45 Years – Film Review

Retirement can be a dicey proposition despite its seductive call.  Advertisements for superannuation companies extol the joys of retirement, epitomising the popular dream people have of a golden age where they blissfully have nothing they really have to do and they can do whatever they like.

Certainly many retirees, who have thrown off the working saddle and who are in a good financial position absolutely love doing whatever they like.  They go on cruises, go traveling and camping, visit art galleries or the cinema with friends or just potter around at home doing the gardening, reading what interests them and at night, turning off the light to sleep until another equally glorious day of their permanent holiday awaits them.

But there is a dark side to this golden dream.  Retirement also means the endgame of a long life and a kind of reckoning with unfulfilled threads of yearnings, actions and events occasioning deep trauma or guilt and painful losses that have lain suppressed, dormant and deep beneath the surface – until now.  What do we do with the last act of our lives?  Many people flounder at the sense of disempowerment and lack of purpose that retiring from a lifetime occupation brings and may suffer depression (at least for a time) as a result.

The beginning of the film ’45 Years’ opens to a bright, sunshiny but cold morning in the country, where a retired couple of some years, Kate and Geoff Mercer, live in their comfortable home.  The landscape is lovely and all is peaceful, but there is a sense of baffled expectancy about the day’s existence as if the people who live in it can do anything they like but they actually don’t do anything much at all.  At this stage of their lives, Kate and Geoff seem to have had had days and days and days like this.

Kate, is out warmly wrapped in a coat, her breath in mist, walking the dog.  She is a lithe, slim, good-looking woman on the verge of old age, all smiles for the young postman, but with the air of a long-term melancholic, locked in polite mode.  They exchange friendly greetings, Kate congratulating him on him and his wife’s new baby.  She tells him to call her Kate, saying gaily in parting ‘we’re not at school anymore!’.

Back home she briskly greets her husband Geoff, white-haired and fragile despite his substantial appearance, who is sitting at the breakfast table of their sunny kitchen with a letter.  She asks him about a song they could have played for their upcoming 45th wedding anniversary celebration, but it soon becomes apparent that Geoff has another and much more serious matter on his mind.

‘They’ve found Katya’ he tells her in his cracked voice, waving the letter ‘You do know who I’m talking about?’.  Kate does and is immediately all solicitous attention, but a cool shadow has fallen over their placid, apparently contented noonday lives.  A shadow that darkens as the film goes on.

Katya had been Geoff’s partner in the days before he met and married Kate.  Like many young people they were backpackers and they had traveled to the Alps in Switzerland.  Somewhere in this icy, mountainous terrain, a tragic accident had happened.  Katya had fallen through a hole in a bridge and plunged to her death in a glacier far below.

50 years later to the day we meet Kate and Geoff, the Swiss authorities had written to notify Geoff that they had located the body, perfectly preserved and suspended in ice.  Rattled, Geoff goes outside for a cigarette despite having given up.  Kate carries on making the arrangements for their upcoming celebration, choosing the venue, going shopping with her friends, looking for something to wear, talking to everybody with that perfectly crafted politeness, but easy self-assurance of a woman long accustomed to receiving compliments for her beauty.

But in the following days, these attempts at normalcy become the stilted facade of a marriage falling into disarray and deep, black, bubbling trouble.  Bit by bit, things about the tragedy that Geoff has not told Kate comes out:  he had been her next of kin and the couple had pretended to be married.  He goes to the library and borrows books on global warming, obsessing himself with the effects of climate change on glaciers.  He keeps going up to the attic, where he evidently keeps pictures and memorabilia of Katya there.  He admits to Kate that he would have married Katya.  Finally, Kate, fed up, draws a line in the sand, telling him that she can’t talk about the subject anymore.

There is more to come, however.  When Geoff is absent, Kate goes to the attic and discovers a secret shrine to Katya’s memory, complete with a rotary projector of picture slides and the most knockout blow of all to childless Kate is the clear evidence of the dead Katya’s burgeoning pregnancy.  The boil lying in the darkness below their happy marriage has surfaced.  Kate’s smooth confidence that she knows her husband absolutely is absolutely shattered.

All kinds of things about the state of their marriage seem to become clear.   The days up to the looming celebration become a nightmare.  Geoff had talked to Kate of having lost a certain sense of purpose he had had when he was young and in love with Katya.  He says that even if they had no idea of what to do in a day, that it would seem just as purposeful as when they set out to do something.  He supposed that people lost their sense of purpose when they got older, but had he, in all the adult years after Katya’s death just been in a somnambulistic state of suspended animation?

Kate and Geoff had met some five years after the tragedy.  ‘You were a bloody knockout!’ Geoff tells her in a rare moment of fun.  ‘You were so cool!’ replied Kate.  But somehow over the years Geoff had shed his beatnik ways and donned convention, having worked for years as a manager at a nearby manufacturing plant.  He had tempered his dislike for Kate’s bourgeoisie friends with the occasional grumble.  Their life together was strangely uneventful.  Neither of them in conversation can remember anything much about it out of the ordinary.  They didn’t even have photos on the wall.  In a failed attempt at lovemaking, Kate asks him to open his eyes.  Had he been imagining Katya in Kate’s place all this time?

