I’m a Tourist Here

So many novel things here, Nearly everything here different, odd, fresh, unexpected.

Seated in the tram I can see a leaf, pea-green, curving across the right rear of the neck of a young man. Beneath the leaf’s stem a scarlet circle the size of a florin encloses a second red circle, the size of a shilling. The man’s bronze skin is tight around his skeleton. On his bony chin curling black whiskers struggle for a quorum.

People on the tram wear small ear appliances as for the deaf. The hearing aids connect by fine white wires to shallow cuboids of steel or of plastic. Some travellers’ fingers tap the flat upper surface of the flat cuboids, some speak to the appliance, some nod and sway as to music. Is this tram a conveyance for the deaf? Or for devotees of some religion which is new to me in this place where I travel as a visitor?

Few are those who read books or newspapers. Few converse with a neighbour. I hear Mandarin, Spanish, German, Japanese. English too is heard. Most of the speakers address unseen interlocutors. Strange, very strange to me, the ways of this place.

From the open front of a young woman’s blouse two breasts swell and fall as she leans forward to tap a plastic card against device attached to the tram’s interior. No-one looks, no-one remarks, no-one warns the lady of her deshabille. Many are those who tap plastic cards against the fixture. Truly and devoutly observed are the rituals of the tram ride.

The headline on the discarded newspaper reads: GEN Y SHORT ATTENTION SPAN. This message, written in lettering I recognize, refers to nothing I know. Elsewhere I read of GEN X. Another hieroglyph: is there an alphabet of GENs?

Legs, arms, faces everywhere, inked in black, sienna, greens, pinks, yellows and magenta. Skin with calligraphy, with illustrations, with In Memoriams. Human integument as art gallery.

Springtime, announced by recognisable blossoms, by my itching eyes and my sneezing, yet confuses me. One day cold, bleak, blustery with rain, the next day hot. Really hot. Exposed breasts greet the sun. The weather changes mood with a violence new to me.

People pass me in the street but few eyes meet mine. Instead the eyes regard those same flat rectangular devices that the hearing-assisted cultists watched on the tram. People pass in haste. Few smile. Haste and flat devices deprive me – deprive all of us – of communion. In this springtime, the flower of community fails.

So much new, strange, odd. Fast, brief, solipsic. The new poverty. In my own country I ride and I pass, fascinated, a tourist.

John Bracks Collins St 5pm

Keeping Quiet

A young poet friend shared a poem with me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the poet – Pablo Neruda – to be the twentieth century’s “greatest poet in any language.”

Such an accolade claims plenty poetic licence: does Mister Marquez read Sanskrit? Korean? Swahili? Arrernte?

Never mind: I think Mister Marquez is a good judge.

What is this power of the artfully selected offering of words?

This power that rivals music?

Read the poem; best of all, have someone read it aloud to you while you sit with your eyes comfortably closed:

Keeping Quiet Pablo Neruda

 

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

From the Heart 1

Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.

 

“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

 

 

This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.

 

He Contaminated the Language

When he said he groped women, when he said he grabbed them by the pussy, when he said when you are a star you can just go right in and do those things, he fouled the way humans communicate with each other.
 

Our words flow from our bodies, through air, through cyberspace, through waves. They emerge from our embodied minds, they bear our thoughts and our feelings, our fears and joys and dreams. They connect humans as only humans can be connected – unless you include angels that sing hallelujah and God who speaks from a burning bush or a mountain top, or in the wilderness in still, soft voice.

 

Language now lies soiled, tarnished, filthied. Who can use it without tasting that distaste? Who can write of man with woman, of humans with neighbours, of differing colour or creed or country, without feeling estranged from our fellow?

 

He has soiled our prized human heritage of words. He has broken wide the bridged divides. He has strewed our ravines with contempt and vulgarity.

 

He leaves us with dance, perhaps with music. Let us dance now, let us sing without words, let us strum and hum. Let us reach out, let us flail and wail for all whom he’d estrange. Let us bring them in whom he’d drive out. For they are us.

