How the President-elect Refined my Attitude

I have written recently of my feeling that the words of the male candidate in the recent US Presidential election somehow left language tainted. And I started to regret my every dirty thought and word. Deeper than my aesthetic recoil, and more disturbing, is how I felt shamed: I felt I was somehow unworthy simply by belonging to the same gender. I have found it difficult to explain this feeling; I do so here, expecting, like Saint Thomas Moore in Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for all Seasons’, to make myself completely obscure.

The White House


 
If the groper made me feel dirty, the release of details of the murder of a bride in the country town of Leeton accentuated and deepened my discomfort. The facts of that murder shocked and disgusted the nation. We heard uncontested evidence from the defendant’s statement: I had to kill her, I wasn’t angry or anything. Basically emotionless. Just that I had to kill her. Two months before the murder the defendant typed search terms into his computer that included, bride rape, bride kidnapping, necro rape, bride raped with wedding dress. Australians heard this evidence and shuddered. We heard how he had actively stalked up to six other women in the area, how he had photographed a twelve-year old girl 1800 times and recorded her movements in a notebook. Of that child he said, had he abducted her, he probably would have killed her.
 
Detail followed detail of methodical and revolting acts that preceded and followed the fatal attack. I absorbed all of this with growing horror. I am a Leeton boy. The offender was a cleaner at the primary school and the Infants’ School I attended in Leeton. He cleaned half a dozen schools in the area including the boarding school where my best friend was educated.
 

Yanco Agricultural High School


Any reader with a stomach for revolting reality can find more detail on the net. I don’t care to elaborate. The perpetrator’s menu of horrors is vast. Instead, I want to trace the way in which I felt shame that lingered, and surfaced again and again within my mind. Somehow the Groping Candidate and the killer, widely as their acts differ in proportion, resided in the same part of my mind. It takes no great insight to see that the words of one and the acts of the second exhibit a shared disrespect for female humans. For both the woman is meat. Appetite expresses itself without remorse.
 
Horrible, uncommonly so, but why feel shame? I surveyed my life as a male: consciously randy from the age of five (when a pretty red-headed classmate informed my mother, ‘Howard kisses me and lifts up my dress’); raised in a family where the male ruled by silent assent; nurtured by a loving mother who demanded respectful behaviour towards all (‘Darling, whatever you and a girlfriend agree to do together, you must never boast of it to other boys!’); recoiling at my father’s words after he returned from examining the body of an eighteen-year old girl, raped then murdered (‘All that poor girl did wrong was to be born female.’) – I realise that I share appetites with those men who disgust me.
 
To have appetite must surely be guiltless. To think thoughts, to feel urges, must be close to universal. We thought, we felt, but we did not act in those egregious ways.
 
Females of my generation have given their men opportunity to learn that gaze can offend, intrude, unsettle. We have been led to understand the complex nature of harassment, the ubiquity of unspoken postures of dominance, the power of language to hurt. Those of our generation who relinquished authority are the first and only group I can think of to wield power and to surrender it readily. Gratefully in my case.
 
As I learned how women have been hurt I came to realise how much that I liked of myself, might be termed ‘feminine’. Nevertheless my self-examination was the impulse of uncomfortable conscience. All those behaviours of mine were well short of shameful. They fall into the class of behaviour that I never wished my daughters to endure. But they are not atrocity.
 
But shouldering and shoving their way into my mind come the Candidate and the Convict from my place of innocence (for the town of my childhood had retained its rustic peacefulness); and my mind arraigns me in that same dock.

Favourite Books

After he died, my brother Dennis’ lifetime collection of books was set out on tables and benches, in boxes and on shelves at our parents’ house, for family members to choose and keep. Revealed before us was a catalogue of the brilliant and searching mind of my big brother. Biographies, especially political, books on management, art books and book after book on music. And cooking books, books on sailing, on fishing. The study and the joys of a big appetite for life and ideas. Books of all sorts, but not much literature and very little fiction. 

 

Dennis always named his three favourite books as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kahlil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet’, and Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse. I knew and loved the first of the three, I knew and liked (and mistrusted) the second, and – as for the third – I didn’t know Siddhartha from Hiawatha. 