And what of Kate?  Since Geoff’s heart attack some years before, she seems to have taken over the role of nursing Geoff and all her relations with him appear stilted with an affected display of civility and solicitude concealing a nervous over-eager desire to please.  She jumps instantly to his aid when he cuts his hand mending the toilet, but she talks to him with her mouth still full.  She tells him what he can’t do – smoke, return to mountainous Switzerland, read Kierkegaard past the second chapter.  And yet she struggles to have a creative life of her own.

As Kate sees it, Geoff for his part clings to her like a drowning man.  Not, that she is the love of his life, but that he has never been able to cope with the cataclysm of losing his first love.  She had been merely a distraction, a substitute.  In an explosive confrontation the day before their celebration, Kate bitterly tells him that she knows she has never been enough for him, but that she could not bear the pain and humiliation of other people knowing that as well.

So they go to the celebration, Kate smilingly accompanying her husband hand in hand, only looking death-like for a few moments of privacy in the restroom mirror.  But can she really endure playing the part of the loving wife, receiving Geoff’s stumbling, pathetic, platitudinous speech and dancing together to the banal song that played when they first met and see him going through that whole grotesque act of faked adoration before her, as he had always had the whole length of their marriage?  Could she really take it anymore?

Four stars!!!!

A PJ Harvey Concert

It was a Friday night a week ago when we went to the much anticipated PJ Harvey concert, my husband John, his friend Glen and myself.  Midsummer in Sydney it was a warm, inky twilight as we ate a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant and then walked on towards the International Convention Centre near Darling Harbour.  Our tickets on our mobiles were scanned by a bevy of security guards, one of who told me that my innocent steel water bottle had to go to the cloak room for the night.

Seated inside the vast auditorium with its subdued lighting and misty swirling air, we were a just a few of a mighty swarm of bees buzzing with a low, but powerful tone in the rows and rows of seats that slanted upwards from the stage and the crowded mosh pit.  Much of the audience were Gen-Xers in their forties, greying, but still defiantly young, dressed in jeans, moderately radical shirts and tees, tattoos and the women, some in gothic inspired dresses fluttering here and there bearing plastic cups of beer or other alcoholic beverages down the stairs to the concrete floored mosh-pit and back again chatting animatedly amongst themselves and occasionally embracing a friend.

Nick Cave was due to play at the same venue the next night, John remarked.  PJ Harvey and Nick Cave had had an affair.  I wondered how they would work together and here is their beautiful and melancholy duet Henry Lee.  But the affair ended.  PJ said later that she was so upset that she was going to give up making music and become a nurse.  But somehow she went on playing and composing music, the anti-war ‘Let England Shake’ and now the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, where hope in mankind’s future seems just about dead on the ground – to judge from the lyrics.

Not that I knew anything about this new album when the lights went dark and the band began to file onto the stage drumming, PJ Harvey amongst them brandishing a saxophone.  John said it was ‘Chain of Keys’.  The ten musicians took their places, PJ fronting the audience with her microphone, dressed in flowing, gauzy black robes, her fine straight hair loose, crowned with a black head-dress.  The rest of the band wore somber, dusty and rumpled looking black jackets and trousers.  At this juncture, John pointed out Mick Harvey, the musician at the keyboard, and said he was really good and had previously worked for some time with Nick Cave.

PJ has a distinctive voice.  On her albums, it is soft, silvery and so fragile it almost appears ready to break.  It is a two-coloured voice, veering from a deeper set of keys to a higher octave and very tunefully at the same time.  But live, at the concert, her voice sounds very powerful and rides above the band’s wave of music with perfect confidence.  Too, she sings with great feeling as she moves in complete accord with the rhythm, her hands delicately drawing and weaving the meanings of her music into a unity of sound, beat, voice and drama.

She moved with grace, like a muse or even a priestess, gliding quietly every now and then to the back of the stage near the drummer to take up a saxophone and play in company with the other saxophonist.  She has said she likes to keep challenging herself with learning how to play new instruments, which illustrates not only her creative energy, but also her respect for the other players in her band.

Much of what she played came from her new album the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, with songs such as the opening ‘Chain of Keys’, ‘The Wheel, ‘River Anacostia’, ‘Medicinals’, ‘The Orange Monkey’, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which sounded compelling, emotive and powerful on the stage although she also sang songs from other albums like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, one about taking a child home and another about doing black deeds for love.  And I have to marvel at how she seemed to utterly best the comparatively subdued and rehearsed studio performance of her album with the crashing waves of her live act.  It was dynamite.  No danger of having a diva lip-synching here.  This was the real deal.

