Monday, September 26, 2005

LOOKING FOR DR DEATH

Published in The Courier-Mail, April 2005.



ONCE you leave behind the patchwork fields of cane and blood red soil the road into southern Bundaberg gives way to auto wreckers and car yards and a huge concrete water tower on the edge of the town cemetery.

In another time the cemetery would have marked the outer reach of Bundaberg. But now, with progress, it sits there on busy Takalvan Street like an island of the dead, surrounded by shopping malls and electrical warehouses and strips of plastic bunting.

Through the entrance to the Bundaberg General Cemetery is a pretty archway of old trees, and on either side winged stone angels and marble headstones. Past the Italian crypts and the graves of returned servicemen, though, beyond a line of gums, are the new graves.

These low, gleaming headstones in the western corner form a perfectly neat grid, row after symmetrical row, the most recently deceased exposed and at the front line. These graves face the wind and an empty paddock.

About two-thirds of the way along that line is the grey marble headstone of Barry John Johnson – born 8th September 1946, died 1st October 2003, aged 57 years. The inscription reads: Forever in Our Hearts. Etched into the marble is a green-stemmed red rose.

Barry Johnson shouldn’t be here. He rests at peace beside Ruby Emery, 82, and Stanley Frawley, 76. He’s too young. There was a mistake. It wasn’t Barry Johnson’s time to take his place in the shadow of the water tower.

He was taken to Bundaberg Base Hospital in September of 2003 with pancreatic cancer. And it was there that he came into contact with Dr Jayant Patel. The Indian-born surgeon put off Barry Johnson’s operation for a fortnight, and later performed a bypass rather than removing the cancer.

After four days in the Intensive Care Unit the doctor pronounced that there was nothing that could be done for Barry Johnson. Within 90 minutes of that verdict, the patient was dead.

Barry Johnson shouldn’t be there, between Ruby and Stanley. He couldn’t have known, though, that fate would bring him into the care of a man they now call Dr Death.


*


Across town, on the Coral Coast, is the seaside village of Bargara. Fifteen kilometres from Bundaberg city, you pass through tall setts of sugar cane and vegetable fields before you arrive at the esplanade and the sea.

Bargara, like most coastal Queensland villages, is in a state of transformation. Its main street is full of trendy cafes and restaurants. Construction cranes tower over the waterfront pine trees. There are resorts called Raffles and Manta. Literally sandwiched between these new resorts are old, flaking wooden Queenslanders.

This, too, is the home of Bundaberg’s “elites”, as the locals call them - the doctors and lawyers and professionals of the provincial city.

It was here that Dr Patel had his subsidised residence, in a two-bedroom complex called Bargara Blue. The surgeon, purportedly on a $200,000 annual salary with a car, had an apartment in the rear five-storey tower of the two tower resort.

He kept his apartment spotless, and in turn was a favoured tenant amongst the cleaners. He was known around the building as “Jay”, an Americanised affectation of his real name. Everyone knew Bundaberg’s top surgeon had come from the United States. He talked repeatedly about New York.

Jay Patel was often seen enjoying a drink and a meal down at the nearby Bargara Beach Hotel. He popped in now and then to the 5 Star Handimart for bread and milk. Every day he bought the national newspapers and his treasured packs of Holiday 4 milligram 50s.

In his time off work, which was limited, he liked nothing more than to hire classic videos, like Casablanca. And sometimes he could be seen down on the basalt rocks in front of Bargara Blue, or at nearby Kellys Beach, executing delicate crayon seascapes in a sketch pad.

It is likely he occasionally bumped into his neighbours, such as Bundaberg Base Hospital district manager Peter Leck, or the local Member for Burnett, Rob Messenger, who has his office near the newsagent where Dr Patel purchased his cigarettes and hired his videos.

But the doctor spent little time at home. He was a workaholic, turning up at the hospital even on weekends when he wasn’t formally required. It wasn’t unusual for him to work through to the early hours of the morning, and resume another shift in the afternoon.

Since arriving in Bundaberg in 2003, his rigid routine precluded him from socialising with the city’s other highly-paid professionals. He was never seen at the local clubs like Across the Waves, nor did he dine at Bundaberg’s better restaurants. (At his prior residence in Sapphire on Miller, also at Bargara, he was often seen sitting alone in his apartment and chain-smoking.)

Indeed, his life soon formed a triangular pattern – he either worked, rested and watched videos in his apartment, or ate at his favourite restaurant, the Indian Curry Bazaar, beneath the concrete water tower and near the cemetery.

It was there, in the darkly curtained upstairs dining room, that he held court. He would often eat alone. Or he would invite doctors, interns and nurses from the hospital to join him. At least twice a week he stopped by for takeaway.

At the Curry Bazaar he was respected. He felt at home amongst Bundaberg’s small and yet disparate Indian community. He was a success. Dr Patel earned roughly seven times the average annual income of the residents of Bundaberg, but he never left a tip.

He was, in essence, a classic loner. He never embedded himself in the community. As far as Bundaberg – this small, trusting sugar town of 46,000 people – was concerned, he may as well not have existed. That is, if he hadn’t skewered the very heart of what is important to a provincial city like this. The hospital. Health. Care.

Bundaberg Base Hospital, backing onto the Burnett River and close to the CBD, is and always has been, one of the primary focal points of the town. It was here that Dr Patel established absolute rule. He was rude, dictatorial and totally convinced of his own genius as a surgeon.

Once, after a spell in the operating theatre, he returned to the doctor’s change rooms to find his immaculate Gucci shoes missing. The next day a padlock was secured to the change room doors.

His total self-confidence, his monstrous egotism, was, however, strangely at odds with the friendless loner outside the precinct of the hospital. It was as if he only truly lived when he wore a medical smock and had a scalpel in his hand.

Even as questions were increasingly raised about his competency, and there were suspicions that his handiwork may have even resulted in death, he showed no signs of alarm. It was, in fact, the opposite. The queries only galvanised his belief in himself.

Meanwhile, he was tearing a community apart.


*


One of his former patients, Beryl Crosby, who Dr Patel had wrongly diagnosed with cancer, said: “We’re still asking that one question – how could this have happened to us? This is a community that sticks together in the hard times. Now nobody’s trusting anything anymore. We believe more than 1,000 people, patients, were involved with Dr Patel. It’s difficult to comprehend.”

The degrees of separation between the people of Bundaberg and the victims of Dr Patel are almost non-existent. Almost every second person in the town knows of a victim.

Even in Bargara, where Dr Patel strolled the streets and made his crayon sketches, the people who served him over shop counters knew or were related to victims of his handiwork. A woman in the bakery said last week a friend’s brother-in-law had suffered under Patel. A local clothes store owner said her mother and father-in-law, both deceased, had been patients of the doctor.

Mayor Kay McDuff said the city was in a state of shock.

“Bundaberg has drawn quite a lot of sympathy from other areas in the State,” she said. “I’m appalled that our community has been the one to suffer at his hands. The community mourns for his victims. But we’ve got a lot of get up and go in Bundaberg, and we can move on.”

That shock and subsequent grief, however, is beginning to transform into anger. Despite the government announcing a Royal Commission, the locals are taking matters into their own hands.

With a tragedy of this magnitude, time becomes more urgent and compressed, particularly for the victims. They want a fast track to understanding, to healing.

At the centre of this is Beryl Crosby. Less than two weeks ago she put her head above the crowd and demanded answers. Since then, she has inadvertently become a figurehead for victims. The central beam of support, still standing amidst the wreckage.

In the last ten days she has been patiently compiling the List – the names of bone fide victims of Dr Patel. As of last Thursday, when she held yet another victim support meeting in the John Giovannoni Bar at the Across the Waves sports complex, the List had exceeded 100 people.

It is this, Crosby’s List, that may be the most stark, brutal and accurate document in existence of Dr Patel’s crimes.

“This whole thing is going to get bigger – it’s turning into something monstrous,” she said. “The List. Everyone’s after it. I will not let it go. I don’t want to make these people victims again.”

At Thursday night’s meeting, one women refused to enter the bar because of the presence of the media, and specifically declined to be photographed. It revealed a sensitivity now to the next stage of this drama which is the fight for fiscal compensation. In such a small community, where everybody knows each other, the question of money and legitimate compensation is bound to be the subject of whispers. Who deserves what? Should X be getting more or less money than Y?

Already legal wheels are in motion. Carter Capner have been retained by the people on Crosby’s List. Both Shine Roche McGowan and Slater & Gordon have a handful of potential clients. The word last week was that law firms from both north and south of Bundaberg had arrived in town.

As for Dr Patel, he has vanished. When he left his apartment in Bargara Blue he did so with minimum fuss and in his usual fastidious way. He had few possessions to worry about – two boxes, and a suitcase.

A week before flying out of Australia at Easter, following allegations made in State Parliament by his neighbour, Rob Messenger, he held a farewell upstairs at the Indian Curry Bazaar, with its illuminated picture of the Taj Mahal in the front window.


What started as a modest gathering of about 14 people soon swelled to 31. Some of his colleagues from the hospital were there. Toasts were made. Dr Patel gave a speech, and handed out gifts of bottles of wine. He took photographs of the happy occasion with his camera.

It was revealed, later, that Dr Patel’s guests had no idea it was a “farewell” dinner.

As Dr Patel said his final goodbyes that evening, he would have gone out to his car to make that final drive to his apartment over at Bargara. At the back of the car park beside the restaurant, he may have glanced up at the giant illuminated water tower.

It’s unlikely it crossed his mind that only a few hundred metres away, in the dark, was the cold marble headstone of Barry John Johnson.

THE TROUT OPERA: A Preview

1



THE sheep on the hills froze and stared in the direction of the car, and for a moment the distant passage of the white sedan reflected across the watery films of their eyes like a parasite.

