Peak White

These observations might anger the reader, or alarm her. Possibly they’ll gratify someone. I’ll be sorry if I upset you.

At some quiet moment recently Australia reached peak white, reached it and left it behind. That’s the observation that I make. The notion dawned on me late. I might have been asleep.

The Australia I was born to was pretty uniformly white. Although I grew up in the country of the Wiradjuri people, I saw few black faces. In my home town in the Riverina, two black boys turned up at my school a couple of times. They owned no shoes. After two days they crept away and I never saw them again. By contrast, when my ancestors arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, white and black populations were more evenly balanced. Over the following one hundred years, by means more or less shameful, white largely erased black.

Around 1970 I started working in a green village of white people on Melbourne’s edge. Here I became the family doctor of a small girl with caramel skin. She grew up to be a beauty. I had known her for nearly twenty years before she spoke to me of her lineage. The child was Australian royalty incognita, descended from one of the first great indigenous footballers. But I was not to tell anyone. During that same decade, in the United States, Black was becoming Beautiful. And after a while Australia’s indigenous people too began to declare their origins. From the start of the sixties we’d been going to school and university with students from Asia. Successive governments relaxed the White Australia Policy and finally dismantled it. Government and Opposition agreed to agree: Australia would open up. And the world entered, first Asia, later Africa. Australia entered the world and the world entered Australia. So Australia, a black country that became a white settler country, developed into a variegated society.

Over that wider world white has always been a minority. Anomalous then for white to exercise hegemony in so many places and for so long. It’s over now and white should have no complaint. Of course white will fight to protect its advantages. History tells us that struggle will be rough and rude.

What will follow – now the wide world is past peak white? It would be naïve to expect power to practise charity. And why expect peoples, long oppressed by white, to respect the rights of their oppressors? We’ve seen the experiment of democracy take root – sometimes deep, often shallow – in many countries. Few of those non-white countries enshrine human rights after the recent Western example. India comes nearest perhaps. Why expect a dominant China or some ascendant Asian Tiger to be more merciful to us once they overtake and possibly colonise us, than the white West was in the times of its dominance – before the peak? (Of course, here in Australia, we’ve been an economic colony ever since Kellogg made our breakfast, Kraft made our foods, Nestle fed our infants, Xerox made or photocopies, Kodak took our photos.

When change comes people feel threatened. Anxiety begets aggression, aggression begets retaliation. At the level of local communities, neighbours begin to distrust each other. Community suffers. And we can feel confident that the hatemongers in public life, refreshed and encouraged, will monger away at their rodent work. Meanwhile we’ve developed the sweet tooth of America; eating the whirlwind, we achieve American obesity and diabetes, which we treat with medications from Big Pharma. Now the Pentagon directs our defences, while Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the whole gang exercise hegemony in the tax haven they create in Australia. Who can suggest we are not colonized already? With their mass and their electronic power and expertise, who would be surprised when we become a colony of Asia?

If this makes you feel gloomy I can offer one striking example of hope trumping fear. That example occurred in the Republic of South Africa where, under Mandela, the black majority gained power. White had long resisted black rights; there’d be chaos, a bloodbath was inevitable. Black assumed power through the ballot, not by bullets. Although plenty of disorder followed, the feared bloodbath never took place. The explanation? I think Nelson Mandela was the explanation.

Humanity will need more Mandelas.

