In Europe, it’s nice to walk into an empty church when, rather than priests, there are only stain glass windows, a small red light like the eye of a cyclop, the worn, watery grey silk of flagstones, and maybe a sparrow or two, circling. In the silent crowd of empty pews, the smell of candles and incense, the cool silence, you can sit and feel strangely safe in a land of time where minutes are no longer made of seconds and each heartbeat is a bite of eternity. Here death feels like window with an animal feeling behind it of, simply, life flowing on – one knows not where. When animals die, they bend into death with that resigned, knowing expression in their eyes.
Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg church door, because pope Leo X was selling passports to heaven for vast quantities of money. Somehow it feels strange that Protestant churches feel so cold when they are the ones who rebelled because the sacred was being desecrated.
Walking into a church in Australia is mostly like walking into a scout hall. But everywhere else you go, seems sacred in some way. You only have to step into the bush or look up at a ghost gum down the street and feel you are in Notre Dame. Any tree seems to gaze back at you if you stare at it long enough. The sky is wider than the Egyptian goddess Nut and every time you tip your head back, its baffling immensity is strangely comforting. Twice I was walking with a friend outside of Melbourne and I stopped as if someone had touched my arm to listen to the quiet – it felt exactly like being in a church. I told my friend and we walked on a few steps and met a sign explaining this was sacred aboriginal territory. Maybe we are mystical animals, rooted in the sacred.
I live in a dead-end – at first it was only a street with the advantage of being near a park. But I soon realised this sweet pocket was a village. All the neighbours know each other. The first thing you hear in the morning is children laughing, mothers calling out ‘careful!’ and ‘Hold my hand!’, the tinkle of bicycles bells or the bark of a dog. Many of my neighbours have become friends and I have grown to love this tiny bit of Australia. Well, a lobby of community gardeners are menacing to pull out the concrete, cut off the bike path, erect high wire fences, build compost bins, sheds and dig 84 plots for their gardeners. In other words annex a beautiful piece of public land.
Norm Gallagher and Mick Lewis went to prison to stop the park from becoming a Kleenex factory. Fred Hardy was the one to get the unions involved and put a black ban on what was to become the Hardy Gallagher Reserve. To them, we owe this beautiful park that the people of Melbourne enjoy. Here is Nature AND Memory. Community Gardens are grand when they beautify but not when they destroy what it already beautiful. Jane Garrett, former Mayor of the City of Yarra; now State member for Brunswick and Stephen Jolly councillor for the City of Yarra showed up at a rally organised by the Friends of Hardy-Gallagher Reserve on Australia Day. I never thought to say that about politicians but the proof of their common sense and humanity was in the pudding, right there, defending parkland for the people – for the 99%.
These gardeners have tried to take over public parkland for their private use for years. They have been pushed to the tail end of Fitzroy and Princess Hill until they butted into the shores of Brunswick last year. They are trying again in 2011 and 2012 after the 2010 public protest which was in all the newspapers.
I have been told that parks are not legally protected. If one can get enough residents to agree, one can make use of parkland in another way than listening to the wind in the trees, speaking to strangers under the wide open sky or picnicking on the grass a book sliding from lazy fingers; one can cut the trees, dig up the grass, put in wire fences and make a concentration camp for vegetables. The will of certain individuals, by playing with council boundaries and different wards, can prevail over the will of the people by making a land grab on public property.
The word community in community garden is misleading. Private plots and fences are not a community activity but a push for more private land. The drive behind the project is quite surprising. From where and what does this passion stem?
Gardens are very precious. They sometimes seem to be our last refuge. A guy called Robert Pogue Harrison wrote a book called Gardens. He speaks of ‘homeless gardens’. He says ‘gardens are to agriculture what poetry is to prose’ and that gardens ‘are not bound up with our our biological survival’. In other words, they are an expression of our soul. Homeless people go missing and let themselves die when their gardens are uprooted. These community gardeners are not homeless. Many of them live in Carlton and have gardens themselves. Another inconsistency: to be eligible for community gardening one must be a low income family and have no garden.
They suddenly reminded me more of farmers slicing up the land in defiance of Aboriginal traditional ownership. The two ways of life in balance then, still seem to be in balance now. One was about progress, property and power, the other was turned within. It is hard to hear Aboriginal philosophy, its whisper is lost in the louder trends of society. It speaks of other voices. It refers to our soul.
