A River Flows Through

A river flows through my childhood. I dwelt in that particular suburb of heaven which is a country boyhood. When I was nine-and-a-half years of age I was kidnapped by my parents and brought to a city where I have sojourned for 65 years. Very quickly I learned to embrace my new home. Over time I have learned to forgive Melbourne for not being Leeton.
Every so seldom work calls me back to that riverine land. For the past three weeks I’ve been working in the blessed town of Cootamundra. Wide streets, unhurried citizens, verdant gardens, wide skies, a community without traffic lights, have nourished and refreshed me these three weeks. Road signs direct the motorist to nearby downs: this way to Tumut; close by is the drowned township of Talbingo; only two and a bit hours to Albury, where abides my oldest friend; down the road is Gundagai; turn right for Junee, railway junction to the entire state. Leeton (Leeton!) is not far; and down that road lies Wagga Wagga Wagga, so great they named it thrice.

The river flows through these parts. Its strong current could seize a body and drown it. It seizes me still and flings me backwards. Nostalgia is the practice of rejoicing in grief. It’s probably a malignant habit. But it reflects a truth, the truth of country, of homeland, a truth known to every territorial animal, including the human.

Sitting in my surgery I meet old farmers of a third or fourth generation on this land. Their attachment to country runs deeply, deep in struggle, deep in memory of drought and flood, in struggle to sustain family and to flourish. Their love runs deeper than mine, which is of the surface. Theirs is rooted in the earth. In Malaya they have a word for it:  bumi putra – sons of the soil.   

Wars have been fought here over territory. The professor of law who sits in my surgery tells me the local Wiradjuri fought the tribe that gave Canberra its name. The same professor declares, of course epidemics killed most Aboriginal people. The settlers spread them intentionally. They gave blankets to the indigenous, smearing them first with smallpox.Incredulous, I ask for proof.I can’t prove it. It’s part of Aboriginal narrative. Marcia Langton quotes it. Other historians too.


Drinking my morning coffee at Dusty Road Coffee Roasters I fall into conversation with a tall, pear-shaped woman of about fifty. She tells me she teaches in schools for the Red Cross.Do you teach the kids First Aid?No, cultural diversity. In particular, to accept and welcome migrants of all colours, from all places.Can you teach kids not to be racist?Yes, that’s not too hard. You can’t teach adults, though.I digest this for a while. The woman speaks again: Cootamundra Girls’ School was created to train stolen girls to be domestic servants. They were stealing girls as late as 1970. None of the girls came from this district. They were brought here as aliens. The old girls held a reunion here recently.The occasion brought together old friends, survivors together of loneliness, of seizure from country. On pain of physical punishment those girls were forbidden to speak in language. Coming together with old friends was somehow joyous.I ask our informant how long she’s lived in Cootamundra. This isn’t my country. My father’s people are Gunditjmara from near Warrnambool. My mother’s mother came from the Netherlands.The woman leaves us to go to her work, making non-racists.

The professor takes me to see the old girls’ school. It sits near the middle of town, a vast nondescript brick edifice on spacious grounds. Insignia on a placard inform us that a Cadet Corps uses the property. No sign of indigenous occupancy, no word or name to be seen , no-one would dream this is Wiradjuri country. The professor speaks: Many Indigenous people stay away from Cootamundra. Folk memory of this school is unbearable to them.I look around for signs of First People. Nothing here, nothing anywhere I’ve been these past seventeen days. I’ve run main roads and side roads, run to the cemetery, past the churches, past the handsome two-story buildings that house the banks, past the hospital, past the imposing old railway station, past the Council Chambers. I’ve lived across the street from the old Masonic TempIe. This is a town which honours its pioneer past. It honours the birthplace of Donald Bradman and preserves the little house that was his natal hospital. I haven’t noticed an Aboriginal Medical Centre, nor a Cultural Centre.

Until now I didn’t even notice the silence or the absence. So easy, so very easy, not to see, not to know, not to look or ask.

And this is Naidoc Week. 

