Monday, 18 January 2016

Words of 2015 or Oh to be Agile

Interesting how certain words get currency, become the go-tos for expressing our collective unconscious.  In my first blog on this I noted how I came to be intrigued by such words.  It began sometime in the 1980s, when the verb ‘resile’ burst onto our public discourse, with one politician after another refusing to ‘resile’ from one thing or another.  I was instantly mesmerised. 

It’s possible that ‘resile,  the long-disused sixteenth-century progenitor of ‘resilient’ and today's very popular ‘resilience’, was embraced as much as it was in the 80s because of the far-reaching economic reforms the Hawke-Keating government brought in – unpopular moves for which all their ministers needed the resolve the words 'not resiling from' suggest. 

So, to my words of 2015 - not in any significant order, but as they intruded on my consciousness:

A substitute for ‘souped-up’ but still deriving from culinary practice (although with 'souped-up' by way of motor mechanics).  Meaning given unnecessary power, exaggerating or overstating the argument; in other words, spoiling something by trying too hard.  From ‘over-egg the pudding'.  Why the over-egged usage last year?  Well, we need look no further perhaps than to our ex-PM’s exaggerated (!) response to terrorism.  All those grim military faces and line-ups of drooping flags.
Another food-derived word.  From silage, the storage of crops for fodder.  In keeping, as the above, with our contemporary obsession with food but here more aligned to the great grain towers dotting the American prairie, symbols of agrarian plenty and security in times of famine, but coming to describe groups isolated from each other, in which a lot of over-egging goes on – powered in large part by the growth of social media. The landscape of discourse is now littered with silos, one unfortunate effect of which has been the current political paralysis. 
According to my dictionary, scourge is unrelated to the simpler word ‘scour’ (meaning and derived from the Latin ‘to clean’) which it succeeds.  Nonetheless the two words will inevitably form an association in the word-obsessed reader’s mind.  For a scourge (from the Latin corrigea, a whip) can, in a sense, ‘cleanse', depending on who or what does the cleansing or, conversely, who or what is in danger of being scrubbed out.  Without minimising the seriousness of the Syrian crisis, or the suffering of those four million Syrians who have been displaced, I suggest that the ‘scourge’ of Daesh was a godsend to our ex-prime minister, who attempted to shore up his crumbling leadership by alerting us daily to the threat to us here in Australia. 
Out on the edge, without much influence on the centre.  We used to call such people ‘marginal’ but that seems to have lost cachet.  In any case, it seems as far as governments go that the paradigm has flipped, and most of us have been turned into outliers.
Maybe it’s owing to euphony, but I honestly can’t think of any other reason for substituting this word for ‘path’.  Yet pathways abound.
These used to be more commonly ‘signs’.   This recent designator conjures new, intriguing associations, bringing to mind, for example, the way male dogs mark their territory on trees.  Or those fat textas provided to brainstormers for use on their whiteboards.  How did this word come to supplant the earlier one?  The answer most likely is buried in apocrypha.  We humans are fickle creatures, forever susceptible to the enchantment of the new.
Signifying the way certain people, ideas, organisations, policies, events or, most especially, behaviours, are seen, or are to be seen.  This latest usage isn't in the dictionary, at least any one I have access to.  But I do know its meaning, as outlined above and in Flavorwire’s ‘Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Optics of Politicians Crying’, when contributor Sarah Seltzer takes Republicans and Fox News to task for cynically implying that Obama’s tears when speaking of the Sandy Hook massacre were mere political theatre.
Oh, don’t we wish.  In the lingo of the day this is a synonym for ‘reform’, which itself today is a call for jacking up more benefits for employers and the rich.  ‘Flexibility’ is code for the same.
2015 was the year when ‘innovation’ was championed, but honoured only in the breach.  We wait to see whether the new prime minister who brought the word into prominence will do anything actually innovative this year.
Trust deficit 
All our major political parties suffer from this.  After years of being lied to, cynicism within the electorate is arguably at an all-time high.
Game changer  
The slowdown in the Chinese economy, while not exactly a crash, is certainly a game changer for us.  But is Turnbull the game changer we need to meet the challenge?  On the evidence to date, no.  We’ve been willing to believe that his retention of Abbott-era policies can be slated to his being hamstrung by the large right-wing rump within the government.  But this sorrowful case of wishful thinking can’t be sustained much longer,  unless Turnbull himself proves as Agile as he wants the rest of us to be.

