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Eulogy for a fisherman’s village (John Smith)

10 Apr

I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.

He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.

The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.

He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.

Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.

There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.

He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.

I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.

*

I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.

*

At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.

The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.

However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.

Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.

This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.

*

This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010).  For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.

What’s Updog? (Helena Pastor)

26 Jul

One night, washing up after dinner, I hear the click of the side-gate. A dark-haired figure lopes past the window and my husband calls out, ‘Joey’s here.’ My body tenses, my heartbeat quickens. This shouldn’t happen when my own son comes to visit. But it does, because I never know what to expect. Who will Joey be today – Mr Happy, Mr Sad or Mr Angry?

‘Hi Mum!’ he says as he comes through the back door. I glance up from the sink. He’s smiling broadly, his brown eyes alight with mischief. Mr Happy.

I smile back, thinking how handsome he is when he’s in a good mood. ‘How’s things, Joey?’

‘Good … good.’ He leans against the kitchen bench and sniffs deeply. ‘It smells like updog in here.’

‘Hmmm …’ I murmur, keeping my response minimal, wondering what he’s up to. Probably a farting joke. Theo comes out of his room, still dressed in his high school uniform. Joey calls his brother over. ‘Don’t you reckon it smells like updog in here?’

‘What’s updog?’ asks Theo.

‘Nuttin’ dog,’ answers Joey in a thick gangsta accent and a big grin. ‘What’s up wit’ you?’

Theo reddens, caught out, while I chuckle over the dishes. Joey can be very funny.

‘Want to go for a drive, Mum?’

Nightly drives have almost become a ritual since Joey moved out of home. I tell myself it’s quality time, an opportunity for us to talk without the other kids around, but it doesn’t usually turn out that way.

‘Not really,’ I sigh. ‘It’s been a long day.’ But I know our two year-old is nearly asleep, and our second youngest is trying to finish his homework. I also know how hard it is for Joey to be quiet. I grab the keys from the top of the fridge. ‘Maybe just a short one.’

As I reverse onto the street, Joey plugs his MP3 adaptor into the cassette player. The thumping beat of rap fills the car. The music is so loud people stare as we go past. Each time I turn down the volume, Joey turns it up even louder. I shouldn’t have agreed to go out with him. ‘Put on a song that doesn’t have so much swearing!’ I snap. ‘I don’t want to hear ‘motherfucker’ over and over!’

‘Alright, alright,’ he says, searching through his songs. ‘You don’t need to get angry. Let’s do a lap around town and check out Hungry Jack’s.’

I drive around the block, fuming. Why do I do this? Week after week, month after month? As we cruise past the back of Hungry Jack’s, a local hangout, Joey scans the crowd for someone he knows. He doesn’t seem embarrassed to be hooning around town with his mother. Most boys his age would be learning to drive, saving up for a car or motorbike of their own. But Joey’s never shown any interest in getting his license.

‘Stop here a minute,’ says Joey, leaping out to ask the whereabouts of one of his friends. I wait in the car, a faithful servant. When he jumps back in, we drive to an address on the other side of town, in the housing commission area. I already know this won’t be a ‘short drive’. Joey doesn’t seem to notice when I purse my lips and exhale loudly with resentment.

We stop in front of a brick house. Joey gets out to see if his friend is home. While he’s chatting at the door I remember a phone call with my mother the previous week. She rang to tell me about her friend’s grandson, a young man who was often in trouble with the police. ‘He joined the army and became a different person,’ she said. ‘Maybe this would be a good thing for Joey.’

I wasn’t sure if I wanted Joey to become a soldier, fighting someone else’s war. But the next day I’d looked up the Defence Forces website and read through an impressive list of trade jobs available for army recruits. Definitely worth a try.

On our drive back to town, I sneak the volume down a notch. ‘Oma reckons it might be a good idea for you to join the army.’

Joey looks at me in surprise. ‘I’ve been thinking about doing that already … I want to be a driver.’

A driver?

‘You could learn a trade,’ I say, pretending I haven’t heard. With a brain like his he could do anything. ‘Telecommunications, or mechanical engineer or systems analyst.’

