How to Persecute a Smoker

You do not have to try very hard to make the smoker feel miserable. I know, having persecuted smokers for forty five years with all the zeal of the reformed addict. I gave up smoking in 1952 on medical advice. The doctor said I would suffer if I continued to smoke. Although he spoke of chronic lung disease the suffering I feared was a spanking. The doctor in question was my father.

I heeded his advice although it wasn’t easy. Every afternoon on our return from school my older brother and I encountered warm cigarette butts dropped onto the paved area where Dad’s smoking patients smoked until Dad called them in and started to persecute them for smoking. Dennis and I liked to pick up the butts, still gleaming with warm saliva, and take a little puff. Addictive stuff.

Once I was a medical student I could commence practice in my own right. I did so with a will. Never more sincere is the doctor than when battling against smoking: the cigarette and the doctor, precisely opposed, work to antithetical ends: the doctor needs to save, the cigarette needs to sell the next cigarette. In the end death defeats both doctor and cigarette. In the grave no-one sees a doctor and no-one smokes – hell might be different – and both Phillip Morris and Doctors Goldenberg have lost a customer, an addict, a slave.

Over the course of my initial decade as a doctor I grilled every patient capable of holding a cigarette about smoking. It didn’t matter what prompted your visit – the common cold, halitosis from any orifice, bleeding gums or malformed toes – I asked: “Are you a smoker?”

If the answer came, “Yes”, I was off. I informed, I warned, I hectored, I described the coils of cancer and told you smokers stank and as a result they got less sex. I lied. Of course I lied. For the greater good – we do that – we, the militant non-addicted.

I was good at my job. The confessed smoker (Yes Doctor, I did smoke half a cigarette… last month… it was my fourteenth birthday) sits arraigned before me. Relentlessly virtuous, like Senator Joe Mc Carthy, I pursued her.

After a decade I conducted an audit: of 50,000 patients I knew of two who ceased smoking on my advice. Both were ladies well into their eighties. The remainder? They listened to my advice, my graphic predictions, they quivered, shivered, trembled, and – crests fallen – they hurried outside and lit up a comforting fag. Some, too far gone in their degraded state, far beyond fear, felt simple shame. In their misery, they paid, they left, they lit up.

I am sure part of the secret of my success was my sincerity. My purity. I’d ask, not “Do you smoke?” but, “Are you a smoker?” No longer a person but a type, the confessed malefactor sat among the categories, the undesirables: rapists, stabbers, mother rapists…

They’d confess: “Yes, I blow up buses, yes I molest small children, yes” – whispering now – “I smoke.”

We see her, the smoker, in her degraded state. Huddled with others in winter doorways, banished from indoors, she shivers just as she smokes her entrails. Ragged, condemned, outside, outside of the good.

History of course tells us that one day she will rise. Her time will come. Gathering others who are disrespected – the homeless, the mentally ill, global warming deniers, real estate agents, politicians, clergy, boat people, Muslims, Zionists – she and all those we have persecuted will agglomerate and strike. Blowing cigarette smoke in our faces, the smoker will have her day.

Robert Hillman’s ‘Gurrumul’ – Review by Howard Goldenberg

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman  Publisher: ABC Books

Gurrumul by Robert Hillman
Publisher: ABC Books

If autobiography is the least reliable genre in fiction then the authorized Life sits at its flakiest edge. That this is not true of Hillman’s “Gurrumul” is on account of the slipperiness of the subject.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu emerges as shy, remote, elusive, cryptic, mischievous – an outer island in an archipelago of tongues. He does not so much emerge as submerge himself. Blind from birth, Gurrumul seems at times to be mute by choice. At others he makes himself perfectly clear to a whitefella, especially when working with his intimate collaborator, Michael Hohnen.

By book’s end Gurrumul remains hidden; only his music and the beauty of his features – a beauty we can enjoy and he can never perceive – speak to us.

No biographer could truly represent this life, (nor for that matter could he successfully misrepresent it). Wisely, Hillman does not attempt either. Instead he places the artist in his context. Chiefly that context is the complex of family (especially his bevy of aunties), community, land and Dreaming: in short, culture.

