R U OK? And related…

Yesterday 12 September was R U OK? Day here in Oz. Question Time in Parliament opened with both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition speaking in support. The idea of the day is to realise that the simple question “Are you OK?” could lead to a conversation that may help someone labouring under depression, may even save a life. Scott Morrison said that he had been at school with Gavin Larkin, the founder of R U OK? He could also have added that the school captain in his year later went on to commit suicide, very much related to the experience of homophobia. I taught the brother of that school captain; he now lives in California.

Scott Morrison actually spoke well yesterday, I thought.

41827011Coincidentally my reading the last two days — I finished it yesterday — has been Train Man by Andrew Mulligan, London, Chatto & Windus 2019. (Hot off the shelf; Wollongong Library’s acquisition date is 21 August!) This Guardian review gives you a good idea of what the book is about. I borrowed it totally at random, and am very glad I did. I love it when a random book turns out to be a treasure — and how apposite to have been reading it on R U OK? Day! Andrew Mulligan has rendered the central character’s internal voices in a way that was a touch discomforting, simply because it is so close to the way my own internal dialogues play out. I was reminded too, in a way, of Marcel Proust — though Train Man is just 313 pages!  But that could explain why it gets mixed reviews on goodreads.

In a note at the end Andrew Mulligan reveals the kernel of the character is “an old friend who killed himself years ago on a railway line.” And tomorrow, the 14th September, is a significant date in my memory, and still at times in my internal dialogues. Thirty years ago I was living in Paddington and not all was well. I was living here.

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Living not far away was an old Wollongong friend, indeed a decade or more earlier an ex-student. Sadly, on 14 September 1989 he took his own life. I was deeply affected, and even more so were his family in Wollongong and his former partner. Again, homophobia had a role.

In the midst of it all, as therapy really — and indeed at the time I was undergoing therapy with the wonderful Cedric Bullard — I committed the whole thing to writing, as fiction, but not a thing in it didn’t happen pretty much as I told it. You can find the whole thing here. This is the 1989 section.

September 5 1989

— Well look who it is!

I have not seen J for some months, not since a few weeks before my birthday party. He had not come to the party. He is in the Darlinghurst Bookshop.

— This looks interesting Colin. You should read it. He is holding a copy of Surprising Myself by Christopher Bram. J likes to keep up with new gay writing. Later I would read it looking for clues. It has a happy ending, with a central character in a relationship with someone he calls “Boy”. At one stage, before the happy ending–and J likes gay books to have happy endings as a political statement–this central character considers killing himself:

“Petty, selfish, stupid? But none of the names seemed to contain the hatred I was feeling for myself. Hatred spread into my life, until there was nothing worth saving.”

Nothing surprising about running into J. We often meet like this by accident. So we have coffee at the Green Park Diner and then he comes with me to the decaying terrace in Paddington which is looking better than the last time he’d seen it. The talk is of birthdays and I comment that his is next week on the 14th and he repeats so formally yes it’s on the 14th and I think nothing more about it.

— I’ve been seeing your ex-friend lately

— What, Boy? Not ex-friend: we just don’t see each other any more.

J and Luke had broken up a few months before. I had fragments of the story from both sides.

— I hurt him, Colin.

J is sitting at the top of the stairs, his back resting on the bedroom doorpost, smiling. He wears black. Always that air of formality.

— How are you REALLY, J.

Code for asking about his Depression.

— Not very well.

He often said that. I knew there was nothing to say. But I look at him and say

— You know I would have given my head to see you well.

— I know that Colin.

Smiling.

— I must have been a real nuisance, J.

— No you weren’t.

— But if back then I’d been in the frame of mind I am now it would have been a lot easier for both of us. Coming out has made me less neurotic! Did I ever thank you for that?

— Colin you need to remember I was playing the Virgin Queen.

— You don’t understand how I hurt him. You know what Luke’s like. Really in touch with himself, fun, but also maddeningly irresponsible.

