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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

Scott.

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.

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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.

http://bit.ly/ElPasoMartyRobbins

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

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

http://bit.ly/RhinestoneCowboyUT

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.

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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.

Forest

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.

Mountains

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

Megma

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.

Tonglu

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.

Tonglu

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.

Tonglu

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…

Maneybhanjang

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

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Just prior to going to India last December, I moved into an inner city suburb of Sydney called Camperdown. It’s very close to where I was living previously in Glebe, on the other side of that great dividing road, Parramatta. The nice side, in my opinion, for Glebe runs down to the inner harbour and is by far the prettier of the two suburbs. Camperdown, however, has many attractions, one of which, technically, is the University of Sydney.

Parramatta Rd, into the west

Campus aside, Camperdown is a curious mix of old light industrial – factories, warehouses and workshops, and residential – of the bungalow, flat and terrace kind. Indeed, like so much of Sydney, Camperdown has swathes of Victorian and Edwardian terraces and semi-detached Federation (turn of the 20th century) houses.

The ubiquitous Sydney terraces

The area was first named by Governor Bligh (1806-08) after the Battle of Camperdown between the English and Dutch in 1797. Bligh received a 240 acre grant of land, which also included parts of neighbouring Newtown. Early in the 19th century, Camperdown was established as a residential and farming area. Lying just four kilometres west of the city centre, it was only a matter of time before it became swallowed by the city.

Australia Street

Camperdown is a small suburb, though this is in part an imposition of its division down the middle by Parramatta Road. It is a very built area, with a few good parks and small reserves, but nothing especially large – again, not including campus. Most of the houses are, however, one or two storeys, and, apart from the hospital, few of the reclaimed and gentrified warehouses and factories are especially tall. With streets and gardens full of trees and vegetation, it thus retains an old-town feel which adds to its appeal.

Camperdown

The Dutch houses

Denison street

We are fortunate to live in a tree-heavy cul de sac which fronts onto Camperdown oval. Our apartment block is a creaky old firetrap, which, from the back lane, looks awfully un-inspiring, but from the front seems well-disposed.

Cricket poetry

Penalty shot

Camperdown oval

Inside, the place takes on the curiously nostalgic complexion of an old, wide-corridored hotel in the Blue Mountains. The flats themselves have a pleasant vintage character to them and certainly scrub up nicely, with redundant fireplaces and tile features. It is hardly baroque, but rather an elegant sufficiency.

Rooftop garden, dying

Mantlepiece

Downstairs, in the base of the apartment block’s front are two cafés, Gather on the Green and Store, both of which are perfectly okay – the former good for coffee, the latter for food. Because of their proximity to the park and the dead-end nature of the street, customers regularly take their orders on the grass beside the oval. With the prevalence of youngish professional couples round these parts, the park and cafés are usually full of young families with a good number of children running about. This creates what my friend Paul calls a certain “prambience.”

The cafes downstairs

Foggy morning

Camperdown always struck me as an in-between sort of place. It is stuck between Parramatta Road and King Street in Newtown – then stuck between the university and hospital. In a sense, it just peters out into the west, hemmed in on the other sides. For this reason, I never felt comfortable about moving here, knowing that I was, to some degree, cut off from the water. To compensate for this I have extended my run considerably and now I cross Parramatta Road and follow the canal down to the water.

Wet Parramatta road

Glebe point sunset 2

Glebe, Rozelle Bay

It’s a lovely run once on the other side – under the aqueduct, through the canal-side parks, under the great curve of the Glebe railway viaduct, then along the promenade in Bicentennial Park. After cheering on the wind-turbine, I swing past views of the Glebe Island Bridge (now sadly renamed Anzac) and Sydney Harbour Bridge. My long ago established love for the Glebe area is such a powerful thing that I feel uplifted just running through it, but the sight of the water and bridges from the park takes things up another notch.

Glebe Island bridge

Glebe afternoon

Back to Camperdown, the land of the in-between. It is a very handy place to live, pure and simple: King Street with all its attractions is a ten minute walk away and, most Saturdays, we head up to the markets at the old Eveleigh rail-yards.

Eveleigh markets

Carriageworks

The beautiful campus of Sydney University – V’s workplace – is just ten minutes walk to the east. Public transport is plentifully available for the price of a short walk – to Parramatta Rd for buses, King Street for trains – and it takes me fifteen to twenty minutes to get downtown.

Parramatta Rd

King street crossing

When we have access to a car, it takes us roughly twenty-five minutes to drive to Bronte Beach – every Saturday and Sunday – which is not such a big imposition. Camperdown also meets one of my toughest conditions when it comes to choosing a house – being within walking distance of an art-house cinema. It also helps that the locals all seem to be friendly, harmless, open-minded lefties and that rare breed of unpretentious hipsters. It all feels perfectly safe.

