Jul 252017
 

Sell ticker rain jurrs, wee chwonn?!” Said he. “Huh? Oi dahnd unnerstehnn wotcha saiyin!” Said I. It was my first day at primary school in Glasgow and a mutually unintelligible clash of regional English accents was under way; Glasgow Scots vs Rural Aussie. Like me, the other kid was a knock kneed 9 year old Celt, but wearing a belligerent expression on his pasty dial, and I had no idea what his agitation was about.

Another ginger haired Scots tyke told him that my incomprehension was because I was Australian, at which my stroppy interrogator huffed off someplace, muttering (I think) about kangaroos. Dad later decoded this tense exchange for me after school, as we trudged home along the Crow Road shivering in the clammy gloom (Glasgow nightfall was as early as 3:45pm in winter, meaning that it was already twilight when I got out of school, and pitch dark by the time I’d walked home). Dad said that my adversary had been asking “Celtic or Rangers, which one?!“ but this was still utter gibberish to me, even when I understood the individual words. Dad explained that the boy’s question had challenged me to swear allegiance to either of two local soccer teams who were mortal enemies. What I know now but didn’t yet understand back then was that the important subtext of the question was that one of these teams was historically Catholic and the other was Protestant, and my inability to understand the question had probably saved my head from being punched in, as I was Catholic. The wrong answer in that area. More to the point, I didn’t (and still don’t) give a toss about sports anyway, but as luck would have it, I’d soon assert myself as a soccer savant purely by accident.

The school had one soccer pitch where multiple games were played concurrently during our lunch break. Exactly how many only became clear by counting the number of goalies in each goal mouth, often upwards of four. These kids had to make sense of multiple matches and call any game headed toward goal as “MINE!” when other goalies would briefly step aside to let him face the oncoming storm. I was running in this swirling melee myself, trying to understand crisscrossing swarms of tykes in the exact same school uniform kicking a multitude of soccer balls every which-way, when a ball cannoned out of nowhere, savagely caromed off my face and into goal. By pure luck, it was the ball from the game I was associated with and won a point for my team. With ears still ringing and my face throbbing five shades of red from chin to hairline, I did my best to pass off this fluke as a famous Australian header technique, and was hailed as the athletic hero of the day by one and all. I further cemented my schoolyard network when it turned out that a few classmates were Cub Scouts.

I had been a Cub Scout in Australia, and after my family moved to Scotland I joined a Cub Scout pack near our new home in Glasgow. I was a novelty right away because of my old style blue uniform and distinctive Australian merit badges. The Scots wore khaki/green outfits and their way of denoting rank was ARROWS on the sleeve (like sergeant’s stripes) whereas in Australia it was BOOMERANGS. I’d earned a bronze boomerang by accumulating a few art/craft merit badges and my one great Cub Scout achievement; raising the most money in a ‘Bob a Job‘ fundraiser. In every other field of Cub Scout endeavour, requiring bushcraft or physical coordination, I was mediocre at best. Like a dog pack, a Cub Scout pack could sniff out the status of other Cubs by merely looking at this resume of little boy achievement on our uniforms. (If this merit badge system continued into adulthood you’d know immediately if your date was worth your time by his ‘Good Boyfriend‘ badge — semiotic icon: peeing with seat UP). In my brief time in Scottish Scouts I attended weekly meetings where two grown men referred to as ‘Akela & Baloo‘ (in kilted scout outfits) tried to channel the energies of their pack of little wolves toward the high minded ideals of the organisation (a lot of ‘Queen & Country’ bollocks in hindsight) while the pack itself often focused on a simmering rivalry with a similar organisation of tribal brats a few blocks away (that variation on the ‘Lord Of The Flies With Supervision‘ concept was called Boys’ Brigade).

The main memory I have of my time in Scottish Scouts is of a several-day trip to the Scottish Highlands. After a bus drove us Cub Scouts all the way up there, we slept in a large empty hall, rather than tents as I’d done at similar Jamborees in Australia (called ‘Coroborees’ down our way) but inside camping worked well in the Highlands, as the weather was shitty most of the time, and the pack went rambling on moors and craggy coastlines between intermittent downpours. One afternoon we Cub Scouts were dodging rain and amusing ourselves back at the hall when I noticed a concerned huddle of Akela & Baloo. They glanced furtively at me and discussed some paperwork, before quietly taking me aside and asking me; “are you Catholic?” in hushed tones of concern and fear, as if asking “do you have ebola?” Weeks earlier my parents had filled out a permission form for me to go on the trip, with the usual stuff (medical issues, allergies, and so on) and even though the religion section clearly stated that I was Catholic, Akela & Baloo appeared to need further verbal clarification from me to believe this particular detail (apparently unnoticed until we were already on the trip). Upon careful consideration, I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure, but; “Maybe I might be Catholic?” Their tension eased a little; “So your family doesn’t go to church, then?” they enquired. “Oh no“, I corrected, “We go every Sunday“. Their shoulders sagged. “Where?” I described the drive from our house in Glasgow to our church, and Akela & Baloo drooped even further, exchanging looks. They seemed to know where I meant, but I could not decode their reaction.

At the time, I was oblivious to the pickle that me & my form had dropped them in. I did not yet understand the distinction between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ at the age of 9, but in Britain of the early 1970s, with the IRA tossing bombs about the place, and Catholics being occasionally shot by military forces in Northern Ireland, it was a very important distinction indeed. Later that same year my family saw ground zero of this Catholic/Protestant clash in Belfast. I still have jagged impressions from that day, of a broken grey town, spooled with barbed wire, patrolled by grim-faced troops wielding machine guns & driving Saracens, all seen through the wide goggling eyes of a small boy from a small town half a world away. At numerous checkpoints our family car full of 4 tiny children was inspected by armed soldiers, as my family drove through Belfast on our way to connect with a ferry back to Scotland. It was the first time I’d seen a real machine gun, and by the end of that day I’d seen quite a few. 21st century Britain is afraid of Muslim terrorism, but in 1974 Muslims were simply the people who sold us comics and sweeties at our corner store, and terrorism was the exclusive speciality of Catholics.

These many years later, I understand this context for the furtive glances and kid gloves that Akela & Baloo handled me with back then, when I was a little boy; Catholics were clearly testy nutjobs, and God only knew what the Australian variety might be capable of. Better find this kid a Catholic church pronto, unless his roo-riding parents launch an Aussie Left-Footer fatwah on the Jordan Hill scout hall. However, even in Glasgow we had to drive a long way from where we lived to attend a Catholic church (I remember my family picnicking near this church after mass, when a throng of angry blokes in orange shawls appeared. “What are those men yelling about?” I asked Mum & Dad. “Us!” they replied, as Mum gave me my sticky bun). Way up in the remote Highlands, Akela & Baloo had less options for finding me the right flavour of church to kneel in.

That Sunday we Cub Scouts got up VERY early before church and went for a long drive in our bus out into the beautiful heathered bleakness of a Scottish Highland moor. To my surprise, the bus stopped at an intersection out in this barren landscape and Akela gestured at a tiny rustic chapel, saying this was the right church for me, that they would pick me up after mass, and to please be patient as it might take a while. I got off the coach and walked over to the tiny stone chapel out in the backside of beyond, as my Cub Scout pack zoomed away to attend their own brand of Church on time. Imagine that classic scene in a western where all the owl hoots in the Dodge City saloon turn to see the new gunslinger walk through the swinging saloon doors. Now substitute the dusty saloon with a tiny rundown chapel on a Highland moor, for the piano player swap a Celtic crone seated at an organ, replace the bar patrons with a few elderly parishioners, and the new kid in town standing backlit at the door is me, in my garish Cub Scout uniform. Thinking back on it now, I must have been a bizarre sight from the point of view of these Highland parishioners waiting for mass. Outside they’d heard the squeal of brakes, the pneumatic hiss of an opening door, and turned to see a solitary sawn off creature in blue crossing their threshold.