 

Long in the Tooth

To celebrate our wedding anniversary (tantrum warning; see footnote) my wife and I arranged to spend an intimate weekend in a sleepy coastal village an hour or two from Sydney. At our advanced stage of life our offspring seek to protect us from any reckless or imprudent intimacy, and so it was our Sydney family joined us in the seaside cottage.
Annette and I married forty-six years ago, when she was twenty years of age and I was twenty three. We were children, who did not know each other; in fact we did not know ourselves. 
I did some arithmetic recently and realised we have been married for 66.66*% of my life. Annette’s percentage is even higher. We thought the marriage a good idea at the time and I think it a good idea still.
After so many years it is delightful to make fresh discoveries of one’s bride. On Day One of our anniversary weekend I disturbed Annette in the bathroom after lunch. I saw she was brushing her teeth. I said, ‘I didn’t know you brushed your teeth after lunch. I thought I was the only person in the world who did that. If I had known I’d have spread toothpaste on your brush when I did mine.’

With her sweet mouth foaming dentrifice attractively , Annette replied, ‘I always brush after lunch.’

On Day Two I went to the bathroom to perform my midday oral toilet and found my toothbrush, freshly spread with toothpaste. 
From brusher, with love.   
FOOTNOTE: TANTRUM.
THIS IS OUR FORTY SIXTH ANNIVERSARY. IT IS NOT NOT NOT OUR ‘FORTY SIX YEAR ANNIVERSARY’. THERE IS NO SUCH THING. THERE CAN NEVER BE SUCH A THING AS A ‘ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY’ OR (HEAVEN FORBID) A ‘HALF-YEAR ANNIVERSARY’ OR (SAINTS AND REBBES PRESERVE US) A THREE MONTH ANNIVERSARY’. WHY NOT?

BECAUSE ‘ANNIVERSARY’ MEANS ‘TURNING OF A YEAR’; HENCE FORTY SIX YEAR ANNIVERSARY IS A TAUTOLOGY AND AN OFFENCE AGAINST LOGIC AND MEANING.
END OF TANTRUM.

Rachel’s Story

Malcolm Fraser lived and worked his work, then he died. His political career and mine started around the same time: he became leader of his party and I became a voter. I enjoyed voting against Fraser and I enjoyed disliking him. At the time I barracked hard for the brilliant Whitlam. By contrast I found Fraser dour, unimaginative and colourless. But from the first moments following the Dismissal I liked Gough less; the oratory which had always sparkled now became tarnished with absurd hyperbole: expressions such as “Maintain the rage”; “Kerr’s Cur” and so on. In time I discovered no-one could adore Gough as much as he loved himself, while Malcolm seemed to grant himself no more regard than we did in the electorate.
Decades passed, we lost the war in Vietnam, and the refugees whom Gough rejected (he judged they’d all vote for the conservatives) were succoured in their tens of thousands by that cold man, Malcolm Fraser. We buried Fraser last week and those refugees took out a full-page advertisement to express their sorrow and their regard for that colourless man. The page teemed with Vietnamese-Australian organisations, marshalled on the page, pouring out thanks and regret in a poignant
effusion. 
Around the same time I received the following from one who is a friend of the friendless in this country:

The following is an abridged version of Rachel’s story, reproduced here with the writer’s consent. Rachel a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was resettled in Adelaide seven years ago (taken from Faces of the Refugee Story: Portraits and Stories of 15 people who now call Adelaide home):

“I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but when I was about 1 years old the First Congo War broke out and we fled and we went to our first refugee camp in Nakabande and then from that camp we returned back home again to Congo. The Second Congo War broke out and I was almost 2 years old. My family fled again and when we fled this time we knew it was something that was going to be permanent – we wouldn’t be returning back – and it’s a very long journey from Congo to wherever we are going because we didn’t know where we are going. We found ourselves on the border of Congo and Uganda but we didn’t know who was going to be waiting – it could be the rebels to kill us or it could be someone to help us. 
Luckily the UNHCR were there and we were rescued by them and they took us into another refugee camp in Uganda…from there it got too crowded – too many people coming in – and so they had to move us to another camp. We were given cooking oil, beans, flour and we settled there. The UNHCR gave us tents and eventually land to start our new life there and we were able to build our own houses.