It was early spring, and snow clung to the mountains, and the snow was still deep inside the winds that came down into the valley. The winds flowed from the stands of snow gums higher up and through the blue eucalypts and then over blankets of buttercups and billy buttons until it poured across the treeless Monaro where it ruffled the long fleece of the sheep.

Sheep carpeted the valley and the lower terraces of the hills above the white car. They twitched and ticked and tore at the yellow grass to the dull music of blowfly and grasshopper and cicada, and the gunshot cracking of the giant lichen-bloomed boulders. Sheep like all sheep throughout the High Country, dulled and sleepy and unthinking until those startling eruptions of life - fox fang to underbelly, thunder or fire across the ranges, a car crackling its way up a dirt road through the middle of a valley.

They stood motionless now on the tiers of this amphitheatre, mouths locked and holding clods, pink tongues soiled and wet and twinkling with quartz. They trembled slightly. Some urinated. The car crept past, and by the time the sheep had bowed their heads again to graze, they had forgotten what had happened.

The two men in the car had read the name - Lampe – painted on a piece of tin on the gate down by the main road, and driven cautiously into the valley, through sudden carousels of grasshopper.

"This has to be it," said the driver, his right foot tentative on the accelerator, his city shoes at sea in the country.

His passenger looked out to the swarms of sheep easing up the foothills. They were the same russet brown as the grass, and for a moment it seemed the earth itself was alive and moving.

Grasshoppers clung to the bonnet and windshield and rear vision mirrors and the driver slowed down and still more of them attached themselves to the car, hundreds of them slow and drunk in the pale light, spined legs awkward and wings half unsheathed. Some wings and legs were already cooking on the radiator grille.

"Plague," the passenger said.

"Hmm," the driver sounded.

"Thought it was supposed to be quiet, the bush. This is like George Street at peak hour."

"Yeah."

"Like a bloody horror movie. The boys are going to be real happy back at the garage."

They had left Sydney just before dawn in the government-issue car and had breakfast of bacon and eggs in a roadhouse halfway to Canberra. At the large plastic-topped table in the diner they had studied the files again and compared notes.

They possessed a single photograph of Wilfred Lampe taken in the 1940s. He was dressed in workshirt and trousers and braces and boots and wore a battered hat. In the picture he was sitting on the running board of a car with his chin in his hands, and he was as dirty as the soil.

"We can get there two ways," said the driver, finishing his coffee. His uncapped pen was poised over a photocopied map. "Via Jindabyne. Or the back way, out of Cooma."

"You decide," the passenger said.

"You could show some interest."

The passenger mopped up egg yolk off his plate with a piece of toast and looked out to their car. Two identical grey suit coats rested on hangars in the back seat.

"Of course I'm interested. What is it, another three hours drive? Maybe an hour there, do what we have to do, and four or five hours back."

"About that."

"That's a half day's overtime," he said, dabbing his mouth with a serviette.

The driver stared at him across the table. Adjusted his tie. Returned to the maps and the paperwork.

"We've got to get this right," the driver said.

"And I've got to get back for dinner by eight tonight. Rockpool. You ever been? There’s a week’s pay right there, but what can you do?"

The coats rocked gently on their hangers as the car rounded Lake George. The driver turned the radio off as they entered Canberra. They passed through the capitol, down towards the skeletal flagpole of Parliament House, then south-west, to the Monaro Highway and Cooma.

The driver decided they would take the back road into Dalgety. An element of surprise, he thought. He did not share his strategy with his passenger.

The driver had been instilled with a sense of mission, despite the indifference of his colleague, as they drove through the order and alignment of Canberra. That feeling did not leave him all the way to Cooma. But it began to fall away when he turned the car onto the arterial road towards Jindabyne.

It was the thousands of ancient boulders scattered across the hills and fields, the remnants of some violent volcanic eruption. The driver could not connect with the randomness of it all, and how the weird configurations of granite blocks bore the vague shapes of things he knew and yet didn't know.

He saw the reclining bodies of goddesses and dinosaurs and Etruscan columns and temples, galleons and bridges and lighthouses and batallions of warriors. There were clusters of office blocks and container ships and pyres of wrecked cars. Then there were the silhouetted faces he may have recognised, and those of great figures in history - pioneers, bushrangers, leaders - and kilometer after kilometer of misshapen breasts and cracked heads and other dismembered body parts. In the rocks he saw everything and nothing, and it disturbed a distant part of him. The driver felt pangs of nausea, and attributed it to the settling of the diner eggs.

“Werid, eh,” was all the passenger said.

The sheep were omnipresent. Thousands of them. Eating and shitting around the monuments, their tiny minds unendingly registering the shift from shadow to sunlit grass.

It felt cold in the cabin of the vehicle on the drive to Dalgety. The men could hear the feint grinding of the coat hangers in the back seat.

They arrived at the village of Dalgety before they realised they were in it. The car had rounded a stand of pines when the road narrowed suddenly andthey were there, passing an abandoned garage and fuel pump, an empty tourist park that backed onto the Snowy River, a closed community hall. The driver stopped outside the Buckley's Crossing Hotel.

They stepped out of the car, relieved by the solid forms of the scattered town. The bricks and faded timbers. Glass and lacework. Even the geometrics of an abandoned tennis court down by the community hall, its old clay surface bearded with spring weed shoots.

The passenger stretched, looked down to the span bridge across the river, the sports oval and stockyards that reared onto the riverbank. A few bluestone and weatherboard houses hunkered behind trees on the low rise at the back of the hotel.

"This is it?" he said.

"This is it," the driver said.

The driver went into the pub and bought pies and sausage rolls…. and the two men went down to the river's edge and ate their lunch. They studied the river, silted with algae that collected in rust-coloured skirts at both banks. Further down, beyond the bridge, it forked around deposits of sand and pebble and disappeared into a tangle of blackberry bushes at the first bend. The tea-hued water did not appear to move. Its surface, from where they sat, was covered in paisley plates of rainbowed oil.

The passenger, his mouth half-full of pastry, said, "You're telling me this is the Snowy River?"

The driver chewed methodically and stared straight ahead. "The one and only," he finally said.

They both thought of poems and pictures from distant schoolbooks and of rearing horses dark with mountain rain and a cavalcade of other images and sounds and words learned in another part of the country where great rivers did not exist. It was what made the Snowy River so important to them as children, just to know they had one, a great river, flowing, roaring, somewhere. Everyone had to have a great river. One that coarsed and carved continually through their stories and imaginings. A great river gave strength to a country.

The driver went to speak, then couldn't.

"It's dead," the passenger said.

They sat by the river for another quarter of an hour, locked in the same confused silence, their imagined picture of the river not matching this strangled stretch of water in front of them. The passenger in particular felt he had been tricked, made a fool of by a long line of conspirators stretching back into his boyhood. He was momentarily angry at being fooled. Not at the sad state of the river. He had no concept of permanence.

The publican at the Buckley's Crossing, Jim Mitchell, observed them through the front windows of the hotel. In Dalgety they were used to public servants passing through. It'd been happening since - when? - the early 1900's, when the town was inspected and surveyed as the nation's potential capital. So much for that.

They regularly rolled through again during the construction of the hydro-electric scheme. Now, ironically, they'd blow in once a year to meet with the Snowy River protest groups who wanted them to give back the water they took away for the scheme. The world, he often said, was arse-up.

The driver down by the river, though. It was the first time Jim Mitchell had seen an official Sydney Olympics tie. The little coloured worm of the logo. It reminded him of a Dingo trout fly.

He mentioned the tie to Larry Brindlemere who popped into the pub for a six-pack of beer. Larry dropped by the general store for some fuse wire, and told Bill and Meredith Haskell that the logo apparently looked exactly like a Dingo fly. When Mrs Peat telephoned the store about refreshments for the weekend's performance of Sleeping Beauty in the community hall, she was told of the two men beside the river below the bridge, the tie, and the Olympics logo. By the time Larry had delivered the warming beers to his fence workers, farmers and their wives from Berridale to Paupong knew of the visitors.

Back in the car, the driver studied another smaller, hand-drawn map, and they drove out of town, across the wood slat bridge, towards the ranges.

A few kilometers later they found the gate.

"You know what sort of shape he's in?" the passenger asked.

"They didn't say."

"Does he know we're coming?"

"Why the questions all of a sudden?"

"I'm interested. I'm showing interest."

The driver drummed on the wheel with his fingers. "Not that I'm aware of. This is a get-to-know-you visit, that's all."

"Don't want the old boy to have a heart attack or something."

"Wilfred Lampe has a heart attack," the driver said, "and we're out of a job."

They drove for five minutes through Lampe's valley before they broached a rise and saw the house. The car idled and dropped air-conditioning fluid onto the dirt road. A smudge of smoke issued from the chimney at the side of the shack.

For several moments they looked down at Lampe's home. It was a ramshackle affair, the core of the house lost behind decades of additions, of verandahs and sheet tin lean-to's and tacked on wash-houses and storage rooms of differing materials, all this furred and spiked with stands of cut timber, pipes, guttering, old insulation bats and clutches of home-made fishing rods leaning higgledy-piggledy against the sprawling structure.

Scattered out from the dwelling were piles of bluestone riddled with weeds and rotting tyres and concrete laundry tubs and abandoned machinery. They could hear in the closed cabin of the car the tongue-click of a nearby generator in a shed, from which extended a low loop of black wire to a corner of the house.

The shells of several old cars were parked beneath a huge pepper tree thirty metres from the house, models that stretched back to the 1920s. A tomato bush flowered up through the flooring and around the steering wheel of a Plymouth. The roof of a black, tyreless Humber Vogue was tickled by the furthest overhang of the pepper tree.

Pale smoke continued to rise out of the chimney.

"He lives here?" the passenger said.

"He was born here."

"His whole life he's lived here?"

"He left twice," said the driver. "Once to Sydney, in the 1930s, to find his missing sister. The second, to Darwin, near the end of the war."

The passenger shook his head. "And that's it? Twice? In a lifetime?"

"That's it."

"Ever married?"

