Losing It

According to Freud,  the super ego’s role is to attack the ego. In extreme cases these attacks continue until the ego breaks down, and the subject is caught between the damning super ego and the repressed id.

I know this, because this thing I’ve been proofreading says it over, and over, and over. In fact, it doesn’t say much else. I had a dream last week that I was back in high school and my super ego was attacking me. It took the form of a graduate male art teacher, and he kept telling me to sit down and shut up and stop being such a smartarse. Normally a valid criticism, especially considering who I was back then, except this time I wasn’t even being a smartarse and I was being nice and I really wanted him to like me.

It was very upsetting. I was upset for the whole day. I am still slightly hurt that maybe my super ego doesn’t like me. Perhaps it did, but now it’s really, really pissed off that I’ve made it read all this wank. Well, fair enough. Or maybe the whole concept is bunkum, and normal people don’t even have higher selves, but this process has created an enraged, monstrous policeman of the mind who never existed before – like how killer radiation created Spiderman – and we will fight nightly battles for supremacy in my head. Or maybe I don’t need a super ego to make me feel bad, now that I’ve got this manuscript to do it for me.

‘Have you been writing lately?’ people ask politely in conversation, because it’s hard to know what else to ask an unemployed writer. (Of course this is the last question anyone should ever, ever ask an unemployed writer – somewhere up there with asking a PhD student about their thesis, or a resting actor about their next audition – but maybe you have to be one to know that.)

The answer, of course, is no. It is impossible. Exposure to bad writing kills creativity. Writers should never proofread, copy edit, or teach. We all do at some point, of course, because these things are the lucrative parts of our trade. But these activities should never be maintained for long periods. Every time you rewrite a paragraph of gibberish, try to be kind about a student’s plotless zombie Mary Sue (complete with cheesy and improbable sex scenes), or even do something as small as fixing another person’s comma, a little piece of your own talent crumbles off and dies.

I often wonder if this happens to people in other fields. Does a life drawing teacher go home after a day of looking at wobbly charcoal arses and cauliflower faces, get out the sketch pad, stare at it for hours and decide to watch White Chicks? After Derek Jacoby gives a master class, does he stop off for dinner at a little restaurant, flap the menu around melodramatically, and get kicked out for providing his own ham? Do music teachers find that their repertoire suddenly starts and stops at ‘Heart and Soul’? Do supermarket trainers lose the will to scan?

Perhaps you gain something in the trade off, though. Because I’ve noticed things. As the ability to write a shopping list without medical supervision drops, other senses and aspects are gaining. Confidence. Humour (when spoken, oddly; on paper or computer screen, the words break apart). Music. The dreams again, growing richer in texture, visually spectacular, and more pertinent in meaning. A coming back into the self after a long trip abroad.

Apart from the one about the art teacher. That was a glitch of some sort. Fucking proofreading.

I’m pretty sure the super ego is meant to do more than that, anyway.

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Posted in Carry On Freuding, subliminal messages ate my brain, writing | 2 Comments

Go Russ!

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I have a confession to make. It’s hard for me to get the words out, after so many years of hiding this shame from family, friends, random pedestrians, pets and potential muggers on public transport. I beg of you, Dear Readers, to look within and consider the dark places in your own hearts before judging me.

I quite like Russell Crowe.

He was terrifyingly real in Romper Stomper, a film that reflected an underseam of Melbourne very much present on the streets in the early 90s. The Sum of Us was a bit of an irritating overstatement about Why Gay People Are Normal (since when did we card-carrying queers have to be ‘normal’?), and like most well-meaning message movies it wasn’t quite sure how it should end; but, his portrayal of a young gay man and devoted son was sensitive and sympathetic without overwhelming Jack Thompson’s gentle performance. He was brilliant in Proof. He had the right amount of masculine hubris and vulnerability for film noir in LA Confidential. I refused to watch A Beautiful Mind when it came out, not because it looked like a bad film but because people who annoyed me liked it. However, I’m sure he was very convincing at conceptualising Game Theory while the rest of the film went about its melodramatic screen exploitation of mental illness (complete with Sixth Sense twist at the end).

The man can act. He is a gifted performer. Hollywood sticks him in brainless action films because they don’t know what else to do with him. Men in Hollywood who don’t look like Steve Buschemi are doomed to a lifetime of these. Look what the studios did to the wonderful, hilarious Antonio Banderas once they got their claws into him – from Almodovar to Zorro in under five years.

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From this . . .

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. . . to this.

I actually have nothing against brainless action films in their place – they’re nice to whack on the DVD player when you have a hangover, and great for when you have to babysit eleven year old boys – but this does seem to be a profound waste of talent and CGI. The casting is all wrong to me. People who can actually act should be in films with actual stories. People who emanate megalomania and physical toughness in place of talent should be in action films. Like Madonna. She’d be brilliant in one of those things. They could CGI her up to look like The Rock, and no one would ever know the difference.

Madonna? Is that you?

Madonna? Is that you?

One reason, then, why I like Crowe is because he is genuinely and rarely talented. This is a good reason. If I was the kind of decent person who admired artists and performers solely on the merit of their work, my affection for him would end there. Unfortunately, though, there is a perverse streak in my nature (some have argued that my character is a perverse streak with some nature in it); I like a spectacle. The main reason why I like Russell Crowe is because as a public persona he is inherently ridiculous, and therefore extreme. And that’s exactly what a celebrity should be.

The late, great Divine was the last proper celebrity. Divine embodied something far more significant and exciting than the performance of the average drag queen, as much as I admire the courage of even the most mediocre drag. She (and it’s impossible to think of Divine as anything else but ‘she’) was bold; she was brave; she was a terrifying and funny sexual steamroller, a performance of monstrous and triumphant femininity that never stooped to misogyny and far transcended parody. John Waters (and bless him for being the first and possibly the last film maker to really put fat women on the screen) describes her as a cross between ‘Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla’. She was, in screen terms, the Last Great Woman. Watch any movie with Divine in it, and you’ll find it’s impossible to look at anyone else. When she’s not in a scene, you’re waiting for her to come back; the rest of the film is just filling time.

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Divine, as overwhelmingly herself performing live as on screen.

After Divine, celebrities became uniformly boring again. Michael Jackson was too tragic to be a proper monster; Liz Taylor, too nice; Mel Gibson, too predictable and self-righteous in his unpleasantness; even people with the potential for left-of-centre extremity like Courtney Love, about whom I was excited for a bit, turned out to be yet more broken children seeking validation by jumping up and down and squeaking.

Sadly, this is a reflection of what sells in our times. Mainstream society requires our celebrities to be mainstream too. Despite the studio system and the crushing moral codes of earlier decades, it wasn’t always like this. In the 1950s, people wanted to read about Jayne Mansfield wearing a leopard print bikini while walking her ocelot up Hollywood Boulevard. Everyone loved it when it was revealed that Marilyn Monroe had done a naked calendar. Cary Grant called press conferences to enthuse about how much fun taking acid is, and why everybody should be doing it. An elderly Mae West hired a female impersonator as her personal secretary, and paid him to give interviews as her so she could stay in bed. People were as vicariously thrilled by the loony demise of Howard Hughes and his hoard of urine as they were by the whispers of his sexual adventures with other famous young men (nicely airbrushed out of The Aviator – even today, perhaps especially today, not a topic Hollywood is willing to deal with).

What passes as titillating today is inane pap: the size of Kim Kardashian’s arse (a dear friend and I were recently reduced to tears in a supermarket laughing at a headline that read, ‘MY BUTT’S OUT OF CONTROL!’). Jennifer Aniston’s love life, which according to magazines is conducted in a similar fashion to a fourteen year old girl’s. Angelina Jolie’s weight. Dreary people having (*gasp!*) fairly vanilla sex with each other and somehow ‘accidentally’ taping it and releasing it to the press. Wow. No one ever thought of putting a penis in a vagina before. Apparently, we’re supposed to be shocked by this and are required to pay attention. It seems that human nature is so naturally geared towards obedience, many people are and do.

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What has it been doing, exactly?

