This short fiction piece was published in the bezine’s September issue on Social Justice.
Follow this link to read it: https://thebezine.com/portfolio/the-dogs-of-midnight/
Thank you for your continued support of my work.
This short fiction piece was published in the bezine’s September issue on Social Justice.
Follow this link to read it: https://thebezine.com/portfolio/the-dogs-of-midnight/
Thank you for your continued support of my work.
I do not know her, the old lady at the window. But, she is familiar to me. I see her almost every day when I approach the cross section. I look for oncoming traffic, then look for her. It has become a habit. She is consistent (a necessary requirement for a habit to form). I do not know if her looking out of the window is the result of habit or the lack of alternatives. She sits to the right of her window. (would it alter the narrative if I called it the window?) So, now I have designated the window as hers. Naturally, she does not own the window. Ownership in old-age homes are a complicated business. Usually it is strictly limited to private possessions: blankets, clothing, books, toiletries, jewellery, false-teeth. Unlike their owners, these items retain value. They are handled with tenderness, treasure-like, as if the care shown them might somehow reach the dead. Perhaps we treat their things as sacred in the hope that these gentle gestures might have retrospective powers. Maybe kindness in the present has currency in the after-life. Nevertheless, domestic rituals emerge around the debris of life. Clothing and blankets are held up to the face, breathed in to detect traces of the dead. Unopened cakes of soap sit in drawers scenting underwear, rosaries gather friction, grief adheres to old toothbrushes, broken spectacles, roughly scribbled champagne corks and postcards from Egypt written in illegibly elegant script. The physical disappearance of someone is shocking. These objects absorb the after shocks of their leaving. As for the places where they lived; in old age homes a bucket of disinfectant, wide open windows to release the miasma of death and a lick of paint re-sanitise the venue for the next itinerant. Ownership may be complex in old age homes, but the simple certainties of death and departure compensate for it. I do not know the contractual details of her facility. I know there are places like these where inmates are expected to purchase a space that is recycled every time the current owner/s die. A safe investment that just keeps giving.
In First World countries we tend to pack the aged and infirm away when their maintenance outweighs their value. One must contribute positively to the GDP to warrant state concern. Otherwise, one finds oneself gradually removed from society. Folded up like well worn tablecloths and placed in the back of the linen cupboard, until the next Salvo’s run. In Third World economies, the aged are generally valued and, if not valued, at least respected. Those who struggle for material security understand the emotional and spiritual value of people. They know that dignity is priceless and owed to their parents who have struggled to hold onto it all of their lives. The aged are respected for being there, for having carried on, teaching their children that value lies in endurance, not assets. They build their lives on people, not money. They have community where individual well-being is everyone’s concern. We, on the other hand, are a loose collection of cocoons. Each of us spinning silk and blind to the world around us.
I knew a man once who did a brave thing. I did not understand it as such at the time. I was young and had not yet been called upon to endure anything more than my adolescent neuroses. He lived on a large piece of land. We flew over it once in a small plane. We had travelled in a straight line for ten minutes and all the time it was his land beneath us. It was beautiful, rugged, arid African Bush. The memory of it fills me with nostalgia. In the evenings Impala herds settled around a thorn tree near the home. He had resettled vultures that were endangered. One day he walked out into the bush, undressed and then shot himself in a place where he knew the vultures would be. I believe he was a brave man. In the end he understood a thing or two about real value.
She, the lady at the window, has draped over her knees a crocheted patchwork blanket. Coloured squares of lilac, blue, purple and pink are bordered by yellow. The palette of severe bruising. I’ve not seen her do anything but sit and look out of the window. I have willed her to lean forward, possibly smile but it feels like a prayer, more for my sake than hers.
Her curtains were drawn today. If tomorrow the windows are open wide, I will be sad.
I was going to title this piece something minimalist like “morning” but I’ve found that adding ‘How to‘, to anything seems to gain readership. It’s one of the things a writer does, write and then find readers. So, firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this and to those of you who regularly read what I put out, thank you. I do not take your continued support lightly. I am currently exploring another writing site that hosts some worthwhile content, it’s called Medium and you can click on the name to take you there, after you’ve read this. It’s well worth exploring since it caters to a variety of genres.
