I Feel Free

While my daughter is away I feel free…

My elder daughter and I share an understanding: I will write pieces for this blog and she alone will post them. The arrangement rests upon our secure shared knowledge of my technical incapacity to do the posting.  It rests too upon the lovingkindness of the daughter*.

That daughter is away. A small item has germinated in the deep soils of my being and it presses urgently to find the light. That trifle cannot possibly be a blog post, because, as I have mentioned, the daughter alone is blogenabled. What follows must be something different. It is the unripe fruit of my liberty.

I met a man the other day who was unwell. The man smiled a mouth of American teeth. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie with a tiepin and a name tag. The name on the tag read ELDER BLOGS**. The man was young, slim, erect in his bearing and he was bearing up despite being quite unwell. Elder Bloggs was accompanied by another young man, equally erect, endowed likewise with enviable teeth, a similar black tie, a very white shirt and a nametag of his own. This read: ELDER MAO**. Elder Mao spoke American but he was evidently Chinese.

We spoke of illness and of healing and we agreed I should try my hand at the latter. The Elders visited me again the following day. Healing was underway and we had leisure now to speak of other matters.

I asked Brother Mao: Is your family still in China?

Yes.

The American teeth appeared in affirmation.

Do they share your faith?

Yes.

Is it permitted in China?

Yes. In the family. I mean privately.

More teeth, to allay any misgiving.

Addressing both Elders I asked: Are you preaching the Gospel here in Australia?

Yes. Nodding of heads. Many teeth.

But – reverting here to Brother Mao – Is it permitted to preach the Gospel in China?

Oh no.

My eyebrow invited the Elder to elaborate.

It is against Government policy. China is atheistic.

No teeth. A worried look.

I resumed: I understand Falung Gong followers can be punished for teaching their practices. Do the same rules apply to you?

A nod. A serious look. No words: not apparently free to elaborate further.

I remembered Tiananmen Square.

I remember the times.

I remember the times of the Aboriginal man in the Channel Country who reminisced on his days as a cattleman. He looked back on those days with pride, long days that stretched into weeks on the track. Those periods of freedom punctuated the other days, days that were years on the station where he was bound, not at liberty to leave the boss’ employ. One man did and the cops hauled him back to the station where the whitefeller bosses whipped hi with iron chains. I calculated our age difference. When this man was eighteen I was ten, growing up in liberty. I learned at school of William Wilberforce and the ending of slavery. I lived in Australia. We didn’t have slavery in Australia. I remember the times.

I remember the times when we took away the children and gave them to whitefellers. I heard my parents’ friends say: They are going to good homes.

I remember when liked to wear Nike running shoes. But then I learned of child slavery in Asian factories.

I remember the times in Broken Hill when children as young as twelve were dying in the mines, of accidents, of lead poisoning.

I remember the times when my tribes lived in Judea under the Romans. They were times when great rabbis were burned alive for studying Torah.

I remember the times when we were enslaved in Egypt, times when they stole the children and drowned the baby boys.

I remember slavery in Auschwitz. If I went to the right I went into slavery. The slaves were the luckier ones.

Tonight, at home here in lucky Australia, I’ll lean back, a free man, and I’ll drink four glasses. I’ll tell my generations of the times when I was a slave.

And if they ask: were you a slave, Saba? – I’ll tell them I’ve never been to Egypt but I remember the times. I’ll tell the children I mustn’t forget the times.  If I ever forget I won’t deserve to be free.

* both daughters actually. The younger, removed geographically, is spared the call of this blog.

** I have changed the Elders’ names.

A Musing

At first hearing the term “blog” feels slightly ingenious (web log – right, I get it). More than that the word falls heavily upon the ear, unsubtle, ugly and crude – the more so since in the vernacular of childhood the bog was the lavatory. When we visited the lavatory whatever solids we deposited there were collectively a ‘bog.’ The term remains current but not predominant.

Initially I disdained the term ‘blog’. I knew instinctively that a blogger must be vain and unselfconsciously vulgar. I knew I would never write one; I would never be one.

Yet here we are. Of course I am flattered that over  two hundred and fifty persons have managed to overcome these unpleasant redolences and ‘follow’ these postings. Yet, two or more years after embarking on the practice I remain unreconciled to blogs and blogging. The words suggest turds.