Hope

By Colin Hockley*

Long ago a callow and bewildered newcomer to Melbourne was taken by a friend to see the strange sight of Australian Rules Football. The game was held at an ugly stadium in the unfashionable Western suburbs. The day was wet, cold and blustery. In places the ground was ankle deep in churned mud and a bleak wind howled across the ground sending the ball and players scurrying into a pocket of the oval. A lonely and much abused man in white armed with a whistle made sense of this activity as flags stood horizontal and ragged above a grandstand resembling a wartime bunker.
It was all very confusing and brutal. Red faced men clutching beer cans yelled unlovely insults at the players and the incredibly thick skinned man with the whistle who laboured away in the winter mud bringing some order to the confusion. He was universally referred to as “yer white maggot”. There seemed to be several players named, “yer poofta”. 
His friend insisted that cold beer added to the experience. Wanting badly to fit in he drank some. Within minutes, after receiving directions, he raced off to find a toilet. This was a tin shed easily located by the stench of urine awash on a concrete floor. Those not drinking beer, or buying more beer, or shuffling in the urine, or insulting anyone on the playing field were standing in an endless queue for hot chips. 
Oddly however, an understanding of the game crept in and colonised his physiology. Quite soon, rather like a lot of others, he fancied he was smart enough to understand the beauty of the game. Over time, things improved. The chip queue got a little shorter as the chips became more expensive. Less beer was drunk. The habit of public drunkenness came to be frowned upon, resulting in slightly less smelly and wet underfoot toilets. 
His now adopted team struggled to achieve success. They played in a poor part of town filled with the working class and migrants. Money was scarce to pay good players. Those who stayed did so because they loved that bleak Western suburb and it’s rusted on, passionate supporters. Now and then the club caught, by accident, a player of great talent, or foolhardy bravery. Rusted on supporters can trot out the skill, acts of courage, loyalty and exploits these rare players to each other endlessly. Highlights of recent triumphs or a long ago game are wired into them with a passion. 
Tragedy is writ large. Shocking injuries, the worst a dashing, handsome young man rendered quadriplegic in a collision. Another left blind in one eye. There were many missed moments of magic as great prizes ran away with Lady Luck, and on occasion, the White Maggot played his part in our agony. 
But what seduced him besides the sheer athletic wonder and courage of the players was the ethos, rooted in an indefatigable failure to accept defeat. Strong men with bodies like Greek Gods and minds of steel playing, in the words of one of their champions, “a game of hurt”. Even to win hurt. To see them in the rooms after, huge ice packs strapped to the parts of their bodies that must train and fight again next week and the week after. A win is a happy thing. Grown men lustily sing a silly song of victory. Winning flags and scarves flap recklessly out of car windows, strangers shake your hand in the street on seeing your club colours. We have no enemies. Only pity disguised as friendliness.
Defeat means harder training, meetings focused on strategy, disappointed and demanding supporters, eager younger players wanting to knock you off your perch in the 1st team. In defeat, the supporters always say, “next week” and at season’s end, “next year”. And everything changes. The home ground changes. The name is tweaked. Coaches come and go. Presidents change. Sponsors run away and hide. Dreams come and go. Years pass. Decades pass. Membership rises and falls, like a politicians popularity poll. The rusted on grow older and they cling to the “nearly” moments, the “robbed” incidents and the past champions who blessed us with hope.
Hope. 
Hope.
Hope.
It’s a simple word, wonderful and life affirming. 
Whatever the cause hope always triumphs over experience. 
The name of my football team was hope. 
After 60 years the planets lined up. Hope was ascendent. Great decisions were made by the right people. Players of immense talent emerged. A coach blessed with, not merely the knowledge but wonderful leadership skills landed like an angle on the blighted place. Melbourne, the cornerstone of which is this game, sniffed something magic in the air. An agony of injuries brought them, not undone, but gave them added fight and inspiration. 


Man Love abounded. Tears fell like spring showers. 
Unlikely, indeed, impossible heroics happened. He of the rusted on and the other lot, the come lately stood in that great Colosseum where dreams are made and lost. As the players ran out onto brilliant green in the sunshine, their colours dominant, flags flying, their noise creating tremors shaking the vast concrete floor. 70,000 voices, only ours, could be heard. The silly song roared. It seemed the blue sky with its scudding clouds shook with the chanting. A small bewildered boy lay wide eyed in the arms of his bedecked father beside him. 
The game had yet to begin. His body tingled all over and there was quivering in his midriff. Tears and snot ran unheeded. He could have gone home at that moment and died happy. But with 99,981 people in his way he was wedged in, immovable, right on the edge of claustrophobia. This was their day. Their moment. His moment too. At the end, no one left. Not a single person raced for the car park or the train. They just stood and sang some more, over and over.
Hope.
That triumphed.
*Colin is a close and beloved friend and Western Bulldogs supporter.

Adam the Original

 
Years ago I had the privilege of working in partnership with a Brownlow Medallist. Dr Donald Cordner was the scion of a family as distinguished for Medicine as for football. I learned many things from Donald: it was he who transformed me from a sluggard to a mechanism for perpetual motion. Like my father he personified a thirst for a meaningful life both within and without medicine. 

Donald captained the Melbourne Football Club in its fertile years of recurring premierships. Of the Medal he spoke seldom and little. I remember one datum: the Charles Brownlow Medal is awarded to the player voted by the umpires as the FAIREST and the best. Over the twenty years we worked together that described Donald Cordner: he was the best at everything he put hand or foot to; and he personified honour.

 

Like Donald, Adam Goodes captained his club. Like Donald he saw a role for himself in community service. Like Donald, Adam Goodes is a leader, a man of vision, of substance.

 

In 2003 we saw Adam receiving the first of his two Brownlow Medals. Although he shared the distinction that year with two other champions – one of whom captained the club of my own allegiance – it is the image of Goodes that lingers. More particularly the choice of his companion. Alone among the great young men, Adam brought his mother along, the sole parent who raised him and his siblings. Goodes’ mother contrasted with the other companions, generally blondes, frequently trophy females with cleavage.

Mrs Goodes looked what she is, an Aboriginal matron. Nothing fashionable – read, ‘mutable, evanescent’ – just his Mum, the woman Adam Goodes chose to raise to public honour.

 

When I looked at this man, this original, I saw one who stands for family, for loyalty,  one who knows his roots and is proud. Like his ethnically distinctive medallist forebears, Robert Dipierdimenico and Jim Stynes, Adam is Australia incarnate. He reminds us of our inextinguishably diverse makeup. That diversity, for most Australians, is our glory; for some an intolerable truth. When those persons boo Adam Goodes, they boo their community, they boo themselves.

