Memoir

Coming home

How Nature always does contrive  Fal, lal, la, la!

That every boy or gal,

That's born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative...

– Gilbert and Sullivan

 

RECENTLY, I WAS asked how otherwise intelligent people could dislike George W. Bush and John Howard so intensely. The man who asked knew that the conservative victories had left me discouraged – even though we had both known they were coming. I looked into his face for the smugness that filled the opinion pages and airwaves at the time: "We are all conservatives now." But there was only the question and the curiosity that had provoked it.

In any case, I am sick of fighting with my father.

After all, he is a good man. He has what his generation calls character. He believes in his family, he is honest and hardworking. He is also tough, eccentric and humane. His religious views are moderate and ecumenical. He calls himself a conservative but regards Kevin Andrews as a "fanatic".

Born just before the Second World War, my father was raised in backblocks Tasmania, in a Scots and Protestant farming community that boasts a street named after the family – the farm having been sold – to show that they were once there. My grandfather was a forestry worker who was away for months at a time, leaving my grandmother to raise their eight children as best she could. The children learnt early to be self-reliant and hardworking, but poverty has its costs and, according to my father, affection and care were expressed in labour and responsibility, in the fruits of food and shelter whose loving origins a child may yet fail to perceive.

When I was a child working in the garden beside my father, I remember him telling me how he used to work beside his father, on the farm, and how, despite the fact that nothing was ever said, he could tell that his father loved him. This struck me as odd at the time, quite possibly because I didn't understand the point he was trying to make. I was already struggling to maintain my dignity in what I regarded (in my teenage weirdness) as an enemy camp – my family home. On the surface, I couldn't have cared less.

I took him at his word. I have since heard that my grandfather, whom I remember only as a giant in a checked bush shirt, with a hunk of cheese in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, was also kind and quietly dignified, passive to his younger wife's imprecations and moods, a passivity my father swore he would never allow in his own marriage.

My grandmother was the woman I knew as "Champ", so named by her five sons, who sent me $10 out of her pension on my birthday and was the only person I ever saw stand up to my father (she had warned him to "leave the boy alone" – and he did). She was a tough woman with a sharp tongue that she used to keep order in her house. Her father had died young after escaping to the Great War, leaving her to raise her four siblings alone. Although her marriage to my grandfather had once been happy, a lifetime of poverty and hard work created a bitterness that she was unable to contain.

My father recently confided that, as a child, the only time he can remember an adult showing him any affection whatsoever was when he had whooping cough and his grandmother had sat beside him and held his hand. That he still remembers this simple, restrained gesture is telling; of all the horror injuries and illnesses he has suffered, of all the broken bones and dislocations and pulled teeth and cancer scares, it is this memory that brings tears to his eyes. Once, when I was embracing two of my nephews at an airport, I glanced over and saw that his eyes were filling with tears. As soon as I released the boys, the tears stopped. Now I know why.

Four days after I was born, my father was sent to Vietnam, where he survived many close encounters during his year of active service. For the most part he was based at Vung Tau, a beautiful coastal city where the enemy, the soldiers of the Viet Minh, also rested. The story that best describes my father's experience of Vung Tau was when he was jogging on the beach one day (he was a tri-services athlete and had played state level Aussie Rules ) and ran over the top of a dune into the path of a young Vietnamese man. The two men, dressed only in their swimming trunks, stood and stared at one another. My father says that he had never before seen a look of such revulsion, disgust and hatred as on that young man's face. In the long moments that followed, each waited for the other to attack until, finally, the tension broke and they skirted one another and went their separate ways. My father finished his run and returned to base. The young man continued to the beach before, presumably, returning to the jungle. The next day they might have tried to kill one another.

My mother and I didn't see him again for another year and only rarely in the years that followed. Now that I, too, am a father, I can see how hard it must have been for him to return to the child he had held only once, as a newborn in Newcastle Hospital, before he was sent away. He was a wonderful correspondent to my mother, given the circumstances, writing and sending tapes daily but, unlike my younger brother and sister, according to my mother, my father and I were unable to bridge the time lost in that first separation. Over the years he worked hard and was away for long periods, often returning exhausted. As a result, he always seemed to be under great stress, and his temper and inflexible ideas about his role as a father, ideas that I came to associate with the desire for order emphasised by conservative politics, meant that by the time I was in my teens, any real communication had broken down.

In any case, it is hard now not to regret the years of conflict that marked my childhood and youth. It is even harder not to regret the subsequent and longer periods of silence during my time overseas.

