Autumn notes: The Song Keepers

I’m probably posting this too late.

I want to tell you about a documentary movie my wife and I saw a few days ago. The movie overwhelmed me.

My wife and I arrived a few minutes early and we took our seats. We were the first to arrive. We watched trailers of a number of forthcoming films in which an individual or a group achieves redemption through performance of music.

Then our movie began. Within minutes the story is told: a black man who travels to Central Australia finds groups of women choristers, all of them Aboriginal. The women used to sing ancient Lutheran hymns, not in German but in their own (far more ancient) Aboriginal languages. The man revives the choirs, brings them together, trains them and flies with them to Germany where the ladies (whose massed choir somehow includes two men) perform and triumph. Simple story, simply told.

The choirmaster drives from Alice Springs to the settlement of Hermannsburg (126 kilometres), from Alice to Areyonga (214 kms), from Alice to Docker River (673 kms), to meet and recruit his singers. Arriving in one remote community after dark, he feels his way to the little church by torchlight. The church is empty. Addressing the camera cheerfully, the would-be choirmaster says, I wonder how many will come. I wonder if any will come. A handful gathers and embraces the rebirth of their old songs. We see these women, clearly inspired and energised. Something, some memory, stirs them.

We watch these joyous women, mostly old and fat and jolly, in their singing and in their joyous being. We witness the joyfulness of these ladies, the exultation that flows from them and between them as they join together in song. We hear them tell their stories, stories of massacre, of confiscated children, stories of loss and of love. We watch and we tremble with formless stirrings of our own.

We watch the singers clothe their corpulent selves in their gowns of earth colours (I mean earth browns and earth reds), we see them congregate at Alice Springs airport for the unfamiliar enterprise of commercial jet travel. They land in the cold of Germany and discover Lutheran churches vaster and more ancient than they have known. Congregations materialise and the choristers master their nerves and they give voice. The local Lutherans are overcome: here is their old time music brought back alive and pulsating in tongues they do know. And yet they do know.

The locals weep, the choristers weep, and two old Jews seated in the cinema – the sole patrons in this screening –  weep too. My eyes moistened with the first sung chords and never dried, as I vibrated to the passion and the glory. What is this alchemy of sound, of treasured memory, of lost ceremony regained, that lets loose these springs of cleansing tears?

I realise I’ve probably spoiled the movie for you. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: the movie will end its so brief season any day now. But if you do manage somehow to catch ‘The Song Keepers’ remember to bring along a hankie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhEh3kmBSxI

Jun 21, 2017 – Uploaded by MIFF

The Song Keepers Australia | 85 minutes Central Australia’s answer to The Buena Vista Social Club, The …

The Song Keepers – Trailer – YouTube

 2:43

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUFXbQAX9Z4

Mar 14, 2018 – Uploaded by Potential Films

Dir. by Naina Sen, Australia, 2017. 84 min | Documentary Four generations ofsong women that make …

Summer Stories: Just Dirt

Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’  And – ‘You  best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’

The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.

The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp.  One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.

The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum.  A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.

I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?

I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.

At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.

My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down.  And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.

A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.

I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.

Summer Stories: A Small Town in the Bush

This blog has just now awoken from a long nap. While asleep the blog saw or visited or dreamed a number of summer stories. Here’s the first.

You might have heard of Avoca’s rushes. The gold rush, the coal rush, the bull rush.

You drive in on the main street and the first thing you notice is nothing. I mean the main street is wide, country town wide. And nothing moves.

You know you’ve arrived in an Australian country town when nothing happens. Unlike the classic barroom scene in the Westerns, where the arrival of the newcomer throws the crowded bar into silent, menacing scrutiny of the arrival, you arrive in Avoca unremarked.

People reside in Avoca but no-one rushes here. The rushes are over. The bull rushes persist, but they persist in a gentle way. The bulls graze, they browse, they produce their climate-malignant methane and they do their business and they leave their calling cards. Only when serving a cow does the Avoca bull rush. Avoca is no Pamplona.

