Going places above the languid summer trees.
Even though — with their call, and soaring and surfing in the wind — currawongs are probably the most beautiful bird in Canberra, it would be pointless trying to photograph them. Their beauty doesn’t sit still. In photos they look like crows.
Corellas, on the other hand, are easy to miss. A small pale cockatoo. They don’t have the colours of galahs or the bright yellow crest of sulphur crested cockatoos. And yet in photos…
…on a swaying wire. Nowhere near as easy, I imagine, as they make it look.
Or, more technically, a Corella, gnawing at the insulation of a wire.
The beauty of our Lake George car park is that we’re almost always alone. By ourselves in the space of the flat dry lake bed. Taking in the view of the wind turbines on our own.
On Sunday there was another car in the car park though. A rough looking Holden or Ford. Its fuel cap had been prized off. Its driver’s face was pudgy. His hair thinning and ginger. He had a paunch and was holding a large bottle of Coke. He was wearing a high viz top: tradesman’s uniform. He looked self-concious. Or maybe I felt self-concious.
He barely replied to Jo’s cheerful greeting. ‘What a bogan’, I muttered.
He got out of his car, got out of his high-viz top and pulled out an old cloth shopping bag. Beer, I figured. Then he reached into his car and got something I didn’t expect: a tripod.
He ignored us and walked out onto the lake bed. Maybe 100 metres out he set up the tripod and put a camera with a telephoto lens on it.
And that’s how he spent his evening. As we ate our dinner in the car, and went for a walk, he took photos of the eastern edge of the lake, and its windmills, with the light ebbing, and the sky filling up with colour.
And all of us, ‘bogans’ and suburban snobs, enjoyed the peace and that space–still big enough, it turns out, to leave us happily alone.
The skies over Canberra have forgotten how to be clear blue. They are either thick with thunder cloud, or traffic-jammed with cirrus and contrails caught on the west wind.
The flower the same as ever; the water, frozen in time by the speed of the shutter.
The patterns on their trunks looking like silver grey sea and jagged tan continents.
Utopia or Bust is eloquent. I share Benjamin Kunkel’s despair with the world we live in. There has been some social improvement in some places, and a lot of technological progress. But we ought to be able to do much better than we do. We ought to live in a fairer world that parcels out the fruits of our technologies in ways that raises most people’s well-being to levels a lot higher than they are today. We ought to end discrimination. The trouble with Utopia or Bust is it provides no cause to believe we can. Instead there are Marxist literary critics (yawn), the contradictions of David Harvey, the confusions of Slavoj Žižek, and so on.
Meanwhile, history and theory give us very good cause to believe there are no utopias to be had. Look at those dreamed up to date:
(Setting aside racist lunacy that is clearly evil) the main right wing utopian doctrine is libertarianism, where the state is a ‘night watchman’ (or in some variants—which could only seem plausible after smoking something—non-existent, replaced by competing security firms). The state provides for private property rights, protects against invasion and does nothing else. Taxes are low, bludgers are gone, economic growth is spectacular. What’s not to like? A lot. There is no evidence that the main driver of economic growth is incentives born of low taxes. In reality much of the technological change that drives growth has come from government investment. And the individual genius that brings new ideas comes from being well and well-educated. Nothing suggests a libertarian utopia will maximise these attributes, except for a fortunate few. Being well and well-educated have non-instrumental worth too: they are part of the good life. And history has shown that some pubic provision is needed to extend such welfare to most people in a society. Then there’s the issue of the environment. How does a libertarian government take care of common pool resources? On the basis of my limited exposure, most libertarians simply deny the issues exist, although I’ve also heard of the idea of issuing private property rights for every known common pool resource, including the air we breathe. Can you imagine the bureaucracy? Ah freedom! The final hurdle for libertarianism is that could never be democratic—have a look at election results, libertarian parties never perform well, presumably because most voters sensibly like at least some of what their governments do. So if libertarianism were ever to come about it would be by imposition. Imposed freedom. Moving along…
Libertarianism’s distant relative (not on speaking terms) on the left is anarchism. Which, strictly speaking, means the absence of the state, and the absence of private property rights. Anarchist collective action is based around cooperation, anarchist production around non-excusive title to resources. (I say strictly speaking because quite often anarchism is defined by what it is against—i.e. ‘the state, when the state is unjust’ rather than what it’s for. Seeing as this blog is about alternatives, I will ignore such antagonistic definitions.) The big problem with anarchism (as defined) is that we aren’t a cooperative enough species to be able to engage in large scale collective action without some coercion and rules—in other words a state. One alternative would be a world of villages and bands. A world free of states! But it also wouldn’t be a utopia. It would, plus some legacy technologies from the bygone age of states, be most of human history. It would be bereft of the specialisation that trade allows. It wouldn’t be free of predation between groups. It’s also likely there would be coercion within groups too. We aren’t that nice a creature. Perhaps aware of all this, many anarchists spend more time decrying the evils of the state than they do talking about how their alternative would work. They’re right that many states are abysmal and even the best are far from perfect. But far from perfect is a lot better than a return to life in villages or hunter-gatherer bands.