 

I LEFT AUSTRALIA when I was eighteen and didn't return for ten years. In retrospect, this was no backpacker's holiday or expatriate excursion. My travels over every continent were an obvious metaphor for the drawn-out genesis of an imaginative life, a life of new feelings. These things expanded out of a dark hard core and made it possible to continue living. The proof that this strange journey lacked narrative is in my memory, or lack of it. The frictions of travel erode the self and soon bring about the necessary conditions of what might loosely be called freedom – that is: not caring, not knowing, not remembering.

Like many rebellious young men, I tended to seek out destinations where the rule of law was weakest – yet where authority was paradoxically meted out most arbitrarily, cruelly and corruptly – ironically justified, considering the circumstances of my retreat from Australia, in the crude propaganda of a loving father trying to reassert authority over his children.

I was temperamentally suited to this life. Before my mother put her foot on the brakes, our itinerant family, because of my father's life in the military, had moved 21 times in my first decade. I quickly discovered that outside Australia I could "land on my feet", I was streetwise and invisible and somehow good with languages; it helped, of course, that I didn't care.

In the mid-1980s, on the tumultuous streets of every large east-African city, the highest compliment one could give or receive was to be called a "survivor". I managed to survive in this world, perhaps because Africa was where I felt furthest from home and therefore most at home. I was always aware that I could never belong, beyond being a survivor, and yet, where can one belong more than the place one goes to die, and learns to live again?

If this sounds rather melodramatic, I can only point to the fact that not dying was largely accidental. When the conditions of life are arbitrary, and survival accidental, there is another condition of freedom – that state of beginning again.

I survived by the usual black-market means, staying longest in Nairobi, Kenya, because that is where my money ran out (yet I would return to this place of running aground again and again). I had recently left India to get away from heroin, but no sooner had I "kicked" than I discovered it down on the similarly crowded and spice-laden streets beneath my hotel.

Nairobi had already grown to be a city of millions, most of whom lived in squatters' slums that filled the horizon. It was already a violent and desperate city when heroin arrived and heroin did nothing to improve the situation. Nigerian, Pakistani and Indian smugglers had long used Nairobi as one of many staging posts to get heroin into Europe and had only recently discovered that in its most impure form, "brown sugar", it could also be sold cheaply enough to sustain an African market. Brown sugar was dumped into big African cities in such quantities and at such prices that in the months after I arrived I watched the transformation of a vibrant street culture, with its usual dependable staples, into a cannibalistic nightmare where, from the highest ranks of the police to the lowliest street kid and thief, it seemed everyone was on the make. Prostitutes, such as my girlfriend, no longer put their younger siblings through school. Police robbed anyone with money left over from the gangs of marauding kids. The only businesses that thrived were those of the sex workers and the dealers supplied directly by the police.

At the time, I had no opinions on the subject. I bought and sold whatever I could to a niche market; the tourists in the coastal hotels and the young backpackers in the cities. When I had enough money or had simply had enough, I packed my bag and got the hell out of there. I travelled for months up and down the Congo River, from its trickling source in the jungle to its great delta and back again. I learned Kiswaheli and wandered around the Serengeti, I followed Museveni's rebel army as it finally took Kampala, and stayed for the celebrations. I hitched around Somalia and lay on the beaches of Lamu, reading, writing and getting clean. Then I returned to Nairobi and started all over again.

 

THIS WENT ON for years. it was a good life for a young man. I had great adventures and enormous amounts of fun. I seemed immune to malaria and HIV/AIDS – perhaps because I didn't care.

But this life couldn't last, of course, and my purpose here is to explain why.

A certain evolution took place that even the numbing drugs couldn't subdue. I had always been a reader and at any one time my leather bag was half-full of books – inherited and stolen, traded and found. At first, my reading was circumstantial but it soon created its own pathways that I eagerly followed. It began with Graham Greene, a voice already familiar to me, then the restrained irony of Paul Bowles, who led me further on to Coetzee, Céline, Genet, Kafka, Chekhov, Gogol and Beckett. I mention these particular writers only because I found in them the clearest reflections of my own particular humours, their voices were like a precious rain, vivifying and cleansing, even if they fell from the darker clouds of absurdism. This is not to underestimate the grace and power of more general literature, particularly for an eager teenager and his fertile mind: the arresting shock of the perfect metaphor (shocking in its déjà vu familiarity, perfect in its uniqueness), nor the sensual and moral elasticity that great characterisation demands and that makes inter-subjectivity seem wholly possible.