— That’s true, but I like him.

— So do I, a lot. But he needs to grow up and that’s the point. My need was the opposite: do you see what I mean? With him I could do all sorts of silly things I needed to do…. Dancing down the back lanes of Darlinghurst doing Barbra Streisand impersonations. It was great! I’d never done things like that, but now I’m afraid I held him back, so I had to let him go.

— I’m sure Luke enjoyed every minute of it.

At the door.

— You’ll see Boy before I do. Tell him hullo from me and that I still like him.

We walk down Oxford Street together. It is strange, as if J does not want to let me go. We have been talking for two and a half hours, more than we’ve talked in years. He seems so open, he who is so often closed off.

— Are you going all the way to Chinatown with me?

— No, I’ll cross here and get something to eat at Raquel’s.

— OK, J. See you. It’s been good. Laid quite a few ghosts.

— Yes, it has been good.

And he crosses when the lights change on the corner of Crown and Oxford, looks back once, and is gone.

September 14 1989

— I miss that man so much.

— I know that Luke.

— I don’t know what to do about his birthday. I phoned but there was no answer. He doesn’t want to see me. It makes me so angry.

— Listen, Luke, he told me to tell you he still likes you. Take it from me, when he’s like this you just have to wait.

Luke cries publicly, there in the Unicorn Bar at 10 pm. Not something he would normally do. Later at the Oxford, trying to be wise I say something like breaking up is a bit like a death and you grieve and…

September 19 1989

I am in the Albury with friends, the usual cocktail hour chat after a day’s work. A cry from the other side of the long bar. It is Luke. Wearing his long white coat. When I go over to him I see his face red and swollen, tears streaming.

— Colin, where have you been? I’ve been trying to find you all day. I have something to tell you.

— What’s wrong, Luke. Tell me.

For a while he just cries unable to talk.

— Tell me.

— It’s going to hurt you.

— Tell me.

A dozen possibilities but not this one.

— J is dead.

Frozen.

— Tell me it’s not true Colin. He’s just run away…

I ring J’s father in Wollongong immediately. “Yes, Colin, J has passed away. He rang me on Father’s Day and said he was going to Melbourne. He obviously did not intend to go. He hired a car and…”

Apparently he died on his birthday.

— It’s true.

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September/ October 1989

We hold each other. Luke spends days sleeping in my room. I light seven candles in St Mary’s Cathedral.

We tell each other stories:
did I tell you when he
he told me that Colin
is there anything that bugger didn’t tell you about me?
not much

Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” has never seemed so good.

Luke, I have lost one friend–please, I don’t want to lose two. Luke outside my door at 4 am having spent the last 36 hours in Centennial Park. He is scrabbling in the little suitcase with purple locks. He carries it everywhere. I saw J carrying it when I first saw him again in 1987.

Did you know J was bashed last year?
Yes, he told me.
So much hate.
You know he told me a year ago he didn’t think he was going to win.
The most he could hope for was to live with it.
So much love.

When the Reverend Fred Nile and his fundamentalists march into Oxford Street set on a bit of cleansing I am out there with the crowd. I wear my Mardi Gras T-shirt with additions:

FOR JAY

Sept. 1961-Sept. 1989

‘Gone where fierce indignation
can lacerate his heart no more.’

AND FOR LUKE
WHO LOVED HIM

Fred has his thousand, harmless-looking folk pushing strollers, mingled love and fear on their faces as they march up Oxford Street.

But we have five, ten thousand voices chanting NO MORE GUILT! NO MORE GUILT!

And my voice is the voice of three, a trinity of love grief and anger, and in me sing J and Luke and I:

We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day
And it’s deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall all be free someday.

And I see his face, a touch side-on, the slightly crooked nose and shy smile, eyes so often fearful, the bursts of anger, the incredible gentleness and my tears choke my singing and a gay man hugs me and says So you’re human after all…

 

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Hour-long phone call takes me back to Chippendale 1985

And much more!