In total silence I took a pew at the very back of the tiny chapel and waited. Slowly, more craggy Highlanders came in and took their seats. It was only then that I realised I’d broken with some local protocol. Unlike my parish, these Highland Catholics preferred that all lads sit on one side of the aisle and all lassies on the other, and I had been sitting amongst the womenfolk (though I fixed my mistake after communion). When the service got under way I had great difficulty in understanding what was being said. I’d eventually learned the rhythms of Glasgow speech, but this Highland Scots accent was impenetrable to me. It occurs to me only now that the service may have been in Gaelic, depending on where I was, but I couldn’t even guess where it might have been. Wherever I was, it was a long way from everywhere else, and my Cub Scout pack had gone well out of their way to get me there. Thankfully, although the priest’s words were opaque to me, I knew the rhythm of a Catholic mass by heart, and when to stand, sit, kneel, mumble or be silent.

After the mass ended, the tiny congregation quickly dispersed and hobbled away into the mist. I’m racking my memory as hard as I can now to remember if anyone queried me after mass. Even though it seems reasonable that somebody might be curious to know the identity of the mysterious tiny stranger in the blue uniform festooned with arcane symbols, I don’t have any recollection of even one of this taciturn crew talking with me, not even the priest. Let’s assume however that the good Father did check in with me, if only briefly, and after I assured him that I’d be picked up presently, he too hightailed it back into the Highlands. Thereafter, was a very long wait in the misty middle of nowhere until the rest of my Cub Scout pack returned.

Later, when I got back to Glasgow and Mum & Dad heard about Akela & Baloo’s furtive pre-church interview, the efforts my Cub Scout pack had taken to get me to a Catholic church, get to their own mass, and then drive back to pick me up, it became clear that none of it was necessary. Though touched by these efforts, Mum & Dad wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if I’d been taken to a church of another denomination. However, Akela & Baloo had never encountered someone of my peculiar breed in their Cub Scout pack ever before, and decided the best policy at the last minute was to be sensitive to causing offence. Everywhere in Scotland was a clan and/or a feud. Were you Catholic or Protestant? Celtic or Rangers? Campbell or MacDonald? Cub Scout or Boys Brigade? Highlander or Sassanach? Akela & Baloo clearly knew the protocols of dealing with Scots clans, and erred on the side of caution.

Our school too was divided into clans of a sort, the separate competing school houses (Harry Potter style). My schoolmates with classic Scottish surnames displayed their traditional clan tartans with utmost pride, on scarves, socks, hats, and other clothing accepted in school uniform rules. Not just clans, but hierarchies too were important. As a school newbie, I initially sat in the seat closest to the classroom door, and it took me a while to understand why the teacher (a fierce though loveable Scottish war hammer who could’ve been the model for Professor Minerva McGonagall) would rearrange our desks every fortnight. I eventually learned that placement of students within the classroom denoted their academic rank (a variation on the the at-a-glance merit badge ranking system used by Cub Scouts). Everyone knew exactly where you were within the hierarchy based on seating order; the front seat closest to the door (where I’d started) was for dummy numero uno, and the kid sitting over by the window at the back was class brainiac (for the record, I’d almost climbed to my traditional academic sweet spot of ‘the middle’ by the end of my time in Scotland).

With this pecking order humiliatingly displayed for all to see, each child asserted their own hierarchies in constantly revised lists taped to the underside of their desk lids. Not just the standard lists of fave bands, movie stars, athletes, and so on, but also best friend lists. These were prominently displayed as each student opened their desks to retrieve a book, when surrounding classmates would check to see whether their own currency had risen or fallen in these multiple social stock exchanges. My own ranking, if I made any lists at all, was once again ‘bottom of the middle’. It was all a lot to keep track of; the ‘LIKES’ of 1970s social media.

It was while in Scotland that I learned about British comics (such as Valiant, Beano & Dandy) and my drawing made a quantum leap as a result. I eagerly digested daily TV helpings of Brit Sci-Fi (Doctor Who, Space 1999, UFO) and Supermarionation (Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds). In Scotland I belatedly learned to ride a bicycle, camped by Loch Ness (fervently seeking Nessie) visited real castles and torture dungeons, and was impressed by many other things that made indelible impressions on a little boy. But my time there was extra special for personal reasons too. Though raised in Australia by Australian parents, I’d actually been born in Scotland (in Edinburgh while my father studied there) and my mother was of Scots ancestry on her father’s side. She was a STUART (clan Stuart of Bute) and during the year I turned 10 years old and my family briefly lived in Glasgow, I learned about my mother’s clan so fierce and proud; THE SCOTS.

Nov 052015
 

I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.

The inbetweener: cartoons

I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).

Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.

In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.

My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?

the inbetweener: brain scans

With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.

The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.

One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign. The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities- the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.

The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.

the inbetweener: desk

When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).

After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).

The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.

the inbetweener: hospital

As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.

I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.

The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.

the inbetweener: Mum's grave

As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.

The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.

The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I finally got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for nearly 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always ever-so faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of all her 7 children, I was was blessed to have had Mum’s loving guidance all the way up to my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.

the inbetweener: family photo
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Jan 072014
 

It’s difficult to preserve memory when your older-self’s revised view constantly overwrites the original impression. How do you file a loving memory of someone you no-longer like? Or childhood memories of wonder, but of things now uncool? Do you owe it to your earlier-self to keep that first impression alive?

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One such moment, is a memory of awe and fascination from a lazy summer day in my home town; Boxing Day 1977. The day before, we’d opened presents under our Christmas tree, which was a eucalypt decorated with ornaments and lights (snaffling an Australian-themed Christmas tree was Dad’s own personal tradition). Then we’d had a sunny Christmas lunch outside, under a crabapple tree humming with cicadas. Now Christmas was over, the salvageable wrapping paper was already put away by Mum, and it would be another year before we’d see sweat-soaked Santas in the Australian summer sun, Dad would be complaining about rampant Christmas commercialism again, and the cycle would begin anew.

Hakuna Matata.

My pal Stephen and I sat in my family kitchen thinking of what to do now that Christmas was behind us and we’d “rounded the horn” of the Summer Holidays. As I picked holiday fruitcake out of my braces, Stephen read a movie synopsis from the newspaper about a farmhand from outer-space. I was not like the sophisticated, eyeball-rolling 13 year-olds of today, yet even to me “Luke Skywalker” was the dumbest name I’d ever heard, but a movie with my mates was the best idea I’d heard on that particular Boxing Day, so off we went to watch a new film called STAR WARS.

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In 1977, there weren’t world-wide simultaneous movie releases, and film-prints just crawled from cinema to cinema around the planet, taking 7 months for a mid-year American release to reach my home town. Amazingly, I knew nothing about the cinema sensation of the year, when Stephen and I entered a packed theatre to watch it. First, there was a documentary (an Australian content-quota meant countless naff documentaries) and that night it was about auto-racing and was extra boring, but thankfully the screen went dark when a blown fuse threw the theatre into chaos. We threw lollies at our pal John in the dark, and he lobbed them back at us, while everyone played the fool, rolled Jaffas down the aisle, and called out silly names. After what seemed forever, the power was restored, the audience settled down, the documentary was shelved, and the feature-attraction finally began.

A NEW HOPE
Immediately, I sat up and took notice because Star Wars was way more spectacular than anything I’d ever seen. Without messing about with credits, we were dropped into a budget-blowing opening sequence of battling spaceships, gun fights and robots. I was used to waiting an hour to see anything half as spectacular as the opening shot of this movie. True, Bond films started with action, and that same year, SPY WHO LOVED ME opened with a stuntman skiing off a cliff under a UNION JACK parachute. But first, I’d had to watch Roger Moore’s smirking eyebrow-dance, his alpine snog-sesh, then a cheesy rear-projected ski chase I’d seen before. Star Wars on the other hand, had an opening sequence unlike anything I’d seen, plus aliens and robots, and had the show-stoppingest, climactic action sequence of the year (with Roger Moore’s wrinkly chest nowhere to be seen.)