Communism barely needs a mention any more. Nevertheless (with respect to how it actually existed, rather than Marx’s effectively anarchist end-stage): a state which is almost entirely the government brings with it a big risk of the over-concentration of power (Stalin, Mao, etc.) Perhaps this could be offset by coupling communism with robust democratic institutions. But communism usually has very strong internal opponents meaning it’s not clear that this could actually, practically, happen, prior to these opponents being crushed. And history suggests once states acquire a taste for crushing, it takes a long time for them to lose it. Radially remaking a society would also require more than one electoral term, so I would imagine that any genuinely communist government would be very tempted to do away with elections. Even if communism could deal with issues of power, there remains the problem of the inefficiencies of a state-planned economy. States aren’t able to aggregate information as adroitly as markets do. One option would be to couple communism (a very muscular state, collectively owned means of productions) with markets. I concede I don’t know how well this worked out for Tito (although I’m guessing not that well on the basis of the fact his vision, not to mention Yugoslavia, no longer exists), but on the basis of the present I think the most likely outcome of a muscular state and markets, would be accompanying concentrations of wealth—and, ultimately the end of popular control of the means of production. Something that looks a lot like today’s China, which is better than Mao’s China, but hardly a workers’ paradise.
This ought to be the point where I start clucking happily about social democracy as the best option we’ve found. But that’s hard to do too. Be it 1970s style muscular social democracy, or today’s third way, social democracy has never been able to muster quite enough tax revenue to provide social services that are as good as they could be, and its social safety net is always threadbare. It works quite well for the voting middle class, but not nearly as well for those on the periphery. It is also not that democratic. Economic inequality brings political inequality. And human failings to do with the way we see ‘others’ often see voters distracted by non-issues (from the perspective of their own welfare) such as refugees, rather than real issues (inequality, climate change). There are things we don’t talk about but should (raising taxes to provide for good health care into the future). There are things we talk far too much about but needn’t (should gays be allowed to get married; of course they should; it astounds me that opposition to this basic right exists). The only real defence of social democracy that it is (to paraphrase Paul Krugman, paraphrasing Churchill) the least worst system we’ve come up with.
For now, least-worst is a tolerable place. As Steven Radelet, Charles Kenny, and Steven Pinker show in recent books, in part because of the gifts technology has brought, in part because of genuine social change associated with the near miraculous, but frighteningly fragile, expansion of humans’ spheres of concern, and in part because of our ability to muddle through, life for most of the people on our planet is better than it has ever been.
Yet the big questions remain. Will this continue? (Only good luck prevented the cold war from becoming a nuclear war. We aren’t doing enough to prevent climate change The world’s sole superpower is a mess.) And can’t we do better? Make our countries more caring, our democracies more deliberative, our power more diluted?
And, if we can, how?
If there’s a left wing book that seriously, and non-dogmatically, asks that question, I would be a very eager reader.
I didn’t pay them much attention. They looked unsure about the small changing shed attached to the public toilets. Her lycra bathing suit was unfair to her shape. He was pale. They paused at the water’s edge, then carefully stepped in.
I’d never thought about swimming in Lake Burley Griffin, in the middle of Canberra. Man made by damming a creek. Closed when the algae become toxic. Plagued with carp. Sad little beaches hemmed in by slimy stones.
But as Jo and I sat on the park bench–me thinking about work, families, and side-effects–they swum out around the triathlon training buoys. Calm. The water was pale, mirror-blue. Tiny ripples turned the reflections of trees with yellow flowers into brush strokes. He swam perfectly: noticeably smooth and fast. She wasn’t far behind. At the pace they were going there must have been tightness in their lungs, and aching in their arms. But from where we watched there was nothing except easy forward motion. They swum round the first buoy, then the second, taking maybe twenty minutes before returning to the lake’s edge. Nothing awkward or uncertain now. They both had the muscles of swimmers, and that done-something, after exercise glow. We got back on our bikes, me doing a better job for a while of watching, not thinking.
