I was in Holloway Road (that narrow, winding street at the top of the Aro Valley in Wellington) a couple of years ago, attending the 30th Anniversary of the Waimapihi Housing Co-op which I’d been instrumental in initially setting up, and Russell Campbell, who has lived in one of the houses since the beginning, said to me as I raved on about something, Time for the memoir, Paul.
Russell had on his desk a copy of Fredrik Jameson’s The Political Unconscious and in flipping through the book I came across the statement that for some creative people a childhood trauma is constantly restaged in later life, with different people filling the roles and I thought, That’s me. I could then, write the memoir within this framework without it being a this-then-that narrative of little interest except to those involved.
Having done that reasonably quickly I read John Berger’s Here is where we meet and was much taken by the idea of having conversations with people who one has been close to but who have now passed on, the conversations taking place in resonant settings. So I gave it a go and it became another sort of memoir, but one in which the characters can talk back as it were, balancing the voices. Dunedin writer, Paddy Richardson had been mentoring the memoir and we agreed it would be useful to weave these two formats together.
Here comes the ad: Performer a memoir is now available, $35 (includes postage). I will of course begin marketing in the usual way, but it can be ordered directly by writing a request to firstname.lastname@example.org with address for service and bank deposit details will then be sent and the deal done.
Preparing a script for a production of Antigone I am struck by a couple of lines celebrating the certainty of the tragic story. It is a form in which hope is relinquished, that ‘bastard hope’ that is in melodrama, romance, even kitchen sink realism. Instead, the argument goes, once hope is relinquished, tranquillity is possible.
As I ponder that concept, the local council knocks back our request for a minimal subsidy for the local museum which celebrates working class history, and I realise the foolishness of the hope embodied in our application for a subsidy, a hope that the business-owning councillors will feel any resonance with the working class heritage of the Coast, that the Marxist agenda, expressed as hope, is a nonsense. That instead, its failure or its success must be seen as certainties. Take your pick. And if failure is chosen, then the certainty of capitalism is accepted, with its criminality and greed. Or if success is chosen then the hopelessness of understanding or resonance from the other side must be accepted as certainties.
There must be a similar certainty with the climate crisis. We will either change our ways or not. Take your pick. If not, party on. If we will change, there is no forgiveness or excuse, and the action will need to be as resolute and as certain as the action of a tragedy. And then we can experience tranquillity.
And can there be humour in the tragic model? Yes, provided sometimes by the chorus, who are watchfully getting on with subsistence as the important people suffer their tragic destinies. But there is a difference now. We are all important and at the same time, all members of the chorus.
It feels as if the future is beginning to reveal itself.
Covid has reinforced the sense of entitlement of the human species; we’r e not going to get culled in the way other species are culled – often at our hands.
Climate change will be solved technologically rather than through a reduction of consumerism. Fossil fuels can be replaced, animal methane production moderated, carbon captured, clean kerosene produced for aircraft, energy efficient systems designed, hardware updated, monitoring sensors installed; storage lakes built for hydro, wind turbines, wave energy and the sun is an infinite energy source…
Surveillance will steadily increase, as will the level of bureaucracy, and compliance demanded.
The digital world will dominate, producing a production line culture of genre product. Presence will become of lesser importance,
There are issues of waste, especially with regard to plastic and nuclear waste. There are issues of shipping and supply chains. There are looming shortages of water and fish and some crucial elements and metals. But there will be technological fixes.
There seems no shortage of capital, for suddenly it can seemingly simply be printed.
A certain sadism prevails and enemies are invented: Cuba, the Taliban, the Uighurs, Venezuela; mainly those who have resisted in some form.
Serious imperial battles between power blocs, threaten.
There are glimmers of a counter culture but only glimmers.
The ecological battle is the new crusade and takes the form of an indigenous romance.
There is a medieval quality to the future, and science fiction was always medieval in flavour: royalty, celebrities, popes and knights, nomadic minstrels, artists, monks and the occasional hermit playing courtly games or waging battle in a universe of heaven and hell, angels and demons.
‘Covid 19 elimination is possible, but that does not mean NZ will necessarily get to zero cases,’ stated the Director General of Health.