Joey shakes his head and sighs. ‘You remind me of Marge Simpson.’ He turns up the music again; end of army conversation. This is how it always is when I bring up something serious.

Later I drop him at his place. When Joey moved into a share-house, only a block away from us, I worried it might be a little too close. I was right. He pops around whenever it suits him, wanting food, money, lifts, his clothes washed. Mainly, though, I think he just wants me. For his first year of life, it was only him and me. I’m sure he’d still prefer it that way – to have my undivided attention so I could listen to his stories for hours, spend the nights driving him around town with rap music shaking the car, do all his cooking, shopping and washing.

Give my life over to him.

Hatton’s Hunger (Mark William Jackson)

25 Mar

Review of Stu Hatton’s collection of poetry, How to be Hungry.


Bukowski once said “don’t play with madness, madness doesn’t play.” Likewise, don’t play with words unless you know what you’re doing. Stu Hatton knows what he’s doing.

Hatton is far from a straight writing skid row poet. Instead Hatton travels a drug fuelled transcendental journey. Random names for comparative discussion would include the Beats; Burroughs and Kerouac, New York Schooler Jim Carroll and contemporary Melbourne poet π.o. Hatton lashes across the page with a stream of consciousness furore.

A tip for the reader: Don’t try to understand everything in the first reading. Instead, read it at pace and let the images swirl and form in your mind. I’ve spent too long away from poetry to attempt a dissection of metre and rhyme, so my first reading was for pure enjoyment, and that’s what I got. And more — I got a kick-in-the-head reminder of why I love poetry so much.

How to be Hungry is Stu Hatton’s first collection and gathers his poems previously published in some of Australia’s best literary journals, including Overland, Otoliths, Page Seventeen, [untitled] and The Age newspaper.

The collection highlights the variety in Hatton’s work, with themes ranging from situational (unplugged, digitalia, sharps and A train, outbound), severe introspection (self-portrait (with wires, city, no clothes), and down slow), loss (the breaking), to psychoanalytical (the masculine) and observational (WA Notebook, Three Brett Whiteleys, Berlin and hands/office).

The poems in the collection come from a tortured voice. The breaking tells of the speaker sitting in a bar sharing drugs with friends and consciously trying not to think about the death of a friend ‘didn’t want to know / your whereabouts / how you were captured / what painkillers stomached / what beds caught you when you fell.’ The speaker throws himself further into the drug hazed wake until the image of the lost one returns (and the pronoun changes from the possessive to third person modifier) ‘& in her eyes, / death that pretty young thing, / saw a way in.’

This piece’s poignancy lies in the speaker continuing the habits that took the friend, and flows with the uncontrollable urge of an addict.

Unplugged takes us back into the mind of the addict, this time trying to recover. The image is created of a rehab centre, ‘the raw bed / no exits / air soured by puke’ and the fury of detox, ‘ever try a sprint lying down? / (it’s exhausting)’. The poem breaks with an asterisk then reprises with a sledgehammer three lines, ‘outside of visiting hrs / a squad of ghosts / makes another sweep’. As if the environment wasn’t bad enough, with no external exits, only nightmares reside within the mind.

Hatton’s observational talent is displayed in WA Notebook and Three Brett Whiteleys. WA Notebook is in six parts and documents the speaker’s travels through Western Australia as an Environmental protester. Part I coastal describes the ubiquitous Australian flags, hoisted since the Cronulla riots giving licence for Australian nationalism to mimic the redneck belt of the United States. ‘fuck off we’re full’ sticker / on a ute’s rear panel’ sets the scene.

Part II development assesses the futility of suburban existence, ‘impermeable, unstirred, unmoved / these lives go on regardless / city of satellites’. This theme continues in the standout section, part IV, the days write themselves, ‘Listen: is that a shot off the fairway / or a big bloke preparing to spit?’ The sounds of weekend suburban life. ‘There’ll be folks over at 5 / for champagne & nibbles’, the simple language reflecting the ordinariness of the social calendar.