When a genuinely fabulous original comes along, instead of being celebrated they are destroyed. Anna Nicole Smith, for instance. I loved Anna Nicole Smith. She was bawdy, she was endlessly entertaining, she was gorgeous at whatever size, and she let her freak flag fly. She possessed the most important (and lost) trait of a proper celebrity: Shamelessness. She was fucked up, and she owned it. Not many people would be brave enough to put such true, severe and unedited dysfunction onto a reality TV show. I admired her and liked her for it. She was someone I would’ve liked to have hung out with for a day.

Shortly before her untimely and saddening death, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival screened a documentary made about Smith’s relatives. According to both the documentary and the other paying ticket holders (frankly, I found this audience’s reactions deeply disturbing), the fact that these people were poor and uneducated was uproariously funny. People wept laughing at their weight, their clothes, their vernacular and their daily routines. At the same time, we were told that Smith was an intrinsically evil person for seeking to leave this life behind her by using what she could – her sexuality, and her beauty.

Oh, come on. The woman was gorgeous.

Oh, come on. The woman was gorgeous.

Of course, predictably, she was also bad for having been a stripper, for putting on weight, for not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, for being addicted to pain killers, for having slept with women and kept it private, and for having married an old bloke and then to have sought her inheritance after he died – all of which, in my book, made her human and interesting. Mainly, though, her sin was to have been a sexually knowing girl of average intelligence from a low socio-economic background. As my friend commented as we walked out of ACMI onto Flinders Street and left the manicured audience behind us: ‘I had no idea that poverty was so amusing.’

When Smith died, her death – the tragic death of a young woman clearly tortured by her childhood, and manipulated into a place of vulnerability and madness by a predator – was treated as yet another humiliation to be laughed at, along with the death of her son. I was upset and angered by this. I remember getting drunk with a patient friend and ranting about it until four o’clock in the morning. Would it still have been funny if she were slim? If she were from wealth? If her bum, like Kim Kardashian’s, was more noteworhy? If she were, perhaps, the comparatively functional and boring Pamela Anderson?

Russell Crowe is, of course, doing a lot better in life than poor Anna Nicole ever did. But he is, like her, out there. Everything he does seems to be an attempt at shouting ‘I AM A MAN!’ at the world, regardless of whether the world is interested. Despite a profound lack of musical talent, he perseveres in earnest with that wince-makingly awful band of his with the farcically phallic name; he nearly kills himself bulking up at the mere suggestion of a movie role; he even went to the extreme lengths of shagging the nauseating Meg Ryan to prove his manhood to the USA, a bridge too far for any man less dedicated to public displays of testosterone.

Meg Ryan. Spare us

Meg Ryan. Spare us

I enjoy Tom Cruise, for similar reasons: a talented man whose insecurities have led him to a type of religious mania so bizarre, it puzzles in place of causing offense. Mel Gibson’s religious insanity is just deeply annoying, as he is following in an established tradition of patriarchal crap that has shat on women, gay people, Jews, and anyone a little bit different from the norm for over two thousand years. Tom Cruise, though, obviously means well, and I don’t think anyone’s ever done the religious crazy thing quite like him before. The man can jump on Oprah’s couch as much as he wants. Creative types should be a bit loopy.

With Cruise there’s a sense that perhaps he has an inkling that he’s nuts, and this is part of what drives him. The great thing about Crowe is, though, he doesn’t seem to realise he’s barking mad. He remains absolutely unshaken in his faith in his penis. No matter how much people mock him for it, he steadfastly continues to take the thing seriously, and this staunchness should be admired.

Shortly after Romper Stomper came out, an urban myth spread about the then-largely unknown Crowe.  The story went that Crowe hooked up the lead singer of the band Paradise Motel after a gig. She took him back to her hotel room. While they were screwing, band members in the next room could hear him grunting: ‘GO Russ! GO Russ!’

Whether or not this is true, this is exactly the sort of over-the-top monstrous behavior I want from a celebrity. I am not interested in the contents of Kim Kardashian’s buttocks. I couldn’t give a shit who allegedly passed Jennifer Aniston a note in class that said, ‘My Friend Says You’re Dropped’. Angelina Jolie can lose as much weight as she likes – this strikes me as none of my business. I am, however, keenly entertained by Russell Crowe’s proclamations of manliness and ego, and I will be for as long as he keeps making them.

At the moment, I have been housebound for about two weeks – the result of a bad flu combined with the whims of Ménière’s disease, which keeps me close to bed and sick bucket between attacks. I find myself as weak as a kitten, unable to sleep at night with fever and finally collapsing into sweaty unconsciousness at about five in the morning. At the same time, my flat has been invaded by cockroaches: the creatures I find the most repulsive, loathsome and terrifying in the world. I can catch huntsman spiders and put them outside in a cup without shaking. I can chase meth-addled intruders from my stairwell, dressed in a nightie and armed only with a rolling pin and a loud Teacher Is Angry voice. Sewer rats are creatures I respect enough to not want on or near me, but they hold no terrors for me as long as they stay out of jumping distance. A single cockroach, however, reduces me to the screaming lady standing on a chair of Warner Brothers cartoons. Living with a teeming mass of them has been a somewhat confronting experience.  

Oh God. Oh God.

Oh God. Oh God.

Understandably, this has caused some pretty extreme mood swings. I get pissed off at everything. Then, not having enough energy to maintain feeling pissed off depresses me.

No matter how low the serotonin gets, though, one thing is guaranteed to pick me up. All I have to do is log into my email and find the one from Village Cinemas with the improbable subject line: Russell Crowe Is Noah! to think that the world is not such a grim place after all.

If it comes out after the premiere that there was a Bible and a condom under every seat, my happiness will be complete.

Posted in Divine Madness, Jennifer Aniston is like so dropped pass it on, Kim Kardashian's boring arse, Penises and why they are important

Home, Jeeves

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My flat, quite literally, has paper-thin walls. If you bump one, the whole room shakes. We can hear each other talking, eating, and watching TV; if my neighbour has a bad night, his snoring keeps me awake until I finally come out of my tortured semi-dose enough to insert ear plugs. It should bother me more that we all hear each other having sex, except I have discovered a strange fact of getting older. Sex noises through the wall are traumatic when you are younger, because you remember the times in childhood when you heard your parents. Then, in your late thirties, you become your parents and it no longer matters. As long as you’re all enjoying a fair, equal and pleasurable share of sex, bonking moans and groans become part of the wallpaper. If an imbalance should arise, I expect that there may be difficulties; otherwise, all is fair in love and associated utterances.

I am not here to talk about the opera of bonking, however. At least, not quite. I am here to talk about archetypes – personas permeated and reflected throughout culture; complexes and incarnations that guide us through a confusing adult identity that happens to be intrinsically, sometimes even operatically, sexual. Specifically, on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who – possibly his most well-known manifestation – I am here to talk about the most enduring, shape-shifting, imperative archetype of the 20th and (so far) 21st centuries. I am here to talk about the Jeeves.

Jeeves, for those of you who have never met him in the original, is PG Wodehouse’s greatest, funniest, and most enduring invention: the omniscient valet of hapless minor aristocrat Bertie Wooster, who can’t get through a day without him – or so Bertie comes to believe, as his dependency on his subtle employee grows.

As critics like to point out, Jeeves comes from a long line of clever servants dating back to Roman times. But he is more than that. We have forgotten the Admirable Crichtons that went before him in our cultural memory; the Fascistic inventions that maintained a firm line between master and servant, no matter how daft the upper-class master and how deft the serving-class lackey. ‘No man is a hero to his valet’ was the Classical paradigm for this character; the slave that stood behind a victorious Roman general at his triumph, whispering ‘Remember you are mortal’ in his master’s ear. Jeeves is not a blind devotee of the social order. He is a gifted autodidact who has learned to outsmart the confines of his class, and who has made an early realisation that those born more privileged are helpless without him.

You don’t have to have read Wodehouse to know him. There is Alfred in the Batman tradition, of course, and empowered male servants like Sir John Geilgud’s Hobson, the weary enabling parent-butler in Arthur.  But you may have met him in a less obvious guise: If you laughed watching Fawlty Towers, he was there as the unflappable Polly. If you were entertained and intrigued by the odd but touching bromance at the centre 0f Boston Legal, he was the morally ambiguous but loyal and loving Alan Shore. Helen Mirrin played a lethally protective Jeeves in Gosford Park. Harvey Keitel’s gangster-Jeeves turned up in a tux to fix the unfixable, steal the show, and still have time to take his best girl out for breakfast in Pulp Fiction.

