What can you say about a life-changing experience to give others the flavour of it? Mere facts can at times be deceiving.
After what could be described as an extended stay in Brisbane, I’ve decided to move some 10 degrees south into the cooler, historical goldfields of Victoria. I’d been feeling for some time—years, actually—that I’d come to the end of something in Queensland. After some torrid “weather” when first I moved there, things settled down, but then the halcyon days had become the doldrums, and I found myself becalmed in them.
You probably know it is in my character to stick things out—sometimes even when it is not in my best interests to do so. Some might describe it as being over-adapted to a fixed position, like an oyster. And anybody with a taste for oysters and a knife, knows what happens to them. Some kind of gut feeling had told me it was time to unfasten myself from that rock and seek the unknown—if not an actual adventure or two—which at this time of life can be more of an inconvenience than a pleasure.
The initial stages of my move were pretty horrible: I had to rationally assess the real estate that had been my comfortable, beloved home, to see if I could engineer a swap with another such abode. Money, or rather its lack, is always the spectre of such a proposition. There was also the accumulation of much junk in a life which had encouraged stockpiling. So for six months I culled: thousands of books, literally, but other stuff as well.
Here I will digress. There was a brush turkey. You know, one of those big, presumptuous things with red head and neck, a yellow, crinkled wattle, a glazed but determined eye, and a body black as pitch. He took up residence in my backyard the year before last, destroying, in his insatiable urge to build his empire there, my herbs and spices garden, my vegetable and flower gardens, even my bromeliads—which he often kicked onto his pile with the sang-froid of a serial killer. This arrogant cove possessed an air of entitlement, because he knew, absolutely knew, that as a law-abiding citizen, I couldn’t do a damn thing about him. Clearly he’d sussed me out.
He built his mound about 1.5 metres high with a circumference of 15 metres, and waited for the love of his life to turn up. She never did. So after about 5 destructive months, he seemed to give up and move back to from whence he came—Hades, I presumed. 1.5 metres by 15 metres of compacted leaf litter is a hell of a lot of green bins. It took me six months to finally get my backyard back to its usual topography and to restore and replace my gardens. Six months of hard yakka. And guess what! The day I had finally decided that the beast had returned to its underworld forever, it returned instead to my place.
This time I put a few obstacles in the way of its megalomania: wire mesh, garbage bins, shade cloth, rocks, rubber snakes, etc. It persisted. But so did I. For months, every day I raked up all the junk the hellish, feathered automaton had kicked into my place with its weird, backwards-scraping shuffle. Every day for months! There was a kind of a truce. It decided to take up residence in my deceased next-door neighbour’s yard that had become an overgrown wilderness to delight the heart of any natural creature. (It was here it attacked someone from the office of the Public Trustee, giving him a nasty bite on the nose.) But it still had its baleful eye on my place. Once when I went to Victoria for a few days, I came back to find all of my side gate and fence piled high with leaf litter. A trail from houses on the other side of my street indicated the sources of its new attack. I was put in mind of Kokoda.
Other residents in my street were getting pissed off by this turkey. There were meetings about how we should deal with it. One helpful chap told us that he believed the same turkey had come back to his family farm annually for 30 years! When asked how he had finally quitted himself of the beast and its ever-increasing progeny, he said his mother did a tolerable bush turkey roast. Apparently during the Great Depression in the 1930s, people cooked and ate the turkeys. He told us you cook a brush turkey with a rock in the same pot. When the rock has considerably softened, the turkey is almost ready to eat.
The strange thing about Brisbane at this time was that it was literally being overrun by bush—or brush—turkeys, while other, more comely animals and birds seemed to be being edged into extinction. Coal seam gas mines were on the increase in the Sunshine State and so were brush turkeys. Perhaps there was a connection? Once when I visited a sick friend at the Wesley Hospital I almost stepped on one as I got out of my car. In the short walk to the wards—approximately 150 metres—I counted 3 turkeys in this high-rise belt of the inner city: something of a de-inducement to staying in Brisbane.
Now I have never, before now, lived in Victoria. So when I saw the extremely dilapidated house described as “a miner’s cottage” with its beautiful, if unkempt, extensive gardens and not a brush turkey in sight, I decided I had found my new home. A cynic amongst my new friends suggested that everybody wants a miner’s cottage on the goldfields these days, so that my real estate agent may have been a little cavalier with the truth. However, a couple of hours of researching titles and rates notices at the local Historical Society archives, proved he was wrong in his suspicions. The house is at least 150 years old and was indeed built by a gold miner, a Mr Phillip Ball. Okay, I have a huge job ahead of me in restoring it, but this house has a story which I have no doubt is worth telling.