That takes some thinking about. It’s as dense as a poem. Elimination no longer means elimination? Zero will shortly no longer mean zero? Or, elimination still means elimination, that is, zero, but that might not be possible, or necessary, even though that is what we have been pursuing, we might not continue to choose it, because it is not actually possible or practical, in which case there will be cases, but we will still say we have eliminated the virus…or will we say that? Will we say, instead, like the PM, that we have ‘zero tolerance rather than zero cases’, tolerance being an attitude whereas cases are actualities?
These are the head honchos whose words then get translated into regulations which are then administered by lesser honchos, not given the right to think or interpret.
Meanwhile, the MIQ system slowly moves towards the rational, but can’t quite make it, because for some reason, Lotto is the model, or if you want to be old fashioned, spin the bottle. A ten year old would come up with the solution. Let people enter the queue. Fine to randomly select the order of the queue, then start bringing the queue through MIQ, making it transparent as people are processed, so that others in the queue have some certainty (‘looks like the end of November for us’). As people move through let more join the queue, either in the order they register or in staged repetitions of the initial process. Stress would be eliminated,
We better get rid of that ten year old who worked it out in 5 minutes. She’s embarrassing.
As each country comes up with its covid entry requirements, written by different style systems and bureaucrats, travel is going to become a nightmare. You can already get a sense of this through the International Air Travel Association site. The US is a quagmire of presidential proclamations, the UK, like Boris, is tricky, we must have offended Russia because we’re one of the few countries who can’t go there, there’s a medium range of bureaucratic density which includes Europe, NZ, Australia and some others. A lot of African countries are simple and straightforward, as are Colombia and Mexico and Ireland’s not bad… It would obviously be better if there were a standard process internationally.
Bring back the ten year old. Traveller to provide proof of recognised vaccination, medical insurance(if not a citizen) and negative Covid test 72 hours before departure, saliva test upon arrival, another 3 days later, to supply contact details and update if moving around, for a period of fourteen days, and to pledge to let the health system know if symptomatic. There’ll be some random checking via text. If you lie or conceal or go AWOL, if a citizen you’ll be fined, if not a citizen you’ll be deported. Copy Ghana in fact.
We definitely better get rid of that ten year old.
So what’s Dr Bloomfield really saying? Something like: We are intending to control Covid to an acceptable level through vaccination, testing, contact tracing and processes of isolation. Previously the acceptable level has been zero cases, but that is changing.
Obviously there have always been complexities in the words ‘acceptable’ and ‘isolation’ and now those complexities are changing. If we drop the zero case model, what level is acceptable politically? And to what extent is that level determined by the capacity of the health system? Are deaths from covid as acceptable as deaths from pneumonia or diabetes or road accident? And then, what level of isolation is tolerable, and how is it chosen? For it can be chosen individually. X decides not to go to the stadium. Y wears mask away from home. Z chooses not to be vaccinated and knows that he could die if he catches it and that, if there is pressure on ICU, he may miss out. What level of quarantine? For whom? And why? And how provided? Is self isolation increasingly acceptable?
Obviously a mature dialogue is required around these questions and I seriously believe that the eradication policy, even though successful for a period, may have prevented this dialogue occurring and will continue to do so. We are surrounded by campaigns of eradication in all sorts of areas. Ritual and celebration have disappeared. It’s a puritan time, best stay home and play scrabble with the family and fear the stranger.
And the only opposition is from crazies. There is no analysis from the left, other than a yearning for a harder line or a Victorian charitable impulse toward the deprived. Thinking has degenerated to the level of reciting proverbs.
In the1970s, Deleuze and Guatarri, in their book anti-Oedipus, capitalism and schizophrenia announced a coming age of psychosis. It is a time without the linear, instead is full of ‘swirls of information’, of ‘desiring machines and bodies without organs’, ‘vast and unbound’, with ‘inscription inflicted on social bodies’. I suspect the age is fast arriving.
At Sydney airport there was a flight going to China and many of the passengers were dressed in full personal protection gear. It was like finding myself on a science fiction movie set. There are illogical moments. You have to take off your mask for the immigration officer to check you against your passport photo, yet we are told the aerosol droplets hang in the air for ten minutes – there will be eight or so people passing through the bubble of air in front of the immigration desk in the next 10 minutes. On the plane, people have to take off their mask to eat and the plane is mask-less for half an hour. There are elements of a game being played.