In the main street the structural element of the bovine persists in the shape of the Cow Shed Café. I saw the cafe and, metropolitan coffee snob that I am, I drove past. On a later visit the Cow Shed Café was still there. So I stopped. I found the shop is wider than it is deep. Within the narrow oblong between the shop’s front and the high counter you stand closely surrounded, indeed compressed, by handicrafts. You can buy doilies and crocheted items that are rich in colour and of no function that I could divine. They look like something your granny might make for charity or for therapy. But these are for commerce. You can buy them. Postcards that show the Cow Shed Café sit on the counter awaiting your purchase. Next to the postcards an array of jams and sauces and syrups and chutneys gleams at you. These are Avoca’s café’s crown jewels. Behind the counter a man as tall and narrow as his shop stands and awaits your pleasure. He’d be fifty, perhaps a decade more, the skin of his brown face hangs in deep furrows, his voice is deep, resonant and very pleasing. You hear the voice and you know you want to have a conversation with this jam and doily man.

‘Who makes these jams and sauces?’

‘Mother. Mother makes them all.’ A sweep of a long arm encompasses all the handicrafts and the comestible preserves. ‘Mother picked these raspberries this morning.’ I hadn’t noticed the berries. Bright like the doilies they call, Buy me! Buy me!

‘Lived here long?’

‘All my life. Mother too. We’ll all leave one day, feet first.’ The man smiles and the smile and the voice merge, a single harmonious entity.

I buy some bright things and I leave.

The historic records evoke old Avoca: “In 1827 Roderic O’Connor wrote in his journal – ‘There is a vacant space immediately at the junction of the South Esk and St Paul’s River. We beg to recommend reserving it’. In 1832 military troops, formerly at ‘St Paul’s Plains’, were recorded as garrisoned at Avoca.”

By 1834 Avoca was a town.

Apparently old Avoca was always a place of drama and event, as today. The record goes on: “Bona Vista’ (circa 1842) is a magnificent Georgian homestead built by Simeon Lord and doubtless the centre of society at the time. Martin Cash is said to have worked there as a groom before becoming a notorious bushranger. In 1853 bushrangers Dalton and Kelly made a raid on the house, committed a murder and robbed the house. Blood stains remain on the steps. In 1890 a young man named Beckitt was murdered at the homestead woodheap, his body dumped in the South Esk River to be discovered by Tom Badkin Jr.”

The stone building calls to me and I approach and mooch around, here and at the church. A country quiet enfolds all. The afternoon wind softly sighs and soughs. The sun shines upon the green and the old convict stones speak mutely of endurance, modestly of grandeur. So fine these stone walls, their patterning and proportions so pleasing to the eye that sees not the aching backs and the cruel sufferings of the convicts who were the unwilling labourers.

A Post Office opened at Avoca on 1st Jan 1838. It stands still on the main road. I slow and read a sign outside offering the fine stone structure for sale. I stop and mooch. Naturally I want to buy it. I could do with a Post Office. But I’ll stand aside for you if you want it too.

Avoca lies in the Fingal Valley. Forty kilometres distant, Fingal is a town similar to Avoca. A nurse I work with tells me: ‘I grew up in Fingal. But I left. I realized single in Fingal might be my epitaph so I left.’

Running from Office

The following verse followed me from the city and found me where I am working in remoter parts:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the ‘bidgee, years ago,

He was doctoring when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just `on spec’, addressed as follows, `Goldie, Doctor of The Overflown’.

And an answer came directed in a writing not unexpected,

(And for sure the same was written with that horrible doctors’ scrawl)

‘Twas his running mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

`Goldie’s gone to Queensland doctoring, and we don’t know where he are.’