Camperdown

Amor Laura

There are, inevitably, a couple of drawbacks: despite being mostly quiet, Camperdown is often the victim of flight path diversions and there are some eyesores. The huge slab of old hospital near the modernising Royal Prince Alfred is particularly unattractive. Surrounded by chain fence and barbed wire, it has a post-holocaust hollowness to it that is chilling and disquieting.

Dead hospital

Dead hospital

It is a monolith of arrant functionalism, yet, despite its ugliness, it often inspires enjoyably melancholic thoughts of the end of civilization. Now overgrown and toweringly glum, it invites one in with its brooding lassitude and I long to break in and explore the corridors. It is probably riddled with asbestos.

Parramatta Road doesn’t exactly leave a lot to be desired and I suppose there isn’t actually anything to do in Camperdown itself. Apart from a few dumpy sports pubs on the main road, there aren’t really any bars or cafés. This really ads to its in-between feel, because in order to do anything it is necessary either to walk to Newtown or Glebe, or bus and train the hell out of dodge. Still, nothing is really out of reach, so being sleepily stuck in the middle isn’t such a bad thing after all. Either way, it certainly has grown on me over the last few months.

Autumn, Camperdown

Camperdown

Victory

Australia street

Chesty Bonds

Glebe, rope ladder

Wet Pavilion, Camperdown

Camperdown tree shadow

Biblical Sky, Camperdown

Missenden rd

 

 

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That same afternoon on which V and I witnessed the tragic death of a dog on Sidemen Road, we sat on our hotel balcony, drinking beer. The image of the terrible accident was still fresh in our minds, but with some hours now having passed, a storm having come and gone, and several glasses of beer having passed our lips, the tension and horror had retreated somewhat. I still felt the occasional shudder when, inevitably, the image popped into my head, or I conjured it up in the perverse way one smells a bad smell again to see if it really is that bad. Yet, on the whole, we felt very calm and relaxed.

The surroundings certainly helped. Below us the pool and the maze of garden paths were empty – indeed, there seemed to be no other guests in our hotel. The hotel itself was a network of bungalows and two-story villas, terraced onto a gentle slope that steepened and dropped away into rainforest. Behind the lush trees in the mid-ground was a backdrop of wooded hills with rice paddies occupying their lower slopes. A few scattered clouds still lingered in the sky – the dark, bruised colour of storms – and the air had cooled significantly from the sticky heights of midday.

Sidemen hotel view

Both of us agreed that this place was heart-achingly beautiful, and more than that, it was serene. One might think such a place would cost an arm and a leg, yet in Bali luxury is very cheap. Our hotel cost a mere thirty-five Australian dollars a night, an astonishing bargain, but one that was repeated across the whole island, outside of the excesses of Seminyak and Kuta.

Breakfast table view

Not only is luxury cheap in Bali, it is, almost universally, surprisingly tasteful. Most “resorts” have achieved a harmonious balance of local architectural styles, modern amenities and lovely gardens. Having only spent a total of eleven days in Bali in two stints, I can hardly say my experience is comprehensive, yet judging from what I have seen, both on the ground and on the net, there is a surfeit of genuinely beautiful accommodation on the island.

Ubud hotel

Ubud resort

Self portrait by shrine in hotel grounds, Ubud - somewhat ironic as an atheist

Breakfast at Ubud

The “resorts” often mirror the arrangements of a local family compound, but on a grander scale. Behind the decorated stone and brick walls lies a cleverly landscaped mix of flourishing, immaculate gardens, pools and water features and traditional stone and brick-built bungalows and standalone two-story villas, often with high, thatched roofs.

Sidemen Road

The buildings are rarely dull and blocky as so many hotels can be, but rather they have an elegant simplicity or sport the intricate busy-ness so apparent in Balinese religious architecture. This baroque, Hindu-influenced style combines the humble commonsense of the village house with the strident decadence of a palace and blends marvellously with the colourful gardens. Even where the adornments have been stripped back to a more minimalist presentation, the effect is still a pleasing marriage of the humble and palatial.

Hotel, near Seminyak

I don’t generally like overly busy architectural or decorative styles – take the Corinthian bombast of the later Antonine Pax Romana or the garish flounce of the Rococo, or, for that matter, the overwhelming intricacy of Hindu temples – but in Bali the rendering is apposite. It has an organic, natural quality, especially in its unpainted masonry, which, whilst texturally in contrast with the limpid green of the vegetation, rises from it like a finely crafted termite mound. This organic quality is also ever-present in the woodwork and thatching.

Door, near Ubud

The floral and bestial carvings in the stone and wood – intertwined curlicues – run the eye gently round in the mesmerising manner of a celtic manuscript illustration, or indeed, an overgrowth of creepers. Inside, more often than not, the rooms lack ceilings and, rising above the high walls, the tall, pointed thatched roofs lend the rooms a sense of immense space, as well as keeping them cool in the tropical conditions.

