Entry 66: The Long Weekend– Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost. These lines are from the beginning of Dante’s The Inferno, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In all literature, The Divine Comedy, of which The Inferno forms the first and most popular part, has few peers: many poets see it as a touchstone against which to test their own prowess in translation and prosody.
Visual artists, too, regard this work as a test of their abilities to render to sight what has been wrought in sound (I’m told, by those who know, that Dante’s great work needs to be heard in the original Tuscan for full effect). Gustave Doré’s monochrome woodcuts set the standard, here. Many of these images have stayed with me. Dante, standing in the selva oscura, the dark forest, is one such, where he looks back towards the light as he steps deeper into the dark tunnel formed by the over-arching branches of the ominous trees.
In similar fashion, I watched appalled as the social fabric of Belfast started to warp, fray and unravel from 1968 under the political and paramilitary forces increasingly at work before my eyes. I glanced backward at the departing light of mid-sixties optimism where the city was alive with great music in the dance-halls and clubs. As the tribal war drums began to reverberate, I retreated to Belfast City Library to access reading material and listening material to help me escape.
There I came across Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country. Having been intrigued by the island continent since schoolboy Geography classes, I began to read about Australia. I determined to apply for a teaching post there and subsequently got a conditional offer from the New South Wales Education Department. Arriving in Aussie in August 1972, I found that I fit right in- a bit of an indictment really, in the light of what Ronald Conway had to say in his book The Great Australian Stupor, where he painted the Australian male as a completely inadequate father, selfish husband and incompetent lover, who took refuge from his inadequacies at the pub.
Ouch! He also wrote in 1988: “Australia has become an addicted society, one which seeks a too easy and too dangerous way of breaking out of the rat trap of materialism that it has built for itself. This is a society without sufficient creative imagination to stay happy and healthy.” He was no less scathing in the new millennium, writing in 2001, “Ours could be the first century in history to turn media-heated sexuality into a universal bore.”
I used the title of his second book, The Land of the Long Weekend, in the song, even though, now, it is a sad remnant of a long-ago time in this consumer age of 24/7 trading where the un- and under- employed and age-pensioners such as myself are in the dwindling band of those who may actually get- if not enjoy- a whole weekend of leisure. As to why we are here? He wrote, “Perhaps the wholly present point of our conscious existence is not to build a wall against mortality but live as deeply as we can so as to inspire those who come after.”
Do I agree? Yes. Yes, I do. I am indebted to distinguished Aussie journalist Tony Stephens for the information on Conway from his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 26, 2009. Conway’s acerbic critique has been a challenge to me over the decades. First, in the 70s where I was less than half-way along my life’s path when things got twisted and I couldn’t find the way. My Beatrice led me back to where it all began, in Ireland in 1979, but as others, too, have found, you can’t go back.
You’re just a ghost, wandering in a landscape where once-familiar faces look at you strangely. Returning to Australia in 1988, I was in time to catch Conway’s ongoing critique of Aussie life and I must admit that I noticed that things had changed quite a bit in the almost ten-year absence. And, they’ve continued to change; yet, strangely, despite all this- Australia remains a land of dreams and endless opportunities that the ugly spectres from the other, older and raddled hemisphere have not been able to infect so far, touch wood!
The sun-drenched optimism that pours into my backyard in Sydney’s outer West on this the last day of 2015 reminds me of a Sydney expatriate who has kept me entertained and challenged through the decades since he had me in stitches with his Unreliable Memoirs– and all the books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism and TV appearances. Of course, I’m talking about Clive James, Even my memories are clearly seen:/Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must/Be aching for my homeland/…The sky is overcast/Here in the English autumn, but my mind/Basks in the light I never left behind. Stay with us Clive, we need you, still.