05 July 2008

Weekends with Rodney

My brother and sister both left home when I was eighteen months old. I think it was to get away from me though they assure me otherwise. What teenager wants their weekend sleep-ins interrupted by a toddler?

Thus the hunt was always on to provide me with a proxy sibling. From an early age this role was admirably filled by Fiona Dewar.

The Dewars lived just down the road from us in Mason Close and our mothers were of a similar "advanced" age (in those days) to be having children. Fiona and I spent our preschool years in each other's pockets, often visiting "Queenie", a dear old lady that lived next door. She used to refer to Fiona and I as her "twinies" and despite ailing health when we were toddlers she would welcome us over for playtime. One day she passed away peacefully as I played at her feet. In that same driveway Fiona and I had our first day of school photos taken together generally Aunty June Dewar would pick me up from school and look after me at her house until Mum returned.

The Dewars had a massive avocado tree in the back yard that we'd often climb between playing "doctors and nurses" with some of the other kids from further down our street, Cypress Drive.

However the influence of school soon saw me develop the boyhood affliction of a terrible fear of "girl germs" (and no doubt vice versa). Perhaps the onset was accentuated by the belief we developed that our mothers had us betrothed from an early age, a scenario we started to studiously discourage.

Our friendship was not helped one day in Kindergarten Two when we were waiting to be picked up from the shelter in the special Kindergarten car park at Henry Low. Aunty June slid up in their Volvo just as Fiona and I were bickering over something. Fiona (who was often seemingly absent-minded) accidentally picked up my school suitcase and started marching towards the car. Meanwhile I had what is these days termed a "brain-snap", picked up her suitcase and ran up behind her and hoofed her up the backside. A steaming Mrs Dewar drove me home and dropped me at the bottom of the terraced garden, ordered me out the car with a curt "next time you kick like a donkey you can walk home like a donkey." Mum overheard this and extracted out from me what had happened and administered a solid whopping.

Dad probably did the same when he returned home that night and the next morning I was told that Mr Dewar had rung the previous night to demand what kind of a son was being raised in the Grant household. The Dewar/Grant relationship went through a period of cool after this – perhaps even the car pool was suspended for a while.

It must have been around this time that the net widened to find some male company for me to enjoy. I started spending some afternoons at Robert Goldie's house – my recollection being he had a gigantic chicken pen that sometimes doubled as a cubby house. Gradually I started to gravitate towards another boy in my class, Rodney Minter-Brown and soon we were inseparable. Thus it was that Rodney became my regular companion, joining the family whenever we had an outing and me spending many long afternoons at his house which seemed much more fun than mine.

The memories that include Rodney are myriad, though I doubt I could recount them in chronological order. His house was highlighted by a large backyard swimming pool that we practically lived in through summer. Rodney had older brothers and the pool had inflatable water polo goals and sometimes a volleyball net strung through the middle.

The Minter-Browns were also very talented at tennis, a sport that did not feature prominently in the Grant household. We'd often hit up in the backyard or play totem tennis – Rodney generally giving me a fearful hiding. One day the action moved indoors. I suspect this would have been when we were quite a bit older (well, 10). My recollection is that we were at home alone so we decided to trawl through the phone book and make prank calls to various business houses. With nervous, squeaky voices I highly doubt that we managed to genuinely "trick" anyone and the "wit" of our jokes could hardly be rated as first class. But it passed by a dull afternoon and no doubt presented the Minter-Browns with a larger than usual phone bill. One weekend I had a sleepover at their house and I was asked if I minded going to church with the Minter-Browns. To my way of thinking this was no big deal. Having grown up safely within the evangelical Protestant fold of Rhodes Street Baptist I assumed all churches would be the same and accompanied the family to the large Catholic church on Matopos Drive. Thus I was totally unprepared for the rituals and customs of a smells and bells Catholic Church. Sometimes as we'd driven past the Catholic Church on our way home to Newton Estate Dad would make dark mutterings about "heresies" and some of this came flooding back to me as we maneuvered our way through the crowded car park. The building was adorned with strange statues but on entering it I was confronted by the same uncomfortable pews that were the bane of my existence during the long services at Rhodes Street. I sat down and looked around to see the Minter-Browns kneeling in the aisle and genuflecting – something I'd ever seen before. It was then that it dawned on me I was probably just a little out of my depth here. I sat transfixed during the service, dumbfounded by the rituals and liturgy, mumbling along as best I could with well over a hundred people who knew every prayer and reading by heart. Directly behind us was a curtained box that people were entering on a regular basis with a very serious demeanor. Just audible from beyond the curtain were two whispered voices – confessional. It was then time for Holy Communion and the people went forward one by one to receive their bread and wine. In the Baptist Church it was a great taboo for the children to partake of the elements, so serious an undertaking being the domain of understanding adults. So when Rodney and his brothers went forward for their communion I was aghast that children could be allowed to participate in so holy a ritual. Luckily I remained glued to my seat or the poor priest would have been confronted with the delicate situation of what to do about denying communion to an upstart Protestant in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Rodney had an experience of the Rhodes Street Baptist way of doing things when he joined us for the Baptist Camp at Willow Park. Willow Park was one of the few "safe" campsites we could go to during the war years, being relatively close to Bulawayo on the Essexvale Road. However, no precautions were taken and each night a group of church members kitted up in their army gear, donned their guns, climbed the nearby kopjes and sat watch over the campsite through the night. Sanctions were also biting hard and on our way out to the campsite we'd stopped at one of the iconic African trading stores that dotted the highways to try and find some coffee. The only coffee there was a large tin of International Roast at an exorbitant price. At best International Roast tasted like the floor sweepings but there was a very strong suspicion that this tin had received some supplementation from the dusty paddock at the back of the store. Rodney slept with us in one of the camping cabins, graciously giving me the top bunk which came back to bite me when I fell out of bed in my sleep. Apparently I hit the ground with a shuddering jolt that woke everyone in the cabin but me. Quite possibly I knocked myself unconscious because I had no recollection of the incident the next morning when three worried faces appeared next to my mattress to see if I'd made it through the night.

There was a wealth of entertainment to be had at Willow Park. In the morning all the children were taken off to a tent for Bible Stories preceded by far too many renditions of the incredibly tedious "Father Abraham" song.

We were left to roam free in the afternoons. There was a games room at the top of a hill where we could play table tennis and all manner of wide games and kiss-chasey with the other kids. Willow Park also had a bizarre putt-putt course that consisted of one central hole in the ground encircled by a radius of eighteen obstacle courses to guide the ball through. Nearby was a large swathe of lawn used for rugby that led to a large lake. Rodney and I had our fishing gear (I suspect it was Rodney's because I can't remember owning any) and we set up camp and fished for hours, completely happy with our company. We were not what you would call spectacularly fortunate fishermen. Another boy cast in his line 25 metres away from us, started reeling it in and took a bite from a Bream that he dragged in with much excitement. He also had a fishing knife that was the envy of all of us encased in a block of cheap pine that was used to measure the catch. The "enormous" fish stretched the entire 10cm length of the fishing knife. Rodney and I had no such luck. We persisted for hours and days and eventually ran out of worms (that could be purchased from the canteen in a tin for 10c) so we started using bacon rind leftover from breakfast in the hope it would look like a worm. We were distractedly playing rugby when we looked around to see one of our rods was madly bobbing up and down signifying a catch.