If so, that will definitely be a word for 2016.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Honouring a Birthday

Curious that birthdays always stay the same, even when those whose years they’ve marked have gone.  Today, the 15th of December, is my partner’s birthday but it’s hard for me to celebrate when he’s not here to share it.  Perhaps he is in spirit.  I like to think so, though I realise that I’m merely comforting myself.  Then again, who of us actually knows?
All that aside, what I’d like to do to honour him is tell a small story. 
It was almost a year ago that we went to buy a new mattress.  Despite the ten-year guarantee, the one we bought six years before had developed a couple of hollows, shaped to our bodies but giving our backs no support.  Tony’s back was bothering him and so was mine.  Tony thought his back hurt because he was getting old.  I knew that mine, having been broken in three places years ago, needed a very firm mattress.  So on the advice of my chiropractor, we took the bus to Sleep City at Belrose, a fur piece away from our flat in Manly.  At least we tried to.  We had recently sold our car, and after carefully studying the possible routes on the net I concluded that we would have to change buses at the corner of Warringah Road and Forest Way.  It was a long ride through some of Sydney’s northern beaches just to reach that intersection, and then the bus driver overshot it.  Instead of stopping on Forest Way so we could cross with the light to get to the bus stop for Belrose, he let us off at the first stop he could on Warringah Road.  From there we trudged to the pedestrian bridge we needed to cross to get back on Forest Way and to the Belrose bus stop.
The problem was that I have a problem with pedestrian bridges.  An aversion to heights brought on by being held as a seven-year-old kid over the Empire State Building’s 85th floor balcony has been exacerbated in recent years by Menieres disease, which in my case gives me severe vertigo whenever height is combined with speed.  I get dizzy on escalators, in cars on hills and often on bridges, especially if they’re arched.  Pedestrian bridges are usually arched and this one was no exception.  But Tony, the 86-year-old ex-mountain climber, held my hand as we crossed it, the terrifying sensation of the traffic whizzing past below playing havoc with my balance.
And that you might call an epiphany.  We did have a lot in common, but there was so much more that we didn’t.  Like his fearlessness when it came to heights, his passion for fishing, his deep love of nature, mountains and wild Canadian rivers.  I learned from him and, to be fair, he learned from me.  And more, I keep on learning, on paths where he has led me.  He told me once that when mountaineers have an accident they keep on climbing, in the way that horseriders do after they take a tumble from a horse.  It’s called exposure, he said.  A word that echoes through my brain whenever I’m faced with a challenge.  And sometimes now I will seek the challenge.  After a nasty fall a couple of years ago, I will walk up a flight of stairs without holding on to the railing, and am even trying to train myself on escalators.  Small ones to begin with, but all the while I chant to myself that special word he taught me: exposure.
As for the new mattress, it has been great for my back, but it didn’t help Tony’s.  The cause of his pain was the spread of his cancer and we just didn’t know. 
But here is a poem I wrote, prophetically perhaps, two years ago, before the knowledge came:
Don’t tell me it isn’t tragic
that I’ll have no one to talk to in the morning
or walk with into Manly round the harbour
or listen to the fulminations
erupting on his tongue
He irritates, no doubt,
is difficult to feed, and I imagine
how I might eat without him.
Truth is, there won’t be much point
in eating then at all.
No one to tease, how I do love to tease him,
a child I am, the child I once was
so many years before.
Wicked? Well, tempted. But no,
not unkind.  And who would be so
when nothing that comes from him
manages to be unkind.
It’s an island I’ve come to, refuge at last,
a small one; high ground.
But why does he need a piano?
It isn’t a home without one, he says
though doesn’t often play.
Below us lies the ocean we travelled
a gentle, rippling sea that day by day
swallows its expanse.
Don’t tell me it’s not tragic
that I’ll wake in a cold bed one day.

