Rod Moss and “One Thousand Cuts”

Rod Moss is a Ferntree Gully boy, a whitefella who found himself in Alice Springs thirty years ago and who stayed there.

In all the moral disorientation of the Centre, in its beauty, its grandeur, its squalor and its mystery; in the perplex of making and losing marriages, of fathering, of teaching, of reading deeply, of engagement with the dark cinema of darkest Europe, Rod Moss found friends in a clan of blackfellas living in Whitegate, one of the town camps.

Moss differed from most of us whitefellas who come to the Centre. He stayed. He painted (in a distinctive genre of his own creating) the lives of his friends. And through all the years of his staying and his painting and his friendships, Moss kept a journal. That journal gave birth to his first book, “The Hard Light of Day”. The book won the Prime Minister’s Prize for non-fiction. More significantly, the book won the praise of Ray Gaita, who described it as one of the best books he had ever read.

When I say Moss found himself in Alice Springs, I mean he found himself in ways most of us non-indigenous people never do: he found who he was, what he was doing here; he came to be in country.

When I say Moss found friends I also mean he lost them.

Those losses are recorded, drop by drop, blow following blow in Moss’ first book, and in the second, soberly titled, “One Thousand Cuts”.

I believe that in its swelling lament and its growing clarity, “One Thousand Cuts” surpasses even “The Hard Light of Day”.

In a remarkable sequence of events “One Thousand Cuts” will be launched at Readings in Carlton on Wednesday 9 October at 6.30pm. And a retrospective exhibition of Moss paintings will be opened at Anna Pappas Gallery two days later.

If Moss’ paintings are luminous, his writing a prolonged jazz riff,  the photographs are something else.

I invite readers of this blog to attend one or both of these events. I will be glad to see you.

Podcast of interview on Radio National with Waleed Aly, Howard Goldenberg and Rod Moss 8.10.13image

The Work is Great

After I failed to save his aged father from the march of time and a
meeting with Mister Death, I met a secret Australian hero. His name is
Don Palmer.
Don is a passionate man. He used to work for God.  His job as a
minister of religion offered good prospects for long-term employment
but the Boss was a perfectionist and Don left.
He retired and set up an organization called MALPA. Malpa aims to
create change in indigenous communities by harnessing the energies of
the young and the authority of the Elders. One of its projects is the
Child Doctors initiative, an idea that Don pinched from remote
communities in Peru, as well as other spots on the globe not well
favoured by health services.
The initiative is brilliant. I describe it in my forthcoming novel,
“Carrots and Jaffas” (watch this space): small children are selected
and licensed by elders to receive and transmit health and hygiene
messages to their peers and families.
The personnel are blackfeller kids; no whitefellers get rich, none are
overpaid in Don’s program.
Don visited Utopia – birthplace of the Aboriginal art movement that
has beautified our lives and put Australia on the world map of modern
art.
The art is beautiful, the conditions that Don saw are otherwise.
Don writes (in part):

Dear Friends

I have just returned from Utopia. The name Utopia is an Orwellian joke, surely.
What I saw is a national disgrace.
In tiny communities the sewerage is not being collected by the
council. It is thought to be as punishment for
people like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and her mob trying to stand on their
own feet. She says this is “slow genocide”. With naked children
playing where the septic tanks spew out across the land around their
hovels it would take a brave person to say she is wrong. Except it is
pretty speedy genocide if my knowledge of the effects of hookworm is
anywhere near correct. Some children played in urine soaked t-shirts.
Meanwhile our PM appears in a
star studded media event declaring her love of Aboriginal people and
the Close the Gap progress.
Some said that the Labor party is spooked by the
mass black vote for the CLP and will shamelessly try to parade their
“sincere concern” – according to the bloke we stayed with in Utopia –
Gary Cartwright, an ex Labor politician in the NT. He says he could
not bear to vote for Labor again.

Those at the impressive health clinic are delighted we (ie Malpa) are
going to be involved.
They have been impressed with the effectiveness of the traditional
medicines that local people use.
So much so that they have started using themselves.
A meeting with the local school principal also elicited support. She
has 17 micro schools to manage.

Rosalie and her children are truly incredible. I am touched that they
are choosing our Young Doctor project to respond to the horror that
her mob faces daily. I feel confident that they will capably make this
their own and drive it through.

Rosalie is hopefully getting approval from her Elders Council on
Monday. To work well the project requires local capacity. I am
delighted to say it is there.

At the little place we stayed in  there
was a tap at the back with a thick pipe
running off it. This was the water supply for about 50 people who
lived in the grass on a fifty meter radius off the back veranda. There
was no electricity, but they would sit around fires singing gospel
songs. I wonder what they were
thanking God for?

At one point Rosalie introduced me to a Senior man with the words “His
father fought for this country.”
I quickly calculated his age and assumed she meant WWII. I said to him
“World War II, like my father?” Rosalie quietly pointed at the earth
and said “No, THIS country”.

[Interesting side bar.

My “daughter” Nora Nelson Jarrah Napaltjarri discovered that the
Supreme Court, where her mural graces the foyer floor, has been
selling a range of products using her design but without consultation
or royalties! The highest court in the NT abusing the Federal laws
about Indigenous
art! She is very cross I am helping her pursue the matter…]

Don

Don Palmer’s Malpa project runs on donations, largely from
Deutschebank, a foreign concern that is very concerned with our own
people.
If you google “Malpa – Australia”, you’ll learn more about their
projects to improve child health in remote indigenous communities. It
would be a hard old stony heart that is not moved by what Malpa does.
As you read you’ll learn more about Don Palmer, a whitefella who is
doing our job outback.

