Another Old Railroad Man
Reg moved into the co-joined Commission house in 1964. He was 48. People said his wife had died. His kids were long gone and were not far off having their own littlies.
Reg planted his front garden with poppies, tulips and a hedge the year before the pound became the dollar. He watered his back lawn every morning, spraying flat weeds and thistles until his square yard was bowling green perfect.
Chooks cluttered and laid in a special coop up the back of the garage. Finches tweeped in a tiny homemade aviary. Lawn clippings were scattered behind the treated pine garden edge where pumpkins, potatoes, carrots, beans, sprouts and lettuce slumbered beneath the soil.
Decimal currency changed very little, the metric system even less. He would measure in inches, yards and miles til they put him six feet under; probably til the day Midford stopped making sky-blue long sleeved business shirts and wide-legged grey slacks. Come washing day the Hills Hoist was wooden pegged full of them. He'd hang his undies closest to the centre pole, as if even the clothesline deserved dignity.
On warm days he'd sit in the doorway out front, screen door baling twined open, thinking of nothing. Or his wife. Or his kids. Or how different Tassie was nowadays, all short skirts and ridiculous music. Sunday mornings he'd listen to the country music station on the wireless. Sunny Sundays were sad songs in the sun.
For some folks, life if simply one fine day repeated.
The day the ambulance came, a truckload of men dug up his lawn so he could have faster internet.
On that night I sat behind the Merch Desk and watched as your voice disappeared into the air
They spoke. You sang.
You stopped. They didn't.
So you unplugged and walked to the middle of the room
Flesh and blood, flannelette, timber and steel
And we were yours
For we are made not of cables and leads, we are able to bleed
And those speaker stacks black the very sky we need for dreaming
And you stood within the sound of silence
And we heard it like a distant memory
And we knew it like a dawning daydream
And we felt it like a schoolyard crush, like an old man's tears and all the lonely, lonely people
I cried my eyes out then as now.
Twice around the sun and you can no longer find an empty room,
Cannot step from today's stage into the emptiness,
Loaf and fish in hand.
You are flesh and blood in a flannelette shirt, timber and steel,
Alone in a crowded, crowded field.
I am a Modern Serf. I live on someone else’s land, work for someone else in exchange for food and safety, and will pass on my social status to my offspring.
I’m also a sixth generation Vandemonian.
The first Tasmanian Townsend is buried in an unmarked grave with his scandalous tattooed wife, banished from Hobart Town to the north-west of the state. When older folks meet me today, they identify me as “from the north-west” even though my father left that coast nearly four decades ago.
I have never lived in that part of this state but, like my dad and his dad, I am somehow a part of the land there and that land is a part of me.
I am an artist, my old man is a pastor, his father was a builder and his father was an aspiring doctor forced to work on the family farm. Serfs, the lot of us, working on someone else’s land hoping one day it will be ours, and all the while the land of that north-west coast was somehow seeping in through the soles of our feet into our very being.
We wanted to own those paddocks, but the soil ended up embedded in between the lines on our palms, billowing in our slow-moving speech and our gale force hearts.
Of course we never really possess land, do we? The stuff slips through our fingers like what it will always be, the pursuit of dirt being one big distraction from what we’re actually alive for. One day, the land beneath our boots will possess us, transform us, turn us into something new. Maybe today.
All the Modern Peasants
A friend introduced me to the phrase “modern peasant” this week. I hadn’t thought of myself as a peasant before.
In the old days, there were three kinds of peasants: slaves, serfs and freemen. These days most of us are serfs (which sounds like Smurf, so I quite like the word) aspiring to be freemen (which sounds kinda gross).
I am a Modern Serf.
Back then, serfs lived on a plot of land and worked for the landowner in return for a few exorbitant luxuries such as protection, justice and the right to find food in designated paddocks.
Modern Serfs still tend to live on plots of land owned by wealthy people, although often we choose to very slowly pay for that land so we can live on it and feel like it’s really ours.
Modern Serfs still tend to work for landowners too, although instead of the landowner providing us with protection, justice and the right to forage they provide us with money so we can buy our own home security systems, health insurance and groceries.
Back then, if you were born into peasantry you were stuck there and pretty bloody aware of your place. We Modern Serfs, of course, have a wide variety of career options and life choices to distract us from the fact.
Back then, peasants were at the bottom of a three-runged ladder. The other rungs were the clergy and the nobility.
I wonder who the Modern Clergy and Modern Nobility are.
I am a Modern Serf. I like the way that sounds.
To be a modern person is to be lonely, bored, anxious and passive.
That is, according to the German psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm.
This is the great mind who reinterpreted the story of Adam and Eve to be a virtuous one. He pointed out that being able to distinguish between good and evil is generally considered to be a good thing, but that biblical scholars usually speak about Adam and Eve in the same way that teachers speak about naughty children. Fromm praised Adam and Eve for actually having a go and not just doing what they were told. He reckoned this is what made them truly human: weighing up the situation and then taking action.
And Fromm said that the most profound characteristics of modern people - of you and me - are loneliness, boredom, anxiety and passivity.
That last one is the word that sticks with me. I'm such a sit-and-watch-the-wheels kinda cat.
And anything beyond this point would amount to a sermon or a lecture from me, some pseudo-authority handing out fruit-eating guidelines.
You work it out. I will too. Let's compare notes in a week. Or not. It's up to you.