So what are we sharing? I think this is Howard Goldenberg’s column, too occasional to constitute a diary, yet intimate enough to be that. This is Howard thinking aloud, thinking personally. Self-absorbed in tone, vain in ambition, unexpectedly enriching to the writer in its fruitful exchanges.

Being now FED UP, I resolve that so long as I remain a bogger, I’ll no longer be a blogger. When King George V lay on his death bed a friend visited and remarked encouragingly, ‘You’ll soon be up and about and able to take your annual holiday at Bognor.’ To which the king replied: ‘Bugger Bognor!’ – and died.

As for me, Bugger Blogger! I am glad to announce this blogger has died, executed, the punishment for linguistic ugliness well overdue.

Good morning, welcome now and henceforth to the occasional musings of Howard Goldenberg.

Once Upon A Writer

Once upon a time I was a writer… No, not once – thrice upon a time.

First time: in second or third class the teacher directed us to write a composition. We did as we were told. I enjoyed writing. My composition was chosen and read to the class. I was a writer and one year later, when the Melbourne ‘Age’ published a little piece, I was a published writer.

Second time: at medical school, achieving mediocrity in exams, I found relief editing and writing for a paper. I published what I wrote.

Third time: with a family now grown up and my own parents failing, I was a writer heavily charged with material. I wrote and my friends and family responded. Among the responders one friend in particular responded decisively. Often enough she responded derisively; and not just often enough but more often than enough.

I had good reason to pay attention to my critic friend. She had been an adult reader for many more years than I had been an adult writer. Further my critic was trained in criticism while I was untrained in writing.

Curiously my early vulgarity didn’t trouble her much. My sentimentality (an abiding tendency) excited little reproof. And even the structural shambles, the way narrative fell upon narrative by accident into a happy enough heap, provoked no rebuke.

The problem with my writing was the writer. Contrary to my critic’s command I did not write of Howard the way Howard should write of Howard. In truth this was not willful delinquency (another abiding tendency) but incomprehension. So stratospheric is my critic’s sophistication, her principles eluded me.

The pages of my first two books are Howard-haunted. Howard Bloody Goldenberg is to be found in the middle of every page or in its margin or inescapably behind every page, pages that can never be thick enough to disguise Howard. This drove my critic mad. It was not that Howard was full of himself (he is that) but that Howard was represented without precisely the ‘self-reflexivity’ (my critic’s term) that she demanded. ‘Howard’, she wagged her finger imperiously, ‘Howard, you are refusing to become the writer Howard should be. Your subject, your great subject, is Howard…’

This criticism, emphatic and oft-repeated, merely increased my self-consciousness. Eventually it would drive Howard from the page. Thus, in book number three (‘Carrots and Jaffas’) there exists a character who resembles Howard but is not Howard. Although that character is a male in his sixties, a compulsive storyteller, an outback doctor with a large nose and lavatorial obsessions, he is not Jewish, not Howard per se. In truth I no longer trusted Howard to create Howard. My critic had achieved something worthwhile; she had demolished a formerly impregnable exhibitionist. This was surely to the good, for Howard the person showed an objectionable and retrograde refusal to adopt my critic’s view of the world. (The critic started adult life as a social activist, becoming a member of a commune, a welfare worker, resolutely a conscious and conscientious proletarian. In time she learned the profound error of her ways and unlearned her early amused tolerance of Howard’s political softheadedness.)

Meanwhile Howard had become a blogger and my critic became my bloggee. I would write, my daughter would post and my critic would criticise. More and more my critic criticised Howard for not being my critic’s faithful disciple. At one stage, in outraged surprise, she accused me of being ‘green’.

Given this blog’s unrepentant diarising of Howard’s life, his thought, his memories and stories – in short this blog being Howard on the virtual page – my critic found the entire exercise personally provoking. Possibly intentionally so. Her criticisms of Howard were now unrelenting, and of course, public.

It is timely here to remind my reader that my critic is a friend, that she certainly wishes for nothing more than my improvement. She has in mind my ascension into a literary realm which exists clearly in her sight and quite outside my powers of vision. In her private love of Howard this friend is staunch. In public she is an attack dog. At first puzzled, later a little hurt, eventually wryly amused that such a thing might be, I accepted her blank rebuttal of my private objection to her tone. ‘Howard’, she wrote (publicly of course), ‘Once your writing emerges into the public sphere you cannot expect criticism to remain private.’ Fair enough. Perfectly logical, fully consistent with literary purity. And perfectly blind to the imperatives of friendship.