It’s 6:30 am. I’ve been up since 4:30 grading English papers. My students appear to be struggling more than I realised. Now I am. Self doubt rises. After the 10th paper it has convinced me I might better serve the community in some other way. I start an internet search for local jobs, anything … postman! That sounds appealing from where I sit. Bukowski did it.
But, I know I won’t. The same way I secretly know I’ll probably not do so many of the things I said I would: like skydive (why did I even say that?), like ride to Key West on a Harley or travel the world in an old panel van or climb Mt Kilimanjaro, swim with dolphins, smoke a cohiba in Havana, talk books ‘n stuff with Stephen Fry, or … the bucket list disappears beneath an endless pile of essays. No. I won’t become a postman. I would stroll rather than walk, forget to post the letters, talk for too long to lonely people waiting for news from someone, anyone. I’d be a rubbish postman. I owe the bank too much. I am locked in for life.
Soon I am approaching the shadow world I know only too well. The bull that lives there shudders, ready to charge. Its front hooves rake the ground, it snorts. I make a cup of coffee. Sit outside, knees propping up my elbows, the coffee has little appeal. I get Macbeth,
I breathe in too deep, cough. I look up.
It is immense. How did the sky stretch so wide? Has it always been so? So high (it seems daft to state the obvious. It feels I am noticing it unfold from space for the first time) and so low it feels that if I held up my arms I could stir the colours like I was Monet and God. Something within, that unidentifiable aspect of ourselves that is lost in the day to day doingness of things alerts my senses. I want to find words and the voice from that inner region grabs me by the scruff of my nightgown and says: “just look. Just feel. That’s all you need to do.”
So I do. I lose the need for words. I soak in the glorious warmth of burning pastel light. As the light grows brighter and the sky shifts to blue I take out my phone again and start finding the words. I can’t help myself. It is an impulse too ingrained. If I have not squeezed words onto the page, it never happened.
But, soon the moment will strain under the weight of the day. Pressed cold, olive like, the essence of it anoints me. Not as king, my kingdom is overrun by barbarians who have taken my crown and placed a number to live by in its stead. No, I am anointed as something better than a king. The sun anoints me renegade, maverick on walkabout in a world gone mad. I grade the papers with my old eyes. The ones that prompt the tongue to say
“here are your grades, but what is more important, I saw you loved the book and that will stay with you longer. Trash the paper, let’s read. Let’s read about sunrises and mushrooms and walls and old men on blasted heaths and then you may stand a chance.”
“A chance for what they will say”.
To which I shall reply: “If you can hold onto a poem longer than your mortgage contract then you might just survive this life. Then, scattered randomly through the interminable days of drudgery ahead of you, there will be sunrises that will take your breath away and remind you that in the light of that, nothing else really matters.”
I water the lawn (initially I wrote grass but realised it is socially ambiguous) twice a week on the days allocated to me by the city council. Restrictions on use were implemented to save water. ‘Watering days’ are determined by property numbers. I have a number 4 type house, even numbered houses may water for 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Saturdays. I’ve set my reticulation system to water for 20 minutes. Only one station works. (It’s a long story). Sometimes on odd evenings I water manually using a hose-pipe. We are subversive here in suburbia.
If elected officialdom had been using some of my tax dollars to respond seriously to climate change I would be more supportive of their minor representatives. They spend millions, probably billions (it’s only money) on fear. Buying submarines, detaining refugees, translating xenophobia into policy, incarcerating young people they could be educating and funding wealthy private schools to prepare the next wave of party leadership. A few years back one beige politician took a lump of coal into parliament and waved it around to endorse his future commitment to the mineral. He is now prime minister, still beige, still imprisoning instead of supporting. So, I’m not against saving water. I’m against laws that contribute to the illusion of a progressive society. Democracy is in crisis, the social contract between government and it’s people has lost all moral integrity. I won’t be told what to do by unthinking bureaucrats. This is the frontline in the struggle against the looming Bureaucratic Dictatorship. It’s a war zone. If we cannot stand here, where will we ever make a stand? The forces of banality are massed against us. I will support life on the few square meters of earth that was forcefully taken by a corrupt government some 200 years ago and then sold to me by a banking system (recently investigated by a Royal Commission and found to be lacking) that seeks to keep me in debt as long as I’m alive. No, this is not idle insubordination, it’s satyagraha.