We excitedly raced over to the rod and started to reel it in entertaining visions of our own bream that would stretch the length of two knives – it certainly seemed heavy enough. To our disappointment we hauled a turtle out of the water that had been attracted by the salty bacon. The turtle was thrown back into the lake and we returned home catchless.

After independence there was a brief respite from rural violence until Mugabe decided it was a good idea to genocide the Matabele tribe. It meant that we were able to cautiously return to the magical expanses of the Matopos National Park, a wonderland of granite outcrops, balancing rocks, big game, swooping black eagles and verdant bushland just south of Bulawayo. We took Rodney with us on our first weekend away in the Matopos when we stayed overnight at a guest lodge at Maleme Dam. The Lodge had a wealth of plaster cast animals to pay homage to the big game that roamed close to Dam and regularly came down for a drink. We came well stocked and Rodney and I have the obligatory photograph sitting on a rock that must have surely graced every child that grew up in Bulawayo at some time. We sat eating chips and drinking coke under a great big blue African sky surrounded by breathtaking beauty and the world's most amazing fauna. Not long after came a second trip to the Matopos, this time with Rodney's family. Rodney's brothers had gone camping in a game reserve that was accessed by a bumpy dirt track that turned right as you headed south along the Kezi Road. This was land that had been completely deserted during the war years and there was still the risk of land mines on any dirt track around the country. Silozwe and Silozwane, the largest of the granite monoliths that guarded the Matopos reared up in the distance. And we bumped and jogged our way slowly on the dirt track to a rendezvous and braai with Rod's brothers. We found them camped near a brackish pan of water that was acting as a magnet to large herds of impala and kudu. After boerwors on the braai the brothers all clambered into the car for the return home and as we were doing so a beer bottle was passed around. Alcohol was a taboo in the Grant household and beer was a mysterious "evil" that seemed particularly glamorous in the television adverts that promoted it. So mysterious and glamorous that it was inevitable that I was going to take a swig when it was my turn to see what all the fuss was about. I do recall a slight disappointment that it was a bottle of Castle Lager as the Lion Lager looked far cooler in the adverts and was emblazoned all over the advertising hoardings at Hartsfield Rugby Ground.

So my first taste of beer came from a lukewarm bottle of Castle lager bounding around on a bush track with the Minter-Browns. The logic of my expectations of such a taboo drink was that if we were constantly being told that "Coke was bad for us" then for beer to be so taboo it must be several grades sweeter. Thus I was unprepared for the bitter taste of my first slug and I genuinely wondered what all the fuss was about. Rodney had several sleep overs at my house too. By this stage my brother had already completed his Bachelor of Science and was well on the way towards his Honours and eventual PhD. To similarly enthuse his little brother in the joys of science Kevin put together a large chemistry set that was set up on a bench in a little corner in my room. Much of the kit was relatively harmless. A Bunsen burner, test tubes of many shapes and sizes, beakers and watered down acids. One of the drawers had a variety of ground metals in stopper bottles. My favourite was the little blob of mercury that I used to take out and push all over the floor of my room, amazed at its ability to evade capture as well as its general texture. Perhaps I can blame my adult madness on this early brush with heavy metal?

Given the purpose of the chemistry set was experimentation it was only a matter of time before I worked out some more entertaining activities than are found in the text book. My favourite past time was to place a large quantity of drain cleaning crystals into a beaker and then pour in some higher strength hydrochloric acid that I'd managed to source.

The resultant reaction saw the drain cleaner heat up and it started to bubble and froth volcano-like to the top of the beaker and then start cascading all over the plate placed underneath. Hissing, spitting and eventually large tendrils of "steam" rising up to permeate the whole room with the putrid smell one associates with metal being cut by metal. I was in the early stages of setting this up for Rodney's benefit when this photo was taken. The stronger bottle of hydrochloric acid would not have appeared until all adults were well clear.

One sleepover Rodney had at our house stands out profoundly in memory as it was an incredibly sad day for both families. We again went out to the Matopos, this time in a bus with all the teenagers from the Youth For Christ group in Bulawayo. The bus was not enough for all of us so several cars accompanied us. It had been raining heavily and some of the granite outcrops pooled water and released it slowly down a series of grooves running down their rock face. These were ideal as natural water slides. The day was spent madly running up the granite hills, jumping into the rock channels and careening down their steep slopes before crashing into large pools at the bottom. Some of the channels had large drops in them and the rock was abrasive so we finished the day with bruised bottoms covered by torn and threadbare denim.

We headed home just on twilight and just as we approached a bend close to the old Matopos Hotel we were flagged down and brought to a stop by one of the leaders of the YFC group. One car load of teenage boys had driven out of the driveway to the Hotel, and didn't see the car coming on the road. It clipped them and sent them careering off the road and then the car started to roll, flipping three times before it came to rest. One of the boys had died at the scene, cradled in the arms of the driver. Another two were taken to hospital in a critical condition. Just hours before they had been vital and alive, whooping as they flung themselves down granite kopjes with us. And here we were this busload of their friends arriving at a scene of abject devastation not very long after the accident. Prior to this I'd had a run of bad run witnessing some bad accidents. At a very young age we'd driven past a fatal accident at traffic lights close to home and had seen people strewn over the road.

When we lived in Johannesburg for a year our flat looked over a very busy intersection of Twist Street near Hillbrow that regularly saw head-on collisions and T-bones (picture right). Another time we were driving to Bulawayo airport when we drove past a dead cyclist lying in a blanket by the roadside. Most traumatic was an accident that happened adjacent to our car on Matopos Road. Another car had entered Matopos Road from Famona Street at high speed using a slip lane. A truck had broken down in the slip lane and the car had no chance of stopping. I still have the mental imagery of hearing the screech of brakes and flicking my head to the left just in time to see the car with a single occupant smash into the tailgate of the truck and keep going underneath it – the roof of the car shearing off.

Mum and Dad were both St Johns trained and Dad pulled over to give assistance. I became hysterical and pleaded with him not to stop. Several other cars had pulled over to give what assistance they could so Dad reluctantly drove away.

Then a friend of ours hit and killed a pedestrian on Cecil Avenue that was our shortcut home from church. I became immensely fearful of this road in case the same happened to us, but it was not a fear I confessed. For several years after that I drove them to distraction every time we drove home from church because I would plead with them to go down a longer alternate route via Mafeking Road because I "wanted to look at the yellow street lights" which must have seemed ridiculous to them.