‘How good was the band!’ Glen exclaimed when the concert ended and the sated swarm of people were moving back out into the city night, twinkling with lights reflecting in the calm, black waters of the harbour.  Throughout the performance, PJ and the band emanated a sense of quiet and harmonious co-operation and camaraderie, she fading in and out to become one of them.  Three-quarters of the way through, PJ had introduced the musicians to the audience to applaud one by one, the drums, electronic keyboard, saxophone, guitars, before they all nonchalantly dipped into the last of the set for the night.  They had a standing ovation and after a while were back with two more great songs before they finally bowed out and filed quietly backstage and the lights went back on.

The lyrics of her new album are dark and pessimistic of human nature, echoing perhaps what she saw on a trip through third world countries, as well as the US she took with a photographer Seamus Murphy between 2011-2014, which appeared in The Guardian (never mind some of the rude reader comments).  Amid such wastelands as Afghanistan and also Washington DC (the US is a wasteland of a different kind), she appears to wonder whether humans have a future at all with lines like:  ‘…hey little children don’t disappear. (Heard it was 28,000)’ and ‘they’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit’.

The music she sets her lyrics to can be comforting, but only to remind us of what we’ve lost in the scramble for ‘advanced’ civilisation – as in the song ‘Medicinals’.  She juxtaposes the ancient healing herbs that grow wild in America that say ‘we are always here’ against the image of an indigenous woman in a wheelchair at a shopping mall drinking alcohol.  This song suggests that the loss of the natural environment is a loss to humanity, to culture and causes a mental sickness that nothing can cure.

Her occasional traditional tunefulness amidst broken but strong rhythms that veer between blues, reggae and rock and roll form a kind of unique and off-beat chaos that is PJ Harvey.  For instance, ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ has a compelling rhythm that changes tempo in odd ways and it is this rhythm that underlies the utter gravity of this anti-war song.  Her gentle, fay, but infallible voice rides above her music and in the drumming energy, there is a kind of fatalistic sadness and deep emotion, as in the chorus ‘…and watch them fade out…’ of ‘The Wheel’.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the eponymous man of science Professor Brian Cox wonders whether the human race may destroy itself before it gets any further:  ‘Cox believes it all hinges on “our ability to take global decisions”. Civilisations “get to the point where they can destroy themselves, they will get to the point where they can change the climate by industrialisation – and that requires your civilisation to be global in decision making. In 2016, we’ve gone backwards.”.

Perhaps we ultimately may not be able to reconcile our superior intellect, and complex reasoning and moral faculties with our essentially animal and warlike nature.  Are we doomed?  With the Doomsday Clock ticking another 30 seconds towards midnight, PJ Harvey just goes on making and playing music, underlining injustice, waste and inhumanity in the extraordinary energy of her songs.  There are many who are listening and over the megalomania and war and pollution roiling in the world today, our collective voice of reason may yet prevail.

Back in the 1970s when ‘The Bomb’ was a foreboding term echoing the cadence of the end of the world, I saw a cartoon with the caption:  ‘Man demonstrates his superiority over animals’.  Before an animal, a man with his great brain was in the act of detonating himself with a remarkable piece of technology that he had made.  The great artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci saw hundreds of years ago that mankind would one day hold the power of life or death over every living thing on earth.  That day has arrived.

Trump’s Victory

He comes on stage

self-riveting manhood

slow clap death knell

posture’s chance

He had it like it always would

Like he always knew

He would win

Without trying

In vain

Opponents’ disdain

Was there ever

A chance

It could all go wrong?

This prize fall

Into Gotterdammerung

We hope

for safe landing

some assuring

sotto voce

and obsequious

But another

voice rises

A leader once,

Fallen and derided

Long lost in the crowd

Now straight-talking

purposeful

Backpack strapped

striding off into the gloom

with that same undaunted confidence

And sanguinary air

– Megan Payne

Treasures of the Tang Dynasty

That day was a cool and sunny winter’s day and after lunch I caught the train into town to see the much hyped Frida Kahlo/Rivera Diego exhibition that had just opened at the NSW Art Gallery. But when I got there the queue was horrendous: such a long, snaking line of mainly middle-aged culture-vultures (like myself I suppose) that the opening times to the exhibition had been staggered. I couldn’t face an afternoon trapped behind a wall of heaving, heavily breathing bodies all clothed in slate and black winter over-garments and thick scarves and shawls. It would have been heavy enough just looking at the gut-wrenching paintings.

 

The last weeks of the Tang: Treasures of the Silk Road Capital exhibition beckoned. I hated to think that such an interesting show was second best, but I had seen it before and after some thought, considered it was worth another look.