"No."

"Brothers? Sisters?"

"All dead," said the driver.

"There's nobody? No next of kin?"

"One. A great-great-niece by the name of Amber Day. Twenty-six years old. I doubt he even knows she exists. We can't find her anyway."

The driver edged the car down the rise towards the house.

It had been less than two months since the committee appointed the two men to find the perfect candidate. Both thought the job would take little more than a week. But they had travelled to every capital city in Australia, to Fremantle and the Dandenongs and Eden and Wauchope and Emerald, visited dozens of nursing homes, hospitals and rural homesteads, one-bedroom flats overlooking the ocean, caravans on patches of scrub, and come up with nothing.

They had investigated personal connections, family and friends, and when that was exhausted, punted on elderly neighbourhoods, eyed old men and women in supermarkets, took notes in the bars of lawn bowling and bridge clubs.

Then someone found Lampe. An old clipping, yellowed, from a rural newspaper, cut out by the aunt of a staff member, sent in the post. Lampe, only five hours drive from the office, down in sheep country, snow and ice country, trout stream country.

They stopped the car near the house.

"And nobody's spoken to him," said the passenger, straightening his tie.

"Correct."

"He might be out."

"Ninety-six year old men don't get out that much."

They sat in silence in the car for a few moments, looking out at the grand disorder, and both wondered if this is how life unraveled itself ; if old man Lampe and all men were like the house ; the original little homestead of clean lines and fresh timbers obscured, slowly, by decades of accretion, until it disappeared.

They wondered if their search had come to an end, here, in a low valley on the Monaro. If the months of expeditions into the country of the elderly - the wafer-thin skin of hands, the open mouths of the sleeping, the perfume of sour antiseptic and through it death, that shape beyond the veil - was over.

It was Lampe, now, that they feared. He was their future.

"Let's get this over with," the driver said.

"Okay."

They stepped out of the white car. They opened the rear passenger doors, removed the identical coats from their steel hangers, put on the coats, and reached inside for their briefcases.

Both men perfunctorily adjusted their Sydney Olympics ties with their free hand.

The driver, out of habit, activated the car alarm, and its quick double beep sent grasshoppers wheeling.






"Mr Lampe?"

They stood on the cluttered verandah of the house, peering through the gauze of the flyscreen. The driver tapped on the wood-frame of the door.

"Hello?"

Beyond the flywire they could see the outline of a wooden table and a single chair. And the black curves of a kettle on the grate in the fireplace.

They opened the door and took a few steps inside. The room was rank with woodsmoke and food smells and they could hear a permanent buzzing somewhere in the gloom. Flies, or bees, or the muffled static of a radio.

Their eyes adjusted to the lack of light and suddenly the room appeared to them. There was a small gas camp cooker on a wooden bench to the left, and a tin sink filled with dishes and cutlery. Beside the sink an old fashioned meat safe. The four panes of the small window above the sink were sealed with sheets of newspaper.

To the right was a wooden sideboard with leadlight in the doors. In the centre of the leadlight were two frosted diamonds. Inside the cabinet, behind the diamonds, was the statuettes of a ballerina, a butter dish, and faceted rose glass salt and pepper shakers. Above the sideboard was a photograph of a faded steer freckled with fly spots.

At the end of the room stood the fireplace. Its sooted mantel was decorated on each side with hand-carved chickens. On top of the mantelpiece was a squat twin-key clock. From the far end of the room it resembled a judge's wig.

Slivers of light appeared between the wide slabs of hardwood that constituted the walls.

The buzzing got louder. It was stuffy inside the house, and the fire licked around the base of the old kettle. The passenger and the driver both felt the hand around their briefcase handles begin to sweat.

"Jesus," the passenger whispered.

On the kitchen table, like objects in a museum, was a single cream-coloured plate, and on the plate three slices of corned beef, bleeding beetroot, lettuce and a mound of chutney. A knife and fork rested on the food. Neatly placed to the right of the plate was a small teapot. Steam eased from the spout. Just beyond the teapot was an open jar of sugar, a tin of jam with the lid pulled back and serrated around the edge, and a bread plate.

The driver flicked his head slightly and they moved through the living room to the bedroom doorway.

Sheets of newspaper were laid out on the bare wooden floor around the bed. They could see the shape of a human being in the old mattress, and the indentation of a head on the single pillow. Behind the steel bedhead, looking out into the room, was the framed photograph of a woman. Her hair pinned in a bun, her eyes large and dark and almost without whites, her mouth a line of pale pencil. The pink of the lips had faded away.

It was the eyes that held the two men at the doorway to the room. They were the eyes of a plain woman looking coldly into a future of hard labour and occasional tragedy. They were eyes that would be unsoftened by firelight, that followed the crazed stitching of sheep tracks in dew all the way to the distant mountains, and could detect the onset of snow. Eyes that were prepared for everything, out there, in the world, beyond the slab house in the valley.

The stench the room held was almost unbearable.

"Let's try out the back."

The buzzing had entered their heads and they could feel flies or bees brushing their suit jackets or the hair of their wrists and their skin crept at the touch. They passed down a narrow hall to a washroom at the back of the house then re-entered the blinding sunlight of mid-morning.

'He's not here," the passenger said, breathing deeply. "Let's go."

"But the fire. The tea."

They stood together on the back staircase and when their eyes adjusted again they looked over a waist-high field of weeds and grasses. The sunlight illuminated dozens of tiny dandelion globes.

From the stairs the driver could see the end of the valley, a pinched cul-de-sac of boulders and dead timber and what appeared to be the charred remains of a hut, its long-fallen roof struts and slab walls fallen around a corrugated iron chimney.

This place, the driver thought. It was too lived in. As with people, places too had a finite life. Lampe's valley, the soil, the car bodies and the trees, were at the end of a long cycle. The driver could feel it, and smell it in the air. A decay that attached itself to the fine fibres of his suit.

"He's not here," the passenger repeated.

But neither of them could escape the fact of the meal on the kitchen table. And the steam. The life of the steam.

"I'll check in the shed," the passenger said.

He disappeared around the side of the house. The driver didn't move. He could feel cold metallic sweat collecting under his arms. Up on the hill to the east, he could see a handful of sheep looking down at him. A sudden breeze rattled the dandelions, and he could feel the cold working its way inside his suit, and then he heard a human moan.

"Lampe?" he said, almost to himself.

He stepped down into the yard. The weeds reached up to his black leather belt.

"Mr Lampe"

He waded through the weeds. Spore clung to his trousers and unseen nettles bit his socks and cuffs. The weed stalks hissed with his movement.

A flash of colour. He saw it. Red. Thirty feet away. He walked faster, towards the patch of red.

The driver was less then ten feet away when he saw the old man, laying on his side, a spotted hand clutching at vivid green weed stalks and grass. His eyes were open and milky at the rims. His white hair dishevelled and flecked with seeds and spore. One of his braces had slipped from his shoulder. His red checked shirt, buttoned at the neck, pulled tightly at his throat.

A dark line of beetroot juice stained a deep wrinkle that ran down the left side of the old man's mouth.

"Christ." The driver dropped his briefcase and knelt down beside Wilfred Lampe. He put a hand on Lampe's arm, and brushed the hair off his forehead. Then, without understanding, he nursed the old man's head.

"Get a fucking ambulance," the driver shouted into the valley.

They were two men from different ends of the century, inside a womb of weeds, both of them held in a halo of insects.





When the helicopter lifted from the earth and hovered above his property and then moved out across the Monaro Wilfred Lampe knew two things ; that he was dead, finally, and that he had at last solved the greatest riddle of his life.

That death, and the solving of the riddle, should coincide, registered no surprise within him. They were a single occurrence. It was as it should be.

He was, at last, inside the mind of his beloved trout. A place he had tried to enter for almost ninety years. With this, the rising from the earth, he was seeing with their eyes.

Lampe could see patches of blue sky and could feel a strong vibration running through his body but could hear nothing. He suddenly felt very cold. He was rising. Rising. Seeing, as he knew trout did, through the surface of the water to the outside world. And seeing, simultaneously, the river stones, the reeds, the submerged logs, even a clear picture of himself, reflected back off the underside mirror of the river.

Shadowy figures hovered over him, blocking and unblocking the sky, and he knew immediately these were little puffs of cloud crossing the sun, or pieces of timber rushing down the river with the snow melt, or maybe the odd specimen of human detritus that occasionally found its way into the Snowy. He had, as a boy, seen a steamer trunk sail past under the Dalgety Bridge.

He could see himself interrupting his lunch of cornerd beef and beetroot. Remembering an old washing machine motor out by the back fence, he had risen with the aid of his cane and set out to find it. Might yield a part or two, he thought, to fix that dodgy generator. He caught a toe in some undergrowth, and had gone down into a bed of weeds.

I feel no pain, he thought, looking up into the luminescent cathedral roof of arced stalks. They always said the Lampe's were made of wire, didn't they? But he was so tired, as wire, too, gets tired, and funnily, as he lay there in the soft grass, he thought of his tea getting cold on the table. The sweet hot tea cooling inside the teapot, and then the metal of the pot cooling down, and the fire in the grate sputtering to nothing, then the coals cooling, and the big black kettle becoming cold as the granite in the fields at night.

Wilfred Lampe could see all this as his body vibrated and he rose higher.

He was happy, now, to be dead, having solved the riddle. For ten years he had gone to bed each night no knowing if he would wake up. He was comfortable with that. In the room he had been born in, with his mother looking over him.

How they had pushed him to go into the nursing home at Berridale. Wilfred Lampe had not been to Berridale since 1927, when his grandfather had died, and they had gone to bury him, and sell the orchard, and remove his giant hive of Italian bees. They told him he had a friend in the nursing home in Berridale. Cecil Sweetwater. Do you remember Cecil? You were quite a duo. But he didn't remember Cecil Sweetwater. Only lying on his back in the orchard, his belly filled with raspberries and plumbs, looking up into the heavily laden fruit trees, the colours like fireworks.