I came to accept a painful reality:

The moving finger writes,

And having writ, moves on;

Nor all thy piety nor wit

Can lure it back

Nor cancel half a word of it

(From the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam)

Eventually the moderator of this blog published guidelines of the limits to decent blogly conduct; and the critic, declaring herself to be my ‘troll’ (to me a new concept), banished herself from these pages.

My critic helped me immensely. She forced me to examine every self-syllable I wrote. She required of me an intensification of my self-consciousness. To this day she shadows every line I write, shaping my writing to conceal my thought, as she peers through the ether for Howard malignancy, stimulating me to a meticulous attention to some standard I never grasped but for which I blindly reach. Of course the cost is a friend who, in the name of friendship, has shat upon friendship.

No Sexual Massage in Yangon

When I visited Yangon a couple of years ago I enjoyed a number of curious, memorable and stimulating experiences. Among these I recall the vivid sight of a mouthful of ragged teeth swimming in blood-red betel juice. I saw lovely women and lovelier children with cheeks daubed in discs of a caked pink, ochreous pigment. I ran in a huge mid-city park where I was alone, save for thirty men scything a small patch of pedicured grass of brilliant green, and lovers on park benches, enfolded in each others’ arms in the slow ballet of discreet half-satisfaction. I saw women and men banquetting at kerbsides on evil-smelling fishes, I read an English language newspaper from cover to cover, in which grown up writers and editors repeated children’s stories for grownup readers. (These stories, simply told and endlessly retold, announced that the government was very pleased with itself and if we had any further questions we should read the account of the Press Release on page three, which announced how pleased the government was with its plans to change nothing.)

I rode in taxis that had been young when I reached puberty and which still functioned – but only just. I recognised my own physiology mirrored in these noisy, puffing, sluggish vehicles. At the airport I was met by unsmiling men wearing military and paramilitary uniforms that would be laughable in comic opera. Under the hard eyes of these protectors of the public order young female Immigration Clerks checked my passport for twenty solemn minutes before passing me down a chain of clerks similarly trained in solemnity. The solemnity training is impressive, achieving as it does the extinguishing of the endemic native joy that radiates from the Yangonese. In a shop I saw a longhi. I always wanted a longhi and when I went to purchase one, eight young women, so feminine, so, so slim, all stepped forward to fit me. I went to a hairdressing salon where some hair was cut and someone sold someone else a massive bag of rice, while all the staff – including the person cutting the hairs around my throat – watched a lengthy and particularly violent show on TV.

I saw and enjoyed many things in Yangon but I never bought, received, contemplated, witnessed or wished for sexual massage in Yangon. I did, however, post an innocent blog report on my visit to the hairdresser.

Ever since that post my blog has been visited by readers from around the world, googling key words ‘Sexual Massage Yangon.’ I have innocently discovered the secret to a massive blog following. In posting this I expect to redouble that following. Fame and Greatness beckon.

Blogging On

I wrote a post a few days ago expecting it to pass with a yawn. That it did not is a surprise. That it might matter is an astonishment. That I’ll persist is the fault of the addressees below:

Dear palmerglassbox,

I am gratified to bring a ray of sunshine twice a week, but I am concerned about the other five sunless days. Please ask your doc to measure your vitamin D levels.

Dear Lionel Lubitz,
I like the idea of opening you (plural) up. It is ages since I performed a laparotomy. Thank you for your unhyperbole and for the teasing notion that the blog can annoy you (again plural). Someone’s taking notice.

Dear Susanne at Bilingual Options,
Your response delights me because you delight in the stories that delight me most, those about family. As one very familiar with the grandrats (Susanne is the model for the speech therapist in Carrots and Jaffas, and my twin grandsons were her patients), you know well their suicidal energies. And as for wordpress, it conquers even the mightiest intellect. Only my daughter can be its blogmeistress, and that by virtue of her power of persistence (in her childhood, read ‘stubbornness’.)

Welcome kaisywmills, who like Janus, has two faces, one feminine, the second bearded.

Claire McAlpine, bloggist and book critic, says blog on. Same to you, Claire, and more so. Your blog and your reviews bring good books to our attention.

Thank you Sulfen for what I take to be encouragement. It is no chore to write, the contrary in fact; my fear is creating a chore for the reader.