The day before was one of those days with a swallowing sky. Burning blue, no clouds. A hot, dry wind.
Today started the same, until the thunderstorm. The downpour wasn’t long, but in its wake it drizzled all afternoon. A horrid grey drizzle, with a sky filled up with low, clingy clouds. And that determined rain that soaks you, without being heavy.
There are places I would have complained about riding home in it. But not Canberra. Not riding along bike trails amongst avidly green trees, and by a grateful smelling soil. Not riding past canals that were flushing with water. Not riding past brand new ponds occupied by busy, happy ducks.
I keep writing about it, but that’s because it’s such a strange thing to find yourself liking in a place. The fact that its so hot and dry as to make rain a treat. Even when your shoes are sodden, and there’s a creeping damp claiming your clothes, and as you try to avoid the puddles sprawled across the cycleway.
A strange thing to like about Australia: rain. Staves off bush fires. Makes the garden happy. And leaves everything smelling like a quenched thirst.
The seizure meant more medicine. Both to reduce the risk of another one, and to try and eliminate the spells of confusion I’ve been having ever since surgery. That one fully fledged seizure had the neurologists more inclined, even if still uncertain, to classify the episodes of confusion as a type of epilepsy.
And so I started adding anti-epileptics on top of Warfarin, Losartan, and Humira. First came Sodium Valproate, smooth purple pills in soft plastic foil packaging. I was so worried about the side effects—hallucinations, depression, strange behaviour—that, because Jo was travelling, I asked a colleague to call Jo if I seemed weird, and asked a friend to check in on me.
There were no side effects. Nothing. And that was the problem with Sodium Valproate. I didn’t have any more tonic-clonic seizures, but I’d only ever had one in the eight years since surgery, so they weren’t frequent events. And the spells of confusion, which were the best yardstick of treatment efficacy, kept trundling through my life as they always had.
And so I added Kepra, starting on a low dose and slowly increasing it. Kepra did something, perhaps: about the time I got to a therapeutic dose I went six weeks without any spells of confusion. This was at least twice as long as I’d ever gone before. Jo and I started to hope intensely. I would be able to drive again. Jo wouldn’t have to accompany me every surf. Life would be normal in its unusual kind of way. But then the spells came back.
So I kept upping the dose of Kepra, but with this came a mild lethargy, and although the spells were less frequent they were still quite frequent.
Next I started Tegretol, increasing the dose while I weaned myself off Sodium Valproate. And now I’m on the full dose, with the useless Sodium Valproate no longer in my pill box. As I type this I’ve been about three weeks (and carefully counting) without any confused spells. This is long enough for the medicine to be promising me, but not yet making any guarantees—I’ve been three weeks often enough before. And I now know that even six weeks doesn’t necessarily mean problem solved.
Tegretol hasn’t been easy either. It impedes the absorption of Warfarin, so I’m on an ever increasing dose of Warfarin, wondering if my liver can cope (although there’s no medical reason to think it can’t). Worse, Tegretol is flattening me, in a slightly sad sort of way. It makes it hard to find the energy. It makes chores feel like a chore. It makes it harder to believe in things in the way you need to believe. This isn’t insufferable, or impenetrable: after surfing I still glow; and happy conversations still bounce along. Reading still works, more or less. And if I try I can push back against the effect.
So, here I am, mostly hoping the Tegretol works, but part of me hoping it doesn’t. Because if it doesn’t I will wean myself off it as-fast-as-I-can.
Disclaimer 1: I realise things could be worse.
Disclaimer 2: My medical situation is my medical situation. Yours will be different. Make your choices on the basis of what medical professionals tell you, not what you read here.
Here’s how it works.
There’s a shrieking nor’west gale, the sort that has Wellington clinging to its hillsides. It is sunny, but the sky’s muffled by salt haze. I get a glimpse of the ocean as I turn down the road to the beach at Titahi Bay – a torn, grey-green sea, tatters of foam and crests of waves stretched out to Mana Island.
I park in the bottom carpark, in the shelter of a low bank. It’s Friday, I’m recovering from a relapse and only working part time – this is my day off for the week. In the back I have a bigger than usual surfboard, to forgive the slowness that comes with arthritic limbs. I’m the only person there.