 

Dennis would read my writings, shaking his head, unhappy with my obliquity and my complexity. ‘Read Siddhartha’, he’d say, ‘And learn the beauty of writing simply.’ Dennis admired narration that was free of ornament and artifice. ‘You make me think too much,’ he said. I felt flattered and confirmed in my path. And I did not take up Siddhartha.

 

‘Ecclesiastes,’ I read religiously, every year, entranced by The Preacher’s philosophic quest, as he tastes and tests every idea and temptation, as he broods and takes up and sets aside every sacred and profane thing. And the rhythms of the text, whether in Hebrew or in English, have always entranced: 

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

 

Dennis’ birthday falls on November 22. Each year on that day the stated gap between our ages would open up from two years to three. On November 22, 2016, Dennis would have turned seventy-three. But he never reached even threescore years and ten. He died aged sixty-three. Ten years later I pick up Siddhartha and read it, to mark his birthday and to honour the wishes of the older brother who always willed me to be better in the particulars that he selected. I read the work, too, to learn more of my brother’s questing soul.

 

I need to digress here, to my misgivings about ‘The Prophet’. I find it calming, pleasing, gently uplifting. It is as smooth as gravy, as sweet as the dulce de leche upon which my Argentine relatives were weaned. That’s my problem: ‘The Prophet’ lacks grit. You read and you wallow. As an essayist remarks in the New Yorker: ‘In “The Prophet” Gibran (mixed) a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed.’

 

 

Raised as we all were, in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family, Dennis chafed against God the father and against our godlike father. He found the courage – indeed the compulsion – to rebel, but he never ceased to feel the pull and the lull of the old-time religion of his early nurture. He tried to relinquish Jewish restriction but the ritual would not let him go. Hence the enduring attraction to him of ‘The Prophet’, with its ‘anti-authoritarianism and its nostalgia for sanctity’.

 

Back to Siddhartha, another huge hit among those who were young adults in the seventies. When a book is so uncritically adored as this I start to feel uneasy. When I take up my newly purchased copy and discover that Paulo Coelho has written the introduction, my unease deepens. For – possibly alone among its millions of readers and adorers – I found the pretentious simplicism of ‘The Alchemist’ alienated me.

 

So you see, these works find me out as cynical.

 

But cynicism falls away as I read Hesse’s account of his searcher for enlightenment. Dennis sought enlightenment with his strong, rational mind. I recognise Dennis as the Buddha’s chastens Siddhartha: ‘You are clever…,’ said the Illustrious One; ‘you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

I see here Dennis, my too clever brother, the troubled searcher, endlessly testing his traditions, endlessly questing. This is the brother who embraced ‘Ecclesiastes’, in which The Preacher seeks but never finds a truth that satisfies. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ It is an honest quest, brave and lonely. That was my brother Dennis, brave and lonely, longing, as his son remarked at the funeral, ‘to love and to be loved.’

 

But unlike the monk Siddhartha, Dennis did love: most particularly he loved our mother, and he loved me. And I loved him, and I miss him still.

 

 

 

 

To the Rescue 

 
About three years ago my grandson Miles became increasingly nervous about the warming of the climate. He learned of melting icecaps, rising seas, drowning isles and the fate of our planet. He decided to act. He wrote to the man who was soon to gain fame as an onion muncher:

 

Dear Mister Abbott,

 

In Grade Two we are learning about the climate and the danger to our planet. Please protect the environment or all people will suffer.

 

Yours truly,

 

Miles

 

The Prime Minister wrote back:


 

The Prime Minister did act. Speaking of yet another great black hole in the ground he declared, ‘coal is good for humanity.’ And there the matter rested. The PM went on to his encounter with the onion in Tasmania and thence to the back bench.

 

 

Last week saw the election in the United States of a new leader who knows and cares less about the climate than my grandchildren. My youngest grandson Joel, aged five, learned the ice caps are melting, the seas rising, the polar bears are under threat, and the world is in danger. He felt worried. At bedtime last night he was afraid to go to sleep. His mother asked Joel, ‘What do you think you can do to help the planet?’ Joel thought a bit and replied, ‘I should become prime minister and protect the earth.’ There followed a discussion of the process of actually becoming PM. ‘The people have to choose you. They do it by voting’, said his Mum. Joel said he would offer rewards to people who protected the environment. His Mum responded, ‘In that case, I’ll vote for you, Joelly.’

