The Last Refugee

Imagine this. A disaster at sea, a lifeboat adrift, full of survivors, now despairing, now in hope, as land takes form through the mists ahead. A form is seen in the water. The boat comes alongside, the form is human and alive. The human extends an arm in supplication. Weary survivors take the limb and heave. The lifeboat, already heavily laden, tilts, takes water. The heavers persist in their heaving and the boat takes more water. A murmur within the boat swells to a cry: “Let him go!”

But the human is already aboard. The boat rights itself, the shouting subsides to a murmuring. The boat drifts on.

Imagine this: a second story. Australia prospers, confidence surges and trust becomes the settled order of things. Somehow Australia’s peoples lose their fears of difference, neither Sharia nor Tjukurrpa nor Kosher is imposed by any person upon any other person, but all are respected and all thrive. The leaders of the government decide to lead opinion rather than to follow it. They declare, “We who have plenty can take in those who have nothing more their need and their stories. Let us welcome them, let them come in!”

And so it comes to pass. Australia booms, its empty lands are claimed, cultivated and nurtured under the guiding hand of the first inhabitants. Australia feeds its peoples, feeds Asia, and prospers greatly. The seekers for asylum fulfil the promise that every newcomer brings. Australia accepts scores of thousands, who succeed in the new land and become part of the community. The community now takes in hundreds of thousands as History smiles upon the land and even the climate shows clemency.

The seekers for refuge are numberless, the land is vast, its resources seem endless. Eventually the land is filled. The flow of seekers for refuge slows to a trickle. It stops. All now are saved, all are safe. But wait! A boat. Aboard the boat are two persons. They extend supplicating arms. The peoples of Australia, accustomed to rescue, habituated and drenched in its ethos, wish to help. But their land is full. There is no room for newcomers. Australians squeeze up together, they wish to rescue those people who extend those arms. They make room, a little room: just one, one alone can be squeezed in. But there are two humans in the boat.

Imagine this: a third story. A lifeboat full of survivors of shipwreck drifts in an uncertain sea. This boat is full. Its gunwhales barely clear the calm surface. Whenever the seas rise all bail mightily to save the boat that saves them, and the boat remains afloat. The boat drifts on.

A shape is seen ahead in the water. As the boat comes alongside, the shape moves, cries, flings human words of thanks, raises an arm in supplication. All aboard the craft can see, all understand: “This lifeboat is barely afloat. If we take in this human his weight will sink us; every one of us – every human person – is lost.”

So much for my little stories. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my pain, my outrage, my shame. All that old stuff. My eruptions of moral rage have brought a brief pleasure, a relief not unlike the visceral satisfaction of purging. But these explosions achieve nothing, convince no-one who is not already convinced, influence no-one in government.

A couple of years ago I spoke at an awards ceremony for defenders of human rights. I told my lifeboat stories. I pointed out Australia’s lifeboat is not full. I was grand in my flight of brave words and noble ideals. I carried the audience, which, led by two Federal parliamentarians, rose as one to applaud. Afterwards each of the parliamentarians, one a frontbencher in the government, requested a copy of my speech which they’d put up on their websites. One confided: ”You have said what we would like to say but cannot.”

What to do? What more to do? What can we – we powerless people do – beyond voicing our outrage, our shame, our grief? Firstly, we must continue to raise that human voice, to give human words to the suffering of fellow humans. That voice, those words, these are the marks of our being human. These words, the irreducible minimum:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

By: Dan Pagis

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I

But what more? As my little stories suggest, ultimately we persons of good will – and I mean that to refer to my fellow Australians at large – sooner or later must face a terrible choice. At the end of all our rescuing there will always be one more supplicant, one too many for our resources, for our lifeboat. We will face a choice. This is Sophie’s choice, whereby we will chose one to be saved and send another – a human other – to perdition.

But Australia’s lifeboat is not yet full. So, what more, what wiser, what more potent act can we non-governors do? The answer cannot be simple, but our powers of imagination, of thinking hard and speaking softly, have helped in the past. Thus Petro Georgiou of happier memory, with Jozef Szwarc, softened the adamantine policies of John Howard. The image of a dead child floating in the shallows of Lesvos softened the policies of Tony Abbott.

