hats. Perhaps heating was too expensive, or they were just used to it. Either way, I wasn’t so much worried about myself, but for their own comfort. The policemen were as sleepy as we were and the whole process had a dreamy and unreal quality to it. Having watched a few episodes of Banged-up Abroad while on the road, I entertained myself with the grim thought that something would go wrong and we’d end up imprisoned in some remote place for a visa violation, being left no choice but to make a daring escape.

Shortly afterwards, we met our guide, Ranjin, and our driver left us. Ranjin was actually born and bred in Maneybhanjang. It seemed surprising that anyone could choose to live their lives in such a small place – a mere single main street with a cluster or two of houses off to the side – but this was merely my prejudice for busy places with all manner of shops and services. I have never understood the desire to live in small towns in remote places, but perhaps this is simply because I’ve never tried it. Still, the lack of access to an art-house cinema and a wide variety of restaurants gives me the shivers.

Ranjin took us to a local restaurant of sorts. It was a simple, small room with a few tables and chairs and an elderly woman making dhosas and mildly spiced potatoes. For all we knew, it might have been his family home. At this stage both of us were in a sleepy state of fascination with all around us and hardly said a word. We wolfed down the food and drank a couple of cups of tea, then set off to begin the trek.


It began with a very steep ascent, up a rocky road. The slope was so steep at some points that it seemed not even a four-wheel drive could have handled the gradient. The road was flanked by tall cedars, which Ranjin was later to explain were all replanted some time in the last twenty years as part of a reforestation project. With such a steep ascent, it wasn’t long before we were warmed up and removing layers. After just ten minutes I was down to a t-shirt and was to spend most of the rest of the day as such. We were also soon treated to some excellent views of the surrounding hills and mountains. The valleys were still full of mist, but the haze had cleared from the sky and it was crisp and blue over head.


After twenty-five minutes of climbing we reached a point where the road levelled out on the crest of a hill. A few small, modest houses, a temple, shrine and monastery sat the ridge, in low yellow grass. Ranjin lead us to a large iron gate that was chained and locked. He produced a key and began to unlock the gate.

“On the other side is Nepal,” he said, then opened it up and went through.

V and I smiled at each other and followed him through the gate. I was immensely excited, in fact, having never been to Nepal. As silly as it may sound, I’ve always loved the idea of collecting countries and, whilst this one would not appear on my passport, I could safely say afterwards that I had, in fact, been to Nepal.

Opening the gate to Nepal

We wandered into the grounds of the monastery and took in the colourful buildings. Everything was white-washed with red, blue, green and yellow highlights. Perched as it was on the top of this yellow crest, the snow-capped Himalayas as a backdrop, it had a wonderful remoteness to it; a sort of complex simplicity that evoked contradictory feelings of wanting to stay and leave at the same time.

Welcome to Nepal

Tree and mountain

Monastery, Nepal

We moved on quickly, following Ranjin’s lead, and began a walk that followed the crests of the hills. For the next hour we alternated between walking on the road and on the grass alongside. This early in the day there was still much frost on the grass and the icy patches in the shadows had a blue luminescence about them.

Frosty road

It was very beautiful and I kept wanting to stop and look at it, but moving as we were at a good marching pace, we kept on. Ranjin told us that the road was in fact in India, and that where we were walking alongside was Nepal. On account of this, we must have crossed the India Nepal border on countless occasions during that early part of the walk.

The Himalayas

Around nine we reached the top of another crest to see a small collection of buildings. From a distance it looked like a small village of wooden barns and thatched roofs, though I’m not sure in the end that it wasn’t just a single family living there. There was, however, a shop which sold snacks and made tea. From the open, wooden-shuttered shopfront, an old man emerged to greet us. He spoke briefly with Ranjin who told us that the tea was all part of the service. It was a young girl who came out to serve us. We said hello, though she just smiled and nodded in reply and didn’t speak to us. The tea arrived a short while later.