 

The Tang Dynasty in China was a great age for poets and artists. 1300 years ago its capital Chang’an was the final destination of the fabled Silk Road, where merchants took their wares on camels and caravans on a journey stretching from the outposts of the West all the way to China. Such a city therefore was a melting pot of diverse cultures, beliefs and ethnicities, fanning a burst of creative and artistic activity. It was an age when an Empress (Wu Zetian) dared to rule for 20 years, where wanderers could travel in the mountainous wilderness and encounter demons, men and monks bearing fabulously canopied receptacles, Buddha himself kindly removing a large rock some men were struggling with, delegations reaching far-flung cities and holy ceremonies of international significance.

 

I saw a small, gilded silver plate in the shape of a six-petal flower like a camellia with its wide, gentle, symmetrical curve. And within the shallow bowl curls a vine of large leaves and two unknown flower-heads. And in the centre a five-petal flower, triumphantly in full bloom.

 

A sculpture of a kowtowing figure of a Tang civil official greeting an invisible superior, nearly prostrate to the floor on knees and elbows, hands raised as if to hold a tablet that was no longer there. There were lots of civil officials in those days, the highly civilised dynasty having a predilection for a lettered bureaucracy. He is apparently performing one of about eight different obeisances. The statue is of an attractive, pale, biscuit-brown earthenware washed with a creamy-white pigment that seemed common material for Tang statues. The official’s robes are gently stylised in fanned-out shapes along the floor behind him and like wings on his arms marked with flowing, parallel lines.

 

I have unfortunately forgotten to take notes of the excellent and very beautiful calligraphy of the times, written by masters with such outré names as something like ‘Drunk Wu’ and ‘Crazy Wen’. It was a highly sophisticated and literate society, at least in the upper echelons and many wonderful poets abounded.

 

The Tang Dynasty period appeared to be a good age for women, especially during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. These Tang women liked to dress glamorously, putting their hair up into high chignons embellished with eye-catching ornaments. I saw a mural of three Tang women (circa 710), two in long, flowing robes with long sleeves, their narrow waists obscured by shawls that draped becomingly at the front. They had reddened their lips with rouge. The other woman was at the back, her slim form clothed in a masculine outfit of striped pants and a long-sleeved, long length waisted robe. She had styled her hair more naturally, leaving it falling freely to the back of her shoulders.

 

Then there were a line of five Tang women, sculptures of the biscuit-brown earthenware washed with creamy-white pigment. Each hairstyle was different, although all with some kind of chignon up-do topped with one or two buns with ornaments, one even looking like an 18th century English admiral’s hat. All of these women had puffy moon-faces, with small eyes, mouths and noses, plump chins disappearing into their necks and plump waists, giving them a pigeon-like shape. I wondered, was it the artists’ ideal of feminine beauty? Or was it a realistic portrayal of women at the time?

 

These five women all dressed in long robes, made elegant by delicately etched, flowing lines. They stood in an enigmatic attitude of clasped hands, arms held flat across the waist and stomach, with wide sleeves. I saw a collection of long, silver hairpins, bursting at the tips with stylized flowers and arabesques. There were also little, round mirrors embossed at the back with sinuous dragons, mythic beasts and grapevines and geese and other birds. I saw another exquisite little palm-size mirror, inlaid with a pattern of moony mother-of-pearl and turquoise.

 

‘Under the slanting light, the bosoms bright as snow –

Half drunken I gaze at this beautiful girl’ – Li Qunyu (c813-60)

 

The downstairs part of the exhibition was devoted to religious art. Chang’an had a rich diversity of many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and even Nestorianism (a kind of eastern Christianity). But from all, Buddha seems to reign calmly supreme, probably the religion that most complemented the philosophically based native Chinese beliefs of Daoism and Confucianism.

 

I saw a large Buddha head, carved in stone from the Xingqing Palace emanating geometrically serene features and orderly lips couched in a small and graceful smile. There is a fondness for the depiction of multiple Buddhas, all sitting in simultaneous meditation and wearing flowing robes. This was carved on an octagonal pillar with four recesses on each side, each containing seated Buddhas. This pillar was apparently part of a ‘jingchuang’ monument and usually fronted a temple.

 

There were a lot of wares of beautiful gilded silver, my favourite being a large, four-lobed ceremonial basin decorated with Mandarin ducks and pomegranate fruit. On the base of the bowl, two ducks were gracefully entwined amid joyful clouds of leaves, flowers and fruits. Around the inner sides of each lobe, were dancing duck couples facing each other wreathed in arabesque clouds and lavish leaves. At each side of the basin, ornate handles hung. As these kind of motifs traditionally signify blessings for happy marriage and fertility, maybe the bowl formed part of the rites involved in marriage ceremonies.

 

Moving on, I saw a row of 12 Zodiac animal sculptures – animal headed in human form, their hands invisible under long, flowing sleeves, clasped formally over their stomachs. Again these sculptures were of the typical Tang biscuit coloured earthenware washed with cream-white pigment. They were: monkey, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, rooster, dog and pig.

