2013, artist, arts, Australia, authoritarianism, bigots, capitalism, Charmian Clift, civilisation, climate change, Community, conservative, corporations, culture, democracy, dinosaurs, federal election, fracking, Frida, Frida Kahlo, gender, George Johnston, GMO, Greece, Greek Islands, Hydra, Indigenous, Kalymnos, London, Menzies, Mexico, Monsanto, nationalism, New South Wales, old, Original People, politics, progress, race, radical, religion, roads, seedlings, silence, society, sovereignty, suburbs, The Buzz, Torres Strait, urban garden guerilla, writer, young
Yesterday morning I woke up early, which was surprising given the amount of alcohol consumed the night before, and the spectre of the suddenly warped ‘reality’ I was waking up to. But the sun was shining, so I sat in the garden and I listened to the silence.
The whole suburb was eerily quiet, except for a few birds, and even they seemed to be nursing post-election hangovers. I decided that it must be the silence of a country in shock. We went to bed in ‘Australia’ (for better or worse) and woke up in another place; a parallel universe where all the steps taken towards social maturity had been undone, and once again we had been flung back into the schoolyard with a pack of juvenile bullies, and now we had to fight back even harder than before.
And then, after downing a Panadol or two, watering the seedlings sown on Saturday morning, and making a coffee, I began to feel better about things. At least now the enemy has a face, and a pretty silly one at that, and those fighting the good fight can consolidate their forces. No more uncertainty, or, if there is uncertainty, it will appear in the form of a double dissolution, and perhaps we’ll get to start all over again, a little wiser.
The silence of the suburbs.
My Dad used to wag his finger at me, from my early teens onwards, warning me against what he saw as the natural progression of things – ‘Radical when young, conservative when old.’ I reckon I might have bucked the trend, as I move further and further away from believing in anything other than humanity as the bottom line. All the rest – nationalism, democracy, capitalism, civilisation, progress, race, gender, religion, culture, and on and on – are a collection of historical fictions, convenient at times for particular, usually nefarious, purposes. And the other thing I believe in is the sovereignty of the Original People, which is not so different from believing in humanity.
At times like these, when I’m feeling anxious, I turn my thoughts to a couple of my heroes – Frida Kahlo and Charmian Clift. The similarities between these two women are remarkable. Both died in their mid-40s (around my age); both were (and remain) ‘national’ icons – they were cultural archeologists who dug deep into their respective national psyches, attempting to uncover some essence that had been papered over by colonialism, capitalism and consumerism. Both were impatient with fools, sought out the intelligent and the aesthetic, and were considered by the mainstream to be slightly (if not decidedly) mad. And both were also very beautiful.
Frida Kahlo – one of the many striking photos of this most photographed of artists.
Frida Kahlo was highly politicised from an early age until her death, including ‘marching’ in a protest in her wheelchair (following the amputation of her legs) just weeks before she died. And Frida also placed great value on the fundamentals: she rose early each morning (when she was well) and walked to the local market, carrying her purchases home on her head, in the way of Indigenous women. She gardened, cooked and socialised, her home was invariably full of the revolutionaries, intellects, artists and writers of the time. And she believed in, and fought for, a better world, where justice and self-determination were pivotal. Oh, and of course she gave us 1000s of amazing works of art.
Charmian Clift in a photo taken by her sister, Margaret – Pix Beach Girl title-holder 1941.
Growing up as a fairly free-ranging child in Kiama in New South Wales, as a young woman during the post-war Menzies era, Charmian Clift came to detest Australia. She saw it as a time of mediocrity and materialism, and there was the ever present ‘cultural cringe’. Like many artists and writers at the time, she escaped to London, which she found almost as stultifying as Australia. From there, it was on to the Greek Islands, where she stayed (with George Johnston and her three children) for 13 years.
On Kalymnos and then Hydra, Charmian found the kind of fundamentally simple and social culture and community that Frida Kahlo was lucky enough to have been born into. Returning to Australia in the mid-60s, Charmian only intermittently recovered the sense of freedom and happiness she felt in Greece. One of those rare occasions was a trip to Central Australia and then to the Torres Strait. Not long after this trip, on returning to Sydney, Charmian overdosed and died; she was 46.
In an essay called ‘The Rule of the Olds’, written circa 1967, Charmian Clift just about summed up post-election Australia 2013. This is disturbing, given we’re 46 years down the track, and ‘we’ should be somewhere else entirely by now. But we aren’t, and I wonder if the following passage has a similar effect on you as it does on me – that is, becoming more adamant in our refusal to allow current ‘national’ events to define who we are or what we want from our future; a commitment (even if technically an ‘old’) to stay young, and radical and one day wake up in an ‘Australia’ that we feel at home in, and full of hope and life, right up to the end (like Frida), whenever that might be.
So, Charmian wrote: “[W]hat really distresses me most about being an Old here, now, in Australia, is that I just might, quite inadvertently, be identified with the bigots, the moralists, the reactionaries, the disapprovers of the Youngs. The Olds who rule, who instruct, who admonish, who warn, who exhort and preach and censor. The Olds who must envy the Youngs with a bitter corrosive envy to go to such lengths of prurience and authoritarianism.
Unfortunately there seems to be so many of them in this country … they hold high public offices and wield the big stick of authority. And they know best. Because they’re Olds.
I sometimes think they are rather like the dinosaurs, surely the most stable society the earth has ever known, a society so resistant or impervious to change that they refused absolutely to go even one little mutation towards adapting to it, and died out, sluggishly and torpidly, in the creeping cold they had been too inflexible to acknowledge, saying, no doubt, in outrage and disbelief and dinosaur language: ‘Whoever would have thought it?’ Or maybe nature was just sick of them.”
So that’s it from The Buzz in terms of commentary on the past few days in Australia. Later this week, watch out for a post on planning your summer garden and another on dirt, the useful kind. And beyond that, we’ll keep up the good fight, against fracking, and Monsanto, and roads and corporations and racists and bigots and dinosaurs and the rest.
Feature image is of Skenes Creek, on the Great Ocean Road, at sunset. No photo-shopping present.