Notes from the road
Caravan Parks. Classes don’t so much merge, as congregate there. Images of atmospheric smoke induced fellowship. Joy in green cans and littered superlatives. Smirks between crooked weathered tram lines suggesting paradise is at my doorstep.
Of the people though, there have been gems among them. The stonemason. Working on site, building a retaining wall. Chiselled hands that look like granite and feel like plasticine. The corrugated unfrowned face that says ‘Age, I am damaged but I will not yield’. The left alone grey streaked moustache that yells both Chinese artisan and modern insurgent – only to find out that he is both of these. We played chess and the result was incidental. To meet with a man who could talk, from experience, of fine arts, Vietnam, various American sponsored police actions, teach me a little about Egyptian architecture, tell me what it’s like to study stonemasonry in Italy and yet have eyes that spoke of a life of sadness, loneliness and blight that is unable to come to terms with his own uniqueness. I didn’t find out his name but it didn’t seem to matter. ‘Raise a glass of red for me tonight’ were his last words to me and it seemed as fitting a gesture as any.
Then there is the mademoiselle from France, who embarrassed me with my inadequate grip of her language and who embarrassed her country, by not knowing about Villers Britenoux, the ANZACS and the fact that we fought for, and helped to liberate, her country. I didn’t feel to develop hubris because I was busy feeling sad. Sad that, even if the French nation as a whole appreciates that they can still adore Renoir, Champagne and grain subsidies because of ANZAC deaths in French fields, she didn’t come to our country armed with this most elementary of knowledge.
I had found out only days earlier, as it so happened, from my father, that I have a great uncle who fought in and survived, the Great War. I’m not sure why my father would not have told me this small yet substantial piece of information before this. It’s like being told, ‘by the way, you come from a long line of petty thieves’, but its having the opposite effect. It’s something that I can take up with him when we sit down and talk about the things of love and faith and other themed variations when it comes his time to discuss them.
Fredrick George Newman apparently served in and survived the war, married and had children. Where are they? I’ve had the idea for many years that this must have been the case, that I had bloodlines to that war. I studied it out of hours at school. There had to have been a soldier whose genes I share. I walk into enemy fire all the time. I don’t know when I’m beaten. I’m always bumping my head. I was born to wear a very hard hat.
I’ve walked through the Australian war memorial in France. I’ve walked through the New Zealand war memorial. I’ve trodden on ground that has refused to give up bodies and names and has stored shells of war. I’ve tried to imagine what it might have been like. It’s impossible, even for me, to do this – imagine what it was like. I’ve walked along rows and rows and rows of graves, of names, writing prose in my head to befit it. Graves that spill the seed of my own un-transpired hope and of society’s grateful remembrances and gorged destiny. It was worth the drive to Bright for that piece of information alone. Perhaps there is more I can find out if I drive there again.
But back to caravan parks. Part of my raison detre for going away in the first place was to find context in solitude. To get away from the inanity of doing something that is not part of my soul and to breathe a different sort of air. A caravan park is not the sort of place to try to find that context but it has, in the process, achieved some kind of result. Caravan parks are not places to find solitude. They are places to find bowel malfunction and tinea.
This is not a holiday as people count holidays. It’s a convenient label though and easier for people who want easily digestible explanations. ‘Steve’s on holiday’ is easier than ‘Steve’s creating some space for himself to enable the working of the proper soul’. For that I could go away for a month, a year or more. I’m asked if I’m enjoying myself. What is there to enjoy about walking to a communal toilet in the dark cold pitch to find that you can’t recall which is the gents. Disoriented, you mumble about the self inflicted misery of jettisoning normal comforts.
It may have been better to pitch a tent in a paddock somewhere. But then I wouldn’t have met the people who have contributed to the experience. I’m coming back with my own form of truth about what it means to live by my own rules.
I’ve been along the Great Ocean Road. By all accounts the music to accompany the GOR would be an Elgar march, a Faustian drama. There the souvenirs to remind us that the GOR is a “great” road, a “great” drive, a “great” experience. If I’d collected any of the fridge magnets, car stickers, shirts, books, hats, place mats and mugs on offer at any of the side road stores they would have lied to my experience.
Perhaps it was because I was driving and couldn’t take in its splendour but it didn’t do a “great” deal for me. There were lots of concrete laden trucks, workers in yellow jackets, holding signs in any direction, sucking miserably on cheap cigarettes and plumbers vehicles racing manically to the next job to remind me that this was a well travelled, perhaps over travelled, over hyped road. There were too many people doing what people do on any given Wednesday.
It could be that I was struggling with the sound of yet another Australian winning at some ball game, race, match, (insert event here) at Her Majesty’s Games. There are only so many times I can listen to the sound of the brass and timbrel of our national anthem dominating the airwaves like some Roman march to Thebes, before I develop something that requires surgery. The accompanying forced commentary, like straining seaweed through a tea cosy, the unwavering manic descriptions of our national athletic infallibility, as if embracing it makes us more athletic, and the dialogue between champion and champions advocate became intellectually isolating.
Listening to athletes talk about their event or describe their feelings, their unmasked joy at winning (we all win of course), reciting by rote their opponents virtue, what they do in their quite reflective moments, which include developing relaxation techniques in front of the television set; reading texts by Rowling to requite the soul; consulting with broad grinned slick haired agents of fortune, with large emerald rings on fat well manicured fingers, regarding the next well staged celebrity opportunity, started to dull my senses after the initial five minute salvo.
Is there a combined air trap for clichés competition? To listen to an athlete talk is akin to watching a cat swim. They shouldn’t do it. They can manage it but they need help and it’s not natural.
Then there is fishing. Perhaps I succumbed to its lure because it’s not in the Games. It’s a wallet emptying impostor masquerading as fun. Fishermen are, above all, optimists. They buy fishing poles, knowing full well, it’s not the fish they’re after, Integra Gold Deluxe Mark III fishing poles with dual ball bearing cast mechanisms that launch hooks, swivels, computer designed sinkers and floaters. The hook impales another fish, the hook being… that some dumb fish will think it’s food and gorge upon its contents. The bigger hook is of course, that we actually believe that there are enough dumb fish to share around. It’s one of the great lies. There are no weapons of mass destruction. There is no short road to longevity. There are no fish.
Slowly am I coming to my senses and slowly am I returning to Sydney, to where my various friends are waiting to love, berate, ignore and harass me. Unlike the people who inhabit caravan parks.