Last night, in a tiny community hall in Hobart, a séance was held.
I was there, along with a few dozen others.
As we sat in a semi-circle, candles were lit. The lights were extinguished and, swathed in black, the medium swept in.
She took her place in silence. Eyes closed, she raised her arms and – voila! – contact was made.
For the next forty minutes I sat spellbound as the spirit of a man long-dead spoke to me from the past.
That man was Johann Sebastian Bach, musician and much-loved composer.
The medium, too, was musical. A fine violinist, she played Bach’s Second Partita from memory. It was an eerie, expressive performance.
In his day, Bach knew several languages, none of them mine. Last night, he spoke using the universal tongue: music. He bared his soul in sound and, wondrously, we heard every word.
‘Call me Ishmael.’
So begins Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic tale of whales and whaling, first published in America on this day back in 1851.
The brevity of the book’s opening line is misleading: Melville’s masterpiece has 135 chapters and more than 500 pages, making it a whale-sized story by anyone’s standards.
Was the novel the ‘draft of a draft’, as Melville himself supposedly suggested? If so, his editor ought to have taken a harpoon to the text.
Melville had a tough time as a kid. Money was short, his eyesight was weakened by fever, and the lad had trouble impressing his father, who described him as being ‘backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension’.
Melville’s success might be attributed, in part, to an early lucky break. Unlike his brother, who wrote nothing, he was not given the name Gansevoort. He was called Herman instead.
First China, then Korea, Vietnam and Laos, all the way along the chain to India.
No, that’s not my travel itinerary but rather the projected march of Communism through Asia according to the Domino Theory, itself an idea based upon the domino effect.
Of course, the theory never worked in practice – it was only a theory, after all.
To see the domino effect at work you need only look at my life, and at the genesis of this very series of posts – dubbed, you’ll recall, the daily 12-dozen.
An interview on a podcast gave me an idea for a book which made me think I had to start a writer’s group but to do so I thought better I’d kickstart my blog and a competition hinted at how I might do it.
Down they go!
Ever wonder which domino will be next to fall?
Aussie, Aussie, quite contrary – how does your country grow?
In three ways, according to Bruce Beresford’s latest film, Ladies in Black, a pointed, semi-poignant parody of life in 1950s Australia, a land where men are ‘gormless’, women are entrusted with the sacred task of putting tea on the table, and where a department store – Goode’s, the proud purveyor of robes and respectability – becomes the scene of social change of a far-reaching kind.
Based on a novel by Madeleine St John, the movie dramatises the workings of a trio of transformative forces – immigration, regeneration and education – by tracing three distinct stories: the tales of Fay, Patty and Lisa, the eponymous ‘ladies in black’.
Fay is restless and romantic, a good-looking girl put off by the boorish behaviour of the ‘Australian’ men she usually meets. Enter Magda, the stylish Slovenian mistress of Goode’s high-fashion department. She introduces Fay to an urbane ‘refo’ called Rudi, and the two fall swiftly in love. Vowing to learn the ways of her husband-to-be, Fay sets out on a new path, her life – and the life of the nation – irrevocably altered by immigration.
Her pal behind the counter, Patty, has a different problem: her husband hardly touches her. A shy boy from the bush, Frank is deeply ashamed of his desires. He worships women, and the thought that he might have harmed his wife drives him briefly into exile. By putting Frank’s fears to rest, Patty succeeds in remaking her man, who, in a matching act of regeneration, plants the seed that will see them grow up and out of themselves, out of the old world and into the new.
For sixteen-year-old Lisa (née Leslie), it is learning that promises to free her from the present. A ‘clever girl’ who goes to Goode’s as a temp, Lisa loves literature – she reads Anna Karenina on a park bench before reciting poetry later in bed – and has her heart set on going to university, despite the objections of her philistine father. An actress, a poet, a novelist – there’s no limit to what Lisa thinks she can be. And, thanks to the reformative power of education, her future does indeed look bright.
By movie’s end, the lives of these three ‘ladies in black’ have been altered forever: powerful forces have dispelled the darkness and led them into the light of a remodelled land. Like the film itself, which, it must be said, makes only mildly amusing viewing, this vision of national growth is simplistic and sentimental. Therein, though, lies its charm.
From Goode’s to better, Australia awaits its best.
Dunkirk was no ordinary evacuation. Over nine days in mid-1940 almost 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops were ferried across the English channel to safety – not by the Royal Navy but mostly in fishing boats, merchantmen and yachts sailed by ordinary Englishmen. Remembered as one of history’s great escapes, the evacuation gave a boost to the Brits and, more importantly, it kept the Allies on their feet.
It’s fitting, then, that Dunkirk is no ordinary war movie. At first glance it delivers all the on-screen death and destruction we expect from a modern-day epic: men dying horribly and in droves, bombs blowing up, ships and planes going down. The carnage is appalling but what makes it especially compelling is its closeness. There’s a clarity to the film’s cinematography and sound design that draws us, its audience, into the action, casting us more as actors than onlookers. Thus we find ourselves trapped, for example, in a cabin filled with drowning men or in the cockpit of a creaking Spitfire alongside its anxious pilot.
It’s an exhilarating and excruciating experience, one made all the more powerful by the sequencing of the story. This is the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Using a technique more often associated with arthouse thrillers, Christopher Nolan presents us with three perspectives of the one event, splicing the storylines together with assiduous asynchrony, throwing them all out of time. The effect on us, his unsuspecting subjects, is unsettling. Before long, we’re as dazed and disoriented as the boys on the beach. Their eventual rescue restores our temporal equilibrium, so that the film’s climax hits us with all the impact of a triple crescendo.