Seeing Star Wars for the first time at the age of 13 put me in the demographic sweet-spot it was made for, but I remember how much I did not understand in 1977. For example, the movie starts on two robots, then white-armoured troopers arrive, who I thought were robots too. They were led by (I thought) another black-clad robot, using robot-strength to lift a goodie off the deck and bust his neck. I don’t remember when I learned who was a robot and who was human (from a novelisation, I expect) but I watched the movie that first time none the wiser. Unspectacular details also blew my mind in 1977: Aunt Beru serving Luke’s space-lunch with BLUE MILK (Bantha milk perhaps?) WOW. And when Luke slouches off for his teenage-sulk, he stares at a view of not one but two setting suns. WOAH. (I did teen-sulks that year too, but only had the view of Dad’s compost heap at the bottom of our vegetable garden to pose wistfully with.)

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I was floored by Star Wars at 13 years old, but I didn’t see it again before finishing its 1977 run, and in the pre-video age I couldn’t see it whenever I wanted. Thus, for many years, the power of this movie was that it existed largely in my mind, and my life as a day-dreaming fan was under way. I ordered the “Art of Star Wars” book (which eventually fell apart from re-reading) and though I’d already decided on a career in animation, I considered being a movie concept-designer, and drew spaceships and robots in addition to the cartoons I’d drawn for years.

I was too young for 1960s “Beatlemania” (only becoming aware of The Beatles many years after they’d disbanded and John already looked like the Unabomber) but was at ground-zero for its 1970s equivalent; the Star Wars phenomenon. I doubt that a movie will ever have that impact again, simply because the scale of its success was not anticipated. The media-blitz IS anticipated now, and in fact planned for whether we want it or not, and is an attempt to artificially recreate the run-away explosion of interest in (and subsequent consumer purchasing of) Star Wars. Thanks to the media frenzy, there were interviews, behind-the-scenes articles, cultural-theorisings, novelisations, and comics and magazines like never before, and of course, unprecedented merchandising. (That alone left me uninterested. Though I carry the NERD gene, it’s a mutation that leaves me immune to toys).

While awaiting the Star Wars sequel, I sought out director George Lucas’ influences, with mixed results. After wading through LORD OF THE RINGS, a book thicker than our telephone directory, I was outraged to realise by the last chapters that the insufferable band of bloody hobbits, wretched wizards and mincing elves had essentially just decided to do something, and got nowhere near blasted Mordor by the end of the first book. (Structurally the equivalent of Luke Skywalker getting to Mos Eisley; The End.) I hurled the book against the wall in frustration, and never knew what happened next till Peter Jackson ‘read’ the trilogy for me.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
When the Star Wars sequel came out a few Christmases later I was 16 years old and a textbook example of a teenage nerd. Reader of comics? CHECK. Animation Aficionado? OF COURSE. Lousy at sports? GUILTY. Lover of sci-fi movies? MAIS OUI. Obsessed with Star Wars? DOUBLE CHECK. Terminally celibate? CHECK and MATE! (Minus the mating part). I’d often imagined what Mr Lucas might do with his next Star Wars film (snort) but EMPIRE STRIKES BACK surpassed all my expectations, and delivered perhaps THE surprise twist of my cinema going life (“His father?! Wha!!”)

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By 1980, I was old enough to baby-sit my siblings and urged Mum & Dad to see the sequel, assuring them it was a masterpiece. While they wasted their date-night seeing MY obsession, we boys teased my 5 year old sister Victoria that she could not be Princess Leia in our Star Wars game (“Aw! I don’t wanna be an Ugnaught!”) Later, the kids were in bed and Mum & Dad retuned. Far from being awestruck, they appeared to give substantially less than even one shit about the movie. When pressed, Mum said, “Well… It’s a bit… LURID, isn’t it, dear.” I was aghast at this tepid reaction, and more so after checking a dictionary;

LURID- Adj: very vivid in color, especially so as to create an unpleasantly harsh or unnatural effect.

What the?! My parents grew up on the serials that inspired Star Wars, but interestingly, the 1970s redo of their childhoods did nothing for them.

Around this time, I learned of a Sydney animation studio and set my sights on getting a job there, gravitating back to my first love of drawing cartoons, but my brain still marinated in a brine of Star Wars, and the obsession strangely broadened my horizons. I read about director George Lucas’ film-maker heroes; about Kurosawa, about John Ford (and others) and when I moved to Sydney to start work, I was finally able to track down their films at art-house and repertory theatres, and learned a lot about cinema history and filmic language. This exciting period is the closest thing I had to film school.

RETURN OF THE JEDI
Christmas of 1983, I was working at Hanna Barbera when RETURN OF THE JEDI arrived in Sydney theatres. I was excited to see how the Star Wars saga wrapped up, and after the previous instalment, my expectations were unbelievably high. Perhaps inevitably, the film itself was anticlimactic. Maybe it was that the Star Wars series was finally (I thought) over? Or was it the failings of the film itself; the unblinking Space Teddy Bears and so on? Perhaps it was because I’d recently been through a lot (Mum died around the previous Christmas). Or simply that I was too old, at the age of 19, and could now see the movie ‘strings and wires’?

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I work within an industry that makes stories for children, and my colleagues and I were called to this life as an extension of our own childhood awe at similar films. In fact, many friends are working on those exact film-series that they loved as children, including Star Wars. “The circle is now complete” (as a certain trouble-maker once said). We Pro-nerds started as child-fans but now make the mind-candy. That must be cool, right? Well, yes and no. We love the process but are now part of the artifice, and no longer feel the magic of these things. Sometimes we must work hard at keeping our pro-present from twisting the feelings of our fan-past.

After a few more years working in Sydney studios in the mid-1980s- a time when it honestly felt that the animation industry was dwindling, and would be dead within 10 years- I travelled while pondering my plan-B career options. I worked for various studios, first in Asia, then in Europe, then the USA, arriving in the very city where the Star Wars movies were made in time for an animation renaissance that revitalised the industry. Before long, I actually worked for George Lucas’ company itself, while he made the first of the Star Wars prequels. I was 35 and despite myself, excited to see what Mr Lucas would do with Star Wars next..

REVENGE OF THE PHANTOM CLONES
..until I saw the movie, that is. While it is very true that STAR WARS changed my life, the PHANTOM MENACE changed it back again, which is perhaps for the best. They are, after all, only movies. A fact that Mr Lucas himself may have forgotten. In 1970s interviews after his Star Wars success, Mr Lucas cited a fun blend of movie serials, comics, and pulp magazines as its foundation. The Joseph Campbell theorising came later, initially offered by others, and George may have gotten drunk on it. When you see yourself as the modern myth-maker laureate, instead of a modern maker of pulp-serials, it’s not surprising that you might forget the essential ingredient of FUN.

Imagine the 1977 Star Wars without Han Solo. Instead, Luke & Obi-Wan are helped by another pontificating Jedi-dude in his spaceship. Structurally, the story would be the same, and I would’ve still loved that version at the age of 13 because, well, I was 13. However, without Han Solo taking the piss out of The Force and the rest of it, anyone older would’ve only had a whiny kid or a pair of ponderous old gits to connect with. To a general audience, Star Wars would’ve been insufferable without Han Solo (and to some extent, The Princess) as the ‘way in’ to the Jedi malarkey. This is essentially what we have in the Star Wars prequels; they are very dour (Yoda used to be a cheeky trickster, remember?) and the only character not bound to Jedi mumbo jumbo is a CGI Rasta duck/rabbit. 13 year olds love it (I would’ve too at that age) but without a likable adult foil the prequels are a ponderous tale about a cult of bearded virgins taking themselves very seriously, and well, if I’d wanted to see that I’d just buy a ticket to Comic Con.

THE NERD APOCALYPSE
Many original-trilogy Star Wars fans have theories about the prequels, and Mr Lucas’ missteps that led him there, and I’m no different. But perhaps the more interesting thing to think about is that WE too lost our perspective? The Phantom Menace is the best value for money ever spent on a movie ticket, because people are still talking about it. What other movie of 1999, or other year for that matter, has given that return on an $8 investment? I myself have participated in many fun geek-out discussions about it, but worry that ‘hating movies’ is the new ‘loving movies’. Fan-love is strong, but has a bitter taste when it curdles, and in the crazy hyperbole of The Internet, many fans even claimed that George Lucas had raped their childhoods.