For instance, when I was re-stumping the house, a secret passage was discovered under it. This was accessed by a cleverly disguised trapdoor in the bottom of a dreadful old cupboard in the bathroom. The tunnel was reached by a flight of stairs underneath the trapdoor opening. There are several explanations for this tunnel—the most romantic being that it was a place to hide from the “traps”, the goldfields police who were themselves often recruited from the criminal classes and inclined to be bullies. Secondly, the tunnel could have been the place to hide any gold found by the miner. . . Or it may have just served as a cellar to keep the milk, butter, and other perishables cool in the hot weather. But if this was so, why the hidden trapdoor?
The re-stumpers, against my wishes, filled in the tunnel with rubble, but my daughter had the foresight to remove the very heavy wooden stairs and place them out of their reach in my shed. I managed to find and keep the corroded metal ring by which the trapdoor (which they also destroyed) was lifted.
The other remarkable find when the re-stumpers were around, was the still-elegant, mummified remains of an enormous cat with golden striped fur. The slightly unsettling thing about this was that there was an old broom by the exotic feline’s body and a rotted rubber ball. Was the cat lured into the narrow space under the kitchen with the ball? If not, surely the animal’s demise would have been apparent to the occupants of the house. Was this evidence of a pagan rite pointing to witchcraft with the cat as sacrificial witch’s familiar? This idea is not as outlandish as it sounds in the early days of European settlement. Unfortunately the age of the cat and the things around it could not be ascertained; they all disappeared on the day they were found, with the tunnel.
Of course I miss my lovely friends from Brisbane, but once I have a guest room ready, some of you will come down to visit. Kayleen and Laurie have already done so, leaping intrepidly from joist to joist before the new floors were put down.
Cheers for now. Watch this space, for here I intend to keep you all posted.
Bendarts founder, Hugh Waller, invited writers and artists to work collaboratively on a project and then exhibit at the Colab exhibition, which opened the week before the Bendigo Arts Festival, at the Bendigo library in Hargreaves Street. Either the writer or the visual artist produced a work, then invited a response from his or her Colab partner.
As most artists and writers are very interested in what prompts a creative act, this collaboration invited a kind of meta-creativity, that is, the process of the creation was observed, even examined, before the work had begun. Many creative people prefer to work intuitively, so the very fact that two had to work together, called the creative process into question. This is why I think the Colab idea so clever. . . Full marks Hugh!
Now, only able to speak with authority about my own experience, I will recount my collaboration with visual artist, Karleng Lim.
It has only been a few months since I moved from Brisbane to the Victorian goldfields. Karleng, who didn’t know my work, but did know I was a published author, asked me to collaborate with her. (I was, however, her second choice. The first writer she asked was involved in studying for exams). I’d heard good things about Karleng’s work yet hadn’t seen any of it, but was happy to accept. I filled in the entry forms, sent them off to Hugh, then, caught up in the many dramas of renovating a very old house, completely forgot about Colab.
Karleng phoned me about two weeks before our deadline. We sat in front of the heater at my place, trying to figure out what we would do. Karleng said she was interested in the photographic portrayal of time, so “Time” became our theme.
That blustery winters night I was thinking about time, with the words “Time’s ruin and the seven deadly sins” going round and round in my brain, when an old sepia photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye. Five young soldiers, including my grandfather, taken just before they were sent to Gallipoli, are in this picture. With a jolt I realised that the original postcard from which my photograph had been enlarged of the soldiers posed before the Sphinx in Egypt, had been taken 101 years ago! Here was the subject of my poem.
I went to bed, but slept fitfully. Two hours later, I woke up and sat in front of my computer, wrote for about an hour, then tried to go back to sleep. I probably dreamed about that photograph, for, several hours still later, I’d given up all attempts at sleeping, writing down the rest of my ideas instead. They formed a shambling, two foolscap-pages but had the bones of something decent in them.
Next day and for several days after that, I tweaked my poem until I was happy with it, then sent Ruins and Resurrections off to Hugh, who kindly produced it on pristine white laminate for the exhibition. (How’d you do that, Hugh?)
Anyway, I didn’t see Karleng’s response until the Colab exhibition, on Friday, August 5, because I became very sick with the ’flu. But what a surprise! Though Karleng told me she had researched Australia’s involvement in WW1, her response was entirely her own, as it should have been. It was, as I did expect, a very professional job and I liked it a lot. Thank you Karleng. As a writer, I am always interested in how people respond to the written word, because reading is such an intensely creative and personal act.