Sad trees, such sad trees,
with deep sad colours,
barely green, more black,
and waters of beaten pewter
that he loves.
Big, tangled rivers, the current
so strong they would knock
a man down they have.
He dreams of them
those sad trees
but doesn’t see they’re sad
nor the ravelling of the river.
Tragedy. There’s no monopoly here,
and yet we will meet her
with wide, distant eyes,
as if by pleading might be spared.
But once she beams her baleful grin upon us
we might as well take up exclusive claim.
Notice how a crested quail
will stand beside her stricken.
On the road or in the spangled forest.                                                                 copyright Sara Dowse 2015

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Charlotte and Poetry

Charlotte is late this month and it’s no surprise to me.  Things haven’t been good for me lately but I can’t bring myself to write about them.  It’s possible that I will one day because that’s what writers do.  But for now it’s all too raw.  Poetry seems the apposite form of expression but it’s too soon for that as well.  Instead I will be posting some older poems, some published, some not.  I have been writing poetry for many years but have been lax in trying to place them.  The one today was published in Southerly a few years ago, and was written soon after Barack Obama was elected America’s president.  The hope that remarkable event brought had me putting the political and personal together in a kind of verse autobiography.  The disillusion that has followed Obama’s election has only deepened my conviction that change to the political economy that has dominated us, creating massive destruction to lives and threatening future ones, must eventually come.
On the Election of Barack Hussein Obama
This Chicago child
born some seventy years ago
with few great expectations.
There were red poppies
sold on blustery streets
but an ocean away
shattered glass,
yellow stars on the horizon.

No, no great expectations.
The city was rebuilding
and that was good, and might
have been enough, but who could know?
Feet first – that was the way
to come.  The only way to emerge
into that uncertain future.

Mother.  Father.  He might
have been from Kenya.
Under the Louis Sullivan towers
under the silos
the stench of the abattoirs
the yachts on the lake
and in the south of the city
the dives, the jazz.

A friend has a father
who lives there, a white
man selling milk.
And then there was the war in
the Pacific, California.
Japanese in camps,
sailors in seaside bars
and an ocean and a continent
away, the yellow stars.

There was a president
disabled, but no one saw
it that way, it was shy
with the cameras.
That, truth to say, might
have been the first time,
the first of our handicapped
presidents who prevailed.
Always something, always someone
to beam our hopes on
but some of them don’t fail.

Hands on our breasts, we repeated
the lines we inherited.
whoever spoke them gave them meaning
or leached
the sense away.
We hold these truths,
created equal.  Happiness.
Not assured but promised,
a gunpoint, a flashpoint away.

On the giant screens before us
war was won and flags were raised.
Marines on Iwo Jima,
a giant cloud,
dust of fungus, spores of death,
arrested us in fear.
What would be the reprisal?
Now that the sun had fallen
could we have chased a bear?

Land of free, home of brave.
What images would free us?
Lone cowboys, the sheriff, Shane.
But who in Chicago could carry
a pistol in the open, snug
on a hip for all to see?
No, the strengths in Chicago
were elsewhere, in the hearts
of its poets: Sandburg, Algren.
And Terkel, long-lived Terkel,
and Bellow, Bellow too.

But there was that Pacific
and the spores of the cloud.
A long, loping stride on the ocean,
water-walking, and money
clanking in your pockets, and
those images on the screen,
and what to do with those poor boys,
the lines we repeated, chanting,
hands on breast.
And what about those breasts?
Breasts aplenty, harnessed,
torpedoed, but never bared.

Until, one night on Mulholland
or was it the ocean?
The night the grunion were running,
a beach of rubbers
some sights that were making their journey
up on the screen, and just to
confuse us, water coiling
round our ankles, then our necks.
A ship ploughs through the ocean
to the south side, the time when
a bald man puts on a golf cap
and a man with thick eyebrows
tests a tiny bomb.
Only a small one, and that in the desert,
the bald ferrous centre
of the land.
And then the water-walkers with
the cloaks light on their shoulders
yawn and stretch their fingers and
pointing again to the Pacific
take their leisure on the south side.
A penchant for that part
of the city but only for the jazz,
weakened in the water but they
have a nose for it and it’s there.

