Singing Man

Walking to shule early on a shabbat morning in spring, walking along, swinging along, here’s my neighbour approaching, walking along, swinging along, along with Jarrah his handsome, brainless hound.
‘Hello Hugo.’
‘Hello Howard.’
We discuss the terror raids. A Sydney paper runs the headline: SYDNEY UNDER SEIGE. I wonder aloud about a climate of alarmism. Hugo trusts the government to protect the people. I trust any government to protect itself. We agree to disagree.
‘Bye Hugo.’
‘Bye Howard.’

Walking long, swinging along Meadow Street, swinging towards the park, there’s a man ahead of me, singing. He’s walking along, singing along, singing aloud, singing with sunny uncaring, his ears clasped by headphones. A brown man, tall, a head of tight dark curls, his voice ringing out in the swinging morning.
I walk behind and I wonder. What is this singing, what the tongue, what type of singing? Some droning, drawn-out notes, long phrases, thick gutturals: might be mid-eastern, might be something different..
I swing faster, draw alongside, address the singing man; ‘What are you singing?’
The singing man smiles, stops his singing, removes his earphones. ‘Listen’, he says, his accent unemphatic, possibly sub-continental. He clasps my ears with his ‘phones. Soft rushes of sibilant sounds – unaccompanied percussion – fill my ears.
‘That’s not the music, that’s just the rhythm, the backing. I make the music, my song…’
‘Is the song your own? Do you compose it?’
‘Yes.’ Another smile. “I will record it in a sound studio, make a tape and try to sell it.”
‘What are you singing about?’
‘A beautiful girl, so beautiful she shames the sun.’
‘Will you sing it for me?’
The man smiles, replaces his earphones, bursts into song, full-throated, and we swing together along Meadow Street. The singing man creates waves of sound, rhythmic, patterned. I can discern the lines, pick out sound rhymes.
It is lovely.
‘Will you translate for me?’

‘” Do not go out ino the sun, my beauty,
Do not go into the sun;
If you go into the sun, my beauty,
The sun will look pale,
You will shame the beauty of the sun”‘

‘Thank you. That is beautiful.’
‘Thank you.’

We swing together along Meadow Street. When we reach the corner, I say goodbye. ‘Good luck with your song.’
I turn the corner, heading for the park and for shule beyond.
The man calls to me, ‘Have a good shabbat.’

Robert Hillman’s Review of Carrots and Jaffas

Identical, red-haired twin boys are born to Luisa and Bernard Wanklyn, who live in Melbourne. The year is somewhere in the fairly recent past. Since we’re in Australia, the twins are naturally nicknamed Carrots and Jaffas, the only alternatives being Bluey and Ranga. Luisa, the mother, is a native of Argentina; Bernard was born in Australia. When the boys reach the age of ten, Wilberforce Reynolds, an addled one-time addict, makes an attempt to steal them from their parents. There’s a bleak irony there – ‘William Wilberforce’ and ‘Henry Reynolds’ being the names of emancipators. Indeed, Wilbur Reynolds is acting out of a grotesquely misconceived impulse to redeem a life of ratbag behaviour by making a gift of the two boys to Greta, an Indigenous woman of the Flinders Ranges who played a role in raising white Wilbur many years past. Greta’s own two sons had been taken from her in the 1950s by men with the legal authority to do so. The two red-haired boys will compensate her, so Wilbur hopes. But Wilbur manages to steal only one of the boys, Jaffas. The agony of Jaffa’s parents is matched in its intensity by the agony of the twins, each left yearning for the touch of the other.

The impression the reader will be left with after a quick reading of Howard’s novel is of a drama constructed around an appalling crime and its widening repercussions. Hearts are torn out, and in the broader community, people who hear of the abduction on the news put a hand to the head and murmur: “Dear God!” But the story told here is far more thoughtful, far more involving than that. As it was bound to be. This is Howard Goldenberg’s first novel, but two works of non-fiction precede it, “My Father’s Compass”, a memoir of Myer Goldenberg, Howard’s dad, and “Raft”, a book that records Howard’s engagement as a doctor with Indigenous Australians in remote communities all over the continent. Each of these earlier books is distinguished by the vernacular philosophy of a thriving intellect, and by a quality of observation that yields one poetic insight after another. If we speak of intensity of feeling, insight and quality of enquiry, Carrots and Jaffas is of a piece with those earlier works.