 

 

With one vote already in the bag and with his program for saving the planet under way, Joel was ready for sleep. And all of us can now rest easier.

 

The Voice of Victor

For a few years my daughter lived in England where she met lots of other young mothers, ordinary white middle class women with orderly lives, healthy babies and toddlers. They all had husbands with jobs, all were native English speakers in an English speaking country. They were all OK. Their babies got croup and cradle cap and they saw competent doctors in a timely way and had access to suitable, safe and effective medicines, and soon their babies were OK again; and they were all OK. 

But one day, one of my daughter’s friends saw the papers, watched the TV news and she stopped being OK. The friend’s name is Ros. And although Ros – a person in London with an ordinary life, who abandoned her day job and roused herself and roused one hundred thousand other ordinary English mothers and fathers and children to demonstrate and campaign for refugees, and this led to David Cameron rousing himself and his government, and this roused Britain to admit many whom they previously would have turned away – this story is not about ordinary Ros.
My daughter left England and returned home to Australia. She and Ros remain in touch. Ros sent a photo that broke my daughter’s heart. She wrote me a letter that included the image below:
 

My daughter’s friend Ros sent her this photo in a letter she came across in a camp on the Greek Island of Thessaloniki. In shrinking lettering near the foot of the letter the writer signed his name, “victor”.

 
My daughter says Victor’s is the despairing voice of one refugee so desperate to be heard he writes on the wall of his tent. He knows no-one hears. She says the world has turned its back. My daughter turns to her writer father with a plea of her own: “Maybe your writing could give Victor a voice. I’m just saying it made me think of you. Do with that what you will.”
I read my daughter’s letter. I read Victor’s letter.
Do with that what you will, she says, then adds, “Going to sleep with a heavy heart.”
Days pass and I don’t do anything.
Every time I switch on my computer, my daughter’s letter asks me, what will I do to make Victor’s voice heard? Something indistinct echoes, something about the unheard voice. It is a voice from a cattle car.
WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED RAILWAY-CAR:

here in this carload 

i am eve 

with abel my son 

if you see my other son 

cain son of man 

tell him I

  

What can I do? What can any of us do? We can try to emulate ordinary Ros. We can write to our local Member of Parliament, write to our faith leaders, speak to our friends. We can do as an ordinary friend of mine does – she organises aid packages. (That friend – a lapsed fundamentalist Christian – writes annually to this Jewish friend, seeking donations of Christmas gifts for Muslim refugees.) We can adopt a Victor – there are so, so many – and write to him. We can send him books. We can remind him he is not alone, not forgotten.

 

What good will these ordinary acts do? In the case of Ros they led to the saving of thousands. In Australia, our ordinary voices were raised enough to encourage our very ordinary leaders to find our captives place of safety in the USA. Our leaders are timid. It is for us to lead them.
(You can find out how to emulate ordinary Ros if you visit http://www.swruk.org/ )

He Contaminated the Language

When he said he groped women, when he said he grabbed them by the pussy, when he said when you are a star you can just go right in and do those things, he fouled the way humans communicate with each other.
 

Our words flow from our bodies, through air, through cyberspace, through waves. They emerge from our embodied minds, they bear our thoughts and our feelings, our fears and joys and dreams. They connect humans as only humans can be connected – unless you include angels that sing hallelujah and God who speaks from a burning bush or a mountain top, or in the wilderness in still, soft voice.

 

Language now lies soiled, tarnished, filthied. Who can use it without tasting that distaste? Who can write of man with woman, of humans with neighbours, of differing colour or creed or country, without feeling estranged from our fellow?

 

He has soiled our prized human heritage of words. He has broken wide the bridged divides. He has strewed our ravines with contempt and vulgarity.

 

He leaves us with dance, perhaps with music. Let us dance now, let us sing without words, let us strum and hum. Let us reach out, let us flail and wail for all whom he’d estrange. Let us bring them in whom he’d drive out. For they are us.

 

Twelve at a Dinner Table

The year was 1938. In November a coordinated series of pogroms across Germany and Austria saw the burning of synagogues and the shops of Jewish people, and the beatings and murders of Jews on a huge scale. The Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, broke more than glass. It saw the destruction of hope among those German Jews who remained hopeful that this madness would soon pass. In its place a realization, completely new, at odds with the eagerness of the Jew for acceptance: They want to kill us all. If we stay they’ll kill us.   

