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.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Review - Haifa Fragments

This is the first book review I’ve done on this blog.  I’ve shied away from reviewing books here because I do so much of it elsewhere and Charlotte’s is a space I’ve given myself to ruminate on all kinds of subjects, where I can follow my own quirks and obsessions rather than accommodating an editor’s. 

But Haifa Fragments is a special book, a novel set as the title suggests in Haifa, a city where I spent time a while back, on a subject that has been dear to my heart for over a quarter of a century. 

 In 1922 my grandfather’s sister left what was then Bessarabia for Palestine, where she joined the G’dud Ha’Avodah or Labor Legion, a roving socialist collective that did much to further the Zionist colonisation of Palestine by building a network of roads between the Jewish settlements and taking part in the development of Tel Aviv.  But my great-aunt, like others in the G’dud, which at one time numbered something like 15,000 Zionist ‘pioneers’, woke up to what they were doing and formed a Communist faction instrumental in mounting a fierce opposition to the mainstream Zionist project.  For this the G’dud was not only ostracised but members of the faction were jailed by the British and eventually deported to the Soviet Union.

My great-aunt’s story excited me because it demonstrated that Zionism might have taken a different turn, one that could have avoided much of the hatred and heartache that’s followed.  In short, a Jewish homeland in Palestine need not have been the Jewish state that Theodor Herzl and his followers desired, but a significant presence in a polity where Palestinians participated on an equal basis.  It gave me a clue to a solution for the mess we have now, the ongoing discrimination perpetrated by Israel against its Palestinian citizens and the horrific injustices it inflicts on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  It seemed from studying the history that what was always needed was a single state, neither Jewish nor Palestinian, but embracing the cultures and rights of these two peoples.  And indeed there were Zionists who advocated this all along, but these were effectively silenced, especially after events in Europe took their catastrophic turn. 

Today, over 70 years after the Holocaust, and given the current hostilities, it’s probable that such a state could only evolve from a federation of three states - say, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian one, once it gets off the ground.  This is the scenario Israeli activist Jeff Halper advocates. This could be a slow, difficult and sadly bloody process, but it’s the only one that, to my mind, makes sense.  One state, encompassing the three nationalities and building on their combined strength, which could be a welcome bulwark for peace in the region.  There are those, like Miko Peled and others, who point out that, taken as a totality, Israel is a single binational state already, albeit one that is predicated on a brutal form of apartheid.

How do ordinary people go about their lives in such a situation?  This is exactly the question that Khulud Khamis, the author of this intricately faceted gem of a novel, has chosen to address.  Maisoon, her protagonist, is a young Palestinian woman from a Christian family, one of those that defiantly remained inside Israel after Zionists unilaterally declared an independent state and expelled two-thirds of the Palestinian population.  While daily confronted with the consequences of this event - the Nakba - and Israel's occupation of what had been Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian territories that came in 1967, Maisoon’s parallel quest is for independence as an artist and a woman.  Her boyfriend Ziyad, a Muslim, finds her both fascinating and unfathomable.  He would marry her though he expects her parents would oppose it.  Marriage, however, is the last thing Maisoon is aiming for.  To be as resigned as her mother? As accommodating as her father?  Yet how does a Palestinian woman cut a genuine path for herself with so many social, political and cultural obstacles in the way?

Haifa is both an Arab and Jewish city and, as would happen, Maisoon has two Jewish friends.  One, Tamar, is a member of the Jewish women’s protest group Machsom Watch.  These are the women who stand witness to what Israeli soldiers routinely dish out to Palestinians forced to wait at the many checkpoints dotting the occupied West Bank.  It is through Tamar that Maisoon meets Shadh, who lives in a refugee camp and regularly risks her life by sneaking across the border into Israel.  With dreams of her own she feels can never be realised, Shadh soon falls in love with determinedly free-spirited Maisoon.

Maisoon lives alone in a dilapidated flat in the Arab section of the city.  Ziyad is a frequent visitor, that's all.  For Maisoon, the flat serves as both statement and sanctuary.  It is also her studio, where she designs and makes jewellery.  Her days are consumed in developing the right patterns and colours for her creations, the striking bracelets, rings, necklaces and earrings.  An old woman arranges for Maisoon to show them to Amalia, who owns a boutique in Haifa’s fashionable Hadar district.  After a slow start Amalia becomes Maisoon's business mentor, while Maisoon's distinctive jewellery comes to be the boutique’s principal drawcard, with the promise of export sales and a truly independent future for Maisoon.

So there you have it.  So many aspects of Haifa, Israel’s most multicultural, multifaceted city.   Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, artists and business people and many like Ziyad, who see no real prospect for advancement.  Maisoon’s sexuality too is a sharp break from the traditional accommodation represented by her parents.  In the confines of Haifa, then, Khamas depicts in microcosm present-day Israeli society.   