Received on Facebook last Wednesday:

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That was my address — along with several other people — from the latter half of 1985 through to early 1987: Buckland Street, Chippendale, not far from the University of Sydney and perhaps more to the point back then, the Britannia Hotel. It was at the Britannia Hotel (Beaus as it was then) that I met Philip and Dean. Can’t recall the place being called “The Old Bicycle Factory” back then, though it may have been. The photo above was taken by and sent by Philip, a bit of a surprise as Philip now lives in New York. (Dean — aka Charles — lives now in Timor Leste.) You may read an old post about Philip and Dean here.  Observe, Philip on the left, Dean on the right c. 1985/6:

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Clearly Philip and his partner Tim are visiting Sydney. Philip requested my phone number via Facebook, which led to the one hour conversation of the post title. Which remains private, except to say that Philip has done, is doing, remarkably well.

As is Dean, apparently. Dean is also a Facebook friend and we have thus touched base from time to time.

Oh, the name “Trump” did crop up in my conversation with Philip — same page, same page!

M and I shared in late 1990 through early 1991 a house in George Street Redfern too with Philip and another Michael.

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Philip had a nostalgic day last Wednesday, it appears. Here is his photo of the revived Britannia as of 2019:

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When I first met them Philip was turning 21 and Dean was 19. I was not then a septuagenarian, which is just as well as that would make me well and truly a centenarian today!

And speaking of centuries — how about Steve Smith at that fourth test at Old Trafford! Last night, having just watched the somewhat wounded Bunnies get over the Roosters, I switched channels just in time to see that first century. The second one happened while I was sleeping.

NZ calls, plus change in The Gong

Just a couple of more personal items today.

Yesterday while my phone was recharging I got a call from a very long unknown number. The 64 prefix should have alerted me! A couple of hours later, the phone now being back on, a call from the mystery caller. No mystery: the source was New Zealand, and the caller — not Jacinta Ardern (I wish!) but Sirdan, now pretty much established back in NZ. Photos will follow, he has promised.

Just to remind you: NZ reclaims Sirdan. And a bonus:

Surry Hills yesterday. And let me say the Wollongong train both to and from Sydney was absolutely on timetable and not too crowded! So take that, Sydney Trains: a compliment.

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Shakespeare Hotel front bar

…Yesterday after many a year I was there with Sirdan, who now lives in Queensland. He was passing through Sydney en route to a cruise commencing in Japan. B and later P joined us.

Sirdan and Mr R in the Shakespeare 2009: see I remember you well at The Shakespeare Hotel…

Here in The Gong change is afoot. Rumours have been circulating for some time.

The 67-year history of the Illawarra Leagues Club is set to come to an end – as a standalone entity at least – as it stands to amalgamate with Collegians.

Illawarra Leagues has advised members it intends to pursue the amalgamation, under which it will be dissolved, as has Collegians, which will continue.

Members of both clubs will soon be asked to approve the amalgamation.

Since February Illawarra Leagues has sought and received interest from clubs including Wests Illawarra, Steelers, the Fraternity Club, Wollongong Golf Club and Miranda RSL.

Amalgamation documents say Illawarra Leagues will be liquidated as its facilities become premises of Collegians, while the board of Collegians would become the board of the amalgamated club.

Collies would maintain the “traditions, amenities, culture, facilities and memorabilia” of Illawarra Leagues, the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two clubs states.

The new club would also improve and upgrade the poker machines, clubhouse and surrounds, social activities, and food and drink available at the Leagues club. It would also continue its $3000 annual payments to St Vincent de Paul and Illawarra Leagues Social Golf Club….

On August 10 upstairs at the Leagues Club a glass wall was blown in by the wild winds we had that day.

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A sign from the Club gods?

China, M&M, Hastie

Last Friday I found myself caught up in a moderately fiery exchange on Facebook with an old friend, Matt da Silva, in defence of another friend, M, who, as you may know if you are a regular here, came to Australia from China in December 1989. I have known M since July 1990. Matt I first met in Glebe in the early 1980s through the literary magazine “Neos” with which we were both associated.