The sprinklers on the pavement have broken so the grass there is dying. There is always something breaking or broken. I focus on the lawn in front of the house. It’s starting to turn deep green and thicken. The plants are doing well because I feed them regularly with trace elements and, when I am brave, with a vile smelling concoction derived in part from fish (clearly very dead). When my oldest goldfish died last week, I buried her and felt I was honoring her and doing the apple tree a favour at the same time. The soil here is poor. It’s not soil, it’s sea sand. Last summer I planted a Jacaranda tree. I water it and my Frangipanis every other day. Usually odd days. To get one’s lawn green requires dedication. Photosynthesis alone is not enough. Where I don’t want grass, it grows weedlike. In the flowerbeds it is invasive. It strangles flowers. It feels personal, an act of defiance. To remove the serpentine growth I must gouge the soil and feel for the sinuous threads then pull and hope to hear the roots tearing. It brings out the beast in me. The white root snakes the air like wire as I yank it from its grip on the soil. The act of gardening is a therapy, maybe an act of vengeance against all the systems forever stacked against us.
I acknowledge it as an outward sign for an internal process, a clearing. I do not wish to say cleansing. Cleansing suggests trendy Instagram focused egoism whilst trying to cultivate inner peace with one eye on your audience and sipping green tea in the shade of a jasmine creeper. No. This is war. Habitual watering is a symbolic gesture. There is the idea that this action, this repeated action, this ritual is a foreshadowing of a similar, internal process. Perhaps this way of thinking is more the result of my Catholic upbringing than experience. What the things are that will be cleared I do not know. Perhaps they will present themselves to me and then I will understand. In the meantime I take comfort from Beckett. These interminable and, of themselves meaningless, habits become the rythm of our lives. To spend thirty years of one’s life nurturing lawn, watching it die, reviving it, cutting it, letting it grow then die and reviving it over and over again is absurd. All of this on sea sand. I have become Sisyphus and swapped my boulder for a hose-pipe. I can only sustain this habit (it has become habit) if I find a good reason to continue. That is where I am. The reason is not apparent, not overtly logical. I will need to dig deep. In the meantime plants begin to die. This is annoying. Is there none of the resilience in them that weeds have? Can they do nothing for themselves? For hundreds of kilometers along the coast wild flowers grow unaided in abundance. A week without pampering in my garden and they begin to die. Well, everything dies eventually.
Entropy is the way of the world. The slow and steady dismantling of the particles that make up matter is relentless. The particles will in time be beaten back into their original, chaotic and randomly dispersed form. So it is with us. We are pulled apart piece by piece, bit by bit. Our deaths are just the gradual elimination of our parts until, too tired to fight back, we surrender the last thing we have, our breath. Even that is not ours but borrowed. We simple cease our habit of borrowing. And in the face of this we still seek meaning? We look for beauty, create it and share it. We’re either foolhardy or incredibly brave. Because of the people I know and have loved and lost I must conclude that this is an admirable quality. It is the defining feature of humanity. Giving in to the inevitable demise is an option. I get that option. There’s a blunt bravery there too. Perhaps carrying on is something that we do, not for ourselves but for those who could not, and we don’t know everyones story and are in no position to judge. Also, it is for those who must still face that choice. Either way, it is an offering of hope. It is an act of defiance. It is open rebellion and I am determined to go down fighting. I will resume my ritual of watering. I will be the root that must be pulled out of the earth with force. I will embrace absurdity. I shall wait by the tree with Vladimir and Estragon.
Oh fish all
Oh fish will
Off fish ill
All fish are ill
So be it.
