The dreamtime of a ghost-seer – I

A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot

Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn

I

‘Shifty’ may just be the best word for it.  The Cardinal has the power of the Inquisition, but the exercise of that power haunts him.  What happens if that power gets to be used against him?  He is both suspicious and suspect.  Every revolution brings the risk of a counter-revolution.  In the result, El Greco brings you face to face with the magic of art – there is something there that commands our attention, but which we cannot adequately spell out in words.  What, if any, is the difference between this inquisitor and a Communist commissar?  Has this sometime holy man sold out to Mephistopheles?  El Greco is one of my favourite painters.  He comes down to me like Turner – just so far ahead of his time.  His shimmering images reflect the edginess of faith.  But if he was a champion of the Counter-Reformation, what was he doing by investing a prince of the Church with a pained countenance of doubt, if not downright guilt?  I have seen and I am moved by the paintings by El Greco of Christ dealing with the money lenders at the National Gallery in London and the Met in New York.  For me, they are like Mozart in oils on canvass.  (And did El Greco really use his mistress as a model for the Madonna?)  Well, shifty is the word comes to mind whenever I see Vladimir Putin.  It is just as well that he never set out his stall as a used car dealer.

*

Princess Park, the home of Carlton, was, I thought, different as a footy ground for being reputed to be larger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  I have a reasonable recollection of John Lord, a solid six footer who wore number 4 for the Demons (the Melbourne Football Club), kicking a goal from a set shot from inside what would now be the centre square through the goal at the east end – with a drop kick!  Unbelievable.  I think this was in 1965.  (About a generation later, Malcolm Blight would become famous for kicking a goal after the bell at the other end of the ground – from a point not far from the centre of the ground.  Like a certain paint product, it just kept on keeping on.)  The significance of 1965 is that this was the first time Melbourne had met Carlton since Barassi switched from Melbourne to Carlton.  They had won six premierships under Norm Smith before the old brigade at the MCC decided to sack him.  The Demons have not won a flag since then – it is like the curse that descended on the Red Sox – the Demons are the Redlegs –when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  For people of my generation, the move of Barassi to another club entailed a frightful loss of innocence – and an end to the simple loyalty of boyhood and youth.  God only know what we may have done had he gone to Collingwood.  We had had to endure a similar challenge to faith when national heroes of tennis – like Hoad and Rosewall after Sedgman and McGregor– turned pro.  The Davis Cup was tarnished.  We felt diminished – sold out.  We would feel a worse sense of national betrayal when we learned that our government had taken us to war under false pretences.  Twice.

*

My cooking can, I think, fairly be described as Socratic.  That is, I have a profound grasp of my own limitations and failings.  I therefore stick with the tried and the simple.  A friend told me that the first time he tried a béarnaise sauce was the night a well-known cooking identity came to her place for dinner.  That could not happen to me.  For the most part, I only serve meals for guests that I have prepared a day or so beforehand.  Like lamb shanks or ox-tail slow cooked in a low oven in the French blue Le Creuset pot that is an essential part of my life and not just its furniture.  There is somethinguplifting about taking the pot from the oven and lifting the lid and savouring the effect of the heat, the herbs and the wine on the meat on the bone.  Do vegetarians really want to go without this?  The trickiest thing I do is a cassoulet.  Depending on the season, you may find it hard to get one nowadays in Paris.  It was I think Julian Burnside who said that mine was the best he had had south of Lyons.  Well, from a given point in the evening dinner, barristers are prone to a certain level of romance.

*

Wittgenstein said: ‘If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.’  What if he was right?  Well, as I suspect Wittgenstein may have said: In order to consider that question, you would have to ask what was meant by the terms ‘Christianity’ and ‘the truth’.  Neither question is small.