The broad strategy of the novel, in my reading, is to allow the story to unfold through five movements – Birth, Growth, Catastrophe, Healing, Reunion. With this strategy in place, Howard gives himself the liberty to riff on the themes that brace his story: the binding force of love; the rigour of grief; the perseverance of hope; the will and the wherewithal to imagine the life we hope for, and especially, what we expose ourselves to when another human being becomes more crucial in our vital life than our own wellbeing. (We might think of Bacon’s Hostages to Fortune lines: “He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune” but we should cheer Bacon up a little and subvert his meaning by saying: “Anyone who loves has given hostages to fortune.”)

Out of these themes emerge the book’s two arguments. The first establishes the enigma of individuality, taking in the sources and purpose of human individuality, and the second demonstrates the stubborn persistence of those forces in the world that oppose evil.

Let me return to love, the great emphasis in everything that Howard writes. Here is the mother of the twins experiencing the growth of love for her newly born, prematurely born children:
Luisa laughed the laughter of tenderness and body fluids, of manic collapse, of sleepless necessity.
On an impulse, or in forgetfulness or in simple exhaustion of thought, Luisa picked up both babies at once…offered each baby a breast. Both sucked….two small heads swiveled and searched, bony limbs extended, antennae into the void. One arm, flung outwards, came to rest on a brother’s shoulder. Gazes locked, spines unarched, mouths resumed sucking, smoothly, to satiety.

This conveys the growth of love of a mother for her children, and also the dependence of each twin on the other. Carrots and Jaffas cannot satisfy themselves individually; both must be satisfied together.

Later, Bernard, the father, in his quest to grasp what being the father of two children who can barely be differentiated involves, quotes from a poem on the subject of identical twins:

“The twins retain/intimate knowledge of each other,/ Theirs alone-/Of mind and body and being –/a knowledge preceding speech,/Transcending speech: Knowledge subtle as song,/Deep as the womb,/Pure as echo./Identical twins: One? Two? One?”

I wrote an endorsement for Carrots and Jaffas before its publication, and said this, amongst other things: “Howard Goldenberg’s story of identical twins, violently parted at the age of ten, reveals the hunger that dwells in all of us to stand distinct in the gaze of God.” To achieve that distinction in the gaze of God is our human struggle; to demonstrate that we cannot be packed by the gross; that we are marked with an individuality that honours, in its way, the teeming variety of life in the world. Think of Hopkins poem, “Pied Beauty” in which God delights in “All things counter, original, spare, strange…”But for Carrots and Jaffas, that struggle for originality is over at birth, or even at conception. The gaze of God is the gaze of the identical twin. The suggestion of Howard’s book is that the mystique of the identical twin is closely related to the mystery of divinity in our lives. We are unlikely ever to know what the identical twin knows, and unlikely ever to know what God knows. But one thing we can know is this: God is Himself, Herself an identical twin.

Wilberforce Reynolds parts Carrots and Jaffas. He hadn’t meant to. He had intended to steal both boys. It is a feature of acts of violence that they often do even greater harm that the perpetrator intended. Wilbur’s hope is that he will win the approval of a woman, Greta, who suffered the theft of her own two boys. In Archie Roach’s haunting song, “Took the Children Away”, Archie says: “You took the children away, The children away. Breaking their mother’s heart, Tearing us all apart, Took them away.” Those who took away Indigenous children decades ago knew that they were causing grief, but felt that a greater good justified the harm. And this is also Wilbur’s rationalisation.

My head will be right, doing this good thing…it’s the right thing to do, to bring kids, to steal them and replace kids stolen from blackfellers.

Howard makes very clear that Wilbur’s failure of imagination re-enacts the failure of imagination of those who had conceived the scheme of parting Indigenous parents from their children so much earlier. Jaffas, after his abduction, cries out in his anguish: “Run! Run back to Carrots! Run!” and we think of Leah Purcell’s song, ‘Run, Daisy, Run!’

Jaffas finds himself in the care of Greta and the white Doctor Burns up in the Flinders Ranges, the oldest place on earth. The creation of each of these characters are amongst the finest accomplishments of the novel. This Healing movement of the book sees Greta revealing to the traumatised Jaffas stories of the land, of her country, while the Doc contributes tales of scientific discoveries, of Indigenous distress, of the land as understood by a white man. Neither the Doc nor Greta know the true story of Jaffas abduction; Wilbur had spun a plausible tale to explain why he was leaving the boy with Greta. The Doc begins to suspect that Wilbur’s story is rubbish, and he wonders whether Wilbur’s real motivation has something to do with Greta’s past. He asks her, one day, about that past:

My boys, they take my two boys. Never come back. I reckon they big fellas now, fathers. Maybe grandfather. I never see them. Maybe they die, maybe they just lost….That what happen. That what they do. Steal ‘em…

But back at Jaffas home, his brother is tearing himself apart with grief, while his mother, Luisa, torments herself with stories of the unspeakable things done to other abducted twins by a certain Doctor Mengele during the Second World War. The strong suggestion is that Luisa, herself a one-time victim of hideous violence under the Junta in Argentina, will go mad if she is never to see Jaffas again. I spoke earlier of those forces in the world that oppose evil, and of their power. While Luisa is losing her mind, guarding her remaining son with a maniacal determination, Greta and the Doc are painstakingly rebuilding hope in the abducted Jaffas, mending, healing. In the oldest region of the earth, the aged (and Doc Burns is no longer a young man, nor Greta a young woman) dispense hope and love to the young.

Howard Goldenberg’s novel brims with suggestion, as a novel should. And the suggestion I want to make a big deal out of is this: that love, human love, is the finest accomplishment of the imagination. Maybe it is too easy to use a word like ‘evil’ and expect that everyone agrees about what evil is. But we do know what ‘wrong’ is. It is wrong to snatch a child from the street and drive away on some mongrel errand. It is wrong to wrench children in their thousands from the embrace of their parents on some state-sponsored mongrel errand of larger scale. It is wrong to gather people in their millions into camps, reduce their existence to wretchedness, then murder them. To do wrong requires no imagination at all; merely malice or egocentricity. To do good requires imagination. The Doc and Greta imagine the path to recovery that Jaffas might follow, then urge him along it. Their imagination stands in strong distinction to Wilbur’s crude lack of imagination.

Howard Goldenberg’s book is itself the product of a fine, creative imagination, and of a big heart. Like all such works of literary art, Carrots and Jaffas adds a welcome something to our chances in the world.
Robert Hillman is the renowned author of sixty books, including “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif ” (Wild Dingo Press). His most recent works are the celebrated novel, “Joyful” (Text, 2014), and a young adult novel, “Malini” (Allen and Unwin, 2014)

Robert launched Carrots and Jaffas at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August 2014 with his speech above. 

Phone Calls from my Dead Brother

My brother Dennis

My brother Dennis

This evening and tomorrow the family will mark the seventh anniversary of the dying of my firstborn brother Dennis. We’ll light candles and congregations will join us in remembering him.

Two weeks before he died Dennis underwent elective surgery. I wondered if the surgery was wise. Dennis, whose life’s creed was hope, assured me: ”Doff, this operation can eventually cure diabetes. It will transform my life.”
We spoke daily on the phone – he from his hospital bed, I from a hellhole town in the deep Kimberley. Day by day Dennis seemed to be doing well. But on day four he told me: ”I’m OK but my belly hurts”. A belly ache bad enough for stoical Dennis to mention was bad enough to alarm me.

Day five, no phone call. That day the pain was worse. Dennis collapsed, his circulation failing as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach acid leaking from his wounds.
At his bedside in Intensive Care the following day we counted the tubes entering and departing Dennis’ comatose form. One into his windpipe to make him breathe; a second into a great vessel to deliver information; a third to bypass his kidneys which had failed; a fourth to drain his bladder; a fifth and sixth into peripheral vessels to deliver fluids and the hero molecules that just might save him.
The greater the number of tubes in a patient’s body, they told us, the lower the chance he would leave ICU alive.
I sat at his bedside and I watched my brother. Behind the clicks and gusts of his life machines swelled the sounds of classical music. Annette, his loving sister-in-law, thought to play that music, those patterned sounds that ever soothed his troubled breast.
I sat there and watched as nurses, tender or tough, kept my brother alive. The tough ones, resentful of something – were we too many, was this medical brother too medical, that sister too exacting, that aged mother too accepting? – made me feel small, in need again of a big brother.

Dennis turned the corner: blood pressure held firm, sleeping kidneys awoke, fewer molecules were needed. The doctors conferred and announced: “We’ll let him wake up now and breathe on his own.”

Dennis breathed and slept on. We all breathed, went home and slept.
At four in the morning my phone rang. A crepitous, rustling sound, a broken voice in windy gusts: it was Dennis: “Doff, they want to njjhrnnujicxvclbkvn”
“Den, I can’t hear you. Say it again.”
Gales and crackles and Dennis’ voice in fragments: “Doff… inaudible… they…unintelligible…the tube back in.”
“Den, are you saying they advise you to go on the respirator again?”
More gasping, a desparate heaving of voice: “Yes!” More gasping. “Is it a good idea?”
“Den, it’s your best hope. Say yes.”
“Alright Doff.”