Not every Jeeves is a direct incarnation of the gifted problem solver. Rowan Atkinson cleverly injected machismo into the role in Blackadder, as the Jeeves who somehow never quite wins the day. If you grew up watching Doctor Who, you know this archetype in a hero role. If you watched and loved Twin Peaks, you will know Special Agent Dale Cooper just as well.

Like the original, his descendants transcend (but are rarely so coarse as to buck) the social order. A Jeeves is chaotic, with a self-determined and unpredictable agenda. Shrewd, secretive, duplicitous, autonomous and canny, but never false, cowardly, sycophantic, unfeeling or servile. Respectful, but never obsequious. Benign, but individual. A Jeeves is a mix of intelligence, aptitude, pragmatism, philosophy and intuition. A deeply ingrained sentimentality saves this Machiavellian creation from a sadistic nature; he or she may border on sociopathic, but always somehow lands on the right side of a shakily drawn line in the pursuit of natural justice. Jeeves has firm ideas about morality, part of a larger picture, but they are his own. He will look after you if you behave yourself. If you don’t, he will knock you out with a confiscated cosh.

In short, a Jeeves is the pure feminine in male form, or for a woman vice-versa. The super-ego and the anima or animus, rolled up into one.

Despite his mutability as an archetype, once encountered in the original on the page or on the screen Jeeves seems to form a clear picture in the mind – a trait that suggests he was already there, waiting to be substantiated. Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the feline manservant in Jeeves and Wooster attracted some negative responses at the time, from critics used to an older and more detached Jeeves on screen – too young, too tall, too twitchy, were the complaints. Christopher Hitchens, a life-long Wodehouse devotee, later wrote that it took him years to forgive his friend for his performance (2010). Yet for many viewers who had not encountered the early films or the now lost 1960s BBC series The World of Wooster (which featured Dennis Price in the role – an actor about the same age as Ian Carmichael playing Bertie, but who was dramatically aged in appearance due to alcoholism), Fry’s Jeeves became definitive. A frail, austere and remote version would be as wrong to them as a six foot five, kinetic, somewhat kinder Jeeves was to Hitchens.

It’s fascinating that this character has endured and been perpetuated in so many forms over the last hundred years. We need him, obviously, in an uncertain world; a protector who can adapt, who can shift lines and allegiances without going wrong, who knows when to serve a cocktail and when to save the universe and when to protect you by killing a bad man before you try it yourself.

For me, though, the overarching intrigue of the Jeeves archetype is in his creation more than in his subsequent lives. How was it that Wodehouse, the quintessential English comic writer – an intensely hard-working practitioner with no pretensions to deep meaning, despite his obvious genius – came up with this most individual and Jungian archetype? How did a man who was so good natured, so affable, that his infuriated public school headmaster said of him ‘You can’t help liking the boy’, invent a male persona both so indomitable and maternal? And why is it that of all his comic creations, he kept coming back to Jeeves and the well-meaning ‘nature’s bachelor’ Bertie Wooster; a devoted couple in every sense, apart from (the least important, in the end) the physical?

Jeeves is one of only two adult characters that Wodehouse ever wrote. Every other person in his universe, from Uncle Fred to the inhabitants of Blandings Castle and to Bertie himself, dwells in a perpetually blissful latent state of development. The other adult in Wodehouse is Bertie’s terrifying Aunt Agatha, the bane of his life yet possibly the only relative who really cares about him. Agatha is the threat of adulthood, constantly tormenting Bertie with the horror of prospective marriage to one of a string of well-bred harpies for the purpose of breeding children. Jeeves, his saviour, extracts him from this fate time and time again.

Yet Jeeves himself has girlfriends. He is engaged to women, sometimes more than one at a time. He ‘dabbled’ in the First World War, the only real mention in Wodehouse of the agonies outside of his carefully constructed idyll. Despite the physically unimposing middle-aged to elderly screen representations of the character (perhaps an attempt to negate a possible homoerotic subtext) prior to Jeeves and Wooster, he is described as tall, dark, ‘bronzed’ and ‘fit’, with ‘chiselled features’, and is preternaturally strong. He likes to spend his annual holidays pulling in shrimping nets, hardly the hobby of an effete older gent, and loves seagoing travel – a trait Bertie ascribes to his ‘old Viking strain’.

The character arc of Jeeves and Bertie has pathos. The clever valet from Brixton starts off controlling his childlike and innocently snobbish employer for his own ends – sometimes purely out of boredom – and the results are hilarious. He knocks Bertie’s ridiculous assortment of foppish friends out with handy objects on the pretence of aiding one scheme or another – most notably an unsightly vase Bertie refuses to part with, thus dispensing of both the object and the friend in one blow. He sends his high-handed master out on a bicycle in the freezing rain to bring him down a peg; marries his uncle, a Lord, off to a Cockney barmaid; and, on more than one occasion, convinces Bertie’s entire social set of his employer’s dangerous insanity.

When the first Jeeves stories were published, critics didn’t know what to make of this anarchic, class-defying character. It wasn’t just that fiction had never seen a servant like this, although that was confusing enough. Wodehouse was known for light comedy – a peculiarly enacted kind of ‘English’ drawing room farce in which, despite the complexities of plotting and crescendos of chaos that later lent themselves so well to screwball comedy, happy endings are guaranteed. He had never written a character anywhere near as complex as Jeeves. He is the only major Wodehouse character with any sort of brooding dark side (the curse he must bear for sentience) – and also, perhaps, a hint of resignation. The brilliant Jeeves would’ve thrived given the Oxford education wasted on Bertie. Through an accident of birth, he is instead stuck doing his ironing.

Was this character evil? Spiteful? Criminally mad? Early films featuring Jeeves show a malicious, charmless machinator who gets his comeuppance in the end; a representation nothing like Wodehouse’s smooth talking, graceful and ultimately well-intentioned original.

Over time, though, the pair becomes fond of each other, and their bond deepens as the books continue. Bertie is heartbroken after he fires his valet in a fit of pique, and Jeeves does everything in his power to get his job back. (Bertie’s description of life apart in an earlier escapade, in which he has to give up his flat and his valet to a friend and move into a hotel, is touching in its evocation of pining for the person who makes you feel safe.) Eventually they are life partners, inseparable equals in spite of class differences that both seem to have forgotten about. With friendship comes loyalty, and with loyalty comes the protection and care that Bertie craves and so desperately needs.

In Wodehouse’s last novel Aunts Aren’t Gentleman, written in his nineties, the idyllic world the author carefully constructed over his entire working life starts to crumble. Protest marches are mentioned, despite the book’s inter-war setting. Friends and family are far away from a lonely Bertie and seem to drift further as the novel reaches its close, finally dwindling to remote voices heard almost as memories through the telephone. As the story opens, for the first time ever Bertie is seriously ill and has to cancel his annual trip to New York. All he wants is for Jeeves to care for him. He is confused by his valet’s initial displeasure at this, but we are not; it is obvious, despite Bertie’s ignorance, that there is a lover waiting for him in the US whom he will now be unable to see. His first priority is his employer and equal, however, and so he stays.

Many lovers of Wodehouse – and it has to be said, he was without a doubt the greatest comic writer of the twentieth century working in the English language  – have lost a great deal of sweat wondering which of his characters was the man himself. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be obvious. These two, the clever, worldly Jeeves and the innocent, yet brilliantly observant Bertie, were both him. Both sides of him. The creative innocent who invented a whole and perfect childlike world, and the attentive adult who knew enough about human evil to fight to protect it.

Wodehouse’s Jeeves failed him when he was interred by the Germans in World War II, or perhaps under the stress of the circumstances he failed to listen to that inner voice – the self-protecting adult in us all, the urge to run from danger or to fight it, the part of you that gets you home and looks after you no matter how blind drunk you find yourself in a far-flung suburb at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning. At the urging of his German captors, he broadcast an infamous series of lightly funny radio announcements playing down the conditions of the camp. His thinking was that this displayed courage under fire, a stiff upper lip; at home, however, with the London blitz in full progress and families losing their children in a bitter war, the broadcasts were met with rage and derision. A A Milne publicly attacked him; George Orwell defended him (and also perhaps damned him with faint praise); the press published furious attacks against the once-loved author. This trauma saw Wodehouse under a self-imposed exile in the US for the rest of his life.

