Being There

When my eldest grandchild asked me recently to name my favourite movie I nominated ‘Being There’, starring Peter Sellers. The movie consists of one slow, quiet joke. And it is profound.
 

 

I recommend the following extract from Wikipedia. Or google the you-tube.

 

“Being There is a 1979 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby. Sellers was nominated for Best Actor.[3] The screenplay won the British Academy Film Award for Best Screenplay and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.

 

 

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a middle-aged man who lives in the townhouse of an old, wealthy man in Washington, D.C. He is simple-minded and has lived there his whole life, tending the garden. Other than gardening, his knowledge is derived entirely from what he sees on television. When his benefactor dies, Chance naively says he has no claim against the estate, and is ordered to move out. Thus he discovers the outside world for the first time.”

 

 

 

 

 

(Remind you of someone? I thought of George W Bush.)

 

 

“Chance wanders aimlessly. He passes by a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the shop window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car owned by Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an elderly business mogul. In the car is Rand’s much younger wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine).

 

 

Eve brings Chance to their home to recover. She mishears “Chance, the gardener” as “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and ’30s, which his benefactor had allowed him to take from the attic, and his manners are old-fashioned and courtly. When Ben Rand meets him, he takes “Chauncey” for an upper-class, highly educated businessman. Chance often misunderstands people and states the obvious, particularly about gardening, but his simple words are repeatedly misunderstood as profound, allegorical statements about life, business and the economy. Rand admires him, finding him direct, wise and insightful.

 

 

Rand is also a confidant and adviser to the President of the United States (Jack Warden), whom he introduces to “Chauncey.” The President, who is concerned about the economy, asks Chance his opinion about “temporary incentives.” Chance hears the words “stimulate growth” and following a pause goes on a short speech about the changing seasons of the garden. Chance goes on to say “there will be growth in the spring.” The President completely misinterprets this as optimistic political and economic advice. Chance, as Chauncey Gardiner, quickly rises to national public prominence. He remains an adviser to Rand, attends important dinners, meets with the Soviet ambassador and appears on a television talk show. During the show, Chance again goes into detail about the importance of gardening and what a serious gardener he is, the host and public misunderstand this to be Chance talking about running the country and being a serious President should he get the chance.

 

 

Public opinion polls start to reflect just how much his “simple brand of wisdom” resonates with the jaded American public. The President even begins to fear Chance’s popularity with the public.

 

 

Chance is present at Rand’s death and shows genuine sadness at his passing by crying. At Rand’s funeral, while the President delivers a speech, the pall-bearers hold a whispered discussion over potential replacements for the President in the next term of office. They unanimously agree on ‘Chauncey Gardiner.”’

 

 

(Remind you of someone? A figure from nightmare? Some figure – not a person – an idea, a phantasm, a nightmare figment? Never, never ever, not ever in real life could the American people choose a cretin for leader? Never a person of such surpassing shallowness and vapidity and pervading ignorance that he would make George W appear a sage by comparison? Would not the great American people choose a patriot, a person who loved her country, a person who paid her taxes? Wake me, someone, wake me please – say, in four years’ time.)

The Blood-Dimmed Tide

We have seen the great times. We who lived in the second half of the twentieth century have seen many of the great scourges of history defeated. We saw the eclipse of contagion.

 

 

Enter Penicillin, bacteria retreat. Viruses, still invisible, suddenly become preventable. Smallpox, killer of more Australian Aborigines than massacre, disappears from the planet. The Spanish Flu of 2018-2019, which killed more humans than the war to end all wars, was the last pandemic of influenza.

Louis Pasteur

Alexander Fleming

In 1946 my father, a country GP, administered what was possibly Australia’s first non-military dose of penicillin. The patient, an eight-year old boy in pneumonia crisis, was likely to die within a day. Six hours after the penicillin injection, my father found the boy’s bed empty. The child had left the ward and was found in the hospital’s kitchen scoffing down scones.

 

 

After the Shoah a world in shock vowed ‘never again’. Civilised humanity turned its back on antisemitism. A Jew living in the post-war decades walked the streets of the West free from the violence and contumely that stalked us for two thousand years.
 
We have seen the great times. Bacteria have fought back against antibiotics; they are in fact, winning. The anti-vaccination movement threatens the safety of all the world’s children. In the world of alternative facts, fear defeats trust, hate emerges from its cave. In Poland, in Hungary, a Jew knows better than to walk the streets wearing a kippah. Visiting Paris or London, and even in my home country, Australia, there are suburbs and streets where I will not wear the kippah that I wore during the decades of sunshine.

I have lived and prospered in a lacuna of time when History paused. Now it rises once again and bares its teeth. I tremble for our grandchildren.



Waiting for the Barbarians

In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
       The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
   Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       Why should the Senators still be making laws?

       The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,

   and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates

   seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       And the emperor is waiting to receive

       their leader. Indeed he is prepared

       to present him with a parchment scroll. In it

       he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today

   wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,

   why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,

   and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;

   why should they be carrying such precious staves today,

   maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today;

       and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual

   to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
        Because the barbarians will arrive today;

        and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

    and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

    Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

    and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

       And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

       and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

But What is the Middle?

While watching Seven’s Summer of Ads on TV it was easy, from time to time, to let the tennis distract you from the advertisements. One important headline announced: Bunnings Warehouse: Lowest Prices are just the Beginning. Over this summer and many before it, I heard these words so often I managed to commit them to memory.

 

 

In the Bunnings ads one ordinary, unglamorous Australian after another advises the viewer about this lawn trimmer, that bathroom spotlight, this house paint, all at bargain prices. After delivering this helpful information my aproned fellow Australian assures the nation Lowest Prices are just the Beginning.

 

 

I enjoy these ads. They suggest ordinary people (with the exception of the writer) can do it themselves. An empowering message, edifying. But, after decades of just the beginning an uneasy feeling has grown. I want to know: What is the middle? Why haven’t Bunnings told us? Surely they must know. Unless… unless  there isn’t a middle; unless (terrifying thought) Bunnings knows but isn’t saying. What if there is no middle? Can it be that Lowest Prices are just the Beginning and the End is Nigh?

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.

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.