The river that flows through my childhood flows also through the entire time of European settlement. Those times are the recent shallows. The river we all claim, the river that claims us flows through all time and song and dance and story.

How the President-elect Refined my Attitude

I have written recently of my feeling that the words of the male candidate in the recent US Presidential election somehow left language tainted. And I started to regret my every dirty thought and word. Deeper than my aesthetic recoil, and more disturbing, is how I felt shamed: I felt I was somehow unworthy simply by belonging to the same gender. I have found it difficult to explain this feeling; I do so here, expecting, like Saint Thomas Moore in Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for all Seasons’, to make myself completely obscure.

The White House


 
If the groper made me feel dirty, the release of details of the murder of a bride in the country town of Leeton accentuated and deepened my discomfort. The facts of that murder shocked and disgusted the nation. We heard uncontested evidence from the defendant’s statement: I had to kill her, I wasn’t angry or anything. Basically emotionless. Just that I had to kill her. Two months before the murder the defendant typed search terms into his computer that included, bride rape, bride kidnapping, necro rape, bride raped with wedding dress. Australians heard this evidence and shuddered. We heard how he had actively stalked up to six other women in the area, how he had photographed a twelve-year old girl 1800 times and recorded her movements in a notebook. Of that child he said, had he abducted her, he probably would have killed her.
 
Detail followed detail of methodical and revolting acts that preceded and followed the fatal attack. I absorbed all of this with growing horror. I am a Leeton boy. The offender was a cleaner at the primary school and the Infants’ School I attended in Leeton. He cleaned half a dozen schools in the area including the boarding school where my best friend was educated.
 

Yanco Agricultural High School


Any reader with a stomach for revolting reality can find more detail on the net. I don’t care to elaborate. The perpetrator’s menu of horrors is vast. Instead, I want to trace the way in which I felt shame that lingered, and surfaced again and again within my mind. Somehow the Groping Candidate and the killer, widely as their acts differ in proportion, resided in the same part of my mind. It takes no great insight to see that the words of one and the acts of the second exhibit a shared disrespect for female humans. For both the woman is meat. Appetite expresses itself without remorse.
 
Horrible, uncommonly so, but why feel shame? I surveyed my life as a male: consciously randy from the age of five (when a pretty red-headed classmate informed my mother, ‘Howard kisses me and lifts up my dress’); raised in a family where the male ruled by silent assent; nurtured by a loving mother who demanded respectful behaviour towards all (‘Darling, whatever you and a girlfriend agree to do together, you must never boast of it to other boys!’); recoiling at my father’s words after he returned from examining the body of an eighteen-year old girl, raped then murdered (‘All that poor girl did wrong was to be born female.’) – I realise that I share appetites with those men who disgust me.
 
To have appetite must surely be guiltless. To think thoughts, to feel urges, must be close to universal. We thought, we felt, but we did not act in those egregious ways.
 
Females of my generation have given their men opportunity to learn that gaze can offend, intrude, unsettle. We have been led to understand the complex nature of harassment, the ubiquity of unspoken postures of dominance, the power of language to hurt. Those of our generation who relinquished authority are the first and only group I can think of to wield power and to surrender it readily. Gratefully in my case.
 
As I learned how women have been hurt I came to realise how much that I liked of myself, might be termed ‘feminine’. Nevertheless my self-examination was the impulse of uncomfortable conscience. All those behaviours of mine were well short of shameful. They fall into the class of behaviour that I never wished my daughters to endure. But they are not atrocity.
 
But shouldering and shoving their way into my mind come the Candidate and the Convict from my place of innocence (for the town of my childhood had retained its rustic peacefulness); and my mind arraigns me in that same dock.

Mr Jones has a Great Big Carrot Between His Legs

“Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot between his legs.”

John Wanklyn, Johnny Wank, my oldest friend in the world, is addressing an audience of venerable country folk in the Yellow Room of the Leeton Library. Wank is launching My Father’s Compass, the memoir of my father. This excellent book describes memories of the childhood years that Wank and I shared; now he is treating the audience – which includes my ancient Mum – to an anecdote.

