Entry 115: I Wish I Never Was– Sometimes, when you witness the glories of this earth, as, for example, you do, when viewing something like David Attenborough’s trilogy on the Great Barrier Reef, you sing hosannas to whatever forces have produced such splendour. All of my life, I have been entranced by films, exhibitions and documentaries on nature. From deep-sea fumaroles to deep-space imagery of unimaginably distant galaxies; from those infinitesimally small strings that, perhaps, may harmonise our existence to the immensity of all the possible multiverses, I have been enthralled by the mysteries of creation.
Knowing that I will never pierce the inner workings of any of these arcane mysteries, I content myself with just saying: thank you. Glad to be here. Hope I get to stay a bit longer. Lately, I have been counting my blessings. In youth and mid-life, I raged a fair bit about the injustice of it all. Particularly as it applied to me!
Now, I just sit on my back veranda and watch an old friend’s pigeons wheel in the sky above as he prepares them for a competitive flight next weekend; or sipping a glass of shiraz, I watch a neighbour putting in a new roof as I listen, on the radio, to Richard Glover talk about stuff that only people in Sydney and, at a stretch, New South Wales would care about.
And I laugh. It is just so great to be alive and part of this quotidian existence. Notice that I have used the word just a couple of times? I have used it, in each case, as an adverb meaning simply, but there is an underlying hook here. How is it just?
While living rather modestly in the outer west of Sydney for the past twenty years, I am aware that my lot is so much better than that so many others who live in this relatively wealthy country of Australia. In the world, most people alive today are living in more straitened circumstances than I.
Most times, driven by the relentless round of getting and spending, I have been able to push this reality to one side. But there are times when something lodges and refuses to be dislodged.
Lodgement One, New Year’s Eve, Singapore, 1978, in a taxi going back to our hotel, I see an old Chinese woman dragging a load of cardboard behind her: the taxi slows for traffic lights, and our eyes meet.
Lodgement Two, it’s 1981 and I have just cashed a cheque from RTE radio in Dublin who have bought a radio play and I go into the supermarket to stock up on some luxuries. Ahead of me, a young woman in threadbare coat, trying to soothe a squalling infant, pushes her trolley with basic necessities to the checkout and rummages through her purse for coins to cover her meagre purchases. She glances at my basket of superfluous goodies and then up and into my eyes.
I could go on to enumerate a dozen such instances- but you get my drift. It’s not sufficient merely to intone, there but for the grace of God go I. What do you do? And is it enough? In 1990, I watched a documentary film which was prompted by a report by Human Rights’ Commissioner Brian Burdekin into youth homelessness.
I was shocked at the idea that there were up to 15,000 people under 18 in such circumstances. In 2007 Brian Burdekin raged at the lack of government action in the intervening years. Now, the figures stand at nearly 30,000. How’s that for progress?
In 1991, I was commissioned to write a musical play for a theatre in North Queensland. The play was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the theatre’s establishment. A friend, visiting from Ireland, had been having a few drinks with the theatre’s director and casually mentioned that I had written plays in Ireland.
So, I was asked to provide a draft that would involve various arts groups. I came up with a memory play that involved a young guy, homeless from childhood, who had travelled north from Sydney with his girlfriend, picking up infrequent odd jobs.
They cross paths with indigenous people and also befriend a young woman, a test subject at a medical research centre, who had fled from the facility. A tropical cyclone also makes an appearance. A group of musicians played behind a scrim and it was only in the final minutes of the play that the scrim flew revealing that the audience were not listening to a backing tape, but a live group- one of several sleights of hand involved with the production. The themes of homelessness, alienation, redemption were all at play and young dancers were choreographed skilfully into the whole.
The central character, at an early stage of the play, states his feelings of hopelessness in the song that follows. Its epigraph, if it were to have one, would be Matthew 18:6, If anyone causes one of these little ones…to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. There should be a run on millstones.