That was the final phone call. Dennis and I never spoke again. By the time I reached the hospital Dennis’ coma was renewed, the respirator breathing for him. Soon his circulation collapsed again, the doctors tried heart-lung bypass (“It’s only ever been shown to work in children. It’s your brother’s last hope..”) and on the eve of Shabbat Dennis died.

***

I can speak or write of Dennis dying with a composure that surprises me. Even my fatal advice does not trouble me. Perhaps it was not the dying of my big brother, but his living, that calls to me and troubles my dreams.

Outrage at Whitegate

A few weeks ago someone cut the water supply to a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs. The ‘camp’ belongs, by ancient practice and by government fiat, to a local clan of Aboriginal people, heirs to a tradition of tenure that goes back beyond white settlement, beyond the dawn of written history. Whitegate is far from how we might imagine a camp, being neither an attractive resort nor a place of refugees. Whitegate Town Camp is not in any sense a place of temporary habitation. It is habitat, it is country. It belongs to the Hayes clan as the clan belongs to Whitegate.

Governments wish to take over the camp, ostensibly to modernise and improve it. They seek to unseat tenure and replace this with long leases. The longest paper lease imaginable would be but momentary in the context and the conception of the Hayes family. Such paper devalues and threatens a connection which is inalienable in nature and beyond secular legal conception.

So someone cut the water supply. Just possibly the government is not responsible. Responsible or not, government could quickly supply water but this has not happened. Nor has repair of the camp’s long defunct solar generation. Whitegate, long a garden of neglect is now a wilderness, occupied by human Australians. Other Australians, notably whitefella writer-artist Rod Moss, supply water and burnable fuel for heating and cooking.

In the present historic moment of human barbarity it is noteworthy that none of the parties to the conflict in the Middle East – not even Assad’s Syria – has ever cut water supplies to its foe. Such an act seems to be beyond human imagining. Except in Alice Springs.

Actions to protest this barbarism will take place in coming days and weeks, actions that are notably harmonious in nature and intent, ‘Aboriginal way.’

How have we fallen so low?

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Worst of Times, Best of Times

Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.

In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.

How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?

Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.

The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.

Dog Days

Fidel at the beach on his last day.

Fidel at the beach on his last day.

Patchett opens her story with, “Two days before my dog Rose died…”* Who of us who has ever loved a dog can resist the urge to read on? Flung into foreknowledge of a death – knowledge humans share, but which animals might be – who knows? – spared, we realise this death is imminent. While many of us imagine we’d welcome such foreknowing of our own end, few could bear it. Patchett, it is clear, feels that burden of knowing.

Then there’s the dog’s name, Rose: this dog is particular. She has an owner, a name giver. Giving a name is an act of appropriation, literally a claim of belonging. Rose belongs to Ann. Sahara belonged to my brother Dennis; and Fidel belonged to my son-in-law Pablo. And, to our surprise, a widening circle of others.

My firstborn brother spent most of his last decade as the sole resident in a family sized dwelling. A gregarious, family-minded man, his loneliness would have been bleak without Sahara. To those who did not love her, Sahara, was completely unlovable, too small, too low slung, raucous and aggressive; she was in addition a sneaking, nasty, opportunistic biter. To Dennis alone was she cherished; blind to her antisocial nature, her repellent effect on all creatures on two legs or four, Dennis pampered her. He loved Sahara. She was his housemate, his friend, his nearest relative.

Happily for Dennis he never saw Sahara’s last days. After he died, one of his friends materialised in our house of mourning and volunteered to take her in. Relieved of a most undesired heirloom, we seldom speak of her. She lives on, however, under her own name, between the covers of my novel ”Carrots and Jaffas”, in which she functions as an unexpected redeemer. My fear is she might be alive somewhere in the flesh. A roar, a blur, a quick bite, sudden blood, quicker flight, you’ll recognise Sahara by her toothmarks.

***

By any standard Fidel was a Border Collie gentleman of refined habits. He growled only when a stranger ventured too close to the latest newborn of his household; he barked only at the one great hound to invade his territory outside Alma Espresso; he was quite useless as a watchdog. Fidel’s sole lapse of etiquette was his habitual piddling on my mother’s loungeroom carpet, but we excused that as the imperative of territory.