Johnny begins: “Our teacher in Fourth Class was Noel Henry Jones. Noel Henry Jones was a kindly man who liked children and wouldn’t punish them, even when that would have been a wise and a fair thing to do.

There were two boys in his class for whom Wisdom and Justice would have prescribed punishment frequently.

“One morning, Howard arrives early. On the blackboard he draws a large stick figure of a man, whose legs are in the position that the military calls “At Ease”. In the space between those two great limbs, Howard draws a long cigar shaped object. He writes some words above the picture, then operates the hinged mechanism that folds his art work out of sight behind another blackboard.

The class arrives. Noel Henry Jones arrives and brings the class to reluctant attention. Instruction commences, with Mr. Jones writing on the vacant blackboard.

So far, so good.

In time the board is full. Mr. Jones swings the hinged mechanism, ready to write on the second board. The text and the artwork swing into view.

Howard’s classmates look and read.

Mr. Jones looks and reads.

Noel Henry Jones surveys his pupils, identifying at a glance the Usual Suspects. Noel Henry Jones looks hardest and longest at John Baikie Wanklyn and at Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.

He knows John Wanklyn cannot spell carrot correctly. He knows there is only one person in the class who can…”

I confess that I had forgotten entirely the events that Johnny describes. His description is accurate.

I do remember Mr. Jones.

We enter Fourth Class after the summer holidays, a period of healing from the year-long winter of Mrs. Savage’s Third Class.

Mr. Jones is tall. He bends over us and his long body is like a shelter above and about us. He does not shout.

Mr. Jones creates an orchestra. People who are musical are given instruments to play. Others play percussion. My instrument is the triangle.

No-one is left out. As a result, there is an audience of one, namely Noel Henry Jones. Mr. Jones conducts, we play, he hears the sounds, but he does not complain.

It is hot. Summer blazes on the tin roof of our schoolroom. The windows along the side of the classroom are opened. The sills are precisely at the level of our desks. Just down the road from Leeton Public School is the municipal swimming pool. Its turbid waters are cool and inviting.

Mr. Jones turns his back on the class to write on the blackboard, a modern, hinged affair with a series of boards that fold, one behind another.

While Mr. Jones writes, Wanklyn and Goldenberg exeunt by the open window.

This is the naughtiest act of our lives to date.

We take with us provisions, in the form of the large  lollies that you buy at the Milk Bar. I have funds, liberated from the desk in Dad’s consulting room.

Wanklyn and Goldenberg swim and suck, all the hot afternoon.

At school the next day we front Noel Henry Jones, who makes no mention of the events of yesterday.

He must have told our parents.

After school we front our parents. Mister and Missus Wanklyn say nothing, ask nothing about yesterday afternoon. My own parents seem pleased to see me. No questions.

Noel Henry Jones becomes a father. On the day of the baby’s birth, Mr. Jones is absent from class. This is a good opportunity to examine the contents of his desk. Nothing much of interest there, mainly pens and pencils. One pen has a silver cap, with a clasp in the form of an arrow.

Upon his return to class, Mr. Jones smiles a lot. His baby is a little girl, but he does not complain.

From time to time, Mr. Jones walks around the class as we do our written work.  He pauses at my desk and admires my pen. It has a silver clasp in the form of an arrow.

“Nice pen, Howard.”

(It is a nice pen. I chose it myself.)

“I believe that’s my pen, Howard,” – a remark tantamount to an accusation of theft.

“No, Mr. Jones. It’s mine.”

Mister Jones looks unconvinced.

“My parents gave it to me.”

“Really? Is that your name?”

Mr. Jones points to the engraved words that read, Noel Henry Jones.

For the sake of peaceability I surrender the pen.

It is the same Noel Henry Jones who opens the hinged blackboard and reads his name and confronts his likeness.

When, a short time later, I leave that school and my hometown, it is that same N.H. Jones who prepares a report for my new school. He writes of my excellent results in the half-year tests. He writes of my charm. He writes warmly and he wishes me well.