The day before we’d had our work Christmas do. The job had been a godsend, arriving when I needed it, coinciding with treatment and better mobility. Less pain and a new routine. The NGO was like a family too, friendly and happy for all its idiosyncrasies. Which made what happened at the Christmas party even worse. One of the guys, who everyone, including me, liked a lot, ended up shouting abuse at one of the women staff of the party venue. There’s more to the story: his explosion of anger, the words he used, the proximity to violence, the unfairness of his past and how it might forgive him, but that’s not my tale.
I’d spent the morning trying not to think about it. Trying. The words he used; the way he flipped; so near to violence; would he lose his job? Amongst all the things that go wrong on our planet it was nothing, of course. But it was sad enough, and close enough, for me to be chewing it over, again and again.
I get out of the car, holding the door against the wind, walk to a perch where I can watch the sea, and look out to the south end of the bay. There at the base of low cliffs, a point of slippery, angled rocks juts out. I try to watch, but it’s too windy: in between the salt spray and sand I can’t stare long enough to gauge the quality of the waves. I trudge back to the car, open the door, holding it with one hand, and fish out some cheap, scratched service station sunglasses with the other.
You know enough about surfing to know how it works. Toned young men in board shorts, yoga-enabled women. Gold beaches with warm water. Perfect waves, healthy bodies, ability, youth, mates. The appeal is obvious. That’s how it works.
The sunglasses did the trick, they stopped the sand and spray, and I could watch the sea.
Titahi Bay wants for a lot: most of the time the northern end of the South Island deprives it of groundswells, the cornerstone of good surf. (These are swells from far away storms, groomed by travel, which arrive ready to be perfect – think surf from distant cyclones on the East Coast of Australia, or swells from the Southern Indian Ocean in Bali). Then there are the sand shoals off Mana Island that further sap the waves of their strength. Then there are Wellington’s endless nor’westerlies, which are onshore. And yet, Titahi Bay has its tricks. Somehow bathymetry and the bay’s bend tidy up the storm surf that bashes Wellington’s west coast and make it manageable. And, just a little, the wind rides up over the hills, meaning that out in the line-up it’s a bit less windy than anywhere else. Then there’s that rocky point at the bay’s southern end.
Hunched against the wind, I watch a stormy wave stand up on it, lurching, breaking over a shallow ledge, peeling, slowing for a moment, and then unfolding quickly along an underwater finger of rock. I imagine the feel of riding it, the lines to take, the race to the shallows…
I run back to the car, contort myself into my wetsuit and wetsuit boots. I pull on a wetsuit hood. I stretch. I jog down to the water’s edge, past dilapidated boatsheds, my board kicking under my arm in the wind.
In the water I’m alone: no one in the surf, no one else even checking the surf. The sea’s turbulent and my eyes are stinging, but I’ve been surfing the rock point half my life, so I know where to wait, lined up with a gully in the hill and a pyramid shaped rock. A big set comes, signalled by blown foam on the outside sandbanks. The waves start to crumble out there, then back off in the deeper water just out from the point. I paddle over the first wave, and spin in front of the second. It’s big, perhaps twice my height. I’m close to the rocks, above the underwater ledge, the right place to catch it. I paddle, just one or two strokes, enough to have me moving forward as the wave pulls me to its crest. As the ledge trips it, the wave changes in a moment from a mound of swell to a vertical drop off. I get to my feet with the sea falling under me. I’m mid-air. I land, the edge of my board’s rail getting purchase. I’m hit by breaking water, but I’m there, tilting, angling, turning, using momentum, and the water’s curve to drive myself out onto the wall. I change my line, trimming over the slower part of the wave, adjusting again, then I fly along the last section, racing as it crashes across the shallow inside reef. Drop, turn, speed, turn, flight. As the wave reaches deeper water off the point I angle over the back. I’m not Kelly Slater. I did nothing spectacular. The wave was tricky rather than perfect. The water is so murky I can’t see my hands as I paddle. The salt spray is nearly blinding. But: drop, turn, speed, turn, flight! I paddle back out as fast as I can, singing happily.
Two hours later the sun is lower, the green-grey has hints of yellow and orange. I’m worn out. Wave after wave, on my own. Back in the carpark I have an after-exercise glow, and a calm—from the storm, from finding the right line, ride after ride. And from making the waves, from the rock ledge to the inside shallows. I’m not thinking about other things.