MIQ is a surreal, comfortable prison experience run by the military with help from a security firm. The instruction: treat the world as if everyone’s got Covid becomes strictly applied. It produces a state of absolute alienation. It is senseless to chat to any of my fellow passengers on the bus or within the facility, yet we are referred to as ‘a cohort’. Protecting the community destroys community. But there is wifi, that’s the modern need – wifi. Then one is connected.
There was a good interview on a Sydney television channel with a woman who had Covid and was isolating at home. Here was someone with the virus, talking us through what happens – a rare event. She spoke of it as being like having a very bad flu. She had a headache and was breathless, was taking Panadol, lots of vitamin C and had needed one Ibuprofen. But she knew she’d come through because she was a fit person. She’s going to stay at home until she’s well because she doesn’t want to pass it on. And she’ll get vaccinated. The health department rang her several times a day to check up on her and had given her an oxygen meter and a thermometer so she could tell them if her O2 levels fell too low or her temperature got too high. It was reassuring and seemed a sensible use of resources.
In the UK and Germany they’re going to stop mass testing and treat Covid like any other illness. If you get sick go to the doctor. This is tied of course, to mass vaccination. New South Wales is heading toward a similar policy. It is an acceptance that there will always be some cases and the issue, the same as any other health issue, is one of treatment capacity. Travelling across borders may well require a negative test, proof of vaccination and even a short period of self isolation or restricted movement. I suspect it will become the norm, the problem being vaccinating the world, in order to prevent serious inequalities.
Meanwhile, MIQ is a place without the possibility of contact. I begin to wonder if I can tap a message on the air conditioning vent. Television and radio become an Orwellian arm of the propaganda machine. There are 2 metres stickers all over the floors, military and security at every corner. There are be kind posters and sanitising stations every 5 metres. Covid testing becomes a ritual rather like mass or confession. An extra intensity results when it is scheduled.
I wonder about the mass repatriation of people from Australia during July on Green Managed Flights, which required a clear Covid test within 72 hours of departure, transport from airport by private car and a requirement to self isolate once home. How many were repatriated? I do an OIA enquiry. 12,780. How many Covid cases resulted? None. Is this not pretty good evidence? No one talks about it. It was an improvised response to a crisis and involved a level of trust and personal responsibility, the epidemiologists probably tut tutting and hiding their eyes. But instead of that being a case study, there’s going to be a trial of a similar regime for business people. Surely the trial has already happened?
Meanwhile there are cruelties performed daily: people desperate to be with a dying parent prevented from doing so, people wanting to be at a birth or a marriage, people wanting to participate in life’s rituals, an essential part of mental and social health, are prevented from doing so… people having to spend days and nights on the computer constantly refreshing the page to try and find a spot in MIQ…bureaucrats judging suffering…vaccines administered in another country not recognised…some outfit making a buck out of being agents − $2000 per MIQ slot… The last case was an RH- negative woman with an RH+ foetus stuck in LA, visa running out, no insurance, with the possibility of running up a $100,000 medical bill, not allowed back. Be kind? The hypocrisy is remarkable. For God’s sake, say to her, here are the requirements, come up with a solution. Find a safe room, a sleep out, a caravan, a bach somewhere, someone to get you there and bring you food safely, here’s the testing regime required. Would she and her family find the solution? Of course they would. Bureaucrat’s time spent, five minutes. Cost to state, nothing.
The air conditioning continues to circulate, the staff wander the empty corridors with bags of food, signalling through a knock on the door. Welcome home is the password. And in many ways it is a great service provided by people who are putting themselves at risk. And I’m not being charged – I need to be grateful.
I get a negative test result and a blue wrist band which means I’m allowed out of my room. I ring security to book an exercise slot. Some Indian guys monitor the area, watching for trouble. People walk diligently around in a circle: don’t go past the cones, don’t touch the fence, most walk fast, one muscular couple pound the concrete. I stroll and look at the shrubbery and am immediately eyed with suspicion. I jog for a bit and am hauled over. No jogging allowed. I eye the fast walking couple. I won’t move any faster than them. No jogging. Can I walk backwards? The smokers and vapers are in a cage. They seem to be talking. That’s usual, smokers, being sinful people, still talk. I freak out a security guard by doing some meditation exercises. He stands near me, tense and irritated. You’re supposed to plod in a circle, not get in touch with the natural world. First thing in the morning a Maori man circulates slowly, softly chanting a karakia. I begin singing some waiata. That makes a change. Two business types arrive and discuss business. MIQ seems to be part of their lifestyle. They presumably use an agent to do their bookings. Once again there is a two tier society. While plodding in a circle, escape fantasies begin to occupy my mind. I study the fence for signs of weakness. And the other issue for the prisoner, How do you withdraw your labour while in prison? Hunger strike? Suicide?