Fidel loved to run. I loved to run. Long after my running companions fell away to ruined knees or rescued marriages, Fidel kept me company on long lonely early morning runs. Young women smiled at me, my maleness forgiven in the company of Fidel.
Fidel was first dog across the line in the Traralgon Marathon of 1998. He was photographed smiling at my side with his medal around his neck. The officials were not to know he’d travelled some of those 42.185 kilometres – unwillingly and under protest – in my daughter’s car.

Fidel parted with his testes without complaint, he raised three small boys and won the hearts of widening circles of kin with his never ending grin and his always sweet breath. Like all his bottom sniffing kind Fidel seemed immune to odour. He’d keep me company when I was seated on the loo. Once in that small room he ventured forward, making mistaken fellatious overtures. Fidel and I were close but I drew the line here.

One day Fidel seemed tired, the next day apathetic; the third day he was rescued by surgery and transfusion (at the hands of his loving vet-in-law) from death by catastrophic internal haemorrhage. The vet-in-law confided he had had incurable cancer. Six weeks later my wife and I said our goodbyes to Fidel – my jowls quiver and my lower lip trembles as I recall it – at the seaside, his happiest hunting grounds where he was wont ever to chase seagulls into mocking flight. We embraced him and whispered last words. We knew what we knew; we wondered what Fidel knew? Not for the first time I kissed him.

***

Ann Patchett won the Orange Prize and a Pulitzer for ‘Bel Canto’. She won me first with a small booklet titled ‘The Bookshop Strikes Back’ (Bloomsbury, 2013), a safe enough speculative buy at $2.50, handsomely rewarding.

In her remarkable book, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”, Ann Patchett describes the passing of Rose. Rose was small, lap-sized, not a real dog to love and run a marathon with. From her opening phrase Patchett won me.

After Rose dies, Patchett writes: “I came to realize…there was between me and every person I had ever loved some element of separation…arguments and disappointments…over time people break apart, no matter how enormous the love…and it is through the breaking and the reconciliation, the love and the doubting of love, the judgment and then the coming together again, that we find our own identity and define our relationships.
Except…I had never broken from Rose…”

Patchett recruited me into her love, convinced me, changed me, enlarged my understanding.
What more can we ask of a writer?

*This must be the most arresting start since Annie Proulx’ “Postcards”, which opens with the protagonist’s realisation that the person with whom he has – one breath past – shared an unspecified se xual act has died in that act.

A Guest of Clive

When I mentioned to a friend I’d be attending a medical conference at the Palmer Coolum Resort, she said, “You can’t possibly be supporting that man.” I never chose the location of the conference but I looked forward to returning to the pleasant place where I had attended previous events. If staying at Palmer’s resort constituted support, clearly I could support him; but apparently I should not. Everyone I spoke to had a clear opinion: Clive was a selfish man, he was immature, he was a menace to democracy.
I realised I was lacking in conviction on the Clive Issue and this lack was at best surprising and probably deplorable.

We drove in to the resort. Green expanses of the famed golf course pleased the eye. A plastic dinosaur assaulted the finer senses. Sweeping around a bend we arrived to stillness. The resort was a human desert.

At the desk the embarrassed receptionist said, no, I could not have The Australian delivered to my door. Nor, she volunteered, could I have any paper other than the Sunshine Coast daily. Surprised, I stood for a moment. After allowing the penny to drop I grinned, made a remark recruiting the receptionist, inviting her to lower her guard, to confess something of herself.
In the silence she blushed. After a time she wished us a pleasant stay as if she really meant it. As if she were making amends.

In the course of the weekend we did have a pleasant time. Among the conference people we enjoyed free and vigorous intercourse. With our hosts we enjoyed warm but guarded dialogue that lacked the thrust and mutuality of intercourse.

Visiting Cuba in 1999 we were the guests of another large figure. Fidel permitted us to read his local daily, “Grandma”. No other newspapers were available. Throughout the country we found our hosts warm but reticent. The dinosaurs we found were motor vehicles from the 1950’s that exhaled black smoke. In a free exchange of toxins the locals smiled as prevailing winds deposited their pollutants on Miami.

In another free exchange four hundred workers have been released from the Coolum Resort to join Mr Abbott’s jobsearchers. Where forty bellstaff used to work, there remain three. Those three work hard, smile a lot and sew their lips.

Down in the village of Coolum Beach you can buy the ‘free’ press. I purchased The Australian, whose first headline you may see below. I searched the paper in vain for any comment – The Australian is not shy to comment – offering a broader view of Clive. Plenty of thrust but no mutuality.

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