And Kerryn, who wrote so thoughtfully: Kerryn, when you encourage me to tell stories, you give my inner minstrel voice to sing. And your suggestion for a story about the bloke in my wedding photo is irresistible. (Watch this space.) Further, if, dear Kerryn you were born on New Year’s Eve about 35 years ago, you might have been delivered by me; and in that case you have met that man, you knew that face: he is my forever friend, my former partner in the medical practice you attended in childhood.

And dear Louis De Vries – the publisher all writers dream of and none can deserve – we know where the readers are: they are all reading on tablets, which were invented to bankrupt you, to frustrate me and to allow people to read in the dunny.

Dear Miriam Abud,
How delightful to find you finding me in this way. Suddenly the invention of the computer is justified, the existence of the internet worthwhile. The thought of anyone settling down to half a dozen of my writings thrills and amazes me. That it is YOU fills me with smiles of pleasure. I’ll keep going. And I think the radio would bring out all that is boring and pompous and opinionated in me. But if it would sell books…

And you, Helen, in urging more poetry you open a mare’s nest, a can of sperms, and a mix of metaphors. My own verse is largely limited to medical referral letters where, because they are confidential and hence unpublishable, the verse does least harm. On the odd occasion I post the verse of true poets, women – generally young undergraduates – drool and swoon, a pleasant surprise for an old gent. I suspect poetry drives many men away.

Hello, misssophiablog, welcome to this blog. I am impressed that yours has a FAQ section. Golly. When I need fashion advice I’ll turn to you, Courtney.

Hello Spot, your remark, ‘in the outback you give us another window on the world’ is unexpected and brings the sudden thought that a casual smartarse blogger might actually be some sort of postman to another person waiting for a letter, any letter. Suddenly, all this might be serious. Or significant. Thank you and golly!

Hello dear Faye Colls,
No writer could ever earn your unwavering loyalty. You are a warm and kindly spirit. Fair dinkum.

Dear Dear Bruce,
In your steadfast attention to my musings you create a blog of your own, revealing a soldier of the law who defended the weak to his own cost. You show us your wounds of honour, your human vulnerability. In all your humility you lift us up.

Dear Hilary Custance Green,
As well as having the very most remarkable and unforgettable and rhymable name an author or a blogger could desire, you write most thoughtfully and I should say, faithfully. Everyone should read your new novel, which I will buy in the UK in January – despite Amazon’s best efforts to sabotage you – and which I’ll review in this blog. Please ensure Foyles stocks the book.
I have just received your remarkable (and generous) review of Carrots and Jaffas. You have expressed my purposes so adroitly and divined my approach so comprehensively, you’ve actually deepened my understanding of my own book. Thank you, quite humbly, HCG. (in my trade hcg is the acronym for human chorionic gonadotrophin, which is the substance in a woman’s urine that tells her she’s pregnant when she pees onto a stick. You have elevated HCG to a more refined level.)

Dear Nick Miller,
Like you I find myself thwarted by wordpress. I’m all the gratefuller for your close attention to the blog, as to all of my writing. Carrots and Jaffas would have been a much poorer book without your criticisms.

Gerard Oosterman, hello, and thank you for commenting. Your own blog is masterly and you seem to have conquered wordpress. Bravo! (note to readers – chase up gerard’s blog: it’s a ripper!)

Dear I L Wolf, dear Margot Mann (in fact, beloved MCM), dear Glitchy Mind, dear Claire Word by Word, dear the chattyrachel, dear M. Talmage Moorhead (a name to rival Hilary’s), dear mannyrutinel, dear amandalyle, dear fictionistasan (intriguing monniker), dear M. Funk l PHOTOGRAPHY, dear Greg Mercer, MSN, dear jackiewilson, dear bluchickenninja – you all liked a blogpost that ran the risk of becoming a fishing expedition for compliments. You forgave me and you wrote. Thank you all.

And dear DovTheRov, you make me larrf, Thank you for the encouragement. You write a mean weekly newsletter. How many rabbis can make a minyan smile?

In Hebrew we have an expression: “acharon, acharon chaviv” – last mentioned, most beloved. Thank you Rachel, thank you, thank you.

Yours, twice weekly, I’m afraid.

Blog On?