Frenzy then.  A hardened resistance
from the soft-hearted, the woolly-headed.
A time for hirsuteness, and there on the screen
the zipped-up plastic, the loaves
of corpses.  Long before in
Chicago’s aquarium, the fishes
drifted upwards and glassy eyes
stared back through the bubbles
and now blue-lit they fell on the carpet
swimming out of the picture,
and back in Chicago they stormed
the convention, paving the way
for Cambodia’s dead.

What memories of the cloud, the burning chemicals?
The rouged face, the carboned eyes washed clean.
Never again and now it was a grey world,
grunge world, dark and mean.
There are children, what children!
to shepherd through it, feet first,
careful footholds, houses, cheeky dogs.
And machines that eat plastic
and spit out money, and our vision
contracted to accommodate the screens.

A careful time when we gave away our money
to thieves in philosophers’ clothing
and our freedoms too.  When before
the towers fell, before the hurricanes,
the scourge was underway.
And in Chicago a woman died
lonely on the lake where purple sharks
had drifted on the shores
smelling the blood that was there.
And even the body’s death was not enough
the mind and the soul, heart’s twins
died too.  The angels, did they hover
wondering when to descend?

Facing death, joints stiffening,
a certain élan waning. Talents scattered,
moonsilvered water,
the ferry her friend.  So this is it,
the best of it, the quiet time,
and for the rest, perhaps a slow awakening.
A tiny apocalypse, no more
than a yearning,
but she’d almost forgotten Chicago.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Cigarettes, Sugar, Chocolate, and Time

Many years ago I visited a friend in her hospital room.  She was dying from ovarian cancer, and she was dying too soon.  Her devastated family waited anxiously outside for what was to be my brief stay at her bedside to end.  But my visit went on longer than anyone expected, least of all me.  When she asked me to light a cigarette for her I hesitated.  I doubt if her family knew she had one, but Claire was a smoker, a chain one, and she wasn’t going to deprive herself of that comfort now.  I saw the sense in it, even then, but I hadn’t had a fag in my mouth for some 20 years and I admit that I was a little afraid that even one puff might kick off my habit again.  I took the cigarette, put it to my lips, struck the match and inhaled, and handed it over.  And stayed with her until she had finished it.

I’m not proud that I took up so much of the family’s precious time with Claire.  But I’m proud of that cigarette, and haven’t had another one since.

When she died, too young, Claire Burton was a well-known feminist sociologist.  The family set up a scholarship in her name, if only to make sense of her death.  To make her live on, to wrest some meaning from her tragedy.  It’s what we do, often.  We flounder, we rail.  We try to honour the dead.

Twenty-plus years down the line I visit my partner’s bedside.  He is much improved since experiencing what we must call a medically induced stroke, though I give thanks it was a relatively mild one and came about for the best of reasons, to shrink the tumours that had spread from his prostate, although they didn’t know then of the one lurking deep in his brain.  They hadn’t looked at his brain.  The belief has been that prostate cancer can’t spread there.  The truth is that we don’t know enough about prostate cancer.  Even the doctors are learning.

Since they figured out what had gone wrong, my partner has been put on a drug called dexamethazone, the aim of which is to reduce the swelling around the tumours without triggering more bleeding, as happened on the androgen inhibitor.  A side effect of dexamethazone is a ravenous hunger, which is good in a way since he’s lost so much weight.  He has been craving sugar.  Can’t get enough of it.  Four paper packets in his coffee (‘Black as night, hot as hell, sweet as sin’, he says, quoting Balzac), endless cookies (also in packets, two at a time), and chocolates.  I bring the chocolates.  He goes through a box of Cadbury miniatures in less than two days.  It took many days to persuade the hospital staff to let him have those four sugars in his coffee – ‘Sugar is bad for you,’ they say.  This doesn’t wash with him.  He is a former scientist, the body turns everything to sugar in the end, he says.  They are confused by this.  Informed as we are nowadays, we still resist science, and are bundled up endlessly in tangles of myth. 

