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Notes from underground Part 2

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In which the Last Person in Australia Approving of Prime Minister Gillard is Exposed by the Media and, Rejected by his Family, Takes up Residence in a Hole on the Banks of the Yarra, where he Contemplates Opinion Polls and his Future.

In this episode, the author describes his association with the Occupy Heidelberg Cricket Ground movement — and PM Gillard's support grows by one person.

By Graham Jackson

[Read part one]

Part Two


5:  Mood Swings


I sense a change in the city’s mood. Not that anyone is rushing in to support the Prime Minister, but the Occupy Heidelberg Cricket Ground movement has begun and brought to this part of the river an eerie expectation. We all seem to be waiting for something to float down on a flood. I’ve noticed there are more ducks on the water, many of them swimming upstream. Even Liberty Albrechstsen flew in to see what was happening, but left soon after with a heavy frown. I had a clear view from the heart of the Occupy crowd, the size of which has been variously estimated between five and five hundred. On the first day the actual figure was seven adults and seventeen children, which I counted and recounted several times.

As to the composition of the crowd and the disproportionate number of children I can make no comment. They all seemed more or less happy, none seemed to be overtly envious, and the sun shone on all of us equally until the more elderly, like me, retreated to the shade of the grandstand. I was recognised, of course, but not made a fuss of — in fact, somewhat overlooked, as if I were yesterday’s bad news. To be honest with you, I was mortified, and had a pang of regret for my brief moment of infamy.

The mood was so equivocal I found myself asking my companions if they were going to swing back in the Prime Minister’s direction. They had a hearty laugh at that. But because they weren’t intending to vote for Mr Abbott either, I was left wondering where their allegiance lay. Perhaps it was to their children, of whom they seemed quite indulgent. At any rate their affection was at odds with what I could remember of my relationship with my own three sons, but they were older, of course, and born in more mundane times.

I wandered back to the riverbank. Summer had passed, daylight saving had ended and left us in shorter hours of nostalgic regret for time wasted in sunlight, and now vainly hoping for an Indigenous Summer. Was this the sense of expectation I thought I detected?

I pulled the peak of my cap down over my nose. Like the Prime Minister’s, it was long and sharp and burned too easily. It also possessed an acute sense of smell, and provided me with many highs and lows in my new life on the river. Although the Yarra was no longer the sewer of earlier times, it still had its moments after a flood. I had family recollections of the river going back more than a century. When rival preachers drove him out of Mount Morgan, the Singing Evangelist relocated south to sing the gospel to tannery workers in Collingwood. The river was certainly putrid then, late in the nineteenth century.

I stopped abruptly on the riverbank. It should have occurred to me earlier, the affinity I had with this Scottish great grandfather. He was an exile like me. With mounting excitement I recalled how he moved on from Collingwood to Heidelberg, where he sang the gospel to Austin Hospital patients. He had something to offer everyone, Scottish Doric for his own denomination, a Cardinal Newman hymn for the Catholic, and Roamin in the Gloamin for those of no particular faith. He sang the last song late in life, before his death in the Great War years. By then he was no longer an outcast, but an esteemed member of the community. Could I aspire to this kind of comeback? What were the prospects of a political sinner? Could I lift myself up like my ancestor? Or would I be condemned like Gamblin Gary Goldfinger to an addict’s fate and a fall off the Manningham Bridge.

I stumbled down to my hole. Was my allegiance to the Prime Minister some kind of addiction? It was another side of the situation that had escaped me thus far. Was I beholden to a one-armed bandit? Could my life be described as an all or nothing bet? My brain swirled like a five-reeled poker machine. I fell into my burrow and, shortly after, a troubled sleep. I dreamt of cold turkey, bitter lemons and humble pie, and when I woke in the morning still had the taste in my mouth.

6:  Alternative Realities


I daresay in the greater scheme of things the Occupy Heidelberg Cricket Ground phenomenon will be seen to have had little impact. But in my own small world, hunched up in my burrow, its consequences might well prove incalculable. The local Occupy movement was, like me, an overnight sensation, but ripples spread out from the most fleeting of touches on the river’s still surface and even a mosquito leaves its trace. Indeed the local Occupy movement was, like the mosquito, a passing irritant council employees had to rake off the suburb’s clean grasses. But still its footprint remains.

