Monday, August 19, 2013

Four article stubs and a funeral

Sorry about the lack of posts for the last two and a half months.  I’ve had a lot on – including some serious “sorry business”, which I won’t be writing about, as such.  But I mention this because you may see some subtext and allusions in the following four snippets.

The connection I want to mention is that they’re all topics that I’ve been working on for a while, and it’s time to get them (partially) off my chest – not to mention give this blog some needed oxygen.  I know that I promised one expectant reader, in person, the finished version of “Four – the Timor-Arafura Gap”, some weeks ago – but sorry, due to recent events, the full article here is still a while off.

One – the opiate underdose* 

Two years ago, I had day-surgery on my ankle at a private hospital.  Discharging me, they sent me off with some serious painkillers, including a box of the opiate, Endone (without any request by me, and adding the cost of the prescription to my bill, which I rather groggily paid). 

I didn’t need any of the take-home pain medication – I tried the less strong one, a couple of times, but it didn’t seem to do anything. But my pain wasn’t really painful, anyway, if you know what I mean.  So I stashed the Endone in my bathroom cupboard, possibly for a rainy-painy day.  Which never came.

Recently going through my pills, I saw that the Endone was out of date.    So following the directions, I took it back, unopened, to my pharmacy for disposal.

There are, I think, three classes of reader response to the above bare facts: (i) “So what?”, (ii) “You fool!”, and (iii) “You’re weird – but in a good way – to be writing about this, and it tickles something in me”.

To the first group, you can stop reading now, and to the third, thank you for joining my tiny club.  But it is to the second group that I must – reluctantly – admit, yes, I am writing to talk to – sorry, I mean torment – you.

I was and am well aware that a black market exists for Endone et al, and for a millisecond I admit that I thought I could have made a tidy sum here.  But it wasn’t morals, or affluence (if only), that made me stoically take my booty (in your eyes) to the proper receptacle – it was the necessary culmination of my two-year underdose.

“Underdosing” doesn’t seem to have much Google traction in non-medical literature, and in that, it seems to be a bad thing.  On the contrary, I reckon that it is high time we underdosers came out loud’n’proud, and reclaimed our “thang” from the contemptuous labels of the medical profession.  Pain, schmain, I say.

Seriously though, underdosing has to be a necessary corollary, in the great Newtonian zero-sum universe, to the opposite – we all hear about overdosing ad nauseum, of course.  Opiates are therefore always – and lopsidedly – regarded as goods in severe shortage.  Well, dang, I’ve just had a two year opiate surplus – I didn’t ask for the stuff, and the hospital pharmacy billed me for it, anyway.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one with an unwanted opiate surplus (although, per my first group above, I am that sure I’m in a tiny minority of people who choose to highlight this). 

Ah, the dormant potential accumulated in my sweet little opiate hoard – as somehow perfectly balanced by someone else’s (or even many others’?) lethargy and longing.  I hope that you opiate-big-spenders miss, nay weep over, my late pack of Endone – but for me, it’s simply gone to a better place.

* This is a complete article, masquerading as a stub for the sake of a cute title.

Two – Bill Harney’s Anzac Day (stub)

A gifted story-teller, Bill Harney (1895-1962) penned only a handful of words about his 1915-18 WWI service.  Were it not for Harney’s 1958 ABC radio interview, which formed the basis of the posthumous book Bill Harney’s War (1983), Harney’s reticence on this topic would be unmistakable.  But “reticence” may not be the right word – arguably, it was a calculated, and liberating omission.

War-writing cannot be elegantly autobiographical – the young soldier must always loom large, so lop-siding the remainder of the author’s lifespan, if he lives, and chooses, to tell of the decades that followed those few formative war years.  Commonly, of course, the autobiography is truncated – either by the author’s death in combat (leaving a scant, beautiful oeuvre, Wilfred Owen style, if not also a beautiful corpse) or by the tale ending, or shifting down a gear at least, as the author’s normal civilian life resumes.  Otherwise, some kind of balance can be struck by authors who want to tell seamlessly of both their war service and the remainder of their lives, but the formula for this is constricting:  lashings of workaday modest heroism, both during and after the war, a la Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life (published in 1981, nine months before the author’s death). 

Some might regard Bill Harney as indeed a modest hero, or prototypical Aussie battler.  But this would be an under-estimation, a careless averaging of the peaks and troughs of a life mythological in scale.  Most of all, it would ignore Harney’s keen and sardonic prescience – he was an eyewitness to, and pithy commentator on, the actual founding of many twentieth-century Australian founding myths, including Anzac Day and the “half-caste” Aboriginal child-removal policy (now more generally known as the Stolen Generations); albeit he used a pseudonym [to be revealed in the full article] in the latter case.

Bill Harney, writer, thus begins in 1919, upon returning to civilian life.  If you do not know Harney’s 11 published books, they are more or less one elliptical autobiography, often told as filmic flashbacks, and with tragedy never far from windfall, and vice versa.