Rather, it seems important to point out that I was learning to read at a time when my highest ambition was to become a successful drug smuggler. From a distance, this ambition seems hugely naive and sadly comic; yet I was entirely serious. I lifted my head from the pages of a book to look at the world around me, and if the book couldn't justify itself in the face of the strange and beautiful world then I would put it aside. I could learn nothing from it. Learning and usefulness had finally become one and the same thing. It was at this crucial point in my life that the life of the mind met with raw life in a way that hadn't been possible until then.

But reading was only one side of the equation; the other was, of course, life itself. If it was context that conditioned my reading then that is perhaps because the context was so extreme. If the word "survivor", as the highest compliment one could be paid in that world, provides a kind of explanation of it, I soon discovered that it also precluded any kind of understanding, if only because survival was itself the answer.

Over the course of my years in Africa I saw people burned alive, "necklaced" with car tyres, I saw people I knew stoned or beaten to death with sticks and iron bars. I saw men hacked with machetes or stabbed about the face. I saw men shot at close range with pistols and machine guns. I saw men whipped and humiliated in front of their families. I saw men beg for their lives, and fail. I saw rape and paedophilia; my own girlfriend was chained to a pole and raped by six policemen – there was no recourse. Worst of all, I have watched and listened as crowds of men and women laughed, and even danced, while others were killed.

In the face of this laughter, it seems merely expedient to point out that where the rule of law is weakest, mob justice prevails. Or that poverty and desperation can lead to the dehumanisation of others. It seems insufficient to suggest that tribalism, colonisation or dictatorship diminishes us to the extent that we may ridicule a dying child. All of these things are true – they all contributed – and yet it was clear to me that beyond the particulars were the universals of human behaviour. I was witnessing the human condition in extremis. I watched others die, and because there was nothing I could do about it, I watched others kill. For some, dealing out death was a grim business, for others it seemed a chore like any other. But it is the laughter I remember, and not only the laughter associated with killing (that would be too much to bear).

Despite the fact that I belong to the first generation of my family to have never had to go to war, or perhaps even because of it, it still seems strange to have given myself over so entirely to such a life, except that I learned so much there, because I had so much to learn. Not only was it ironic that the traits inherited from my father proved so useful to me, in terms of getting by on the street, but my experiences brought me closer to him. Even if I didn't agree with the way he saw the world, at least now I could understand it.

It was both a Dickensian and Orwellian world on the streets, and every state was a police state, regardless of the ruling ideology. It was an interesting experience to cross the checkerboard frontiers between nominally pro-Western and pro-communist countries, only to find the same repression, the same corruption and the same looting and abuse of the nation's resources, both human and natural. In every case, the crude manipulations of a crude nationalism were the defining features, where the torture and murder of political opponents was seen as the father's obligation to punish his disobedient children. It was the ordinary people who suffered, of course, as well as the usual targets – the intellectuals, artists, priests and labour organisers who dared to speak out. The kindness and decency that I witnessed of ordinary Africans towards the refugees displaced by war and those unable to look after themselves in the face of extreme poverty contrasted with the extraordinarily ruthless competition for jobs and the coercions of the police state to inform on their neighbours. The crushing burden of national debt and the changes forced upon these nations by the International Monetary Fund meant that there was little chance of these countries going ahead. The leaders stole the borrowed money and the people paid for it with their devalued currency. Their exports were made worthless and their imports impossibly expensive. Revolutions and coups were commonplace but they brought nothing but a new guard, or else clumsy Stalinist agrarian reforms, with the same predictable results. Governments rarely even bothered with the rhetoric of public service. Power was something to be held on to at all costs (it wasn't until 1985 that Tanzanian socialist Mwalimu Julius Nyerere became the first post-independence African president to step down voluntarily).

All of this made it hard not to reflect upon the role of good government, or the behaviour of corporations and other powerful interests. It made it even harder to take for granted the social democracy I found in Australia on my return.

 

I CAN STILL remember the surprised and anxious look on my father's face when I walked through the door. I have no idea what he expected, unaware perhaps that I had grown taller in the intervening years, or that I now wore a buzzcut and my weight was back to normal. We embraced for the first time, there in the kitchen doorway, and he welcomed me, ironically, as the prodigal son. For the past months I'd been plagued by a strange and growing fear that I was about to die and so wouldn't make it home. I took the fact that I finally cared about dying, and that I didn't want to die away from my family in particular, as a sign that I was ready to return. I hadn't told anyone I was flying in that day, but somehow my mother had known, seeing the jumbo fly over the coast, and had been waiting for me. Soon I was among my family, standing around in the warm kitchen. A photograph was taken of us that day, out on the front porch. We all look healthy and relaxed, perfectly at home.

