The Small t terror of First World Commuters

I am a commuter.

Every morning I catch the train from Woy Woy on the Central Coast to St Leonards in the city. There are quiet carriages at my disposal, but I don’t need them in the morning.

Mostly.

In normal circumstances my fellow commuters are all in their own zones – focussed or unfocussed as they prefer – preparing for another day in the salt mines. They tend to be polite. They tend to be considerate of each other’s space.

They tend not to be drama queens who over-react ridiculously to the merest of provocations and refuse to acknowledge apologies.

The Facts

The train rolled into St Leonards. Having clambered out of the seat I occupy like a writing machine for 60 minutes or so, I descended into the vestibule and hovered on the last step – conscious of the personal space of the people below, but also conscious of the people behind me who tend quickly to panic as the stairs get clogged at peak hour.

There was an acceptable space just before the doors, and the closest person to that space was standing next to the central pole. Was she hanging on for stability, or was she preparing to leave the train?

I wasn’t sure, but there was plenty of space in front of her (and no-one owns space on a commuter train except for the space they actually occupy) so, mindful of the people on the stairs (and those already panicking behind them), I stepped into the space.

Immediately, I was conscious of hostility. The woman by the pole was making these strange sounding (but obviously unfriendly) noises, and eventually I twigged they were aimed at me. I turned and asked her:

‘I’m sorry…did I stand in your way?’

Inarticulate angry muttering.

‘Sorry…I thought you were hanging onto the pole and didn’t want to stand here.’

More angry muttering, plus furious eye contact.

‘Okay…well, sorry again…and, try to have a nice day.’

I was getting a little flippant. After all, what exactly had I done to seriously inconvenience her – even if she did want to get off the train at St Leonards (and I wasn’t sure of that yet).

The doors rolled apart and I left the train, and finally I heard what she was saying:

‘Hooray…you won the prize! First off the train!’

I could have ignored her and just walked away, but I was more than a little bewildered as to why I’d pissed her off so badly. I turned again to see her glaring at me, and after a moment said: ‘You’re a seriously unhappy woman, aren’t you.’

She started to flare up again, but by that point I realised there was absolutely zero rationality to deal with, so absence was the better part of discretion. I left the platform shaking my head.

The Analysis

But the incident played on my mind the entire day.

I had done nothing. Absolutely nothing that could reasonably upset a normal, rational human being on a commuter train, so what had set her off? Or at least, what caused her to express her resentment rather than be mildly irritated for half a second and then forget it? And what inspired her to stay pissed off even after an apology?

The answers can only be internal.

Something may have been upsetting her in her personal life, or something may have happened in the minutes before she encountered me, but even still – why would she take out her frustrations on an obviously harmless, innocent and polite person?

I’m trying to put myself into her head to understand this. For me to remonstrate with a fellow commuter, I would have to be convinced that they had done something deliberately offensive or ignorant, and if they stopped and apologised I would be immediately mollified.

What sort of person perceives an injury where there is none and then carries on rudely even after apology?

A person beaten by the world.

A person who feels the need to strike out at those who are unlikely to strike back.

Because that is clearly what I was dealing with – a person who had been bullied and therefore felt the need to bully others – the original vicious cycle.

It is a sad truth that people in our society are beaten down by bad relationships; bad bosses; bad luck; predatory or conniving colleagues; financial problems; lack of jobs; terrorism; the toxic environment; corrupt or useless politicians; an unsustainable rate of change; unrealistic expectations inspired by advertising and the exemplar lives of celebrities; resentment of those more successful; and a deep sense of failure and futility as a result of not being able to cope with some (if not all) of this.

I could sense the unhappy woman’s profound resentment and frustration which was being channelled into an attack on a target she perceived as unlikely to strike back. It’s terrorism with a small t – but analogous with large T terror. Get pissed off with the world but strike back at the innocent instead of the oppressor.

And yet, she would have walked off St Leonards station convinced that I was the aggressor / guilty party and frustrated she hadn’t given me a big enough piece of her mind.

I suspect that what she really needed was a hug, but you can’t hug terrorists.

She might have had a bomb.

In the Night Walk Pavilion

So much will be written over the next days and months about David Bowie (aka David Jones). His life and work touched so many, so profoundly, that the shock of his death feels like the death of a close friend. It needs to be grieved over, talked about and somehow integrated with the rest of our days, which will be so much the poorer. This is my contribution…

* * *

In the early 70s when I was just starting high school and learning there was more to music than the Beatles and the Monkees, the first bands I liked were Slade, Sabbath and The Rolling Stones – strutting, macho rockers who showed us prepubescents The Way.

Yet, even then, it was rumoured that there was another Way. Half-heard whispers, graffiti on lockers, carved into desk tops – there was also David Bowie.

But there was something weirdly wrong with Bowie (and with anyone who confessed to be a fan). Bowie (apparently) claimed to be gay – or at least bi-sexual (whatever that was) – so red-blooded, normal prepubescents who didn’t want to be singled out were careful not to listen to Bowie and made sure they loudly bagged him at least once a day (especially if they did secretly like Space Oddity).

And so the months rolled by – all of us happy and normal – not listening to Bowie and united against The Other Way.

Then everything changed.

Yes, puberty happened in there somewhere, but more importantly, a new boy started at our school (in the wilds of Sydney’s north). Stephen was different to the rest – curly red hair and openly intellectual – he may simply have gravitated to the small group who took their schoolwork seriously, except for one thing. On his very first day, he made the explosive announcement…that he was a David Bowie fan.

He couldn’t have done more to invite scrutiny if he’d turned up naked with a sack of gay porn. The news swept the playground like fire in February and quickly there was a knot of interrogators around Stephen (who also had long fingernails and a suspiciously genteel manner).

Interrogators: ‘You like David Bowie?’

Stephen: ‘Yes.’

(Expressions of shock and outrage.)

Interrogators: ‘So you’re gay.’

Stephen: ‘No.’