I know of one small group in a faith congregation that has approached leaders of other faiths in an attempt to think hard together and to speak softly together to those who govern. State governors have spoken for their people, saying, give us the children; let them not return to offshore detention. Dr David Isaacs blew a whistle on his return from offshore that mobilised doctors and nurses at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and now at Lady Cilento in Brisbane. The RCH refuses to discharge child patients to places of detention. We must understand that for what it is: the RCH is not some Marxist commune, not a place of sedition. It is rather an emblem in the state of Victoria. It stands for the highest skill and care. When the RCH speaks it carries Victoria. None gainsays its voice or its acts.

So, what to do? Think hard, confer, suggest, bring ideas to government. One idea, hardly original, strikes me as promising: let Australia progressively divert funds, currently used for offshore detention, towards a respectable, respectful supra-national staging and assessment process in south Asia. There we would maintain accessible, supportive consular representation. No-one would need to board a leaky boat, no-one would need to jump a queue, no human person would come to Australia and be called by a SIEV number. Our brothers and sisters would arrive with their own names.

We might save money, we might not. Neither governments nor we the governed see these issues in money terms: governments never count the cost when augmenting our cruelties; and we bleeding hearts never count beans. No, these issues are strangely unmonetised. The people of Australia hanker quietly to regain some self-respect.

Respectful policies will save lives. We might save our souls.

Do you have a better idea? Work on it, tell your minister of religion, your minister of the crown, the playgroup mothers, the neighbours. Governments need to follow. It is up to us to lead. We won’t save everyone, but we can hardly do worse than we do at present.

Meeting Moses in the Wilderness

A winter’s afternoon in a northern outback town. The sun broiling my white skin in the current slow-roast mode. At the taxi rank outside Coles I stand, waiting, midst my regretted plastic bags filled with food purchases. A few metres distant stands a compact Aboriginal lady with her bags, also waiting for a cab. A roaring from the middle of the street, busy with Friday afternoon traffic. The roars emerge from the centre of a bearded black face. The face sits atop a tall and rangy frame. Long limbs convey trunk and roaring face across the street between moving vehicles that pass and part as the Red Sea waters. Mister Beard’s legs weave in a singular, sinuous, almost swimming gait. He makes shore just beyond the waiting lady, who half turns to him, speaks a quick, quiet word to him, at which he desists from his roaring.

As the man passes the woman his whispered promise to her drifts on the warm air to my ears: “No humbug!”

Approaching me now the man is taller and wider than I appreciated. His articulated body parts have a folding, telescoping tendency, now unseen, now seen briefly, in the fluidity of his motion. The man stops at half a metre distant, I atop the kerb, he on the roadway. He bends forward, lowering a shaggy head to the level of my face. “Goood Afternooon”, he croons winningly, his large and elastic lips sliding into smiling. “I will tell you my story, story of my country.”
The man checks his speech to extend an upper limb towards me. The hand that grasps my own (size eight surgical glove, “large” in an operating theatre) hand now hides mine entirely. Soft, cool, its palm a pale honey shade, that expansive hand shakes my own: “Welcome to country”, it says.
The winning voice speaks again: “What is your name, sir?
“Howard.”
“Howard – a good name: the Prophet Howard. I am” – a deep bow, the crooning speech – “I am Mohhses…the Prophet Howard and the Prophet Moses!”
“Well Moses, it’s good to meet you. And Moses is a good name, a very good name. I am not so sure about the Prophet Howard. The last Howard leader we had was John Howard.
Moses’ wide face contracts in thought, opening again into full flowering grin: “No, not so good really”. A gust of laughter blows a fruity aromatic breeze to my nose.
“Sir – Howard – would you lend me two, three dollars?”
My brain falters as my hand dives to the bottom of my hip pocket where the coins gravitate during shopping.
“Just four dollars, five.”
My thinking self doesn’t buy alcohol for a drink-ruined man. But here he is, ‘Mohhses’, in his large physicality, in his irresistible humanness. Here he stands, but a breath distant from me.
Human impulse and slow judgement wrestle within me, a longish bout apparently, for now Moses moves unexpectedly, half a step backwards, as his knees flex, his torso descends, his head recedes downwards, down toward the tarmac.
A sudden shout breaks from me as my arms grasp and yank the man’s shoulders: “No! No! Moses don’t you ever do that! Don’t you kneel before me.”
The man rises. His rueful grin concedes, “well, that ruse didn’t work”. My own voice, murmuring now my small mean thoughts, “Moses, I don’t think you really mean I should ‘lend’ you money. Don’t you mean ‘give’?”
The face is at rest, now pensive, now lit anew: “I will sing you a song. My song. I come from Kohhhlahhhmbarooo.”
Moses pauses as he feels the weight of a cluster of small brazen coins entering his palm from mine.