Like many young Western Australians, I looked for work in the mines, then took a job as a gardener's labourer. At that time, I had lived half my life overseas and, after a while, it seemed logical to go away again. I moved to Japan for a few years, started a philosophy degree and began to publish some short stories. In the academic and writer's life, I discovered both the autonomy I needed and the means to express my love of reading and writing – it was the life I had always dreamed of. My father returned to his old life on a Tasmanian farm, 40 years after he had left his home town – something he, too, had always dreamed of doing.

Our dreams might sound like a strange foundation, I suppose, upon which to rebuild an abandoned relationship – until one realises that such dreams are born out of the deepest feelings; they are born into creation, perhaps, because there is no other way to express them. It took me a long time to figure out that creating one's life either because of, or in spite of, a parental figure essentially amounts to the same thing. The struggle of a father to raise a son and the struggle of the son to be his own person – these things are hard enough, universally so, but appear as nothing compared with the harpooned dreams of those friends whose fathers have died. I had always assumed that my dreams were my own, that my feelings were my own, that my choices were my own, and it is only since becoming a father that I have come to understand – to know that every risk I ever took was a risk that he took as well. It wasn't my own death that I was afraid of, perhaps, but rather the death of something I have never wholly owned, and because of that was unable to destroy.

 

A POLITICAL CONVICTION can seem just that – a judgement made that cannot be undone. At least that is how it can feel, until it changes. I was raised in a conservative atmosphere that I resented but, lacking the imagination to seek an alternative, couldn't escape. By the time I was in my mid-teens I had even sought to sidestep its influence by taking on the prejudices, if not the politics, of the hard right. Like many of my teenage peers in the early 1980s, a time of increasing Asian migration, I had no trouble incorporating a racist nationalism into what I saw as part of a natural Australian identity. In the main, this was expressed by never missing a chance to abuse, or belittle, although there were fights and rumours of far worse. From a distance, it seems clear enough that my frustrations at home and elsewhere needed an outlet, something against which to direct my anger, but at the time my beliefs seemed perfectly compatible with the "invasion" that I and my tribal friends thought was taking place.

My first exposure to what might be called a multicultural environment was in my late teens when I was living in the single men's quarters of a Pilbara iron-ore mine. Here I met Syrians and Chileans, Chinese and Burmese, Maoris and Torres Strait Islanders, Ukrainians and Koreans. My best friend was an Aborigine from nearby Roebourne. We were all well fed and well paid; there was ample alcohol and plenty of drugs. The only rule was that fighting was forbidden – to fight with another meant instant dismissal for both. For all its strangeness, it was an international community of sorts, and it worked. It also made me want to travel overseas. I left soon after with a thousand dollars in my pocket and a new passport. Without the money to fly to Europe, I decided to travel overland though China and Russia, using the black-market to pay my way. I mention this only because within a week of arriving in China any residual racism was cured. Defecating into an open-trench toilet at a Chinese train station to the hoots and jeers of a gathered crowd, in their ignorant derision of the round-eyed foreigner I saw a clear enough mirror of my own ignorant behaviour – and it cured me for life.

The moral sensibility that came with travel really only became political, however, once I had begun my university studies. Quite naturally, I wanted to understand what I had witnessed in Africa (so many of the people whom I knew to be killers there were passionate Christians or Muslims) and the schism at the heart of the moral conservative world view that I couldn't manage to reconcile – the belief that all people act in self-interest, but that faith and unifying national symbols are the answer. I had witnessed capitalism at its most laissez-faire and I wanted a politics that seemed people-oriented rather than market-focused. I wanted to understand those rare creatures I had known who had refused to submit to the social pressures to persecute or destroy others. I found my answers in the writings of philosophers Tzvetan Todorov and Hannah Arendt, both scholars of human behaviour in extremis.