Interrogators: ‘But you said you liked David Bowie.’

Stephen: ‘Yes.’

The knot dispersed with knowing glances and dark mutterings of reprisals, but Stephen seemed unaffected by it all and that’s probably how I got sucked into his world. How could someone be so insouciant of the terrible damage he’d just done to his reputation and prospects for acceptance and inclusion? I must have stared longer than most because he quickly identified me as a person prepared to tolerate him.

Of course, I was barely tolerated myself for my own intellectual bent – something I tried to curb, but it would constantly cause me grief by being just a little too clever in class or even (gasp) philosophical. I made up for this by being good at sport and shoplifting, but Stephen was unlikely to recover from his dreadful debut and was therefore dangerous to know. My own suspect nature would never stand the association.

And yet he sought me out – especially in the German language class we shared.

I didn’t want him to. I was already part of a tight little group that didn’t need any new members. If I was prepared to socialise with a Bowie-lover then I was committing social suicide, so I resisted Stephen’s overtures of friendship and even told him bluntly that I couldn’t be friends with him because I hated David Bowie.

This didn’t seem to deter him. He simply treated me as though we were friends and upped the ante by inviting me round to his house. Fortunately he lived a couple of suburbs away, which made it easy to fob him off, but two things were weakening my resistance: one was my natural politeness and sense of justice. I did perceive that Stephen was being treated badly – not least by me – but I was scared of the consequences of being openly his friend as opposed to an occasional furtive interlocutor.

The other was Rebel Rebel.

When I saw the clip for Bowie’s new song one Saturday night, I was transfixed. Bowie looked unbelievably cool and was playing a heavy rock riff – not looking remotely gay – but then I shook my head and ran from the room, desperately ridding myself of the seductive contagion. Bowie was bad! Bowie was bad!! Bowie was bad!!!

Another week or two went by and Stephen cornered me again in German. Would I like to come around to his house on Saturday afternoon? They had a pool table.

I was trapped.

Before I knew it, I’d said: ‘Okay…but are you going to play David Bowie?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m only coming if you don’t play Bowie.’

He agreed, so I really had no choice after that, but I knew I was flirting with disaster if others learned I was going to a Bowie-lover’s house. I kept my No Bowie-date with Stephen secret from all but my mother (who had to drive me over) and Saturday dawned rainy. It poured all morning, inspiring a deep melancholy and eerie premonitions that my life was about to change.

The rain cleared but the clouds were still threatening as I stared at Stephen’s house from the car. The neighbourhood was so different to mine but clearly, anyone who had a pool table in the seventies was rich. The garden seemed like a work of art (his mother was into bonsai) and walking down the path was like entering a different world. There was a huge, subtly lit bonsai in the entry way which was not simply a means of ingress and egress. It was constructed from exotic timbers, lacquered, scented and shaded in a way that seemed to draw me in – already hypnotised by the strange and the new.

Stephen greeted me at the door and the first thing I said was: ‘No Bowie…okay?’

‘No Bowie,’ he agreed, with an odd smile.

After consuming a snack in the kitchen with Stephen’s mother (who seemed comparatively normal) we went downstairs to the pool room, where I was taught a lesson by my reasonably expert host. Three games went by without a single mention of Bowie and finally I couldn’t bear the tension.

‘Aren’t you going to put some Bowie on?’

He just stared at me.

I seemed to be doing the same thing from some weirdly external perspective. What the hell was wrong with me? Was I under some sort of spell?

‘Sure, we can play Bowie,’ said Stephen. ‘Come on.’

I followed him into the deepest, darkest part of the house – from where the strangeness seemed to emanate. Stephen’s bedroom.

I must have entered like a starving cat – wanting dinner, but fearing attack. If the others at school could see me now…

I sat on his bed while he fiddled with his record player (yes, vinyl in those days).

‘This is called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,’ said Stephen, turning off the light, and sitting next to me – causing my anxiety levels to skyrocket. I could actually hear my heart beating!

But no.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, it was a drumbeat, rising in volume, setting up a groove, and then a splash of arpeggiated guitar…

Pushing through the market square, so many mothers crying
News had just come over, we had five years left to sigh in…

It is difficult to convey to a modern audience the zeitgeist of the early seventies. This was the height of the Cold War. Vietnam was still happening. Everything seemed so futile but at the same time there was an aesthetic nihilism that reached even us budding intellectuals at the Arts End of the Earth. I had never heard anything express all of this so perfectly, yet Five Years wrapped it all up in four minutes of glittering imagery against a dark musical mood with a gloriously mesmeric melody. I was hooked.

Soul Love, Moonage Daydream – brilliant. I’d never heard anything like it, but then Starman absolutely knocked me out. ‘What an amazing, awesome, magical masterpiece!’ I found myself saying, while Stephen grinned – enjoying my conversion as much as I did.

By the end of the album I was totally blown away – emotionally exhausted by the ride I’d just taken, but there was more.

‘This is the new album,’ said Stephen, ‘…Diamond Dogs.’

‘Is that the one with Rebel Rebel?’

‘It is.’

If Ziggy had opened me up to the prospect of letting David Bowie into my life, Diamond Dogs confirmed me as a devout fanatic – ready to proselytise to all my Stones and Slade-loving mates who were missing out on something really important. The world may be dark, dysfunctional and doomed but Bowie’s music seemed to twist all that into something which, may not have been the answer, but was at least distracting and invited the listener to rise above it all to a place where art and music were all that mattered.

Obviously, I wanted Stephen to make a copy of those albums for me so we had to play them both again as they recorded onto a C90 cassette. I was in heaven.

Then another mind-shattering thought occurred to me. It was possible to like David Bowie and still be heterosexual! (As I was to discover about two years later while John, I’m Only Dancing played in the background.) This was an important thing to understand as, despite my euphoria at discovering Bowie, I was keenly aware that I would have to go to school on Monday and face a different kind of music, once my status as a Bowie fan was inevitably revealed.