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Goldie

Gone a-doctoring `down the Cooper’ where the Western doctors go;

As his flock are slowly sitting, Goldie runs past them singing,

For the bush doctor’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a not so stingy

Ray of sunlight struggles not so much between the buildings tall,

And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

Through the air con floating, spreads its foulness over all

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle

Of the tramways and the ‘buses making hurry down the street,

And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,

Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Goldie,

Like to take a turn at doctoring where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the drafting and advising —

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Goldie, ‘Doctor of The Overflown’.

Nicholas Miller, legal practitioner and versifier, has doctored Paterson’s ‘Clancy ‘

Starfish Flingers

Running along Cable Beach very early this morning I passed a couple who carried small plastic bags of a primrose colour. The two peered and bent repeatedly, picking up small items unseen and popping them into their yellow bags. I’d seen people at this before, collecting pippis, also known as cockles. Some collect them for bait (whiting love them) while others eat them cooked in garlic and herbs and wine. I sang to myself as I ran one of the old songs Dad used to sing with us kids as we travelled by boat or by car:

 

 

She was a fishmonger

And sure ’twas no wonder

For so were her mother

And father before

 

She wheeled her wheel barrow

Through streets broad and narrow  

Crying, ‘Cockles and muscles

Alive, alive O…’

 

 

I ran a long way before retracing my steps. On the return I passed the cockle collectors. I changed course to inspect their catch. ‘Are these to feed you or to feed the fish?’

‘They would have fed the fish, but not now,’ said the woman, a person in her early sixties, her skin fair beneath her tan. ‘Take a look.’ I looked into the bulging bag she held: no pippis, just sandy cigarette butts, scores of them. Her husband held his bag open. More butts, many more.

 

 

‘He collected 160 of them today,’ said the woman, ‘Same number yesterday.’ I stood and mused for a bit. The woman explained: ‘People sit on the beach and smoke and drop their butts on the sand. Later the incoming tide washes the butts out to sea where fishes see them and take them for food. After a fish swallows a butt it swells up in the belly of the fish and the fish suffers and dies.’

 

 

‘Look at this, and this’ – her husband pointed out filter tips – ‘These filters catch all the poisons and toxins, and if the fish happens to survive you might catch it and eat it.’

 

I looked at the man, his build compact, his face a scrotum. The white hat he wore had seen better days and even the best of those days wouldn’t have been much good. I liked the cut of his jib.

‘Are you locals?’

‘No. Bunbury’s home for us.’

I pictured the couple walking the beaches from the south of the state all the way north to Broome, collecting cigarette butts. One hundred and sixty butts a day.

 

 

 

And I recalled Jonathan Sacks, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of the English-speaking world (by which term I mean to exclude the USA), who quoted a vignette of two men strolling along the seashore which was littered with starfish washed up and freshly stranded on the sand. One of the two bent repeatedly to pick up the starfish and to throw them as far as he could out to sea. His companion watched and mused and finally spoke: ‘There are so many, hundreds, probably thousands. You can’t possibly save them all; even if you labour all morning, your effort won’t make any appreciable difference…’

 

The first man paused, starfish in hand. He regarded the creature, still alive, then threw with all his might. He said, ‘To this one it makes a difference.’

From the Heart 3

 
0600. The rock squats, silent, a massive cupcake among the grasses. Moment by moment the light changes: dark gives way to deep blues, to a steel blue, now to a primrose glimmering. All is quiet, still. Life suspended, the plain broods, foreknowing sunrise.
 
0621.The rock as image is too familiar. The rock as concrete reality forbids familiarity. I emerge from my small car, and regard the great terracotta thing before me: after all these years its immensity, everfresh, astonishes me. My car winds its way to the carpark. At every bend the rock changes; every aspect surprises and evokes the overpowering question: what immortal hand or eye? My question and the custodians’ questions are the same as Blake’s. The very greatness demands a myth.
I glance at the steep wall at my side and the slope flings my gaze up, up, upward beyond my range of cervical extension. The human neck cannot accommodate the reality; only if I lie on my back can I take it in. The human ant needs a postcard.
 