The work is great and the time is short: it is not for you to complete
the work but nor are you free to stand aside from it (Babylonian
Talmud).

I don’t believe Don would be offended if any reader of this decided to
make a donation.

Howard

After Uluru

‘… There’s been a death.’

I am in my small house in Yulara, cooking for shabbat on a Friday in December 2006, when the phone ringImages. A male voice speaks: ‘It’s Sergeant Benjamin, Doctor, of the Mutitjulu Police … I’m sorry to trouble you … there’s been a death.’

A pause.

The voice resumes: ‘It was a hanging. We need someone to certify the death. The nurses here can’t do it; it has to be a doctor. I am sorry, Doctor.’

The voice is careful, it is feeling its way. I don’t know the officer. The voice I hear is sober – sobered almost to a halt by the news of a death.

I ask the officer to bring the body to the clinic. We arrange to meet in twenty minutes’ time.

It is early evening – 1830 hours in official language – when they pull up at the clinic. Even at that hour the heat is relentless. The sky is painted blue. There are two vehicles, a police car followed by an ambulance in its familiar livery of white slashed with red. A large oblong man steps out of a police car of such startling blueness that the sky pales behind it. The officer’s face is deeply creased.

We shake hands.

His offsider gets out and straightens. She dwarfs her sergeant. Apart from the odd post-adolescent pimple, her face is smooth. She walks over to the ambulance and commences a laughing conversation with the nurses who have driven the body.

After a time the nurses are free to attend to my questions. I address the older of the two, the one I know from the clinic: ‘When was she found?’

She turns to her associate. For a moment, both are silent, then she says, ‘I’m not really sure. The family called us an hour ago – when they felt ready to let us take the body, I guess. Someone found her before that and called the family. We don’t know when …’

We release the latches and the heavy door of the ambulance clunks open, revealing a large white bag resting on a collapsed stretcher. Warm air flows from the interior.

The nurses step backward. Fumbling, I try to pull the stretcher a distance from the vehicle’s dark interior. The nurses step forward and help, then again retreat. I pull on the zipper and the bag falls open, exposing the head and upper body of a human.

I pause. No sound, no movement.

There is a moment of reverent peacefulness. The skin of the person whom I stand and regard is brown, the same brown that glows from the earth and the many heads of rock in the early sunshine during my early morning run. That colour has penetrated me, claiming me like a mother.

I place the back of my gloved hand against the brown skin. It is still warm. Just as shocking, the face is very small.

I straighten and ask the nurses, ‘Do you have a date of birth?’

One shows me a file. She points upper left, where I read, ‘19 November, 1991’.

I look again at the small face. There are a couple of blotches of acne. The child has buckteeth. The body is short and slender, the body of a girl who has scarcely begun the journey to womanhood.

I have no doubt, I feel no hope, but I rest my fingers lightly over her carotid artery. It is still.

I check her eyes. Dull now, pupils wide, fixed and unresponsive to the light – those are pearls that were her eyes.

I apply my stethoscope to her chest. The silence of death is drowned in a distracting chorus of inanimate rustling and chafing sounds. These are the artefacts of my examination. I hear no heartbeat. No air moves in or out of the chest.

This is the body of a fifteen-year old girl whose life is extinct.

No motion has she now, no force; 

She neither hears nor sees; 

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, 

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

I have another question for the nurses: ‘What do you know of her health before today?’

‘Six months back she was sniffing, but not since then; there’s been no sniffable petrol in the community since then … There were some family problems. She had been seen by Mental Health …’

The answer is unsatisfactory. Any possible answer would be unsatisfactory. It all boils down to one thing: we do not know.

On an afterthought I lean forward again, peering past the fine cheekbones and the slender jaw, peering at the soft tissues beyond. There, on her throat I see what had to be seen, a bracelet patterned in her flesh, a curvilinear design that is unexpectedly graceful. It is the embossing in her skin of the fatal rope.

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Broaden the Intervention?

I am working in my general practice in the CBD when the phone rings. The receptionist’s voice is urgent: Howard, there’s a man collapsed outside on the street. Can you go?

I can. Grabbing a few tools, I race out into the street where a small crowd is gathering around a man in a suit. He lies flat on his back on the footpath outside the bookshop. Behind his head is a cylindrical object in a brown paper bag. Liquor leaks through the brown paper.

The man lies hard against the foot of a large window displaying the cream of our written culture. The man would have leaned against the window for support, fallen and stayed where he fell.

The man lies, motionless. The authority of my stethoscope opens a space for me between spectators, ambulance callers, vociferous suggesters, silent gawkers, head cradlers. The stethoscope reassures, the suggesters fall silent.

The man we all regard, the man we all fear, does not respond to questions. Nor to deep pressure of my thumb against his forehead. He lies insensible in Martin Place, grunting his shallow breaths, creased face purpled and puffy, grey hair, grey suit awry. Beneath my finger a thin pulse beats, fast and feeble.

His breath is a brewery. The wrist in my hand is criss-crossed with ancient slash marks, white against ashen skin.

It is 10.00 a.m.

This is a human person of my age, nameless to us, nameless to himself, his being reduced by alcohol and secret griefs.

The ambulance arrives and I go back inside.

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