Here, you are required to seriously assume that everyone, including yourself, has the virus and act accordingly. But then, if that is true, there is no need for any restrictions, for everyone has the virus. But that is not true, so the initial proposition is a lie. But the lie is put forward to make sure that if someone does have the virus it doesn’t get passed on, for if it does, everyone might have the virus. Present, future and subjunctive tenses are combined. Similarly, when the virus is present, there are sites of interest and anyone who has visited a site should self isolate and take a test. Citizens generally comply it seems. Yet citizens who have been in other countries, which, because they have cases of covid, similarly constitute a site of interest, are not allowed the same regime. If logic prevailed, MIQ would be reserved for non citizens (unless they have friends or colleagues who are willing to provide a safe isolation framework for them) and covid cases. The state would be saving itself a lot of money and saving its citizens a lot of stress. Do I believe in the lies and act accordingly? Or do I not believe in the lies yet comply? This is similar of course to all ideological regimes: the working class is revolutionary and therefore society should be structured accordingly… the peasants are the ones with wisdom…God is great…believe or not believe, but compliance is required. Novelists express this conundrum through the technique of magic realism.
This virus is remarkable the way it does an MRI scan on each society and finds tumours and normalities: for example, the Swede’s right to roam which meant they couldn’t do lockdowns; or the southern states’ aberrant belief in freedom from government decree; or the slightly anarchic Aussie migrant and larrikin society; or the crowded fanaticism of India, or the secrecy of Russia, or the eccentricity of the English… You’d have to come to the conclusion that we are, on the whole, a very compliant, petit bourgeois society.
Written while locked down in Sydney with new grandchild.
The Pink Thing, the Black Stuff and the Big Question
Pretty dodgy getting born I reckon. I mean it was sweet in the inside place. No need to breathe, I got fed and just floated around all day. No need to think. Nirvanah. Those gurus spend their lives trying to get back there, so why leave?
And then, woosh, out into the cruel world. Have to breathe, have to suck like hell to get a feed, have to pee and poo and the old digestive system is a problem so every belch, fart and poo is an effort. Of course, you make a racket, screw up your face and give it what for. Can’t see much either, it’s all a blur. Everything stinks and what about the noise? And then there’s these bloody adults dabbing at your bum and your balls, creaming you up, hauling at you, bending your legs and arms into zoot suits, patting your head and crooning bloody lullabies. Give me a break. Back to the womb anytime.
Not possible, bro’, you’re stuck with it.
Who said that? Wait until I get hold of him. Anyway, the only good thing in all this, apart from the nipple which is okay, is the pink thing and the black stuff. The black stuff makes the old digestive system a bit less hairy and it’s fun because if I spit some it gets on things and won’t wash out, so I’m making my mark on the world. Hah. Tastes alright and makes my poo less cowardly yellow. Warrior stuff.
The pink thing they wrap around themselves and they can tuck me into the pouch and it’s a bit like being inside again. Mellow, that’s what I reckon. They can go walking and I feel like I’m home again. I might get used to life without the black stuff but I hope the pink thing stays around. Those gurus might like a go sometime as well.
And then I get my eyes going and begin to focus and there’s stuff out there. Lots of it. All moving around, bubbling away. There’s a face behind the nipple and there’s another face above the pink thing. There’s a black dog that comes peering and there’s this old fulla waving a rattle and chanting. Reckons he’s a witch doctor or something. Dream on. It’s as interesting as the womb but not as mellow.
And then I realise they’re gonna expect more and more of me. And what say have I had in all this? I didn’t agree to coming out. Or did I? Maybe we’ll have that debate some time. Right now it’s time for the black stuff and the pink thing.
Now they want me to sleep by myself. There’s a crib, a basket, a bloody ginormous cot and a pram with bad suspension – they’ve tried them all but I’m not giving an inch. I like contact bro’: the old heartbeat, the blood warmth, the wheeze of the lungs, the vibration of the voice. The other thing about sleeping in beds is the health and safety shit they’ve come up with: have to lie on your back in a high viz vest with a surveillance camera on in case you cark it. Some joker doing a PhD got carried away. I’d like to have a word with him. I’m Tuhana I’d say to him, I’m the warrior. I’m not going to stop breathing. I can get into all sorts of positions in the pink thing: nose against chest, head under armpit – it’s okay, Jose, I’m still breathing. If you stop breathing you can’t cause any shit. Get real. You think I’m stupid? I mean, have you tried sleeping on your back, no pillow, surveillance on, you feel sort of tragic, like a left over sausage.