But where is the back story, the history?  Maisoon has another quest, not for the future but the past.  She tries to make sense of a cache of her father’s old letters, brimming with poetry and passion, letters he wrote when he was young.  Now in middle age, Majid seems subdued and distant, nothing like the fiery, romantic youth who comes across in these fragments. As parents generally appear to their adult children, Maisoon’s seem so much smaller than they once had been, with much of life seeming to have been hammered out of them.  But as she struggles to carve out that different path for herself, what is revealed of her father's suffering leads to a fuller understanding of the depth of the Nakba’s impact and its decades-long after shocks, on her family and, ultimately, herself.

What can the future hold for Maisoon and women like her?  What is the future for Israel?  No doubt it has already become the Spartan state Hannah Arendt, for one, had warned it would. And what could be the place of Palestinians living within its borders if a Palestinian state ever eventuates?  Will Maisoon and others like her be ‘transferred’ across the border, to be uprooted  again?  What amount of blood will be spilled before these questions can be answered?  Sensibly, Khamis makes no attempt to answer them.  It is enough that she has left us to pose them.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Happy International Women's Day

A couple of days ago I was invited to speak to 132 year 11 English students at Brigidine College in the Sydney suburb of Randwick.  In honour of the 2015 International Women's Day, the English department was devoting the day to feminism.  And bravo to them. There were workshops on a host of subjects and the teacher coordinating the event was wearing a t-shirt adorned with a logo of a past IWD.  The topic of my talk was on feminism's second wave in Australia and as a participant I was to speak of my experience of it.  The script of the talk is below, but before I plough into it there's one observation about IWD I feel compelled to make.  IWD luncheons are de rigueur now, held by local councils, conservative party auxiliaries and all manner of groups who I'm sure would be amazed to learn that the idea was concocted over 100 years ago by a group of radical women German socialists.  It's mainstream now, but there are pluses and minuses to this.  So many of the issues raised 100 years ago and again in the 1970s are accepted as legitimate goals for all women today.  But what has changed has been the means of achieving them.  There are few marches in the streets these days, but maybe the time has come for more of them.  With so many of our gains having been whittled back over the last couple of decades, with a substantially lowered workforce participation rate, and a pay gap between men and women approximating those of last century, there's a ferment bubbling again.  I hope my few words did something to inspire this new generation of young women, who are facing challenges that in the 1970s we could scarcely have imagined.  I felt a bit like a relic dragged out for the occasion, grey-haired and somewhat bent from years of writing, but still with some of the old fire  in me, and the intelligent questions the students asked after I'd finished did much to stoke it again.

In Australia it began in 1970, though ‘women’s lib’ as it was termed them, was well underway in the US around two years earlier.  But the fact is the momentum was building up for years.  The English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental The Second Sex came out in 1953.  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared ten years later, in 1963.   Then, in 1970, came Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics,  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and a much more influential book within the movement though less widely known, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.  These later books were culturally oriented and somewhat utopian in their prescriptions, but what characterised them all was a raw, explosive anger.

So, 1970.  What was it like here in Australia? 

Well, it was a very different world then.  Imagine yourselves without PCs, or computer printers, without iPads or tablets, without mobile phones.  Colour TV was a couple of years away.  There were no ATMs or credit cards.  No CDs, let alone DVDs or BlueRay or streaming.  No digital cameras, let alone smart phones.  Above all, no internet and no social media.  But we managed brilliantly without them.  Our tools were telephone trees, typewriters, gestetner and roneo machines, and photocopiers, and there was a lot of screenprinting then.

But back to that anger.  Why were we so incensed?  Well, again, things were different.

Except in a very limited sense, as sex objects and homemakers, we women were invisible.  You never saw a woman driving a bus, let alone piloting a plane.  You never saw or heard a woman reading the news, let alone commenting on it.  There was not a single woman in the house of representatives.  In both the Liberal party and the ALP women were relegated to their  auxiliaries, which were responsible for fundraising and had very little policy clout.  It was almost impossible for a women to be preselected for a safe seat.  There were hardly any women CEOs or even managers; they made up only 3% of senior executives, public or private.

Only recently had married women been given permanency in teaching or in the public service.  There were separate newspaper ads for women’s jobs and men’s jobs.  Needless to say, only a very brave or naïve woman would apply for a designated man’s job, and no man I can think of would have applied for a woman’s one.  Jobs, like the ads, were rigidly gender specific.

A woman was unable to get a loan without a male guarantor, usually her husband or father.  A woman couldn’t even go into a pub without a male to accompany her.  There were taxes on contraceptives and the advertising of them in the ACT was illegal.  Abortion, although no longer unlawful due to recent case law decisions, was expensive and often life-threatening.

Then there was women’s unemployment.  In the postwar period the most important goal for governments of any stripe was full employment, and that meant only 1-2% of the workforce was meant to be unemployed.  Unemployment figures of 5% and above were considered catastrophic.  (The figure today of 6.4% is misleading and would be much higher if unemployment was measured as it was then.One reason why the figure was so low in 1970 is that women were discouraged workers, that is they didn’t bother to register with the commonwealth employment service because they knew that jobs for them were few and there was practically no child care and if their partners were in work they were ineligible for assistance.  But research done at the time found  that women’s hidden unemployment rate was around 12%.  If these women had bothered to register the official rate would have been much higher than that much vaunted 1-2%.