Somehow I got through that ordeal without too much loss of blood, and Stephen became a popular member of my little clique. But around this time I made another important discovery: in fact there was already a secret society of Bowie-lovers. They were all musicians and strangely immune to the mainstream opinions and realities of high school.

As a mediocre singer, I was a fringe-member of the muso’s network and it was through them that I next discovered Hunky Dory – in many Bowie-philes’ opinion, his finest work. It is certainly the most intriguing from a lyrical perspective, including some of his most arcane material. Oh, You Pretty Things, Life on Mars and Quicksand are all opaque but still manage to convey a coherent narrative.

The same cannot be said for the closing track – The Bewlay Brothers.

I have struggled with that song my entire life. The lyrics are so portentous, so redolent of meaning and rippling with texture, but what on earth do they mean? (Full lyrics reproduced below.)

Like listening to an argument in an asylum, there are flashes of coherence which are maddeningly cut short by a fresh stream of consciousness every second line or so. The only line of the song I felt I understood was:

We were so turned on, in the mind warp pavilion

In other words, listening to the song (with its hauntingly wistful melody) was like being in the ‘mind warp pavilion’. Okay, I get that.

Imagine then my annoyance when (only recently) I discovered the line actually refers to ‘the night walk pavilion’.

So now I’m back to square one, trying to make sense of ‘chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature’.

And yet, the night walk pavilion sounds like a peaceful, strange and beautiful place. I hope David Bowie is there right now.

* * *

The years went by and I turned into an adult – going through phases but not as many as Bowie. I was resolutely heterosexual, but not because I had anything against those who were not. I simply found women more attractive than men, and if Bowie might have been disappointed with my blinkered stance, so be it.

(In fact, I’ve never understood homophobia. As a fairly ordinary-looking specimen of homo sapiens, I’ve always encouraged other men to be gay. Where would my sex life have been without all the good-looking blokes fancying each other?)

Bowie continued to provide the soundtrack, along with plenty of others, but as music evolved very few stayed on the playlist for more than a decade. Others have described better than I could the incredible way in which he not only stayed relevant over the swiftly changing epochs of musical style but drove them forward – constantly taking the initiative and staying at the forefront of fashion for far longer than any other artist in the history of popular music. Not only that, he has continually proven himself to be a songwriter and lyricist of the highest order.

I bought all his albums, went to all of his Sydney concerts, read several biographies, attended the exhibition in London, and sang Quicksand while giving the eulogy at my father’s funeral.

* * *

So how do I feel, now that he is gone?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact Bowie has had on my life – helping me make sense of and cope with the world so subtly I didn’t even realise it was happening (while also providing much of the soundtrack).

What makes it especially hard for me is that Bowie was Peter Pan – the quintessence of youth, awakening, discovery and self-confidence. How can such a person be gone? While he was alive (and older than me) I always felt young somehow (despite being in my 50s now). It’s like the passing of an Age of Middle-earth – the magic has diminished.

Of course, he will live on.

Many people achieve fame in their lifetime but then fade over decades and centuries as they lose their relevance.

But some do not fade.

Some like Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Orwell and Freud seem to burn brighter with every generation and I have no doubt that Bowie will prove to be one of these.

For, in my humble opinion, no-one has had more impact on music since Mozart.

* * *

As for Stephen, he teaches German at Cambridge these days…and it serves him right.

 

The Bewlay Brothers (by David Bowie)

And so the story goes they wore the clothes
They said the things to make it seem improbable
Whale of a lie like they hope it was
And the good men tomorrow had their feet in the wallow
And their heads of brawn were nicer shorn
And how they bought their positions with saccharin and trust
And the world was asleep to our latent fuss
Sighings swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers
In our wings that bark
Flashing teeth of brass
Standing tall in the dark
Oh, and we were gone
Hanging out with your dwarf men
We were so turned on
By your lack of conclusions

I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable
And we frightened the small children away
And our talk was old and dust would flow
Through our veins and though it was midnight back at the kitchen door
Like the grim face on the cathedral floor
The solid book we wrote cannot be found today
And it was stalking time for the moon boys, the Bewlay Brothers
With our backs on the arch
And if the Devil may be here
But he can’t sing about that
Oh, and we were gone
Real cool traders
We were so turned on
You thought we were fakers

And now the dress is hung, the ticket pawned
The factor max that proved the fact is melted down
Woven on the edging of my pillow
And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Bewlay brothers
In the feeble, in the bad
Bewlay brothers
In the blessed and cold
In the crutch-hungry dark
Was where we flayed our mark
Oh, and we were gone
Kings of Oblivion
We were so turned on
In the night walk pavilion

Lay me place and bake me pie I’m starving for me gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked I might just slip away
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Away
Away

Leave It To Bieber

People can tell a lot about you by the people with whom you associate.

Those who hung out with Hitler, Al Capone, Pol Pot, Bin Laden, Clive Palmer et al, wouldn’t be invited to too many Castle Hill barbeques…so what does that say about Hillsong and their new best mate Justin Bieber?

Besides being responsible for some of the most banal and pointless music in the history of poseur-ism, in the last two years he has been charged with:

• vandalism (usually egg throwing)
• drug use
• driving under the influence
• driving without due care and attention
• dangerous driving
• assault
• resisting arrest

He has had a suspended sentence, been required to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution and been required to attend anger management courses on multiple occasions. He has just turned 21 and there are Hells Angels twice his age with nothing like his rap sheet. Even putting the best possible spin on all this, he still comes across as a self-absorbed psychopath with no more godliness in his heart than Hannibal Lecter.

So why on earth would a so-called Christian organisation want to confuse their congregation by feting him at their conference?

The answer can only be money. Or the weird blend of notoriety and mass hypnosis that inevitably leads to money in this idiotic world we have to live in.

Whatever else it might be, Hillsong is a network marketing organisation. In order to keep marketing they need to keep their product visible and that’s what they’ve done by bringing Bieber downunder. Celebrity power equals bums on seats – no matter how vapid, spoilt or antisocial. I swear they’d take Alice Cooper crooning love songs to Satan if they could get him!