Walking in parks is its own reward. Parks are our Aboriginal Cathedrals, they can’t be cut up and sold into plots. They belong to all. The parks of Melbourne are the last remnants of that spirit which, ever so subtly, gives Australia its grandeur. The parks are the big garden of the people.
The first time I went to the opera was in Naples. An old Englishman, sitting behind me, bent forward and whispered in my ear: ‘Wake me up when they start fighting’. I must have been about nine. I liked him on the spot, so when Carmen’s lover got slaughtered I duly shook his knobby knee. Then, to our relief, Carmen finally shut up and died too. I never saw the old Englishman again but something passed from him to me, some unexplainable companionship that stayed like a stone in my pocket. The strange friendships of my childhood were flashlights in the surrounding darkness of school and home life. They led me on, protecting me and guiding me, a bit like dwarfs or witches in fairy tales. Maybe we are all dwarves and witches to each other at certain times of darkness in life’s forests.
I had another shot at Carmen at the Opera Garnier in Paris at about twelve and didn’t like it all over again.
Then, in my early thirties, a friend invited me to see Othello in the Arenas of Nîmes. Arenas, whether in Rome, Arles or Nîmes, always feel ominous to me, as if the suffering and fear packed in them so long ago were still hanging around. When I was about four years old, my father took me to the Collosseum. I was violently sick. I remember quite clearly the stench of beasts and bloody limbs. It could have been my father’s narrative skills of course, but surely a place like that would be saturated with its own past. (As I am writing this I made myself a coffee, after I drank it, there was a wolf inside the cup.) However, I did not refuse this third venture to the opera.
As my friend Samir dragged me to this cultural spree, I tried not to think that the gladiators had walked through the same mangy openings in the rock or that the lions and wolves had used that very rock to sharpen their claws on their way to their human snack. I also knew how Othello ends: he kills her. So with that and the wide open jaws of the enormous arena that engulfed us all, I was not planning to enjoy myself. It was a balmy Mediterranean night. The velvet belly of the sky hung low and the crowd of spectators were basking in an educated, whispered quiet before the singers started roaming on stage in Shakespearian angst. I was busy missing my old Englishman.
Yet, towards the end, when Desdemona has no hope in hell of having breakfast the next morning, something made me sit up on the cushion thoughtfully covering the stone step of the arena. The scene was pretty banal. Desdemona was with her lady in waiting gently moving around stage as she sung something quite as ordinary as: could you hang that cloak here, fold those dresses, take that sheet away and please fill the chest with this pile of clothing. Suddenly I knew she was not giving a course in housekeeping. Her song wafted straight into me. I felt with absolute certainty that this was her adieu, not only to her favourite lady in waiting but to life itself. Tears ran down my cheeks. Thanks to my friend Samir, I had understood opera at last. On the wings of music, emotions that are not our own, invade the privacy of our heart and widen our perceptions.
From then on, opera whispered secrets to me in the dark of a crowd about pain and fear and sudden stormy joy.
I was at a recital again the other night. It was about men dying under the sea in a submarine. Not so long ago either. I closed my eyes and let the waves cover me. It’s rather easy to imagine being under the sea in a concert hall for some reason. The lapping of subsiding voices, the metal instruments, the darkness behind your eyelids, the liquid of the composer’s exquisite music which, for me in some crazed way, contained silence, a silence only knowledge of suffering can bring. But then, the words of accompaniment, the choir, broke it all for me. Why couldn’t the music stand alone just as those men had been alone under the sea, waiting for death? What else but a form of silence, a wave of respect can greet so recently bodyless souls? Words seemed brash interruptions and the singing felt heroic and insensitive. The intelligentsia’s loud ovation jarred for me and only the music, so seemingly powerless in view of such a human disaster, stayed as a mysterious consolation.
A week later, when I went to listen to Twelve Streets Till Home playing at the Brunswick Hotel right near were I live, I discovered something else.
Their singer, Lucienne Shenfield’s bitter sweet voice rose above the noisy giggles of her girlfriends, above the rumble of the pub, above my own suddenly silent breathing. Unexpectedly her young sound became very old and wise, welling up like a river. There was nothing more to wrestle with, just hearing it made me understand that separate people at two ends of the city were soothing death, despair, undiluted pain because they sang or played their notes, because music is a sacred act somehow, somewhere, sometimes.