This ruse lost its effectiveness about the time the Churchill Arms Hotel reopened for trade. The Hotel was further down Matopos Road than the turn-off to Cecil Avenue so I developed a keen interest in its trading prospects and would get Dad to drive that way so I could count their lit windows and gauge their clientèle. All that to say that the horror of driving past this accident after our big day out at the Matopos was not a pleasant experience. We had been flagged down so we could be partially diverted in the hopes the people wouldn't see the car and realise it was one of our party. We inched past the accident scene where two ambulances were pulled up and paramedics were still working on one of the bloodied victims. A full body-bag was clearly evident. It took a few minutes before it became apparent that the accident involved our own and there was a slow rippling up and down the bus as people started sobbing in grief. We all drove back to YFC's Resurrection Centre in Grey street and spent the next few hours praying and singing. All of the songs sung that night are etched in memory and whenever I hear them I am transported back to that night, a young boy in a room full of grief stricken people singing songs and praying for the dead and dying.

Another of the boys, Gavin Masterton, had been with YFC for many years and our albums were littered with photos of him at the various YFC camps through the years. He lay in a coma in Bulawayo General while a roster of his young friends sat by his bedside and prayed for him. After a week they turned off the life-support and he became the second fatality. In this photo a young Gavin Masterton is in a blue shirt, far left in the front row. A terrible end to a wonderful day, an accident claiming the lives of two more young men from a Youth Group that had already given up several fine men in the fire-fights of the Rhodesian war.

Rodney stayed on for the sleepover that night at our house. We returned home late after the grief-stricken session at the Resurrection Centre. I don't think either of us managed much sleep that night. I lay on the bed facing the window, spooked by the shadows cast by the Flamboyant Tree outside that in my imagination became the ghost of the dead boy doing push-ups on the window-sill. For years afterwards I was haunted by dreams of driving past car accidents before stopping at butcher stores further down the road that were offering the body parts for sale. This tragedy also touched the Minter-Brown family in a profound way as the boys involved were close friends of Rodney's elder brothers. It was Rodney who had to break the news of the accidents and the death the next day when we dropped him home. I doubt I am alone in sharing a great sadness with the Zimbabwe Diaspora that these days are scattered all over the globe. Most of those I spent my early school years with have been scattered to the four corners of the globe. Perhaps this is most keenly felt by those of us that left Zimbabwe in our tween and early teen years.

You don't realise when you're eleven, twelve or thirteen that the people you share your formative years with share a part of life that is irreplaceable. Living in Australia I can only envy the people around me who have not known a brutal dislocation from the land and people of their birth. To have legitimate lifelong friendships and to still interact daily with those you have literally grown up with must be a truly wondrous joy. They don't know what they have.

After a twenty-six year period of silence Rodney Minter-Brown and found each other and reconnected thanks to the modern genius of Facebook. Thanks goodness Rodney had a unique surname!

09 June 2008

1985 Part III

Part of my induction into Australian "Culcha" was to very quickly shed my "Queens English" Zimbabwean accent. This became a necessity after the first few days at school when it became clear that multiculturalism was not exactly high on the agenda for the rednecks in the red T-shirts at Kirwan High. At first their ignorance meant that I constantly had to prove I could speak English - Zimbabwe being some unheard of place in deepest darkest Africa. It became easier to just say I was from South Africa, because at least this had some passing infamy thanks to apartheid. However, this lead to all manner of preconceptions until the cruel day when some of the more hilarious wags set up the white-bread "South African" to go and give the "niggers" a bit of the treatment associated with apartheid. A swift lesson in what happens when one gets on the wrong side of the school's aboriginal gang ensued. Ironically since arrival we'd already been told many jokes about the "boongs", "coons" and "abos" that would never have been given breath in a racially divided South Africa. In short, shedding that accent became an urgent necessity and the task was set upon with gusto and basically completed within six months. In retrospect it was a simple matter of understanding the differences in two vital vowel sounds. The first one was fairly obvious given my surname. Andrew Gr aunt immediately became Andrew Gr ant. R ar nch became r a nch etc. And the longer "are" sound in words like "car" became nasal cawing sounds "caaaaaaaar". The penny dropped on the other major vowel difference after a few months. The Zimbabwean "i" was pronounced as a soft "u" (not as guttural as the kiwis) whereas the Aussies use it in the phonetically correct form - a higher pitched sound closer to an "ee". So Birn became b i n and so on. The assimilation must have been going reasonably well because somehow I attracted some female attention - again a somewhat perturbing experience for the boy from all-boys Falcon. The attention came from a girl called Paula, from memory a tallish brunette who was an occasional attender at JYP. I was completely oblivious to the fact until we went to a JYP camp towards the end of the year. This camp was at a scouts camping site at Rollingstone, around 40km north of Townsville. The place had very little to endear it to us - a dry dust bowl next to a stagnant, largely dry creek bed. We played the obligatory games and a wide game or two but my memory of the greatest amusement came when a mysterious pair of underwear were run up the flagpole one night and no one would admit to owning them, or flying them high. I was sharing a tent with Jonathan but was alone in the tent on the first afternoon when a "messenger" arrived in the form of Paula's best friend to inform me that "Paula liked me". This was absolutely staggering information and caught me completely off guard, so all I could manage was a stuttered "oh bull shit!". Given Paula was in the adjoining tent with a coterie of her friends this was probably a worst-case scenario - a gruff (and might I add unintended) rebuff replete with colourful language heard loud and clear in evangelical circles.

I can remember quite a few stony stares over the next twenty-four hours and very little conversation until mercifully the camp was over and I could retreat to the relative security of Lodge life. I did plan to try and make amends at the next JYP night but Paula and her best friend never showed their face at TDBC again as far as I can remember.

If she had returned her ardour would most likely have cooled significantly when the annual JYP concert rolled around. Dress-ups has never been my strong point and camp concerts are a dull and excruciating experience of banality. Perhaps this aversion springs from the brilliant idea Jonathan and I hatched for our performance at the concert in 1985. Mad Max III had just come out and with it the main song from the sound-track, Tina Turner's "We don't need another hero". Jonathan and I slightly doctored the words and changed the title to "We don't need another youth group", some strange homage to JYP that I think was supposed to be flattering. Our nerves were not assisted by the ridiculous get-up we chose for ourselves. Jonathan borrowed a dress from Carlie while I dragged a kimono I'd been given when flying Cathay Pacific out of the closet and matched it with the iconic green and white hoop socks of the Zimbabwean Rugby team. To top it off I took out a permanent felt-pen and wrote all over my precious "fellis", comfortable bush shoes that had been a part of the Falcon day uniform. Play was pressed on the tape player and we proceeded to sing the first few lines of the song over the top of Tina Turner, at which point Jonathan completely lost composure and launched into maniacal laughter. I attempted to labour on with the song but probably would have been better joining in with Jonathan (and by now the rest of the youth group) in derisory laughter at the ridiculousness of the performance. I think it would be fair to say that both Jonathan and I remember this night as one of the most humiliating in our teenage lives.

Towards the end of that year tragedy would strike our youth group when the elder brother of the Chester twins, Shane, would pass away in a car accident. Shane had just finished year 10 and was intending to leave school to take up an apprenticeship.

He and another older guy in the church, John, decided to take a trip to Sydney. With John the only one that could drive they set out from Townsville, made it to Brisbane and decided to keep going. In the dead of the night is seems John fell asleep at the wheel and the car veered into the other lane on a notoriously bad stretch of the Pacific Highway near Tarree. They collided with a semi-trailer and both were killed instantly.

The accident happened in the early hours of a Sunday morning just before Christmas and the pastoral staff were quickly alerted to the news ahead of the morning’s church service. Senior Pastor Stan Solomon was flown to Tarree to identify the bodies whilst the rest of the pastoral team picked up the pieces with a shattered congregation.

It was a very sad start to the summer holidays and cast a pall over several subsequent Christmases.

All of the other Lodgies vacated for the Christmas holidays and we returned to our nuclear family which sweated out our first tropical coastal summer. While Bulawayo was in the tropics it was also 1300 metres above sea level and had low humidity, it's temperate climate regarded as one of the most pleasant in the world. The Townsville summer descended like a sticky wet blanket from which there was no respite.

We had no air-conditioning so all we could do was open our louvres and rely on ceiling fans that were on constant rotation, beating the turgid air around with little effect.

With the heat and humidity came the lethal box jellyfish so even a dip in the soup-like ocean had to be conducted within the confines of a huge cage covered in chicken-wire. It was hardly worth the effort.

In the lead-up to Christmas there were a huge amount of advertising brochures to be distributed, Jonathan's place on the team taken up by a school friend, Dominic Andrew. To escape the blazing heat we would meet up at 5am and try to have the whole delivery round finished off by 9am, whereupon we'd retreat to the only air-conditioned place we could find that summer - the shiny new Willows Shoppingtown.

We'd withdraw our hard-earned money at the Westpac ATM on the way in and then spend several hours languidly buying ourselves treats (coke and ice-cream mainly). One day Dominic shook his 2 litre Coke up a little too hard and it shot the cap off the bottle and Coke spewed out in a great big puddle on the immaculate tiles. We took one look at the carnage and bolted for the bike racks, my legs pumping the little BMX as fast as was humanely possible.

Dominic joined us when we took a day-trip on Reef Link for our first proper look at the Great Barrier Reef. It was a two hour trip to the Perc Tucker Reef which housed the "yellow submarine" with a glass floor and was also preparing to receive the "8th wonder of the world - it's first floating hotel". It was a cloudy, blowy day (hot and sticky of course) and Mum and Dad joined half of the boat's patrons in being violently sick.

Dominic and I sat on the back deck for the trip and showed no ill effects and enjoyed a very long day of snorkeling and eating the buffet lunch that was touched by very few. Mum and Dad managed a fleeting look at the coral through the yellow submarine but spent most of the day inspecting the back of the toilet bowl or marveling at the patterns the contents of their stomach could make in the water when lurched over the boat's rail.

The Floating Hotel didn't last very long at the Perc Tucker Reef. It opened with much fanfare but was buffeted by Cyclone Winifred the following year and lost patronage. Within a year or so of opening the Hotel was cut loose from its anchors and towed up the coast en-route to Ho Chi Minh city which was just opening its doors to the world and had no accommodation!

As we cruised back into Townsville harbour late in the afternoon we passed another hotel that was a few weeks short of opening - the Sheraton Breakwater Casino which at the time was a stark monolith rising up from the dry and dusty Townsville marina carpark. Our first Australian Christmas was a sweltering day (even more so than usual) and we made the short trip over to Magnetic Island to spend the day with the Ansells, their Zimbabwean connection making them our longest-term friends in the country. We did the whole Christmas Roast thing and then went for a desultory walk along Nelly Bay to let the food settle. It was an absolutely stifling day, a couple of degrees higher than normal and tremendous humidity and with no stinger nets in operation a quick dip in the tempting-looking water was not an option. A few months later an Australian one-hit wonder band called Gangajang would release a song called "Sounds of Then". I distinctly remember the first time I heard the song on the radio, distorted by the crackle and static caused by lightning strikes as an early evening thunderstorm pierced the heavens and great gusts of rain were dumped from the darkened bellies of massive cumulonimbus clouds. And the refrain was repeated over and over again: To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets, In brick veneer on financed beds. In a room of silent hardiflex That certain texture, that certain smell, Brings forth the heavy days, Brings forth the night time sweat Out on the patio we’d sit, And the humidity we’d breathe, We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields Laugh and think, this is Australia. Indeed!

1985 Soundtrack:

Apparently this is not a common trait, but I seem to have a back catalogue of songs in my head that are strongly associated with the memories, feelings and even smells of particular points in time - generally when the songs were on heavy rotation on the radio.

Kate Bush - Running up that Hill: This haunting song beautifully conjures up that sense of "WTF have I come to" that was relocation to Australia at the back-end of 1985.

Say if I only could, I'd make a deal with God, And I'd get him to swap our places, Be running up that road, Be running up that hill, With no problems...

I am certain this song became hard-wired because the first eighteen months in Australia was a long-running debate with God along the lines of "what have you done with me? Do you know how hard this is?"

Prince - Rasberry Beret: I'd fallen in love with Prince's music the year before. The risque funk rock of his Purple Rain album starting a life-long addiction. Rabserry Beret was pretty much the follow-up single, a light and breezy number that plumbed the depths of a teenager just starting to wake up to the romantic possibilities of the opposite sex. Clumsily taped off the radio this song was on very heavy rotation as I read through Wilbur Smith's Eagle in the Sky.

Dream Academy - Life in a Northern Town:

(Chant) Ah hey ma ma ma Life in a northern town. Ah hey ma ma ma All the work shut down.

It was certainly obligatory that this song would be adopted by the proud North Queensland locals, even with its reference to "winter 1963, it felt like the world would freeze." The song entered folklore the following year when local disc jockey Steve Price offered to swim in the fountain near the Long Tan pool in mid-winter (oo-er). It did and he did.

20 May 2008

Straya 1985 - Part II

One morning at breakfast it was announced that we were about to be joined by another boarder, a girl our age called Carlie Gray.
Leanne burst out, "I know her, she has a twin sister Leah and they're known as the Dolly Birds" (Dolly Parton having quite famous mammary "assets" at the time). This was probably an incredibly ill-advised comment to make in the presence of two fourteen year old males.
Jonathan and I eagerly awaited the arrival of Carlie as the story was filled in. Her parents were sugar cane farmers in Gordonvale but low commodity prices were seeing them relocate to an exotic fruit orchard at Cape Tribulation and the twins needed somewhere to stay.
As they were identical twins who apparently didn't see eye to eye the parents wanted them to have the personal space afforded by attending separate schools. Carlie would live with us at the Lodge and go to Kirwan while Leah was boarding at the private Cathedral School.
Well they say girls mature faster than boys and Carlie arrived as a confident young fashion sophisticate. She also latched quickly onto my mother as her proxy mum which was quite something for a “lonely only” who had never had to compete for attention or affection. This blew into quite a fracas when Carlie went to hug mother good night one evening only to find me standing in her way snarling "she's MY Mum!"
Carlie soon branded Jonathan and me with the moniker "immature young rabbits" which inspired us to new levels of name calling that we won't go into. Eventually things would settle down but it must have been a frightening introduction to Lodge life for Carlie. Jonathan, Carlie and I would be at the Lodge together until the end of Year 12 – the three hardcore "originals".
The September school holidays rolled around and Carlie went home to Cape Tribulation. Jonathan would only go to PNG twice a year so he and I found ourselves at something of a loose end so we decided we'd commandeer all the building rubble left from the Lodge's construction and make a BMX track.
This saw us gainfully employed for a fortnight using shovels and picks to smooth the humps and create a wild path that swept around the jumps in a tight circle.
We hatched grand plans of how this facility would make us our first fortune, so we went up to Willows Shoppingtown to avail ourselves of the free advertising cards that are still found on notice boards at most Woolworths outlets!
We promoted a Townsville-leading BMX facility available on a pay-for-use basis and set a date for a grand opening and waited for the town population to flock to our wondrous creation.As it turns out the opening day was politely attended by Leanne, Mum and Dad and the Bullpits.
Jonathan and I dressed up, said our speeches and asked Leanne to cut the ribbon and take the first ride. After that I think Jonathan and I were the only ones to use that track.
Ours was not the only construction going on the property. The next stage of the church’s expansion plan was a large Hall that would also double as the premises for a planned Bible College. Thus a large barn duplicate of the main church building was slowly rising in the west.
The building was being project managed by Kim Grossman, a member of the Willows Lodge Board who had also taken responsibility for the building of the Lodge itself.
Kim’s work crew were an eclectic bunch of characters who, I understand, were participating in the building project as a training exercise (think work for the dole) to enable them to gain experience in the building industry.
This crew proclaimed themselves the “B Troop” and cheerfully went about the task of erecting the massive edifice which we’d wander about at the end of each day to see progress.
There were grand plans for this Hall. It was to have a large central room that was bordered by several other rooms of varying sizes and a commercial kitchen. Not only would it host the North Queensland College of Ministries, it would also be the venue for church functions, youth group events and by day was to be hired as a gymnastics training facility.
In 1985 this was all in the future and so our youth group events were held in the back end of the main church building and for Sunday School we would use the classrooms in the Canterbury School demountable.
That first year of Sunday School was little short of a circus. Some quirk of nature meant that all but one of the church youth born in 1971 were male with 1972 being the reverse. The 1971 exception, Carlie, was allowed to go up one year to join the Sunday School group that met in the Bullpitt’s lounge room, leaving a wild group of boys who didn’t really want to be there in the first place.
The lawlessness of our Sunday School group that year was a stark contrast to what I knew from Falcon, where the failure to raise one’s hat and politely chirp “Good morning Sir/Maam” to a teacher was a caning offence.
We would go to Sunday School after enduring a long church service that generally went for 1 and ½ to two hours. The order of service was pretty much the same each week, several choruses sung twice, selected from a stable of no more than twenty tunes so we’d rehash the same dirge every 2-3 weeks. The choruses would be interspersed with a hymn or two, all accompanied by the dreadful screeching of a pipe organ that set one’s nerves on edge.
Church notices would take twice as long as they should and the whole shebang would be topped off by a sermon that would never be shorter than 30 minutes but would generally run to 45. The choice of seating was either sticky plastic chairs that drew the sweat from your pores or the cooler hardwood benches that were constructed at the perfect angle to make comfort an impossible dream.
The saving grace of the wooden pews was that they had a rail at their back which was designed to hold hymn books, bibles and communion glasses. This meant it was possible to lean forward on the rail, rest one’s head on an arm and, if possible, snooze through the sonorous exhortations to greater tithing and volunteering for the various church rosters (Dad and Stan Solomon excluded).
Every fortnight we would have a communion service and little silver trays would be passed around containing minute cubes of white bread that had been shaved of their crust. Someone had mastered the art of the cut that made them the ideal size to stick in one’s throat and their minute size was the complete antithesis of the bountiful grace that they were supposed to represent.
But the stinginess didn’t stop there. Choking on the bread was alleviated by the “wine” that was brought around in thimble size glass cups. In actual fact this was cheap grape juice (alcohol being something close to anti-Christ in Baptist circles) that was liberally watered down to make it go further.
It is here that I confess that my perverse sense of humour used to be thoroughly piqued by sneaking into the church kitchens through the week and taking out the half used bottle of grape juice and taking great big slugs directly out of the bottle. Eventually someone must have had their suspicions because they started to freeze the bottles!
The main service was followed by a quick cuppa and biscuit before all the adults settled into discussion groups while us kids were shuffled off to our Sunday School, by which time us young males were somewhat stir-crazy and agitated.
We would congregate in the school playground that consisted of some very basic swings and a jungle-jim. Generally we’d perch on the jungle-jim, throwing twigs and rocks at the younger kids passing by and trying to pull the hair out of each other’s legs that were little past threadbare anyway.
The first several times our teacher summoned us to class would generally be ignored until eventually we’d reluctantly troop in to see whether our books contained a story on Joseph or Moses for that day. The commencement of teaching did not coincide with a conclusion to the mayhem.
It was not unusual that one of the Chester twins would stand up and wander over to the TV and flick it on to watch the beginning of the Wide World of Sports program. Naturally this would draw the attention of all of us and the teacher would spend the rest of the time vainly trying to regain it while we caught up on the day’s sporting action.
One infamous Sunday we noticed the mice that were in several cages about the classroom. We’d wait until the mice were in their wheels, making steady momentum before prodding our hands into the cage and flicking the wheel backwards and laughing uproariously as they clung on for dear life or were thrown out of the wheel and across the cage.
It is little wonder that news of our reputation spread and there was a concerted move to thwart the progression to the Bullpitt’s Sunday School Group for Year 10-12 in 1986!

19 May 2008

Straya 1985 - Part One

Preamble: My intention has been to work through the years, covering each one in order. However, there's a bit of current demand need to cover some of the early years of Willows Lodge. Based in Townsville, the Lodge was originally a hostel for kids of missionaries overseas whose children would remain in Australia for a local education. My parents were the first house parents. In order to provide a little bit of context, I was born and raised as a virtual only child (my next sibling is fifteen years older) in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and grew up in the midst of a bitter civil war and the "independence" that bought the despot Mugabe to power in 1980. The majority of the Caucasian population quickly started to scatter from Zimbabwe, hurried by a brutal genocide that broke out in the city we were living in. We joined the exodus when our immigration to Australia was sponsored by the Townsville District Baptist Church (TDBC) at the urging of friends of ours, the Ansells, who had immigrated two year's previously. Prior to our immigration I'd been a boarder at Falcon College, an academically brilliant, all-boys, all-boarding private school. The school's excellence grew from an extremely strict regimen that was supported by a culture of schoolboy bastardry whose hammer blow fell hardest on those in the lower grades, of which I was one. We flew out of Zimbabwe on 1 July 1985 and had a few days in Sydney before flying up to Townsville, which is where the story picks up. Townsville 1985: Our departure from Sydney was delayed by several days because the country was crippled by an airport firefighters strike that grounded all jet aircraft. Eventually we were shuffled onto a low-flying Fokker aircraft that snaked its way up the coast to Brisbane where we spent a few hours of numbing tedium at the run-down Archerfield airport that had banners proclaiming the Bicentenary and Expo 88. We then boarded our plane to Townsville and the great unknown. On touchdown we walked down the steps onto the tarmac on a typically temperate Townsville winter evening. We were confronted with a terminal that amounted to little more than a tin shed and a sea of grinning faces as the church folk had all come out to have a look at their new African acquisitions. There was no luggage conveyor. Our baggage was hauled into the carpark on a trailer pulled by a dilapidated tractor and we helped ourselves. Our suitcases represented the sum total of our worldly possessions until a container-load of the furniture we were allowed to take arrived some six months later. Foreign exchange controls meant we had left Zimbabwe with $1000, though we had smuggled a few hundred extra in American dollars sewn into the front of my underpants to get past the body search in Harare. We jumped into the Ansell's car, wrestled with the unfamiliar concept of seat belts in the back seat and were driven to the Ansell's modest three bedroom house in Heatley. That first night at the Ansells Warren took me into the park opposite the house and pointed out the Townsville landmarks. "Immediately to our north the flashing lights represented Mount Louisa, further to the east the lights were atop the iconic Castle Hill and behind us in the south the tallest lights of the bunch were Mount Stuart. The following morning we eagerly awoke to discover this tropical paradise we'd come to. In Townsville winter is the dry season, and we were shockingly confronted with a dry dust bowl landmarked with a few bedraggled eucalyptus trees. The deep emerald greens we were used to in Africa replaced by the pale, washed-out khaki of the sunburned country. We were unexpectedly staying at the Ansell’s house because, unbeknown to us until we arrived, the Council construction certificates for the Lodge had not been issued because the fire department were not happy with the double fire doors at each end of the building and would not allow us to move in until they were replaced with a single door. These were gigantic openings and as it turned out the large single doors proved to be too heavy for the jamb and were impossible to open. They ended up being a far greater hazard to our safety than the double doors ever could have been. Welcome to bureaucratic and union madness – Australian style! I do however have a distinct memory of wandering into the vacant Lodge after our first morning church service at TDBC the weekend before we moved in, flicking on the antiquated television and seeing footage of the Live Aid concert that was being simulcast out of London and Philadelphia. Madonna was singing “Get into the Groove” a song that caused my mother much consternation later in the year when its clip was played on Airwaves during a Saturday lunchtime and the double entendre became apparent to her. As the Queensland school holidays had just concluded and I was coming off a long term at Falcon it was decided I could wait a week before starting school at Kirwan High, a large co-ed government school of 1600 students. The culture shock of school can be covered at another time, but it is worth noting that on my first or second day I was introduced to two boys my age. The taller one with the flat top introduced himself as Andrew and said "this is my cousin Jonathan who will be living with you at the Lodge." I'd met my first fellow inmate. His parents were missionaries in Tari, Papua New Guinea. My first experience of the church youth group, the imaginatively titled Junior Young People (JYP) happened to coincide with my birthday. That night we played the normal round of lame games like duster hockey in the back of the church building before being called into the kitchen. To my horror I realised the well intentioned folk had prepared a birthday cake for me. To this day I get very uncomfortable when any fuss is made of my birthday and I'm not partial to surprises. Suddenly becoming the centre of attention for this shy African fellow with a ridiculous haircut and strange accent was completely overwhelming. I bolted from the room and ran down to the demountable building that served as the classrooms for the fledgling Canterbury School (it would become Annandale Christian School). The rest of the evening a nonplussed youth group wandered around looking for this strange African fellow who in fact was cowering underneath the demountable building, brushing away cobwebs and praying he wouldn't be found. Eventually everyone gave up and went in for the cake and I only emerged when I saw my ride appear. The next day we finally moved into the Lodge. It was a long, narrow building that at that point contained 13 rooms for residents. It sat atop a dusty plain that was bordered by a long line of power lines and petered away to brown bushland pocked with more eucalyptus trees. The car park was shared with the manse which was inhabited by the Bullpitt family. The original plan was for the Lodge to be lots of single rooms but this was changed when it was pointed out that it would be peopled by masses of hormone addled teenagers who would surely get up to nocturnal hijinks in the privacy of their own rooms. Thus the design was changed at the last minute and most of the rooms were doubles, one door leading into two rooms that shared a common lobby area but beyond that had a dividing wall. Each room had two cheap pine built-in cupboards, a pine slat bed with a very narrow foam mattress, a curved desk that ran the length of the dividing wall and an overhead fan that would prove inadequately essential in summer. The building was constructed to promote through-breezes, large windows placed on top of louvres that gathered dust but allowed the sea breeze to pass through if the doors into the long centre passage were left open. One of these double room arrangements had been slightly altered by placing the dividing wall askance, creating a larger double bedroom for Mum and Dad leaving a remaining narrow sliver that was supposed to be their lounge room and office. Their bedroom had a door that led into one of the bathroom areas that was also split in two by a wall and door in case my parents wanted to retain a modicum of privacy. The building was bordered by large concrete awnings except for the front area that was slightly expanded to accommodate a large living and dining area adjoining a kitchen that was equipped with normal family household equipment and crockery – for a facility that would soon be catering to 15 people on a daily basis. Jonathan moved in over that first weekend and it represented the first time in my 14 years that I'd had to share house and parents with another human my age. It would be something I would have to get quickly used to, not that I took it graciously. Jonathan was placed in the single room that was next to my parent's office and I was in the next room down, another single room at the end of the building offering an entire face of uninsulated besser brick to the fierce afternoon sun. Jonathan and I perched at the end of this vast uninhabited building that still reeked of fresh paint and carpet like timid sparrows. Each day we'd hop on our bikes and ride the three kilometre trip to the Kirwan High jungle. My bike was a yellow BMX number that had been kindly rescued from the rubbish tip by the Chester family and moderately restored. Jonathan's pride and joy was a Malvern Star racer and I'd have to pump my legs twice as fast as him just to keep up. The Bullpitt children were slightly younger than us and we'd sometimes share the trip with them. Early in the Lodge's existence we also hosted the daughter of the Chairman of the Willows Lodge Board, Kirsty James. I suspect she must have introduced the Grant family to the alien scrabble of Australian Rules Football because I became a Carlton supporter – her club of choice. After about a month it was time to take in some more inmates. The first to arrive was Leanne, a tall, willowy brunette attending university at James Cook. She didn't fit the demographic the Lodge was then there to serve but I'd imagine there was quite a need to take in boarders to pay the bills. Leanne had a boyfriend , a car and a university social life and didn't spend too much time hanging out at the lodge fraternising with two young lads in Grade 9! The next inmate was a fellow called Eddie who was working locally, I think as an electrician. All brooding eyes, stocky body topped by a bull-neck and few social graces, Jonathan and I immediately decided that we were sharing a house with a serial killer and we avoided him like the plague. My abiding memory of him is of bad jokes and a day where he watched the Grand Final of a strange code of rugby I'd not heard of before touching down. Eddie was a mad keen Dragons supporter and they had made the Grand Final but obviously weren't doing very well as Eddie kept punching the ground and muttering under his breath while I pondered how anyone could take such a strange game so seriously. One of Eddie's jokes particularly stands out in memory. That year Townsville was granted an extraordinary public holiday, from memory to celebrate the inaugural Pacific Festival. In the afternoon we'd played a game called Hooky with Leanne and her boyfriend where we threw rubber rings at hooks on a plaque to score points. Eddie wondered by and muttered to us that "if anyone at school asks you about what you were doing today you can say you played hooky". In fact earlier that morning Jonathan and I had managed to get up to far more mischief than wagging school. We'd scraped together enough money to buy us a packet of Peter Jackson 15s – a controversial cigarette that was being specifically marketed to the teenage demographic because it was cheap to buy and easily hidden. To cover our tracks we cycled all the way up to the shops adjoining the Kirwan Tavern where we must have thought our surreptitious purchase would be unobserved. In a blue funk I stormed into the shop and breathlessly demanded from a knowing owner a "packet of Peter Jackson 15s for my brother please sir" (the sir bit being a default to Falcon parlance that was at that time a characteristic of mine when under pressure). With contraband safely stowed we cycled our way to the end of Canterbury Road that meandered onto a dirt track in the bushland between our church and the recently opened Paceway (now Stockland Stadium, home ground of the NRL Cowboys). The Paceway had only just been opened amid a broadcast flurry from then Gaming and Racing Minister, the rotund and corrupt Russ Hinze. His expletive-ridden tirade reached us at the Lodge and included the gem "people who say this facility is a white elephant, well they can all go and bloody get stuffed!" The Paceway closed operations within five years but for the time I was at the Lodge it lit up the intervening bush with a pale ghostly light and interspersed the night air with commentary that made sleep impossible every Saturday. That bushland included a large gully which stretched away north from the Paceway for well over a kilometre like a long finger. It was riven with gullies and Jonathan and I rode our bikes to one of them and with trembling fingers lit our first cigarette. We took great pains to strip off our shirts so they didn't absorb smoke which was a dubious practise seeing as the gully was a frequent haunt of older trail bike riders who would surely have had a bit to say about two semi-naked teens cowering in a gully. A few roared past but thankfully we smoked out three "durries" each unnoticed. I remember holding my cigarette between index and middle finger like an urbane James Bond whilst Jonathan held his in thumb and index finger and goaded me that this was the Australian way of smoking things. Light-headed after our first smoking experience we buried the remainder of the pack and scrubbed away at our teeth with Jonathan's Ipana toothpaste – the only one he'd use because it still came in a metallic tube. This was of course to cover the smell of smoke on our breath. When we arrived home we had both raced to the showers and given our teeth another good brushing. We'd gotten away with it. Eventually we became far more brazen, aided by the fact we were sharing a leaflet delivery run for pocket money. Our first area was in the backblocks, the very southern end of Kelso in the Upper Ross. Kelso was still being built and much of the run was long roads with houses far apart. It was a tough gig. Part of the run included a house owned by a church family, the Wards, and we'd sometimes stop there for water on a hot day. It was probably only a month (but it seemed like years) before we were offered the delivery run of houses surrounding the newly opened Willows Shoppingtown. This area began at our end of Canterbury Road and covered the swathe of houses between us and Kirwan High – some 450 mailboxes. We would pick up piles of brochures and bring them home and sit in one of our rooms, folding them with a table knife and stuffing them into our school bags (our ports). This exercise would take well over an hour and we'd listen to the dulcet tones of legendary DJ Steve Price on 4AY that morphed into 4RR while Steve Price was poached by the market leading 4TO. We'd split the houses up between us and would deliver the pamphlets after school and on weekends. It would take around two hours to knock over our area, all for the princely sum of $15 per brochure set delivered, that we'd then share between us. As there were quite a number of houses that didn't accept "junk mail" we'd end up with piles of excess brochures that we'd take out the back and burn in the evenings. While we sat around poking smouldering paper we'd smoke our Peter Jacksons with the fire providing the perfect cover for our activities. To be continued .........