Warm water, perfect swells, flawless reefs, I’ve surfed all that. It’s great, easier to enjoy, but the essential ingredients were there at Titahi Bay that afternoon. That’s how it works.
We were of an age when mothers were starting to worry about marijuana. This was a reasonable concern. I was starting to dabble. And some of my friends were beginning long druggy journeys. But on this evening we were innocent. The culprit was nothing more sinister than the fish and chip shop at Riversdale Beach. A small square building nestled down near the northern end of a long beach that is empty for all but two weeks of the year.
Dave, Jerry and I were in the midst of an Easter surf adventure. We’d started at White Rock, Dave weaving my mother’s Toyota along the tightly-wound gravel road, and over the almost washed away track at the end. We’d surfed thick glassy walls along the point at Seconds, and lonely reef break peaks at the end of the Spit. We’d marvelled at how early the sun set behind the mountains, and we’d gazed, spooked at a decomposed shark’s head that lay on the rocks. Then we moved to the tricky reefs of Dolphin Bay, and after that Riversdale, where there were beach breaks, a place to stay with our friend Barney, whose mother had rented a farm cottage with some other adults, and food that wasn’t two minute noodles.
We arrived in Riversdale in the late evening, which is when the fish and chip shop betrayed us. We ordered and then waited, waited and waited. All the while orders, which weren’t ours, started piling up, uncollected, on the counter. At some point one of us started giggling. Not stoned, just childish, provoked by the absurdity of having to wait 45 minutes in a fish and chip shop that was busy cooking food for non-existent people.
From there it was downhill. We spluttered our way through dinner at a picnic table. Then our merriment was fuelled by nerves as we drove to the farm house (we were arriving unannounced; how would Barney’s mother react?), before being set fully ablaze by the fact that if we arrived amidst clouds of laughter all the adults would think we were stoned. We knew that much. And so, try as we might, we couldn’t stop laughing. When we thought the giggles were done, they would erupt again.
We got through the front door, stifling ourselves, “Hi Mrs G., we were just um he..he..here to see Barne..he..he”. “Oh ha..ha..hey Barney.” “Would it be alrigh..h..ht..t if we stayed tonight.”
We looked at our shoes. We tried not to look at each other. We spluttered. We stank of self-consciousness. Our cheeks puffed from holding in guffaws. We were saved by the fact Barney’s mum was cool.
“Of course you can stay. There’s a great spare room.”
The moment Barney had us alone in that room he castigated us. “You! Can’t! Come! Here! Stoned!”
“We’re not, honest. It was just the fish and ch..hi..hi..hip sh..hh..op.”
And with that I collapsed again, accompanied by Dave and Jerry, into what must have been for the three of us, one of our last true bouts of giddy childhood laughter.
If you want to picture Port Moresby start with Western Melanesia. That is, diversity. Hundreds of languages. Different customs. Different legends. Distinct regions. And a weak state in which all these fragments are bound together by interpersonal ties and something akin to a softness of manner, where most people — though not always young men — try hard not to unnecessarily antagonise because conflict, once started, is hard to dowse.
Next, if like me your frame of reference is Honiara, where all of the above is also the case, add in some Suva. This means an obvious indigenous upper middle class, which populates shopping malls and has its own fashion magazines and mores, and style. Honiara is bereft of most of this.
Then, take a big leap, and blend in your imagined Sao Paulo. Mineral wealth has brought inequality to PNG big time, and even before it did Moresby was a dangerous city. There’s a motorway, and cranes, and grand hotels, and more shopping malls on their way. But there’s also giant tangles of slums. And there is razor wire, and compounds, and nervous expats driving SUVs with doors locked anxiously awaiting car-jacking.
That’s Port Moresby, or at least how it seemed to me on my first visit.
Sometimes, after dusk, Kangaroos invade our suburb — infiltrating, filtering down from amidst the gums on the slopes of Mount Majura.
It’s a silent invasion: Kangaroos are built to blend in, with gumtrees and termite mounds originally, but their trick works just as well with letterboxes and lampposts. Even in flight, somehow they hop without sharp transitions, which means you can find yourself cycling along the poorly-lit streets of suburban Canberra, accompanied by a kangaroo, grey and ghost-like. You unaware, and it trying to distance itself from you, unable for the time being, hemmed in as it is, by the fences and houses of your neighbours.
