When I was a student in the early 1970s there was a fashion among us for wearing army surplus gear. Especially greatcoats. I had one, an enormous, prickly, khaki job that still had its brass military buttons with embossed crowns illegally attached. These clothes acted as a provocation to old soldiers, who became predictably enraged to see scruffy long-haired youths wearing their sacred uniforms. That was of course part of the point for us. Another fashion, or provocation, was to stay up all night drinking or drugging and then, dressed in these outre garments, attend the Dawn Parade on Anzac Day. A mixed up thing to do, because part of our fascination was with the ceremony itself, the peculiar emotion that hearing a bugler play the Last Post as the sun comes up seems to evoke in almost anyone, as well as the perhaps more familiar rush of feeling the Lawrence Binyon words also reliably call forth: They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old .... I can't remember now if I ever actually did stay up all night and go to the Dawn Parade or if I only imagined doing so after the accounts of others who did, or said they did, or said they were going to. Likewise, I can't quite pick the moment when I ceased to feel derisive of, or critical towards, ceremonies like Anzac Day and began to experience them with something like an unequivocal response ... never entirely without equivocation, but still. I remember reading Les Carlyon's book Gallipoli a few years ago and weeping involuntary tears at some of the descriptions he gives of that campaign. Maybe my father's death, nearly twenty years ago now, had something to do with my change of heart. Dad's war was reduced to a few ironic anecdotes, with himself as the butt of some kind of cosmic joke that wasn't even that funny. He liked to belittle both himself and his war but behind that was a well of deeper emotion - he'd had two of his close friends killed and continued to mourn them all his life. The last conversation I had with him, on the phone, a few weeks before he died, he mentioned one of these fellows, a Maori bloke called Bill Wilson lost when his plane disappeared somewhere off Rabaul. Dad also used to like saying the names of the places he'd served, a kind of mantra that managed to suggest an enormous amount without ever really saying anything much at all. Perhaps his passing has left whatever mourning still remains to be done with me, I don't know. Anyway, although I haven't been to an Anzac Day ceremony for a very long time, this year I decided I would. And take my kids along. After all, everybody loves a parade. We ended up on George Street near Town Hall station, just where Park crosses over and becomes Druitt. It was a grey morning but the rain was holding off. The parade had already begun. I don't know what it was, but as soon as I saw the first straggle of old blokes walking by, the tears started flowing. There they were, men looking exactly like Dad would have looked if he was still around, with their bad clothes sense and misshapen bodies, their peculiar hats. Some in wheelchairs, some sitting on seats in the trays of jeeps, some walking along unaided. Some even sprightly. It was without doubt a procession of grotesques, except that element of the outlandish that makes for true weirdness was missing - these were just ordinary men, ordinary women, who'd come out from their ordinary houses all over the city to march. You wouldn't otherwise, or anywhere else, see that generation altogether at once like this. The other thing was, they were so few; and yet there were so many categories - infantry men, artillery men, tank corps, transport, ambos, nurses, land girls, intelligence, the war correspondents, each marching behind their oddly home-made looking banners with wonky applique lettering marking out who they were and the places they had been and fought. Again, the names seemed replete with feeling that did not require any further explanation, even when they weren't names I know - Scarlet Beach? Scrubby Ridge? Tarakan? And who would have thought there are still so many brass and pipe bands around? With their bizarre choice of tunes. One was playing Coming through the Rye; another, Marie's Wedding; along with the more familiar Scotland the Brave and a plethora of versions of Waltzing Matilda, the tune of which is, or alleged to be, that of an 18th century Scottish song which may itself be based upon an earlier Irish ballad called Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself ... anyway it makes a good marching song. The kids of all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes, ethnicities in their ill-fitting uniforms scarcely less grotesque. When the pipe band of Clan McLeod went by I couldn't help but tell my own kids that it was their tartan they were wearing, even though it's an almost fanciful and quite distant connection. After a while I managed to stop the tears from squeezing out the corners of my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. A few soft and gentle rain showers passed over and umbrellas flowered all along both sides of the street. My kids had wormed their way up to the front and were sitting on the road in front of the barriers. I leaned over them with the umbrella as the rain got heavier. Next to us were three Chinese girls with little plastic Australian flags that had sprigs of rosemary strapped to them, which they waved dutifully as the parade passed by. I could not begin to imagine what the day meant to them but didn't quite know how to ask; one of them gave me a sultry, enigmatic glance but then wouldn't meet my eyes again. A line from a poem kept running through my head - the many men so beautiful - and it took me ages to track it down to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Course they weren't really beautiful any more, nor were they all men, but it was possible to see in most of them the boy or girl they had once been and that perhaps was the point. The bell on the Town Hall tower tolled the hour. It was eleven o'clock. The kids were ready to move on so I said once the next pipe band came by, we'd go. It was Knox College and they were easily the best of the lot, skirling and shouting down the wide rainy street. And all this time, the traffic lights on that busy corner, whose sequence I know intimately and by heart because of the number of times I've sat there in a taxi waiting, turned from green to amber to red and then back to green again, as if some vast array of ghostly phantom cohorts mingled with us were pausing then passing, pausing then passing on - unseen, unheard, but somehow not unapprehended.