The origin of the enduring and popular Zodiac superstition in China seems to have arisen in the 3rd Century BCE where ‘the 12 animals were first used to describe the appearance of thieves, as it was believed that their features would resemble one of these animals according to the time they committed their crime’. During the Tang Dynasty, the Zodiac system of celestial mapping established was often found depicted in niches in tombs.

 

There was a Stupa Jar of painted earthenware in red, cream-white and terracotta often found in burial sites dating from the Tang Dynasty. Of Buddhist tradition, they apparently contained goods for the departed soul’s sustenance in accord with ancient Chinese belief.

 

Nearing the end of the exhibition was a large earthenware/cream-white pigment sculpture of a horse, with its strong, agile legs, magnificent curve of back and massive, muscular nape of neck. Its facial features were delicately modeled, with a strong, noble jaw-bone, fine nostrils, little pointed, alert ears and mild, intelligent eyes. The horse was highly revered in those times, as it was an essential part of transport and communication and is a fitting symbol of the Tang Dynasty, with its art of strong, simple, honest lines so richly conveying both grace and grounded-ness.

 

I came out of the exhibition feeling happy, that there had been a time of such simple and beautiful art in the world and that it was a time of peace and prosperity, an eternal inspiration to this perhaps more complex, uncertain and more fragmented clime.

 

Eat Pray Love: A Book Review

Monday morning spent in company with my mother, who in the gently deepening twilight of her years is afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. So she totters here and there, her arms and hands waving uncontrollably like a battalion of lobster legs. Each effort to move is now an act of conscious will. My father had gone for a while to attend an exercise class. We had had morning tea of coffee and raisin toast and now, with father gone, we were at leisure to sit on the ramp outside the house in the sunshine overlooking a garden thick with native trees and shrubs.

 

The weather was mercifully mild as it is after a couple of days of steady rain, being sunny with patches of fluffy clouds still inky and heavy but nonetheless harmless and not bound to cover the sun with for any length of time soon. Mum had brought out an old book she had written of a family holiday in 1973, rich with photos of wildlife, forests we had trailed through, mountains we had climbed and rivers we had boated along. She wanted to know how old my cousin Geoffrey, with his broad shoulders, his mooch and his wild, blond-streaked surfer’s hair had been at that time. She had always had a great love for him, his wit and his imaginative, bizarre and often hilarious drawing and writing. I suppose he had been the son she had never had, having had three daughters.

 

We saw a couple of Cuckoo Shrikes, elegant birds like large, svelte pigeons with their black faces and grey-blue plumage and Mum heard the call of the Pied Butcher Bird. Currawongs cried their lilting cadence somewhere in the airy space beyond the sight of the houses in the street. This sunny patch of time was a place where nothing in particular needed doing. The rest of the world was going about its business, working and building, always building with some distant sounds of sawing and hammering echoing in the air and just the two of us were left, skylarking sedately on the landing.

 

I have finished ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and briefly discussed what bothered me about it with Mum. Mum believes that we are not born with a purpose in life. Maybe she is right, that we are free to just sit and observe the roots of the large, slat-barked cypress tree in front of us hung with festoons of pale grey lichen and to feel that one’s life is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. Amidst all this chaos of plant life, sunlight and birdsong there is surely plenty of time for whatever purposes one is inclined to, to take root and grow.

 

We of course could do whatever we wished beyond the necessary chores revolving around the business of keeping ourselves alive. With this capacity for aimless observation and pleasure in the mere fact of existence in mind, why do we need lessons on making the most of life at all?

 

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ appears to be about the author’s search for some kind of deeper meaning in her life. Elizabeth is a thirty-something, successful writer living in New York, earning the kind of income many people could only dream about, with a mortgage to a lovely house and a husband eager to start a family. Only Elizabeth just isn’t happy. The prospect of a happy marriage and children fills her with dread. In fact she is almost suicidal, crying all the time. Something from deep within her is desperate to make a break, but to what and to where?

 

I can relate to that feeling of being in the wrong life, of feeling my life unfold before me while I went through it in a state of living death. Only for me, these catastrophic feelings preceded a psychotic breakdown from which I emerged 7 years later, broken, traumatised, but nevertheless determined to get myself a regular job. After years of tormenting delusions, controlling phantoms and voices from nowhere, it was a relief to finally see that a chair and a table was just that and nothing more and that psychiatric counseling and medication could actually help me live the normal life that I wanted.

 

At that time, running around with fellow pizza-eaters in Italy was far from my mind, as was heading for an ashram in India, or blissing out and falling in love in Bali, which is basically what Gilbert goes ahead and does in the book. This is after her divorce, (which was messy, painful and acrimonious) and a doomed love affair with some arty, yogic man in New York that leaves her apparently more confused and upset than ever.

 

Much as Gilbert honestly tries to portray the culture of other countries in this book, which has some interesting snippets of information and reflections on things such as the Italian language, a brief history of the Balinese people, or the mystic, labyrinthine beliefs and customs of her Balinese friends, I can’t get away from thinking how much of a tourist she is, whilst seeking to steep herself deep into the by-ways of foreign cultures.