Treated right royally at the Colab opening in beautiful Bendigo library, we writers and artists were offered delicious food and drink by gracious librarians. Networking with artists and writers and meeting the Mayor of Bendigo, were a few of its other delights—not to mention having some of our own special friends there who had travelled at least 37 ks to support us. It was a great night. I am looking forward to Colab Number 6.
BLOGGING WITH THE DOOMSDAY TUNA
Who could resist a name like “The Doomsday Tuna”? Well, I couldn’t, even though I had been to a couple of blogging lectures in the past which didn’t much enlighten me. But the title of Stef Cola’s excellent presentation was Creating a Digital Presence Through Blogging, which seemed to offer a lot more than just learning how to write a blog.
Stef gave all her students a handout. This asked us about our motives. We needed to understand why we wanted to start a blog, and then set goals. The handout was interactive: we were supposed to answer a lot of questions about ourselves, but since no one else would see what we wrote, we were in no imminent danger of anyone else’s scorn or disbelief.
It contained inspirational quotations, like this one, from Harvey Mackay: A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline. When you think about it, plans and deadlines are kind of key to creating a digital presence. . . The best thing I found about this session was the consideration of the blogger’s Ideal Reader. An Ideal Reader? This is the person who becomes the blogger’s biggest fan. Trying to describe such a person is rather difficult at first, I think, because you have only a blurred idea of such a presence. But familiarity with the blogging genre may bring this identity into sharper focus. At least, I hope this will be the case.
Useful tools, such as tracking the number of visitors to your website, a free image editing suite, free high-resolution photographs to put into your blog, and a grammar checker, were also included in the handout.
Stef’s audience was so engaged by her presentation that we ran over time. Having heard about heavy fines for parking misdemeanours, I excused myself, and hurried out of the Bendigo library to my car. Only to discover that it wasn’t where I thought I had left it.
I must have looked confused, because a young woman wearing a bright orange vest, asked me if she could be of any help.
“I can’t find my car,” I said.
“Do you remember where you left it?”
“On a corner opposite the library, near a roundabout,” I said. “But not that roundabout.” Suddenly it dawned on me that I must have come out of the library via a different door than the one by which I had entered. I think the same thought occurred to her.
“Come on,” she said, “we’ll find it,” striding off in a different direction.
I hurried to keep up with her as we rounded a corner and saw my car.
“Are the parking cops very strict here?” I asked breathlessly, “Because I think I’m about 5 or 10 minutes over time.”
“Well, I’m one,” she said, indicating the bright orange, and amused at my embarrassment. “They wear boring grey in Melbourne, we don’t mind being seen. No, I think you’ll be all right.”
She gave me a sweet smile and wished me a pleasant day.
If the parking police are so nice, I thought, there can’t be too much wrong with Bendigo!
Putting another dollar-sixty in the parking machine, I hurried back to the library to catch the last few minutes of Stef’s workshop.
A Writers Festival that not only has authors we love and admire come and talk about their latest work, but inspires local communities to write their own words, offering a platform for their work, is doing us all a wonderful service. Bendigo did all of this and more. I thought Stef’s workshop excellent. It inspired me to commit to writing regularly in order to create that elusive digital presence I’m seeking. And I guess you will be the ultimate judge of its success.
Walking down View Street in Bendigo with its seductive coffee aromas and relaxed alfresco eating, I sensed the weather gods must be in favour of Writers Festivals. It was a perfect early Spring day. Or maybe it was just the Bendigo Writers Festival that had earned their blessing, for here was an indisputably spectacular line-up of writing talent.
For many of us, the most exciting guest was Julian Assange, who was interviewed last night by Emeritus Professor Robert Manne of La Trobe university, in the Ulumbarra Theatre, a glorious resurrection of arts space in the old Bendigo gaol.
Perhaps, after the disastrous Census night just gone, it was the possibility of the technology failing—the video link-up from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to the Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo—which added an extra frisson of excitement last night, for the charge was electric. More likely though, it was the persona of Mr Assange himself, who spoke with clarity and reason, but was clearly moved by his reception in Bendigo. At times he seemed to fight back tears.
Professor Manne has appeared at other Writers Festivals—I’ve seen him several times in Brisbane—but on Saturday night he excelled himself under very difficult conditions. For instance, the empathy that eye contact offers in a face-to-face interview is difficult to establish on a video link. Yet he asked the important questions, so that we know the status of the rape charge against Assange (it no longer exists), the legality of the Americans to issue a warrant to extradite him (questionable since Assange is an Australian citizen who does not publish in the USA) and what can be done to support him.