*

We got to Tel Aviv at dusk and took a car to Jerusalem so that we arrived at the King David Hotel in darkness.  We got up the next morning, took breakfast with the big Jewish mommas and some revolting milk, and asked the cab driver to take us to Gethsemane.  (Can you blaspheme by giving directions to a cab driver?)  I looked out the window and saw the parapets of what looked like a castle wall.  I immediately thought: ‘Look – there is King David’s city.’  The recognition was instantaneous, but it came from nowhere.  It was an unnerving case of déjà vu.  It is curious that I get the same feeling at St James’ Park in London, the Tiergarten in Berlin and Central Park in New York.  They are all names to conjure with, but I get an odd sense of belonging to each when I go into it.  Each is like a beating heart to what is deservedly known as one of the great cities of the world.  For some reason, I do not get the same reaction at the Tuileries in Paris, although my reading probably takes me more often to them than the others.  But to return to the cab driver in Jerusalem, at least when I was there those cabbies were reputed to be rapacious – as some that I found in Rio or Prague.  Which reminds me of the time when Gavin Forrest, a partner of mine, and I took a client to lunch at the Melbourne Club.  He was a charming man – a German lawyer working for a very big Japanese company.  Naturally, we joked about not mentioning the war.  We were later joined by a partner, Charles Brett, who was not a party to that preparation in etiquette.  Something came up about foreign cabbies and I mentioned the trouble I had had at Prague, Rio and Jerusalem.  Charles said: ‘Do you know that there is a hotel in Paris that some cabbies will not go to?’  ‘No – why is that, Charles?’  ‘The Lutetia.  It was the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war.’  Well, there you go.  Your whole life until then flashes before your eyes, and you hope that your frozen wide-eyed immobility masks the fearful din within.  Eat your heart out, John Cleese.

Up your north Part 5

V

There is bugger-all at Fitzroy Crossing, and even less at Halls Creek, about 280 ks away.  The River Lodge does however offer good bar and dining service under the stars.  I had been waited on by two very attractive young women, one from Brittany, and one from Montpellier.  (If you were into French more than me, you could brush up on it on a trip like this.)  After dinner, I had sat behind a number of blackfellas sitting in a semi-circle in the bar watching Port Adelaide beat Hawthorn.  They obviously barracked for the former, but I could not understand what they were saying.  I do not recall seeing any drinking between the races.

The road to Halls Creek is dead flat and boring.  Halls Creek itself is a very, very depressing place.  The only alcohol you can get there is light beer.  Asians were running the servo – very well; one rushed to get a Band-Aid when she saw I was bleeding – but the black people look very down and out, and the white people do not look much livelier.  It is the kind of place you just want to get out of.  I would meet others who had the same sad impression.

It is a further 120 ks to the Bungle Bungles turn off and then a notorious 53 ks of bone shaking and water hazard before you get to the Park Information Office, and then about a further 27ks to the famous beehive domes.  The day might only cover 453ks, but it was always going to be a lot harder than just that.  My booking agent at the Kununurra Visitors’ Centre, Florence (a fictitious name), had warned me that the last 53ks might take almost as long as the previous 400.  That was an overstatement – one of a number from that source, I was to find – but this was clearly going to be my longest day.  You bloody bet it was.  In bloody spades, mate.

There is gate across the road just off the highway and before you get to the caravan park there.  A guy was coming out.  As he got to me, he wound down his windows and said: ‘Do you see that guy behind me in the read cap?’  ‘Yep.’  ‘It will cost you $5 just for him to shut the gate.’  We laughed, but I still asked the man in the cap where I checked in.

How would I bloody well know?

Ask your mate behind the wheel – if he waits for you.

So, I entered the Bungles in high spirits, the highlight of my quest, the grail if you like.  After about ninety minutes of punishment I let out a shout of triumph when I passed the National Park Gate and arrived at the Information Office at about noon on the Saturday.

Office shut.  Unmanned.  Complex instructions on how to calculate fees.  No credit card facility for payment.  No change.  Just calculate the fee – I thought it was $50 for my two nights but I may have been wrong – and I put $50 in the envelope, and sought to display the evidence as instructed.  The complex instructions were only in English.  Put to one side the pay as you go issue.  This is supposed to be a World Heritage site and here we are behaving like hicks to tourists that we seek to attract.  You would not this inane rudeness at Iguazzu or the Grand Canyon.

Then I started to get a sullen premonition.  Why was there no sign for the soft accommodation that Florence had booked for me inside the National Park?  My paper spoke of ‘a tourist park.’  It may have been under canvas but it was en suite and with meals and a bar.  I drove about 7ks to the nearest camp ground and found a bloke in a tent who had been living there for some time.  He said that there was such accommodation about 30ks down the road but that there was no caravan park in the National Park itself.

Does that mean that my place is back near the highway.

Looks like it, cobber.

And I have just done those 53ks plus for nothing?

Looks like it.

And now I have to go back.

They’ll be booked out down the road.

Well, well, well.