It would seem that only by making a clean break post-WWI that Harney became a writer – first tentatively and anonymously in 1928, and then a decade later, with the encouragement of anthropologist Professor AP Elkin.  And when Harney wrote, the stories flowed, interwove, and at least once, vertiginously dropped – from a small boast in print to a searing tragedy in the same year, at the Alice Springs Old Telegraph Station “Bungalow”, that would take 16 years to write about, in Harney’s last book published in his lifetime.  Writing looking back on his WWI service would have been sterile, and straight-jacketing, in comparison – and again, Harney’s prescience in somehow knowing this from the start of his 34-year writing career is singular.

Three - Bill Harney’s Alice Springs impedimenta (stub or self-contained sorry business (?), loosely linked to previous stub)
Childhood is long and linear; adulthood is wide and …. moving sideways?

I reckon that “accumulating stuff” could well replace “taxes”, as that other certainty of life, alongside death.  It’s a stage of life, that if prolonged and “wide” enough, is called hoarding – but even at its “skinniest”, the accumulation of stuff is still naked, animal, accumulating stuff.  There is a reason for it, of course – to defy death, that great rubbish-bin into which all and us (and all stuff) must ultimately be pitched.

Bill Harney lived most of his adult life as a Top End beachcomber, but towards the end of it (c. 1957 to c. Aug 1962), he settled down in Chewings Street, Alice Springs (while also living at Ayers Rock for part of the year, as inaugural ranger in charge during the tourist season). 

Somehow, moving down from the Top End to Central Australia, Harney seems to have gone from carefree beachcomber to owner of a lot of stuff, rather suddenly, c. 1957.  My own hunch is that this phenomenon might be connected to Harney’s c.1946 personal tragedy, during his (relatively short) previous period of residence in Alice Springs – the move back to the scene (well, 2km away) of the tragedy came with “baggage”.  Otherwise, I’ll leave it to Harney’s own words to explain (or not) this, but first, you should know that Harney didn’t die in his Chewings Street House of Stuff.  He retired to the Sunshine Coast c. Sep 1962 – AFAICT, unencumbered by the same lot of stuff at his new home – and died at his modest home in Mooloolaba a few months later, on New Year’s Eve. After those necessary few years of learning, or defying, to die; a beachcomber once again.  RIP Bill.
“. . .  I bought a small place in Chewings Street, east of the Todd River, in Alice Springs, and around it I built a house for a man who was growing old, a house which, like a bird’s bower, would at least accommodate the junk I was acquiring, even if it never accommodated me. 

Throughout my life, to the age of about sixty, I had lived by the precepts of primitive hunters.  I had owned nothing and wanted nothing, regarding all the trivia one finds in collectors’ homes as impediments to free movement at any moment.

I had always wanted to be able to roll my swag, jam my battered hat on grey thatch, and start walking . . . [BH’s ellipsis] knowing that I was leaving nothing behind, that I could return tomorrow or never, and it wouldn’t matter.  But now! Goodness me, I had pictures on the walls, crates of books, beds and chairs and other furniture, and I was even cultivating a lawn.  

In the past, my nearest approach to cultivating anything had been at Two-Feller Creek [on the coast of the Cox Peninsula, west of Darwin] when one night I threw out the seeds of a water-melon.  I’d had a glass or two of wine and my friends tell me my mood was expansive; so much so that so that as I threw the seeds I talked to them.  ‘Grow, you bastards!’ I said.  ‘Or die.  I don’t care.  It’s up to you’.  Now I was not only planting a lawn; I had an electric mower.

The house in in Chewings Street, I now realise, was a compromise, neither a nomad's windbreak nor a semi-detached brick veneer, but a place to put my head and the accumulating feathers and stones of civilisation until I had resolved what to do with the years that remained to me.  For one thing, there was no tree in the yard, and that worried me, for without a tree I was without a shade.  On hot days I was forced to sit inside this cell.  To a man who had spent his life in the open, that was a refined form of torture, and I doubted whether I’d be able to get used to it, although I knew that many people did.”

-          Bill Harney and Douglas Lockwood, The Shady Tree (1963, Rigby) pp 27-28 – note that paragraphing has been added to the original, but it is otherwise unchanged

Best left behind then, by beachcombers in the end, Alice Springs is the “sorry business” capital of Australia. Or in Harney’s pregnant words, a place he lived in in transit between life and the countdown to death, “until I had resolved what to do with the years that remained to me”.  Transit passengers aside, Alice Springs is on a permanent, tight toggle loop – if it’s not a grief-numb 8 August there, it’s always a brisk and busy 9 August.   Either way, the flag is only ever briefly at full mast before the next death. And that’s how the south-easterly winter winds like it – there’s no time for mid-cycle countdowns to death.  And Harney’s “years that remained to me” post-Alice were, of course, an optimistic estimate of his lifespan – although not of the “sorry business” still to come, business that could and would never leave Alice Springs.