 

There is a temptation to declaim how these Americans cherry-pick the philosophies, cultures and ways of other people’s lives in foreign countries and treat them like pawns on the chessboard of their easy and affluent existences. But I don’t want to type-cast all American people, especially when it isn’t just the Americans that are doing it.

 

Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, Yoga and meditation are fruits on trees that entrepreneurs in the New Age wellness industry have been assiduously picking, packaging and purveying for decades now. Gilbert’s profile on how ‘Swamiji’ brought yoga and meditation to a bored, disillusioned, middle-class, white America in the 1970s was one of the first of them. Nowadays there are yoga, meditation and spiritual therapy courses based on supposedly ancient, mystical Eastern practices everywhere all promising to open the yearning, troubled psyche up to a new and enlightened awareness of life. But maybe all these worried but otherwise well people learn from it is a new language for the same old neurosis.

 

Then there is Gilbert’s relationship with God. I can’t believe she puts so much effort into such an intense and prolonged head trip with this posited deity, when she has more than enough sound New England common sense of her own to use. It’s gob-smacking to me how fortunate people fritter away their perfectly good mental health in silly, borrowed conversations with an imaginary entity.

 

Sorry, I’m an atheist. Really, if Gilbert wants to go swim in a sea of faith, run head-first over a possible cliff and call it ‘a courageous act of humanity’ then let her do it and good luck to her. But when I read passages like:

 

“I’m not interested in the (spiritual) insurance industry. I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it any more. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my blood-stream the way sunlight amuses itself on water’”

 

I’m annoyed at such relentlessly navel-gazing guff. Surely just stopping by on a walk to watch sunlight dancing on water is happiness enough. Personally, I never get tired of doing that. Why does the simple appreciation of such a sight have to involve all this intensive (and expensive) labour, guidance and ritual? I wonder why people spend so much more time on this canting, arcane and solipsistic business of spirituality, this fake engagement with a supposed inner self, than they do in discovering the truth and the beauty of the reality that lies outside the human imagination.

 

The traditional dismissal of the outside world as transient and unimportant, so extolled by mystics everywhere, is especially dangerous for a humanity on the brink of destroying the earth and dealing out the threat of death and extinction to every living thing. Thankfully however, India has its rationalists (http://www.srai.org/science-and-rationalists-association-of-india-humanists-association/) too, fighting to stem a tide of superstition and hidebound ignorance that this author has cut a piece of to take home to America and put into a best-selling book.

 

Meanwhile tomorrow, I will be taking a walk down to my local wild-life reserve to watch sunlight dancing on water, maybe even see that Pied Butcher bird again, or observe a flock of maned wood-ducks and other things. I will be voting in the up-coming election to protect the environment. You should too.

Looking at 60 Years…

Today is the afternoon of a whole day rostered off from work.  Tomorrow and the next day will be the same, already maturing into golden globules of exciting possibilities of things to do.  Today was warm and moist, with the sun shining through big fluffy clouds most of the time and a brief afternoon thunder-shower, which passed as lightly and as pleasantly as it began.

I have decided to leave the career that has caused so much dissatisfaction and frustration, that has wrung so much exhausting patience from me.  Sometimes my forbearance has fortuitously uncovered strengths I did not know of.  At other times, I have cracked under the strain, only to get back up and stagger on again.

In its entirety, for more than 20 years, this career has been like a man I have never loved (not to be confused with my actual partner, whom I do love).  I am sick to the death of counting the hours down to the minutes and watching them slowly erode by, every time I get to work.  ‘That’s my life!’  I have screamed inwardly so many times, and then silently endured this wasting of the hours that could have been spent on doing something more creative.

In two more months, I will be free to focus on going in a different direction.  I have some plans in place.  But still, the enormity of uprooting 20-something years of being in a secure, well-paid job is slapping me with its fear of the unknown, like a wet branch as if I head through a rain-lashed bush-track in the dark to the brink of a steep cliff.  What of failure, of making mistakes, of happiness, of doing the responsible thing?

Then I read Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian, about his reflections on reaching the age of 60.  Tim is measured and sober and mellow.  He sits in a large, discreetly modish, blue plush chair in his lounge room in which brown wood panelling predominates, set off by a glimpse of red persian carpet.  There is a fireplace, a bookcase and a glass show cabinet, some colourful ceramics on the mantelpiece, a nice art-work on the wall and the kind of modern but comfortable-looking upholstered chairs my lean, spare, intellectually- minded grandfather would have felt quite at home in.

Tim is a nondescript and harmless looking man, the chief feature of his visage being a pair of glasses, which he wears like a mole in the sunlight, looking perkily upwards towards the viewer.  Tim wears a brown jacket over a dark mauve shirt and a pair of loose, daggy indigo blue jeans that have shifted with his sitting cross-legged to somewhat above his ankle, revealing stripy though muted socks and one nice, shiny brown brogue.

