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.