But how do the Hillsong rank and file feel about Biebs?

Do they somehow perceive the countenance of God in the lyrics to Baby? Is there some profound messianic message in his dangerous driving, drug use and casual vandalism?

God moves in mysterious ways after all, but even if I had paid the Hillsong tithe and bought all their merch, I’d be raising an eyebrow at the sort of role model they were wanting me to buy into this time. They’re just following the Scientology template, I suppose, but seriously… Using an arrogant brat of a popstar to market a church is like using naked women to market chastity belts!

But what if it’s successful?

What if the use of an antisocial mediocrity like Justin Bieber did somehow result in higher Hillsong attendances and further sales of music and tee-shirts? What sort of church would that truly reflect?

A church that values celebrity over any sort of virtue.

A church that holds up as an exemplar a self-obsessed vandal with assault and anger management issues.

A church that wants you to believe that a recidivist egg tosser and dangerous driver is really a kind and gentle human being who is just here to be part of the crowd…not to exploit the crowd and encourage others into the fold.

If you belieb that you’ll belieb anything…which is exactly what Hillsong are counting on.

Keeping it Clean-ish: A review of Mr Cleansheets by Adrian Deans

I don’t often reblog reviews of my work. Seems a tad self-serving, but I really enjoyed this review from a university academic. Mr Cleansheets has now entered the canon of post-doctoral research, which is clearly where all my work belongs.

Yes, I am a total wanker.

shugmcgowan

Everything about my reading and research of football novels (and I can say, hand on heart, my research has led me to read hundreds of them – not exaggerating) made me not want to read Mr Cleansheets. It looked every bit the mediocre romanticised tosh so often turned out when a failed footballer wrestles their fantasy onto paper. If only for the solid recommendation of a very smart and well respected Norwich City fan (a phrase you might never see again) I would not have paid as much attention. I would have had a look at it one day, but not in a hurry.

Then I started reading it.

As I imagined, it’s filled with silliness and melodrama and reaching coincidence, but it differentiates itself with pace and humour, action aplenty, rounded characters, and a solid story. As far as football fiction goes Mr Cleansheets makes it beyond the fourth round…

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The Sleeping Giant Awakes

 

For generations, we poor benighted followers of Australian football have lived in fear and hidden our faces from the world.

Shunned and ridiculed by the mainstream, our tribe has assembled in secrecy – cowering in our caves – whispering the prophecy that one day The Giant would awaken and sweep the infidels from their lofty positions.

And lo! We true believers would emerge from the caves like a city relieved at the lifting of a siege, walking onto the sunlit uplands like heroes preparing to receive ambrosia.

I was there.

I was there when The Giant awoke…stretched…and rolled over.

* * *

It hasn’t always been easy following Australian football.

In the years BL (Before Lowy), the newspapers were obsessed with games involving oddly shaped balls, and little was ever said about the one true spherical faith – especially on Sydney’s white bread North Shore, where I grew up.

It was rumoured that a bizarre counter culture existed somewhere on the fringes of society, playing a game were the ball bounced truly and goals were hard to get, requiring tremendous skill. But where were they?

To play soccer as a child was regarded as eccentric. To watch it as an adult was regarded as a weird perversion and even prison rock spiders enjoyed higher social status.

But somehow we found each other. Somehow, via a combination of winks, nods and secret handshakes, we true believers assembled to enjoy football and share each other’s pain.

The Socceroos in those days were being knocked out of the World Cup by the footballing powerhouses of New Zealand, Scotland and Israel and the game would lurch from crisis to embarrassment to ridicule despite the bewildering fact that participation rates dwarfed the other codes, combined. But that was the mystery: how did massive amateur participation rates not translate into a strong professional league, national team and media obsession the way it did in the rest of the world?

This mystery was not lost on the other codes. It was said that League, Union and Aussie Rules in particular all trembled at the prospect of the Sleeping Giant – warning each other that if ever “sokkah” got its act together in this country then their days would be numbered. It was rumoured that every time the Socceroos failed to make a World Cup, the Champagne would be broken out at AFL and NRL headquarters. The Giant had been slipped a Rohypnol and the rival codes could flourish for at least another four years.

* * *

I have played football ever since I can remember, and I’ve agonised over the Socceroos that entire time.

I remember being woken by my mother for all three of the games in 1974 (plus the final – Der Bomber prevails). We didn’t do very well but at least we were there, and to a fellow like me (for whom a glass with a drop of water is 1% full) it seemed like we always would be.

But the quadrennia rolled by and we all learned not to hope. Occasionally there’d be a flicker of possibility – like when we drew with Argentina in Sydney and then were beaten by a fluke goal in Buenos Aires. We actually would have won that Sydney game if not for the masterful performance of a mysteriously supercharged Maradona (who was kicked out of the finals as soon as his secret was revealed).

Then there was the tragedy of Melbourne in 97…

I still can’t bear to think of that night.

I was in a room with about 30 of my mates and it was deafening – almost like being there. But we kept missing simple chances in the first half and the tension was only partly relieved by young Harry’s far post effort that put us ahead at half time. Then straight away in the second half we’re two up – completely rampant – and that maniac brings down the net. The Iranians are on record as admitting that they knew they were beaten when that second goal went in, and feared not so much World Cup elimination (that was a given) as total humiliation. But when that pointless prick jumped on the net, and it took so long to repair, they had time to regroup, recover and respond (and their first goal was offside FFS!).

When the final whistle blew, there was silence in my room full of mates. One by one they straggled from the room, unable to watch the aftermath as Johnny Warren famously wept.

Forty-five minutes later there was just me and one other (Albert), still just staring into the desperate void, knowing that Australia, the only team in the history of the tournament to be eliminated without being beaten (at that time) would never make the World Cup finals.

Montevideo, four years later, just proved it.