There were conflicting views from the commenters on those brown brogues:

Ultracrepidarian

29 Jan 2016 21:41

Never wear Brown brogues with jeans and take your shoes off inside the house, it’s time you grew up.

mazeltov Ultracrepidarian

29 Jan 2016 21:46
One of few annoying things about being old is the totally insane sartorial advice people feel free to offer you. Brown brogues with jeans are a perfect blend of unfussed informality and traditional style. I wear this combination all the time. As for taking your shoes off inside the house … what do you think shoes are for?

 

‘Unfussed informality and traditional style’.  Some people like it, some people don’t.  But that seems to describe Tim Lott, or at least his piece of writing.  He has defined himself as a serene and comfortable man on the cusp of old age.  He feels the sum of his life becomes him and he is at peace with that.  He is not afraid of being defined, having long recognised his face in the dressing-room mirror.  He wrote the books he wanted to write, he is happy with his partner, his children, his family and his relatively well-to-do way of life.

‘Sixty, in my mind’  says Lott ‘represents the beginning of the third act of the human drama, what I, as a teacher of fiction, have learned to call “falling action” – after the climax has been reached, the princess has been won or lost, and the quest has succeeded or failed.’

In his mind.  Not far off sixty myself, I look back on a terrifyingly long time-line of chaos, of stuff-ups, despair and of things I still want to do.  Some months after beginning this article, I have embarked on my leave from the job I never really loved.  Next week I will hand in notice of my intention to retire with a month’s notice.  So indeed I am conscious of that move being the beginning of the next act of my life.

But where is the ‘falling action’?  Googling the benefits of early retirement, there are hardly any articles that do not talk about money.  Not even health seems as important.  Everybody warns of the dire need to save enough money for retirement.  But notwithstanding the practical considerations of keeping the bills paid, what is enough to quench the soul-deadening desire for absolute certainty?

So I jump.  And in doing so feel a strange sense of exultation and an enormous hunger for books to read, worlds to explore, things to teach myself and give to others.  I know on a physical dimension that this is the beginning of the end, but my mind seems ascendant like an eagle still rising.  I could die in mid-flight, or fall and die a slow, suffering, broken end.  But that doesn’t matter any more.  It reminds me of a poem I wrote some years back…

Twilight II

Twilight softly deepening

slight drizzle

light swish of cars passing

Summer has been cool

Flat is silent

I am alone, wrestling with the inevitable assignment

John & Veronique with Mum & Dad

Mum unable to shake her cold.

Almost for first time realise how frail she is

And how old I am

And how good times do not last

And I am not immortal

Though my eagle of immortal consciousness still swoops

High in the sky

What Sun does shine on me?

If I could gather all knowledge

together to make a realisation

That there is nothing that I have to do

except where I will go

And all my obsessions fall like dusty ruins,

Fall like the false veil of want

Before my eyes

– Megan Payne

Afternoon with Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs

The other week, I had a respite from the tyranny of work. Some rostered days off that allowed me the opportunity of reflection and wandering around the city enjoying its scenic delights. The weather was fortuitously very sunny and warm as well, so I set off for the NSW Art Gallery without a care in the world.

My main purpose in visiting the NSW Art Gallery was to view the exhibition of the photography of the 19th century Victorian, Julia Margaret Cameron. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK had generously lent a selection of its precious gems to our Gallery. Having read about this exhibition in The Guardian (can’t find the review now unfortunately, but here’s one from the Sydney Morning Herald) and having a passion for going back in time, it was a must for me to go and see.

I am discovering the art of photography myself, finding in its ability to capture a beautiful moment an instant gratification.

Pink daisy flowers

Flowers at Royal Botanic Garden

So much better than fiddling for ages with paint brushes,

Vietnamese dragon-like mythical beast

Mythical beast from Cham Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam.

pencils, charcoal and colours and the eternal frustration of never getting it quite right. And the amazing thing about photography is how much the artist can manipulate the media and choose the focus to get the kind of picture, effect or interpretation they see with their mind’s eye.

Photography is a true picture of a reality outside the self, but that reality is different for everyone.

So I entered the Art Gallery, paid for my ticket and went upstairs to view the exhibition. Apparently Cameron’s career as a photographer started in her late-forties when she was given a camera as a gift.  This was new-fangled media then, but already conventions were in play.  Subjects were stiffly posed and subject to highly focused scrutiny, with every button shining and every detail sharply delineated.

But Cameron departed somewhat radically from these norms, with her portraits of people wreathed in a kind of ethereal mist and her romantic idea that she was portraying people in terms of their personal ‘essence’ rather than the realistic rendition of the subject in the bald light of day.  She went for the Great Moment, rather than the Perfect Picture.  She said that when confronted with a sight of great beauty, she would take the picture immediately rather than start fiddling with the focus like a lot of other photographers did.