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Surry Hills Christmas 1992 or 1993: l-r George from Shanghai, me, M — and as you can see, 25+ years is rather a long time!

The occasion was the publication in the Sydney Morning Herald of Andrew Hastie’s We must see China — the opportunities and the threats — with clear eyes. A backbencher, Hastie is chair of the Australian parliamentary joint committee for intelligence and security, and a former elite soldier. He is also a well-known conservative, very much to the Right. His words have attracted condemnation from China — no surprise there — but also from Australian politicians and commentators, not only those on the Left, as unhelpful. Matt’s post began with what I thought a very poor sketch of US/China relations under Clinton and Deng Xiaoping, though to be fair he was perhaps stirring the possum a bit.

It surprised me that M joined the conversation. suggesting essentially that Matt should ask some Chinese people what they think. That’s where Matt’s response stirred me up in defence of M — and I admit I laid it on with a trowel, though I stand by what I said.

The irony is that I don’t entirely disagree with Hastie, at least so far as there is a need for “clear eyes” about China, a point developed in a column I subsequently read in the next day’s Herald: Anne-Marie Brady, “We need to talk about China — why Hastie was right to sound the alarm.” Professor Brady is a China specialist from New Zealand but she does have a history of her own. I have seen it said that she may be a CIA asset! I have no idea really….

Hastie does in my opinion indulge in enough over-ripe rhetoric and bad analogy to justify the exception many have taken to his piece — me not least.

Imagine if you will that the very latest military kit from China fell out of the sky over, say, Wollongong. What do you think our people would do with it? Exactly.

Hastie begins by recounting such an event, much less hysterically noted in Ron Huisken, Introducing China — the World’s Oldest Superpower Charts its Next Comeback, Canberra, ANU E Press 2010. “When US President George W. Bush assumed office in January 2001, his Administration essentially codified the preceding decade of difficulty and deterioration in US-China relations. During the election campaign, the Bush team had bluntly characterised China as a strategic competitor. Once in office, it consciously took a more detached or aloof approach to China, signalling—as befits a sole superpower—that China was an important concern but not especially important. In an early crisis—the collision between a Chinese fighter aircraft and a US intelligence-gathering EP-3 aircraft in international airspace off Hainan Island in April 2001—the Bush Administration conspicuously resisted elevating its significance and pursued a resolution through normal diplomatic channels.” Hastie notes the plane was returned in pieces.

Hastie sees this as “the most significant geopolitical moment of the 21st century” — yes, even more significant than 9/11!

Hastie goes on to liken the belief, once common in the West, that China would eventually become more democratic as economic liberalism prevailed there, to the “Maginot line”, so implying an equation between China and the threat of Nazi Germany, we being protected from China by that comforting but dubious belief. The sunny idea he alludes to was no doubt part of the “end of history” meme following the fall of the Soviet Union and encouraged by the student movement in China.

Now let me reinterpret that idea of a Maginot Line, for the moment ignoring that rarely have apples and oranges been so confused as in Hastie’s rhetoric.

If I were Chinese I might see those militarised islands in the South China Sea as something of a “Maginot Line”, protecting China’s interests against possible encroachments or invasions. (Of course the view from Vietnam or the Philippines would differ.) The century of humiliation before 1949 was not forgotten, is not forgotten. It is in part what Mao was referring to in 1949 when he asserted that the Chinese people had stood up.