Four – the Timor-Arafura Gap

-          Bill Shorten, Aug 2013

Quite.  But sadly, Bill Shorten is not talking literally about Australia’s near north (which I’d define as PNG, West Papua and the south-east Indonesian/Timor islands (say, south of latitude 3ºS, and east of longitude 123ºE) – but about the far north (or more accurately, from the main population centres, the far north-west).  If Indonesia gets even a look-in in Shorten’s world view, it apparently goes no further south-east than Bali/Lombok.  Overwhelmingly, though, Bill Shorten’s “Australia’s near north” is north of the equator, and the colonial/northern-hemisphere notion, say, of India as “south Asia” would not be inconsistent with it.

Anyway, I want to move beyond these clichéd north vs east, and colonial vs modern dichotomies.  Newsflash:  Asia has a south-east, a far south-east, in fact (Tenggara Jauh).  Yes, it’s obscure, particularly the central (yes, central) parts of it that I’ll be focusing on here.  But this is where it’s at – where the backyards of Australia and Asia meet, 300km apart. 

The 19th C history of either side of this 300km gap is poignant (but, cue the boys’ own sidebar, it also contains pirates!).  But most of all, it is deeply confronting to many of Australia’s colonial founding myths – which is no doubt why the events of 1825 on a new (and thereafter, doomed) British colony on Melville Island and the Dutch-occupied (sort-of) islands to its immediate north have until now, never been properly told, let alone analysed for their present-day ramifications, which include Australian policies re immigration, China trade, and settler/Indigenous relations.
But first, to home in on the “far south-east” area I’ll be talking about.  I’m excluding Indonesian (West-) and East Timor, and the islands to their north and west.  In the other direction, I’m excluding PNG, West Papua and the Kai and Aru archipelagos, which are firmly in the orbit of Papua.  In turn, Papua is arguably more anchored in the south-west Pacific than in south-east Asia.  What’s left over, then is south of latitude 6ºS (and north of present-day Top End Australia), and east of longitude 127ºE and west of 132ºE. 

I’ll call these islands 300-500km N and NNW of the Tiwi Islands (and 400-600km ditto from Darwin) the “Serwatti Islands”.  They have the Arafura and Timor Seas** on their eastern and western fringes respectively, and the straits between them are/were shipping lanes on the direct route between Macassar (present-day Sulawesi) and China on one hand, and Top End Australia on the other.  However, note that there was quite possibly more shipping going through these obscure straits in the 19th C (and even 17th C), to and from and Top End Australia, than today – the wounds of 1825 are thus arguably still raw here. Certainly in 2013, without a private boat (the only airport I’m aware of is at Saumlakki on Tanimbar, which in turn is only serviced via Ambon), you cannot do the short hop between Darwin and the Serwatti Islands, and I imagine that the immigration authorities would rather frown on anywhere the Serwatti Islands as an entry/exit point for Indonesia.  
“Serwatti Islands” was a label in popular use in the 19th C, that in present-day geography  corresponds with most of the islands in the “remote” (as it is invariably described) south-western area of the Maluku/Moluccas province of Indonesia, about latitude 8º S, between and including Kisar and the Tanimbar group.  Note that I’m excluding Wetar here, which is officially in south-western Maluku, but doesn’t much concern my subject.  Also note that the Serwatti Islands, aka “Serawatti Islands”, both historically and in present-day conceptions of Maluku’s south-western islands, usually do not include the Tanimbar group.  But for present purposes, the islands of Babar and Yamdena (the main island in the Tanimbar group, aka “Timor Laut”, and also the largest single island, by far, in my Serwatti Islands grouping) are peas in a pod, as well as being only 130km apart. 

As for the 20-odd minor islands west and north-west of the Babar/Barbat group, up to Kisar, which I’m also labelling “Serwatti Islands”, these are too dispersed, and also too peripheral to my subject to be worth a separate nomenclature.  And one more clarification:  confusingly perhaps, Ambon locals (in Maluku terms, big-city folk) refer to the south-western Maluku islands as Tenggara Jauh, or the far south-east – despite some them being due south, and even slightly south-west, of downtown Ambon (at 128º E).

But in this part of the world (not to mention most of Australia, north-west of Cape Howe), south-east is destiny – and going to or from the south-west is only a Sunday ramble in a cross-wind.

** Darwin sometimes is also caught between deciding whether its harbour abuts the Arafura or Timor Seas – although the case for the latter seems geographically overwhelming, IMO.  Perhaps, in occasionally wistfully batting for Team Arafura, Darwin – ever eager to snuggle up to Asia – wishes to metaphorically bridge the Timor Trough, a rather non-snuggly natural feature running the entire length of the Timor Sea, whose eastern end is smack-bang between Babar and Yamdena – at the very middle, then, of my erstwhile, archipelagic centre of Australia’s “near north”.

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