Alfred Lord Tennyson in bust profile

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thus a portrait of the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, portrays a dishevelled bearded and long-haired man almost in mid-movement, intent far more on his art than his appearance.  He liked this picture immensely and called it ‘the dirty monk’.

Another photo portrays a young woman of classic, finely-modelled features approaching the camera, her beauty all the more enhanced for its being slightly off-focus.

This spontaneity that graces her portraits must have been an extremely difficult thing to achieve with such an intractable media like the Victorian camera.  The exposures were so long that everybody had to stay absolutely still in their allotted positions and scarcely breathe for quite a while, lest an extraordinary amount of trouble and expense was ruined.

This probably accounts for the distinct lack of gaiety in all the portraits.  None of the people were smiling.  But Cameron seems to have made a virtue of this with people appearing rather serious, pensive and reflective which plays more to the idea of portraying the inner and less temporal person.

Alice Liddell as a young woman

Alice Liddell

A portrait of Alice Liddell (said to be the muse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) reveals a girl nearing the edge of adulthood with fine eyes of an inimitably imperious expression, but shot through with a kind of sadness. Why she should be so sad, I did not know. It is one of those mysteries that Cameron is wont to throw up and leave lying in the air.

Another picture was titled ‘Summer days’, with a frieze of young

Group of two women and two children in summer clothes

Summer Days

women and girls arrayed becomingly in their large, floppy summer hats and festive, holiday clothes, but resting against each other with expressions of the most pervasive pensiveness.  These days, the caption would invite depictions of riotous jollity.  But somehow I really liked the serious tone of it, as if it was an evocation that nothing, no matter how good, lasts forever.  That time moves on and these eternally good times, one and all become nothing more than memories.

She was very fond of putting together theatrical scenes from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Antiquity or the Bible, creating many moments of fine dark drama or gentle, aerial mystery and melancholy.

Young woman in profile

Sappho

My favourite of these is of her house-mistress, a dark-haired young woman with the beautiful features and profile of a 15th century Madonna. She is posing as the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, with an embroidered peasant blouse I’d like to steal and a dramatic necklace of hanging teardrops.  The deliberate position of her hand on the lyre forms a gentle and respectful tribute.

Cameron, according to the script, was a very religious person and consequently there were a number of pictures devoted to the subject of piety.  Piety is something I do not understand, being an atheist from another time and place.

Woman in prayer

Pensive Nun

But there was something very moving about one portrait of a woman devoutly pressing her hands to her chest in a heartfelt, prayer-like position that could only be a gesture of some very deep love and reverence.  The caption was from a poem ,’Il Penseroso’, by the 17th century English poet John Milton ‘Come pensive nun devout and pure, sober steadfast and demure’.

Her portrait of the scientist astronomer and her muse, Sir John Herschel,

Portrait of a scientist

Sir John Herschel

is a triumph of the documentation of a another time.  Rough-headed and unkempt, he is gazing indomitably into the future with the questing, wildly surmising look of a person accustomed to acutely observing phenomena and exploring its implications with his massive intellect.  And yet he belongs solidly in the 19th Century, as one of its pioneers and progenitors, one of those who shaped the future.  She captures the darkness science was emerging from at that age.  No scientist today could ever be quite in the same place of so much unknowing.

Young woman in profile

Sadness

But Cameron was also capable of taking photos that seemed as if they were taken yesterday.  A young woman in a becoming short-sleeve white peasant’s blouse rests up against a wall, one hand holding her necklace and the silvery bangles on her arm lending a sharp and precise light. Also interesting about this picture is how Cameron seems to make the pattern on the wall-paper part of the shadow of the woman herself and somehow expressive of her personality.

Two children holding flowers

The Sad White Roses

Much is made of Cameron’s treatment of children in her photos.  Coming from the background of being housewife and mother, she seems to absolutely love putting them into various becoming theatrical positions with adults such as the aforesaid house-mistress in scenes like Madonna and child, or together in various poses that seem to evoke a kind of elegant floating world that the Victorian well-to-do lived in.  While they look like adorable little animals and it must have been a major feat getting them to stay still for so long, I think Cameron does best when there is an accidental quality to the shot.

One of her first pictures was of a child caught as if just

Young girl face and neck

‘Annie, my first success’

coming in to a room from outside.  She is buttoned up in warm clothing and her shy expression and birdlike personality shines unerringly through.  Cameron was understandably delighted with this picture, calling it her first successful photo.

There was much more, but having gazed and stayed for long in this gallery room of mystical melancholy and shades of black and white, it seemed a relief to leave and get out into the afternoon sunlight and colour of the green Sydney Domain with its massive fig trees and long airy stretch of green lawn.

Spreading fig tree in city park

Fig tree in the Sydney Domain

I wonder whether people from the Victorian age really did live their life with a kind of seriousness that today’s society with its relentless hedonism does not seem to value.  Or that the people might look back at all that unremitting sobriety and think ‘that was then. Thank goodness for that’.

Maybe a balance between the two would be progress!