Having just purchased two bars of splendidly wrapped bars of dark chocolate which were in a state of specialness and therefore acquired with unexpected gain, Elmore Slowdrizzle proceeded to exit the store in his usual state of deliberate panic. While standing in a queue of weathered proletariats short of hands and patience Elmore thanked God for inventing the Swiss who begat chocolatieres who begat the notion of placing finely dessicated coconut, delicately shred orange and fragrant whisps of mint into thin slabs of chocolate. He marvelled at how, in these modern times of drive through food and internet shopping he willingly risked the inconvenience of rush hour traffic and road rage to buy these bars. Was it even the Swiss? This must surely be one of those enduring mysteries of the ages? To think he might die without ever knowing the truth. How bleak life was. So many unanswered questions, so few queues to ponder them in. Answers never interested Elmore, everyone had plenty of those. But, good questions, now that was a different matter entirely. Chocolate is perhaps the only good thing to come from colonization. Perhaps he might amend his note of divine gratitude to include the Spanish? He should learn Spanish. Who first used mint? Did they not also deserve an ounce of gratitude? Gratitude delays gratification. There are simply too many things to be grateful for. Elmore yearned for a simpler life. Would gratitude for chocolate imply a complicitness in the 20th century and post truth decades of cocaine smuggling, the second wave of colonization? Strictly speaking, it could not be the second wave but the first North American wave after the first Spanish wave. Wave? Seemed like an odd word for the colonial adventure that delivered smallpox, syphilis and general genocide to the New World in exchange for gold, tobacco and chocolate. Not the fairest of swops. Chocolate is not an innocent indulgence. Not anymore. Now, some 500 years later he finds himself in this shop, in this human chain of consumerism because of Spanish Imperial notions of heaping up wealth with superior steel and germs. Crossing the threshold of the store he was accosted by an official patron of a charity organisation who thrust upon Elmore a pamphlet and ignited 30 years worth of lapsed Catholic guilt. Elmore thought it improper to ask the first question that came to mind. How would blind children play cricket? Would it not constitute an unfair advantage to their opponents? Might it not be dangerous, indeed, even lethal? He assumed that all of these questions had been cafefully considered prior to the clearly labour intensive process of bringing to the storefront the two fold up tables, the tablecloths, reading material not to mention the efforts of finding volunteers (also work weary), appropriately sized neon yellow T shirts and peak caps which would all have to be collected, unpacked, transported then unpacked again by the men whose work schedules would need to have been carefully manipulated in order for them to be here. Most likely they began their duties smiling but these seemed long gone and had given way to something else. They operated with the passive aggression volunteers most likely feel justified to adopt after 2 hours of friendly begging with nothing but patronising dismissals from passers by who have suddenly answered calls on their mobile phones whilst pointing apologetically to said devices. Elmore did not wish to display this customary rejection but neither did he wish to engage in discussion which would conclude with his guilt for being a fully sighted, otherwise challenged human being after which he would complete a debit order in duplicate to the sum of $20 a month he did not have. He therefore hastily presented the custodian of the unfortunate children with $5 and his best smile.
Sorry mate, we can’t take donations, only debit orders, the man yawned with a gesture. It was a gesture difficult to define. The one might use to gently prevent an aged aunt from filling ypur glass with chardonnay. Elmore’s panic began to surge through him in waves. A more suitable use for the term.
I‘ve just purchased two bars of coconut dark chocolate, it’s delicious. Would you like a square? While Elmore immediately recognised the inappropriate nature of this invitation it was all he could say that might defuse the incredibly tense moment and he immediately relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. The man’s response somewhat bewildered Elmore for he did not expect the man to be surprised. No, more shocked than surprised.
No thanks, he said and walked past Elmore to confront the next wave of shoppers.
Should he offer the man’s assistant proseletyser a piece? He had been watching the whole affair and might feel neglected. As Elmore took a step towards him the man quickly darted off in pursuit of an elderly lady pushing a trolly while simultaneously straining against it for support. She found her mobile phone with remarkable agility.