Down slow exposes the speaker, ‘naked / beneath the drugs / this is what I am’, this exposure is reprised in the closing piece self-portrait (with wires, city, no clothes). Poetic etiquette dictates that one shouldn’t assume the speaker’s voice in a poem is that of the poet, however, titling a poem self-portrait disabuses that rule.

Hatton closes with a confession ‘i am open / and open / and open’, an honest stanza opens the piece that closes an honest collection. ‘You asked to see a photo, but / i asked for paper / to write on’. If you want to see the poet you must read his words. The close of the poem, and collection as a whole is whispered in parentheses ‘(i’m so glad / you could make it)’.

How to be Hungry is a strong debut available through the link below http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/how-to-be-hungry/13213146

My father’s body in nine drawings (Francesca Rendle-Short)

23 Sep

1

My father is not yet dead. People who knew him say there is a likeness in this drawing. I can still see him breathing, can you? I still feel warmth when I bend to kiss his head in salutation; I feel a pulse through his skull against my lips. I imagine his gaze on me. Hello I hear him say, do I know you?

He doesn’t have long now to live. It is only a matter of hours. He dies the next day.

2

Maurice Blanchot once wrote: Look again at this splendid being from which beauty streams: he is, I see this, perfectly like himself. And someone says to me, kindly: Francesca, he’ll be tangle free you know, when he’s gone he’ll be at peace.

Death skewers the heart of those left behind, no matter what the age of those who are dying. One minute I have a father and he’s with me in the flesh. The next minute he’ll be gone, really gone, disappeared. All breathing stopped.

3

These images of my father’s body span two notebooks. You can see the ordinariness of the lines and checks on the paper I’ve drawn across. When I was called to his beside in Toowoomba, I didn’t think I would be drawing his figure as he lay dying: I thought he would be already dead. I didn’t think there would be enough room for me to spread out around his bed, not room enough to measure stillness like this. There are too many of us for that. We fill up his room, bodies everywhere. Nurses stay away.

4

Did you know, with six children in a family there are six children trying to say goodbye to six fathers? In mathematical terms, there are 720 different sorts of relationships the six of us can have – a multiplication of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6. Add my father into the equation and multiply that figure by seven, to take it to 5040 combinations and permutations.

5

I draw fast, turning a page every few minutes. I don’t have long.

I draw him with a pencil found at the bottom of my bag.

Was it John Ruskin who said: but only draw what you see?

I watch my father find breath with my marks. The nurses tell me, when checking respiration, it is important to also note whether a person has any difficulty breathing.

6

Breath is involuntary. If you think about it too much your lungs hurt.

Did you know that on average we take 15 to 20 breaths per minute? That’s 900 to 1200 breaths per hour and 21600 to 28800 breaths per day. If we think of a year, we take 7884000 to 10512000 breaths in those 365 days – millions in other words. For my father who is 90 he has taken 709560000 to 946080000 breaths until now, to these, his very last.

7

My father is dying and I wonder what he is thinking, is he thinking at all. Does he still wish he will go to heaven to be with Angel, my mother? Is that his dream? Or has his Alzheimer’s clouded his view of any possible a f t e r l i f e?

I read once: in death, the rictus is an oddly painful unexpected ugly fact. The mouth is all wrong.

8

My father died when he was ninety. In mathematics, the number nine is at the end of the primary series beginning with one and finishing with 10. It denotes a complete circle, 360 degrees or, to put it another way, 3 + 6 + 0 = 9.

In French, the word neuf means both nine and new.

Nine is a lucky number.

9

I draw my father with my lucky ring on, from Hanoi. I call it lucky because it is in nine pieces – a silver ring with the palest of white Halong Bay pearls shaped in a grid of 3 x 3. I sometimes think of it as my noughtsandcrosses ring.

Thinking of my father I think of kissing him goodbye for the final time – with these nine pearls, these nine kisses, and with my story in nine drawings.

***

This requiem for my father in nine drawings complements a photo-essay I wrote for Overland entitled ‘My father’s body: creation, evolution and Alzheimer’s disease’.