 

A tale of two Johnnies

Against this backdrop of irrevocable, pre-ordained defeat for the Socceroos, another quadrennium rolled around. I noted with vague interest the establishment of the FFA and the Second Coming of Frank. I was vaguely overjoyed to learn of the appointment of Guus Hiddinck, and vaguely I knew that, on paper, we had a strong team. But we still had to get past the battle hardened Uruguayans – bristling with class, confidence and galvanised by their country’s expectation. And, possibly for the first time, I had no real hope that we might prevail.

More correctly, the hope was there in my heart of hearts, but when it was buried by 32 years of dire disappointment, for the sake of my sanity I had to be grown up and mature about our prospects. We had no chance.

This bleak reality manifested itself in my taking no steps to obtain tickets for the return match in Sydney when it was reasonably possible to get them. A bit later, my mate Pete asked me if I wanted a ticket, if he could get some. “Yeah…why not?” I responded, with as much enthusiasm as I might have shown if he’d asked me to donate a kidney. But despite spending 48 hours on the phone he didn’t come within cooee.

Some days later, still well before the one nil loss in Montevideo, my brother-in-law rang me to tell me he had two spare tickets – for me and my wife. “Thanks Woodsie!” I said, then immediately rang Karen.

“I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is Woodsie’s given me two tickets to the game.”

“That’s fantastic,” she said, “but what’s the bad news?”

“I’m taking Pete.”

* * *

I had to take Pete.

And one of the reasons I love Karen so much is that she understood. Pete had shared my 32 year wait for another trip to the World Cup, and he’d tried to get me a ticket for god’s sake! The least I could do in return was snub my wife for him.

As we took our seats at the Olympic Stadium my choice was further vindicated.

“We booked our tickets for Germany today.”

“You what?”

Pete had already paid for return tickets to Germany for his entire family – with Uruguay leading one nil after their home match.

I just shook my head in amazement at his confidence. Had he learned nothing after 32 years?

* * *

No-one who was there will ever forget. And no-one will ever be able to explain what it was like to those who were not.

Half an hour before kick off, the atmosphere was electric – unbelievable. It was like the party to end all parties had started prematurely – going off and gambling everything on there being something to celebrate before the end. And there was something else: a tangible, supernatural presence. The spirit of Johnny Warren loomed large over the stadium like a countervailing force to neutralise the natural chutzpah of the South American light heavyweights.

By the time the teams had marched out onto the pitch the 83,000 in the stands had reached a level of deafening angst that was not to subside the entire evening. When the Uruguayan national anthem played, we didn’t hear a note. The entire crowd were booing so loudly and passionately, it was genuinely terrifying. I could see the nervousness of the enemy on the big screen as 83,011 Australians howled, and I turned to Pete in some embarrassment.

“I don’t know how I feel about this,” I said, “…we don’t usually do this.”

The boos and hatred seemed to swell even stronger, and I said: “Mind you…what we usually do is lose.”

I daresay we all would have felt somewhat better about the booing had we known that the Uruguayans had been insulting, kicking and spitting at the Australians in the tunnel before coming out.

The game began in a series of furious anticlimaxes as the Uruguayans immediately commenced time-wasting tactics. Even the coach, Jorge (Prostitute Food) Forsatti was wasting time – hanging onto the ball to prevent a throw-in in the very first minutes! But once the game settled down, it was the Australians dominating most of the possession with the enemy happy to counter-attack mainly through the lightning Recoba. In fact, he really should have scored after about 20 minutes, despite the fact that he should have been pulled up for a high foot on Lucas Neill when he nicked the ball off Lucas’s cheek with his studs. Mark that one down to Johnny W, slamming his fist down on the chessboard of the gods.

Then came the key moment of normal time. Harry hadn’t started, but replaced Tony Popovic after 30 minutes as Guus changed his shape and went on the attack. Almost immediately, Harry worked a brilliant move down the left with Timmy Cahill and Mark Viduka, ran onto the return ball and fooled everyone by pretending a pathetic air swing which was, in fact, a sublime pass to Bresciano who drilled it over Carini’s head into the roof of the net.

The joy.

The sheer, primal howl of triumphant ecstasy.

We were now even on aggregate and if anything, the noise and angst levels rose. Before we’d had nothing to lose but now we did, and the white-knuckled horde clenched its teeth and buttocks and just clung to each other, emitting this weird, deafening drone like a billion terrified bees.

As the players went off for half time we sat numbly, unable to think or speak with any coherence. We made inarticulate noises – communicating in some kind of visceral language that was mainly about despair and injustice and four more years of what-might-have-been. We feared another Melbourne 97.

All week I’d been predicting one nil and penalties (despite my lack of belief and hope), and if I was right, it would mean another impossibly narrow squeak. To lose again, in those circumstances – I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to find the energy or interest to take another breath. It simply wouldn’t be worth it.

The players returned and the second half commenced. The crowd immediately returned to its previous 5000 decibels and 45 minutes passed in a blur of adrenaline, noise and terror. Neither team had any clear cut chances, as far as I recall, but I do remember thinking we’d finished the stronger, which is why I was furious when the ground announcer advised that in extra time away goals still counted double in the event of a draw.

“Oh that’s just wrong!” I moaned to Pete. “They’ve had their chance for double value and done nothing with it. Now they’re used to the conditions it should be off scratch.”

“Knowing FIFA,” replied Pete, “away goals will count double in the penalty shootout.”

The countdown to penalties commenced as we dominated extra time, while still allowing Uruguay occasional chances. A free header to Morales from a corner had us clutching our heads in horror! He was six yards out! Why was he left (and how did he miss)?

The players changed ends for the final fifteen minutes and it was just agony. The longer it went, the more likely it seemed that Uruguay would score, leaving us with the impossible task of getting two in whatever seconds were left.

But finally it was over. The crowd roared its appreciation and love and almost magically, the fear was gone. It’s like Johnny W was standing behind every one of us, massaging our shoulders and whispering: “I told you so.”