“Culture”, a term used promiscuously in conversations between the races, embodies meanings that are layered and expressed in dance, in music, in painting, in song, in storytelling and in land husbandry. The meanings are traditionally expressed obliquely, which is to say they are in part obscured. What Gurrumul does with these enfolded meanings appears to be a risky enterprise of his own, with calibrated departures from liturgical norms, a sort of jazz move in which he improvises within a theme and extends it beyond the limits of permitted custom.

Such a variation on a theme must be perceptible only to a tiny number of the millions who respond to Gurrumul’s music making. In this sense it is a secret, yet another, in  practice that skates ever along the outer edge of theunshareable.

When Gurrumul sings, whitefellas listen, enthralled. Literally, we are in a thrall, under a spell cast upon us by the spellbinding singer. We scarcely hear the words, we cannot parse them; and when we read their translations in Hillman’s book, the words in English are so simple as to appear banal: a profoundly false impression. And yet, and yet, we are transported. If beauty be truth, then truth is shown to us precisely as it is withheld. The subtlety of all this magic is clearly rendered in Hillman’s book.

To those who have read “My Life as a Traitor” and “The Rugmaker of Mazr a Sharif”, Hillman’s skill in rendering an alien culture will be familiar. It is in his later work, “The Honey Thief”, that Hillman manages to capture the artist in the act of working his art, in this case the sublime art of the Afghan (Azari) storyteller.

In the present volume Hillman attempts the extremely ambitious exegesis of the utterly untranslatable term, “Dreaming.” He succeeds, in this reader’s view, brilliantly. In twenty five years and over sixty working visits to remote Aboriginal communities, I have never felt I came so close to apprehending (I doubt any whitefella will ever comprehend) the Dreaming, as in Hillman’s “Gurrumul, his life and music.”

Hillman has succeeded remarkably in penetrating the life of art and ceremony (the two amount to much the same thing) on Elcho Island. Seven years ago while I worked on Elcho ceremony was active but off limits for whitefellas. Clearly Robert Hillman won the trust of capable cultural brokers on the island, who ‘let him in’ wherever this was permissible. In return, Hillman repays trust with respect that neither fawns nor condescends. In this his text avoids the vapid tone of comments on the book’s photographs.

Which leads me to the one regret I have about the book, a quibble perhaps, but an important one. In an important sense Hillman’s publisher subverts the author’s enterprise, which is to render in words an art that is ineffable. It is the format of the handsome volume that works against the writing. You look at the book, you find the cover images arresting – and to one familiar with the singing – quite new. The book itself cannot be held in the hand and read: it is biography in a coffee table format. You open the book, you start to read and you find yourself distracted repeatedly from the text by beguiling photographs which tell their own story quite compellingly, but quite out of sync with Hillman’s theme at any point.

Better justice might have been done to both text and photos by physically separating them.

In the end the book succeeds to a remarkable degree. Importantly, it demonstrates how, as whitefellas embrace Aboriginal culture, Australia is becoming more Australian.

Hillman’s book is bound to succeed beyond these shores as Gurrumul’s audiences around the world drink deeply in their thirst for some understanding of his life and his music.

Mrs Hamlet’s Advice

Mr Hamlet Senior, formerly king of Denmark, has passed on. His son Hamlet Junior is sad, sulky, grumpy with Ophelia (who suicides), stabbish with Polonius lurking behind an arrass (who just happens to be Ophelia’s Dad, who dies incidentally of Hamlet’s stabbishness); obsessed, ruminative, haunted; angry, angryangry; refusing to be consoled, refusing to be reconciled.

His Mum, pragmatically re-queened to Hamlet’s uncle, offers some advice to  Hamlet Junior: ‘Tis common. Why seems it different with thee?

In other words, Get over it, son.

And in time we do. As a rule. ( If Hamlet fails to get over it’s because his uncle killed his Dad. And because Hamlet is, well, Hamlet.)


This week my sister and my surviving brother and I remember our father and our firstborn brother.  The anniversary of Dad’s death falls on the 13th day of the month of Ellul; Dennis died three years later, on Ellul 18.

Dad was 92, Dennis 63.

They died when they had to – Dad once his broken body began to break his iron will; Dennis, who lived for Mum, Dennis whose meaning was to be a son, Dennis constitutionally unable to live a motherless life. He died while Mum was alive. (Mum, most buoyant of my three lost ones, mourned Dennis, mourning lightly, living on, ever lightly.)