So, you can see why I’m not budging. The other thing that’s happened, the old fulla is collecting my pooed napkins, the pooier the better he reckons and tacking them to the back fence. Reckons he’s making a Jackson Pollack – gonna spray it with varnish and send it to the Venice Biennale. I think there’s some copyright issues. Time we got rid of him I reckon, but they won’t let him back where he came from. I can see why.
Right, I’ve had my moan for today. Time for a feed.
Night and day
Night and day. Sometimes you open your eyes and there’s nothing much, other times bright as. What’s the difference? The big ones lie down when there’s nothing much. But the belly’s doing its tricks no matter what. Patterns. I like patterns. They want me to smile at them. They’d do anything for a smile I can tell. I trick them. Almost smile and they start beaming away, then I give them the old frown. Huh. Easily fooled. What’s a smile anyway? Can’t smile at the nipple.
The old fulla’s pissing me off. I start to cry and he joins in, singing high up, sort of wailing and starts talking crap about harmonies. All I can do is stop crying. Tricky bastard. Have to watch out for him I reckon. Now he’s started playing the ukulele. Plink plonk. You are my sunshine. Give me a break.
She’s got a lactation consultant coming tomorrow to check out my technique. Bloody hell, I’m not even eight weeks old and they’re bringing in a consultant. Be an Aussie sheila with a loud voice. I’m still figuring out night and day − they gonna bring in a consultant for that? Still, they’re mainly alright. I’m not farting and belching as much, got plenty to drink and there’s still the pink thing when I need it.
This place we’re staying in, all the streets are named after battles in the wars. Used to be a military camp. They knocked over the abo in the early days and interned the japs here during the war. They trained horses here for the cavalry and sent them off to charge machine guns. Some history. What if I’m a Pacifist? What if I’m a hippy? Better bring in a consultant about that. Night and day, sometimes nothing, sometimes bright as.
Oh My God
I’m not perfect. That consultant came and reckons I’m tongue tied – grade 2 – lip tied as well. Might mean I can’t speak Polish when I’m older and my front teeth might stick out and rot or something. Have to go to a dentist and get snipped. Bit of a shock to the old system, but I believe her. She wasn’t a loud Aussie but a quiet woman from Yorkshire. And otherwise I’ll keep mashing the old nipple. Don’t want to do that so I’ll be brave.. Hard though not being perfect.
Windy today, creeping around the house. Old fulla said it reminded him of Wellington. He’s trapped. This virus is worse than the colic. He keeps nagging: just a fart, Tuhana, just a burp, no need for a meltdown. Is that right, mate? Just wait until you’re on the way out. I’m on the way in. Same sort of issues. Simple things are hard.
Birds and trees
When he takes me in the pink thing in the morning – I don’t know about morning yet – anyway its colder and light coming in and I stare up and see stick things in the sky waving and splotches of white flying across the sky and landing in the stick things and making a racket like they’ve got the colic. They’re not locked down. Suddenly all the adults we meet have got things on their faces. Looks stupid. There’s this black thing they call a dog with us all the time but I’m not taking any notice. I’m too much me to notice a black thing called a dog.
I don’t like the car seat. The old man doesn’t either. Over the top he reckons. Guantanamo he calls it. I dunno what he means by that. Anyway, squashed up, surrounded, locked in, another bloody surveillance camera in case I croak it. God almighty. And it usually means trouble, big trouble. Bloody doctor cutting my bits. Hurts man, then it’s over. Back to Guantanamo. My mouth feels different. Whew, melt down all round. Give me the sticks in the sky and the white things having colic. And now she has to keep digging under my tongue to keep it floppy. Boy, do I let it rip.
I like the bath they’ve bought, a bigger one and I can flop around. And some sort of toys to play with otherwise it could get boring, just eating, pooping and sleeping and letting rip with the odd fart and having a meltdown I’m not supposed to be having according to him.
I’m alive. Now let’s sort out the planet, arseholes. Get your act together or there’ll be a melt down you never thought possible.