As he made his way through the car park and crossed the road next to the park beyond which his home stood Elmore regretted not purchasing three bars of finely crafted Swiss chocolate to delay his next visit by a bit longer. Was it even the swiss? When did coconut first encounter Europe?
In the quietude of his dimly lit home with only the dull hum of his air conditioner Elmore settled down to two squares of coconut infused dark chocolate and a cup of Earl Grey tea with just a dash of full cream milk. As the chocolate melted on his warm tongue he smiled and then frowned. Why had he not thought of thanking the Aztecs? To amend for his shameful lapse of misdirected gratitude he returned the uneaten slab to its silver foil and retired, unsatisfied to bed. Modernity does not guarantee perspective he thought and slipped into a dream of bloodied, metalled conquistadors disembowling gentle Aztec chocolatieres.
I plant flowers in September that will be dead by March . They die, I remove them, clear the beds and plant new ones. I water the plants daily that I have placed into the ground. The late afternoons of summer are cool when the Fremantle Doctor blows. Then he catches the spray from the hose and blows it back into my face. I will often water the higher leaves of the trees and sit and listen to the drops tap the flat leaves of the Agapanthas. The white Petunias grow rapidly, wild almost after I feed them epsom salts diluted with water and SeasoL. The smaller violets have spread in all directions. I’m finding them between the pavers. They are creating their own story here, going their own way. Their colour and beauty are pleasant but they never last. Those I thought were strong have died and the dogs regularly pee on one plant in particular. It has at last surrendered and died. There is a constantly flattened patch of Violets that the cat has claimed as her own. I feel frustrated at their lack of consideration for my efforts to create beauty in this reclaimed seaside desert. They shit and sleep on the fruits of my labour. As I attempt to bend nature to my will, they express their nature effortlessly. Toilet and rest, the common denominators. Effort is perhaps contrary to my nature? But I persist, season after season because that is what one does. I recall somewhere a garden of remembrance where the ashes of the dead are cast out, where the living go to remember them among flowers. We are like flowers and this is a garden of persistence. A resistance movement. Really it is a war. I plant, I water, weeds reappear, the sun sucks the plants dry, they die. Those that survive die when winter arrives. By June few have survived. I forget the garden in winter, I bend to nature. In late August the war continues.
Stairs simplify ascent. The added advantage is that for the same cost they are equally efficient in two directions. They may induce awe, vertigo or at least comfortable indifference. Conversely steps to the hangman’s noose must surely magnify the physicality of the body for the soon-to-be released soul.
Stairs symbolize mankind’s urge for perfection and simultaneously our capacity for ruinous arrogance. If they are well crafted they can raise our spirits as they do our feet. Large flights of stairs demand rigorous geometry and if they are required to be beautiful then craftsmanship is, rightly so, expensive. Aesthetics are never a certainty, but the human desire for beauty is. Inevitably the most functional of items become adorned. Art has its origins in making practical things pretty.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition stairs are periodically mentioned. Jacob climbed stairs in a dream to get closer to God (laboring the uneven steps of the Great Wall of China I felt uncomfortably close to God) and an ancient king built a tower in Babel to reach heaven. Up is the direction of eternal bliss, down is where we go to find disgrace, hell or, if you are lucky, the wine cellar. Popular culture has its fair share of stairs, from M.C. Escher’s disorientated constructions to Led Zeppelin. Rapunzel let down her hair to be climbed; Cinderella lost her glass slipper running down stairs, both Julius Caesar and Archduke Franz Ferdinand were assassinated on steps. Stairs have no emotional attachment to either up or down but ease our path in both directions. They are good that way, utterly indifferent to the whims of man. Many of the finest are still there centuries after the best and worst of us have stepped aside.
Here are some stairs I have known:
Moss covered limestone stairs. Limestone is abundant in Western Australia and it is used everywhere. There is something in their earthy tones and roughness that comforts me. They are solid and will probably outlive me. Stairs speak to us through the people who cut and laid them. Here, the stonemason, with his great blocks transcends a potential abyss.