I'll die at home, he told them. I don't want to die sitting in an armchair with Cecil Sweetwater in my ear. Who's Cecil Sweetwater?

They came out to the valley to check on him. In 1983 the area constable restricted his license to a 20-kilometer radius from Dalgety. They reduced it to ten kilometers in 1993. That just got him from the front gate into town, to the General Store or the Buckley's Crossing Hotel, or Our Lady Star of the Sea on the hill. They had joked with him. If Haskell's store was a bit further up the main street, Wilfred Lampe would starve to death. He hadn't driven the Humber Vogue in a year.

He caught glimpses of the sky. And could see everything reflected back to him.

Dorothea's face appeared. You said you'd come back. You promised. When I ran along the platform at Cooma, and you pressed the bunch of wildflowers I gave you against the glass carriage window, you mouthed - I promise. I waited, though. More than sixty years. I waited. And now I can see you clearly. Now you're with me again.

The rising. Wilfred Lampe was rising to the surface.

The old man's body vibrated as the helicopter peeled away from Lampe's property, threw wave after wave of warm air at the earth, sending grasshoppers into violent and unfamiliar patterns of flight, scattering the attendant sheep, shaking the ramshackle house, the china ballerina trembling in its cabinet, rusted nails aching in the roof, the smoke from the dying fire dissipating in a dance of madness. The pepper tree was lashing itself, cutting itself up, and the smell of pepper infused the air. The whole valley beat like a heart.

Across the rise Tom and John Crisp were the first to hear and then see the helicopter arrive and then leave. They had no thoughts on it, because they could not comprehend it.

Larry Brindlemere and his fence workers were sitting on bales of wire, finishing their beers, when they heard the thud of the rotors. They stared silently in the direction of the sound, unmoving.

Mrs Peat heard it also, taking a tray of golden scones from her Kooka. She was pleased with the hue, and could already see them neatly arranged in their wicker baskets during interval at the performance of Sleeping Beauty. She placed the hot tray on a bench and cocked an ear. She didn't remove her hen-faced mittens.

Jim Mitchell was halfway through fitting a new keg when he heard the helicopter. He stepped out onto the verandah of the hotel, leant on the railing and checked the sky. He saw nothing but clouds as thin and ordered as fish bones.

Down on the river, a few kilometers from Dalgety Bridge, Bill Hourigan had just found a nice spot on the river bank where the Snowy fluted into a narrow pool. He had fished the river all his life, had never seen it so anguished. It was harder to find the pools. The whole river was being squeezed out, to the sea.

He knew on this day he would catch nothing. He hadn't landed a decent trout in several years. But he loved working the rod and line, he loved the rhythm of it, now that he was alone and getting old and the children had moved away.

Bill Hourigan checked the flies he had made at the kitchen table that morning and had just begun casting, his shoulders and arms and wrists aching, not yet used to the action, when he heard the helicopter and, looking over his right shoulder, saw it lift into the air above what must be the old Lampe place.

He stopped casting, let the fly drift on the water's surface, and watched as the helicopter banked and headed towards the south of the town and right over him, over the sole fisherman beside the pool. The shadow of the helicopter darted over the silt and pebble and pool and the fists of blackberry bushes and then it was gone.

They would all know, soon enough, that Wilfred Lampe broken through the surface, been hauled up and into the sky, and disappeared.





The old man woke up in a white bed with white sheets tucked up across his chest in a small white room.

It was night and the room was dark. There was one window on the right wall of the room.

He knew he was dead. That it was all over. That this was death, this feeling of being half asleep, and half awake. He could smell citrus.

A pale, milky light was reflected through the window and onto the white wall in front of him. Sometimes, long ripples of sharper light moved down off the ceiling and across the white wall.

He recognised them. They were ribbons of sunlight through the water of the river. He was in the cool waters of the river, and he could see everything and everyone reflected back on the silver plate of the surface.

Wilfred Lampe closed his eyes.


DVD ADDICTION: The Perils of The Waltons

ONE recent sunny afternoon I stood motionless in the middle of Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall staring perplexed at a DVD box set of The Waltons: The Complete First Season in my hand.

How had it gotten there, this box, with its warm sepia cover photograph of John-Boy and Jim-Bob and Grandpa Zeb somewhere deep in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia? What was it doing in my hand, this endless compendium of cornball, sugar-dusted, moral-riven Depression-era schlock about innumerable people with hyphens in their Christian names and the backsides out of their overalls?

Unbelievably, I had purchased it. I had, once again, entered the Bermuda triangle of a DVD store, and come out the other side with – of all things - The Waltons. Instinctively, I understood even as I took it to the cash register that I would never watch it – twelve or more hours of the complex family architecture of Mary-Ellen-Bob and Grandma Olivia-Bob and Erin-Bob and Ben-Bob.

It was then I knew I was a full blown DVD addict or, in the case of The Waltons, an Addict-Bob.

Addiction is complex. One definition declares it is “a state of being dependent on a certain substance which is harmful or dangerous for the physical or mental health of a person, for his social well-being and economical functioning”.

The storylines alone in The Waltons’ first season could surely be categorised as “harmful or dangerous for the physical or mental health”. For example, in An Easter Story: “Olivia contracts polio but vows to walk by Easter morning.” Or The Calf: “The youngest Walton children grow attached to a bull calf that John is determined to sell.”

Even just reading the synopses, I’m already rooting for the bull calf, hoping it somehow gets off Walton’s Mountain and away from these despicable people who take several hours to say goodnight to each other each evening before blowing out their paraffin lamps and homemade candles. By the time the wizened Grandma Olivia gets around to bidding everyone a good evening the cocks are crowing at dawn and the whole wretched cycle starts again.

Any self-respecting psychologist might say I am “transferring” the self-loathing of my addiction to a gaggle of fictional television characters. It is not the Waltons’ fault. I have no right to grit my teeth at John-Boy’s enormous facial mole, nor the gap in do-gooder Pappy Walton’s teeth which, to my ears, issues a C-sharp each time he reads Bible passages to his all-American apple pie clan.

Is it their fault that I have several unwrapped DVD’s in my collection, untouched and unviewed? What does Walton Mountain have to do with my excitement at finding Zorba the Greek (Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, 1964) on DVD, rushing home and realising I had already bought a copy months earlier? It’s enough to make you choke on Grandpa Zeb’s corn pipe.

No, the addiction is mine alone. Not just single movies on DVD, Collector’s Editions, Gold Editions or Director’s Cut Editions, but the Box Sets. The Box Sets (hence The Waltons) send me into a peculiar delirium. The thought of advertisement-free television, hours of it, tickles my cathode ray tube.

I’m not the only one. There are websites for active and recovering DVD addicts. A recent chatroom in the US posed the question – You know you are a DVD addict when…. One fellow sufferer confessed: “…at Easter, instead of hunting for eggs, you hunt for all the DVD’s you’ve hidden in fear of your significant other finding out how much you’ve spent.” And another: “…you are watching a movie in a theatre and catch yourself trying to pause it.”

It is too early to gauge the social impact of DVD addiction. It’s a relatively recent illness. The first DVD players were sold in Tokyo in late 1996, and only launched in Western Europe in May 1998. Last year, almost half of Hollywood’s revenue came from the home entertainment market, and primarily the DVD.

It was estimated that in 2004 there were 42,500 DVD titles available in the US. A conservative calculation revealed it would cost well over $A1 million to purchase a single copy of each. Like any decent addiction, it can be expensive.

But how to stop? The Waltons: the Complete First Season will now sit in my collection beside the complete first seasons of Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space. These jostle for shelf room with five Carry On collections and the first and second seasons of Kung Fu (“Ah, glasshopper!).

Is it a clinging, in part, to the innocence of childhood television viewing? Or to films that as a child seemed so shocking, profound and memorable? What else could explain my greedy purchase of Soylent Green (Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, 1973), that seemed so spectacular at the time?

Revisiting it, how could this sensationally tacky narrative set in 2022 New York where the masses are hungry and the government turns old people in edible little square biscuits possibly be appealing to the grown me? (Although the thought of some acquaintances coming back in another life as a Cheese Shape or Iced Vo Vo does have its perverse attraction.) This is one huge downside to DVD addiction – the pleasures of distant memory being head butted by contemporary reality.

Yet the collection continues to grow.

My therapist has recommended a mantra, said each night before beddy bye time. Goodbye Box Sets, I have to say. Goodbye Complete First, Second and Third Seasons. Goodbye Director’s Cut. Goodnight John-Boy.
Oh-boy. This is not going to be easy.

Friday, September 23, 2005

HIROSHIMA: 60 Years On

OF THE BOMB

PUBLISHED in the Griffith Review # 9: Up North, edited by Julianne Schultz, August 2005.


HE was a small old man and he sat alone in the trolley car.

It was late July and very warm and the tram was making its way through the southern suburbs of Hiroshima to the ferry terminal for the sacred island of Miyajima.

The old man wore a large, floppy brimmed canvas hat and a beige safari suit. His brown lace-up shoes were neatly placed side by side. He cradled, in his lap, a little carry bag.

He had been watching me since I boarded the tram near the A-Bomb dome and sat on a bench opposite him. As the trolley car emptied, stop by stop along route 2, he continued staring through his pair of enormous, thick-lensed spectacles.

On occasion I glanced at his kind, worn face, and realized there was something not quite right with it. It was not something immediately obvious, but it was curiously out of alignment. His left eye was smaller than the right, the difference exacerbated by the thick spectacle lenses.

The cheekbone, too, below the pinched eye, was flat, in defiance of the other across the bridge of his nose, which was round and full. It looked, to me, like a face that had suffered an accident a long time ago, and the imperfections were a far away, on the horizon of a long life.

At one point, it was just me and the old man in the trolley car, and this was when he rose slowly and sat beside me.

“Where are you from?” he asked. His voice was thin and his English heaviloy accented but clear.