It was as if the Beatles reformed, but as a polka band, much to the horror of their old fans, who were aghast when the Re-Beatles’ POLKA album found new fans and went triple platinum anyway. The fact that Lucas himself directed the prequels made the anger more intense, and rabid Star Wars fans forgot that these were movies, not holy scriptures, and were supposed to be FUN. Fans complaining that Mr Lucas ruined their childhoods, should relax. If what we fondly remember is a moment in time, and what it meant to us back then, then we still have it.

SW_poster

I saw Star Wars once in 1977 and not again until 1983, and never had a scene-for-scene memory of it, the way some fans do. Yet I had the film indelibly stored inside me anyway, as a collection of memories, feelings and impressions. This, along with photos from magazines, novelisations and comics, became my own personal “Special Edition”, existing only in my head. But if you fetishise the object itself, you are at the mercy of the Nerd/Media complex; that relationship between fans and the companies that own the intellectual properties. When a nerd cherishes an adolescent moment of wonder, the company does too if it centres on a THING that can be sold (and resold) to the nerd.
Q: But what happens if the company (even the original filmmaker) messes with the fetishised object, changing the context of things?
A: Lo, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that will echo all down the numerous vales of the Internet.

In an old interview with Mr Lucas, he talked of the movie serials he loved as a child, and how surprised he was to later discover that they were actually shoddily made, when he saw them again at film school. For this disconnect to happen, not constantly re-watching the original was a key element in its growth into something else in his mind. As a pro-nerd himself, Mr Lucas processed his disappointment by making something that captured the MEMORY of his beloved serials, but was better made, and STAR WARS was born. For my generation Star Wars was new, and made a huge impression, but my parents saw Star Wars for the slick rehash that it was. Now that I’m middle-aged myself, and neck-deep in rehash after redo, homage after rip-off, ad infinitum, of things I grew up on, I finally understand why Mum & Dad were unimpressed when they saw Empire Strikes Back in 1980. (Verily, I forgive you now, Mum & Dad.)

Keep your cherished childhood impressions free of bitterness by remembering that it’s not only the object (film, book, record or whatever) that you love, but also how old you were, who you were with, the entire place and time itself and your relationship to it. This can never be recreated when simply re-watching that same movie, over and over, but happily, is always part of your internal world, and thus not at the mercy of corporate “re-imaginings” or director’s “re-edits”. Just as Mr Lucas found inspiration for Star Wars in a moment of disappointment with serials from his childhood, hopefully LOADS of material is gestating in the minds of disappointed fans who saw the Star Wars prequels, maybe even a couple that are truly original creations. Cherishing a moment of wonder but then fetishising the film that inspired it is a dead end, but using that feeling to inspire the creation of something new, keeps the flame alive.

If my 13 year old self knew that the two Nerd-Gods of my adolescent world; Walt Disney and George Lucas, would one day be in bed together, my 13 year old brain would be aquiver in febrile anticipation. Now, having been an eager Storm-trooper for both their companies, I’m not so sure. Creatively, it could go either way; bring STAR WARS back to life? Or flog the dead horse into glue? But the fact that Lucasfilm was an Indie film studio, hugely successful yes, but working outside of Hollywood as an independent, means that I was saddened by the Lucas/Disney marriage and to see Lucasfilm consumed.

Hakuna Matata

There are strange moments in Star Wars, viewed now as an adult. If it was intended for children, Luke finding his Aunt and Uncle cooked into beef jerky by Imperial troopers (the only time they ever hit what they aimed at) is a very unsettling image. It was for me, anyway. On the other hand, if it was for grown ups, then Princess Leia’s emotional life is hard to read; she sees her planet and everyone she loved, destroyed, and the next that we see her, she cooly sasses Luke Skywalker for being too short. Smart-arse sociopath? Or still stoned after her visit from the Pusher-Droidâ„¢ with the syringe? Her forgetting of Chewie’s Victory Medal (which I was peeved about at 13) could be anti-Wookie racism, but maybe we should give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk it ALL up to her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.. (Verily, I forgive you now, Princess). Seen today, the disco hair in Star Wars roots it firmly in the era of Donna Summer and the special effects that floored a generation no longer seem so special. In fact, how long before Disney reboots the series altogether? Probably as soon as they have episodes 7, 8, and 9 in the can. I hope they tread carefully, lest they start the unholy rehash-backlash Nerd-Apocalypse II. (I might just sit that one out.)

It’s difficult to make sense of a lifetime of impressions of such an iconic and over-watched movie. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the very first time with the wide-eyed awe of a child, and also with the eyes of an adult who’s seen it umpteen times and aware of its limitations. This constant layering of memory- not just of this movie but of everything in our experience- means that, inevitably, we are ALL Lucas-like in our heads; constantly tinkering with the edits of our lives. So how to sum it all up? Maybe the trick to memory is to hold on to multiple versions simultaneously; the current view AND the younger view… By all means have a REVISED edition, and as many alternate versions as you like, but unlike Mr Lucas, don’t make the mistake of ever taking that original CLASSIC version out of circulation.

———

SW_walk

I have kept alight within me many memories of childhood wonder, trying to hold onto them lightly lest they break, or worse, become twisted. In one of them, it is always Boxing Day 1977 and I am just walking out of the Capitol Theatre with my friends Stephen and John, into an Australian summer evening. Like many people, I’m agog at what I just saw up on that movie-screen, but maybe a little more agog than most. With the perspective of time (and a little self-knowledge) I see why that particular 13 year old kid identifies with the story of a dweeb from a small town in the middle of nowhere and his quest for adventure. Of course I was primed to love this movie of fantasy and escapism, and was on the hook from the first frame till the last, and always will be.

Luke Skywalker whined about not going to Toshi Station to pickup those tasty power-converters, and meanwhile, a few galaxies away, 13 year old me whines that I’ll never fly a spaceship, meet a robot or make friends with a giant alien ape. Walking home, I mention to Stephen what a bummer it is that real life is never going to live up to that movie. I say good night, go inside my house, and sit on the couch. A career in animation is a few years away, adventures around the world are further away, and working for George Lucas himself is even further away and, as my mind joyfully races through the galaxies, I stare at the tinfoil STAR over the shedding Christmas tree…

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Oct 012013
 

As a child, going to the cinema was special. Seeing even a crummy movie back then was somehow way more fun than seeing an absolutely amazing movie is for me today. Of course, my childhood was in the pre-video era, when perhaps the anticipation of a movie and the fond memories of it afterward were greater than they are now, even though the movies themselves were less spectacular by far. Having no video, I could not replay the movies I liked whenever I wanted. I saw them only once and then they were gone, continuing only in my mind where they often grew over time into something much more fascinating than the movie that inspired them.

These days, we guzzle at the media-trough, day-in day-out, and forget those leaner times. Compared with the children of today I was media malnourished; we didn’t have an X-Box, 100 TV channels or a library of streaming video to choose from at home. There were only two TV channels in my home town, and one of those didn’t broadcast till after lunch, when you’d get hours of boring cricket, and even that would be in black and white. (Australia didn’t get colour TV till about 1975 and my family not till years after that).

So, for colour movie entertainment, there were really only two ways to go. My very earliest memories of movie-going are of the Drive-In, in a car packed with crying younger siblings. Or, for a more refined viewing experience, there was the Cinema, where on special occasions, Dad would take me on a lad’s night out. In my home town, the movie palace was the old 1920s CAPITOL THEATRE, where my Dad watched films when he was growing up, and I experienced a lot of my own great movie memories too, including seeing my first JAMES BOND film. My vivid memories of cinema-going start with a viewing of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER with my Dad at the age of 7. I had not seen anything like it.