I see my metaphors are becoming as mixed as those of Babbling Barnaby, whose state stirs up so many strange brews. The Age has recently reported the fact that a former federal treasurer has been hired by the new Queensland government to calculate the number of pumpkins required to keep its citizens alive into the twenty-second century, or at least the foreseeable future. This is a simple assignment and one for which Mr Peter Costello is qualified to find an answer. He writes for the Age, of course, and over the years has given its readers many justifications for the proposition that he was the world’s greatest treasurer. Be that as it may, even I would concede he has a good chance of counting Queensland blue pumpkins. All he has to do, as I have mentioned previously, is consult the Institute of Public Affairs Sympathiser website, make a note of the number of members, subtract two, and he will have the first part of his answer. From there it’s a simple step to consult a scone recipe and work backwards to the number he first thought of. Even the Reverend Potted Palm could make this calculation, if not in so many words.

Of course Victoria is not Queensland, nor vice versa, and neither should be seen as microcosms of the country as a whole. Nevertheless each is part of this whole, and the views of their respective leaders, Premier Ted and Cardinal Newman, have to be taken into account in any consideration of the future of Australia, and the future of Prime Minister Gillard. She has a lot to fear from these men.

One possibility is that Premier Ted might allow Victorian mountain cattlemen to bring beasts down from high alpine pastures to graze on the Heidelberg Cricket Ground. As an alternative reality, this doesn’t bear thinking about. Nevertheless we’re obliged to entertain it. Similarly we have to consider the consequences of Cardinal Newman ordaining Queensland blue pumpkins and installing them in high office, in much the same way as his conservative predecessor Premier Joh once made bizarre appointments.

How this might impact on the Prime Minister’s vote is unclear. Certainly she would retain my personal approval, but whether Queenslanders and Victorians – even in moderate numbers – might be persuaded to reappraise their options is more unpredictable. Still, coming off a base of zero support there must be a reasonable chance of attracting one or two voters. Of course the country’s psychoanalysts all reject this proposition. They are paid good money to do so. In fact they seem to be paid to reject everything, although I’ve already noted how Missus Grattan has broken ranks and commended Mr Abbott on the issue of trust. Her colleague at the Age, Master Blarney, might agree. Should we take this view with a grain of salt, or accept it as a viable alternative? The good Lord only knows, if you happen to be tuned in to his presence. Otherwise, like me, you will have to trust your own judgment.

My second son Chance went through a teenage faith phase. Perhaps he inherited it from the Singing Evangelist. At one point my wife and I had to seriously contemplate having another religious tenor in the family, against whom (I hasten to add) neither of us would have made any objection, as long as he saved his lungs for his church. Some alternative realities are simply a hymn too far. I confess I’m letting my prejudices loose, but in the confined space of the burrow it’s unlikely they’ll make it up to the surface.

Of all these realities, the one I fear most is being reunited with my family and having to go back to our suburban home. I’m comfortable here underground, where I live by the light of the sun and the moon. And when storm-clouds gather I live by the light of my unique conviction.


7:  The National Broadband


Broadband has been delivered to the riverbank! My eldest son has just helped me install my desktop computer. Of course in these days of iPhones and iPads I could have saved space in the burrow, with a laptop at least, but one grows old and inflexible — to the point of refusing to approve of anyone but the incumbent. Raoul seems to understand, although he’d never vote for Prime Minister Gillard. At least, that’s what he says, but he has a bit of the old man in him and who knows what the future might hold. We’re still quite close, although he wouldn’t have me back in the house. A big man, he needs elbow room at the kitchen table. Nevertheless I know he still values our past, when we learned to skateboard together in the car pool.

In fact, the car pool held my family together. I know it’s the delusion of the elderly that things were much better in the past, but two careers and three children was never a viable option. My wife and I came across this secret by chance – hence the name of our second son – as I always imagined I’d have a career in car pool attendance. But it didn’t work out and in the end we were grateful one of us had a job that allowed time for the boys. Not that my employer was aware of it. Only my supervisor possessed all the facts, which accounted for my failure to find a career path. But that is all ancient history and things worked out for the best, at least as far as Raoul was concerned.

Nowadays careerists and partners are looking for government help with their household arrangements. The Opposition Leader has recently proposed giving each working couple a subsidised sous chef and chauffeur. But can the country afford it? The Prime Minister has scoffed at the notion, and I have to agree, but with her popularity at such a low ebb I fear the day will come when she’s driven out of office by enraged chefs of all manner of status, who will then have the country at their mercy, even here on the Yarra. I can see Premier Ted employing one in his burrow on the farther bank.

Digressions aside, I would like to declare broadband an unqualified success on the riverbank. Once again I’m in touch with the world, even if in profound disagreement about where it’s headed. Is that a paradox, or commonplace irony? I’m sure there’s a psychoanalyst out there who could let me know. I have opinions now from every direction, north and south, east and west, left and right, and can consider them at leisure. Not that it makes arriving at conclusions any easier, but at least there’s an illusion of choice. Billionaire evangelist, the Reverend Potted Palm, has recently preached a strong sermon in his Queensland church denouncing the CIA, which has its fingers in every pie, he claims, as well as in his collection plates. Perhaps there is no choice but the CIA. It’s reported that the American agency also wants to get its hands on beleaguered Australian Senator, Julian Assange. In a parallel universe Mr Assange is wanted by the Swedish Inquisition in connection with sexual allegations. The inquisitors are expected to show him no mercy.

There is no happy news. Most depressing of all is the fact that broadband has brought pornographic sites to the riverbank in speeds I might have imagined in my prime, but now, alas, can only lament in this passing note. In the absence of my usual medication and at increased risk of heart attack, I have to pass these images by en route to more pedestrian pages, like those providing information about the local council’s Waste Recovery Centre. The Yarra is in need of a clean-up and Premier Ted is nowhere in sight.

My computer has also given me access again to my family history, which I now have time to trace in detail. I had scattered information, stray facts and quotations like those relating to the Singing Evangelist. But there are gaping holes in his story. Did he ever go all out for money, like the Reverend Potted Palm? Did he practise faith healing? What were the names of his children? Would he have approved of the way I named my own three sons, or would he have preferred Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to Raoul, Chance and Sylvester?

I now have a powerful tool to help me answer these questions.



8:  Raoul Comes Around

It came out of nowhere, Raoul’s conversion. I hadn’t seen him for a fortnight. Truth be told, I hadn’t seen anyone, or wanted to see anyone while I delved into my family’s past. At the same time I was digging deeper into my riverbank burrow, creating more room for my printouts and notes. With a couple of large stones and driftwood I’d even built shelves. My eldest son had helped me up from the river with the stones before he disappeared.

We never spoke about what happened in those weeks. Much later I wondered if he’d been on the road east to Doncaster, via the Manningham Bridge, and experienced some kind of revelation. Life is more intense in that part of the city, as traffic tries to get on to the Eastern Freeway. In my car pool days I used to receive texts from gridlocked vehicles. They contained such pathos I began to collect them, thinking I could edit and publish a collection in retirement, but the project never got off the ground — just as the cars never made it onto the freeway, but u-turned across the median strip and returned to the pool. My supervisor always blamed me, as if I were responsible for so many people wanting to drive children to school. There were no subsidised chauffeurs in those days.

One chilly morning Raoul simply crawled into my burrow and, without preamble, said he wanted to join me. Not in the physical sense, underground, but in my approval of Prime Minister Gillard. He had trouble pronouncing her name, but his sincerity was clear. I tried to look into his eyes, but his face was shrouded in a hoodie – as it had been for years – and the light in the burrow was all moving shadow. I realised then how little I knew of my eldest son. I didn’t even know if he had job. Perhaps he lived on a disability pension. I could recall in some detail the times we skateboarded round the car pool – once we’d mastered the basics – but after that I remembered little, just a kind of affection for a lump of a lad who was now a large man. Had he finished his schooling, or acquired a trade? By then my time had been invaded by Chance and Sylvester, who, after a gap of too many years, arrived in a rush one after the other. I remember Raoul narrowing his eyes, before disappearing into his hoodie.

But our fondness for each other was genuine. How else explain sharing a bottle of vodka together that morning and swearing allegiance to Prime Minister Gillard. I wasn’t even an habitual drinker, but one of those social types who has too much at the Melbourne Cup lunch and wears a lopsided grin for the rest of the day. After my session with Raoul I have to confess I felt sick, and lay out on a small stretch of sand at the water’s edge. There I fell asleep in the warm autumn sun. My mysterious son had long gone, back to his locked room in suburbia.

What does each of know of our family members? Or of our fellow human beings? What did I know of the personal lives of the 7 Eleven staff who greeted me so cheerily in an inhospitable, early morning, hour? More particularly, what did I know of the political thinking of all of such remote individuals? I only had the statistics of the pollsters, the conclusions of the psychoanalysts, who knew for a fact what the voting intentions of each of us were.

The latest Age poll appeared the morning after Raoul made his pledge. Master Blarney, in a lengthy analysis, concluded that approval for Prime Minister Gillard was holding firm at 0.00001% and I have no doubt he was statistically correct. But one of his readers now knew that, whatever the percentage, the number of the Prime Minister’s supporters had doubled overnight. Had Raoul ever bothered to open a newspaper, two Age readers might have known.

My mind became conspiratorial and enjoyed its hidden knowledge. Surely more revelations would follow, more conversions. Against all my best instincts, I hailed Premier Ted on the farther bank. Suck eggs, I shouted. As they drifted over the water, the words lost their meaning. The Premier waved back, endorsing our riverbank fellowship. Good on you, Ted, I replied.

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