0623. Time to start: I am alone, the sole ant. The base walk used to be nine kilometres in length. Now it’s 10.6 kilometres. The rock hasn’t grown but the people who manage the Park have decided to keep us at a distance. And I need to finish my circuit by 0730: time to start.
 
Every one of my years finds voice and protests in my lower back as I shamble into movement. I intended to run but for now this hobbling is the best I can do. The gravel path underfoot is soft and red. It cushions and retards. Slower going and harder. But with only a hundred metres behind me slow going and aching back are forgotten. The rock compels, demands all attention, with its folds and bends, its clefts and pits, its elegant curves, its sweep and breach, its sudden secret shades and sulci.
That face – those many faces – prefigure every expression of humanity. The rock gazes down with idle incuriosity, here it is a pockmarked teenager, here a gaunt pensioner, now a lady, elegant in her long dress that falls and sweeps and moves gracefully in concert with my passing. The rock shows the many faces that are human faces: here is calm, here inscrutability, here obduracy.
Three great gouges side by side at great height, these are eye sockets, empty: what is this sight that sears her eyeballs?  The rock gazes out at our killing fields, at Crusades and Inquisition, at Babi Yar, Rwanda, Cambodia, at Holocaust, at the Armenian Genocide. The rock’s eyeless sockets see all. She has no tears. No mouth here, no words.
 
0630. Right on time the sun comes up, shining, burning directly in my eyes as the rockface heads me due east. The wind comes up too, blowing hot hard warnings of today’s forty degrees: you step outside from your cooled habitat, you breathe, your palate dries and you gasp. The second breath confirms the first impression.
For now the hot headwind is welcome: an early headwind promises a following wind in the later stages when I’ll head west and home.
But the sun, this sun, this blaze, this interrogator’s light right in my eyes: son of man, why have you come?
My innocent run is no longer blameless.
Son of man, what business have you here?
What? Why? What do I seek – peace? Innocence?
The light glares: What gift do you bring?
Consciousness. It is all I have.
The bright light relents, winking now, filtered by thin foliage, broken by gentle rises and bends. 
At this point the run might become a chore; the vista is relatively unremarkable, the rock radiating yesterday’s stored heat, the glare, the difficult going underfoot, the headwind – all might sap a runner. Instead the mechanical affair of placing one foot before another feels charged, significant. Plod, plod, breathe, breathe, the ordinary is transmuted. It is said of William Blake that he took a visitor outside, directed him to look at the midsummer sun and report what he saw. “Bright sunshine”, said the visitor. Said Blake, “I see hosts of fiery angels surrounding the Throne, singing Holy, Holy, Holy.”
 
Fires in my throat. I sip my iced water. But first I recite the customary blessing over the water, an act in which this mortal congratulates his Maker on His good idea in creating and providing the mortal with water. Water never tasted better. Like everything here it is charged, touched with the sublime.
 
I have passed twenty minutes alone in the company of Uluru, an uncommon privilege. At my left, hidden in the scrub, is the village of Mutitjulu. Its people live in the lee of immensity. Daily they awaken to the view of deep terracotta that earlier was mine. At sunset, fire flames from the rock’s margins, the rock purples. Echoes follow me – another place, another colour scheme:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
 
 
Around the bend now, heading south, the greens and greys relieve the eye. I can’t complain of sameness. More faces in the rock, caves that grimace, bluffs that lower, red rock that slopes down towards my feet, down, down, a slow, shy approach. The rock is within a metre of my shod foot. To step on it a profanation. I do not walk this rock. Not now.
 
Around another bend and another, tracing waving folds, the rock shapes here are emphatically, anatomically feminine. Inescapably feminine. Curves that flow, flow, ineffably graceful, to deepening clefts, soft in the gentling light. These mother forms beckon, embrace, call me home.
 
My old legs move fluently, easily. They swallow the miles. My mouth burns, it sends messages – drink, drink – messages you receive only when it’s too late. Above me rockmouths gape toothlessly, vast, cavernous, inaccessible. My eye searches the sheer face; only a mountaineer equipped with hammer, piton and ropes could reach those high hollows. But in their depths ochreous markings, patterns, declare themselves; these impossible deeps are painting sites.  No white foot might imaginably intrude. Good!
 
Nearing the beginning of the end, here is the Mutijulu pool, a cool, shaded dell between three high surrounding walls. Its waters are permanent. But no, not so today, not in this heat. I gaze amazed at naked sands. Even dry they keep their cool, concealing water close to the surface. This dryness is a mirage; at all hands the growth is green, tender, silvan.
 
0715. Nearer the end and I am not alone. Cars pass on the bitumen that runs unseen, parallel to my path. Above me the rock has mouths with calcific projections, teeth that do not smile at what passes below. I look ahead: there, formicating on the slope, scores, hundreds of whitefellas climb hand over hand along a chain that will take them to the top. They will climb Uluru, they will conquer, they’ll be able to tell everyone.
At the top they’ll see the pits and gullies, the moonscape no-one below imagines, the scales and plaques of red; and the smallness of humans below.
I know what they see. I know the climbers haven’t seen or haven’t understood or haven’t cared what the owners write on the notice: Anangu do not want you to climb the rock.
I am not happy to see them climbing. It seems disrespectful. I feel it as if it were a personal sIight. I know and I care about it because I too have climbed the rock. A quarter of a century ago, I drove up, leaped from my car and ran up the slope. I did not see the notice. Hubris sped my feet: I would conquer Uluru; I would do it at the run, I would not stop.
Of course I did stop – after only fifteen metres – stopped and gasped, ran again, stopped, fought a breathlessness I had not known before. I made it to the top, saw how small we are and descended. I do not climb now.
 
 
 

Reds Under the Bed

This coming Thursday evening, April 6, I plan to attend a meeting to listen to a researcher report on the history of his family in Australia. Following the death of that family’s breadwinner in Russia, his children of twelve years and younger tried to work their father’s small farm. Where their father struggled to feed the family, the children failed. Following a pattern familiar to many in this immigrant country, family members trickled here, arriving as serial migrants through the 1910’s and 1920’s. 

Australian immigration officials looked upon citizens of Russia, a Communist country, with deep suspicion. Very few Russians were admitted during this period. The family in question were accepted on the basis of Letters of Recommendation of the first arrival, who had shown himself an exemplary citizen, winning written and lobbying support from leaders on both sides of Australian politics.

So the family came. Within a generation their children became graduates, rising to positions of distinction in the Law and Medicine. Others started small businesses and prospered. The clan was preponderantly leftist – one at least became a member of the Communist Party of Australia – but all lived the life of the petit bourgeois. 

I haven’t mentioned the family name for one curious reason – the family has never agreed on what they are to be called. Thursday night’s speaker, Michael Komesaroff, has cousins called Komesarook, others are Komisaruk, yet others are Kaye. Komesaroff, the speaker, will present a paper titled ‘Reds Under the Bed’, drawing on the files that ASIO kept on these good citizens. It must be disturbing to discover that the authorities in the country you have come to love (and in some cases, to serve in the forces) mistrusts you sufficiently to spy on you. In the case of the Komesaroff/Komersarook/Komisaruk/Kaye clan there was no sedition but reasonable grounds for suspicion. As is often the case the files show Australia’s spooks to be heavy handed and occasionally laughable.

If the McCarthy era was one of paranoia ours is also a time of anxiety and too-ready accusation. Because mistrust is once again the mood of the day in this country Komesaroff’s scholarship is highly topical. 

The meeting is open to the public.

7.30 PM, Thursday 6 April

Temple Beth Israel, Alma Road, St Kilda

The talk is under the auspices of the Australian Jewish Historical Society