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I remember we walked the few blocks to the “THE PICTURES” one summer evening, probably in early 1972. Dad bought our Maltesers, Jaffas and Fantales, we took our seats and when the house lights went down, we watched the cartoon. I get my love of cartoons, which ultimately led me to working in animation myself, from my Dad. My Mum never “got” cartoons. (I am reminded of the time Dad and I laughed so hard at a BUGS BUNNY cartoon on the Telly, that Mum stomped out of the kitchen, mixing bowl still in hand, to see what the hilarity was about. After alternately staring blank-faced at the cartoon, and watching us kack ourselves with laughter, she sighed in resignation to this mystery and went away none the wiser.) Anyway, it saddens me that nowadays cinemas show commercials instead of cartoons, but they were still dependably shown at the cinema when I was little, to our great enjoyment. With any luck the cartoon that day would have been by WARNER BROTHERS (maybe even the beloved Bunny) then after some brief COMING SOON info, the movie itself finally began. I leaned forward to watch…

CRASH! A judo guy is hurled through a window. BASH! A man in dark glasses is choked and gruffly interrogated by a mystery man. Wait, now there’s a pretty lady in a bikini. We finally meet the mystery man; an intense-looking bloke with cranky eyebrows in a polyester safari suit, who inexplicably strangles the friendly bikini lady with her own bikini top. (!?) In the next scene, eyebrows-man is confronted by the bloke he seeks; a smug-looking man flanked by henchmen, their guns understandably leveled at violent eyebrow-man, who suddenly steams fiercely about the place, stabbing the henchmen; THUNK! THUNK! Then, in a scene I remember most vividly, he tosses smug-man into a vat of molten mud. (Wow.) And all of this before the opening titles, which featured a diamond encrusted cat and silhouettes of cavorting and bejeweled naked ladies.

DAF_Bond

That was a lot to process for someone more used to DOCTOR DOLITTLE (seen on a previous boys’ movie night). Amazingly to me at the time, I soon discovered that the cranky guy with the eyebrows, who single-handedly provoked this non-stop sequence of unexplained violence, was the “goodie” of this movie; James Bond. He was a “real” person but capable of unloading just as much cartoon violence as Bugs Bunny and, unlike the rabbit, when he despatched his foes in cartoonishly outrageous ways, they bled and stayed very dead. This was a new idea.

I’m not even sure if Dad himself knew what was in store for us when he bought our tickets. Had he ever seen a Bond movie before? Perhaps not. I seem to remember him squirming uncomfortably in his seat as James Bond did his all baddie-murdering and lady-strangling. This must have been a racier evening than Dad had planned for his 7 year old son, who was transfixed in goggle-eyed amazement nevertheless. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, but unlike DOCTOR DOLITTLE, which has almost evaporated from my memory completely, I sat at the very edge of my seat engrossed in finding out what this naughty Bond fellow got up to next. It was some grownup code that needed deciphering, especially the scenes with pretty ladies that had, to my 7 year old brain, a weird undefinable something extra that I could not fathom..

DAF_BambiThumper

A much later viewing in my adulthood identified this mystery element as a cheesy, nudge-nudge-wink-wink 1970s kitsch-eroticism, only one notch up the bogus-innuendo scale from Benny Hill. In the early 2000s, myself and my friend ROBERT had decided to watch all the Bond movies in order over several days, with the easy review-ability of LAZER DISC. We both had dim, fond memories of seeing a few of these films in our childhoods, and watching them ALL seemed a grand idea. However, like an all-you-can-eat challenge at the neighborhood Hof Brau, that once-grand idea soon fills you with regret and nausea when you are at half way, and will ultimately break you completely. Fond memories or not, we simply could not chew our way through all the pap. (For the record, Roger Moore was the greasy plate of macaroni and beef that sent us scuttling to the lavatory).

Seeing these Bond movies again was a revelation. Some were cheesy-but-good, one or two were actually good-good, but the vast majority were just plain silly. As for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, it was revealed to be the most lackluster of Sean Connery’s Bond movies by far. He was beyond his sleek, 1960s, dangerous-panther phase, and had not yet reached his later, 1980s, silver-fox phase. It was those awkward in-between years; his 1970s, bored, toupee-and-girdle phase. The film had little of the danger I had remembered, and was actually tame compared to what children watch today, almost AUSTIN POWERS.DAF_BondGun

I rather preferred the deadliness of the film I had carried around in my head since childhood, and perhaps that’s the secret to the Bond Franchise’s success? Maybe this film series lives so vividly because we’ve EACH selected our favourite dishes from the Bond buffet table– the best baddie, best helicopter chase, most vivacious babe, snazziest theme song, most bruising brawl, scariest henchman, most exciting car chase, greatest gizmo and the best Bond-actor– and assembled in our minds a custom-made, mega-meta-movie platter all along? We each remember an absolutely awesome Bond movie that perhaps never really existed.

In fact, this may be the case with many of the films that I love, especially those that impressed me as a child. The versions of those films that I hold in my mind were merely inspired by the actual films, and what I love was only ever in my imagination. After all, foods, wines and whiskeys often gain more flavour by being allowed to age undisturbed in a cellar, and perhaps this true of film as well. Is the human mind the oak-barrel aging room of media? If so, perhaps our relationship to film has fundamentally changed in the post-video age, when we can instantly call up any scene from any movie that we wish on YouTube or streaming video. Easy access to the originals doesn’t allow for the distortions and amplifications of memory.

DAF_car

So rather than overwrite that old memory of being enthralled by DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER at the age of 7, with the unimpeachable evidence that the film is actually pretty shoddy, with a puffy lead actor who barely performs above a yawn, I prefer to keep the thrilling memory of the movie experience I’ve had in my head all those years: Me at the age of 7, with my Dad on a boys night out to see a great movie! Vividly-remembered scenes of James Bond brawling in a swimming pool with not one but TWO kung fu bikini girls, WOW! And that deadly fight in a lift, COOL! What about that stunt with a car going though a skinny alleyway? YEAH! And what’s going on with those two very creepy assassin guys? Hey Dad, maybe we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because Mum wouldn’t “get it”, don’t you think?

It’s the stuff that a cuddly childhood memory is made of.

Sep 132013
 

When I was in grade two of Catholic primary school, we started to take catechism classes where such profound notions as ‘Souls’ and ‘Immortality’ were being bandied about, not to mention the biggies; ‘Heaven’, ‘Hell’ and ‘God’. Both in the classroom and out in the playground, there was much discussion about these concepts and the ground rules that went with them. This was all a part of the build-up to our First Holy Communion.

marie-therese

An old war-hammer dressed in a veil known as Sister MT (who was old enough to have taught my Dad as a child, in a bygone age) was the person chosen to lead this little group of wide-eyed 8 year olds into the spirit realm. Her prime qualifications for this delicate mission were that she was a nun and breathing. Apart from those two admirable qualities I could not imagine a person less qualified to introduce the subtle and complex world of the afterlife and its mysteries to such an impressionable group of young minds. In today’s lingo we might say that she lacked ‘people skills’ or ’emotional intelligence’.

It was taken as a given that Heaven existed and was a place that we all wanted to go to, and Sister MT explained that requirement Number One was a soul, no one was getting past the guards into this exclusive paradise without one of those. Thankfully though, we each got kitted out with a soul at birth by the grace of God and not only that, thanks to our parents we were also Baptized which was requirement Number Two. So far so good. But apparently the Baptism wasn’t really sealed until ratified with a new pledge made of our own free will, which brought us to step Number Three; preparations for our First Holy Communion, and where we were on that particular day.

Many people at this point in their spiritual development may wrestle with the exclusivity; what about the un-baptised? the Hindu? the Moslem? Or even what about the Atheists? My mind didn’t stretch that far at the age of 8 partly because I didn’t realize that anyone other than Catholics even existed. I had never met one (that I was aware of anyway). No, the big hurdle for me in this whole HEAVEN caper was, what happens to my dog JOCK?

I remember right there in class counting off all the people I cared about the most, my family, my friend Stephen.. and everyone except my dog Jock were covered by the rules we had learned so far. I was pretty sure that nobody had ever baptized Jock, after all, we had only picked him up at the pound not so long ago, and if they hadn’t baptized him there how was he going to get in to Heaven? Jock may or may not have been my number one favourite person on planet Earth at that time (please don’t force me to pick) but let’s say that if I had to choose 10 people to rescue from the fires of hell then Jock would have DEFINITELY been on the list, and I couldn’t imagine Heaven being heavenly without him.

So, I wanted to find out what I needed to do to get my dog Jock baptized, so I could then get him his communion and he could get to heaven too. I put up my hand and when she stopped to acknowledge me, I asked Sister MT that question. Unfortunately for me, it was not an empathetic, spiritual guru I was talking to that day, it was the angry drill sergeant from ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

The specifics of her actual response escape me now, just as the moment of a bomb detonation later becomes hazy to those who stood at ground zero.. but it was fiery and contemptuous, laced with an undertone of ridicule and an aftertaste of acid. Sister MT made it quite clear that Jock, nor any other dog neither, didn’t have a soul and that as a consequence of this design by The Maker, Jock was denied entry to Heaven.

To say I was ‘stunned’ doesn’t describe it. I was devastated and then crushed, turned inside-out, then peeled like a banana and then after all that yeah, I was stunned… It was a pretty big existential crisis that’s for sure, certainly the first time that some crumminess in my own life was indicative of a system-wide, stacked-deck throughout the entire universe.

I know, I know… I didn’t even think of all the other stuff, like if heaven is full of Sister MT type people do you really want to spend eternity there? That thought did occur to me much later on, but at this point in my life I was operating under the assumption that Heaven was marvelous, we were all going and my dog Jock, who I loved, wasn’t allowed in. To any devout atheists out there, I understand that this Catholic-stuff is hard to grasp but to understand my state of mind back then you need to think of this scenario:

‘Yeah, we are all going to this awesome party, wanna come? No, your best friend isn’t invited. In fact don’t even ask about him, Ok? just asking about him makes us think that you aren’t cool enough to come too and we should invite someone cooler. And by the way, anyone NOT at the party is going to be incinerated… coming?’

Anyway, I no longer remember what exactly happened immediately after this devastating spiritual mauling. I may have tearfully rushed home after that class was done with. Or, I may have stayed in school like a zombie for the rest of the day till all my classes were over… that part I am now unsure of. The sequence of the memories I have left flows like this:

1. I’m at school learning about souls.
2. I am skull-raped by a nun (see above).
3. Next, I am tearfully trudging home like some tiny existential philosopher poet, with the weight of a cruel, twisted universe on his narrow shoulders, each step heavier than the last.

The next well-remembered scene in this tragic screenplay is that I am at home, sitting on our back step, clutching my dog Jock to my sobbing bosom with both arms, bawling and blubbering and rocking him to and fro, as if to shield him from the inky oblivion that was his sole birthright. The only English words that Jock understood apart from his name were ‘sit’ and ‘shake’ but he knew enough body-language to see that something pretty heinous was afoot, and he sat there patiently letting me wail myself into a frenzy, occasionally licking some of the blubber-snot off of my face, and doing what he could to comfort me, wagging his tail and so on.

Jock_steps

The scene is touchingly funny to me now, sitting here, writing this and remembering it all from the vantage point of an adult well over 40 years later, and especially from the further distance of being at the atheist-end of the agnostic-spectrum (which is to say that I don’t really know what I believe any more). But I still remember the emotions from that moment, the despair and hopelessness, the anger at the cruel injustice of it all. I was wracked with anguish on that day. Whatever the nun might say, Jock was very much a person to me and I held him to me tightly. So this is how my mother must have seen me from the kitchen window.

She came outside and sat next to me on the back step and tried to get to the bottom of what was going on. Through wrenching, full-body sobs and gasping intakes of air, I tried to explain to her the cruel sham that was going down; The incompetence of the universe, the twisted coldness of it all, I didn’t want to go to heaven if Jock wasn’t going to go too, and the Sister said he couldn’t, and why didn’t God make him with a soul and.. and.. all that stuff… There just wasn’t any way around this problem.

Consider my Mum’s predicament here; she would have been deeply peeved that I had been so callously treated, but she probably didn’t want to openly contradict the nun who had reduced me to tears by saying that my beloved dog would not enter Heaven. Besides which, Mum may have even agreed with Sister MT’s No Pets policy, who can say? At the same time, she was a compassionate person and not too busy to see that a child’s problems are sometimes the very biggest issues of all, such as on that particular day, when the big question was this; do we live in a Just Universe, or not? The little person that I was back then was having his universe cracked open on the back of this very question.

Mum knew that sometimes saying nothing, but just being there with a hug and some simple reassuring sounds, was all that it took to cheer someone up. But if they moved beyond misery to despair and the situation called for something insightful to be said, she was equal to that task too. She reassured me that Jock would indeed be going to Heaven. To which I wailed that the Sister explained the rules and it just wasn’t going to happen. Mum said that the Sister was explaining the rules for HUMAN Heaven, Jock is going to DOG HEAVEN. My blubbering stopped.

Dog Heaven? (Says I). Why yes, it’s right next door to Human Heaven, (Mum says) and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we can visit them, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the dogs can visit us! (Sundays, everyone has the day off).

All in a trice, the burden was lifted and the universe was a benevolent place once again. We would BOTH go to heaven, one each, side by side! My mind raced with the possibilities.. Why, here at our house, didn’t Jock sleep outside, under the tank-stand while I slept inside the house in my bed? Yet we played together just fine didn’t we? (not to mention the fact that he snuck in my window each night and ACTUALLY slept on my bed, when no one was looking). I felt that a similar arrangement could be possibly figured out in Heaven. Wonderful!

Did my Mum cook up ‘Dog Heaven’ and its universe-changing, philosophical, get-out-of-jail-free card on the spot? Or did we together workshop the concept and all its rules, perhaps over the next few days of excited mother-son conversation? I don’t remember, but thinking about it now, it seems likely. Memory is a slippery thing. I only know that in the memory that comes down to me across the years, the metaphysical idea that made me once again happy to live in the universe was hatched right then and there on our back step by my Mum.

This is a bittersweet and happy/sad memory for me. Two of the beings that gave me the most comfort in my childhood are intertwined in this memory, and there are so many layers and threads to it; my feelings from the time and my feelings towards their memory now, based on the fact that these two were both taken away from me, many years before I was done with either of them.. though not before they each gave me so much.

Mar 012013
 

Mar 1, 2013 1:36am

When I had just completed my final year of high school my mother had a stroke. We eventually found out that this was related to a terminal brain cancer which took her life 11 months later, when she was just 39 years old. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on ME to this day; it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, leaving behind a husband and 6 kids, including an 11 month old baby, seemed so unfair that I was angry about it for some quite some time.

But one of the incredible qualities that my mother possessed was that she herself never ever got bitter about what had befallen her. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one by one as time wore on, she never gave in to anger, or to “why me” bitterness. I do not remember her ever getting angry at god or fate or anyone else either. This attitude made a huge impression on me at the time, though I was incapable of adopting it for myself.

Now that I’ve had a stroke of my own, I am even more amazed at the grace that my mother managed to bring to her plight. Her stroke was infinitely worse than mine, with many complications; epilepsy and severe burns down one side, and of course the brain cancer, which thankfully I don’t have, (they checked). I am left wondering more than ever how she bore her burdens so well.

I think the answer is that she tried to make the most of the time that was left to her, to spend as much time as she could with her family. Time much too precious to be wasted on bitterness. All these many years later her attitude is even more of an inspiration to me.

When I consider my situation, sometimes it is tempting to give in to self pity, frustration or depression, or to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before me. But I must remind myself that such feelings would be a waste of time and make a difficult situation even harder to bear, both for me and the people close to me.

I have a lot of rehabilitation to do before I am even close to getting back to normal but I hope that I manage to push through it all with a portion of the wisdom, courage and good grace that my dear mother once showed me.
Jamie

Oct 312011
 

The older I get the longer a haircut takes, despite having fewer and fewer actual hairs on my head to cut. A similar principal is in effect at a grand-master chess match: fewer game-pieces on the chessboard means longer deliberations between moves.