When I’m not visiting him I’m making adjustments in preparation for his homecoming.  The occupational therapists are amazingly ingenious, and they agree that this is the place he should be.  In a beautiful old building, the flat has high ceilings and plenty of light.  Though this is not the easiest accommodation, not what might be prescribed for a patient whose mobility and stability are not what they should be.  There are stairs.  The flat is tiny, the floor uneven.  Something of a challenge for a walking frame.  We’ll be getting a small one, not the large one advised.  The rehab doctor, a nice man but with a perpetually worried look on his face, is confounded.  There are concerns for his safety, of course.

But life is not safe, entirely.  If it was, it wouldn’t be life. 

There are books about this.  One, by Atul Gawande, is recommended.  So much is now being written on the subject.  We are waking up, waking up to dying.  This isn’t an altogether pleasant awakening, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have lived in societies where the fact of death has tended to be ignored until, forced to confront it, we relentlessly combatted it.  For what a trick had been played on us!  To give us this wealth of experience, this miracle of consciousness, only in the end to have it snuffed out.   

 I have no answers for this.  None of us do, really.   

 All I know is I’m eating a lot of chocolate.  And sharing it with him.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

How I Became a Dual Citizen and Why I am Afraid

December 2, 1972 was the first election I voted in, and it was a thrill then to cast my vote for Gough Whitlam’s Australian Labor Party.  The conservative parties had ruled for 23 years, I had lived under 14 of them and, like most of my generation, found Menzies and his successors both tiresome and bumbling. On matters concerning women they were antediluvian.  In foreign affairs they were cringe worthy. They had got us into Vietnam, for one thing, and were conscripting guys to fight in that ill-advised, ill-starred Yankee adventure.  It felt liberating to be done with them.

phoning that other home
Yet the dark side of that moment was that I'd lost my US citizenship.  This was because I’d become a single mother and the best chance for steady employment in Canberra, Australia’s capital, was in the public service, but you had to be an Australian citizen to work there.  I had joined the Australian News and Information Bureau just before the Whitlam government took office, and had to take out Australian citizenship to do so.  As soon as I did the American consulate was alerted.  I received a letter from them asking me to explain if I’d been kidnapped or otherwise forced to work for a foreign country.  I wrote back that it was Nixon’s citizenship that should have been under question as he had just bombed Cambodia.  Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the consulate, and a few days later I was asked to hand over my passport. 

This was more disturbing than I’d thought it would be.  In a curious way it was like I’d just lopped off a limb.  For days I was in shock.  In one swift stroke I had cut off my past.  No one who has ever had that happen to them knows just what it’s like.  People assume that changing countries in that highly symbolic yet ultimately material way is a question of will, a matter of joy.  It is, and it isn’t.  It raises unanswerable questions about loyalty and allegiance.  It makes you think hard about patriotism, how often – too often it turns into ugly jingoism.  Having spent my childhood during the second world war, and Jewish to boot, I knew only too well how dangerous such notions can be.

Now I was a dinky-di Australian, if a strange sort of one with the wrong kind of accent, the wrong sort of English and an abiding love of Mexican food, sour dough bread and big fat chilli hot dogs.  When I began publishing books they had to be ‘Australian’, and I spent many futile hours trying to figure out whether a sentence I wrote gave away my background.  I say futile because today writing like an American is okay, even admired, but it was resented in the 1980s.  Faulkner and Twain were taken seriously, but to profess the influence of Fitzgerald or Dos Passos then was to mark you as a barbarian.  There was none so sniffy as our Australian literati, especially those who hadn’t even heard of some of the writers whose works had informed my sensibility, writers like Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury or John Fante or Nathaniel West, even Aldous Huxley, all of whom lived in and wrote about Los Angeles.  (Interesting, too, that these were all men, a fact needing investigation, perhaps in a future post.)

Then in the 1990s, the US changed its attitude towards dual citizenship.  It was the New International Order, the West was triumphant, it was the ‘end of history’, international borders were becoming more permeable, for capital at least.  The world was now ‘global’, after all.  When Clinton became president he passed an executive order the effect of which was to turn earlier Supreme Court decisions into law, thus enabling US citizens to take out citizenship in other countries.  At an embassy gathering for writers I was told that I could now apply to have my American citizenship restored, so on leaving Australia for a five-year spell in Canada I did.