In 2002 we were attacked by rebels in that camp. We did have protection but…it was quite a walk from where we were to them. It was a military base where they had soldiers and they were supposed to protect us but because they were so far away from us the rebels came from the other side, not the side that they were on, so they were not aware of us being attacked until some of the men …went to tell them that we had been attacked.

They had taken my Dad. Because our house was the first on our Block (like a suburb) and the place around us hadn’t been cleared of heavily grown bushes we didn’t hear anything. About four heavily armed men kicked down our door (this was about 11-11.30pm) and wanted my eldest sister but Dad said no and so they took him. I remember that very vividly. They killed a woman that had a baby on her back but her child survived. My mum took us and fled with the other women and we went into a part that was well hidden by overgrown grass and trees. We were stuck not knowing whether Dad was coming back in the morning or not.
The soldiers [came] and fought [the rebels]. There were lots of guns going off and I could hear them from the ground we were laying on keeping quiet.
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News from the Nicest Racist Country in the World

My name is Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.
It might just as well be Howard Jonathan Foreign. Or Howard Different.

I write good serious letters, grown up, sensible letters, doctor to doctor letters. From time to time I receive a response addressed as follows:

Dear Dr Goldberg,

Now my name is Goldenberg. We Goldenbergs are fewer than common or garden Goldbergs, distinct from them, superior to them by one syllable.

Less often my correspondent replies:

Dear Dr Rosenberg,

Occasionally I have been

Dear Dr Goldstein,

and on one occasion, I found myself elevated to the Shakespearean catalogue:

Dear Dr Rosenkrantz.

Like all good Australian children I grew up with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Three syllables: Gold-i-locks. No school child pronounces or reads this differently. It is as simple as Gold-en-berg – three syllables.

In this nice country (which I love) the Smiths have been eclipsed by the Nguyens as the bearers of the commonest name in the telephone directory. Almost everyone in Australia consults a Doctor Nguyen or sits open-mouthed before Dentist Nguyen, or is assisted at the checkout by Schoolgirl Nguyen, or copies the homework of Swot Nguyen; we all know a Nguyen. But how many of us can pronounce the name? How many of can spell it correctly?

In this country (in which my generations have lived happily since the 1840’s) we occupy an entire continent yet we share no border with another language. (There are internal borders of course, unseen, that delineate tribal lands and tongues. We never mispronounce the names of those languages; we do not know them. Blackfellas have learned not to make us settlers uncomfortable.)

The Australian ear, the Australian mind, attuned to English, recognize the present hegemony of that language. We have a monoglot sense of normality. English is natural, familiar, comforting. We Nguyens and Goldenbergs, in all our sweet immigrant innocence, offend that ear, strain that throat, challenge that comfort.

So we come here, we land, we try to lose our foreignness.
We try to fit in. The Chinese girl whose name in Mandarin means Blushing Lotus buries Sao Li under Sally. She senses our discomfort, she knows her own, and she submerges self, cultural memory, pride, her parents’ choice of name, born of their prophetic knowing, expressive of connection, of parents owning their own. Sally gives birth to herself and Sao Li dies.

I have a close relative by marriage whose name is decidedly unenglish and hence rather unaustralian. Further, in the original German the name means “Bad Luck.” Most of the Badluck Clan have changed their name to Goodluck and have prospered here and become proverbial in the landscape. But my relative persists as Harry Badluck. He refuses to change. “It was my father’s name and that’s good enough for me.” In Europe the name was prophetic: it was good enough for Harry’s father to see the Nazis kill many of his family.
Harry Badluck sticks to his patrimony. He is proud of it.

Australia is the nicest racist country in the world. Ask Adam Goodes.
We Australians don’t wish to be racist. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way when we intend the opposite.
We are, unfortunately, linguistically provincial. We cover our confusion, our small discomforts, our unspoken resentments, in insensitivity or laziness or in unkind humour. (Come on Sally! Lighten up! Can’t you take a joke?)

My name is Goldenberg.