Tea stop

Up the road a little, some young men were repairing the axel on a jeep. They seemed so happily engaged in their task that they didn’t appear to notice us at all. Perhaps the solitude bred this quiet detachment though, of course, it was only us and the wider world from whom they seemed detached. The wide, open views into the valley below and across to the line of snow-capped peaks were engaging enough. I sat quietly watching the men work, relishing the cooling sweat on my back and shoulders where the pack had been.

We set off again along the road in the direction of Megma and Tonglu. The road itself was an impressive construction, a tightly packed and solid path of uneven rocks. The light colour of the rocks gave it a magical quality as it curved like a ribbon along the rolling crests. So uneven was the surface, however, that it was nigh impossible to walk on, and we strolled alongside on the time-smoothed verge. Soon a jeep approached. We stepped to one side and watched it rocking awkwardly from stone to stone. The vehicle jumped so clumsily at every rock that it seemed to be walking on four legs. The driver and passengers wore a long suffering look of bemusement as they leapt up and down in their seats. How anyone could stand such a bouncing motion for an extended period of time was beyond me. The jeeps must be very durable indeed.

Tonglu / Megma

We soon reached the small village of Megma, which housed an Indian army border checkpoint. Apart from the checkpoint and barracks, there was a monastery and a row of four or five houses. The guards were young men with old-fashioned carbines, who smiled and seemed to enjoy looking at our passports. I still retained some small amount of irrational fear that there might be a problem with our single-entry visas, but this was soon dispelled as we were directed to the ubiquitous ledger into which we had to enter our names and details. All the while, a short distance away, one soldier was continually shouting at another one down the hill in the barracks. It was an unfortunate disruption to the peacefulness of the place and had an air of gratuitousness about it. Ranjin had warned me not to take any photographs.Tonglu


Just outside Megma the weather began to change. Waves of mist and cloud came sweeping up the mountainside. The puffs of dark grey and white cloud added a welcome bleakness to the scenery, increasing the air of remoteness and mystery. The light acquired an eerie, metallic hue and we walked in that realm of contrast between sunlit ground and overcast sky. It grew rapidly colder and soon we felt droplets on our skin.

Approaching Tonglu

We made excellent pace and Ranjin was impressed with our fitness and speed. We weren’t trying to push the pace, but both of us are naturally fast walkers. We came to a small stream near some rocks painted with runic symbols. The stream ran through a small shrine in which a prayer wheel turned constantly from the motion of the water. It was very simple and clever, though I have always wondered about the sincerity of such contrivances. Was there not something intrinsically lazy about automating devotion? Not that I really minded, but it does seem slightly askew.


Painted rocks

The shrine marked the beginning of our next destination – the slightly larger village of Tonglu. It was here that we stopped for lunch, in a large wooden house. Ranjin led us inside and a youngish girl came to greet us. It was a cosy place, the wood-panelled walls painted pale blue and inset with glass cabinets. A wide bench under the window was covered with colourful cushions and here we sat, before the dining table. Ranjin went inside to chat with the family in the kitchen whilst we amused ourselves looking at the many curiosities about the room. On one wall, next to a hand-drawn map of the region, was an old faded photograph of a girl riding a goat. I wondered if it was the girl who had greeted us on our arrival.

Lunch stop, Tonglu

Lunch consisted of Maggi noodles with a few peas thrown in and some not especially hot chilli sauce. We both smiled at the disappointing simplicity of the meal, yet ate the lot of it with an eager hunger. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, and both of us were very hungry after the morning’s exercise.

Hanging lantern, Tonglu

The village sat just on the snowline and, as we advanced up the road out of Tonglu, we found ourselves walking on a snow-covered road. Both V and I were very excited about this as we rarely have the chance to see snow. I had now put my coat back on, which was fortunate because I soon slipped on the perilous surface and landed on my elbows. After that, I trod more cautiously, enjoying the squeaky crunch of the snow under my sandals. The shoes, incidentally, were working perfectly – sturdy, supportive and very comfortable. It had been clear for some time that this was not a walk for thongs.


We passed through another small village whose name escapes me. All the buildings were locked up and no one was present. It had a pleasantly bleak and lonely feel about it, another chance to indulge in the sweet melancholy I love so much. We hurried through, now at the highest point for a few miles around, with great views of the valley dropping away into Nepal on one side and India on the other. Down in the valley it was sunny, but up here on the heights we were in amongst the clouds.