02 April 2008

No Country for Old Men – a critique of post-modernism?

*Spoiler alert* – If you haven’t seen the movie, and intend to, you don’t want to read this. On first instincts this movie’s ending will frustrate anyone who likes closure. The ending comes so suddenly and unexpectedly that it will take a few minutes for you to realise it’s over. And then your brain will start to be overwhelmed with questions! Closure can only be obtained if you understand this movie is a parable. And there were many parables told by Jesus that were quite deliberately left open-ended for the listener to contemplate. It’s a masterstroke because far more value is obtained by intellectual rigour than listening to a nice story that is all tied and trussed up by the end. In my mind there are several layers to the message of this movie. (Some may not have been intended by the Directors). I will do my best to tease out some of the threads in a logical way. The story revolves around three main characters, though there are others that are on the periphery and play their part to the story. Llewelyn Moss is the hillbilly that stumbles on $2million of drug money and probably would have made away with it if he hadn’t listened to his conscious and sought to go and serve water to a dying man. Anton Chigurh is the ruthless assassin who is hell bent on tracking down the money. Ed Bell is the ageing and disillusioned Texas Sherriff who does his best to stay out of the story but cannot help but be reeled in. A critique of post-modern thought: There is an overarching theme in this movie which I could only take as a ruthless critique of post-modern thought. Each of the three main characters would vehemently argue that they are men of principle. Moss sees the loot as an opportunity to leave the trailer park behind and provide a good life for his wife.

Chigurgh has his very own code of honour and is ruthlessly committed to serving what he would argue is his logical morality.