The stairway leading up to the Paper Mountain Studio in Northbridge, Perth. Built c.1930’s it retains the period’s devotion to geometry. As I ascend to the block of light above me I register a metaphysical ideal and the physical act of climbing reminds me that I am consciousness inside a body.
Stairs down to the beach, common along the coast of WA. One begins the descent with one’s eyes fixed on the horizon, drawn away from oneself. The steep plane of descent makes one believe afresh in the old dream of human flight. It feels possible here if one only has the faith to leap forward. The wood creaks and in a few seasons it may need some treatment or repair. These stairs are like us. They weather quickly but are stronger than they appear to be.
The humble brick reminds me of the far-reaching influence of Roman culture. It was not the army that built the Roman Empire but their architects. Even where the Romans did not go, they are there. There is an earthy warmth to brick, it is baked clay. Brick is the texture of my youth, it is working class and honest.
These stairs are like a mathematical formula; they are a universal truth trudged daily around the world in schools, hospitals, municipal structures and other high density areas. The design language of basic infrastructure is austere. They are ugly. The kind that dictators like – devoid of emotion, dehumanising. They are made to work for a long time and are indifferent to the human need for beauty. Their designers had to meet budget. When design preferences utility over people, this is the result. They are the existentialists of architecture since they induce a sense of isolation and meaninglessness. All we can do is climb them to discover our own truth.
The last few steps I maneuvered my mother up in the picturesque town of Wakkerstroom. Some steps we would love to climb again. Certain structures have such immense gravitas that they become points of return. We do not simply inhabit buildings and walk stairs, when there is significant emotional weight in the living and walking, we establish pilgrimage routes. That is how we finally feel we belong to a place. When after we are dead, we know the people we love will continue to walk there.
The best thing about stairs is that they help us without expecting anything in return. They do not try to sell me anything or convert me, they don’t want my vote, they just want to be used. People should be more like stairs. Maybe they already are; they pick me up and they show me the way out. I’m going to be like a pilgrim and move on …
Main photograph of stairs in Paris by Hannah Scallan
I live on the edge here in suburbia. That’s where the action is, the danger – my happy place. Courage under fire is my espresso. We feel most alive when the prospect of death is real. My adrenalin rush this time? I’m choosing a paint colour for our bathroom. I know what you’re thinking, that’s not life threatening. No ,it’s not, except I also intend to apply said paint to said walls … as a surprise, without telling my wife. Now that, my friends, is what I call going where the proverbial angels fear to tread.
About twenty years ago I painted our kitchen yellow. That was a surprise too. It was bright sunflower yellow and I remember this because it was during my ‘impressionist’ period when I was discovering Van Gogh. It never had the desired effect. I was going for delight and would have settled for a smile, I was not prepared for horror. Hence the twenty year hiatus in home decor. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how suburbia channels the spontaneity gene-carefully, one to-do list at a time. Until you wake up one day and realise that you put down the toilet seat without being asked, boldly declare your intentions (once you have permission) and the weekly shopping has become an outing. You know the price of bread, when potatoes are on special and start buying low fat milk and walking the dog to combat cholesterol. You’re mortal after all, reliably so. Playing it safe may have contributed to the quantity of years but not their quality, there is only so much time left and you’re half way dead already so to hell with it, let’s be reckless … let’s paint another room! Tempus bloody Ra!
You’re probably worried. Don’t be too concerned, I’ve thought it through long and hard. The idea actually came to me this morning as I unintentionally placed an extra hole in the bathroom wall (they are ridiculously thin) whilst fitting new towel hanging devices. Selleys No More Cracks or Dents tends to stand out against a wall that is not white. For the moment a towel covers the spontaneous cavity but it’s bound to be moved soon, it’s inevitable I’m afraid. I thought of doing something ‘Banksy’ like sticking a frame around the damaged plaster and writing in elegant graffiti ‘where was this hole before it was here?’ But that’s so twentieth century and I am trying to stay relevant. So, instead I’m contemplating white or a neutral stony colour – this may in fact help me to define what period I’m going through at the moment. (Note to self: avoid beige). Maybe it won’t be noticed? Do I go full suburban and aim for blending in? This is going to be harder than I thought. I must not induce an existential crisis. It’s only a paint job. It’s never just a paint job. It’s not the Sistine Chapel but it’s never just another paint job. This is bigger than you and I, it’s … snatching back my dignity and then running like hell before I get caught!