 

IN CONTRAST TO my own, my father's world view was shaped by a childhood spent in Depression-era poverty and an early emphasis on self-reliance as a means to escape poverty. In the isolated rural area where he was raised, an orthodox religion was the means of encouraging both a moral life and, therefore, some degree of harmony within family and community. From his mid-teens to his early thirties he worked for a military institution, reinforcing his ideas about discipline and honour and self-reliance (he succeeded in becoming an officer and gaining a subsidised university education). The experiences of the emergency in Malaya, the Indonesian Konfrontasi and the war in Vietnam shaped his political perspective. The Cold War looms large in his politics and in his justifications for the actions of America in the world. What remains largely unsaid, but which I suspect to be most important of all, is his experience on his return to Australia. I don't think my father will ever be able to forgive what he terms the "left", for the way that he and his fellow combatants were treated on their return. Rightly or wrongly, he believed that he was fighting for the good of Australia and for a way of life he feels many take for granted. He saw the hatred and revulsion on the face of his enemy – to see it again on the streets of his homeland, after such a long absence, has meant that he no longer feels entirely at home.

For these reasons, it amazed me to learn that my father was born into a socialist household. He remembers his own father railing against "private enterprise", at its injustices and failure to support the "small man". It was therefore entirely natural that my father voted Labor, unthinkingly (as he puts it) for most of his early years. In his own words, until one reaches the higher ranks, the military teaches one what to think, not how to think, so it was only when he started his own university studies in philosophy that he really began to question the relationship between his politics and his greater world view, based on his experiences and observations. Encouraged for the first time to question his beliefs and those of others, he simply couldn't manage to reconcile these things with either the overt Marxism of his lecturers (particularly the belief that it was acceptable to impose this system by force if necessary) or the ideology of the Labor Party at that time. One day, he found himself at a polling booth and, voting slip in hand, realised that for all its imperfections, the conservative ethos tallied more closely with his view of how the world worked.

Because of our natural political antipathies (and because of the fears of my mother whenever we share a drink together) my father and I have had to develop a language, a political Esperanto, by which we can communicate such feelings. This is, of course, learned behaviour (not what to think, but how to think) and is an entirely different language from our ironic conversations about football, family, our lives and other matters. To an outsider, unaware of our history, this careful discourse between father and son might seem a trifle strange, sad even, ironed of feeling as it appears (in fact, it feels rather like walking on hot coals) except that both my father and I realise that when we are talking about politics, we are also talking about ourselves (and that the greater world of politics is deeply rooted in the politics of our family). It is a language characterised by seeking, above all, to avoid violence and disdain – and what Robert Musil has called the real disease of culture – that "bright stupidity" (not a lack of intelligence, but rather a "failure" of intelligence) that expresses "an insufficient harmony between the one-sidedness of feeling and a reason that is not strong enough to hold it in check".

What we both agree on is this: that the current and growing polarisation in political discourse is unfortunate (according to my father, our society today is more troubled, confused, polarised and unstable than at any time in his adult life) but that at least in dialogue and disputation there is always the possibility of coming to an agreement. Debate and political opposition are obviously essential to the health of a democracy, and so is the existence of an organic opposition between conservatives and liberals. Whether such political convictions are the result of nature or nurture, or both, is irrelevant. What matters is that our society is complex enough to make it obvious that any one ideology is insufficient to encompass that complexity. Conservatives will always be there to serve their essential function of limiting the possibility of destructive change, while social democrats will always be there to question the way things are done and to seek the means to improve them. It is when either side moves towards extremity, blinded by ideology or imagined political necessity, that the danger lies. Neither of us would disagree, for example, with US Congresswoman Barbara Lee when she demands that "in the attempt to defeat terrorism, [we] do not become the enemy that we deplore".

As a younger man I regretted intensely – as did my father – that we failed to share the same political view. And yet now I can see that I have been lucky – there is something suspicious about the automatic transfer of ideas and beliefs – a suspicion he shares. It was in explaining to him, however, the reasons why I thought so many people disliked George W. Bush and John Howard so intensely, that I realised the true extent of our differences. We talked about it long into the night and for most of the following day – and yet I was still unable to convince him – just as I remained unconvinced by his arguments. It seems to me that Pascal's dictum is quite true and that "the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing". Yet it was also during this prolonged and sometimes heated discussion that we both realised how similar we were – and how much we therefore have in common. At the heart of it, our values are essentially the same.

My father and I have lived different lives but there are good reasons for believing what we believe. Both of us are the products of our experiences and our times. Our politics differ according to these differences, if not our ideas about what it means to live the good life. And yet, despite these differences, more and more often I am told how much I am like my father.

This is, I suppose, how a father gives birth to a son.

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