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They are beside me, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, though I never look at them. Except, for the first time in fifteen years, that’s exactly what I’ve just done: got them out and spread them across the floorboards. Canberra Times headlines; front pages, to be precise.
The first is dated September 11, 2001. ‘TERRORISTS STRIKE U.S.’ in the biggest, blackest letters I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. And that photo of a World Trade Centre tower collapsing in white smoke. And that other photo, of ash-covered New Yorkers scrambling for their lives.
The next front page, dated October 15, 2002, says ‘Terror Blast’. A photo of stretcher bearers carrying bodies out of a twisted Kuta Beach nightclub. The next is dated January 20, 2003: ‘Our worst day’. More twisted metal, but in a bushfire-blackened landscape. Then, at last, there is change.
November 25, 2007: ‘Rudd buries Howard era’. A fresh-faced new prime minister holds up his hands, ten fingers spread as if he’s giving himself ten out of ten. Only three months later, February 13 2008: ‘Sorry’ says the headline in big white letters, the faces of four elderly Indigenous men, three with grey beards, two wearing beanies, one with glisteningly red eyes. November 6, 2008: ‘American revolution: first black president; a David Pope cartoon of a beaming (and only slightly grey-haired) Barack Obama, a patched-up Uncle Sam slung over his shoulder. Before disaster strikes again. February 10 2009: ‘Dreams in ashes’, which wasn’t a reference to the United States but Victoria: more twisted metal, another bushfire-blackened landscape.
Yet all is not lost. June 25, 2010: ‘History in her hands. Look at Julia Gillard’s face looming large on the page, her eyes full of hope, and perhaps there’s a dash of relief too. December 7, 2013 and there’s a different face: ‘Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: ‘Our nation has lost its great son’’.
The most recent front page in this collection of headlines? March 21, 2015: ‘Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015’. The former prime minister’s quoting of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Life’s not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.’ What exactly are we to make of this private archive of tragedy and triumph? Maybe, just maybe, these headlines are reminders that we live in a world that’s infinitely bigger – and much, much more fascinating – than our tiny little daily worries. And yes, every so often it can even be delightful.
(This was to be my 81st piece for the First Word column in the Canberra Times. Regrettably the column came to an end before it could be published, so here it is. Thanks to Gillian Lord, Natasha Rudra and Sally Pryor for allowing me to have such a long run with the paper.)
If there is one thing we can be sure of it is impermanence. The years make this clear, the ending of one and the beginning of another. And the seasons makes this clear too, the delicious slip from summer to autumn, which will be here before we know it, the discolouring of leaves, the fall, the shorter days, the darkness. Days always end in darkness; life doesn’t know anything else. The same way there’s always light at dawn, once night has had its run.
Lately I’ve been remembering a very specific piece of impermanence from my past, a relatively short period when the working week would end in a blast of unadulterated adventure. Friday evening: some beers here, some cocktails there, and then at midnight – whoosh – into Civic I went on a rickety old pushbike. Up the stairs I climbed and into the club I disappeared.
Heaven: for those of a certain age it was an institution.
In one sense it was just another nightclub, a gay and lesbian nightclub sure, but really it was nothing more than a big black box with a DJ booth and mirror-ball. Every so often effort would be put into the decorations: some sort of material – white or red – draped from the ceiling as if a wedding might take place. But nightclubs aren’t about decoration. They’re about the music, and the dancing, and the people, and the promise that this look might result in that look, which might end up somewhere hoped for but never expected.
This nightclub, however, our nightclub, Heaven, was about more than any of this. It was about a woman with the wildest black hair, a deep, husky voice, and thongs on her feet. At around 1am she’d stop the music to say happy birthday to a regular, hand out some CDs, and introduce the show (we never knew what we’d get). We loved her. For the way she was always there, as though we were partying in her house. For the way she kept the place running without a heavy hand. For the way she’d see us during the week and smile, despite this being a completely different universe. And when Heaven closed once and for all, we kept on loving her. Because she never forgot us. Because she still wanted the best for us.
So, while there’s no escaping impermanence, there’s also no escaping the wonderful, generous, loving life of the matron of the underground: Sylvie Stern.
(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 7 February 2015.)
It could be a peculiarly Australian obsession, though I doubt that’s the case. Still I made sure to remember to do it the next time I was in the car and on the road.
By ‘do it’ I mean nothing more than watch it happen, that’s all it was: make an observation. Miraculously I did remember. ‘Miraculously’ because these days I’m forgetting the most commonplace things, like the order in which the laundry gets done (the detergent goes in before the machine is turned on) and where tins of unopened canned soup are stored (in the pantry, not in the freezer), and the other day it took me hours to summon the word ‘poplar’.
Like many other people, I did a lot of driving over the Christmas/New Year break, so perhaps it wasn’t so miraculous at all that I got to experience this supposedly special event. It happened just south of Lake Bathurst, which is more or less halfway between Queanbeyan and Goulburn, a stretch of road I know well. I watched as the odometer counted up, thinking that there’d be a clicking sound but there was nothing of the sort.
And then, and then, the holy grail: 100,000 kilometres.
For a long, slow, few seconds there they were, all those kilometres notched up; somehow it made me feel as though I was seeing a long-lost friend.
These milestones are everywhere, aren’t they. A cricketer scores a century and a crowd rises to stand. An acclaimed author’s tenth novel is published. A twenty-first birthday. A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A nation’s bicentenary.
It’s all arbitrary, of course, quite meaningless.
Why is one number better than another? Is it about goals achieved? Or is it about survival? Or luck? As I stared at that big, dumb number on the dash, I wondered if it was actually just about aesthetics: the simplicity of those zeros. But then it became 100,001 and suddenly it seemed to be about symmetry.
Whatever these things are about, whatever their meaning, as the numbers kept adding up silently, I looked out the car’s side window into a paddock the colour of an old lemon. The paddock was punctuated with a single little lamb. Why was it on its own? Was it lost? Had it been left behind?
I looked into the sky; it was empty and endlessly blue, the sort of blue that only happens around here. Up there was a single wedge-tailed eagle, gliding, circling.
(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 17 January 2015.)