Bell is a servant of the law and, despite his disillusionment and even bewilderment at what life has become, still does “his duty”. There are honourable as well as selfish aspects in the motivations of each man, but when their worlds collide the results are brutal and bloody. In the end only one of the three remain true to their version of truth and morality. Despite promising the contrary to his wife, Moss commits to a high risk game of cat and mouse with Chigurgh to satisfy his ego and need for closure. Eventually Chigurgh uses Moss’ weakness as justification to slay Moss’ wife to satisfy his own commitment to honour. Bell quits the police force and there are enough hints that in doing so he commits to a life of abject misery. Having stared evil in the face he finds he does not have the inner fortitude and motivation to keep up the fight. By the end of the movie the only one that has remained relentlessly true to his truth and worldview is Chigurgh. You get the feeling that he hasn’t even come to the point of flirting with comprising. The overall message then? 1. As much as we might try to pretend otherwise, conflicting ideologies cannot peacefully co-exist. 2 It is often those that are committed to the most evil and destructive ideologies that have the highest determination to succeed. What motivated Chigurgh? It is worth digging a little deeper to find out what it is that motivates Chigurgh to such incredibly malevolent violence. Though not obvious it is clear that by the movies end he has done far more than serve his ideology. He has also ended up with both the drugs and the $2million. For much of the movie it is easy to assume that Chigurgh is in the employ of one or the other of the parties to the initial drug deal. That belief is exploded only towards the very end of the movie when it becomes clear that he is actually a third party pursuing Moss for the cash. Texan commerce owned the cash (Carson Wells was their man) and the Mexicans drug-runners are the ones that finally catch up with Moss and slay him. Unless I’m missing something, Chigurgh simply saw an opportunity and took it. His only motivation therefore would have been his own gain. Virtually the only explanation you could give for his relentless pursuit of the cash is the one he gave for the coin he would toss to decide the fate of the random people that came into contact with him to find their fate hung on a coin toss – the path lead him there. If Chigurgh was an opportunist it lends a staggering extra dimension to his evil. But the parable begs the question – is any self-motivated opportunism less evil? Compromise For much of the movie Moss is set up to be the potential hero. If this movie were to have a Hollywood ending Moss would be the capable but naïve hillbilly that defies the odds and rides off into the sunset with the cash and the girl. His ride spins on the moment where he forgets that his primary motivation is to elude his pursuers and set up a new life for his family. From the scene where he yells down the phone to Chigurgh that he is making this a personal war his involvement in the movie is deliberately minimal. It’s an almost instant metamorphosis from courageous underdog to being slain and vanquished, lying in a pool of his own blood on the threadbare carpets of a rundown Motel in El Paso. Not even slain by the target of his anger. He is completely sideswiped by the Mexicans drug runners who track him down thanks to information from his mother-in-law. The swiftness of his downfall comes about because he takes his eye off his original goal and in doing so becomes sloppy and lazy. Compromise often does that. The inheritances of Judeo Christianity makes the West soft: This theme is buried within two scenes in the movie. Moss and Chigurgh both sustain bullet wounds in a gun battle. At this point Moss is the innocent “good guy” while Chigurgh is prevented from seeking medical help for obvious reasons. Chigurgh is pragmatic about his situation. He understands he has chosen a certain path that denies him many of the comforts of life. Uncomplainingly he self-medicates, a gruesome scene where he administers local anesthetic to his wound and cleans out the shotgun fragments. The full benefits of the medical world are available to Moss and he avails himself of its care. It is no coincidence that nursing nuns are visible while Moss convalesces in hospital. In the fourth century the Christian faith crossed the line from persecution to state religion. Those countries with a long heritage of the Judeo Christian ethic are today the ones that enjoy the most affluence and comfort. But they have also allowed affluence and comfort to become their goal. Modern affluence and comfort is only possible because of the economic persecution of the majority of the world’s population – and these downtrodden societies have become an ideal breeding ground for the kind of malevolent ideology that Chigurgh represents. The Western teenager complains if they have not kept up with the latest and greatest technology of their peers. They are oblivious to the horde of hungry and starving that inhabit the planet. If and when it becomes a war of these conflicting worldviews, which of the next generation are going to be mentally tougher to see the matter through to a conclusion? Justice and Karma are not an obligatory right: In the final ten minutes of the movie Chigurgh is unleashed to satiate his desire for his personal form of justice – served by the slaying of the innocent. As he drives away from his last slaying, Moss’ wife Carla Jean, he has right of way at the traffic lights. It is obvious what will happen next. A car runs a red light and T-bones his vehicle. He extracts himself from his vehicle and is attended to by some young teens horrified by the bone sticking out of his arm. Hearing the sirens and needing to stay ahead of the law he bundles his shattered arm into a sling and staggers away, presumably to live another day. If there were obligatory karma Chigurgh would surely have died in this accident or at least been incapacitated so the law could catch up to him. Justice is not served on Chigurgh which is a key element in the lack of closure the viewer experiences at the movie’s conclusion. It is a confronting and thought-provoking movie that doesn’t shirk the ruthless reality that life cannot be. I watched it against the backdrop of the roller coaster ride that is the current uncertainty of the future of my homeland Zimbabwe. In recent days I have found myself shaking with rage every time Mugabe has appeared on screen. My every instinct wishes justice to be meted out in equal measure on this barbaric, cruel and unkind dictator. In reality I know there is still every chance he will hold onto power. The worst fate that might “befall” him is a removal from power to serve out his dotage in a safe haven funded by the billions he has gouged out of a once prosperous nation. I doubt in this life he will be asked to pay his butcher’s bill for the injustices he has dealt out on my countrymen for 28 years. Which makes me hungry for the eternal hope of the afterlife that featured so prominently in Bell’s closing monologue.

25 March 2008

A mirror to our own failings?

Yet another NRL/AFL/Super 14 season descends upon us blighted by numerous scandals involving young footballers running amok. Predictably this is followed by another outpouring of public outrage at the actions of these highly paid professionals crossing so-called moral boundaries. It gives me reason to pause and consider the spotlight we place on these young footballers and the expectation we put upon them to be ‘role models”. Do we not all know of friends, relatives, children and nephews that indulge in similar behaviour without the full force of society’s outraged being pressed upon them? Yet we expect the best of men who have often been pulled directly out of high school, given a pay packet many times that of their peers and an abundance of time with little to occupy them? We expect something from these men because they have been assigned the roles of “hero” in our society. These days there is a growing shortage of genuine heroes in many of the major institutions of our society. Who is there to inspire honour and emulate in some of our major institutions? In politics the debate seems to focus upon the lies told by our leaders, the broken promises and the influence of major companies and interest groups. Where are the Wilberforces that doggedly sought after legislative change in the abolishment of the slave trade? The institution of the church has been diluted by frequent scandal involving sexual and financial abuse and a growing lack of clarity in its message. Where are the great inspirational leaders such as Jesus Christ, whose teachings have shaped the world for the past 2000 years? Where are the heroes like Luther that railed against the abuses of the church from within or the Wesleys that would inspire large crowds through the power of their oratory and the sacrificial example of their life? Are there any religious leaders of today that will inspire movies in the future? Even our military heroes are besmirched by fighting wars of dubious distinction. So is it any wonder that we’ve grown to put on a pedestal those of excellence in the arena of athletic endeavour? The sporting field is one of the few places we can point out to our children to and show them the benefits of discipline, work ethic, team work and the rewards of excellence. But here’s the catch. We want our heroes to be without flaw. Whilst most of us admire Shane Warne for his immense skill in leg spin bowling we generally loathe him as a person (even more so if he wasn’t “one of us”). In League we applaud the on field exploits of Mason and Sonny Bill Williams but we hold no real affection for them because their flaws as human beings have been put in the spotlight for all to see. Yet we probably all have acquaintances that frequent brothels, or go on drinking binges, or who give each other’s rumps the odd squeeze or, dare I say it, the odd finger poking. Quite a few of us would view their actions as unfortunate or damaging, but generally their actions are written off as “their choice” or part of the rites of passage of growing up as a male. However, should a group of football players of the same age and demographic indulge in exactly the same form of behaviour they’re exposed to torrents of public hysteria, shock horror and outrage! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to excuse the behaviour. However, spend time in any university during orientation week and you’ll hear the messages of hedonism, promiscuity and indulgence. Every weekend you’ll rub shoulders with patrons in nite clubs drunk or high and will quite likely defend their right to a “good night out” So why exactly are we shocked when these messages manifest themselves in our young men in these sporting competitions? I contend that is we who have placed these men on a pedestal because of our need for heroes to emulate. Their sole qualification is the ability to play a high octane and brutal contact sport. Often they are placed there without adequate preparation and support. The virulence of our reaction betrays the fact that their inevitable fall is reviled only because it holds up a mirror and reflects back to us much of our own society that is decaying and reprehensible.