Or Anglo-Saxon terms to that effect, with unchristian thoughts about Florence.  This was a major bugger-up, not perhaps without some contribution from me for not checking that the accommodation procured came within my written instructions. But at least I would get a beer when I made it back to join the people I may have looked down upon on my way in.

I retraced the 53ks and five water hazards, dangerously more quickly.  There was one notorious stretch of corrugation where I found it was better to boost the engine a little to achieve a kind of skating effect, but I was told later that this damages the vehicle, and you have to be very careful to cut back as soon as the surface changes.  I noticed a few drivers coming in looking like grim death.

I got back to the caravan park just before 2 pm, and, yes, I was booked in there.  So the South African lady who could have worn number 8 for the Storm told me.  She and a French guy with a beard from Brittany – I have forgotten his name, but a very nice guy – were attending to my needs as I informed them of a little misunderstanding  – un petit faux pas – with Florence.  The conversation went something like this.

Am I too late for lunch?

We don’t do lunch.

Well, it will be a slap-up dinner.  With a bloody good red.  It has been a bad day.

You will have to bring your own.

Why’s that?

We have no licence.

[After another reference to Florence] Where’s the next bottle shop?

180ks up the road mate.

[I remember that nice French guy saying that with just a hint of a glint in his eye.]

Well, well, well.

Unless you want beer.  That’s only 120ks south.  But I suppose that you have just come up from there.

And they only sell light beer.

Dinner’s at 6pm.  Do you have any allergies?

No, why?

There is only one meal – pea soup and beef stew.

Bonzer.

Here is the combination to the lock on the zip on your tent.  There is no power, but there is a light.

I take it that means there is no air-con.

Silly me.  It was in danger of becoming a killing field of great expectations, and I started to giggle.  But it took me about ten minutes to unlock the zip, and when I got inside it was about five degrees warmer than outside, which was north of 30.  I had half a bottle of red, but can you imagine what it was like after about three hours on that road in that heat.

The first thing to do was to cancel the second night.  When I went back to the HQ to deal with the South African lady about a refund for the second night and also to inquire about a helicopter flight, I met a guy called Bernard.  Hearing my helicopter inquiry, he offered me his wife’s seat on a flight at 3pm.  It was an hour’s flight, and I said I only needed 30 minutes (which should be true for everyone – you can see a lot in 30 minutes).  I gather that Bernard’s wife, whom I later met, had gone off flying in helicopters, which is understandable, and that unless a third passenger could be found, the price for the other two would be excessive.  I said to the South African Storm number 8 that if she assured me that I would get a refund of my second night – I had paid up front for this deluxe accommodation in the middle of nowhere – I would take the 3pm flight.  The deal was struck.  Everyone seemed happy.  I could salvage something from the day – apart from experience, and some lines to dine out on.   The Storm number 8 even made a little joke.

A little later an Italian lady from north of Milan weighed me in for the changed manifest that I was to give to the pilot, Ben.  Bernie and I allowed Deirdre to sit in the front and Ben strapped us in the back.

We all had a wow of a time.  Ben’s commentary was to the point, and we could ask questions over the intercom.  We went over a lot of cattle country where they muster by helicopter.  These flights, which I have taken at some of the world’s great sights, are expensive but worth every cent.  Apart from the wow, you get to grips with scale and history.

Bernie thought my day had been hilarious – so did I – and thought that I would be carrying all of the white man’s burden for a full twenty-four hours.  In sympathy, he invited me back to his base for a beer.  He was travelling in a 4WD bus group of ten with two driver/guides and sleeping under canvass at each stop.  I met a few of the group who said that the guides were terrific.  They all looked very content around the evening fire, although I may have blanched at the 5.30 start the next morning.  Here was an option for people who do not mind sleeping under canvas and sharing communal facilities.  I have done some of that up there, but, as I made clear to Florence, those days are behind me.

At dinner – 6 pm sharp! – I spoke to a few caravaners and picked up some of their lore.  They clearly have a sense of community and purpose, and I suspect that they get a better social life than people who travel like me – or in a big bus.  A guy at dinner, who came from England, shared a bottle of red at the table, and when I got back to my still hot tent to finish off the shattered remains of my red stock, I could not find a glass.  Perhaps this was because there was a sign saying that I should not drink the water unless I boiled it – but there was nothing to boil it with.  Nor was there power.  I went to the vans and borrowed a glass and had a couple with a convivial group there – who thought it was rich that I had not even been given a glass.