“Australia,” I said, turning to him.

He stared down at the carry bag in his hands.

“Are you a soldier?” he asked.

I laughed at the unusual question. “No,” I said.

“I remember the Australian soldiers in 1945,” he said, “with the hats.” He folded up one side of his canvas brim, making an impromptu slouch hat. “Very nice,” he said, smiling.

Australian soldiers had taught him to speak English at a school in Hiroshima, he said, after the war. He was born in 1928, and had been a “ship man” when he was younger. He gripped an imaginary ship’s wheel with his old hands and motioned to steer from left to right.

Then he said, unexpectedly: “I am of the atom bomb.”

He rummaged in his carry bag and I noticed that the texture of the skin on left hand was very smooth, an oddity consistent with his eye, and his cheekbone. He was an old man divided into two sides.

Eventually he produced a thick blue booklet, the size of a passport. I had read of these books, carried by A-bomb survivors. They were medical record books.

“I am going to the hospital,” he said, holding up the book. “Every week I go to the hospital.”

He tapped his knee with the book before returning it to his bag.

“I was visiting Hiroshima on that day,” he said, recalling August 6, 1945. “The atom bomb. Wooosh.” He raised a bunched fist and flicked his hand open to indicate the explosion.

He looked at me with that crooked face and smiled again.

“I am of the atom bomb,” he said.



*


I had come to Japan to retrace the steps of the legendary Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett.

As a young reporter I had known of Burchett for a singular achievement – he was the first Western journalist into Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb.

In the 60 years since Burchett filed his famous report, The Atomic Plague, for the London Daily Express, it has probably remained the greatest individual newspaper “scoop” of the 20th Century, and into the millennium.

It’s impossible to know now to what degree Burchett was writing for history, but you get the feeling, from the opening line, that the young reporter from Victoria had an eye to posterity. “I write this as a warning to the world.”

Burchett was almost 34 years old when he made his incredible solo journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima to bring the facts of the bomb’s devastation to the world, as he put it.

At tremendous risk to his personal safety, he took the long train journey south in defiance of United States orders that Hiroshima be off limits to the press. He travelled in that delicate period between the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and Japan’s official surrender.

It struck me, as a journalist and a novelist, that this act was the stuff of dramatic fiction, and that one day I would write a novel about this incredible chapter in Burchett’s life.

The story had everything – war, flight, danger, heroism, and at the centre of it all one of the defining moments in human history. I made some cursory notes.

Years later, I was browsing through a second-hand bookshop at a Gold Coast flea market when I came across an extremely battered copy of one of the prolific Burchett’s polemic books – This Monstrous War. The book dealt with the Korean conflict.

By now I knew more about Burchett’s life, his evolution into a “radical” journalist, and his ability to polarise readers, colleagues, even governments. He was accused of being a Communist spy, a traitor, a fabricator. His own country, for a time, refused to grant him a passport and entry into Australia. Since Hiroshima, his reputation had wobbled and stumbled.

I developed a theory, too, that the impact of what Burchett saw in Hiroshima, and the scoop itself, changed something inside of him. That the dropping of the A-bomb was a schismic moment for mankind, and also for the psychology of Burchett.

The theory had no basis in fact. It was the fancy of the novelist, trying to find a way into the head of an undeveloped character.

Then, when the Iraq conflict broke out post-September 11, and the world witnessed the manipulation of the media by the superpower that is America, and truth, as they say, became a casualty itself as the war rolled on for months, and then years, I kept thinking of Burchett and Hiroshima.

In that instance, his entire purpose was the pursuit of truth. It was a dangerous, renegade act (often the prerequisite for defining moments) for which he was later vilified. It went to the very definition of reporting.

In the context of the contemporary world, I thought of Burchett and that warm September in 1945 when he walked through the ruins of Hiroshima with his notebook, and felt that something had been lost. That we’d mislaid something very important about, or within, ourselves.

After I’d purchased This Monstrous War for a single dollar, I didn’t realise until I got home that the book had been personally inscribed by the author himself. His best wishes and signature were scratched onto the title page in blue ink some time in the 1950s.

When you begin a writing project you accept, beyond logic or reason, all manner of superstitions, totems, coincidences and signs. I liked the idea that Burchett had autographed his book to a stranger. And that maybe that stranger was me, albeit half a century later.

It was time, I thought, to pick up Burchett’s trail in Japan.




*





BURCHETT first heard of the dropping of the atomic bomb as he waited for lunch in a US military cookhouse on Okinawa.

As he wrote in his autobiography, At the Barricades: “On August 6, 1945, I was shuffling along in the chow line for lunch with fifty or so weary US marines…The radio was crackling away with no one paying much attention to it – as usual. A note of excitement in the announcer’s voice as the cook’s aide dumped a hamburger and mash on my tray prompted me to ask what was new.”

He was told a “big new bomb” had been dropped on the Japanese. Burchett strained to listen to the voice on the radio and learned of the A-bomb. “I made a mental note that Hiroshima would be my priority objective should I ever get to Japan,” he wrote.

Within a fortnight he was on board the USS Millett which landed at the Yokosuka naval base. Accompanied by US correspondent Bill McGaffin, he immediately caught the first train into Tokyo. He was already contemplating how to get down to Hiroshima.

They learned that some journalistic colleagues were staying in the Imperial Hotel. Burchett and McGaffin tried to get a room at the Dai Ichi – the “only other nearby hotel still standing”.

The 600-strong press corps was focussed on covering the surrender ceremony on board the Missouri on September 2. But Burchett was looking in the opposite direction – to Hiroshima.

He wrote in his autobiography: “With the aid of my (Japanese) phrase book I was able to get to the Japanese official news agency (Domei in those days) and found that a train still went to where Hiroshima used to be.

“This was a great surprise because journalists had been briefed for months that the Japanese railway system had been brought to a halt….The journey would be long, difficult to say how long. Nobody, I was warned, went to Hiroshima.”

On the night before he left the Yokosuka base for Tokyo and then Hiroshima, fellow Australian newsman Henry Keys gave Burchett his .45 pistol.

By 6am on the day of formal surrender, Burchett was journeying south. In the early hours of September 3, he stepped off the train at the shell that was Hiroshima railway station, and into history.



*



LEGENDARY foreign correspondent Murray Sayle, who spent much of his life in Japan, did his best to prepare me for my Burchett trip. I had been put in touch with Sayle courtesy of that other great Australian expatriate journalist, Phillip Knightley.

What I learned, on arrival in mid-July last year, was that you cannot really prepare yourself for Japan.

Flying in at dawn, the sight through the aircraft porthole of Mount Fuji dusted with pink light only accentuated a feeling of remoteness. It didn’t look real.

It was not the fault of Mount Fuji, perhaps the curse of modern travel in an age of ceaseless images and advertising, of icon bombardment and the cultural hijacking of the world’s most beautiful and recognized features. Framed in the perspex window, it could have been a cardboard postcard.

I arrived in Tokyo at morning rush hour, and eventually made my way to my small, neat lodgings not far from the Imperial Palace on Sayle’s recommendation, the Tokyo Family Hotel.

The foyer was, strangely, reminiscent of something you might find by the English seaside, all dark woods and lace drapes and a cluttered front desk. The room was not unlike a narrow ship’s cabin, and yet contained everything you’d expect of more expansive hotel accommodation, just in miniature. I was in a very big city in a very small room.

On that first morning I walked to the Imperial Hotel, not the original which opened in 1890, nor the second incarnation made of volcanic rock and terracotta designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1920s, but the third, a mélange of 70s and 80s highrise towers.

A few blocks away stood the Dai Ichi, but again nothing Burchett would have recognized.

“The manager, gazing at us as if we had dropped from the moon, explained that the hotel was full and ‘uncomfortable’,” Burchett reminisced of 1945.

The Dai Ichi, like the Imperial, was now ultra-modern and reached into the sky. With some difficulty I asked the manager if he possessed any published history of the hotel, and after much effort he handed me a contemporary brochure highlighting the hotel’s many fine facilities.

At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, I was granted a Guest Card for the period of one month and was offered use of the library facilities. There, journalists from around the world sat and read newspapers in that half-leisurely, half-alert manner that most journalists read newspapers.

It wasn’t possible, again in a modern highrise, to imagine the street-level world of Burchett and his colleagues at the end of the war, with most of Tokyo leveled to the ground courtesy of General Curtis Le May’s B-29 bombing raids on the city.

Nor the bonhomie at the bar in the Imperial, or the meals they shared in the remaining hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the city’s central hub.

I returned to the ship’s cabin, drained by jet lag and the fierce summer heat, and was woken in a daze around 5pm by the woman in the Tokyo Family Hotel who delivered fresh tea to the rooms at the same time each day.

I had lost all sense of time and place, and felt that sensation many times in Tokyo. It was so huge I was incapable of settling a mental map of its dimensions in my head.

Yet simultaneously it was intimate – the cabin-like room, the hundreds of simple courtesies extended by its citizens both out in the streets and within the Family Hotel, the effortless efficiency of everything that promoted the illusion you were in a city a tenth of its actual size.

It was only at night, with the crowds and the lights and unremitting energy, that the illusion evaporated, and you knew you were somewhere that was like nothing else on earth.

A week later I took a seat in carriage 15 of the Shinkasen Nozomi Super Express bullet train bound for Hiroshima. The trip was scheduled to take just on four hours.

In early September of 1945, Burchett estimated the same journey would take him between 20 and 24 hours.



*





BURCHETT was not unused to rough conditions.

During the Depression he “took to the road” with a swag in search of work. He found himself near Mildura, where he lived for six months “under an outsize gum tree at Bruce’s Bend, a big curve in the Murray River”.