Suddenly we were confident and breathing easy – standing on our seats – desperate to make a difference somehow. The players seemed confident, and the Uruguayans were strangers in a strange and hostile land.

The players retired to the centre circle and Harry strode forward to take the first – slotted beautifully – one nil.

Then Rodriguez approached timidly for Uruguay. Schwarzer was steady as a stone, staring him down, guessed right and dived left and the roar that filled the stadium made the previous 120 minutes sound like a basket of kittens. Advantage Oz.

Neill and Vidmar, Varela and Estoyanoff, all functus officio – three, two.

Mark Viduka, captain courageous, stepped up to keep our noses in front. All we had to do was score two more penalties and we were going to Germany. And Viduka was the best striker we’d ever had, wasn’t he? No problem.

You just knew he was gonna miss. He completely tangled his run up, dragged it gently wide, and the horrible doubts were back. Or should have been.

For some reason probably associated with my natural optimism in defiance of any odds (a glass with a drop is 1% full after all) I turned to Pete as the crowd groaned its dismay and said: “Schwarzer’ll save this.”

Pete said nothing. He knew I was full of shit, but to acknowledge it might somehow break the magic spell I’d just cast.

Zalayeta stepped up to equalise for Uruguay and Schwarzer guessed right again.

Wow.

The inexpressible relief hot on the heels of Viduka’s miss. All of us were turning excitedly to each other and shouting, as Johnny Aloisi approached the spot: “If he scores we’re going to Germany!”

Johnny stood there, in the most tense and crippling of silences in the history of human endeavour. Thirty-two years of heartache on his shoulders. His eyes flicked towards the referee to confirm that all was in readiness, then he glided towards the ball and drove it past Carini’s desperate fingers.

We’ve all seen it a thousand times as Johnny rips his shirt off and goes careering around the stadium, pursued by his ecstatic team mates and surrounded by wildly celebrating Australians pouring their love like petrol onto the flames of joy.

In the stands we were hugging strangers and kissing anyone. Even as I write this now, nearly ten years later, there’s a lump in my throat and my eyes are getting misty at the memory. There’ll never again be a feeling like that – the relief – the untold, inexpressible exultation after 32 years of torment. We stayed standing on our seats hugging, cheering and singing till we were hoarse and beyond, all of us contributing to The Giant’s waking roar. As the players did a long, slow victory lap they played Land Down Under about eight times back to back and we just loved it – our hearts filled with a profound emotion that went beyond patriotism, jingoism or any other ism.

It was an awesome, magical, life-changing experience beyond the passion of saints. And you really had to be there.

We were going to Germany!

The Giant had woken.

 

[This blog was originally published on the Vulgar Press website in 2009, then revised and republished on the FourFourTwo site in 2012.]

Desocialising the Reader: The Secret World of the Unchained Id

Crime has been one of the most popular genres in modern literature since the rise of the detective story in the C19. Having said that, it is clear that the focus of such stories (and readers’/viewers’ tastes driving that focus) has substantially shifted from the characters solving crime to the characters causing it. We used to identify with the powers of good (eg Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot et al), but now we seem to identify just as much with the criminals, (eg The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Silence of the Lambs). We even blend the two – giving criminals a moral crusade (Breaking Bad, Dexter) or the good guys a morally equivocal approach to fighting crime (Rake).

What does this say about us as readers? Or the society in which such literature is generated?

It is my thesis is that the success of crime as a genre (particularly where it features complicated individuals who straddle both sides of the law) reflects the secret desire of individuals to break the shackles of civilisation. Crime allows the reader to visit vicariously a world they fear and get on intimate terms with characters from whom they would run screaming in real life.

Crime fiction allows the reader to escape the bonds of socialisation and taste the freedom reserved only for those who refuse to join the social compact.

* * *

Human beings are complex animals with a vast and soaring capacity for enlightenment, beauty and art – yet animals we remain. Our higher order faculties are built upon the same neural hardware used by the dinosaurs and all our other scaly and hairy ancestors who needed aggression and a powerful reproductive instinct to perpetuate themselves in the primordial chaos. Accordingly, the selfish, aggressive and lustful impulses necessary to sustain those ancestors over a hundred million years are still inherent in us.

We may not like to admit it, but we are constantly bombarded with violent, lustful and other antisocial urges which can never completely be turned off because they are too deeply a part of us. The brain you are using right now to understand these principles may be wrapped in a mammalian limbic system and surmounted with a hominid neo-cortex capable of profound abstraction, but the neural chassis – which looks after all your most fundamental systems – is still essentially a dinosaur brain, responding in its own way to any social stimulus.

And yet, your dinosaur brain does not force you to act out those dinosaur urges. Human beings have learned to repress their fundamental drives in order to get along in civil society. If we did not repress the violence, aggression and lust we would still be in what Thomas Hobbes referred to as a state of nature where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. (Leviathan, 1697)

This repression process is called socialisation. Freud referred to the unsocialised newborn as being in an id state – an intellectual blank slate with only its innate drives to help it make sense of the world. Left to itself, the individual would never emerge from the id state, but we are not left to ourselves. We encounter ‘others’ from our earliest days and it is through dealing with others that we become ‘self aware’ (the ego) and learn to find our own acceptable place within the norms of a community (the superego).

The point is, while most of us ignore or deny the innate antisocial urges, they never go away. We might repress the ‘urges’ for 50 years and then suddenly snap for a vast range of reasons – not least because we want to snap. Denying our most fundamental urges does not come naturally so has to be enforced by a precarious framework of laws and conventions which keep our true nature in check – like the chains holding King Kong in a New York theatre.

Socialisation is like a carrot and a stick. The stick is the threat of punishment if we break the law (or being ostracised by a peer group for failing to abide by convention). The carrot, according to Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, is the opportunity to make the social compact – to enjoy remnant freedoms after surrendering the innate personal sovereignty of the id to a higher sovereign entity (the law, or peer group expectation).