Just 30 years before at Versailles the assembled powers had left then impotent China in no doubt where it stood. “The event that ought to have marked a new era for Europe and the world took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on Saturday afternoon, June 28, on the spot where the German Empire had been proclaimed in 1870. Had the treaty been really based on Mr. Wilson’s program, as it purported to be, had it contained a League of Nations Covenant along the lines of the noble conception of its advocates, had one weight and one measure been applied to all alike, there would have been some hope of a European and world peace born in the hearts of men that day…. The Italians and Japanese and most of the small powers had no particular interest in the treaty. Fearing to be assassinated if they returned home after having put China’s name to such a document, the Chinese at the last minute refused to sign…. The ceremony was like a funeral; for a consciousness of failure was present among the signatories. And among some was a consciousness of shame. I talked to two of the principal signatories on the eve of the ceremony, and they told me that they felt they were going to do something dishonorable. Another signatory, representing one of the British dominions, told me on the evening of June 28 that it had been the saddest day of his life.” That is from a forgotten book by a US journalist with excellent connections, Herbert Adams Gibbons, Europe Since 1918, NY, The Century Co., 1923. Good writer too. The contrasting treatment of China and Japan was the sticking point then: consider what was done with Shantung, for example. In China — “The intellectual modernization of China goes under the name of the ‘Movement of May Fourth’, because on May 4th, 1919, students of the National University in Peking demonstrated against the government and their pro-Japanese adherents.” (Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China, University of California, 3rd edition 1969.)

As you know if you have seen or read Empire of the Sun, those foreign concessions in Shanghai and elsewhere persisted until the Japanese war was over and the Peoples Republic was proclaimed. Remember the signs: “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.”

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An ethnic Chinese writer, Len Mei, in an e-book published in 2011, The Last Days of an Empire, has a point. (English is clearly not Len Mei’s first language, nor is it M’s. M also speaks three Chinese languages — Mandarin, Shanghainese and Jiangsu dialect — and now English, which only in recent years has he been confident enough to write unassisted. Bi- or multi-lingualism are not unusual in China.) “It is difficult to separate the China today from the China yesterday,” writes Len Mei. “China’s fall in the nineteenth century was so unfathomable, that in spite of thirty years of miraculous economic growth since 1980, she is still a poor country in terms of per capita income. Only her sheer size makes her an economic giant. After reading this book, you might realize how difficult the task to restore China to her previous prosperity. From my point of view, it would need at least thirty more years. Is China today different from China yesterday? The political system may be different. One can argue that the essence remains the same. The Communist China is by the name of communism only. The Chinese communists cling to communism because it is their mandate of heaven, their justification to hold onto their power. It is the same mandate of heaven that dynasties justified their rules. Nothing that communist government does today is relevant to the communism that it preaches.”

One can well argue about that last point of course, and Hastie does. It is also true that ideologically Xi Jinping has taken the country backwards, though not as far as the years of the Cultural Revolution of which he and Deng Xiaoping were victims. Hence Deng’s invention of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and his famed remarks about the relative merits of black and white cats. But true, China is an authoritarian place — as of course is Saudi Arabia, and North Korea is worse — and not likely anytime soon to adopt democracy.

What M knows from personal experience — and he was last in China just this year — is that the lives of his family in Shanghai and of the people around are immeasurably better than they were, materially and also spiritually, in that however much the government tries to control them travel and access to foreign ideas, including democratic ones, are far more possible now than they were at any time in M’s first 25 years. He can remember the final phase of the Cultural Revolution, and famine (in part man-made of course) when there was nothing to eat but cabbage. As a child M recalls enviously watching his neighbours eat.

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M in China, 2019

Neither I nor M is saying everything is wonderful in China, or that we in Australia need not be cautious in our dealings with Chinese officialdom. Indeed in November 2018 M was in Taiwan and had this to say: “First time in Taiwan, enjoying it! Excellent food ( not expensive) nice weather, easy transportation,the people here so friendly and warm, today on the train a mother told her teenager son to give his seat to a lady who carried a kid and the lady never heard the mother and son’s conversation, I was impressed, people here got good traditional and courtesy, I think Taiwan people a different breed to Hong Kong and mainland Chinese, I feel more comfortable here, they are representing Chinese tradition and values, if I have to choose to live any Chinese city it would be Taiwan!”