Julian Assange is a champion of freedom of speech, which every person who has attended an Australian school knows is a right and a responsibility of democracy. The United Nations has found that his detention without trial for six years is illegal, yet no Australian Prime Minister has called for his release. Commercial media—especially the New York Times—has excoriated him. Assange claims this is because when military secrets were released into the public domain, the media moguls who are close to the Establishment, could not bury or slant their reportage to avoid embarrassing it. He asks that people support him by talking about WikiLeaks publications to correct the commercial media’s self-censorship and misinformation.
Kerry O’Brien was first on the bill for me today, speaking with Peter Kennedy, the Managing Editor of The Bendigo Star, about his biography of Paul Keating.
This award-winning journalist reminds me of a line in the Tennyson poem, Ullyses, when the old man describes his son, Telemachus, as “decent not to fail.” This could equally apply to Mr O’Brien, whose investigative journalism on the ABC’s The 7.30 Report and 4 Corners has always been of the highest quality.
O’Brien had his audience roaring with laughter at some of Keating’s descriptions of his Parliamentary colleagues. For instance he referred to Malcolm Turnbull as “the cherry on top of the compost heap” and John Hewson as “a shiver looking for a spine to run up.”
During question time, O’Brien was asked about pivotal moments in his career. There was a case in 1975 when five young Aboriginal men were arrested and imprisoned for the murder of an Aboriginal woman—a crime they did not commit since it became apparent that the actual murderer was the victim’s white de facto husband. Racism created that miscarriage of justice and is no doubt responsible for the mistreatment of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory, revealed in a recent 4 Corners program, forty-one years later.
O’Brien concluded his session with a suggestion that the PM read the passage about Mabo in his book, to see how it can be used in respect of Asylum Seeker policy.
Anne Summers, author of Damned Whores and God’s Police in 1975, plus seven other books, was next on today’s program. Always generous about other writers’ work, M/s Summers referred her audience to the work of Anna Goldsworthy, and Clare Wright’s new book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which I bought when I discovered both her own and Kerry O’Brien’s books had quickly sold out of the Festival bookshop. Sharon Kemp interviewed her about her writing and her work in establishing Elsie, the first women’s refuge in Australia.
“Violence to women is men’s inability to accept women as peers,” she said, then spoke of a recently established private refuge in Sydney that was fully booked out three months before it was open. The government is not providing enough refuges for women, and is trading off one set of rights—like paid parental leave—for another.
Speaking of the Government’s poor record for gender equity, she points to a mere 12% of female representation in Parliament, as opposed to Labor’s 42%. “Labor has Affirmative action,” she said, “whereas the Liberals do not. And with fewer women in government,” she added, “it’s likely to remain that way for a generation.”
Anne Summers is a national treasure. She always gives good value, so it was lovely seeing her again at Bendigo. She mentioned another writer—Clementine Ford—who has written about the sexualisation of young women—certainly something worth looking at.
Anna Goldsworthy, John Bell, Clare Wright and Frank Brennan were four more writers whose sessions I would love to have attended. However I found there were difficulties ordering tickets online. Perhaps the system was overloaded. I certainly hope other people did not miss out as I almost did. A helpful librarian from the Bendigo library gave me the phone number of the Capital Theatre where I was able to make telephone bookings for the sessions I did manage to attend.
For my next blog I will talk about a couple of fringe activities associated with The Bendigo Writers Festival which effectively encouraged people in the community to get writing: the Colab Exhibition, a collaboration between writers and visual artists, plus the Doomsday Tuna’s Session which inspired this blog. In the meantime let me say, “Well done Bendigo, you’ve excelled yourself!”
The beautiful Bendigo Art gallery has been hosting an exhibition about the life and the movie career of Marilyn Monroe—co-presented by Twentieth-Century Fox—since March 5, this year. Because the exhibition has created a lot of excitement, it has been extended until July 10, with the last three days remaining open until 7.00pm. When you book a ticket, you have to give an approximate time of your arrival and when you arrive you must line up to be released into the exhibition hall in half-hourly intervals.
So what is it about this fair and funny lady, an American actress who has exerted such influence over our imaginations half a world away and whose popularity has endured to the present day? What still charms and intrigues people about her, when, on August 5 of this year, Marilyn Monroe will have been fifty-four years dead?
There is much more to her, apparently, than the officially-sanctioned stories of her life, which have so many gaps and silences in them, one could be mistaken for thinking they were dreamed up by Twentieth-Century Fox publicists. And this is, of course, the crux of the problem with the exhibition. It is the studio version of her life, and therefore a veneer of a veneer.