The cloud had thickened considerably around us and clung like heavy fog. It continued to rush up the mountain in great sweeps of mist, adding drama to the dark and subdued landscape. My childhood love of fantasy locations had been awake during the whole walk, but now, with the fog sweeping up and the yellow grass growing wet under the grey light, the snow on the rocky road and the closeness of the world around as the cloud limited our vision, it seemed more fantastic than ever.

Nobody home

We walked through this fog and cloud for another hour and a half, slowly descending along a winding road. We had soon completed a circuit of the crest and the army checkpoint at Megma came back into sight. From here we would follow the same road home, retracing our morning’s steps. With the weather having shifted so dramatically and with us now facing in a different direction, it seemed like a different walk altogether.

Road into fog

Road into fog

During the last stages of the journey we talked more with Ranjin, asking him about his life and interests. He came across as incredibly content – married with children and loving his job. I asked if he ever got bored, taking people on the same walks all the time, but he assured us that he never did, so fond was he of this landscape in which he had grown up. To some degree I could understand him – how could anyone ever get bored of such magnificence? Though only at an elevation of around 3500 metres, it had felt to me like the top of the world – high, cold, bleak and yet staggeringly beautiful. And yet, inside me, there remained that knowledge that I could not do this forever. I needed the city somehow, though perhaps this would not always be the case.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Our last stop was the place where we had first entered Nepal. This time we visited one of the houses there and sat in the lounge of the family who lived there. Two children watched television and a young Nepali man sat in another corner drinking a beer. At first we just nodded to him and kept to ourselves, but when he came over and spoke to us, we instantly warmed to him and listened to his story.

He was a jeep-driver, taking people across the mountains between India and Nepal. He was drinking Kingfisher Strong and told us that he needed it to keep himself steady in his dangerous job. I thought there was something foolish about this and wondered at his commonsense, but the more we learned, the more sympathetic I was to his situation. He was, in fact, terrified of his job and the risks involved.

Troubled young Nepali

“When the roads are icy, it’s very dangerous. Jeeps go, whoosh,” and he motioned with his hand as though a jeep were falling down the mountain. “Tonight I can’t go, because there is ice on the roads. But tomorrow I have to go, ice or no ice. It’s very dangerous.”

As he spoke to us in his good, clear English, he shifted about with nervous energy and had a mild look of desperation in his eyes. His demeanour was a strange mix of happy, almost glib, yet clearly he carried a burden. I got the impression that he was not just scared but frustrated – as though he had something unpleasant to do and would like to have gotten it done then and there. Waiting til tomorrow was actually worse than doing it now, so for the moment, drinking beer was the next best thing. Yet, even then, he seemed unable to relax and remained standing, shifting on his feet.

We quizzed him further about his life and he told us he had studied at university in Darjeeling. He had had to abandon his studies on account of his “domestic situation.” He didn’t elaborate, and though desperately curious, I wasn’t about to ask him. Had he gotten someone pregnant? V and I later speculated. It was impossible to know, but I felt deeply sorry for him, with his dangerous job and curtailed prospects. I certainly hope he finds some way to be content in his life.

Armani my foot

We had made such good time on the journey that we were early to meet our ride home, so we lingered for almost an hour in this house. When we finally did leave, we just had the walk down the steep hill to the car, which took only twenty minutes going down. All along the way we noticed long, narrow plastic pipes running from the mountain-top down into the valley. I hadn’t noticed these on the way up, and Ranjin told us that they were to provide water to the houses in the village. Without a proper water supply, people tapped into the springs and streams up on the crest. Many of the pipes dripped and ran with escaping water. It was an interesting insight into the lives of the local people…


The car was waiting for us down in Maneybhanjam and it was time to say goodbye to Ranjin. He was so unassuming and mil-mannered that he tried to slip away quickly before we could give him a tip, but we were not about to let him go without giving him the bonus he so surely deserved. Even when we handed him the money, his surprise seemed utterly genuine. He really was a top bloke.

Distant trees

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: