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Without a vision – reflections on The Slap

This week, I want to write about The Slap. Loved the mini series, just finished on television last Thursday. Not a fan of the book, written by Christos Tsiolkas, published in 2008. In many ways, the series was a faithful adaption, and I’m trying to work out what made it so different from the original.

I know nothing about the technicalities of what makes great television. I can tell when acting is brilliant though, and of course much of The Slap’s sheer class is thanks to actors like Melissa George and Sophie Okonedo, who can go from ugly to beautiful and back again with a small tightening of a facial muscle.

I know a bit about what makes good writing though. A dearth of clichés. Characters who go somewhere between the start and the end of the story. They don’t necessarily have to become better people, whatever that means, they just have to develop somehow. Most of all, characters who are complex. Awful people who surprise us with an act of kindness. Decent people who are deeply flawed. Anything more simplistic is unsatisfactory.

Aside from it being a well written and filmed show, what made it so different from the book? Two things I reckon.

First, the characters in the show were nuanced in a way their counterparts in the book were not.

The two most repellent people in the story – Harry and Rosie – are disturbingly violent, one physically, the other verbally. But we are gifted with tiny insights into what made them this way. Even the minor characters – Ritchie’s dad, for example - are shown to be not solely what they first appear. Ritchie’s dad is a boozing sleeze, but is capable of moments of solidarity and harmony with his ex and care for his son.

Every episode was shocking in its own way, but each ended with a softer moment – most between a couple, one, in the case of Anouk, between her and her notebook, her writing dream. The last episode wound up with several tender vignettes of the main players. Even the despicable Harry and his battered wife Sandi are looking with wonder at the ultrasound of their fledgling baby. Maybe this was TV sanitising a tough story. But in my experience, people aren’t as unrelentingly awful as the ones in the book, so the show felt more real.

Secondly – in the series, a mirror was held up to middle Australia in what I felt was a prophetic way rather than a purely depressing and fatalistic one.

The book also revealed a materialistic, crass, utterly self-centred group of people, but seemed to impliy that this is just the way things are and there’s not much we can do about it.

The show didn’t feel like that. Without being moralistic, it felt to me like a thoroughly contemporary illustration of that great line in the book of Proverbs, ‘Without a vision, the people perish’.

Without a bigger narrative to live by, it doesn’t matter how much money, sex appeal, prime real estate or self-righteous anger you have – your life will ultimately be an unsatisfying one.

For me and for millions of others through the ages and in every continent, it is religious faith that provides the bigger narrative. There is abundant evidence of bad religion and always has been – religion that narrows the views and shrinks the heart – but good religion, that helps its adherents to be more compassionate, can be found everywhere too.

The vision doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious one. Something bigger than yourself can be found in devotion to art, to local community, to the environment, to serving people in a different country, to a project. To your own family only up to a point – the crew in The Slap were all devoted to their families. Family is really just an extension of yourself.

We need something though if we are not to be stuck in perpetual adolescence like Harry and Rosie and the rest. If The Slap can remind us of this, it will have given us a profound gift. As well as being riveting television.



The kindness of strangers and the bystander effect

The evening of the day the woman had her throat cut at our local railway station, I got off the train from the city and saw a figure sitting awkwardly on the cold ground. I wouldn’t mind betting that most people getting off at Brunswick were a bit edgy that day, all very aware of what had happened. The lady sitting there so oddly startled me, brooding, as I was, on the violence that had taken place at that very spot just twelve hours before.

I walked along the platform, swiped my myki and looked curiously at her. She looked Italian, maybe in her sixties, and was leaning against the cyclone wire fence behind which old pallets stood in untidy piles. Despite the flowering magnolia just fifty metres away, it’s not the prettiest part of my suburb.

And it really was getting chill. She looked stunned, sitting with her legs straight out in front of her. When I spoke to her, at first she took no notice and then she turned her face towards me but nothing seemed to register in her eyes.

I repeated myself. ‘Are you all right? Can I help you?’

After what felt like a long time she said in heavily accented English, ‘No, it’s okay.’

‘You’ll get cold,’ I persisted. ‘Can I take you somewhere? Is there somebody I can call?’

She looked vaguely at me and blinked a few times. ‘Divorce,’ she said. ‘Very bad. Very bad. But I okay.’

‘The kindness of strangers’ is one of the loveliest phrases in the English language.  But there’s another – ‘the bystander effect’ – that comes closer to how I usually react to seeing someone in need in a public place.

The bystander effect is the phenomenon where a crowd of people watching a crime being committed will do nothing to help. Reading about it shocks me until I remember that I might be exactly the same – paralyzed, rendered helpless and heartless by laziness and fear.

I’m not a bad person. Why is the compulsion not to stop for a stranger so powerful that it requires a feat of strength to overcome it and reach out?

Last year I was in casualty by myself for some hours after cutting through a tendon on my thumb. I wasn’t in pain and I was quite happy sitting there with my book. But a thin blonde girl in towering heels was crying quietly to herself. Every time she sat down, she stood quickly up again, as if that were the least painful way to be. She held her forearms protectively around her belly.

I told myself she wanted to be private. That the last thing she wanted was a nosey middle-aged woman striking up a conversation. But I have no way of knowing that. She was so alone. She waited so long to see a doctor. Why didn’t I go to her?

More recently, I was standing near another young woman on a heavily crowded tram. She was agitatedly trying to open the top half of the window, and once she did, she gulped in the fresh air. She fanned her face with a hand; eventually she slid to a crouching position on the floor, whereupon someone gave her a seat.

The girl was pasty and overweight, with unevenly coloured burgundy hair. As she lifted her arm, I saw the marks of shallow cuts up and down her wrist. She got off at the Children’s Hospital, and I relaxed. But didn’t stop thinking about her.

Why couldn’t I just have asked her if she was okay? I could have told her that if she was feeling faint, it would help to put her head between her knees. I could have put a hand on her shoulder, told her I used to be a nurse, that I was a mum, that I could see her off the tram and help her to wherever she had to go. I did none of these things.

The constraint I experience at these times is a physical thing. It feels as though something very strong were pinning my arms to my sides and stopping my mouth with a gag. I know that’s no excuse.

The kindness of strangers. The bystander effect. Like most people, I am capable of both. But I want to become kinder. I want to be less of a bystander.


A Remembrance Day to remember

Last Friday our youngest turned 18. I have no idea what lies ahead, but all weekend I have been basking in the knowledge that they are launched, our lot.

She took longer to be born than we expected.

My first labour went on for 36 torrid hours, including a midnight ambulance dash through blinding rain from our tiny town to Wodonga where an obstetrician intervened vigorously to get our baby out.

Second labour was pretty routine. Which means, for those who haven’t been through it, that it was akin to medieval torture but at least it only went on for ten hours.

Third labour was brutal and intense and so fast the father missed the birth. So we thought, logically enough, the fourth would be a breeze. But like her sister, she was posterior – turned around the wrong way, her face to my front – and she was stuck.  All through the night of the 10th and the long Remembrance Day to follow, I sat in hospital trying to take in televised military ceremonies as the contractions stopped and started and then came with a vengeance but achieved nothing. When at teatime the doctor pronounced me a pathetic three centimeters dilated, I wanted very badly to die.

Suddenly then, I was compelled to push. Our baby had quietly turned herself around in there, and out she came, alive and whole, perfect and already loved.

I think of this sometimes when tough things go on and on with no perceptible change. I always expect things to get better in an even, predictable fashion, with progress you can measure, like one of those giant thermometers that indicates how much money has been raised for a new kindergarten. In fact, that seldom seems to be the case with the big stuff.

When I had a bad few years of depression in my thirties, I did a lot of painful work and felt as though I was getting nowhere for a long time. The invisible revolution must have been going on inside though, because quite suddenly, something big shifted and colour and joy returned to my life.

This same beloved baby number four who comes of age this week has given us an interesting ride. (And yes, I have asked her permission to post this.) Nothing compared to what some families go through with their teenagers, but just attitude, attitude, attitude, until I thought sometimes I would die of exhaustion.

This stage – no big dramas but relentless small, difficult ways of behaving – can go on for years. It feels as though it will never change. You have a little break-through and think you’ve turned the corner, and then everything goes back to exactly how it was before.

Then suddenly, when you wonder how much more of this you can take, your moody teenager drops out of school, where she’s never been happy, and becomes a different girl. The fights almost stop. She starts to take responsibility. She gets a job, saves money, makes plans. She helps around the place. Better still, she hangs around the place, chatting to her oldies for hours. She is affectionate and affirming.

This week I look back over her lifetime. Remembering the labour which suddenly came right as she turned herself and braved the world. Thinking of all the years between then and now, as I have grown older and she has grown up into this beautiful, funny, creative, loving young woman. I try and capture something of the gratitude I feel for her. But, wordsmith and all as I am, there are no adequate words. Just this paltry attempt to capture the wild ride we’ve been on, and the hope for her presence in my life for as long as I’m around.



Monkey business

I grew up surrounded by monkeys.

Walking past the zoo on Cup Day, I heard what sounded like a bunch of yobs hollering. Surely it was a bit early for drunken race goers, I thought, before I realised it was the monkeys. Their deep, echoing, ‘whoop whoop whoop’ took me back. Way back.

My first home, which I can’t consciously remember, on account of leaving when I was 12 months old, was right on the banks of the Tapti River in western India. Next door was a temple to Hanuman the Monkey God – he of Ramayana fame, who saved the day for the man-god Rama. Food was put out there for the monkeys every day, and the direct route to their mealtime spread was over our house.

My older sister came into the bathroom one day to find a large monkey preparing to fight its reflection in the bathroom mirror. Mum told a story of a neighbour’s baby who was on a verandah in its cot and was plucked up by a monkey passing through, who proceeded to drop it straight back into its cot. Unlikely, I know, but my mum was not one to exaggerate, let alone make things up.

The monkeys in Gujarat and Rajasthan in western India are Langurs. Growing up with them as part of everyday life, you soon learnt to respect them, to keep your distance. They are fascinating to watch, especially the ones with tiny, human-looking babies clinging to their chests as they bound from tree to rooftop to temple parapet, but get close to them at your peril.

The males can be large; their fur is pewter grey; their tails are supple and longer than their bodies; their faces are black and startlingly human. They stare at you, completely unafraid and chillingly fierce. And yes, they love bananas, and they peel them just like we do. And peanuts.

I was sitting with my dad on a local bus one day, stopped at a bus station, munching on peanuts, as we often did. His left hand was held out, full of nuts which he picked at with his right. Suddenly a long, skinny grey arm crept from the seat behind and helped itself to his pile of nuts. We didn’t argue.

Another time I was back in India as a young woman. I should have known better, but I suspect I was showing off to my new husband. We were on a flat roof, surrounded by a troop of monkeys, and I decided I’d hold out a banana for them to take, so that I could get up close, so that he could get an impressive photo.

Big mistake. The monkey that got the banana was happy enough; the rest of the group approached threateningly, expecting their share. My gallant husband had disappeared by this stage – maybe he thought that being a local I would have effective monkey-management techniques. I didn’t, but I screamed, very loudly, and while the startled monkeys were collecting their wits, I made a lightning getaway to the steps and downstairs to safety.

All these memories came rushing back as I walked my little dog past the high red brick walls of the Royal Melbourne Zoo. Of a childhood in a wild, unpredictable country. Of the fierce, bewildered grief at being torn from there and brought to Melbourne in the seventies, where life seemed very bland and dull. Where there were no frightening, captivating troops of monkeys in the streets.


A year in the life – twelve months of blogging

Cup weekend a year ago was when I started blogging. Why? Mainly, it was desperation to get my stuff out there and read.

Partly, it was talking to somebody I respected who suggested that I be less snooty about the new media. That the new technology could be really good for writers because we were no longer entirely dependent on the whims of publishing houses and newspaper editors. 

Partly, it was in response to nice people asking me where they could read more of my stuff.

Partly, it was having seen the movie Julie and Julia and wondering if I could pull off the same trick. For those who haven’t seen the film or read the book, they tell the story of Julie, an American who spends a year cooking her way through the recipes of culinary legend Julia Child and blogging about it. A few weeks in, she writes plaintively ‘Is anybody out there?’ And then her blog takes off. She has hundreds, thousands of readers, she turns it into a best-selling book, there’s a movie…

Did I really think this would happen to me? No, but I was hoping for a slowly increasing audience.

A year on, the best thing my blog has done for me is provide a regular deadline. It has forced me to write something most weeks. Since last November I have posted 40 times, and I might not have done that if I didn’t have an outlet, if I hadn’t had the sense that I didn’t want to disappoint the fans.

The fans, such as they are, have been modest. Readers are lovely, and tell me they appreciate what I put out there, but they are mostly my friends and family. Who I appreciate no end, but I was kinda hoping to broaden my audience. 

The most ‘unique visitors’ I have had in one day has been 42; the same day there were 93 pages viewed. Generally, when I put a post up, I get about 35 unique visitors. Which, in terms of blogs, is probably pretty pathetic.

I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. I don’t facebook or twitter, and I have been told that’s the way to publicise a blog. I’ve also been told I need to have a more focused blog – one that has a clearer, less diverse topic. 

Maybe there’s limited interest in my reflections on my middle-aged, middle-class life, on trying to find depth and meaning in a largely fraught and superficial world. And I guess there is a limit to the number of blogs out there in cyberspace that people want to read. I don’t read anyone else’s blog – why should I expect anyone to read mine?

Maybe the writing is too old school: too long-winded, not chatty or cool enough. The times I have repeatedly tried to get posts on other blogs, I have had no luck, and great difficulty working out quite what they wanted. Their feedback was polite and even encouraging, but just didn’t make sense to me.

Maybe, the writing’s just not good enough.

So, will I stop the experiment, now that I’ve completed 12 months and it hasn’t exactly taken off? I don’t think so. The blog makes me write more, and that’s gotta be a good thing - for me at any rate. I love the discipline of weekly writing. I appreciate hugely the people who bother to read my blog – thank you, and keep doing it if you can bear to. I would love to have a lot more readers – tell anyone you think might be interested to have a look.

I’ll keep at it, and see how it goes.