And yes, I am cheering like mad, trembling, for the people of Hong Kong right now.

Interesting to read the conclusion of Ron Huisken’s 2010 study: “China takes itself very seriously and seems to be engaged in a quite stunning demonstration of Sun Tzu’s dictum that ‘to subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence’, inviting the world to overlook the evidence about the formidable hard power assets it is determined to acquire in favour of simply enjoying the fruits of its market and trusting in the sincerity of its rhetoric on being determined to become a benign and peaceful new-age major power without a realist bone in its body.

“One does not have to believe that China’s rise is an ominous development to see prudence in questioning its endeavour to ‘keep a low profile and hide its strengths’ until some date in the still distant future. Playing along with this strategy, but also, inevitably, being driven to hedge against less optimistic scenarios, is a recipe for a steady erosion of trust and confidence, and the emergence of a serious adversarial relationship in circumstances of already heightened military preparedness. China is well past the point where any reasonable doubt can be attached either to its aspirations to become one of the world’s dominant states or to its capacity to achieve these aspirations. It could be the case that the Chinese Government’s rhetoric about the sort of international actor it intends to be is wholly sincere. It is the case, however, that China’s system of governance inescapably erodes the credibility of that rhetoric. The policy prescription that emerges from this assessment is to become more persistent and resolute in requiring China to measure up to contemporary standards of openness and transparency, and to create opportunities for China to display its willingness to enter into obligations and commitments that genuinely constrain its policy options.”

How much of that still applies ten years on? See Ron Huisken, Australia–China relations: who’s in the dark? The Strategist 11 September 2018. Do compare some of my earlier posts such as Not forgetting China 30 years on.

Consider too Nicholas Jose, “Tiananmen remains unfinished business for China, and for Australia”, in The Strategist 4 June 2019. Nicholas Jose is fluent in Mandarin and was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987 to 1990. Chinese democracy advocate, Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison in 2017, was a personal friend. “His ashes were scattered at sea, preventing the site of his remains from becoming a shrine. It is hard to believe that one individual could so enrage the powerful Chinese Communist Party. It is hard to understand why China would destroy one of its best and brightest for advocating non-violent reform in legal and constitutional ways.” In the mid 1990s, through Nick, I had the privilege of meeting Liu Xiaobo in Sydney.

Meanwhile the Chinese keep coming to City Diggers Wollongong and eating all our fish and chips! How dare they? No, they aren’t really eating all of them, and they are paying. Helping to keep my meals cheap in fact by keeping the club going.

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Wollongong City Diggers, 9 August 2019

Oh, and this has been written (despite the US branding HP) on my Chinese computer…

Reading: I would still recommend the Chinese histories of Jonathan Spence — very readable and full of interesting ideas and personalities. More recently, I recommend Are We Asian Yet? History vs Geography, Australian Foreign Affairs, Issue 5, February 2019. Note that the seventh issue of Australian Foreign Affairs (October 2019) will explore Australia’s status as the most China-dependent country in the developed world, and the potential risks this poses to its future prosperity and security.

To judge from page 6 of the Sydney Morning Herald 12 August, it appears there is a campaign on. The Peril riding again perhaps? I think I will leave that alone though.

But do read Peter Hartcher.

Will Scotland leave at last?

So, Boris! What can I say? And before some leap on me for bias, I am very much in a “let’s wait and see” frame of mind. But there is plenty of evidence out there to make one tremble for the Old Dart. Read The Ham of Fate, for example, and Boris Johnson’s first interview as a frontbencher tells us a lot about who he is. And Brexit to coincide with Halloween? Dear me!

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My Wollongong friend Chris T, who is originally from the East End of London, revisits England in a couple of weeks. It will be interesting to hear how he finds the place. Meanwhile I have quite a few Facebook friends over that way, mostly ex-students from 40-ish years ago to much closer to the present. One has already written: “Oh Britannia, what have you done?”

Indeed. See also Why is avoiding a hard border in Ireland a priority?