Bedroom, Ubud 40 bucks a night

For someone who prides himself as a lefty with strong socialist tendencies (though I don’t pretend not to be a bloody hypocrite at times), such luxury usually comes with the added moral and ethical price of guilt. It is a price all people with a social conscience pay when they travel in the “developing” parts of Asia, or indeed, any country where the locals earn considerably less money and have fewer opportunities. Yet, sitting there on the balcony that evening, drinking beer and watching the sunset sky, V and I both expressed the same conclusion – that in Bali, this feeling did not take hold as it did elsewhere. What seemed different about Bali, in comparison to, say, Cambodia, Vietnam or India, was that the locals seemed far more content and most people appeared to live well. The power relationship, so often dictated by money, was still to my advantage, yet I didn’t detect the same degree of envy, jealousy or desperation in exploiting the fact that I had money to spend.

I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people in Bali who are struggling to make ends meet, nor that there aren’t people out to make a buck from the tourists, for there certainly are, yet the living standards and way of life seem adequate to allow for contentment and harmony. I come to this question from a completely amateur sociological / anthropological perspective, yet my encounters and observations suggest that generally people are happy in Bali. This might be a consequence of their religion, rituals, close family relationships and their solid, largely village-based social framework, yet I suspect it is also on account of the beauty of the place and the constant climate. That both V and I had arrived at the same conclusion independently could purely be a misleading coincidence, but it gave me some confidence that there might be at least some truth in this.

Temple guardian

When I travelled in India for the first time in 2010, I also encountered many people who seemed content in getting on with their lives. Yet there was the unmistakeable feeling of being constantly pursued and receiving constant attention. It is understandable in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is so much greater than in Bali, and where the sheer size of the population dramatically increases the competition for resources, but the end result is that simply by being there, I felt I had in some way destroyed the equilibrium of the place. Poverty is very relative and people don’t want things if they don’t know about them. They are also less likely to feel jealous or in anyway inferior or inadequate if not exposed to the wealth of others. Yet, even when travelling on the cheap with a day-pack and a pair of thongs in India the amount of money I had to spend on luxuries and services far exceeded the capacity of most of the locals and I was constantly aware of this fact. Without trying to cut too many corners, nor deny myself too much, and yet, trying to stick to a pretty decent budget, I would end up spending around twenty dollars a day – a thousand rupees then, and now almost 1200. Consider, however, that those lucky enough to get the minimum wage receive roughly 160 rupees a day for skilled labour and a mere 100 for unskilled labour, and you get some idea of the vastness of the chasm between even a poor tourist like myself and the local people.

India – hard slog for peanuts

On this note, I once had a conversation with a man in India where I tried to explain that although I came from one of the richest countries in the world and was far wealthier than he was in real and relative terms, back in Australia my income placed me in the bottom fifteen percent of the population and I could afford neither a house nor a car. It took some time to get the message across, but we got there in the end. Even bearing this in mind, however, which, for simple practical reasons, meant I couldn’t afford everything India had to offer, it never stopped me feeling guilty about how much easier life was for me.

In Bali, however, despite a relatively similar disparity in spending power, I never felt the divide as greatly. Again, I must reiterate, this is not because there are not poor or desperate people in Bali, there certainly are, yet their lives don’t seem anything like so harassed and stressful as the lives of poor people in India.

One thing V and I had noticed was the apparent contentment of the rural population. Despite rural areas often being poorer in real terms, in Bali the rural population appeared mostly happy. The locals certainly worked hard in the fields and in many and various other manual tasks, yet the villages were clean and organised, with good housing, nice gardens, easy access to running water etc.

Sideman Rd area

On the first trip I took to Bali with my brother, we drove through countless villages as we cruised across the island, and we were constantly impressed with the quality of the houses and how attractive these small urban environments were. So much so that I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to live in such a house for some time and write a novel.

Sideman Rd area

Ubud

This was in contrast to the experiences I’ve had elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, about the difference between rural and urban areas in poorer or developing countries, is that whilst in cities people will offer services simply because they can, in rural areas, they are more inclined to ask directly for money. I first noticed this in Turkey back in the nineties, where, outside of the cities, children would often approach me and asked for what sounded like “Boom boom”, whilst rubbing the forefinger against the thumb. The expression itself might be misconstrued! though there was no mistaking the gesture. Some children actually used the word “money”, saying nothing else. “Money?” “Money?” This was repeated in Cambodia and India on many occasions, but only very rarely in Bali. It could simply be a consequence of greater comparative wealth, in which case, I’m not entirely sure what my point is, but either way, the absence of this direct appeal for money help to ease any possible sensation of guilt.