It turned out to be not quite the native’s return I’d imagined.  In Vancouver I was handed, along with my US passport,  a notice demanding copies of my previous six Australian tax returns. Suffused with emotion, I hadn't previously twigged that this was behind Clinton’s generosity.  Nor aged 60 did I realise, having migrated to Australia as a minor, that from now on I would have to lodge an annual US tax return, in addition to the Australian and Canadian ones.  The US and Eritrea are the only two countries that tax their citizens on world income unless there is a treaty with the country of residence, but it still is immensely complicated.  The American tax return is deliberately complicated – every move to simplify it has been successfully resisted by organised accountants and the online company TurboTax that’s meant to simplify it but doesn’t, at least for someone who since the age of 19 has never lived or worked in America or who, like most writers, is self-employed.  Then there was the exchange rate.  My native land lay tantalisingly over the border but I could scarcely afford to enter it, as the Australian dollar was less than half the American one at the time and what income I had was Australian.  Nor was I eligible for Social Security, as I hadn’t worked in the US since I was in my teens.

Then came 9/11, and not long after, Bush’s Patriot Act.  This requires expatriate US citizens to file other quite onerous forms the point of which is to prove we aren’t terrorists.  The whole business is so time-consuming and expensive that I’ve been at the point of relinquishing my citizenship a second time, only to find that that too is so prohibitively expensive and mindbloggingly bureaucratic that I haven’t got on top of the process.

This is my personal story.  At 76, still filing tax returns, or trying to, in a country I haven’t resided in for coming on 57 years.   And now my adopted country, the one I affirmed my allegiance to in a ceremony in Canberra’s Albert Hall so long ago that the record of it isn’t even on the immigration department’s computerised database, is legislating to remove the citizenship of others like me who may, unless this is corrected, do nothing more than deface Australian government property.  So we’re back where we started in this piece, for if this is the case, what does citizenship actually mean?  The muscular, macho, jingoistic interpretation behind Abbott's ‘Team Australia’ doesn’t augur well for any of us, the dinky-di, born on Australian soil

Saturday, 6 June 2015

What it Means to be Mean

The Steyne, Manly
A quarter of a century ago, in the North American winter of 1991, I visited New York for the first time in fifteen years.  I was there to interview a cousin who was dying.  My cousin told me things about an aunt we shared that I'd never heard before, and directed me to others who could tell me more when he’d gone.  It was a poignant moment.  I’d been told that this aunt of ours had been a Soviet apparatchik and, I'd reason to believe, had been liquidated in the 1930s purges.  I’d wanted to write about her and, though much of what I’d previously been told was mistaken, there was enough that was true for me to proceed.

My visit coincided with the last days of the Soviet Union; by the end of the year it would collapse entirely.  By that time too, Western countries were deeply committed to neoliberal economics.  State intervention was minimised, and there was a near-universal belief that the free market was the sine qua non of democracy, which the abject failure of the Soviet socialist experiment only served to confirm.  Certainly, there was not a lot of sympathy for mixed economies, let alone for socialism.  Never having had much purchase in America, socialism now was well and truly dead.  Even though in 1991 the US was in recession, the belief in unregulated markets was staunch.  It could be said that after ten years of Reaganomics, belief was an understatement.  By the time of my visit, the market was god.   

But there was another side to this.  When another cousin took me on a ride through the city we drove past Tompkins Square, where a whole bunch of people were living in cardboard refrigerator cartons.  This was a shock – when I’d last been in New York, in 1975, there weren’t people living on the street, there wasn’t this new class of homeless.  It was nothing, either, to see people with begging cups at subway entrances, or roaming through the carriages jingling them. Nor could I have predicted that several years down the track I would see similar sights in Los Angeles or Vancouver or Sydney.  Or - what was possibly worse - that the rest of us would be okay with this.