You ignore your Jeeves at your own peril, as his creator had learned. Relations between master and valet smoothed out after this point, apart from the odd sartorial power struggle over unsuitable socks and Bertie’s occasional attempt at growing an unsightly moustache (a point on which, as I’m sure most women would, I have to side with his employee).

The first time I became aware of this side to my own personality was in my late teens and early twenties. A series of rather nasty events had driven me crazy, quite literally. I didn’t know why at the time, it took over a decade to put the pieces together, but I was always in verbal and sometimes physical fights with random strangers; I was perpetually drunk; I fought in my sleep, physically punching and kicking dream assailants to death before they could kill me. I had no idea I did this until I kicked the wall in my sleep one night, and woke up to the screaming pain of a broken toe. Sometimes, I would wake up with my girlfriend holding my feet down to stop from being pummelled.

Eventually, the young woman I was broke into pieces and a new personality stepped into the breach. Someone more capable, more adept with people. More likeable. Kinder. And yet, more resilient. Not as creative in the raw sense, less sensitive, but smarter and funnier; not as self-destructive, yet perfectly capable of drinking until the blood sang with alcohol.

This was my Jeeves. The male aspect to my personality. The caretaker side, forced to take over until the main part of me recovered. He did it admirably for years. He got me dressed, kept me fed, sent me out to work and brought me home again. He maintained friendships, visited my family and looked after my cat. He kept me going, the machine of me, while I wasn’t here.

The unthinkable happened recently, when circumstances combined to deliver the mother of all psychic sucker punches. My Jeeves was knocked out for the count. I found myself once again fully female, the raw and sensitive warrior persona that simply couldn’t face another battle. I was broken and unfixable, alone and inconsolable.

One night, I dreamed a young man – not the man I’d had in my bed and ejected amicably into the street hours before, but a friend – came to the flat. He was horrified by the mess I’d made of my brain, made slightly jealous by the interim caretakers put in place in his absence. But I was glad he was home, and he was glad to be there again.

We shared my bed that night without a noise; not a fight, not a moan, not a kick to the wall or an orgasmic gasp to wake the couple on the other side. I was once more bisexual in both senses of the word. Complete. We have been together ever since.

A Jeeves is tough. Never beaten.

He will always come back.

mr wolf

REFERENCE: Hitchens, C 2010, “Jeeves Spoken Here”, Vanity Fair, March 2010, viewed 11/09/2015, <http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/hitchens-201003&gt;

Posted in archetypes, film, It's all fun and games until someone breaks a toe, Jeeves, Jeeves and Wooster, Jungian japes, literature, reading, TV, Wodehouse | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Spiffing Adventures and Manly Times of Tony Abbott’s Ballsack

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Actually this has almost nothing to do with Tony Abbott’s ballsack. However given that at least the next four (more likely, eight) years will be entirely dedicated to it, I thought I should also dedicate a post to it.

Yesterday, I took a snail to the park and gave it its freedom.

This slightly batty errand of mercy sent us (the snail and me) out of the flat we formally co-inhabited and into gale force winds, me in a black cocktail dress and the snail naked and unashamed. Together, we careered south down Spencer Street towards the casino and the Yarra. Once there, I trudged in my leopard print pumps through the little park under the railway and to the riverbank, where a bed of hardy South African bulbs had been plonked in the ground by disgruntled drug addicts forced to do community service. I found some grass growing under the fronds, sheltered from birds and weather, and with an impassioned cry of:

‘Run, Boy! Be free!’

left my charge to fend for him (or her, or possibly both) self.

But how could it be possible to carry a tender-shelled mollusc to safety through wind and rain up a crowded city street, I hear you protest? Surely this is a happy ending invented to soothe us, and in reality the poor thing was crushed against the handbag of a random pedestrian, dropped on the foot path, left in its cracked shell to expire under the boot of an oversexed English backpacker?

Fine questions all, and ones I asked myself with a great gnashing of teeth before setting out. How can it be done? I asked myself. Surely, this is a fool’s errand!

Ah! But snails, you see, are sticky.

I was not the craziest person at the park. While I blundered through foliage, gingerly peeled the snail off my hand and set it down in its new home, a burly bloke in a blue jumpsuit (yes, a jumpsuit) sat rocking compulsively on a nearby bench bellowing Nirvana songs at the seagulls. Another gent had apparently decided that standing up and walking was a mug’s game, and instead was crawling on his belly through the clipped grass with his brown paper-bagged flagon clutched beside him like a rifle.

‘Hello Missus!’ he roared at passers by, regardless of gender. No one seemed to mind, they just smiled and waved. Maybe he does this every day, and has become a regular feature in the lives of city workers. Maybe if he doesn’t put in an appearance people start worrying, and when he reappears everyone texts each other.

This is Melbourne, I thought. The Federal Seat of Melbourne. The one seat in a country caught up in far-right insanity to vote Green; the heart of the capital city of one of the only states to lean Laborwards (apart from the ACT, and who else were they going to vote for?); the spiritual home of the poor, the gifted, the addled and the mad. The thinkers, in other words.

The day after I came back from Perth to Footscray, I went for a walk. I saw things simply not possible in Western Australia. There was a sign in a video shop window saying, ‘Free soup for the needy.’ Cars slowed down at intersections. Brown women wrapped in colourful saris and black women who looked like supermodels in animal print wandered into Indian grocery shops with friends, laughing and talking.

The air smelled of rain, petrol, bitumen and freshly ground spices. Everything was brutally ugly and filthy and broken after the luminous, intoxicating beauty of the west. People were walking and talking too fast for me. I was so fucking cold I thought I would shatter into ice cubes. I could’ve wept. It was fantastic.

I will go back to WA, I think. (One day when I have money, anyway – you need money for WA.) It has a large-scale beauty that is totally other to the East Coast, one that I haven’t properly explored yet. Perth alone, with its beaches and river and bright western light – they built film studios in California because of the desert and the light, which makes me wonder why we haven’t – is so beautiful, so naturally vibrant, your mind has to take breaks from language to absorb it. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to write there – something to do with the rests.

The dominant culture, alien in both genus and expression to that of the East Coast, reminds me in flashes of an Australia I saw on the telly in the 1980s when I was a child and brings back memories of my grandfather’s bawdier ‘Strine comic posters. I like the pace, the ease, the otherness. I like the way that, regardless of income or social status, we freaks find each other and band together to make our own entertainment. Most pressingly, though, I have friends there and I miss them horribly. That is, and will always be, my main reason for returning anywhere.

I don’t really belong in any one place, and I never have. I am an itinerant soul by nature – I don’t have a map. I’ve never needed one. I am a crazy woman in after-five dress who hangs out in parks liberating garden pests. ‘Life direction’ is hardly a concept that applies to me.

However, as Judy for obvious personal reasons never said: It’s so lovely to be back in Melbourne. Thanks to the hysterical short-sightedness of the rest of the nation, Tony and his ballsack are now free to frolic across the mortal remains of the grown-up policies and statesmanship that came before them (I never thought anyone could make me miss John Howard). So despite my nomadic impulses, I think I might stick around in the safety zone for a while.

I’m staying here in the shelter until the ‘All Clear’ sounds, and it’s safe to stick your head out again without getting teabagged.

Posted in Melbournaphilia, random acts of madness, scrotal intrigue, teabagging blackout | 2 Comments

The Fear of All Sums

(Written on the sly at Work for the Dole, while some little fucker I’d like to smash over the head with his laptop rants loudly at the room proclaiming his IT genius. Probably full of typos. *ATTENTION WEIRD INTERNET GRAMMAR NERDS: If typos and grammatical errors disturb you, may I politely suggest that you fuck off and get some sort of a life outside of masturbating to Terry Pratchett audiobooks before any chance of love and happiness pass you by forever. Never mistake pedantry for intelligence. May a grocer’s apostrophe fall off a sign and kill you while you’re ignoring the scary world of thought and ideas in order to bitch about a stranger’s online comma use.)