When I travel the first part of me to arrive is my imagination. It scouts the route ahead, sketching scenes and picturing people. Empty spaces make it uneasy. Given the chance it races to fill them.
I had been imagining the Weather Coast for months before we actually got there. It was at the heart of the civil war that submerged the Solomon Islands from 1999 until 2003. It was another land, people in Honiara assured me: only 15 minutes away by helicopter but in every other aspect as remote as the archipelago’s most distant atolls. For Jo and I it was unavoidable — one of my PhD field sites.
When it rains on the Weather Coast, people said, paths become rivers and rivers torrents. And when the swell picks up, they told me, it becomes impossible to land boats on the shingle beaches; villages are cut off for months. While people talked, I pictured steep cliffs falling into a groaning, grey ocean, and I day-dreamt of floods and swallowing seas.
Of the three villages we planned to visit the one that caught my imagination most was Sughu, our second destination. Sughu had been home to Harold Keke, the most notorious of all the militia leaders. A man who had terrorised the Weather Coast, evading government forces and killing their soldiers. He executed priests, villagers and his own troops too. As people told me this, I thought about the legacy of war, and decommissioned fighters returned to their villages.
I imagined our welcome in Sughu. Unlike most of the places we were to visit, I wasn’t confident that people in Sughu knew we were coming. There was no cell phone access, no road access, no regular postal service, no regular boat. No way of finding out if we were welcome. One afternoon a friend of mine from the Weather Coast drove me down to the Honiara wharves and found a boat that was heading to a village about eight hours walk from Sughu. On board he found a relative of his who was from a village near Sughu. We gave the relative a letter for the chief of Sughu, sealed in an optimistic yellow envelope, and that was my introduction, hopefully destined to arrive in advance of Jo and I.
From Kuma, our first stop on the Weather Coast, we’d hoped to take a boat down to Sughu. But on the day the boat never arrived. Eventually the captain sent us a message. To travel to Sughu we would have to pay an extortionate fare. And so we decided to walk. Abandoning as much of our gear as possible in Kuma.
For the residents of the Weather Coast walking is the main way of getting anywhere. A two day traverse of steep mountain passes is how many travel to Honiara. An hour walk to tend hillside gardens is common. It is a land of amazing walkers. Locals assured us that they could walk from Kuma to Sughu in two hours. Although, after a considered look, they figured it would take us four.
We left Kuma in the early afternoon, accompanied by the chief’s daughter, who was heading to her high school between Kuma and Sughu, and two women who took pity on us after they spotted us wading precariously across the Kuma river.
We rotated packs, the women making much lighter work of the load than we did. After two hours of trudging, kept almost cool by intermittent puffs of trade wind we finally rounded a corner and saw in the distance a headland that our guides identified as Sughu. It was nothing more than a silhouette, smothered in clouds, but at least we could see it.
As we walked further the cloud came to greet us, wandering in on the wind, arcs of rain in its wake. And as the showers closed in, our companions departed. The chief’s daughter turned off towards her school and the other two young women turned back to Kuma, seeking to make it home before dusk. Jo and I walked on, Jo carrying the largest backpack and me carrying the small pack along with the day bag. Walking, wondering what lay in wait.
Solomon Islands fell into conflict in the late 1990s. First, militants from Guadalcanal expelled Malaitan settlers, then Malaitan resistance arose, taking control of Honiara. Combatants began to extort money from the government and then from their own people. In rural Guadalcanal the armed militia splintered and then retreated in the face of government policing operations. Keke, in charge of one of the militia groups, based himself on the Weather Coast, marching from Sughu to the other end of the Weather Coast and then inland. His troops caught and executed a band of Malaitan ‘commandos’ that had been sent to hunt them, and Sughu was razed by government troops. Keke flayed some of his own soldiers to death on trees. Possibly as a result of injuries, his mental health frayed until he was, by all accounts, insane. In the end he surrendered without a fight to Australian peacekeepers.
As I chewed over this, plodding across the shingle, the clouds grew to fill the sky and rain started to patter on the beach around us. Keke was safely in prison now, and there was no reason to expect Sughu to be any different from any of the other villages we had visited as part of my study. But it was also unknown, and I filled that unknown with worry.
After a while we were joined by a group of boys who materialised as we passed a small coastal village. They weren’t unfriendly, but they weren’t smiling either. If they exuded anything it was uncertainty. Most of them hung back, watching, silent, leaving two of the younger boys to come up and speak to us.