Crime occurs because either the stick is too weak a threat or the carrot too insufficient a reward and the id, like King Kong breaking his chains, takes back its innate sovereignty to express its drives untrammelled by the law.

* * *

Literature abounds with stories about the breakdown of civil society where people are no longer constrained by law or convention. Apocalyptic and dystopian books (Lord of the Flies, The Road) revel in the descent into chaos where The Rules are lost or changed and individuals are forced to be desocialised in order to survive. Such milieux are excellent thought laboratories for writers wanting to play with the human condition, but these are not our concern. This essay is focussed on the literature dealing with those who commit antisocial acts despite The Rules being firmly in place.

A civil society is dependent on the majority abiding by the social compact and obeying the law in order to preserve personal security, property and political rights. Obey the law and you will be safe and as successful as you deserve.

Criminals are those who do not deny their most natural urges. They unleash their urges in order to rape, kill or steal from others and such people are feared, shunned and punished if caught – mainly to reinforce the lesson of the social compact, but partly also (I suspect) because society’s retribution is born of jealousy as much as fear. We may have sublimated our natural urges for the greater good, but we still feel those urges and occasionally fantasise about letting them loose.

That, in my opinion, is why the crime genre is so successful. In an increasingly overcrowded and dysfunctional world our socialisation is under threat from a vast range of factors and forces – not least the pressure to be successful (ie, rich and/or famous). Crime is a shortcut to wealth and notoriety so is attractive in the real world to inadequately socialised individuals, and attractive in the fantasy world to individuals curious about what it would be like to have the social shackles removed.

This phenomenon is well understood by novelists and screen writers – who create well-drawn, fascinating ‘bad guy’ characters and invite the reader into their heads (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Hannibal Lecter, nearly all of Quentin Tarantino’s characters, and, of course, most true crime works) to get a feel for that ultimate freedom – that unleashing of the id that criminals get to enjoy (until they’re caught), but is denied to the socialised.

Irvine Welsh is not regarded as a mainstream crime writer but I would suggest that all of his books fall somewhere on the crime spectrum. His most famous novel (Trainspotting) is about a group of Edinburgh junkies who get by thieving, scamming and dealing hard drugs. Their world is a violent and chaotic nightmare, filled with highs and lows beyond the experience of the well-adjusted, bourgeois reader. But all great writers have their own peculiar prism through which they perceive the human condition – for Welsh’s Edinburgh junkies that prism is the impact of heroin addiction on socialisation. People driven to procure heroin at any cost are no longer concerned with any sort of social nicety and Welsh revels in the outrageous behaviour of his characters as they go about the business of surviving.

But not just surviving. The main characters all have their philosophies – in particular Mark Renton, the main narrator (nearly all chapters are 1st person POV but from a range of different characters). It is easy for readers to identify with Renton – his way of seeing the world is simple. His own humanity has been stripped back to focus on the most obvious and urgent needs, but his perception of the behaviour of the bourgeoisie is that they are fundamentally focussed on the same motivations as him (except heroin) but clutter their lives with a range of hypocritical actions, distractions and attitudes in order to obscure the ugly, selfish truth. In other words, socialisation (or ‘choosing life’) is self-deluding hypocrisy. (Much of the book’s humour stems from Renton’s Attenborough-like observations of the bourgeois.) In identifying with Renton, the reader becomes exempt from his scathing judgments and shares in his occasionally soaring philosophy – until he commits the ultimate betrayal. (Or does he?)

A character with whom it is less easy to identify is Gregory David Roberts, the narrator of Shantaram. Shantaram purports to be a true crime memoir about a vicious escaped criminal who finds redemption working as a quasi-doctor in the Mumbai slum. Like Renton, Roberts is partial to philosophical ramblings (especially at the end of chapters), but unlike Renton he isn’t funny, and his meanings and motivations are obscure. On top of all that, his crimes are real, as opposed to Renton’s fictional crimes (which are mostly victimless). I would suggest it is easier for most readers to identify with a fictional criminal than a true-life criminal because the knowledge that a real victim suffered murder, violence or theft hinders the desocialisation process for the reader. I would suggest that it is easier for many readers to identify with the intelligence of fictional criminals like Mark Renton, or even Hannibal Lecter, than it is to identify with any true-life criminal.

Unless, of course, the victims are other criminals. Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s true crime memoirs have been amazingly popular over the last 20 years and I would suggest that the reason for this is that the victims are (nearly always) other criminals or dodgy coppers who deserved some sort of retribution. Chopper becomes a force for good (in his own world) and is charismatic enough to bring his audience with him on his various crusades. This means that the desocialisation process is comparatively easy for Chopper’s readers – he’s a black knight up against those even blacker.

That’s the key. The moral alignment of the reader can be adjusted to that of the main character (within the world of the story) and the people that character is against become the vicarious enemies of the reader. In the hands of a skilled writer, those enemies are just as likely to be the forces of order as the forces of evil.

* * *

Probably the easiest criminal character for a bourgeois reader to desocialise/identify with is the innocent abroad – the ordinary man or woman who finds him/herself in an extraordinary situation and is forced to break the law to survive. A moral justification, consistently applied, (Dexter, Breaking Bad) eases the desocialisation process (while under the spell of the story). A criminal act which can be morally justified is a gateway to other (less justifiable) actions once the reader has made the identification link with the relevant character.

Revenge stories, in particular, are fertile ground for writers wanting readers to identify with characters whose urges have been unleashed. Robert G Barrett was one of Australia’s most popular writers of the last 30 years. His books were mostly pulp fiction and barely worthy of deconstruction, with the exception of Davo’s Little Something – a novel of surprising depth and complexity. That story featured a fellow (Davo) who was the stereotypical ‘good bloke’ until beaten almost to death by a gang of random assailants. The story of Davo’s recovery is painstaking and powered by revenge – but something fundamental has changed and Davo is inspired to go far beyond the revenge that would have satisfied the temporarily desocialised bourgeois reader. Ultimately the book is quite tragic and very disturbing for the reader who might have approved of Davo’s actions – until he went too far.