 

Far away in Australia twelve friends enjoyed a convivial dinner. Long after they’d finished eating the friends sat and talked. A relaxed group,intimate and trusted. One pulled from his pocket a sheet of paper. This arrived in the post today. The stamp reads, ‘Osterreich’ – I think that’s German for Austria. The letter seems to be in German; no-one at work can speak or read German. We don’t know what to make of it. It is addressed to us apparently. That is, we think so. The first line uses our company name. The same on the envelope…

 

 

A hand reached across the table. A second voice spoke: Pass it here. I’ll have ago. I did German at school.

A brow furrowed. A quietness fell, the quiet of satiety and comfort among friends. Hey! This is horrible. Terrible – if it’s true. The German scholar translated. The quiet now took on an earnestness, an intensity, as twelve ordinary Australians grappled with facts that would unseat innocence. The reader’s voice slowed as she rendered the closing lines: Honoured Uncle Borer, Unless we can leave Austria, we will die. They will kill us. Unless you sponsor our admission to your country.

 

 

This story was told at my family dinner table towards the end of a recent Festival meal. At the table sat three generations of Jews, all but one of us born after WWII. We too had sat, sated, content, comfortable. It was the voice of my wife’s sister, Robyn telling the story. She continued: ‘This was a family that was desperate. Jews could still get out – if they had a visa. Australia would accept a certain number of Jews if they had a relative here who would sponsor them – that is if the family would guarantee their upkeep.

 

 

That terrified family in Austria recalled an obscure uncle somewhere in Australia. The only detail they recalled was the name the family had known him by, ‘Uncle Borer.’ Was Borer a first name or a family name? They were uncertain even of that. Where in Australia did Uncle settle? Was he still there? Was he alive? Would he help them?

 

 

Armed only with the ardent desire to live, the family somehow procured Australian telephone directories. They searched for the name Borer. Few were the families in Australia that answered to that name. But the family wrote to every Borer they found, explaining their situation and pleading for Uncle to save them. They never heard from Uncle Borer. But the Manager of a small Australian enterprise listed in the telephone directory under ‘White Ant and Borer Exterminating Company’ received a letter written in the German language, which he brought with him that evening to a dinner party in 1938.

 

 

No-one at that dinner table had relatives in Germany or Austria. None of them had friends there. The twelve absorbed the content of the letter. They contemplated its closing lines, they will kill us…and they heard the words that had reached them like a letter in a drifting bottle – unless you sponsor us.’

 

 

Robyn paused. Eleven of us, all Australian by birth, Jewish by heritage, reflected on our families’ stories of arrival. We knew by name those who sponsored us, we knew the dozens of families that our families had sponsored. The twelfth person among us, mother of Robyn and my wife Annette, was born ninety years ago in Danzig. She too arrived in1938. The matriarch at our table, Nana, our treasure, a brand plucked from the fire, was sponsored, saved. Nineteen Australian citizens, Nana’s descendants, are alive today. (A twentieth is expected).

 

 

Robyn resumed: ‘The manager of the borer company sponsored the family. We know that family, they are friends, but I never heard their story until now. And there’s one more thing – everyone at that dinner table sponsored Jews who needed to escape. Apparently forty people – or was it forty families – were saved by the borers and their ordinary Australian friends. Incidentally one of those twelve was a man named Harold Holt.’

 

 

Harold Holt! I remembered the prime minister from my student days. I remembered him as the conservative who sucked up to the USA in Vietnam. ‘All the way with LBJ’, was his catchcry. Harold Holt giving succour to asylum seekers was not how I imagined him. How old was he, I wondered, when he heard that letter to someone’s Uncle Borer? 
 

 

At our table that night I looked around, mentally counting: twelve, yes we too were twelve. Would we, I wondered – would I – sponsor a family of foreigners as that twelve did? But as matters stand, we twelve Australian adults are all impotent under our present laws to sponsor anyone, not even those who have escaped to Manus or to Nauru.