“You going where?”
“What country you coming from?”
They tried to speak to us in English, but their accents and broken grammar made understanding them almost impossible. And when I tried to speak in Pijin, my questions drew confused stares, my own grammar and accent rendering Solomons’ lingua franca unintelligible. Not being able to communicate we couldn’t ask the questions we wanted to ask (How far was it to Sughu? Had anyone there mentioned us?), and we couldn’t explain what brought us to be walking along their isolated stretch of beach. But despite all this they wanted to help.
“We carry you bags?”
It was help I didn’t really want. I didn’t want to hand over my research notes or the EPERB, our lifeline to the outside world. And I didn’t want to think about whether we could trust this group of boys in the middle of nowhere. But equally I didn’t want to offend them and turn their tentative friendliness into resentment. And so we unburdened ourselves and, as the rain came and went, acquired an entourage, the two talkative kids confidently shouldering our packs, and their mob of teenage accomplices walking along with us, watching quietly.
Eventually, we arrived.
“Displace Sughu,” one of the boys announced.
It was almost dusk. The village sat beyond a rise on the South East side of a bay. As we walked across the shingle we could see a few houses on top of the rise but nothing of the rest of the village.
“I guess we need to find the chief?”
“Mifala nid fo tok tok wetem seif. Iu save findem?” I tried asking one of the boys.
It was then, as I was trying to convey this message, that we noticed a woman standing on the top of the rise, waving her arms, calling out something. At first I thought she was shouting at the boys but then it became clear her attention was directed at us. She strode in our direction. Calling out. I tried to figure out what she was saying.
She was short and slender, with an angled face that was topped by an explosion of black, curly hair. When she reached us she spoke again. This time I could almost make out what she was saying
“Hello-i’m-Gladys-we’ve-been-waiting-all-day-for-you,” her English was clear but so rapid fire that her sentences tumbled out as if one big long word.
“Yes. We thought you were going to arrive this morning, and we organised a welcome party for you. Everyone’s gone home now. But the kids are still waiting in the church. They are going to sing you some songs.”
“A welcome party?” If my imagination had been scouting ahead trying to picture Sughu, my conscious thought was now struggling to keep up with the reality of the place. “You knew we were coming?”
“Yes. We had most of the village out here waiting for you. The kids were going to sing.”
“It’s ok for us to stay?”
“Of course”, she smiled, “you will stay in the church guest house. We’ve prepared it for you. The pastor’s wife has cooked for you. I will take you to the guest house. But can we go to the church first? The kids are still waiting there? They want to sing.”
“Um. Sure. Sure. That sounds great.”
And so we wandered up into the village, over the coral pebbles that they used to cover the ground, and past poor but tidy houses. From doorways people waved. We stumbled into the old wooden church and sat down on pews at the front. And on Gladys’s urging a group of teenagers in clean white shirts began to sing.
We were tired and we were damp. And the hard work of my research still lay ahead. But we had arrived. To a far friendlier reality than any I’d dared imagine. And so, as puddles formed on the wooden floor around my feet, I soaked up the hospitality, gave into relief, and set my imagination to thinking about dinner.
“You — strange as angels.”
Quite possibly the best pop song simile ever.
Good ol’ Canberra. Here’s a question for a philosopher: even if you view an individual as possessing right to get high, can you also argue that it is someone else’s responsibility to slow down for them when they go for a walk to the nearest servo to address their munchies?
cause I keep wanting to sing along
and no one is pretending this is as beautiful as the real thing. yet that almost makes it better…
oh, and this too!
Graduation ceremonies are not for me. I imagine wilting pomp and standing, bored. I don’t begrudge other people wanting to mark their achievement with this, but it wouldn’t make me happy.
And so, instead, two days after I handed in that final hard-bound thesis, to make something of the flush of relief, and to give me a full stop, Jo and I drove out to Lake George.
There, the west wind, already summery-warm and dry, had the windmills busy, and purple flowers were splashed up the hillsides. Gallahs and Rosellas flew about while we sat eating sandwiches, and I thought about old uncertainties. Could I get a research permit? Could I get access to villages? Would people speak to me? Could we manage my health? What would the travel be like? Could I find questions? Answers?