He wrote: “I lived by catching fish, exchanging the surplus from my own consumer needs for flour and salt from a nearby shop, eating grilled Murray cod and catfish and damper…”

Burchett reported that the train he boarded that morning in Tokyo at 6am was carrying members of the Japanese Imperial Army, many having just been demobilized. He shared cigarettes with them and they reciprocated with pieces of dried fish and sake. The seated officers in the compartment had swords on their belts.

One of his fellow passengers was an American priest. The priest’s job was to instruct American troops on how to behave in Japan at this delicate time of surrender so as to avoid offending the locals.

The priest warned Burchett “that the situation in our compartment was very tense and that a false move might cost our lives. The officers were furious and humiliated at their defeat. Above all, I must not smile as this would be taken as gloating over what was happening aboard the Missouri.

“Watching those glowering officers toying with the hilts of their swords and the long samurai daggers that many of them wore, I felt no inclination to smile, especially since the train was in complete darkness when we passed through what seemed like endless tunnels.”

What exactly was going through Burchett’s mind on that interminable journey? His own personal safety? How he could ultimately file his story out of Hiroshima, if at all? The atom bomb itself?

Murray Sayle presented me with a theory: “At the time the simple fact of going there was the big scoop for…Burchett of the Daily Express and showed courage and initiative - he just bought a ticket, got on the train and went.

“Sort of thing a later generation of war reporters did all the time and not nearly as risky as his later exploits in Korea and SE Asia. WW2 was officially over, you will recall and Burchett had a US Navy accreditation which kept him outside the purview of the US Army censors.

“Tokyo was in fact far worse damaged, with at least three times the civilian casualities. Look at photos of the time. The atom bomb was the latest wonder of military science, so Wilf just followed a normal reporter's nose for news.”

Burchett arrive in Hiroshima at 2am on September 3. He was held in a “flimsy shelter” by two black-uniformed guards who were unsure of the foreigner’s motives. He explained he was a shimbun kisha, or journalist, and even presented his Hermes portable typewriter as proof. He was only released after they read a letter he carried with him to Domei’s Hiroshima correspondent, Mr Nakamura, who himself greeted Burchett shortly after.

Together they followed a tramline “towards buildings a mile or two distant”.

“There was devastation and desolation and nothing else,” Burchett wrote. “Lead grey clouds hung low over the city, vapors drifted up from fissures in the ground, and there was an acrid sulfurous smell.”

He would soon encounter the bomb survivors suffering from an illness that nobody had yet put a name to. He would write in his momentous report that “thirty days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly – people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague”.

Somewhere, in that devastated city, was a 17-year-old boy recovering from injuries to the left side of his body.




*



THE distance from Tokyo to Hiroshima is roughly the equivalent of Brisbane to Sydney. That’s where the similarity ends.

The train line follows the southern and south-western heel of Honshu island. Once through the vast conurbation of Tokyo itself towards Yokohama, the land was flat and heavily utilized. Around Nagoya fields and rice paddies and vegetable gardens crept to the edge of the line.

At 300km/h, the view through the wide window of carriage 15 was by necessity cursory and piecemeal. Inside the carriage, the passengers were like any in the world on this Friday – businessmen returning home from Tokyo, students visiting parents and friends for the weekend.

The cabin was thick with cigarette smoke.

It’s hard to know if Burchett’s consideration, at this point in his journey, leant itself to the fields and villages he was passing through, the men in straw hats working the paddies, the pencil-thin smoke from small fires at the edge of the fields. The view, quite possibly, had altered very little since his flight to Hiroshima.

On the train I re-read John Hersey’s classic account of the bomb and its aftermath, Hiroshima, and Hiroshima Notes by the great Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe.

“As I arrive in Hiroshima in the summer of 1963,” Oe wrote, “day has just dawned. No local citizens have appeared on the streets yet; only travelers here and there near the railroad station. On this same morning in the summer of 1945, many travelers had probably just come to Hiroshima. People who had departed from Hiroshima eighteen years ago today or tomorrow would survive; but those who had not left Hiroshima by the day after tomorrow in August 1945 would experience the most merciless human doom of the twentieth century.”

This was exactly how the first-time visitor thought of the city before arrival – calculating dates and times, trying to make sense of the logistics of fate and circumstance, because the actual concrete reality of the detonation of the bomb was so hard to comprehend.

The train sped on quietly. Tongues of heavily-wooded forest nosed the edge of the rail line, and beyond Kyoto and Okayama the landscape began to change. Here the hills were suddenly rugged and dramatic, one after another in tight folds. So began the “endless” tunnels that Burchett described.

I counted 19 tunnels before the train emerged into the low dish that was Hiroshima city. Even in the bullet train, some of them took up to two minutes to traverse.

As the American priest had left Burchett’s train at Kyoto, the reporter remained the only Westerner on board and, coupled with the sequence of tunnels, it was understandable he described his predicament as “bleaker than ever”.

Those tunnels were also, in some way, a hellish passage that delivered him to a hellish place. He could not have imagined the impact of an atomic bomb on a city. Nobody in history had ever seen it. It was beyond human imagination.

It was early afternoon by the time I stepped off the bullet train and into Hiroshima’s modern train station. I took a ten-minute taxi ride to my hotel, the Hiroshima Green in the centre of town, and I could have been in any moderate-sized city of 1.1 million people in the world.

The physical and mental constraints of a city as dense as Tokyo were gone. Hiroshima had wide boulevards lined with trees, a pretty network of rivers and bridges, and a central or downtown focus around which everything hinged.

What it had, though, that no other city can lay claim to, was the A-Bomb Dome, sitting there by the river across from the Peace Memorial Park. It was implacable and haunting and so deeply embedded in the consciousness that it would take a long time of sitting beside it, staring at it and photographing it before it even took form as the ruins of an actual building.

I checked into the Hiroshima Green and immediately made my way back to the Dome, drawn to it, as millions of other visitors have been over the past 60 years. I sat on a wall near the back of the Dome and looked at it for an hour.

Returning to the hotel I sought out the hypo-centre of the bomb, not far from the Dome. It was only a few streets away, marked by a small plaque. Behind the plaque was a multi-storey car park, and next to it, the Hiroshima Green Hotel.




*




BURCHETT must have been exhausted by the time he followed those buckled tram lines into the heart of a devastated Hiroshima.

What he saw around him he described flatly and with little embellishment. Not only was it Burchett’s writing style, but he must have had no alternative faced with incomprehension at the immensity of what he witnessed with his own eyes.

He sketched simply, piece by piece. He didn’t need to do anything else. Everything he saw that day was new.

As he recalled in his memoir: “From the third floor of the Fukuoka department store, as I looked in every direction, there was nothing to be seen but flat acres of ground, a few young trees, and some factory chimneys. Among the few gutted buildings still standing near the former department store was a church which, closer inspection revealed, had jumped into the air to return, practically intact, but crazily athwart its foundations.

“Low-level concrete bridges had also jumped off their piles, some spans landing back again, others dropping into the river…There were no remnants of broken walls, no large chunks of rubble or blocks of stone and concrete, no craters, as one usually finds in a bombed city. It was destruction by pulverization followed by fire.

“The reason that some buildings were still standing in the centre, according to police, was that they were in the epicenter of the explosion, directly under the bomb as it parachuted down and thus in a relative safety zone as the explosive force expanded outward from the epicenter.”

Even at this point, Burchett had not reached the epicenter of his own world scoop, the horrifying heart of the story and the reason his work had such a global impact.

He found it soon enough, visiting the Communications Hospital on the outskirts of the city. There, a month after the bomb, he saw people “in various stages of physical disintegration”.

“In ward after ward it was the same,” Burchett recalled. “Patients were terribly emaciated and gave off a nauseating odour which almost halted me at the first door. Some had purplish burns on the face and body; others had bunched, blue-black, blistery marks on the neck.”

Doctors pleaded with Burchett to arranged scientists familiar with this “sickness” to come to the city and help.

“I could only explain that as a journalist I would faithfully report what I had seen, and that although not American, but attached to the Allied forces, I would do my best to get scientists who ‘knew’ to be sent to Hiroshima as soon as possible.”

He wasted no time with his report. He returned to the city centre, sat on a concrete block with his Hermes typewriter before him, and wrote his story.

How his report made it out of Hiroshima, to Tokyo, and then the wider world – to be published on September 6, 1945, in the Daily Express, was in itself a dramatic story.

It was his Hiroshima colleague, Mr Nakamura, who sent every word via a hand-operated Morse code set to the Domei office in Tokyo. General MacArthur had placed Tokyo “out of bounds”, but lifted the restrictions again shortly after.

As Sayle reported in his piece “Did the Bomb End the War?”, published in the New Yorker in 1995, MacArthur reimposed censorship on the Japanese press on September 18. The press code banned anything that might “directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility”, or convey “false or destructive criticism of the Allied Powers”.

Burchett’s report had slipped through the net. There would be nothing out of Hiroshima for a long time afterwards.

On his return to Tokyo, he attended a press conference at the Imperial Hotel where a military scientist explained there was no possible way the reported sickness of Hiroshima survivors was related to atomic radiation.

Burchett asked the officer if he had been to Hiroshima. It was Burchett’s trump card – this need to see things first hand. The officer had not. After a brief exchange Burchett was told he had “fallen victim to Japanese propaganda”.

Burchett was later informed that MacArthur was expelling him from the country for having breached the bounds of ‘his’ military occupation.

The order was withdrawn. Burchett returned to London.

Australian troops were ordered into Hiroshima post-bomb. Some of them taught the locals English.

A year later American writer John Hersey visited Hiroshima and returned with a story of Hiroshima and survivors and radiation sickness. It was published in full in the New Yorker, and reverberated around the world.

It’s contents, too, were largely denied by officials.



*




DESPITE Hiroshima city’s physical appeal, its young population, its vigor, there is a weight that hovers around it. After a week there I began to feel that weight, wandering repeatedly through the Peace Park, visiting and revisiting the Peace Museum, circling but never really leaving the gravitational pull of the A-Bomb Dome.