Like every wise man I operate in thrall to my womenfolk. One of those womenfolk helps me manage this blog. Readers might have observed the blog stuttering in its cantering gait recently. I have slipped from my regular Monday and Friday postings, to no-one’s great regret. Noting this delinquency the Blogmeistress has commanded me to address my readers with some questions. She says I need to ask you what you want me to write about. The conversation went like this:

BLOGMEISTRESS: Ask your readers what they want.

HG: Why?

BLOGMEISTRESS: Why what?

HG: Why bother them? They’re enjoying the rest.

B/MEISTRESS: You need to blog, so you’ll reach new readers…

HG: Why?

B/MEISTRESS: Why what?

HG: Why do I need readers – old or new – of my blog?

B/MEISTRESS: You need blog followers so they’ll become readers of your books: your writing is OK; it’s just your attitude to technology that stinks. You write passably but all three of your books have been worstsellers. You need to get known.

HG: Look, no-one, not a single person has written begging me for a new post. No-one misses them. A blog that appears on your screen twice a week is an imposition. I’m giving them a break.

B/MEISTRESS: Blog – or fail as a writer!

HG: When I blog I fail because I take time and energy away from serious writing.

BM: Blogging is serious. You’re an appalling snob. You’re going to fail.

So, dear reader, dear slumbering follower, here are the questions a wise man must ask:

What would you like me to write about?

The news – all miserable – that I whinge about already?

My moral quandaries, in which I flail and thrash in a mighty masturbation of the conscience?

Oddities, trivial observations, exercises in whimsy and gentle self-mockery? Or would you prefer brutal self-mockery?

Family stories? Isn’t your own family is just as lunatic as mine?

***

Here is the question I am forbidden to ask: Could you care less?

Sorry to disturb your hard-earned respite.

Blog Wail

A week or so ago this blog wailed about the darkness of the news, the darkness at the heart of man. Two readers responded.
One referred to my wailing as my de profundis, an expression I’d seen bobbing along on the high cultural current over my decades, passing by unpassed. Now it came to me: from the depths. That rang a bell: David, warrior poet, king of ancient Israel, wrote a psalm,
min ha’ma’amakim, From the depths I called…’

Well, two answered my call.

From England, author, bloggish fruitcake maker and novelist Hilary Custance Green is writing her account of her father, a POW in the same camp as Weary Dunlop. He was
one of many untrained medical orderlies who worked in the camp under Canadian surgeon Jacob Markovitz. She writes: “I used to weep continuously as I read these accounts, but I found a dreadful tendency to habituate to the misery and cruelty…”

Robert Hillman, Australian novelist and ghostwriter of lives in ghastly times and climes, sent an antidote:

“Dear Howard – I’ve read your De Frofundis, and your blog about the Richard Flanagan book. I’ll get that book, most certainly, after all you had to say about it. The De Profundis was wonderful in its sincerity, Howard. It’s what all of (us) want to say. But you actually said it. And yet, you know, thank God that there are people of courage and grace in the world who also have a say. I’ve just finished writing a book (‘The Wailing Song’) for a guy who served – most reluctantly – in the Iranian armed forces in the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. A situation arose when his most senior officer made a mistake, failing to issue an order to 2500 men under his command to withdraw to a ceasefire position in the face of an Iraqi advance. My guy knew of the mistake, and after awful soul-searching, decided to issue the order himself. If he had not, those 2500 men would have been massacred by the vastly superior Iraqi force. Usurping the authority of a Colonel when you are no more than a humble corporal will almost certainly get you court-martialed and hanged in the Iranian army. My guy accepted that he would be hanged, but went ahead and issued the order anyway – he was circumstantially in a position to do so, without having his authority questioned. The men were saved, my guy wasn’t hanged, due to the difficulty the Colonel would have had in explaining his blunder. Its one of those existential situations, a moment of truth, when all that you hope about yourself and believe about yourself is suddenly up for testing: do you have the courage to die at the end of noose in order to save others? Will your life have any meaning if you find a way to duck out? It must be like being thrust into an arena, a bright light directed at you. Here’s your chance. Yes or no?”

I know that moment of moral choice. I know it from reading with growing dread Conrad’s Lord Jim. I read it in the dread of self-knowledge that I would not rise to that challenge. However, since the start of my sixth decade I have imagined that I might.
(Free advice: read ‘Joyful’, which I enthused over in this blog half a year ago. Hillman writes in his own and in many voices of those who struggle in these depths and of some who rise in them).