And yet for all its active ingredients, Dunkirk is far from a balanced diet. A feast for the senses, it provides scant food for thought. To his credit, Nolan tries to give the film a point, by showing us that war makes monsters of men. In doing so, though, he radically dehumanises the movie’s combatants, rendering them less than lifelike. The scenes on the beach exemplify this retreat from reality. In them, soldiers queue on the sand in uniform masses, mute and unmoving, devoid of individuality and expression. Few are recognisable as people. Even the pilots are depersonalised; oxygen masks obliterate their faces and radio deadens their voices.
Nolan’s combatants are unnatural in another way too: they are, in the main, amoral beings, automatons bent only on self-preservation. The soldiers we follow struggle among themselves for survival, exploiting the injured and deserting the endangered. Only twice do they act selflessly on screen and even then their actions are shown to be futile. Missing from these figures are the myriad motives that more or less drive all mortals: the urge to impress and inspire, the desire to help others, the need to defy fate and to hope for the best. In reality, few men are so fully debased by battle; most continue to behave in complex and self-conflicting ways, some even heroically.
In Dunkirk, the heroes are not to be found in Dunkirk. Instead, Nolan’s ministering angels are civilian sailors, the old men and boys who set out from England in small boats to save the entrapped army. The film features three such folk, and all are endowed with qualities the soldiers lack: singularity, speech and scruples. Untainted by war, they appear almost lifelike, thanks to their ordinary attire and earnest exchanges, to their concern and their courage. And yet for all their humanity these civilians are barely more believable than the film’s military men: they’re just too good to be true.
As a visceral experience, Dunkirk truly excels. Like many war movies, though, it misses the metaphysical mark, as it misrepresents the actuality of battle by demeaning one side while idealising the other. No matter that the two parties – soldiers and civilians – are on the same side, because the retreat from reality remains. A beach can be evacuated with élan on the big screen and yet there’s no escaping the facts: war is more complex than that.
The past. We’re more used to seeing it on the walls of museums and ancient ruins than on the walls of our homes. And yet you’ll find it there too, if you scrape hard enough.
Ancient ruins? Yeah, like those of Pompeii, with all their candid graffiti. ‘I screwed the barmaid,’ scrawls one Roman. ‘O walls,’ writes another, ‘you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.’ And then there’s ‘Nothing ever happens in this shitty little city,’ which, sadly, I had to make up.
Anyway, that’s what this budding novelist has been doing for the past week: scraping old paint off the walls of his house. Stripping away the past, as it were, layer by colourful layer. Brown, blue, purple, orange – it’s as if I’ve been living under a rainbow.
A toxic rainbow, of course, which explains why my family has decamped for the duration, and why for a week my noble visage has been half-hidden by a mask. Weep, ladies, weep! It’s the lead, you see, it’s dleadly.
In ancient Rome, people put this highly malleable metal in water pipes; in the nineteenth century, they put it in wine (to sweeten it); in the twentieth century, they put it in paint. That’s progress for you. Now paint comes free from artificial sweeteners, which makes it harder to swallow but supposedly much safer. Goody.
So there I am, perched on a stepladder, laying bare the history of my house with a hand-scraper, stroke by wearisome stroke, as if I’m turning the pages of a book. And I’m thinking, why does old stuff always seem so dangerous; I mean, that’s what Freud was essentially on about, right? Buried stuff coming back to bite us.
That’s when I get to the woody flesh beneath the sickly skin. Pure, unadulterated timber that once formed part of a wholesome, harmless tree, one that would never drop a branch on your head or try to trip you up with a rearing root. O, I cry (metaphorically), why did we ever exchange nature for culture? Then I put my blade through a rotten board and immediately I know. Like the present, the past is as much enemy as ally.
And, yes, that’s pretty profound.
But wait – there’s more. A lot more, alas, because this post was supposed to save me work by featuring something I wrote in the past, about the past. Something from another blog I once kept. Something called ‘Little Chicago’.
What’s in a hat? Memories, of course.
Over Easter, Queen Jane and I were whisked away by Dennis Potter’s redolent rendering of the Mayor of Casterbridge to Upper Wessex, where we followed the fall of a man undone, like Achilles, by unassuageable anger. Afterwards, we made our own descent: into the heart of our local hamlet, where Jane browsed wares while I sat reading in the sun.
‘There’s a bluebeardy look about ’en,’ Nance Mockridge said, of the aforementioned Mayor. ‘Stuff – he’s well enough!’ replied Christopher Coney. ‘Some folk want their luck buttered.’
Before long I was approached by a nuggety old bloke, who drew me out of Casterbridge (for, having finished the screenplay, I had started the book) and into conversation. Like townsfolk from Hardy’s tale, we parleyed in High Street.
My companion spoke, in thick English, of various things: of his heart’s fatal flaw and his decision to stay the surgeon’s hand; of his native country, Poland, and his arrival in this, his chosen land; and then, remarkably, of my own adopted home, the suburb of Springfield. It, he said, had been a Polish place, like another, in America, only smaller. Little Chicago, they called it.
Finally, he said he liked my hat.
I own two hats. One came to me from a market stall; the other, from my grandfather. As usual, I was wearing the first, for, unlike the second, which is heavy with age, it is young and lightweight.
My companion added to its store of memories. More importantly, though, he wore his own dusky thin-brimmed cap as if it were more ballast than burden. History, he showed, has a steadying hand.
So, you see, it’s not all bad.
I don’t care. The rain having stopped, I’m now going to go and do my bit to poison and preserve humankind. I’m going to go and paint over the past.