Part of the experience, too, was visceral. To visit Hiroshima close to August, to feel the pressing and relentless humidity and see those clear, pale blue skies was to connect, however remotely, to that morning of August 6. The world can change, but weather and quality of light can put you outside of time.

This was how hot it must have felt for them too, the civilians of Hiroshima, prior to 8.15am that day. This was how the light must have looked as schoolchildren left home for the day and men and women went to work in those packed trolley cars.

There are, too, opposing forces at work in Hiroshima. It has become, naturally, a symbol of tragedy, of the potential evil forces of technology, of the depths of humanity. At the same time, it carries the baggage of the future, of peace and a nuclear-free world.

This is what happened to us, the city says. Don’t let it happen again, ever.

This year, on the 60th anniversary of Little Boy, as the bomb was dubbed, dropping out of the hatch of the Enola Gay, tens of thousands of Japanese will make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima. Doves will be released. Lanterns will be floated down the city’s many rivers. Folded paper cranes in their millions, made by children all over the world, will festoon Peace Park.

On my last day in Hiroshima I returned again and again to the A-Bomb Dome. I photographer it at dawn, mid-morning, midday, throughout the afternoon and at dusk. I was hoping, I guess, that the camera might understand what I was looking at, rather than trying any longer myself.

As I prepared to make for Tokyo and home, the New Yorker was reporting on how Americans were bringing home their dead from Iraq.

On that last night the air conditioning in my room in the Hiroshima Green Hotel was chugging inconsistently, and I sweltered until morning. When I woke, the pillow was drenched, and inexplicably covered in the brown and black tidemarks of my sweat.

I spent my last hour in the city trying repeatedly to wash the ugly stains from the pillowslip in the bathroom sink, but they wouldn’t disappear.



*



WILFRED Burchett died in 1983.

To this day his career, writing and actions still cause fierce debate and argument, particularly his reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in him and his work. To mark the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, Melbourne University Press will publish the full, previously unseen version of Burchett’s memoir, At the Barricades.

Publisher and editor Nick Shimmin worked with Burchett’s son, Sydney artist George Burchett, on the huge manuscript.

Shimmin’s introduction to the book reads in part: “Wilfred Burchett was the greatest journalist Australia has ever produced, and one of the best foreign correspondents the world has ever seen. Merely to make such a claim will arouse the ire of those who have sustained decades-long, vitriolic attacks on him and his legacy, but this volume goes some considerable way to justify the claim and refute the calumny which has been piled upon Burchett over the last 50 years.

“The pages that follow were written by Wilfred around 1980, shortly before he died. Less than half of what he wrote in this memoir was published in 1982 as At the Barricades, but the publishers on that occasion saw fit to remove much of what was most interesting in the text.

“The idea of publishing the book arose two years ago. I had met Wilfred’s son, George, 15 years ago when I joined him working for Australia’s multicultural broadcaster, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

“Years of discussions about the state of the world became increasingly dismayed as we observed the behaviour of governments after 9/11, until on one occasion George mentioned that much of what was happening now reminded him a great deal of what his father had described, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And the seed was sown.

“Considering the sad role played by the media in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and the blatant lies and deceptions of the “coalition of the willing” and its spin doctors, it is a good time to revisit a previous generation of “dissident” journalists who challenged the official line and, in Wilfred’s case, paid a heavy price.

“Many of those who vilified him in the later part of his career are still writing, still locked into the ideological blinkers of the Cold War. For them, despite the evidence of this book and so much more, Burchett will always be a name which provokes irrational hatred. But anyone with a more open mind, tolerant sympathies and a desire for the truth will read this book with fascination and admiration.”

Phillip Knightley recalled the first time he met Burchett: “In the early 1970s I was working in London on a book about war correspondents (eventually published as "The First Casualty"). I had reached the Pacific theatre in World War 2 and had a long list of war correspondents I would need to interview. Wilfred Burchett was at the top of the list.

“But how to find him? Some said he was living in Paris; others said Sofia- or Moscow or Beijing. After all he covered many countries. Then I went one night to a party in Battersea and there he was sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, drink in hand, holding forth on the state of the world while a group of young admirers sat on the floor entranced.”

Alex Mitchell, former foreign correspondent and State Political Editor for Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper, was initially enamored with the legendary Burchett.
”I met him for the last time in 1978 at a bar in Paris to discover what he knew about the 1940 assassination of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Fourth International,” Mitchell said. “I have nothing but admiration for his journalistic skills (when he was practising the craft in its purest sense as he did when covering Hiroshima) and for his tenacity to "get the story" and "be on the spot" where it was happening.

“Many of his books and writings remain extraordinarily valuable for historical research, but much of his work was unadultered propagandising for the Stalinist bureaucracies of Moscow and Peking.

“I believe you can admire the man but remain hostile to his political beliefs. My chief contempt is for today's press parasites who sit in judgment on Burchett. None of them have been anywhere or done anything. They are intellectual midgets by comparison.”

Burchett’s son, George, told me his father never spoke of the Hiroshima experience at home.

“Not because he avoided the subject, but because conversation around the table was usually about current events,” he said. “When he told stories from the past, they were usually stories about him growing up in rural Australia or entertaining anecdotes from the past. Wilfred was great fun to be with, and as he was away a lot, there was usually a lot of catching up to do before he “hit the road again”.

“Hiroshima was, without doubt, the defining moment in Burchett’s journalistic career. For Wilfred, Hiroshima marked several fundamental shifts. It was the end of the “good war” – World War II – and a preview of what WW III would be like. That he ‘de-embedded’ himself from the press pack to follow his instincts and make his way to Hiroshima is a measure of his impeccable professional instincts. That he grasped the significance of the event and wrote the prophetic lines “I write this as a warning to the word” is a measure of his ability to grasp the significance of events, not merely report them. That, despite carrying fragments of Japanese shrapnel in his leg for the rest of his life, he wrote with compassion about the victims of the bomb, is a measure of his humanity.

“Is Wilfred Burchett relevant today? You bet! Just think of Iraq, all the lies that got us there and the role of a complacent press in peddling the official line.”



*



THE old Japanese man in the floppy-brimmed hat rose slowly from his seat in the tram as it approached his stop near the hospital that day in Hiroshima.

“Very good to meet you,” he said, and he shook my hand.

I held that old hand perhaps longer than courtesy expects. He smiled and clutched his carry bag and stepped onto the platform.

As the doors to the trolley car closed I watched him take a few steps and turn to face the window of my carriage. I looked at his right hand folded over the small bag. I had shaken that hand. I had shaken the hand of an atomic bomb survivor in Hiroshima. I thought, perhaps romantically, that I had touched history.

I looked at him through the glass window and it made me think of reporting and history and even life. Only on rare occasions do we see something not through a pane of glass. Mount Fuji through the plane window. The Japanese countryside through the bullet train window. Hiroshima through the tram window.

How do we truly see? How do we presuppose to see anything as it really is, without the filter of the glass – not just landscapes and city vistas, but how people are thinking? How they really are?

The tram started to move off. Just before he disappeared from view, the old man of the atomic bomb raised his left arm, opened his palm and held it there.

It was a kind of salute, from one stranger to another. A gesture which suggested that, in the end, we are all just human beings together.



ends

LATHAM AS LITERARY DIARIST

PUBLISHED in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, Wednesday, September 21, 2005:

THE LATHAM DIARIES: A Book Review.
Matthew Condon


SO how does The Latham Diaries stack up as literature?

Has a writer and diarist the calibre of Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank avoided the radar of the international publishing world in the form of Mark Latham, and suddenly come into bloom?

The published diary is a perilous form. You either have an astonishing story to tell (Frank), or you possess a genius to portray yourself and your age with scrupulous detail and honesty (Pepys).

If those two prerequisites are absent, you must at least be very, very famous.

Firstly, the story Latham has to tell is not particularly astonishing. The tale of a former city council honcho from western Sydney and his struggle to overthrow the leader of the day, and failing, is about as enticing as quick-drying cement. That he never even manages to secure the ultimate crown would be considered, by any reasonable publisher or editor, a plot flaw.

Secondly, Latham’s prose style is so completely devoid of colour, and details of place, and psychological observations beyond the orbit of his own cranium, that he may have invented a new genre. It is breathtaking to read a diary that claims, in its introduction, to be a “fly-on-the-wall” record, when its only anchor to time and place is a sequence of calendar dates. No fly, just blank wall.

Latham states, in his Author’s Note, that the diaries “were not originally written for publication”. There is a whiff of mischief in this declaration.

The diaries open with young Latham’s elevation to Federal politics via the Sydney seat of Werriwa. Latham claims the idea of keeping an occasional diary came to him by observing another diarist, Senator Stephen Loosley.

The years 1994 to 1997 are covered in 68 pages. The year 2004 occupies 145 pages. It can be argued that Latham’s attachment to his diary grew the more historically significant he thought himself to be. It is curious, though, that the busier he became in Australian political life, the more time he had to devote to his diaries.

More importantly, around the year 2000, Latham’s prose style undergoes a subtle shift. The years prior to this are largely quick jottings in present tense. Post-2000, however, the prose leans heavily towards past tense. This shift in the diary’s tenses is a coda to some sort of post-event hindsight, a signpost to some form of revisionism rather than the immediate present-tense snapshots of earlier years.

This stylistic fissure suggests that Latham either became more ponderous and reflective in the way he approached his diaries, or he refashioned his journal at a later time. The shift in tenses suggests the latter.

The suspicion that Latham fleshed out his diaries in retirement is supported by the text’s sudden turnaround of authorial voice. In the lean, early years, Latham’s voice is naïve and seemingly reactionary to the day’s events.

In the final years, this changes profoundly. Somewhere the text crosses an invisible line, and Latham begins addressing not himself – as a diary by definition should – but some sort of nebulous reader.

He says, for example, of ABC journalist Liz Jackson. “You know the type: upper-class background, thinks she’s an expert on poverty…” But who is the ‘you’ he’s addressing?