For instance, if, as the studio states in the exhibition, Monroe died of an accidental overdose of drugs or by her own hand, surely it would behove Twentieth-Century Fox to ask why either of these possibilities existed. A little self-examination by the studio wouldn’t have gone awry in making the curation a much more intelligent account of this remarkable person. It could have started with the foul-mouthed Darryl Zanuck, the studio boss during most of Monroe’s tenure with Twentieth-Century Fox, who called the star a “c—” when she responded to his invitation to spend some time on board his yacht with him by saying she would only do so if his wife were also present. Zanuck vastly underpaid her. Considering how much money she brought into his studio, the fact that he didn’t even supply her with her own dressing-room until after she had made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, looks like he was waging a personal vendetta against her. He harassed and belittled her in front of other cast members and crew and wouldn’t even consider her for the role of Grushenka in the film version of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—a role she would love to have played and about which Lois Banner says in Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, was a perfect fit for her. Hell hath no fury like that man scorned, apparently, though also according to Banner, directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Roy Ward Baker, Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger were strutting tyrants ever ready to bully and condemn, rather than to get the best from her on the set, which was, after all, their job.
Banner’s 2012 publication is the best account of Monroe’s life that I have read because it is carefully researched but accessible to the non-academic reader (though I did adore Andrew O’Hagan’s more fictitious version called The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe, which is reviewed somewhere on this website). Unsurprisingly, Banner suggests that Monroe was a feminist, though the term “feminist” was not in common parlance in the actress’s time and one she did not use herself. A main reason for Banner’s suggestion was that Monroe portrayed herself as a sexual being at a time when women were considered ideal as submissive, passive ornaments, mere respondents to male passion rather than initiators of it—something like Ira Levin’s satirical novelistic creation, The Stepford Wives, published ten years after the actress’s death. Monroe also revealed something of the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child in one or several of those many foster homes she found herself occupying when her mother was institutionalised as a paranoid schizophrenic—such abuse being a subject most people were afraid to bring to light at that time. As an adult she may have had a sex addiction—one of the consequences of child sexual abuse. This would explain the “party girl” behaviour that made her notorious. The double-standards of the day allowed the moguls and their friends to exploit her while despising her. The undeniable fact that she started life as a penniless orphan makes her legendary. Born in the charity ward of the Los Angeles County General Hospital, she was put into foster care for the first time when she was just three months old, yet rose to become if not the most famous movie star of all time, certainly one of the very few of those luminaries. This especially makes her extraordinary—when you consider just how tough it was to survive in an environment like Hollywood during the late 1940s and ’50s, and even more particularly, as a woman, alone, with no family connections or friends in high places to ease her way.
A sinister feature of those times was the House of Un-American Activities Committee investigations into people in the movie industry who supported left-wing politics. Senator Joe McCarthy brought many actors and other creative people before the Committee, blacklisting some and making it impossible for them ever to work in Hollywood again. (The wonderfully talented George Chakiris who appeared in Westside Story was one such victim). Yet Monroe had openly praised Fidel Castro and Communist China for looking after ordinary workers, the people for whom all her life she seemed to have the most sympathy, if you don’t count the world’s orphans. Was she just too big a star to be placed before the HUAC? Would such a move by the American administration prove too unpopular or even counter-productive to the anti-Communist movement in the US? Monroe’s third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, depicted the Salem witch hunts of 1692-3 in his play, The Crucible, (1953), as a thinly-disguised parallel of what was going on in Hollywood at the time. He was brought before the House in 1956, but his wife was not at any time interrogated in this way. Did Monroe suffer a more unforgiving punishment for expressing sympathies that were deemed left-wing—considerably pissing off J. Edgar Hoover—as Banner suggests? Interestingly another writer, James Ellroy, said in his novel, The Big Nowhere, (1988), that the anti-Communist witch hunts were just a ploy to frighten people working in Hollywood into not joining unions that would represent their interests because the studio heads did not want to pay their extras. When you consider the epic films made in this time with casts of thousands, this would no doubt have represented massive savings for them. Yet Hoover and McCarthy seemed fixated on the Communist menace, which, in the hindsight of the fall of most of the Communist regimes and the stories that have come out about them, seems somewhat overwrought.