I have that kind of face – the kind where people think they’ve met me before, or that perhaps I am Someone off the Telly. Lately, though, this face of mine has been doing strange things. A combination of stress, chaotic lady hormones, enthusiastic-to-mildly concerning trashbaggery and adult themes has sent the skin hurtling back into adolescence. Pimples not heard of since 1992 are making a comeback. Not just pimples. Craters. There is presently a zit on my chin capable of accommodating a lunar module. It’s odd, how humiliating this experience is for a thirty-eight year old woman – the incongruous combination of  frown lines with ‘you’re not the boss of me’ lumpy outbreaks reflecting back from the mirror, an apt manifestation, perhaps, of the inner landscape.

And so it is both my face that sends me to Coles at nine o’clock in the morning for Clearasil, and my face that engages the high-school aged checkout chick in unexpected conversation.

‘You look like someone who knows about sociology and German Expressionism,’ she declares chirpily and quite incorrectly, as she whips my bottle of dermatological angst killer through the scanner. ‘Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about my art essay?’

What is it about this visage that engenders such faith? Or maybe it’s not that; maybe it’s some kind of pheromone thing? Small children climb over multiple bus seats to sit on my lap and invite me to imaginary Rainbow Brite parties. Babies lean from their parents’ arms, smiling and gurgling and wanting to grasp my finger with their tiny perfect hands. Back in Smith Street’s glory days, a total of five people in twelve months with slowing heartbeats and failing organs crawled into the doorway of my workplace in order to overdose and expire and be brought back from the dead. In that same year, two people somehow made it past an electronic security gate in order to do this in my driveway. I have no idea what I’m doing, or what’s happening next, or where my life is heading. I live from one meal to the next, one dollar to the next. But something about my ease with this situation – a native surfeit of courage and existential stupidity – seems to make a me a safe harbour for the lost, the vulnerable and the spiritually (in this case, academically) bewildered.

I am actually a disastrous person to ask for either advice or directions. It’s a twisted politeness thing. I have terrible trouble saying no to people. This internal taboo is so strong, if someone asks me for directions to a place I’ve never heard of I try to guess it. Besides, I figure, it might do them some good to see the world.

So:

‘Sure!’ I reply brightly, or as brightly as a thirty-eight year old woman with acne can manage at nine o’clock on a Wednesday morning.

‘What does Expressionism mean?’ the girl asks, ignoring a man who is fidgeting impatiently in the queue behind me and trying to buy some grapes.

I rack my mind trying to remember what Expressionism is.

‘I asked another customer, and she said to talk about Marx and how Expressionist art is elitist,’ she continues. ‘But I don’t know if that’s right.’

‘No,’ I say automatically. The brain’s inner catalogue has whizzed through its index cards and found Expressionism – Munch and all that. ‘That’s not right. That’s not right at all.’

‘Well I thought I’d talk about that, and about how individuals make a society and society makes individuals,’ she continues. ‘Like what Pierre said.’

The man with the grapes clears his throat and starts shuffling around in his wallet. She is oblivious to him, and I am perversely enjoying his frustration.

‘Pierre who?’ I ask.

‘Pierre something starting with B,’ she replies.

The man gives up on his grapes and walks out.

‘Well,’ I say. ‘Expressionism is the first art movement to talk about ordinary human beings. The fear and the horror and the lust and desire.’

She is seventeen, and has no idea what I’m talking about.

‘It’s hard to be a human being,’ I elucidate.

She blinks and smiles happily. She still has no idea what I’m talking about.

‘Talk about Freud,’ I advise finally, giving up on context. ‘Psychoanalysis. Freud was practicing at that time.’

‘Freud. OK,’ she says uncertainly. Who the fuck is Freud? is the thought bubble floating above her head, in the depiction of this exchange that will never appear in a graphic novel.

My pimple, my Clearasil and I walk back to the flat together, musing over this exchange and the father of psychoanalysis. People, especially people who have never read it, love to declare that Freudian theory has been soundly debunked; that it’s outdated sexist claptrap; that a drug addict with a peculiar obsession in the human proboscis can’t possibly have had anything profound to say about the mind and the self.

They are right. And they are utterly, utterly wrong.

Who doesn’t know the terms ‘ego’ and ‘egotist’, ‘libido’, ‘angst’, ‘Narcissist’, ‘fetish’, ‘unconscious’? Who doesn’t use these terms every day, taking them for granted as part of the normal world as much as ‘tree’, ‘moon’, ‘fuck’, ‘Centrelink sucks’? Freud’s analysis of the uncanny in Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ forged the way for what we now recognise as critical and literary theory, and is the first example of thinking of its kind. He was the first thinker to posit, based on his own personal experience, that sexual abuse and other forms of cruelty traumatise the survivor and can shatter a child forever. It’s odd to think, now, that at the time this notion caused such outrage that he was forced – at least temporarily – to recant, and to pursue a far less socially shocking avenue of experimental nasal surgery so extreme that it caused a female patient’s nose to collapse.

We know Freud was right about sexual abuse. Sexuality goes to the core of what it means to be human. We know this because to people like me, sex seems like this incredibly fantastic idea aliens thought of when they decided to invent something better than cocaine. While to many (not all) who have been sexually abused – we all know and love at least one person with this experience – sex is a wound on the psyche as much as a promise of pleasure and respite; an expectation, a compulsion, a site promising love and acceptance and debasement and loss of power all at once. A complication and a shattering point. We know he was right about angst, too – the indefinable horror at finding ourselves stuck with sentience, stuck with the weight of an existence with no intrinsic meaning. We know this because a single pimple has driven me to the supermarket for a stick of chemicals with which to make myself acceptable in society once more, and I will not under any voluntary circumstances leave my flat until the damned thing is dead.

Back at the flat, I curl up on my bed with my cat. I am strangely exhausted. There are road works going on outside, pneumatic drills and jackhammers and workmen shouting at each other. The smell of fresh bitumen – not entirely unpleasant, but heavy with tar – floats up through the window almost visibly, like the steam from an apple pie in a Loony Tunes cartoon. I drift off to sleep in the midst of this noise and sensory confusion. And I dream:

A middle aged lady, perhaps in her early 50s, is talking to the camera quite simply about her life. She has dark curly hair, shoulder length, and distinctive deep set eyes. She is a New Yorker of Russian Jewish descent. It is now, but she is speaking to us somehow from the year 1968, I think, or thereabouts. There is no set behind her besides a plain blue backdrop. She is a Holocaust survivor, I suspect, although it is not mentioned directly. She has the saddest, kindest eyes I have ever seen.

‘My first miscarriage, we buried the baby in a round coffin,’ she tells us. ‘It’s a Jewish tradition to place stones on a grave. So we covered the coffin with stones. Dozens of little stones.’ She hesitates just slightly, in the way trauma victims do when they’re attempting to explain a deeply personal pain to an audience. ‘Like you might have seen in that Seinfeld episode,’ she finishes.

I remember the episode. A comically ridiculous funeral, in which the mourning is so ostentatious a wealthy Jewish family has buried their relative in a giant round coffin covered in stones. George says something about it by the graveside, and is overheard. There are problems. Kramer goes into business digging circular graves. I remember how hilarious I found this. How hilarious I still find this.

Comedy is based on pain, after all. This is fine.

I think, though, with anger, about the expectation we place on people who suffer to explain their suffering to us. To educate us. We don’t really give a shit about them. We just want to understand. To be better people, somehow.

She continues talking about her life, and I find I am crying. Genuinely grieving for this woman. I wake up just enough to touch my face, and to feel the wetness under my eyes.

‘This is an extraordinary thing,’ I mumble to the cat, and tumble back into sleep.

My friend comes in a red Corvette to pick me up from school. I am me now. Why am I waiting for him in front of my old high school, with my school bag? Am I somehow . . . Yes I am  . . . thinner? Not a bad dream, after all.

There is a dumpy looking forty-five year old woman with a blonde perm and a Ken Done jumper sitting next to him, in the passenger seat. I have never seen her before.

‘Get in,’ says my friend. ‘We’re going to the hospital.’

I have terrible trouble saying no to people, and so I get in.

The dumpy woman and my friend are kissing passionately in the front while he drives. Ergh! This is horrible. I want to wash my eyes with bleach. I am not at all comfortable with Ken Done featuring in any sort of erotic context. I dig around in a pocket in the car door, and pull out a much needed bottle of Bourbon. It’s in a brown paper bag and has a straw sticking out of the neck.

Thank Fuck. Mother’s milk. I stick the straw in my mouth and start sucking.

‘This is great,’ the dumpy woman confides to me, disengaging for a second.