The old fulla can probably go home. He wrote something and they took notice. Idiots. He’s alright. I’ll see him again before he croaks it. They should have a surveillance camera on him I reckon. He’s been here when I needed him. Thanks, mate, No hard feelings. Try not to have a melt down.
My managed flight for my original return was cancelled at the last minute and since then I have noted, along with others, the confusion of the promised repatriation effort. Originally we were told the airlines and the government were working things out, based on how long people had been waiting and that the airline would get in touch. Already there were three sites to keep an eye on: AirNZ, the Covid response site and a Safe Travel government site, all of them working through algorithms and all with a huge waiting time at their call centres.
And then, out of the blue (I found out through a Stuff article), there had been repatriation flights available on a first come first served basis, which had been gobbled up in fifteen minutes. How anyone knew about them I have no idea. Then it became a matter of people applying on compassionate grounds. But normal AirNZ flights were once again available from July 26th. Why? Their call centre operator didn’t know. The agency processing compassionate applications suggested it was thought (by whom?) that things would be sorted by then. These people couldn’t manage a primary school classroom. The only parameters they understand are the market and consumerism. Cuba would have shifted two and a half thousand people in a week. Algorithms talking to each other create a muddle of the worst order.
And then the matter of quarantine. Those stranded have been here mostly for family reasons, want to get back home, and would be only too happy to self isolate. But self isolation was rejected early on because some backpackers in Queenstown insisted on partying. But this is a different situation entirely. I’m fully vaccinated, had a negative Covid test, could be picked up at the airport by my partner, Caroline, also full vaccinated, driven to Blackball for us both to hunker down, along with the required testing; at no expense to anyone. But how to suggest that? It would require a political party.
As well, during this Sydney experience, I have the realisation that the digital world is now dominant, the ‘real world’ of presence is simply an accompaniment, supporting this dominant sphere. Whatever I do requires registration, user names, passwords, permissions, all faithfully recorded by Chrome and will feed into algorithms. All interactions with the state and with the corporate sector requires this compliance. Individual praxis disappears, to be replaced by irritation growing to anger and then despondency at the endless going around in circles that is characteristic. It is oppressive to realise that the working class reproduces itself, no longer to form the next generation of production workers, but instead to form the next generation of digital consumers. I suspect it is time for a counter cultural reaction, where compliance is rejected, presence is considered vital and relationship restored.
In the midst of this, we watch a remarkable documentary by David Attenborough, A life on our planet. As a ninety year old environmentalist he can trace, through his adult working life, the continuing and fatal degradation of the planet, noting the moments when world leaders could have done something – and mostly didn’t. It’s a tragic and intensely moving documentary. ‘Man shall have dominion…?’ At the moment man is having great difficulty establishing dominion over a tiny virus.
I escaped baby duties for a few hours and went into the city to visit the art gallery of NSW. As I exited St James station I was reminded of the beauty and charm of Sydney’s centre, with the original planners having the foresight of placing the domain and Hyde Park in the centre so that there is this generous commons − add the harbour, the bridge, the opera house – as far as city centres go it doesn’t get much better. The people are lively, the sky scrapers remain dwarfed by the perfection of the opera house, the public transport works and the homeless are decorative on the park benches.
The gallery is impeccably managed, the staff efficient, welcoming without fuss, processing us through the covid protocol and obviously happy in their work. In the foyer was an installation made from burnt wood from a recent bush fire: black branches, a coffin, a bell, plaques of flora and fauna wiped out. In the first room three large circles made from threaded pieces of bush fire created charcoal, on the walls song line paintings, evocative and mysterious in their detail. A collage of photographic portraits of Torres Strait Islanders shows extraordinary faces, so different from our air brushed images. This is an edgy country with a violent past and now faced with ecological and climate crisis. Yet contradictions of magnitude can be stimulating.
And then a walk-through of Australian European art history, some Sidney Nolans of course – interesting to compare him with McCahon and to realise the extent that Australian painters have kept to a figurative tradition. My fellow viewers were more articulate and energetic than in New Zealand. And then an Asian section with exquisite pottery and the calmness of a landscape, Finally I sat in the reasonably priced café, once again extremely efficiently run and overheard two young women discuss the communion wine and wafer and whether it might be changed. An unusual conversation.