Certainly the costumes on display at the Marilyn Monroe exhibition pleased a lot of the people looking at them. Yet the soiled cardigan I found a bit tacky. Others of the clothing exhibits had been dry-cleaned and pressed—for God’s sake, they’re over fifty years old and had potentially been worn by countless other actresses! What was the grubby cardigan saying, then? I believe it was that Marilyn, like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, was distrait, and ultimately mad enough to take her own life. And there was another glaring anomaly in the exhibition: the two books. Monroe, mindful of her limited and frequently disrupted education, became a voracious reader. As an adult she read the great novelists (this is why she was aware that she should have played Grushenka), history, psychology, philosophy—anything to “improve” herself. Were the two books on display implying that Marilyn didn’t read much—as one would expect of a blonde bimbo. They and the cardigan seem to reinforce the studio’s official version of Monroe, diminishing the woman’s genuine worth.
Jane Russell, Monroe’s co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has said in a television interview that while she tried to introduce Marilyn to a belief in Christianity on the set of that film, Marilyn tried to introduce, her, Russell, to the writings of Freud. She added with an ironic smile, “She was no dumb blonde.”
Another co-star, Robert Mitchum, has stated that no woman who ever worked with Monroe has criticised her. This would seem an amazing accomplishment in an industry so cut-throat. It is also an accomplishment that women all over the world have seemed to have loved Monroe, rather than feel she was a rival. This I hazard to put down to the light-hearted way that she presented herself as the sex goddess that men adored. She parodied it and them. . . but in the nicest possible way.
A documentary recently screened on our redoubtable SBS television channel, claimed that Monroe neither died accidentally nor suicided, but was murdered. The perpetrators, it said, were Ralph Greenson and Bobby Kennedy. Greenson was Monroe’s analyst who had allegedly broken the rules of professional conduct by having an affair with her. The documentary claimed that Greenson feared she would reveal his indiscretion to the world, costing him his livelihood and possibly his marriage. Bobby Kennedy was apparently afraid that she would reveal the details of his own affair and that of his brother, JFK, with her. Whereas the Kennedys had a great deal to lose over such exposure, Greenson seems to me a possible patsy. For a start, Banner says that all the members of the Greenson family were close friends of Monroe, who had had numerous affairs with a number of men—married or otherwise—and who didn’t feel the need to reveal them to the general public. According to both Banner and the documentary, the impasse with the Kennedys was far more bitter. Monroe felt that they had mistreated her.
Whatever the verdict about her demise—which may or may not emerge over time to give everybody closure—we know that she challenged the hypocrisy of a turbulent time in history. The Civil Rights movement, which Monroe instinctively supported, was gathering momentum; the Korean War had just ended in 1953; the Vietnam War was ramping up. Though it clearly had its heroes, it was a time dominated by dangerous, unreliable men both inside and outside the movie studios, men with too much power and too few ethics.
“Have you seen the Ben Quilty exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Gallery?” I asked a local man.
“Which one is that?”
“It’s called ‘After Afghanistan’.”
“Uh, no. I’m not into war.”
“Neither is Quilty.”
The fact that Ben Quilty was an official war artist when he was in Afghanistan must have created a dilemma for him. It no doubt has allowed him to further investigate Australian masculinity, for his focus in this exhibition is on Australian soldiers, mostly male, though female soldiers get a look-in too. His response may be what is expected of an official war artist—the heroic proportions of his portraits revealing the artist’s deep respect for his subjects.
Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan, which Quilty described in a television interview as a violent, chaotic place, is depicted as an ugly draining of colour and merging shapelessness, an inchoate cry of protest, like an angry toddler’s frenzied scrawl. Quilty’s desperate fury at the incomprehensibility of this setting is visceral.
The faces of his subjects, however, are lovingly created, even in the thickest impasto. It is quite the measure of the artist’s mastery of his medium that the observer can note the heavy layering of paint at too-close quarters with perhaps a qualm or two, and then step back a few paces to see those colours and lines segue into a remarkable portrait. The three aspects of the face of Flight-Commodore John Oddie are particularly moving.
“The pale blue of his eyes becomes almost liquid as you walk past. It is a deliquescence,” said one of our party, lingering on the last word.
This same observer, an artist herself, made an interesting comment about the nude forms in this exhibition. She pointed out the similarity of the style with that of Francis Bacon. For her, these nudes just do not work, because they recall Bacon’s work which is usually about homo-eroticism, a cold appraisal whose gaze is pornographic, not empathic. I can understand what she was getting at. Quilty, the empath, is also didactic. He is telling us of the soldiers’ physical and psychological suffering. Another in our party mentioned the film footage which accompanied the exhibition. It was an episode of Australian Story where Quilty says he asked the soldiers who came to his studio to sit for him, to choose a pose which best exemplified their experience of soldiering in Afghanistan. According to him, they chose the poses. Clearly Quilty asked his subjects to pose nude for him to emphasise their vulnerability—which observers get, in spades. They also get the anguish and the agony.