‘OK,’ I mumble around my straw, sucking harder.

We get to the hospital and meet some bikie friends who look like ZZ Top. One of them gets a text message that reads: ‘HOSPITAL FUNERAL. WTF?!’

We are walking down corridors towards the morgue when I wake up.

Sometimes, dreams are not what they seem to be about. The tears on the tops of my cheeks haven’t dried yet; they have slowly, steadily flooded my face. I am amazed by this.

I know what these dreams mean.

Our friend Tony, who is incorrigibly rude, utterly outrageous, hard as nails, blunt as a thumb tack, sexually insatiable, proudly bi-gendered (although definitely not bisexual – strictly a cock fan) and profoundly independent, is dying. He has cancer. He is lying in a Catholic hospice with days to live. I make a point of saying a Catholic hospice, because of what this means in real terms: Little chance of morphine. No chance of being eased out of living death by the kindness of a needle.

Tony is, as I have said, one of the rudest people I have ever met. It took me years to like him. We’d go and visit him in the sex shop in the city where he worked, Spray ‘n’ Wipe in one hand and vibrator in the other:

‘Look, your clit needs seeing to. I can give this to you for a discount,’ he’d say, waving the box in the space above my tits and below my nose. ‘Just clean it first. They probably tried it out in the factory.’

Or, at a dinner party:

‘No more food for her. She’s so fat, no wonder she can’t find her pussy.’

Or, to a mutual friend emerging from the Men’s at the theatre:

‘Still hanging around toilets, then?’

Gradually though, somehow – Stockholm syndrome, perhaps – I came to like this snappy rudeness. There was certainly no attempt to ingratiate here.  No agenda, hidden or otherwise. No dark smell of snake oil charm.

Over the same period, he came to like me. To trust me to some degree, a high compliment from such an autonomous individual. Not my generically recognisable face this time, or any hypothetical baby-friendly pheromones.

A friend was with us one day when we went to visit Tony in the sex shop. Our friend was at the bitterest downswing of depression, the point where grooming and dressing is too hard and walking takes every ounce of will. None of us could help, we knew, but I think we thought if we just kept him moving something might happen.

No one could help, that is, except Tony. A different person to the rude, snappy, implacable drag queen met in most encounters emerged in the face of true suffering. He was kind. He was wise. He was absolutely no nonsense, a platitude-free zone.

Our friend, unbelievably, felt a little better afterwards. Comforted. Tony asked about him when we saw him the next time, the time after that, and the time after that. He still offered me discount vibrators; but still, he asked.

I realised, finally, that both offers were quite genuine. He was genuinely concerned about our friend, and he was genuinely concerned about my orgasms. He just had a uniquely unembroidered approach to expressing both sentiments.

‘Just enjoy it,’ he told me, the last time I saw him. He was lying on the couch, too sick to move, a vomit bucket by his side. ‘You don’t know when it ends. Just have fun.’

He had promised to give me a box of his dildos before he died. I thought this was a joke, something he wouldn’t follow through on.

It was. It wasn’t a box of dildos. It was a garbage bag.

These dreams then, not what they seem, are about Tony and death. Death, the eternal problem. About letting go of a friend, someone unexpectedly cherished; about recognising his suffering and his uncompromising earthy, intelligent brand of bravery; and about honouring his last wish to have fun, even though it is so, so hard to be a human being.

Less cryptic is the dream I have later, about finding a cave in a mountain stuffed to the top with free cocaine.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Posted in Bad directions, Freudian slips, slippery Freud, The War against Pedantry | 2 Comments

Lurk for Your Soul

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Written during Work for the Dole Day 1, St Kilda Community Newspaper, Thursday 8th Aug, 11:01am (possibly in blood) :

What the hell am I doing here? I’m in a room with a group of people I’ve never met before, with whom I have only a random possibility of finding common ground, wondering how exactly chucking a bunch of strangers together and giving them nothing specific to do is supposed to achieve anything. There is nothing binding us. At least in a doctor’s waiting room, people have pain and malingering in common.

According to the government, forcing we unemployed scum to sit around a table staring blankly at pieces of paper all day will make us more attractive as potential employees. So far, I’ve eavesdropped on small talk; read a 32 page tabloid format community newspaper from cover to cover five times; tried not to engage the attention of the rather volatile chap across the table who has expressed an interest in breaking the jaws of ‘nerds’, and surreptitiously checked my email three times. I like to keep an open and empirical mind, and I am pleased to further greater knowledge by recording the outcome of any experiment. In the interests of science, I can confirm that I am no more employable now than I was two hours ago.

The first hour was OK – chatting with new people, forging transactional and transitional alliances, each of us establishing ourselves as a rightful personality in the room. With that now done, the ability to feign interest in people I’ll never meet outside of this situation has depleted itself. I am in the stunned, waking semi-coma that descends upon you an hour into a bus trip. All I want is for everyone to shut the fuck up. Unfortunately, though, I am the only writer in the room. Everyone else’s coping mechanism is to continue talking about celebrities I’ve never heard of for the remaining five hours that we are stuck together.

Instead of wasting the day here, we could be dealing with the thousands of small, time-consuming, frustrating basic tasks that poverty inflicts on the unemployed. We could be ringing utilities companies to beg another week’s reprieve. We could be out sourcing food, or scouring our houses for coins to feed to our starving Mykis. We could be trying to create meals out of a week-old cabbage and a tin of tuna. We could be (outrageous as the suggestion is) looking for jobs.

If this goes on, if my frustration levels escalate any further, the nerd crusher and I will end up punching it out in the kitchenette while everyone else stands around cheering and placing bets. At least it would be something to do. Who knows? I might even win, and then maybe everyone will pool their resources to buy me a prize.

I could even score a second cabbage.

Posted in adventures in poverty, arghhhhh!!!!!

Death and the Country Maiden

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I am sitting on my good friend’s couch as I write this, with a glass of pink champagne in front of me. Our bellies are full of custard and fruit and chocolate. There is retro telly on the flat screen – we are watching Buffy with the sound turned down, for the sole purpose of looking at Eliza Dushku and fantasising about when she finally decides to move in with us and wander around in a towel kicking butt and dusting things. I am slightly creeped out by Buffy herself. She looks exactly like my mother at the same age, and like my mother as a younger woman is prone to dramatic outbursts in public. So I keep my eyes down until Dushku reappears, preferably in tight red leather pants and a 1990s crop top, to take me to a happier, pervier place.

I am not yet game to pick up my glass for another sip. It has been fifteen minutes since the last one. My fine motor skills are taking longer than usual to return; over the last three days I have spilled glasses of water all over the house with a steady regularity, drenching both the carpet and myself with an even hand. I have stopped losing consciousness for five minute naps, and I have regained the ability to stand straight. But at this rate it will take a few more days for my hands to stop shaking. The last and most delicate step in neural rewiring, it seems, is regaining the ability to hold a pen.

Three days ago, I stopped walking in the middle of the street because I physically could not move my legs. I don’t mean by that that I didn’t want to, or I somehow forgot to. I mean the ability to move was temporarily lost. Pain messages had flooded the brain beyond its capacity to process.

The brain is a very straightforward organ at its base. Too much pain shuts down the body’s capacity to move, a natural response to minimise further physical damage. Whether or not there is any actual physical damage in the equation is academic. The pain/pleasure centres in the hypothalamus and the most ancient parts of the organ cannot differentiate between physical, emotional or psychic harm. As far as your brain is concerned, a punch to the face and a punch to the soul are exactly the same thing.

And so three days ago, I got off the bus to visit my friend. I started walking to her house while the inside of my skull churned with the impact of one too many hits. I found myself stopped in the middle of the pavement like a remote control toy left out of range. Not yet stopped dead, but getting there. And I realised, quite simply, that I no longer wished to live.

It was not a dramatic realisation – by no means a shock to me, or some embroidered poetic gesture in the face of unhappiness. The ability to create or to play with thoughts and language is utterly lost in this state, and the self stripped back to the barest possible truth. I was in more agony than I was mentally or physically able to handle. I could no longer generate the will to stay alive.

Fiction writers are particularly bad liars – comedic writers, most of all. Comedy deals almost obsessively in the truth. If you’re looking for honesty, watch Ricky Gervais; if it’s lies your after, see your accountant.