As I headed back to the suburbs I realised the splendour, democracy and vitality of the city centre is experienced by relatively few of the greater city inhabitants. It is the reserve of the privileged who live in the immediate surrounds or of people like me who seek it out. The rest of the millions are living much narrower lives culturally, with the media, the malls and the league clubs, plus family dominant. It is a life possibly even more limited than that of the provincial city.
Yet the metropolis remains the mecca for those seeking the vibes, the contradictions, the training, the peer culture of the arts. It is why I first came over here, to attend drama school. So, the debate between excellence, access and participation continues. The migrant women who live next door, one Turkish woman (Kurdish perhaps?), the other Lebanese (possibly Palestinian?) but questioning as to origin is impolite – they are probably endlessly asked the question of where they come from − hesitantly knock on the door, at different times, to give Whaea a gift for ‘the new born’. Pre covid, Australia welcomed 200,000 migrants a year, adding a city the size of Wellington annually.
The new born child is an evocative phenomenon in any culture. They’ve noticed this arrival through their window, maybe overheard crying and need to pay homage.
The next morning it is misty and moist, a Blackball sort of day. As I walk the baby around the block, I imagine a local community arts project focused on how different cultures welcome the new born and the associated stories it would produce… I pause to get in touch with the rhythm of the land, sinking down through the layers of alienation which cover this country.
The suburb of Holsworthy where I’m staying has evolved from it’s original army base function in order to support a housing development. The development is well designed as an interlocking maze of courts, each street containing around fifty houses. There are small parks or common areas dotted throughout, there’s a child-friendly speed limit of 40kph and the houses are generous, three to four bedrooms, sometimes condominiums with a small back lawn and a garage in front. The planners have even left a patch of wilderness, a scraggly piece of gum-tree bush for older kids to play in. There’s a small scale shopping centre with a supermarket, a liquor outlet, a couple of takeaways and a community centre and there’s a train station nearby with regular trains to the airport and the city. The inhabitants are overwhelmingly first generation migrants, from the Middle East or Asia; the occasional elderly Australian registering as a museum piece.
But despite this competent planning for community, the people seem resolutely cut off from one another. No one looks and no one talks. The front door of where I’m staying is 5 metres away from the neighbour’s front door but the concept of dialogue is, by some unwritten agreement, out of the question. People exit, get in their car and drive away. The nearest to a public event is someone washing their boat. Of course children have to go to and from school so there is morning and afternoon movement, but overall, a considerable alienation reigns and I realise that inside each house memory of, and maintaining contact with home, is the important thing and achieved via social media, reruns of Iraqi soap operas, Bollywood movies and television on demand from the home country. Locally there are perhaps visits to mosque or church and a network of extended family who have similarly migrated.
These people are, above all, here for material reasons, to live the Australian Dream. And it must be working out, for the cars are new, the houses are air conditioned, there are abundant bathrooms and the tv, fridge and stove will be smart. But this fundamentalist materialism produces a cultural sterility. This is another wave of capitalist settler culture. The indigenous culture, a time when different relations with the land were formed, is totally absent. These new settlers are achieving the immediate dream and for the next generation, an even greater dream begins: to be an NRL star, or a rapper or a model, or simply to head up the IT ladder, to become a fair dinkum Aussie. Or maybe to, in turn, head to LA or New York.
Outside the suburb, as you enter the link roads and highways, crammed with trucks and other traffic, lined with service centres, takeaways, light industry and warehousing, an intense ugliness exists. Here as well, the traffic gridlock begins.
But there is, with Covid, a great irony, for in a place which denies contact, contact now needs to be able to be traced with thoroughness. The virus joins people, crossing ethnic, material and geographic boundaries with great ease. The virus becomes the community which capitalism has eradicated − except in the mind of a nostalgic town planner. And in a further irony, once contact has been found, people need to be even further isolated.
I suspect the climate emergency will have a similar effect; re-moving the migrant yet, at the same time, leaving some behind, to relearn other types of relationship. The Aussies, like the Americans, will find this hard. At the moment there are only a few marginal, small countries on the edge of the global catastrophe who seem capable of adjusting in a reasonable manner: Aotearoa, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, maybe southern Ireland.
But enough. There remains, in every situation, the wonder of the new-born child, slowly opening his eyes and gazing, with a slight frown, on the world he has inherited. This morning, at 4am, he babbled for the first time and language was once again created. That first babble produced in me a feeling of immense love.