The figure in Australia today is over 100,000 homeless, up 17 percent from 2006.  Though free market ideology is beginning to be questioned, with many studies pointing to growing inequality since its influence took hold in public policy and community thinking, the idea that poverty and homelessness are individual failures rather than a failure of the system dies hard.  It’s been over three decades now since neoliberalism transformed our economy, rescuing it from ‘banana republic’ irrelevance, and triggering a colossal mineral boom.  Now that the boom has subsided, the market is looking ever more inadequate for dealing with the challenges ahead.  There have been considered responses to this, but on the whole, instead of adapting to the new circumstances, neoliberalism has gone on the defensive.  The Abbott government, in its effort to rein in a budget deficit, has persisted in penalising the poorest sections of our community rather than stop spending money on its ideological imperatives, or cut down the huge tax expenditure on superannuation, negative gearing and other concessions to business and wealthy investors.  They have in their second budget adopted a stimulus measure, dipping their hats towards Keynes, but this is of benefit only to those possessing an Australian Business Number.  Very few on Newstart, our scandalously meagre unemployment benefits, would be in possession of those.  

So the culture of neoliberalism persists.   More, it pervades.  How deeply is yet to be fully determined, but indifference to the plight of the marginalised, demonised, disadvantaged or unfortunate abounds.  It is manifest in our devastingly cruel treatment of asylum seekers, including children; in our singling out Muslims as responsible for the growth of terrorism; in the radical cuts in funding for services like legal aid, refuges, schools and hospitals; and attempts to shut down remote Aboriginal communities.  And it’s popped up here in my suburb, the glorious Sydney seaside suburb of Manly.   

Once referred to as Sydney’s Brighton, Manly has a long and checkered history.  When I first came to know and love it, back in the 1960s, it was in its raffish, low-life stage, which continued until the boom of the 2000s.  Suddenly it became one of the smarter places to live.  Rents and house prices zoomed.  The old, rotting timber pavilions along the ocean were torn down and replaced with spanking new replicas.  The largest of these, decorated with blown-up photographs of Manly’s past and lined with wooden benches inside, proved the perfect doss for our homeless.  But as tourism is now a major source of revenue, and investors, property owners, and real estate agents become ever more concerned with the tone of the place, the council was not about to let the squatters stay.  So instead of outright tearing the pavilion down, it boarded it up. 

There it sits, in the middle of the ocean promenade, with a sign on the hoardings informing us it’s been ‘closed for refurbishment works’.  How it could possibly be refurbished when it’s completely boarded up is a question that’s never been answered or, as far as I know, been asked.  But it's gone some way to solve the problem of the homeless, who’ve had to make do with one of the smaller pavilions or any other shelter they can find.

The rise of homeless has unfortunately coincided with significant reduction of government spending on public housing, either on maintaining existing stock or building new ones.  Here in Sydney the state government is selling harbour shore houses in order to release the land to developers, who are seizing the opportunity to build expensive units and townhouses in their place.  This is part of the ongoing process of moving poor people out of prime locations and into barren ghettos in the hinterland, far away from the harbour, and decent transport and facilities.  Overall, it isn’t a pretty story, but all too typical of how mean we have become.

I’ve never read or heard comment about Manly Council’s boarding up the pavilion.  Perhaps it’s occurred, but there’s been nothing approaching outrage that I know of.   Parents with prams, labourers, surfers in wetsuits, metros on skateboards, office workers on stilettos, grannies with walkers and dedicated dog-walkers, tourists, and day-trippers – we all just keep walking by.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The New York Still in Me

An early painting: Story Board of Memory
I’ve heard it say that the earliest impressions last the longest.  That when nearer to the end of your life than the beginning, those memories of childhood, even infancy, become more vivid, so much so they start to crowd out the later ones to such a degree that you can’t remember whether or not you’ve just taken the life-saving pill you need to go on.  If all this is a worry, it’s also a lot of fun.  Take New York, for instance.

I was only a toddler when I went there with my mother.  It was wartime and my father was fighting in the Pacific, though my parents had divorced by then and she would have gone without him in any case.  New York was the place to go if you needed to make your way as an actor, which is what my mother was.  And as it was, she was doing quite well at the time, mainly in ingenue roles in the dozen or soaps that were aired on the radio those days.  I remember a great deal of those days and more, it seems, as I approach the second half of my seventies.  What I want to focus on now is one particular aspect of our life there.