I think of them, all three. I wrestle with memories of the brother, he the first of his father’s strength, the brother who wrestled always with Dad. Two firstborn of firstborns, two men of fire who burned each other in their hot loving. I think of them, I remember their awful strife, I who knew, I who witnessed their mutual love, I, powerless to stop them hurting each other. Powerless in the end to stop the pain to myself.


I dream of them. The Dad dreams are never anything than pleasant. He smiles as we bump into each other in the lounge rooms of our lives. Dad prepares his enslaving coffee, I write, we smile, we know each other, we accept each other.

When I dream of Dennis the anxious need to rescue him clouds all. Not accepting, never reconciling to my brother’s pain, I strain against his self destruction. Aware always – in these dreams and when awake – aware of his love, his heavy tenderness towards me.

In my waking I recall Dad’s request, directed to me when I was twelve, Dennis fifteen: Some have a clear path in life. They are the lucky ones. You are one of those, one of the blessed. Your brother, your older brother, his path is not so easy. Help him, help Dennis when you can.

I tried, Dad. I never stopped trying.


The years pass.  ‘tis common. We get over it.


And yet, and yet, that Hamlet scene returns.

Hamlet’s Mum, Gertrude: “Thou knowest ‘tis common.

All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”

Hamlet: “Ay Madam, ‘tis common.”

Gertrude: “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

Hamlet: “I know not seems, Madam.”


I had a father. He passed through nature to eternity. I had an older brother, I lost him; I lost a limb. The phantom sensations do not end.


I write, a destiny. Until I have written the courageous, the impossible life of my brother, that hurt, hurting life, I will not earn dreamless rest.


Yitgadal ve’yitkaddash, shmei rabah.

In truth, I am beshat*

In my days in the Diamond Valley I made the acquaintance of a man who enjoyed conversation, a school teacher. He saw that I enjoyed the odd excursion from the straight narrows of medicine and so he told me stories. A tall man, he needed his height to ferry his round tummy, pregnant with decades of plentiful daily ale. His face was merry, his cheeks red, his nose pitted and fretted and bulbous with the veritas of his vinous ways. His skin fell in furrows over his wasted muscles.

The teacher told me stories, breathing over me the rich aroma of his vegetable of choice, tobacco leaf.

He enjoyed company, he liked stories, he was avid to hear mine and generous with his own. Some times the teacher came to consult me about his health, but even then there was always a story.

Doc, I had diarrhoea yesterday. It was funny in a way.

“Are you any better today?”

Fine, as far as diarrhea goes. It’s just the cough. I’d better explain.

Yesterday we took all the Grade Twos and Grade Threes on an excursion. Great excitement. First excursion for those kids. We were taking them to the Museum, forty-one kids, two teachers, two aides and a few parents as volunteers.


There was this great buzz. You know the excitement of a bunch of kids? You can feel it, the hum, the excitement.

We herded the kids onto the bus, forty-plus of them, chirping, a bunch of chicks on a first flight from the nest. It took forever to get them aboard, get them seated.  Finally, are we all aboard? I was Senior. I called the roll: all present, all correct. Just to double check, I walked the aisle and did a count: forty-one kids. Two were away sick.


I stood up front, next to the driver, to make my little speech. I told the children how lucky we were, how we would visit the museum and see exhibits from olden times as well as models of dinosaurs.

At mention of dinosaurs all the kids are excited. One child near the front pipes up with a question: “Did you see dinosaurs when you were our age?”

You know a question like that, it can be a smartarse wisecrack from some show off, but this was spontaneous, straightforward curiosity. A little girl, free of artifice or design, just wanting to know. I saw myself as she saw me – old, clever, full of knowledge and memory, a relic, a museum piece. As a teacher you live for that freshness, those moments. You relish the child’s gravity and your own absurdity.


So the child asked, filled me with delight. And hilarity. I laughed. That’s where I went wrong. I laughed and laughed. Everyone joined in. I laughed until I started coughing. I coughed so hard I lost control of my bowel. I felt my pants fill. I felt it run down my legs.  The children up front smelled it.

We have arrived now at the symptoms – cough and diarrhea: “What did you do?”

The teacher’s face radiates mirth. He sees what the children saw.

What could I do? I said, ‘There will be a short delay while I duck home and clean up and change.’ And that’s what I did. Ten minutes later we were on our way.

I’ll tell you something, Howard. We all had a great day. And those  forty-one kids will never forget their first excursion, that day, that famous day the teacher shat himself in front of them.

*From The Sot Weed Factor, John Barth 

Notice of the Death of a Son

A thin, linear lady, stringy, bounces in to my consulting room, sits down, beams at me from her lean oblong face. And waits. She has the grin of a six-year old.

We haven’t met before. Welcome. My name’s Howard.

A bony hand on a long arm grips mine vigorously and softly. The grin widens, shifting dentures. Hello Howard. I’m Lucy.

In general Lucy looks her age, which is seventy two years; but her skin looks a lot older. She might be a chicken, so scaly and irregular are her surfaces. The thicket of hair atop her bony head is fair. The skin is fair too, excepting for the plaques of pink, great blotches of healing. She is an old gum tree, her bark new, old, peeling, revealing, irresistibly alive.


She looks me over genially, taking my measure. She decides I will do and embarks on a story.

I had a son. He died last year. Lucy looks up, waits a bit, resumes: Your children are supposed to bury you, not the other way around.

Lucy bears her loss lightly. She hasn’t come here to shed grief. She looks at me, unbowed, light in her being.

I look back hard. There must be a wound.

How did your son die?

A heart attack, massive. He was forty-four.

Lucy has taken my measure. I am old enough. I will know the verities, the facts of death.

You know the smell of death.

A statement, not a question.

How does death smell, Lucy?

Indescribable. And unmistakeable. As you’d know.

I smelt death first the night Dad died. I was staying with him and I smelt that smell. When I found Dad he’d been dead a couple of hours. He was cooling. The smell started around the time he died…

I started smelling death again a year ago. I smelled it four nights in a row. My bed smelled of it, my pyjamas too. It was really strong. I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep: I thought I was the one dying. I was at my daughter’s place and I didn’t want her to have to find me.

After the fourth night they rang to tell me my son had passed. He died four nights before.

That smell starts ten minutes after they die. And it stops once you know.

Lucy looks at me, grins a smile of reality, of truth. Ultimate truth, the factuality of death.

I’ve lost both my boys; the first one died at birth.

But I’ve got my girls. They’re both good. And seven grandchildren and – a huge bright smile, a lightning strike in the summer of Lucy’s face – a little great granddaughter!

A pause. Lucy is a good pauser, unfrightened of the silences that flow, clear as her sentences. And in the pauses, Lucy smiles her knowings that I must share: the freshness of new life. How the fact of a baby redeems all.

You know I bounce back. Just about exactly a year come round since my boy passed, I lost a dear friend. Like sisters we were. That was tough… for a while.

This is a pause unlit by smiling. Lucy looks at me steadily.

But I bounce back.



At Prayer

The pale wintry sun descends and I recite my everyday afternoon prayer. Watching me, my eight year old grandson moves to sit on my knee. “What are you praying for, Saba?”
The enquiry jolts me to consciousness. If he’s asking, what’s your purpose in praying? – it’s a good question.
I fancy he’s asking, what are you praying for – in particular?
Still a good question.

He sits on my knee, this fleaweight who holds me captive. He forces me to interrogate the ritualized murmurings that issue half-bid, half-conscious. I translate for him:
The eyes of all look to You for good news,
And You give them their bread in good time.
You open up Your hand – here I open my closed hand, enacting the gifting of food –
And You satisfy the want of all that lives

I want the child to share my sense of wonder, of providence, however unevenly it might fall.
Grandson takes my face in his hands, brings his face close. Closer. His lips touch mine. He holds my face a little longer.
I contemplate Dickenson’s telegrammatic:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence—is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it—in God’s Ear—

Grandson is in no rush to return to Lego and the other urgencies of his life. He sits while I entertain Tennyson:
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.

What does Saba pray for? He prays because he can, because he needs to.
Another kiss and grandson descends. Thank you Saba.

I am left to wonder whether a grandchild might be the answer to the prayer I sent to God’s Ear and never knew it.