Doing alright

This was the subject of our conversation, sitting there watching the sunset. It wasn’t the most impressive of sunsets, but the beauty and serenity of our surroundings hardly needed the help of an elaborate lightshow on the horizon. It is worth pointing out that V’s observations and opinion on this front were founded on greater travel experience than my own. Having been to South and Central America five times, often for lengthy periods, having travelled extensively in Asia, India, the Middle East and the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, I trust her opinion and judgement. She had also spent more time in Bali than I had, visiting the place, as I had, just a few of years before. The people of Bali, we both agreed, had a softness, warmth and generosity of spirit that stood out.

Ubud

Cycling boy, Ubud

Another difference we noticed in Bali was the high quality of customer service. Certainly at times things are a bit ad hoc – which is fine with me as I don’t like formality and fawning attention – yet nearly everyone in Bali that we had any dealings with – drivers, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff, shop assistants, ticket vendors, you name it – were polite and attentive and professional, or enthusiastically and charmingly amateurish. This seemed to be the case even when there was no direct incentive to be so – no commission, expectation of a tip, etc. One thing I was later to notice when we arrived in India was that the service varied wildly, and often veered into total rudeness and indifference, depending on the degree to which the person with whom we were interacting was to benefit from it. In the first six outlets of Café Coffee Day which we were to visit in India – so desperate were we for espresso coffee that we kept going back – the staff practically ignored us completely, even when standing at the counter, and then were surly, unfriendly and not especially professional. It must be said that we were to have a very different experience in Kolkata, where we found very lovely people who were totally on the ball, yet by this stage the damage was already done. I’m not sure what it was, but despite our cheery hellos and attempts to be friendly and engaging ourselves, the staff were almost universally indifferent and acted as though they had been massively put out by our coming into the café in the first place.

Bali Kopi, Ubud

Customer service is not the most important thing in the world by any means, and while it is unreasonable to expect a certain standard of professionalism, friendliness and politeness leave a lasting impression and have a universal appeal. The way one is treated by people makes a huge difference to how the experience is remembered; rudeness and negativity can sour the memory of a place. If there is one thing that seems to truly stand out about Bali, it’s how bloody nice everybody is when they don’t need to be. This friendliness goes a long way towards creating a much more equal relationship, rather than one that is all about extracting money, which is too often the case elsewhere and which creates a very uncomfortable situation. Some of the few other places in developing countries where I’ve had such a sense was Darjeeling in northern West Bengal and in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Worshipper, Pura Besakih

Temple statue, Sideman Rd area

Offerings aplenty, Ubud

Was it culture? Was it religion? Was it the environment? Or were their lives simply full enough and rich enough not to need much more than what they could afford and had available to them already? In these places I didn’t feel the resentment and envy that tourists in poorer countries will almost inevitably attract.

I don’t doubt that people will have had very different experiences and I repeat that these are just casual observations that are in no way scientific. It also must be said that in and around Denpasar, as in many big cities, the pace of life is faster and business a little more cut-throat, so here one might find a very different vibe.

Night markets, Denpasar

Shop sign, Sanur

It is also necessary to point out that when we went to the temple complex at Pura Besakih the day after having had this conversation, we had a pretty unpleasant experience. The Lonely Planet had forewarned us that the hawkers here were most aggressive and that tourists were often subjected to scams wherein local men would tell them that they were not allowed into the site without a guide, despite having already bought a ticket.

Cranky hustler, Pura Besakih

It seemed as though this might be quite easily gotten around, but when we arrived at the place we were not only lied to by a number of people at the entrance, but they were very aggressive about it and even tried to block our path. When we decided to ignore them and push on through they still didn’t drop the ruse, but continued to shout rudely at us. This might have been amusing if their tone wasn’t so ugly and aggressive and instead it made me so angry that it spoiled the experience of the place, which was pretty unfortunate. Though, to be honest, so far as temple complexes go, it’s not that much to write home about.

6999 Watching the ladies, Pura Besakih

6926 Pura Besakih

7080 Pura Besakih

7059 Pura Besakih

This negative experience, however, was an isolated one. During both of my visits to Bali I have found the people to be very friendly indeed, as has V on both of her trips. It is a gross generalisation, but I was left with the impression that people live happy lives and they are mostly content just to get on with things. Whilst going there in the first place is a somewhat disruptive thing in itself, so far as local balance is concerned, the overall feeling we had was not one of guilty privilege and yawning disparity, but one of more equal interactions. All of which makes travelling there more relaxing and fulfilling.

We finished our beers as the light vanished from the sky and the mosquitoes began to close in. Below, under a thatched canopy, on a beautiful deck beside a patch of jungle, calmed by the trickle of a fountain, the smiling staff were waiting to serve us, the only guests. It all seemed so utterly decadent and quite ridiculous for the price, but at least we didn’t feel guilty in allowing ourselves this indulgence. And, as is so often the case in Bali, precisely because there was no pressure to do so, we were happy to leave a generous tip.

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