So if you’re not into war, have a look at Ben Quilty’s take on it and marvel at his portraits, his perfect choices of colour, and those thick, thick lines and daubs of paint which create the most delicate empathies.
It has been one week since Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were executed and the horror and the grief has not diminished an iota—despite the devastating natural tragedy that befell those gentle, beautiful people in Nepal. (Those of us who have not trekked across the awesome Nepalese landscape may remember the Peace Pagoda at Brisbane’s Expo 88—which was the highlight of the whole assemblage of exotic offerings from the rest of the world for my children and myself. We sat in the upper storey of the pagoda sipping ice-cold orange juice from plastic bags sealed with a rubber band, admiring the ingenuity of the people who chatted and laughed with us and whose sweetness is still a strong memory after almost thirty years. When the Exposition ended, the Nepalese entrusted Queensland with their exquisitely carved wooden pagoda, which still graces Brisbane’s Southbank, reminding us of happier, more innocent times.)
Were they more innocent times, I wonder? No, not really. No analysis of any time past has shown itself to be innocent. They just seem, retrospectively, to be innocent times.
For now there is blood on all of our hands. Blood on the hands of a nation that trusted the Australian Federal Police to protect us. For while the AFP believed it was protecting us from drug dealers—and it was protecting us from this crime that we find abhorrent—it did not protect those young Australians who were perpetrating it. What the AFP thought expedient then in handing over the drug dealers to the Indonesian police now seems a tragedy of Greek or Shakespearean proportions. How badly we feel for Lee and Christine Rush, who informed the AFP about their son Scott, in an attempt to prevent him embarking on his Indonesian misadventure. They were apparently betrayed by the Feds for doing what they had hoped was the right thing because Scott was not detained at Brisbane airport as they had expected, but in Indonesia, in company with the other drug smugglers.
There are so many contradictions in this ten-year saga we have all just experienced. It was the media who first informed us about the arrest of nine Australians in Bali for attempting to smuggle over eight kilograms of heroin out of the country. Television news images of the plastic-wrapped heroin strapped to the bodies of the drug mules were horrifying. Then many of us put those images out of our minds. The fate of these people was pretty much a foregone conclusion, regrettable, but. . . Those images of Myuran pushing angrily against his Indonesian captors reinforced the imagery of the ruthless drug dealer, out to make a profit at the expense of others’ lives. Then, nearly ten years later, a 4 Corners program introduced by our most loved and esteemed investigative journalist, Kerry O’Brien, showed a completely different person from the Myuran Sukumaran we had seen before. This was a calm, more mature young man whose demeanour was reassuringly gentle. He had been tutored by one of our official war artists, Ben Quilty—a man we also admire and trust—and was producing excellent art himself. Ben spoke of many of the good works that Myuran and Andrew had been doing in Kerobokan prison. They were not only reformed themselves, they were helping other prisoners to deal with their own individual nightmares of incarceration, helping them to aspire to and claim the potential of their own humanity. Here were two good young men. Surely they would not be put to death.
Rightly or wrongly, it has seemed to many Australians that President Widodo played a cat- and-mouse game of allowing us to hope that he would grant Andrew and Myuran clemency in not having them executed, and then, finally, cruelly, snatching that hope away. No doubt many of his own people feel the same way—for many Indonesian people are against the death penalty, including apparently the Jakarta Post newspaper and even members of the President’s own family. (How difficult has life become for them?) Cynics have suggested that had the two alleged ringleaders of the Bali 9 been executed soon after they were apprehended by the Indonesian police, no diplomatic tussling would have ensued and none of this brouhaha about the death penalty would have occurred, so in a weird way, the horribly drawn-out nature of this whole ordeal has brought with it its own peculiar form of grace. For however painful this ordeal has been for Myuran’s and Andrew’s families and friends, this sad episode in Indonesia’s and Australia’s histories has highlighted the fact that the two ringleaders of the Bali 9 were not just statistics, but men, flesh-and-blood human beings as capable of greatness as they were of the misdeeds that had them detained in a foreign country in the first place. It was with greatness and dignity that the two men died, and heartening in the way in which they comported themselves in prison once they had relinquished their criminal personae. Have two drug smugglers become heroes? That is for you to decide.
It has been posited that Australians, of lowly convict origins, love our criminals. (We even cite our Prime Minister as a type of low-level crim when referring to his budgie-smuggling). But this supposition is of course not even a truth beloved of liars, and too simplistic to be entertained by any sophisticated being. Perhaps for Australians instead, there is the melancholy acceptance of the flawed nature of the human—which we must extend to those countries who still support the death penalty instead of our anger and our hatred. Hatred of other people is not a quality of the enlightened. Let us learn from this saga that we must continually strive to exercise the best of our humanity, and never succumb to its worst.