Let me explain.  As well as being a single parent (although departing from the common view of such, in that her life wasn’t really a struggle then as it is for most others, and women on their own did reasonably well during wartime), my mother became a sophisticate the minute she stepped out on Manhattan Island's granite, the rock base that holds all those skyscrapers in place, most of which were there at the time.  Until then she had been a Midwesterner, naïve to a fault, despite the divorce and her profession.  New York, or Manhattan to be accurate, for she rarely left the island and got lost in the Bronx when she did, changed all that.  The thing is, she began to drink.  Not heavily, she never went that far, but it was New York, I believe, that connected her with the cocktail.  In 1943 and thereafter, until we moved to Los Angeles four years later and I grew into a Westerner and left all my budding Eastern pretensions behind, she learned about the Tom Collins, the Harvey Wallbanger, the Manhattan, of course, and above all, the Martini.  Like most of her generation she never drank wine then – wine was for the alcoholics who hung around the Bowery, the street people of the time.  The European habit of wine-drinking came later, as it did in Australia, the very fact of it being European another step up in my mother’s eyes on the sophistication ladder.

I said that I became a barbarian on moving to Los Angeles.  I no longer went to museums on the weekends (there were few then by comparison), I was exposed to West Coast locutions that would have never gone down in my New York classrooms, I started living in houses instead of apartments, and became a young suburbanite, riding a bike to school and spending my summers surfing.  The transformation was complete when I began to look down on Easterners as effete.  Yet my mother didn’t change.  She and her friends went on drinking cocktails, martinis especially, the drier the better, meaning going easy on the Vermouth and pouring in more gin or vodka, and she expanded the repertoire to embrace the Bloody Mary, with arguably sadistic lashings of tobasco.

Fast forward to Australia, circa 1960.  I had left my mother behind, along with a host of other things, when I arrived in Sydney late in 1958.  Here, I soon found, living in my inlaws’ pub, people drank beer or hard liquor mainly; if the imaginative concoctions that were the staple of my mother and her associates were known, they were rarely served, and if so, only in special places on special occasions.  Like everything else American, it seemed - including me - they were regarded with that curious mix of disdain and envy that characterised the Australian attitude of the time.  The Australia I came to was still intriguingly English in orientation, in spite of the resentment people naturally felt about living in a farflung outpost of a waning empire.  Whatever the hard feelings, British was still better.

I was a young woman, scarcely a woman then, as naïve, truth be told, as my mother had been when she took me with her to New York all those years before.  Living in that Sydney pub put me off drinking for a while, but in Canberra I starting drinking cider and brandy, lime and sodas.  I never saw the martinis that Frank Moorhouse had begun writing about, and later, Helen Garner.  And some fifty-seven years down the track I hardly ever drink alcohol, maybe a taste of red wine on social occasions, or champagne on special ones, and lately I’ve ordered Campari and soda, the favoured drop of a certain cherished prime minister who managed to stay sober on it while enduring the many engagements a politician is obliged to, continually subjected to ‘the ruthless bonhomie of the Australian,’ as a particularly insightful writer once put it.   But though martinis have become almost de rigueur among Australian sophisticates, I’ve so far stayed away from them.  I’m not sure my system could stand them, and there’s a part of me that resents - I admit it – the current Australian embrace of practically anything American, the 21st century’s version of our tired old cultural cringe.  And this goes for New York especially.  Everyone wants to go there, to live there, a number of my grandchildren for a start, and in at least two contemporary novels I’ve read, the sine qua non of the protagonist’s making it is ending up there.   

My mother died 19 years ago, of cirrhosis of the liver, would you believe, from contracting chemical hepatitis through stripping paint on the cupboards in her Venice, California kitchen.  It had been years since she gave up cocktails, so there was no small irony there, not to mention a tragedy.  That notwithstanding, now that I’m getting closer to my own departure, the martini has become ever more attractive to me.  For as it has come to be with so many of us, martinis in their way are a symbol of New York for me, the sharpness and the dryness of them, the memories preserved in them.  And because of this I may in my dotage throw caution to the winds and, what the hell, make it my habit of drinking them, sipping them slowly while watching the sun go down, then disappear entirely over the edge of the Pacific.