The Last Lover of The Age

Dear Age

I have loved you now for sixty years. I have loved you in all seasons, for good reasons and despite the bad. I have loved you in pleasure and in pain.
It was you who, in 1953, introduced me to Collingwood, the football team that would always run second to the very mighty Melbourne.
My family made the pilgrimage to Melbourne every September for the Jewish High Holy Days, the annual Season of Judgement. It was the judgement of the Age that Collingwood would challenge and would fall short. So it came to pass year after year: the Age proposed and God disposed. Collingwood was David to Melbourne’s Goliath ; and when the Pies went down to the brook they found no smooth stones for their slingshot.

Yes, I loved you. I loved you for the Junior Age in which you published the writings of young readers. I loved you for your literary judgement when you judged my own writings worthy of publication.
I loved ‘A Country Diary’, by Alan Bell. Churchill sent Alan here during the War. His was to be a British voice to keep Australia British. Every Saturday Alan reported on the Australia of his very English garden in Diamond Creek. He kept readers informed about the first duckling sightings in spring. This very British voice did its job: Alan Bell and the Age won the war for Britain.
I loved you when you introduced me to ‘Family Matters’, Martin Flanagan’s weekly report about his pre-school children. He taught anew the old truth that you do not know you have known love until you have sat through the night comforting a child delerious with fever.
I loved you through the seventies when I saw through your selective reporting on Israel and on doctors. In those days the Age pursued three public enemies – Nasty Israel, Greedy Doctors and the Painters and Dockers. If I met someone for the first time at a party and I had to answer the question – what do you do for a living? – I’d say I was a painter and docker. It made no difference.
You no longer pursue the Painters and the Doctors but you pursue Nasty Israel still. Martin Flanagan went to Israel with the Peace Team. To retain his independence he paid his own way. You published his generally favourable reports and I loved you for that.
For a period in the nineties I read Helen Garner’s column in your pages on Wednesday mornings. What joy, what variety, what excellence.
Helen and Martin opened chinks to reveal their human selves and we readers learned more of our own human selves.
I loved you because you were not Rupert. Someone has to be not Rupert or we’d all be in Deep Murd.
I read The Australian wherever I am in the outback, simply because it is available. Impressively, it is available all over Australia. You can read that newspaper from cover to cover and you can weep for bleakness. It is not a good news newspaper. Neither, dear Age, are you – generally speaking. But every so quite often your shrunken front page cheers a reader who yearns and searches for sightings of the goodness of human beings.
Now, and terminally, we have the Internet. Fairfax News can be obtained daily on a screen. (Who is this Fairfax-come-lately? I long for auld lang syme.) So no-one needs newspapers any more.
The Age is preparing for its own Death Notice, slimming down to fit a narrow pauper’s grave.
When you die I will mourn you. You remain necessary. You have been a friend. And as another friend once remarked: no-man is so rich he can afford to throw away a friend.

Postscript: this morning I lit a fire in my fireplace, using yesterday’s Age in place of kindling. The fire took and burns warmly as I write.

I, the Echidna

One of Australia’s treasures, a relic from an earlier age, plods with measured tread across the country road ahead. One forefoot drags its opposite hindfoot, the second forefoot draws the hindermost, ungainly-stately steps from antiquity into the path of the rushing beast of noise and metal and plastic that is the motor car.
The echidna is a pachyderm*, related to olden things and oldest times. We do not meet as equals on the metalled road. The echidna waddles his slow way, oblivious, helpless, a mute witness to slow time.
The echidna survives. By the grace of remote places and broad emptiness the echidna reaches the other side.
So far I have never hit one.

On my pushbike I am the echidna. Ponderous, of another time, I travel with my unheeding back to the traffic. I too am a relic, not replaceable. My bike – heavy and old and unfashionable – carries two someones’ brother, three children’s father, the grandfather of seven tenderlings, the lover of one wife. My bike carries its freight of olden time awkwardly, a slow forewheel dragging a lagging, swaying rearwheel.

Last week an old friend called and asked – have you ever seen a road fatality close up?
Does it stay with you? How do you handle it?
It never goes away.
My friend saw a cyclist hit by one vehicle, fall into the path of a following truck. He saw the head removed from the trunk then pass beneath a rear wheel.
My friend does not sleep well. He cannot ride there, where he was wont to ride. He will not drive his own car in that road.
My friend lived the moment of witness when a vigorous human became extinct flesh.

I ride on, a human echidna.

*Is it a pachyderm? I’d like to think so, but I fear I am confusing the spiny anteater with the elephant and the woolly haired mammoth. An easy mistake to make.