In another example, he talks of the “filthy” rumours about him and writes: “Should I tell Janine (his wife), or just ignore it?” To whom is he asking this question? An omniscient reader of this diaries originally written not for publication?

The diaries, too, are striking for their sheer volume of childish and adolescent references to defecation and other bodily functions. Everything is shit and crap to Latham, and he even uses an unsourced quote from Mao Zedung about farts. Not even this throws colour at his lifeless prose.

There is too, repeated evidence of Latham’s immature psychological make-up. He is constantly querying why people aren’t coming to his defence, or are leaving him “stranded”, and questioning his “survival”. “Somebody save me…” he writes tellingly.

One of the book’s primary themes, too, is something that echoes from 1950s Australia. He constantly badgers on about working class people up against the snobs, the elites, the well-heeled from the “upper” class. This simplistic attitude informs much of Latham’s behaviour.

Curiously, the diaries feature many quotes from or allusions to great and menacing figures in history, both factual and fictional. He quotes Ulysses S. Grant (in relation to Kim Beazley’s interest in the American Civil War): “The best man for the job does not go after the job. He waits to be called.”

But could he possibly mean the actual Grant quote, which reads: “"It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may expect the most efficient service." That Latham feels at liberty to lazily paraphrase a former US President and historical heavyweight says something about his self-image.

At one point, too, Latham is unhappy with a press photograph of himself which he claims makes him look like Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the Marlon Brando figure in the film Apocalypse Now. He also asks, at one point, if he is a “prophet”.

As a read, the only thing giving Latham’s diaries any real interest are their timely associations with current recognisable names in the Australian political and media landscape. It is, then, the perfect book for our times – titillating, gossipy, bitter, hollow and totally of the moment.

It is not difficult to imagine tattered copies of The Latham Diaries filling shelves in second-hand bookshops in five years’ time, when the bulk of those names in the book’s index have been forgotten.

It is similarly likely that in a decade from now, someone will pull a copy of this book out of a discount bin and ask – who was Mark Latham?


ends

MULLIGAN: The Prologue

(First chapter of a new non-fiction work based on a year in the life of three golf hacks.)


The Tears of Maroochy




In my younger and more vulnerable years, I thought we would play golf together even when we were old men, until that early Spring at Coolum when it all fell apart.

At the start of that final round at the resplendent Hyatt Regency course, fashioned by that terrible poet but wonderful golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Junior, we were, unwittingly, three Gatsby’s standing at the first tee. We couldn’t know that by the 18th hole, our regular golfing days as a trio of hackers were over. That all the years of it - the pleasures, agonies and intimacies – would be snatched away from us like a sudden and inexplicable death from, say, the Grippe.

We did not know, as Nick Carraway had known of Gatsby, that “it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”[1]

By the time Farquarson had pulled up his mismatched socks, gone through his annoying pre-drive preamble, and invariably shanked his sparkling new K-Mart Slazenger B51 ball [2] off the first tee and into the bushes, he was already being borne ceaselessly into the past.[3]

The same too with The Dude, all six foot three of him, shirt collar turned up, shorts creaseless, and each club in his bag happily wearing its own individual woollen hat, except for that of his Big Bertha (or Dog, as he called it) which, on that morning, he unleashed on that opening fairway with his usual gusto. This was the way of The Dude. He murdered language by simply exhausting it with the pace of his speech. He murdered alcohol with his unceasing velocity. He murdered car tyres, speedboat motors, go-kart tracks. The Dude was permanent motion, and all of life, including us, hung off the tail of his comet. That early morning at the Hyatt, he cracked his Precept and it launched from the tee as a bullet would spin out of the muzzle of a Glock, and issued his traditional first-hole mantra, made famous at the US Masters by Freddy Couples. “Oh yeahhhhh, baby,” said The Dude, lovingly caressing the words.

I, too, had no inkling that this was the end of something. I took the tattered grip of my three iron (having been frightened off the drivers more than two years earlier, and still unable to return to them, as a jilted lover may never be able to go back to the restaurants, bars and park benches – the plain geography – of his shattered romance), and teed off happily.

Nothing seemed amiss. Farquarson was his jaunty, diminutive self, pulling his cart and raggedy tartan golf bag up the manicured first fairway. He was as he always was, Farquarson, at the beginning of a round. He fizzed like a child-shaken soft drink bottle with the notion that this would be his day, the day of a personal best, and even the shank could not dampen his ebullient spirit. I liked that about Farqhuarson; with each round, he was a born-again golfer, fresh from the egg.

The Dude was The Dude, striding ahead to his beautifully positioned Precept, as if Farquarson and me did not exist. That we were there, simply, to witness his golfing prowess, and to verify remarkable shot play that would become a personal narrative, later. (“Tell him, Farquarson. You saw that second to the green on the par five, didn’t you? Tell him.”) We were The Dude’s Boswells.

But this day at Coolum, on the course which its father Mr Jones described as “not designed to punish champions, just to find out who they are”, it may have served us well to brush up on the history of the imposing Mount Coolum, at the base of which nestled Mr Jones’ cosy fairways and greens.

It would watch over us, intermittently, throughout the entire round, peering over stands of paperbark trees, or peeking at us around eucalypt forests, its bald, pitted, volcanic hulk, or parts of it thereof, always in sight.

Here in the Maroochy Shire, Maroochy, it turned out, was in Aboriginal legend a beautiful young woman who was stolen from her fiancé Coolum by one Ninderry. Coolum showed great courage and rescued his bride to be, but was pursued by Ninderry who threw a boomerang and decapitated his rival.

The head rolled into the sea, and became Mudjimba Island. The torso is represented by Mount Coolum. Poor Maroochy retreated inland and cried so much her tears became the Maroochy River.

So there was blood in the soil, and death, and great sorrow, beneath Mr Jones’ architecture. There was nothing that might provide us refuge. Not even Mr Jones’ spectacularly puerile epic ballads. (My particular favourite is a stanza from his 146-line poem Thanksgiving, which goes: “Our mother sang us so deep / We loved each other to sleep / U la u la la / Oh oh oh ah ahaaa.”)

On that first fairway, the entire round was set from our tee shots, just as in life we contain our patterns of DNA. The Dude opened beautifully, his game yet to be infected with yips, thoughts of greatness, and the notion that he could hit the longest drive in recorded history. This would come later. If the Coolum course was designed to derail anybody, it was The Dude, trying as Mr Jones attested to tickle the champion out of him. The Champion in The Dude was always almost there, like the tingling you feel before a sneeze.

Farqhuarson was already tail-up in an undergrowth of elephant ears, on his way to his traditional self-combustion on or around the 11th hole. He had not had time, thus far, to initiate his innumerable mulligans[4], the mulligans we never saw or would see. We always gave him at least two, but knew there were many of what we liked to call Farqhuarson’s “mulligan’s that dare not speak their name”. Namely, the invisible strokes that he masterfully embedded in his round. He was a mulligan magician.

I was rusty, but agreeably so, and always on the catch-up without the length of the woods of which I had grown fearful. (For a while, during my divorce from the The Woods, it was The Dude’s running joke that I could complete any round of hours with just a three iron and a putter. He was right, of course, but you never let The Dude know he was right. If you let The Dude know he was right, it released something within him, a flood of self-satisfaction. Funnily, it had a sound to me – the popping of a boy’s swollen finger from a dyke.)

But on that day, a second shot with my beloved three-iron came off the blade with that lovely, deep reverberation that happens so rarely when the club kisses the ball’s sweet spot, and flew towards the green.

“Shottttttt, Matty,” said The Dude, which was as good as a handshake from the Pope, and The Dude proceeded to lob his ball on the green with grace and ease.

“Shotttttt, Dude.”

Farqhuarson continued to forage like a bush turkey. “Fark, fark, fark,” said he, scratching amongst those lush green ears.

It was as it had always been. But Maroochy was weeping, and on that last day we simply did not hear her.


*

[1] Firstly, a footnote on the footnotes. They are the “mulligans” of literature, the opportunity for a free swing, a second chance, so they shall be employed forthwith. Secondly, having read The Great Gatsby more than two dozen times, it has only occurred to me now that by citing those rolling “dark fields of the republic”, Carraway may have been referring here to a golf course.
[2] It is perennially exciting – well, sort of - to witness what Farqhuarson pulls out of his ball bag. He is, by definition, a “scrounger”, a by-product of his substantial Scottish genes. He will happily delay play to wade into an artificial lake in search of a ball. Thus, his ball bag is a lucky dip of other hackers’ discards complete with company logos and personal flourishes. He once pulled out a 1940s Dunlop Federal, studied it with the care of a jeweller, breathed good luck on it, and teed away.
[3] Interestingly, in The Great Gatsby, Carraway’s love interest, Jordan Baker, is a professional golfer. In one scene in the film starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, Jordan Baker, played by the wonderful Lois Chiles, dislodges a ball half-buried in a sand trap. In the novel, she has a reputation for cheating: “At her first big golf tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers—a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round. The thing approached the proportions of a scandal—then died away. A caddy retracted his statement, and the only other witness admitted that he might have been mistaken.” Jordan Baker, although sartorially more elegant, bears many similarities with Farqhuarson, as we shall soon see.
[4] Our poet, Jones Jr, was once quoted in an interview as saying: ``Both Bush (George W.) and his father like to play a fast round. Clinton likes his mulligans.'' It makes sense that Clinton would like “his mulligans”., just as he has liked cigars and women, for he is a man who loves life, and as the three of us often said – there’s life, and then there’s golf. I have always found it impossible to liken Clinton with Farqhuarson, another mulligan lover. The only genuinely amusing and self-admitted presidential hacker has been Gerald Ford, who once said: “I would like to deny all allegations by Bob Hope that during my last game of golf, I hit an eagle, a birdie, an elk and a moose.” Not side-splitting, but it beats the poetry of Robert Trent Jones Jr for brevity and pith.