When I smoke I always think about giving up; when I drink, of stopping. If writing, I cannot help but imagine not writing. I go out to buy an umbrella and come back, wet through, with a copy of the Koran; keeping the book dry under my shirt. In a local shop window there is an advertisement from a local poet, looking for a small flatette for himself and his few pet birds. Outside the medical centre on the corner is a pair of shoes; they've been there for days - first saw them when I was going for the paper one grey dawn. Small, round-toed, black leather slip-ons; a woman's shoes. One has a sponge inlay, they other, some kind of red felt inside. They are placed neatly side by side near the door of the medical centre, facing away, just beyond the locked box where the pathologist's samples are left to be collected. Where did she go, so early in the morning, so late in the evening? Who could she have been? It is impossible not to think of transubstantiation but whether she rose in grace or fell in despair is not certain. Or did she just shuck them off, wearily, with relief, and go barefoot up the narrow canyon of Lackey Street to the station? Catch a cab to the City? What are the chances of spontaneous combustion? The other day, outside Ashfield police station, I saw a woman holding an empty baby capsule of the kind used to carry very small children in cars; she was sobbing uncontrollably. Did someone kidnap her kid? The burly cop was rubbing his hand up and down her upper arm as she bent forward in hopeless grief. While two other women, one another cop, the other perhaps a friend, stood mute at the remaining corners of their huddled square. It is clear enough that every action, every thought, carries the ghost of its contrary within it. Presence suggests absence; danger, safety; grief, joy; indulgence, abstinence; a chance meeting is revealed to have been pre-ordained. While silence is both the condition, and corollary, of writing, as well as its ultimate fate. And yet sometimes there is a suspension of contraries in a singularity; sometimes people do disappear without trace, leaving only their shoes behind. Poets do find tiny improbable rooms where they can sing along with their few small birds. Books may turn out to be, after all, umbrellas. Or sewing machines.
Reliving the past is the most fantastic adventure of all. The event, relived, grows more and more enigmatic, and richer and richer in meaning. Turning to the past, I reach the future, I recall people I never knew. In the time/space continuum of consciousness, Was and Will Be occupy the same point.
from A Feast in the Garden by György Konrád
from A Feast in the Garden by György Konrád
You can become used to living in an unstable perceptual world, but there will still be times when what you think you see is not what you see; or perhaps, what you see is not what you think you see. Last night, after a long telephone conversation, I went out onto my little deck to smoke and look at the sky, as I am wont to do. There was an inky black cloud, shaped like a scorpion with tail upraised, floating near the steeple of St. Andrews. Intricate, very dark, unusually detailed. Floating in front of the paler, greyish clouds behind, that were drifting slowly northwards. Except - was it? A cloud? Or smoke? A chemical exhalation from some burning factory? I looked into the sky over the apartment block next door, to see if there were any other black clouds about. No, but there were black spaces opening between the cumulonimbus that have been intermittently dumping heavy showers on us over the last couple of days. Back to Scorpio, but Scorpio had gone lumpish and vague, far too quickly for it to have been made of water vapour. It was in fact a briefly scorpion-shaped gap in the clouds I had been looking at, a figure-ground ambiguity that sent me, as briefly, into a reverie of here be monsters. Fragments of a dream of an explorer came back, I was Tasman navigating pent up seas, threading the weedy stone walls of a canal that separated Utopia from the main: I had met a looming figure along this dark causeway and he had hammered down fists of adamant upon me in the seconds before I woke up sweating beneath the duvet. The candle-lit banquet hall beyond forever lost to me; but not the semi-circular quays of Utopia, or not at least their image. The mind as an autonomous zone, out beyond wolf-howl, making its accommodations with the ambiguous shapes of perception. Orion now lay where the scorpion had been, not a hunter, not at this latitude, but Te Waka o Tama-rereti perhaps; or something that is not yet thought; or something that can never be thought. And now the veritable words of Abel Tasman, no longer in a dream, return, written just a couple of days before he did at last see the merest tip, islanded, of the Great South Land: ... also our compasses did not stay stable as they ought or here are some mines of Loadstones, is indeed possible for our Compasses do not stay stable up to 8 points, there is continually Something which makes the compasses move or run. And heard the sound of horns blowing from the misty forests of Van Dieman's Land; and saw the giant steps cut in the trees, where men who are other than we are climbed to make their inscrutable imaginings real.