  

 

Farewell, Farewell

I used to run six days a week. No longer. I used to run marathons. No longer. Farewell, farewell, a long farewell to all that.

I ran before work; sometimes I ran to work. I ran every day but Saturday, the Sabbath. I ran because I could, I ran because I needed to. I ran up the hills of Wattle Glen, up the endless alps of Kangaroo Ground, and along the river at Warrandyte and Kew.

I ran marathons in Traralgon, on the Gold Coast and in Alice Springs. I ran in the New York Marathon (thrice – never won it – home town decisions, obviously) and four times in the world’s oldest modern marathon, in Boston. The 2013 Boston was my last. I never crossed the finish line, turned back by the police at the 41 kilometre mark. At 67 years I was too old, too slow to be harmed by the bombers.

I ran in the World Veterans’ Games Marathon, and I was a Spartan at Melbourne. About 8 years ago at Traralgon, I became the Victorian Country Marathon Champion (Over Sixty, Male). There was one other sixty year old bloke – a patient of mine. He ran with an injury that I had fortunately not cured. I entered my title – Vic Country Marathon Champ – on my resume.

I ran in Havana and Amsterdam, in London and in Oxford, and on the golden stones and basalt cobbles of Jerusalem. I ran up and down Masada and in Galilee. I ran in Buenos Aires and in Capilla del Monte.

In fifty Aboriginal communities I ran to feel country, running fast to keep ahead of mobs of hungry dogs.

Through all this running I discovered strengths I never dreamed of and weakness I’d always feared. I extended my being, I joined in the joyous commonwealth of comrades that is a marathon.

I ran and I wrote what was a metaphor for my life – a passage, undistinguished, through space and through time, made rich by those I ran with and those I ran for. And always I ran with a doctor’s calibrated sense of risk. I ran with my younger daughter’s instruction ringing prayer and warning: Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead.

I ran carefully, knowing if I did die I would leave wife, children, and latterly, grandchildren, grieving and aggrieved.

I ran and I gave thanks that my body held up for so long. I knew joy and pain and the joy of pain transmuted. I knew my lands and the lands of others intimately, physically. And in the stiffness and the glad soreness that followed a hard run, I knew pride, I knew joy.

***

An Australian boy knows it is in the sporting arena that his worth is measured. Excellence at sports trumps beauty and wealth. Brains lag last, far behind all. As a little boy I was timid, both physically and spiritually. A large brain served me only to imagine fearsome possibility; it was no asset in sports. Introduced to both cricket and football, in which I overcame fear sufficiently to try bravely, I achieved and sustained a modest mediocrity. I might have achieved more but for two discoveries: the hard cricket ball, travelling fast, hurt the fumbling fingers; and the elusive football, fiercely contested by other boys bigger and less timid than I, led me only to painful and fruitless collisions.20130411-184933.jpg

By virtue of very little, I rose to captain the Second Eighteen in footy and captain of the Second Eleven in cricket. My highly academic Jewish school quickly won fame for academic excellence, while earning only a reputation for awkward strangeness in inter-school sports. Generations of Jewish history had equipped Jewish boys well for debating, mathematics and playing the violin. Our ancestors in Europe learned to run only from fire or pogrom. So the best teams this post-Holocaust Jewish school produced were try-hard failures. And I was never good enough for the Firsts. Captain of the Seconds at Mount Scopus was the ultimate backhanded compliment in sports.

But at the age of fifteen came the discovery of distance running. The annual cross-country run over three miles of hilly scrubland sorted the tortoises from the hares. At the gun all the glamour boys leaped into the lead and quickly disappeared between bushes at the first bend in the course. I chased as hard as I could, my breath burning my throat, my chest aching. In a failure of the imagination I never thought of stopping or slowing. I kept going. Abrupt hills, uneven terrain, a finish line that was nowhere in sight, all conspired to daunt and defeat our gazelles of the track, our hares of the field. But I kept running. I don’t think I slowed at all. Eventually the astonishing sight of my idols bent double, gasping at the trackside, unable to respond to greeting or commiseration told me I was among the swiftest of the tortoises. I finished in the top ten that first year, improving to fourth, and eventually to third place, in the years that followed.

The barren years of sporting opportunity after school saw me gain a medical degree (summa sine laude), a wife and a bunch of little kids. And about five kilograms in weight. I was now a sedentary family man, short in stature, with a small pot belly. Then a schoolteacher friend took me running on the hills of Diamond Valley. He tired me out and he puffed me up, saying, “You have a nice running style, Howard.” One day we ran ten kilometers together. Breathless with achievement I looked at the distance – nearly a quarter of a marathon! – and with fine naivette I said to myself: I can run a marathon. And I did.

***

Seven months ago I drove for six days to and from an outback locum. My left thigh ached and it still does. Two months ago I fell onto my left knee from my bike. It screams with pain whenever I run a single step. The MRI of my spine resembles a bombed railway track – you can recognise the pattern of the original structure but you wouldn’t want to travel on it.

I used to run. Now it’s over.

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.