POSTSCRIPT:

So I looked him up in Wikipedia: “Harold Edward Holt, 5 August 1908 – 17 December 1967), was an Australian politician and the 17th Prime Minister of Australia from 1966 to 1967. He was born in Stanmore, New South Wales and won a scholarship to study law at the University of Melbourne. Holt went into business as a solicitor, during which time he joined the United Australia Party (UAP). In 1935, aged just 27, he was elected for Fawkner. Holt spent 32 years in Parliament, including many years as a senior Cabinet Minister, but was Prime Minister for only 22 months before he disappeared in December 1967 while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria, and was presumed drowned.
As Minister for Immigration (1949–1956), Holt was responsible for the relaxation of the White Australia policy.”
So here is one ordinary Aussie, aged thirty, a junior politician who acts and does a private good. Eleven years later, in his public capacity as minister for immigration, he recognizes the humanity of those humans whose skin is not white, transforming for the better a largely monochrome country.

Empty, Empty and Desolate the Sea

I can’t see Manny anywhere. I stand and fret in St Kilda Road. The spring gale blows a clatter of discarded plastic drink cups along the great boulevard. The cups fly and land and take flight again, baffling the redshirted volunteers who try to arrest them. In all the great sweep of road it is only the volunteers who run, no others: the marathon field has swept past me as I keep my watch and ward, as I wait and wait for Manny.
 

It is eight thirty-five. The marathon runners have passed, the half-marathoners too. Where is Manny? We’d arranged to meet at seven thirty. When we saw each other a week ago Manny told me he could run only two hundred metres without breathlessness. I was treating him for the respiratory infection that he’s prone to: whether it’s his cancer therapy or the cancer itself or a recurrence of pneumonia, he’s been unable to train. ‘Until the other day’, he says hopefully, ‘I did 10K on the treadmill.’ Then he concedes, ‘I had to walk and jog.’

 

Last night Manny sent a message: I’m hoping miracles do happen. This will be my thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon. I am determined to start. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I make it to the five kilometre mark. I’ll meet you there around seven-thirty I hope.

 

I have been watching since seven-fifteen, searching faces, peering into the throngs for sight of Manny’s familiar features, his labouring body. The road has been full, but empty, empty and desolate. So Manny has been defeated at last. After running thirty-eight successive Melbourne marathons, one of only eight people who have started and completed every one, Manny has admitted defeat. And it is not the event that has defeated him, but his illness. The wind howls in my ears, dust flails my face. I am almost relieved that Manny does not have to run into the gale.

 

I turn for home then look back over my shoulder. At the extreme of sight two figures are dimly seen. Their bodies are shapes, undefined. They seem to move: are they moving towards me or away? I wait. Yes, two figures, moving slowly, making slow progress in my direction down St Kilda Road. Can this be Manny and another, a support person? I wait my turn to become the next in Manny’s chain of supportive escorts. The figures approach, they gain definition. They move comfortably, they laugh and wave. They are young, female, they are not Manny.

 

Sombrely I jog back, keeping pace now with some lagging half-marathoners. Sloggers, these, a sub-sub-sub elite, united in dour resolution. These runners have the Manny spirit, the spirit that brought him through and home in the last two full Melbourne Marathons.

 

Back home I try to call Manny. No luck. I call his devoted son – all his relatives love and cherish him: no answer. I leave an anxious message. Restless, I await news. Day ends without word. I send an email.

Finally the following arrives: With help from my wonderful family I did the impossible and finished the thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon.

I did the Cliffy Young shuffle and someone was with me all the way to help me along. I’m feeling very sore and tired.

I’m sorry I missed you. Hopefully we can run together next year.

‘Next year’. Two years ago Manny’s cancer doctor warned him against running: You fractured a cancerous rib just by coughing. You might have cancer in any of your bones. You can’t afford to run. But Manny did run. In 2016 with the same warning echoing, he asked his GP what he thought; this GP said, I’ll run at your side. And that was our plan again this year. But I missed him.
I missed him but Manny ran. He shuffled through the spring gales and he completed the full forty-two kilometres, plus the final terrible two hundred metres. And I missed witnessing one of the great athletic feats, one of the triumphs of the spirit over the flesh.

 

Next year, Manny, next year.

 

THE MCG STANDS EMPTY, THE SOLE RUNNER, LIKE PHEIDIPIDES OF OLD, ENTERS ALONE