These last few months have been an emotional see-saw for the supporters of Andrew and Myuran, but I believe something worthwhile can be retrieved from them. Firstly, we can recognise the admirable efforts of our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, intervening of behalf of the two young men, yet often hamstrung by the unbelievably insensitive comments of her leader, not so much a “Mr Budgie-Smuggler” as a Mr Foot-in-Mouth. His most recent inane comment about the scholarship offered to Indonesian students from the Australian Catholic University is amazing when you consider he is someone who claims to be a Catholic himself. Perhaps, if he is a member of a Catholic community, his parish priest might have a quiet word with him. The other good thing is the offer of the scholarship by ACU.
The tragic demise of Andrew and Myuran tested my own humanity. Though I hate the illegal drug trade in any country and can empathise with that hatred in others, the horror of the death penalty and its enactment on two men I felt I had come to know through media portrayals of them, was visceral. I literally felt sick when I learned the fates of Myuran and Andrew— still feel sick and very sad. I believe that many others—Australians and Indonesians—feel the same.
Two images have burned themselves into my psyche. One is the look on Myuran’s face when he displayed an art diploma he’d earned from a Canberra institute of art: a bittersweet mingling of pride and regret based on the comprehension that here was recognition for something he’d done really well in his life, but an achievement that had come too late. For I believe I saw in that expression, Myuran’s absolute knowledge of his fate— though I hoped desperately he was mistaken. The other image is the stunned expression on the face of Mrs Chan, Andrew’s mother, as she was helped into a car at Sydney airport after the execution of her son. I believe these images to be indelible.
A Letter to our Indonesian neighbours.
When I first saw television coverage of the group of young people since called “The Bali 9” I was horrified. As someone who has worked with young people in schools I was mindful of the terrible toll that illegal drugs takes on our society. Drugs destroy lives and even the whole family of the addicted ones. Parents and siblings are confronted with someone who is so changed by the illegal substance, it is as if some alien were residing in his or her skin. It is as though the loved one has been murdered and some other creature has taken their place. When I saw the two boys who were claimed to be the ringleaders of the 9, I saw two sullen, angry young men, frowning, eyes downcast, pushing violently against their captors, scarily unrepentent, and I thought “typical drug dealers” and put them out of my mind. They had been caught. Justice would be summarily dealt to them.
Then two weeks ago I saw the Australian current affairs program, “Four Corners.” It is almost ten years since Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were first incarcerated in Kerobokan Prison and I had coldly put them out of my mind. But what a change your gaol has wrought in these young men! Andrew, I believe, has turned to religion, become a pastor, and is helping other prisoners through the nightmare of their own incarcerations. Myuran has developed an understanding of the spiritual through the arts, and become, with the help of our young artist Ben Quilty, an accomplished artist himself.
Myuran amazed me. There is footage in the “Four Corners” program of him smiling broadly—even laughing—despite the impending tragedy of his sentence. There is about his face nothing of the closed sulleness and anger of the time of his capture, but a light of compassion, and, dare I say it, a quality of grace, which shows me he is a different man from the one who went into your prison almost a decade ago. I felt deeply ashamed of my having dismissed the two as “typical drug dealers” and when I heard his letter that was read to the crowd at a vigil in Sydney, was moved to tears.
Myuran and Andrew have done what so many of us cannot do: admitted they have made grievous mistakes. They have promised that they are no longer those men capable of the criminal acts for which they were imprisoned. I do not believe that it is just the sentence of death that has changed these two. Something in your prison has wrought good men from damaged goods capable of horrible deeds. Perhaps it is the connection with other, Indonesian, prisoners, that has done it. All I know is that a transformation has taken place, something that does not often happen in such circumstances. It would be a wonderful thing to see these young men continue to grow as even better human beings in forthcoming years.
Indonesia and Australia are kin because we share the same part of the world. We were appalled when the tsunami took so many Indonesian lives. Regardless of what people say in moments of fear or anger, we would never abandon you, our neighbours, at any time you needed our help. That would be completely unAustralian. We are in this part of the world together. Together we will protect it and grow as even better neighbours.
If there is a lesson in the story of Andrew and Myuran, it is that their plight has made us all re-examine our own humanity. Made us question ideas that were convenient but did not actually stand the glare of scrutiny. Andrew’s and Myuran’s predicament has made us all a little more human. Please allow them to continue growing as good—maybe one day even great—human beings.
With respect and love,
Dengan segala hormat,