Despite receding hair, getting a haircut now causes me no anxiety whatsoever. Ironically, I most worried about my hair when I had plenty to spare. As a small boy, I saw the world through an unruly mop, but even attempts by my mother to merely WASH my hair caused me to howl with as much tonsil-quavering gusto as being dragged to the dentist.


The drama of childhood dental appointments is easy to understand –my yowling correlated precisely with the actions of a bloke jamming a drill in the nerve-endings of my teeth– but it isn’t immediately clear why anyone grooming my hair caused such dread. Of course, in the 1970s, even grown-men loathed the barbershop but that was mere fashion. My hair-angst went much deeper than that, and was not connected to aesthetics at all. Like some tiny SAMSON, I saw grooming of my hair as an attack on my very self.


No matter how “good” the haircut, even if done professionally at the barbershop a few blocks from our house, I hated it anyway. Mum’s desire to save an inevitable public fracas, not to mention personal expense, meant that the haircuts were more likely to be done at home, by her. There were already 4 of us boys when I was 7 years old, so trimming our hair must have been an unending and utter misery for poor Mum. However, there came a savior: THE HAIR MAGICIAN.


In the 1970s, the K-TEL corporation solved the problems of common folk with little doo-hickeys, whatsits and thingamajigs. A particular point of interest was that each product had been “seen on TV” though only in the commercial that pointed out that fact. One such advertisement promised that a product called THE K-TEL HAIR MAGICIAN would deliver a haircut by merely combing your hair. Why, after a few strokes of this gadget (which looked like a long-handled comb) you’d be the very picture of style! (Such as it was in 1973). All this, without having to pay for a haircut! Mum must have thought all her prayers were answered at last.


I remember sitting out in the back yard on a kitchen chair as Mum swooped in with her newly-bought miracle gizmo. Predictably, as she combed it through my hair, I howled like a banshee, though this time with good reason; a haircut from the HAIR MAGICIAN hurt like holy hell. The K-TEL wizards had cunningly installed razor blade cartridges between the teeth of this comb to do the cutting. In theory. In reality, a few strokes from this new-fangled comb left hair entangled in the fangle, cutting capacity was lost and subsequent styling was achieved by hair being not so much cut as TUGGED out by the roots.


Sadly, a wave of the Hair Magician’s wand did NOT magically transform me into the smiling BRADY BUNCH kid of the TV commercials. Instead, I was transformed into something resembling a mangy dog who’d had chewing-gum cut from its fur with toenail-clippers. In terms of an identifiable fashion style, it could be compared to the punk look, but about 5 years too soon to be either identifiable or appreciated.


The only consolation was that it was relatively easy to blend in, even with such a hair disaster atop my head. Not just because the 1970s was the time when everyone’s hair went wild but also because mine wasn’t the only Mum to fall under the evil spell of THE HAIR MAGICIAN.

Jan 052010
 

I can no longer remember what caused the argument between myself and my mother on that particular day, long ago, but it probably wasn’t serious. At the age of 11, I had not yet acquired even the maturity expected of a child but already owned all the moodiness of a teenager. I was prone to statements like “it’s not fair!” or “you just don’t understand!” or “I wish I were never born!” and other such melodrama. While often silly, these churnings of my mind were not mellow-drama from my point of view… it was all intense drama to me.

Rebel_1_yells

Whatever the cause of the friction between us that day, it caught fire when my emotions got the better of me and I swore horribly at my mother, using a cuss word I didn’t fully understand then but that burns me with shame to remember now. The word launched from my lips, flew across the room, and struck her. The pained expression it marked on her face made me briefly but keenly aware that I’d crossed a terrible line between she and I, yet the insight was but a flash; I was still possessed by the boiling emotions that had conjured the vile incantation in the first place. Rather than reverse direction and apologise on the spot, which was certainly required, the momentum of my juvenile petulance flounced me not just across that terrible line, but also out of the house altogether.

I couldn’t believe it myself; I was running away from home.

Of course, I was really running away from what I had just done… but if that realisation came to me at the time, it was quickly trammeled underfoot by self-righteousness; I immediately re-cast myself in the role of a bold outlaw, on the run from injustice and a world that didn’t understand him… YEAH… Muttering grimly to myself, as I often did at that age, I stomped off to the far side of my tiny home-town; unfamiliar neighbourhoods where I felt I would not be pursued by my foes. Though it seemed to me then that the forces of oppression (ie; Mum) would round up a posse and try to hunt me down immediately, it is obvious to me now that this was not so; my mother had other children, including an infant, to watch over that day, and my father was at work.

Rebel_2_kick

Now that I was finally FREE, I thought of where, actually, to go… I had no idea at all. After considering my options, I head towards my friend Stephen’s house… then, half way there, thought better of it… I cannot now remember why. Perhaps, even then, I subliminally realised that I would appear absurd to anyone else, including a child of my own age, and therefore wanted to stay alone in order to enjoy my outlaw persona for a while…

It was a summer day; possibly during the end of year school holidays. I angrily kicked stones along the road, frustrated that the pockets of my shorts were empty of anything useful to a fugitive (not even a pocket knife) and my flimsy T-shirt would be useless after sundown. Even summer evenings can be cool in my home town, up in the mountains. I mused that it would have been superb to have prepared an escape package in advance; a bag of money, clothes and food, stashed somewhere in the garden, to be snatched up with a dramatic flourish as the parting-shot of a most-marvellous exit. That is what I should have done… This regret over my lack of forethought and stage-craft was an annoying pebble in the boot of my defiance; although I wasn’t actually wearing boots, I was wearing Flip-Flops, which was yet another source of regret for the great outlaw that day.

Well, too late to worry about that now; I am out in the world now and never going back.

Rebel_3_fantasy

As afternoon turned to evening however, my thoughts turned to home. I wondered how the family was dealing with my absence. I bet they miss me now that I am gone… A picture formed in my mind’s eye; my mother slumped distraught at the dining-table, in a kitchen bustling with police men and ambulance men, all offering comfort to the rest of my family members, each now heart-broken by the ME-shaped hole in their world. This vision of their pain was very moving… so much so that it moved my legs back towards my own neighbourhood. I suspect that my “compassion” was merely a glove-puppet manipulated by my ego, fascinated by the vision of a family hollow with the loss of ME and wanting to see this charming tableau for itself. Or else, it was my hollow stomach in control; simply walking the body across town towards its dinner. Whatever was driving my machinery, I furtively made my way through the darkening streets towards home, entered the vacant paddock behind our house, quietly jumped over the fence into our back yard and stealthily crept up to the house to peer inside…

I have a vivid memory of my family as seen from the kitchen window, though I am not sure if that is actually possible, given that that particular window would have been too high for me to peer into at that age… so either (A) I saw the kitchen from the bottom of the backyard where it was possible to see into the room, though from a distance (B) I pushed something up to the window to stand on, to get the closer view that I seem to remember (C) I actually saw my family through the (much lower) window of the TV room or (D) what follows is actually the memory of an entirely mental picture; inspired by the sounds I heard coming from within as I crouched in the dark outside.

Whatever the case may be, the memory I now see in my mind’s eye is not the the touching Pre-Raphaelite oil-painting of abject misery I had imagined and scurried home to see, instead it is the very picture of a family happily eating their dinner; exchanging stories from their days’ events and laughing at one-another’s jokes. My ego was outraged by this cheery Norman Rockwell scene; No one seemed disturbed that one member of the family was absent. My stomach was also perturbed; every last one of my family members was heartily and noisily enjoying their food. As tempted as I may have been by the sight of all that tasty chow, the affront to my ego was too much to bear, and away I stomped once again, into the gloom. My wounded-prince performance was pitch-perfect and spoiled only by the fact that nobody saw it, apart from the stray cat that lived in our yard.