Wish me well. As General McArthur said, “I shall return”. Mind you, Scott of the Antarctic said “I’m going out, I may be a while” and look at what happened to him. And he was only sight seeing, nothing as dangerous as surprising his wife with unauthorised decor. Watch this space.
This beautful Renaissance work by Artemisia Gentileschi has always been a favourite of mine. I must stress the historical context presents as symbolic and not prescriptive.
I am on my way home, in my car, listening to my radio, I stop at our beach. We call it ours, this stretch of sand on this continent that is now my home. My country, this is how I refer to the 7,682,300.0 square kilometres beneath my feet. I have a passport which confirms my citizenship of the state. It is navy, embossed in gold, official looking. The cover is bendable but thick. It will not easily be damaged from frequent use. It holds the allure of adventure. This is how the institution of state draws us in and places the spell of attachment on us. “With us you may travel freely, ” it seems to say, “you are not the citizen of the world you imagined you were. You are not as free as you thought you were. This book marks that you are owned. We call this state of being owned ‘citizenship’.”
It contains, inside, a black and white photograph of me, unsmiling. One is not encouraged to smile for official photographs. So here I am in my country seriously wishing to understand how I assume that so much is mine. I have even purchased a piece of land with a house on it and that I call mine but really, it is the bank that has deemed me fit to speak of it thus. I earn a salary, paid fortnightly. Most of this goes to the bank so that I can one day, decades from now, call the house truthfully, mine. Strange isn’t it? To speak of it seems strange, this suburban ritual of possession. I am told that it was not always so. I have read articles by clever men on the history of ownership and possession and it would appear that Indigenous people worldwide never considered themselves owners of land. My mate Matt, a Noongar man, once laughed off the notion of buying a home. “Why would I buy dirt cobber?” he asked me. Indeed, why?
It seems to be a distinctly European invention, this idea that ownership begets identity. We assume it has always been so, genetic even, like violence. Seems we have been wrong about many things. They really started something those restless fifteenth century Spaniards and Portuguese. Further back the Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings caught it; this contagion of land-greed. Their desire to possess was passed on to the English, the Germans, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch and the Italians. What formed their view of the world? Why did they think a first meeting ought to be followed by the planting of their flags, declarations of ownership and brutal oppression? It’s a fundamentally flawed human practice that we continue to emulate 500 years later.
Where does this language of ownership came from? How did it come to be the mode of my tongue, my mind? The pronoun ‘mine’ is one of a child’s earliest words. It defines the boundaries of their existence: ‘my nose’, ‘my mummy’, ‘my house ‘. What does it mean to ‘have‘? How do I ‘have’ this home, ‘have’ this toothache, ‘have’ this bruise, ‘have’ these thoughts? In the marriage union I get to ‘have’ and to ‘hold’. I have a great deal, but when was I bestowed ownership of ‘my’ character? Who is this ‘me’ I speak of?
Studies of human society suggest that one of the prime forces in our history is ownership. We have evolved through ownership. From feudalism to mass consumerism we have organised our social structures around competition for land and artefacts. We call land ‘real estate’. It forms our reality. Being landless thus presents itself as a an ‘unreal’ condition, an undesirable state of being. Material poverty is perhaps more an indictment on our modern tendency to insulate ourselves with our possessions. Poverty represents the way we think about the world, not a way of the world. It is perhaps more a consquence than a condition. It is a word denoting what one does not have. A street vendor in Mumbai, India told me there was no poverty in India. I did not understand what he meant. It appeared self-evident to me that poverty was not only real but rampant as well. I’m beginning to realise what he meant. I’m seeing more of it living in the first world.