I am not writing this in a fucked up tradition of romanticising the suicidal urge. I am not writing this to shock or to outrage. I am writing this to get the data down; to provide the raw material; to find the punch line in the darkness, I suppose. I am writing this to think it through, and hopefully perhaps to help another person who needs to do the same.

So I’d better warn you, dear reader, that while my mind is still disjointed as it rebuilds itself – memories floating on the surface of consciousness, experiences past and present playing out simultaneously, all illusions of linear time dissolved – I plan to come back to my topic as I sift through things. And I plan to tell the truth.

But don’t worry. Bits of it are funny.

The Way of the Samuri

People born and raised in cities spend most of their lives thinking about other people who were born and raised in cities. The details of rural life remain closed to them – the types of work involved, the intricate conventions of etiquette and polite distance without which the world would explode, the struggle to avoid revealing the most intimate details of your life in your grocery shopping, the long term social repercussions of wearing the wrong clothes to a barbeque.

When city people do think about country people, the result is a peculiar mix of elements picked up from the telly – a strange hybrid of twee charm and slasher film, shaken with a dash of agoraphobia. Venture into a country town, this assumption goes, and you will either be forced to bake scones for the local women’s auxiliary to a quaintly disgusting local recipe involving sheep’s urine, or you will be driven out into the middle of the desert, spiked on the end of a metal fence post, and gang raped by a multi generational family of pig shooters and crazed scone enthusiasts.

Country people, then, are either living their lives in a nauseating imitation of The Good Life – spending their time calling livestock by name, having hilarious accidents with the home brew, and irritating their pesky middle class neighbours with their adorable wacky ways – or are rabidly violent sociopaths intent on fucking and killing anything with a hole (not necessarily in that order).

I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that a lot of this unease about country life comes from the work that cattle and sheep farmers do. Farmers raise animals to be slaughtered. They are in control of the entire life cycle of a beast, from conception to birth to milking to killing.

How can they do this, especially in the bareness of all that land? In a country as physically large and sparse as Australia, away from the cities the land can stretch from one horizon to another without a building in sight. We have cattle farms the size of France here. All that death, and all that distance – how can anyone bear it, without cutting off all empathy? How can any person routinely kill helpless animals they’ve raised, who trust them and depend on them for food and well-being, without rating a perfect forty on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist?

It’s a logical question, coming from someone raised in a city. But nonetheless, it is the wrong sort of question. The city dweller is using the common sense of their own upbringing, and ‘common sense’ is only common to your home culture.

The physical distances of country life are not agoraphobic. The community is at times profoundly claustrophobic. Every move outside the boundaries of your home or farm must be taken with care; a certain line of conversation must be kept to, a certain sensitivity shown towards other people’s passions and problems, and a certain amount of compartmentalisation applied to your own.

I remember the primary school excursion my prep class was taken on. I was five. I had to hold hands with my cousin Thomas, the wart on his hand scratched into my grip and I kept wiggling my fingers trying to avoid it. We were loaded two by two onto a bus, and driven around the corner to the local butcher’s. Of course we all knew the family who ran the butcher’s shop, and each of the apprentices was someone’s older brother. Yet we behaved as if these people were strangers, out of respect for the more formal setting.

The school wanted us to learn more about how a carcass is taken from its hook, laid out on a slab and carved into cuts of meat. We were also shown how a pig intestine is cleaned out with one long stripping motion of fingers and thumb – much like milking – to make the casing for sausages. On the way out, we were each given a freshly cut slice of Devon.

Death is a fact for country people. Not an abstract problem that would have to be dealt with someday. Anyone who has grown up in a farming community knows birth and death on intimate terms well before reaching adolescence. Our own impending deaths, too, are facts to us. So there is no thrill, nothing exotic in killing for a farmer. No pleasure buzz from cruelty. No superiority, or vicarious feeling of a transference of power.

Every year, my grandfather would raise a baconer. This rather cute little piglet, with all of a dog’s intelligence and often a lot more affability, would follow him around and affectionately headbut him seeking pats. After a month or two, this pig would have inadvertently transgressed the number one rule of farming and gained a name. Months would pass while the now-named piglet grew into an adult. Man and pig would grow closer in their bond as time ticked by.

On the appointed day, my grandfather would shoot his pet. He’d put its body in an old bathtub to scorch the hair off with boiling water. Then, he’d hang its carcass from a meat hook in the shed.

You have to hang a large carcass for a long time before you can butcher it, so the blood drains completely and the meat is tender. While this process played itself out, my grandfather lost himself in bottles of whiskey and cried his heart out.

The next year, in full knowledge of what was inevitably to come, he’d do it all again.

And so you see, it’s not that country people aren’t sad about killing these animals. It’s just that they taste delicious.

Farmers are not sociopaths. We are far, far scarier than that.

Walking Into Punches

My mother’s friend tells us that her son is a ‘wave rider’. This came up at a recent parent teacher night, during which a teacher described two types of students: wave ‘riders’, and wave ‘crashers’. Riders keep moving; crashers break bones, have dramatic accidents, attract strange enemies, pick fights with the local Goliaths and lose, struggle with what should be simple decisions. Kicking against the pricks. She seems pleased with her son’s ease at negotiating difficulties, of skimming over the surface of life.

My mother and I do not look at each other. We do not say anything. We both know I am an inveterate crasher.

My psychologist explains to me, years later, that my pain tolerance is too high. So I keep walking into punches, coming back again and again, not registering the hits until the damage is critical. ‘A trusting soul,’ he describes me as.

No one has ever described me that way before.

Inner City Living

I am walking up Spencer Street outside my flat. I look like a bag lady. I may even be muttering to myself in public. The air has been kicked out of my abdomen. I walk hunched, almost feeling like I’ve been whipped.

Despite the symptoms, I am not on my way to Centrelink.

The problem, I think, is how to go about it.

I remember the psychologist who once saved my life in this moment, and the one failure of understanding he ever demonstrated.

I am back in his office, sitting on a comfortable couch with the colourful bowl of Skittles at my elbow on the side table. I have never eaten one. I wonder if anyone ever has.

‘What do you think suicide is about?’ he asks me.

‘It’s a natural urge,’ I answer.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, as only someone at war with their own nature can.

There are worse things in life than death, and there is a point when ending life peacefully is the better option. There is death by torture. There is starvation. There are the horrors of war, of ritualistic sexual and corporal violence and public execution. There are diseases that rob a person of their sanity, their dignity and their hope.

I have plumbed the nature of my own illness, and I have decided that what I am suffering from is a profound lack of hope. I am not under threat of physical torture, or starvation, or any real and present horror. What I am is battle weary. I have run out of fight. I can no longer be bothered. I wish to stop.

This feeling is chemical, a sustained injury from trauma – not an experience based in the present reality. But it is still, for now, real.

‘I have a client who says he thinks about death to reassure himself,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of thinking, “Things aren’t that bad yet. I’m not ready to do that yet.”‘

He cannot understand what I have said, because no healthy mind can. A healthy mind is wired up to survive.

I let it pass.

Back on the street, in the now, I am still just thinking about methods. Thinking through the options, nothing serious yet. I believe that, anyway – of course by any psychiatric measure this kind of ideation is critically serious, but everything seems to makes sense in this state.

Each option I consider has a problem. I am too chicken to use a razor. I am too clumsy to use a rope. I find myself scanning buildings, looking for something with balcony access. How humiliating, though, to be caught; knowing my luck, I will simply land on the balcony below with some kind of embarrassing injury and feel profoundly stupid.

I will jump under a train, I decide. But then there’s the driver to think about. People always say that, don’t they?

I hit on a plan. I will score a whopping great lethal amount of smack. I don’t know how to score smack anymore even at a conceptual level, but I have friends who do.

Mentally, I weed through the list. Who would help me? Who would have the balls, the sufficient combination of callousness and regard, to hit me up? I can’t do it myself. I would totally fuck it up, or end up being arrested, and someone would tell my family, and I’d have to invent some lie to protect them, and possibly end up in a sheltered workshop making swizzle sticks for the blind out of matches or something.

I arrive at a name. Satisfied, I go home. My brain blanks out for two hours. I wake up on the bed with the cat licking my face. I creak out to the fridge and eat every carb I can lay my hands on.