Now the man sings. Listening acutely for the secrets of country, I stand poised on the pavement, even as my cab approaches.
The singing voice is sweet, the phrases protracted, Moses in motion with the rhythm of the song and the ruin of his proprioception. The honeyed voice, draws sound from the great body, sound that flows and undulates in no tongue familiar to my ears.
The cab is upon me, an electric window slides down and a Philippino face asks me, “Where to, mate?”
And Moses sings on. Now the words take shape. “Do nooot forsaaaake me, o my daaaarling…”
I thank the man from Kolamburu and hide my hand in his. We shake, I reclaim my limb and climb into the car. As we drive away, Moses sings on, “On this ouuuuuur wedddddding daaaaaay….”

Tracks

Tracks

Tracks

Tiny cinema. Although the tickets are numbered, you can sit where you like, the audience is so sparse.
Opening images of a waif, a child in a yellow dress, walking. You see her from behind as she walks before you. The camera – and your eyes – follow her tracks.
The remainder of the slow movie is much the same: the waif, now of adult years, walks and the watcher follows her tracks. “Tracks” is the name of the movie and the name of Robyn Davidson’s book that preceded it by some decades.

The adult waif informs unbelieving Centralians, “I am going to walk to the ocean.” She speaks with an affect of subdued dourness. There is a tinge of defiance in anticipation of skepticism. The character is defensive, often enough sour. A person alone, she imagines she is independent of approval, of fellowship. Halfway from Alice to the WA coast she discovers, suddenly, violently, her human need. She practically rapes her astonished companion, the awkward photographer whose incursions into her aloneness she resents and finally accepts. Clumsy in his American optimism and belief and cheer, he saves her life by dropping jerry cans of water ahead on her route.

The movie has little dialogue. The silence speaks, the emptiness of the continent speaks. Motifs recur – sand as the tabula rasa of existence, fire as companion, water as vivifier. And the land, “country” in the language of her Aboriginal friends ( she makes a few friends, all of whom exist on the uttermost edges of Australian society. In the unexpected sweetness of the waif’s friends the movie approaches caricature. The traces of sentimentality are forgiven, offset as they are by the central character’s acerbity.)
The land, on the other hand, is eloquent and true. No matter how dramatic the image of hill, of shimmering emptiness, of spinifex, of purpling distant ridges, those images are true. The land – tracked in this way only by Davidson, the lost Leichhardt and Aborigines – is immutably itself.

This viewer, watching Davidson’s traverse, felt the flood of deep knowing, of coming home.
This land is the home of us whitefellas, a home known uniquely to relatively few, characters like Davidson, like Rod Moss, (artist and author of “The Hard Light of Day” and “One Thousand Cuts”). Their knowing is informed by the blackfellas who have shown them their home.

If you’ve missed this movie, don’t worry. Here for five minutes, gone tomorrow, I think it will never disappear. Like Davidson’s book the movie will be sought and valued so long as whitefellas are curious about the land, so long as we ponder our human aloneness.

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.

On Quietly Going Deaf

IMG_1696 IMG_1646 IMG_1046“What?”

“What did you say?”
My family is sick of my hardness of hearing. It seems that hearing hardens and arteries harden at just the time that other things soften.
One of my body’s pumps has softened noticeably. I refer to the one with the ventricles.
What human heart can stand firm against the arrival of grandchildren?
This happy, happy stage of life where our children use their sexual organs for the pleasure of us, their parents!
Technological Man has invented old age. Nature, blind and base, has no use for us once our litters have matured and reproduced. We are supposed to wither quickly and politely die. But doctors have intervened and prolonged the moments of aging into an epoch. From fifty to ninety we live on, noting the failing function of joints and arteries, of ears and eyes. Our teeth desert us, our balance fails, our uteri prolapse, our prostates swell, our bladders leak and we dare not trust a fart.
But we have grandchildren. I can hold a newborn on my knee and croon off key and she will not object. I can hold the toddler in my arms and tell him a thousand stories, long after my eyesight darkens, for just as long as memory holds strong. And when memory fails, I can confabulate.
Who needs hearing aids, dentures, titanium hips, dental implants? We have grandchildren.IMG_0009 IMG_1603 IMG_0482