Another way of easing the reader into the shoes of the main character is to establish a powerful story ambience that engages the sensibilities of the reader. In my own work I tend to invite the reader into what I refer to as ‘the secret world’. We all have a secret world in which The Rules of normal socialised life are transmuted into something more elastic. It is a sensual world in which numbers, symbols and patterns are discerned with a kind of meta-intelligence to make sense of the universe in a deeply private and (for most people) rarely expressed manner.

Sex, in particular, is an important part of this world. I believe that sex (in all its polymorphous manifestations) is deeply imbued into the way we perceive the world and other people, and I naturally use that in my writing. The main characters of Straight Jacket, for example, are two very sensual people who communicate in a manner which is always redolent of sex and its taboos. Morgen adverts to the small things that most people ‘see without seeing’ in polite society – like lost panties in the gutter or graffiti in public toilets. The reader is drawn into his sexually charged secret world and enjoys being in his head (1st person POV) despite his appalling attitude and behaviour.

Sex, of course, is also one of those weird activities that is legal between consenting adults but illegal when forced upon a non-consenter. Further, it can be perceived as an illicit or taboo activity between consenting adults who ought not be doing it according to the prevailing conventions of a given culture; ie adultery (Fatal Attraction, Crimes and Misdemeanours). Thus ‘sin’ can lead to crime whether as the revenge of a wronged partner or the efforts of an adulterer to conceal the sin. Either way, this is a profoundly intimate world where the humanity of the main characters is completely open to the reader to identify or judge.

A superbly portrayed example of this was Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours in which a highly respected member of the Jewish community (Judah) is tempted into an extramarital dalliance and is then confronted with the possibility that the lover will tell the wife. After much soul-searching, his solution is to call upon his brother (far less respected, with gangster affiliations) to resolve the problem (ie, the murder of the lover). In the end, Woody Allen who has been obsessing over the nature of justice in human relations encounters Judah in the bar at a wedding. Judah is surprisingly relaxed after the resolution of his moral dilemma and when Woody Allen (referring to his own problems) asks: ‘You don’t think God sees?’ Judah responds: ‘God is a luxury I can’t afford.’

Of course, once inside the secret world with the characters, the reader (or viewer) is also empowered and liberated, and open to concepts and possibilities that normally they wouldn’t see. This is the key to appreciating the deeper textures of quality crime fiction.

* * *

Finally, if we readers of crime fiction are drawn to the dark side within the pages of the story, how do we feel when the powers of good prevail (as they usually do)? Finishing a good book is like waking from a dream – a return to the real and conscious world where the social compact prevails.

No matter how much empathy we might have had for a character in the secret world, we are unlikely to have much sympathy for their plight when we return to the real world. No-one can sympathise with Mark Renton, or Gregory David Roberts, or Chopper, or Patrick Bateman, or Hannibal Lecter, or Morgen Tanjenz when the final page is turned, and yet it was fun to travel with them through their journey.

For a little while the reader has been empowered and liberated to enjoy vicariously the ultimate freedom of the unchained id. This is a fascinating journey and any guilty pleasure is intellectualised and offset by the literary invention, but in the end there must always be a return to the waking world of jobs, mortgages and well-adjusted relationships.

The world is real but the secret world is unreal.

Warren Is A Joke

For many years now I’ve been increasingly worried by a growing list of anxieties, including (but not limited to): world hunger, global warming, terrorism, fundamentalism (of any stripe), political corruption, the North South divide, social dysfunction, ocean pollution, mass extinctions, overpopulation, viral pandemic, the banal cult of celebrity, existential malaise and the steadfast refusal of any person in authority to take any of these things seriously.

Realistically, besides the occasional donation or token polemic blog, there is bugger all I can do about any of this, which compounds the anxiety. However, I have found a crusade which might just be within my measure…to see the end of that fool Warren who draws (so-called) cartoons for the Telegraph.

There is a proud Australian tradition of editorial cartoons – usually political or otherwise holding a mirror up to the crazed countenance of the Australian or World condition. Many names have entered the pantheon such as Larry Pickering, Alan Moir, David Pope, Cathy Wilcox, Michael Leunig (of course), Matthew Martin, Mark David, Paul Rigby…and those are just a handful covering the last 30 years or so. All of them funny. All of them capable of genius. How could a mere mortal ever aspire to joining their ranks?

Well, as it turns out, expert draughtsmanship, a way with words and a keen eye for cracks under the socio-political wallpaper are not the only tools needed to become a successful cartoonist. You could, like Warren, simply scrawl pictures of people Australians have been told to hate (or love) by the right wing media and that will be enough to get you a gig with the Tele.

But images of towel-headed terrorists waving scimitars, or Tony Abbott in his speedos purporting to out-macho Putin add little to the canon of Australian cartoonery. Even worse are the occasional tributes to the Aussie hero du jour. Thursday’s ‘cartoon’ was simply a picture of the civil engineer John Bradfield straddling titan-like the harbour in place of the bridge he famously built (on the same day that Tony Abbott proposed that the new airport be named after Bradfield). How is this a cartoon? Friday’s effort depicting the (unconvicted) Phil Rudd being raped in prison and facing an electric chair was simply grotesque.

The alarmist, right wing propaganda masquerading as satire produced by Warren is never funny. It asks no questions. It reveals nothing surprising or worthy of caricature. It serves no purpose except to encourage obsequiousness to conservative leaders and fear of Otherness. It is ham-fisted, humourless drivel which is generated simply to support the radical right wing agenda of the editors.

Now, as an ardent advocate of free speech, I have no problem with Warren trotting out tasteless and disturbing propaganda as directed by his paymasters. But I do have a problem with cartoons that aren’t funny. Let’s all join together to get Warren thrown off the Tele and replaced by a cruel, heartless conservative demagogue who at least can make us laugh!

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