The elevation in mood is instant, and is actually a very bad sign. It is not a measure of how much things have improved; it is a measure of how terrible things were before.

I text a few friends to joke about it.

This thing is playing merry hell with my diet.

The Courtly Business of Mourning

It is the week before my carb frenzy, and my parents and I are travelling to the La Trobe Valley. We are making the same drive we’ve been making since we moved to Melbourne in 1987. Green country rolls by outside the car, the kind of landscape that features in ads for dairy spreads. This is not the country my brother and I grew up in – we are going the other way, to the coal mining town my father’s parents lived in.

My grandmother died a week ago. There is a common notion that grandparents should cease to matter after you’ve reached a certain age. They are supposed to fall away after childhood, a skin outgrown by the snake.

Guess what. People aren’t snakes.

It would be churlish to expect an elderly woman in pain to live beyond her own limits. I wish she’d had a better end to her life, though. I wish I’d seen her. I wish I hadn’t, in classic wave-crasher fashion, managed to lose her and knock myself around horribly emotionally in other extreme ways in the same week.

I don’t believe in any kind of God, but my grandmother did. I don’t know how devoutly – she seemed to have had no interest at all in religion before my grandfather died, and showed few signs of having been raised with it. I suppose she had the same casual trust in a higher power that most people have. There is the sun, there is the moon, there is a God. Beyond that, all bets are off.

She was a practical woman. Her funeral is perfectly planned, to save us all trouble. She was always an anxious, yet meticulous hostess.

The last thing we do for our grandmother is to bear her coffin to the hearse. My brother, my two cousins, my uncle, my father, and me. It occurs to me to wonder how we would’ve done this had there been one more of us. Would they have added an extra handle somewhere?

My grandmother did not hold with the concept of hell. ‘You have your hell on earth,’ she said firmly, and I believed her. Sometimes, when people die, there is a communal notion of their presence amongst the mourners. People need the ceremony to say goodbye and let their own idea of the person go. There is none of her energy, imagined or otherwise, hanging around this funeral. She has done enough. She is gone.

At the reception after the cremation – a rather ghastly ceremony involving watching her coffin being mechanically lowered into flames – we begin the courtly art of mourning. The family chats to friends who have come to support us, to elderly ladies who remembered meeting me when my head was shaved and are still taking pills for the shock.

My nephew is overwhelmed, and needs comforting. We take him outside to show him the garden where our grandfather’s ashes are laid. Our grandmother will be next to him, we explain. A cat comes to check us all out, and allows itself to be patted. Back inside, my nephew needs a final hug before we all get in our cars and leave for Melbourne. He has an honest emotional response to a present situation. I know mine will come later.

It comes when I am back at home in my flat the next day. I sit on the floor of the shower, hugging my knees and vomiting up grief. The cat is banging on the shower screen, meowing urgently.

Under the grief there is another persistent pain wishing to make itself known. Other messy matters needing urgent attention.

I’ll deal with you lot later, I tell my stupid emotions.

But emotions don’t make appointments. If you push them down, they eat you alive.

Sanctuary

My beautiful friend and I call each other Scraggie. This is a practical choice of moniker as well as a mark of our mutual affection – it’s to save confusion around the high number of our friends who answer to ‘Scrag’.

‘Hey Scraggie!’ She opens the door and hugs me. ‘How are you?’

‘I’m can’t stop thinking about killing myself,’ I answer. ‘It took me twenty minutes to walk here from the bus.’

This type of conversation is kind of normal in our friendship circle.

‘You’d better stay here, then,’ says Scraggie, ever sensible and kind.

We open the champagne I’ve brought – the same bottle she gave me recently for looking after her cats. I have trouble holding the glass. I use two hands on the stem.

Scraggie’s lovely housemate is wearing a sharp suit. He looks positively dapper. ‘I dress like this to cheer myself up,’ he explains. He has gone through a horrible time lately, his own tale to tell.

None of us is doing very well at the moment, it seems.

We sit on the couch together drinking champagne and watching movies.

Two days later, Scraggie drops me back at the flat to shower and feed the cat while she drives to her girlfriend’s place. They are moving interstate and going through their own dramas. I am hideously embarrassed about the time I’ve taken up in their lives – about having to stay physically close to other people, about infesting another person’s couch.

Yet, ten minutes alone in the flat and I am thinking again. She is picking me up again in an hour. I wonder if I’ll make the hour. I am not ready yet, it seems, to be alone. A hint of humiliation is a small price for survival. Sometimes, you have to swallow your considerable pride and let people look after you.

Back at her home, on the couch, we drink champagne and watch Wentworth.

I once worked in a phone survey place that employed kind hearted freaks. People freshly released from jail, alcoholics, junkies, PhD students; queer boys and girls of every stripe. My friend I got jobs there together, and experienced for the first and possibly last time the peculiar sensation of fitting in in a workplace.

The place was sort of a queer brains trust. We were each messed up in our own way, despite or perhaps because of the mean IQ in the building. You had to beat your way through a cloud of dope smoke to get to the door after break time. There was a Lief Garrett album in pride of place on the phone room wall, the contribution of a hilarious, charming, intelligent lad who was destined for great things.

One of the more dominant personalities in the place was a bone-thin androgynous junkie with soulful eyes and an intermittent grasp on reality. I liked him, despite the grandiose nonsense that inevitably comes out of that kind of person. He reminded me of a young Iggy Pop. My friend was less enthusiastic, annoyed by all the bullshit. He told me the story of when this boy had claimed to be featured on a float at Mardi Gras:

‘What kind of dancing did you do?’ my friend asked.

‘I don’t dance,’ was the snapped reply. ‘I do movement.’

Somewhat taken aback, my friend asked further: ‘What kind of movement?’

‘Full-on movement,’ came the answer.

From then on, we called the boy Movement.

Movement lived life precariously hanging onto the edge of things, waiting to lose his grip at any second. It was none of my business, of course, and God knows none of us was in any position to judge anybody else for their life decisions. Looking at him, though, I couldn’t understand how he found enough flesh on his bones for a needle to enter.

This worried me. I didn’t realise this worry had progressed to monitoring his health and bringing food in for him until he wryly started calling me Bea Smith.

‘Feeding me up again, Bea?’ Movement would ask over rice paper rolls, his intelligent eyes flashing with amusement through the opium haze. He ate them, though.

‘I worry about you Bea,’ he said one day. I stopped unwrapping sandwiches and looked at him, mildly perplexed. Movement was worried about me?

He shook his head.

‘What’s going to happen to you?’ Then he bit into his sandwich.

After lunch, Movement disappeared into the toilets to shoot up and didn’t come back. My new good friend, the owner of the Lief Garrett album, and I exchanged worried glances over our headset microphones. He’d clearly passed out in there. What if he was comatose? What if he’d died? Most likely though he’d just nodded off, and if we raised the alarm he’d be fired. That would be a disaster. What the hell were we going to do?

‘Hello, I’m ringing on the behalf of your gas provider . . .’ I intoned on automatic pilot as a call dropped through. Suddenly, Movement came crashing into the room, limbs flying everywhere and hitting the doorframe. He rebounded from the blow like a demented muppet, collapsed in a chair, shoved a headset somewhere near the top of his head and started drooling.

In that moment, the tension in the room reached 100% saturation.

‘Movement,’ said my friend, taking off his headset. ‘Every time you take drugs, the Baby Jesus cries.’

Movement looked at us. We looked at him. Then we all collapsed helplessly into raucous, hooting fits of laughter that brought supervisors running.

We were never allowed to sit in the same room together again.

I am more like the Wentworth Bea Smith than the brutal Top Dog-with-a-heart in Prisoner. I am softer. I am still taking hits I should know by now how to duck. And I am becoming something else. Someone else. Again.

‘I wonder what happened to Movement?’ I ask aloud.

‘To what?’ asks Scraggie.

I’d like Movement to know, if he is still alive, if he ever reads this, that I am going to be OK. And I hope he is doing OK too.

I guess we’re all doing our best.

For 24/7 help and support in times of crisis, call SuicideLine Vic on 1300 651 251 (Victoria only), or Lifeline on 13 11 14 (nationally). For help in an emergency, call 000.

Posted in Eliza Dushku asked me to marry her and I said yes, friends are the good stuff, thank you Scraggie!, unethical work practices, yet another bloody meltdown | 2 Comments