Rebel_4_dinner

I skulked in the shadows at the bottom of the garden while my wounded ego and rumbling tummy battled for the decision of what to what to do next. Meanwhile, the more thoughtful part of me tried to make sense of the difference between what I had imagined my family would be doing versus what they were actually doing… surely my family must eventually become worried at my absence… surely they will come to understand that I am serious and not kidding around… While evening became night, I watched the house intently; scanning for any sign of a search party… where were the Policemen? The ambulance men? Where was the visual-sweep of the yard by a concerned relative? I would have settled for even a perfunctory, bored glance out of a window by an uninterested relative…

Surely such a thing must happen eventually? No?

But the attention of the household was elsewhere… I could hear the theme music to various TV shows of the time, one after another as the night wore on, accompanied by the raucous laughter of a telly-watching family sitting comfortably inside, while I hungrily shivered (with cold) and quivered (with rage) in the bushes outside. Grimly, I resolved to wait until everyone was asleep, then sneak inside the house, grab a few things (the bundle I had ruefully imagined earlier) and then depart, never to return. Ever again…. EVER. For real this time. This momentous decision was reached as my family, up yonder, noisily enjoyed the bald-head patting, high-speed antics of Mr Benny Hill.

Behind our house was an empty plot of land (used as playing fields by the primary school across the road) where I went to hide from the cackling mockery of my family and wait until they chortled themselves to sleep, choking as they did so, hopefully. As I’d done many times before, I lay in the grass and looked up at the stars… On that particular night, My thoughts were every bit as dark as the sky above me but nowhere near as beautiful. The night sky in the Southern hemisphere has infinitely more constellations on view than in the Northern sky. One feature of my home town to this very day is that the streets are not well lit at night. This lack of light pollution, plus the fact that my home town is up high on a plateau, means that the view of the night sky is even clearer there than most places. It is really something to see. On that night however, the beautiful, tiny clusters of distant worlds out there in space merely reminded me that I longed to be somewhere else.

Rebel_5_sky

They’ll be sorry when I am gone… said my ego. My stomach made the argument that the “punishing them with my absence” strategy didn’t seem to be working. Despite having a noisy stomach and a whiny ego as my companions that night, I felt utterly alone. My dog Jock; my tiny comrade from early childhood, had been “put to sleep” the year before, otherwise I would have had some warm-bodied company out there in the dark, not to mention a furry pirate for the noble outlaw to run away with… but as things stood, I was alone with my thoughts; Stewing in the brine of my own mind…

I checked on the house. Some lights were still on but the house itself was absolutely silent. I made my move. In my memory, it was around Midnight, when I finally re-entered the lair of my oppressors… but allowing for the time-dilation effects of childhood memories (not to mention childhood hunger) I now suspect it was much earlier when I stealthily entered the back door which, like all the other doors in our house, was never locked (well, not until after a robber finally crossed the threshold 20 years later). In trying to piece together my frame of mind from that time, I believe that I intended to quickly grab supplies and head out immediately, to make good on my thus-far poorly executed escape. However, it is entirely possible that on some unconscious level I wanted to be caught, (as caught I soon was). What I am absolutely sure of now is that, as I entered the house, there was no hint of remorse for my earlier brutishness towards my own mother.

None that is, until I saw her sitting alone quietly in the kitchen waiting for me. I have no idea if my mother had planned to be there alone when I came home. Clearly the other children were in bed and my father, who played the Dirty Harry role when Mum and Dad did the “good cop bad cop” routine, may have gone to bed too (no doubt the evening’s hilarious TV entertainment had worn them all out) so the final showdown was between just she and I, in the exact same Saloon where the whole shooting match had begun; the family kitchen. It makes sense to me now that she may have wanted to handle this situation on her own. I would love to ask her now what was on her mind that day but sadly she isn’t around to tell me the answer any more. My mother died many, many years ago.

If she’d had a stern expression; hands on hips and a mouth full of recriminations, I could have kept up my “persecuted outlaw” performance but my mother’s wide-open face and compassionate eyes made that impossible. She gave me nothing at all to fight against… and, as I stood stunned, staring at her, my conscience, which had thus far been kept at bay by self-righteous mutterings, finally saw its chance and did what it had been trying to do all day; it gave me a thorough-going, savage internal pummelling, and relished every moment of it. I was overcome with emotion. During the thrashing emotional battle inside of me, the ego-fog was blown away, revealing what I must have known all along; I had wronged her and not the other way around. I was the bad guy in this story and nobody else. The extent of my theatrical posturing that day was the degree to which I had tried to convince myself otherwise.

Rebel_6_mum

I burst into tears at this realisation, apologising profusely for what I had done. I was absolutely mauled by my shame. Pounded by guilt. But more than that, I was overwhelmed by gratitude, for though it may not have been in my conscious mind until I saw her waiting patiently for me, at that moment, I saw with great clarity that she was so much better than I… and how much more she deserved than what I had given her.

She welcomed me into her arms and I knew then that all, unbelievably, was forgiven… which made my tears flow even more freely, rather than less, as you might reasonably expect. When I had calmed down a little, she had me sit down at the kitchen table and attempt to compose myself as she prepared me some food; my dinner was being kept warm in the oven all along. She had not forgotten me. This too, provoked another blubbering wave of emotion. I wolfed the food down hungrily, through wracking sobs of tears, in that way only children can do… and as she watched me eat, Mum stroked my hair and gave me silent comfort through touch, in that way only mothers can do.

Rebel_7_meal

This is one of the earliest memories I have of my conscience having a profound effect on me, forcing me to see myself not just in the 3rd person but also firmly in the wrong. It is one thing to say “sorry” because you know it will get you off the hook, and it is another thing altogether to actually be sorry because you realise what you have done is wrong, or hurtful to others. It was many years before I finally gained a fully functioning conscience; one that operated without authority figures present, or fear of punishment or other external consequences, but that allowed me to make moral judgements purely on my own… The conscience I have now isn’t perfect; it still sometimes takes some reflection for it to kick-in, though I do believe it is a reliable moral compass… but if I have have any conscience at all today it is largely due to the long-suffering parenting and compassionate moral example of my own mother.

Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Jan 172007
 

I have a memory of what could easily have been my premature death, had things only gone a little differently…
BOLT_1_playing

One day, while playing with my toys in the front yard of our house, I hit upon the splendid notion that it would be very interesting to see how far it was possible to run with my eyes closed.

BOLT_2_idea

This was at around the age that “running” was a new and wonderful super power that had only been recently discovered (between two and three years old, I’m thinking). I wanted to see what the new limits were, you understand. Realising immediately that our garden was not big enough to do the experiment justice, I shut my eyes tightly, went out our front gate.. …and ran as fast as I could down the pavement that paralleled our street.

BOLT_3_GateRun

Thankfully, rather than running out into the road and being hit by a passing car, I instead ran full tilt into a concrete telephone pole, copping a fearsome smack to the forehead from a big rusty metal bolt that was embedded in its surface.

BOLT_4_pole

Immediately, blood sprayed out of the gash in my head, while maniacal screams poured out of the quivering hole under my nose.

BOLT_5_painter

A house painter, working across the street, had the good fortune to witness this spectacle in its entirety as he sat on a scaffold, eating a sandwich and having his cup of tea. It amuses me now to wonder what this man made of the sight of a small boy coming out of his house for the express purpose of running headlong into a telephone pole and almost knocking himself unconscious. In any case, it was this kindly man who picked me up (still screaming blue murder) and carried me home from my experiment, drenched in my own gore and humiliation.

BOLT_6_Rescue

It was precisely at the moment of bloody impact that I had realised that running with my eyes closed was a supremely stupid idea. Oh, if only that epiphany had struck me before the telephone pole…

BOLT_7_crying

As I pondered such regrets, I was obliged to listen to the kindly house-painter explain to Mum in great detail what he had just seen me do to myself. While Mum cleaned my blood away, they both asked me over and over again, just what the bloody hell had I been playing at?

BOLT_8_questions

I never told them. The blow to the head had knocked enough sense into me that day to realise that it was better not to reveal the extent of my own stupidity, and say what my original plan had been…

BOLT_9_scar

I have the scar, physical not emotional (or maybe it’s both, come to think of it) from that episode to this very day. It’s right in the centre of my forehead, where the third eye would be if I were more enlightened.