For women who did have jobs the rate of pay was substantially lower than that for men doing the same work or work of equal value.  Today it’s still 18.8% lower; not much different from what it was in 1970 though at times it was as low as 25%.  It was assumed that women were never breadwinners; this was the rationale for pay inequity, and it was inscribed in industrial law.

But the sixties and seventies were decades of tremendous social movements and the political protests that accompanied them – civil rights, anti-war, last but not least the women’s movement, or feminism, or women’s liberation as we called it then.  And to go back to the unemployment issue, it was the juxtaposition of a new generation of recently educated women, many highly educated, who found it difficult to get jobs commensurate with their qualifications, that was the trigger for it.  Think of it, all these educated women with time on their hands – it was a recipe for trouble.  But it was also a lot of fun.

My own experience was typical and yet atypical.  When I arrived in Australia in 1958 from Los Angeles, a bride of 19, I was shocked by what I found here, the extent of what we later called sexism, though we didn’t have the name for it then. By 1970 there was one: ‘male chauvinism’.  ‘Male chauvinist pigs’ was what we called the worst of the men.  That’s a term that's gone out of style, but what it attempts to describe surely hasn’t.  This is something I’ll return to.  But for now, this is what happened to me.  In 1970, when I was 32, I got my first paid job here, after bearing four children and eventually graduating from Sydney University.  It was as a publisher’s rep and Canberra, where I was living then, was my field.  I went around the schools flogging the company’s textbooks but the more interesting part of the job was going around universities and research schools on the hunt for manuscripts.  One day, on mission to hurry up some late ones that the company had contracted for, I met two lowly women academics, one a research assistant, the other a departmental tutor, and they invited me to a meeting.  All very hush-hush it was.   When I got there I found some 30 or more other women, all fired up with enthusiasm and, like the books we’d been poring over, brimming with anger.   

Still, this wasn’t bitter anger.  This was inspiring.  It felt like what it was - a revolution.  It’s almost impossible to convey my excitement listening to all these women articulating thoughts that had been brewing in my brain for years.  There wasn’t time to even introduce ourselves, there was so much to say, and it was months before I began to piece together faces with names.

What did we want?  Child care, equal pay, equal employment opportunity, equal educational opportunity, women’s refuges, measures to combat sex discrimination, in workplaces, schools, clubs and pubs.  We wanted to participate fully as citizens, and it was the beginning, a truly exciting one, but we knew there was a long haul ahead.  Most of us realised that for all the reforms we might achieve, the most impenetrable barriers were those embedded in our psyches, male and female.  In other words these barriers weren’t only legal or social – they were cultural.

All this was taking place during a time of great social tumult, as I’ve said.  In Australia this was expressed electorally.  Between 1970 and 1972, the women’s movement grew.  But 1972 was an election year and that was when the Women’s Electoral Lobby, a Women’s Liberation offshoot, was born.  WEL was determined to get the issues we’d been talking about and demonstrating for, holding public forums and staging street theatre and enduring either the scorn or the patronising of our male contemporaries, onto the party political agenda.  WEL devised a questionnaire and distributed it to all the candidates and followed this up with lobbying them in person.  As a result, a few of them (remember, scarcely any were women) had their consciousnesses raised, but for most it was a painful business.

On 2 December 1972 the Whitlam Labor government was elected, after 23 years of conservative rule.  In April the following year, Whitlam appointed the world’s first prime ministerial women’s adviser to his personal staff.  A year and a bit later I was appointed head of a small unit in his department to assist this adviser, Elizabeth Reid, with her voluminous correspondence and with policy development.  It was a huge job for both of us and, again, it was a beginning.  Feminism was no longer just a protest movement but was now involved in government policy.  And so it still is, though sadly in much diluted form, today.

Although it’s no strange thing to see women in politics now, or as CEOs of banks, or as heads of government departments, we still have reason to feel angry, even cheated somehow.  We’ve had women premiers and governors, even a woman prime minister.  Yet for all our progress – and from my vantage point it’s been quite amazing – it’s safe to say that the bedrock of sexism remains. We've seen it in the trashing of our first women prime minister.  But before I end and leave time for questions,  I'll raise one more concerning example. 

Both the government and the opposition have recently adopted policies to deal with what's been called the ‘scourge’ of domestic violence.  Here we have the most violent expression of that culture we identified back in the 1970s, call it misogyny, male chauvinism or sexism.  To my mind, what encompasses them all is patriarchy.  In 2015 so far, two Australian women a week have been killed by their current or former partners; last year the count was half that number.  And these outright murders are only the most shocking part of it.  Domestic violence is a far greater threat than terrorism but has had far less attention and receives a fraction of government resources.  In fact, there has been a huge reduction in funding for frontline services for women and children escaping violent homes.  In 1970 we argued that the ‘personal is political’ and nowhere is this better borne out than in so many men’s brutality to women and children.  In spite of our new visibility, or maybe in fact because of it, this menace goes unchecked.

And over to you now:  Why do you do you think this is so?