I also thought about the work: the chasing, the making contacts, the organising, the re-organising. And I could have thought about the small group of people who made it harder than it should have been. But it was too nice a day for this. And it was a celebration. So instead, Jo and I talked about everyone who had helped. And we thought back over the adventure — the travel, around parts of the Solomon Islands that we would have seen no other way. Rainforest tumbling down mountainsides into the grey seas of the Weather Coast. The sunsets of Langalanga lagoon. The flower-clad villages of Gao-Bugotu. The way thunder storms thumped over Iron Bottom Sound.
I’m still waiting for the university to confer my degree “in absentia” but, fuck it, we had our ceremony. That was graduation. And as Jo could make out from my happy chatter, it felt as good as it should.
Up on Fairy Bower the webcam captures Manly, floating like a phantom city, amidst a winter night.
I’ve been working with a research assistant from Afghanistan. A Tajik, she grew up during the Taliban years a refugee in Pakistan, where her schooling was funded by Saudis.
Because you can only code so much data before your brain gives up, we’ve been chatting things, with her, a Sunni Muslim, asking me about science and Christianity. And me curiously learning more about her life and beliefs. Enjoyable conversations although, of course, I flunked the theological questions.
Which, in turn, started me thinking, what do I believe?
This is where I got.
As my rational, thoughtful, self, I am an agnostic. An agnostic fundamentalist. I don’t know. I don’t see how it’s possible to know. And I have no idea whatsoever how some people can think they know.
Yet, reason isn’t everything and, at my best, surfing, stargazing, or looking at long horizons, I feel like a Pantheist of sorts. It is consoling, almost exhilarating. And fleeting.
That’s what I think, and how I feel. But then there are my hopes. I hope — without any confidence what I hope for will be — for some form of reincarnation, in which we all get to experience many lives, because one short one amongst all that universe doesn’t seem nearly enough.
Lots of lives, but I wouldn’t want reincarnation, or anything for that matter, to go on forever. So I also hope that at some point, once there’s enough, we ebb away, back into the universe. And I hope that when this happens, it is so peaceful, and so kind, it redeems all the awful things we do, and atones all the sadness. I hope this cures things. And that everyone ends up happily ever after.
It’s a hokey, hippy, kindof hope. But, no one, certainly not any organised religion, has suggested any better to me.
I took them for granted, of course. And they were well hidden amidst the traffic snarl of suburbs. But Long Island had bits of magic, around the edges of its McMansions and strip malls. Raccoons raided our rubbish at night! And when you lay awake you could listen to the soft wail of trains speeding down the spine of the island, sounding their sirens at level crossings.
In the fall huge piles of fading leaves heaped on streets, and billowed about in the wind. And on Fire Island boozy holiday makers were replaced by quiet, watchful dear.
In spring nor’ east storms would tear surf from the icy sea and we would heap on wetsuits to buy us time as we waited for waves.
In summer at night thunder heads would trundle over off Long Island sound. Grumbling and flashing. Once a bolt of lightening hit a power-poll down the block from my girlfriend’s parents’ pace. It felled the poll and the burst of electricity turned the surge protector their TV was connected to into a molten blob of plastic and ended the television.
I’ve worked as a garbage collector, a hygiene technician, and a labourer. So I can’t legitimately complain about my office job. However, legitimacy is overrated. So: once step better than the standing desk…
I love the bit on Shakespeare at the end too.
At the end of the week Joe Hockey told Alan Jones the wind farm on Lake George’s eastern edge was a blight upon the landscape, my wife and I drove out there to celebrate her birthday.
We collected a friend, and zig-zaged to the edge of the city, where the suburbs are being swallowed by giant cars. We joined the motorway north. We chatted happily as we bounced off onto Mac’s Reef Road. We swayed up and down amongst the farm-clad hills. We turned left onto gravel. We stopped just short of the Quaker compound. And there we ate lunch, looking across the lake to the windmills, busy in the west wind, blighting the imaginations of angry men, and quietly trying to save the world.
Drive, then walk up into the Brindabellas, and as the sun slips from the sky, look nor’west, out into a continent.
A very useful post by aid data guru David Roodman on how to take care of your back.
For what it’s worth – as I’m desperately trying to keep enough mobility in my arthritic body – to stay a surfer (I actually had mild chronic back problems pre arthritis too) find that:
1. McKenzie rolls help.
2. A standing desk is great; although I can stand for half a working day at the absolute most.
3. Walking helps a lot.
4. Stretching is a big help too; just don’t push things too far.
At least, this seems to be working for me — and surfing is currently leading to less pain.