Chiaroscuro and the need to “HARDEN THE FUCK UP!”

There are sometimes that I feel so disassociated from the rest of the society that I live in.  Like one of the androids in Blade Runner once said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” and I feel some of those things that I have seen, separate me from most other people in the way how I cope with stuff that doesn’t go my way.

I am constantly amazed at the whingeing that I hear in this prosperous and fat first world country that I live in.  It seems to me that some people are living in some sort of antiseptic bubble that insulates them from the rest of the world.  It blows me away to think that some people (here in Australia) think that it’s acceptable to complain about water restrictions, and the fact they can’t wash their cars in the time of a drought. Or that it’s okay to harp on about not getting financial assistance from the government in the form of the baby bonus when you’re earning over $150,000 a year.

“HARDEN THE FUCK UP!” 

I’ve also noticed that a lot of Bloggs, that I’ve been reading lately have been discussing idiosyncratic eating habits.  It just goes to show what prosperous lives many of us lead in that we can be so choosy about what we eat.  There was a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about people who falsely claim to have allergies to foods.  Apparently real food allergies are very rare and can be life-threatening, but it would seem that some people like to claim they have allergies as it is an attention seeking ploy that sets them apart from the mainstream.

“HARDEN THE FUCK UP!”

I’m hardly without sin in this area myself as I hate and won’t eat pumpkin, cucumber, watermelon, or any offal. I’ve been thinking that on an evolutionary level it’s not a very smart strategy to be a picky eater.  We’ve spent millions of years developing a taste for eating just about anything that ever lived. 

“HARDEN THE FUCK UP!”

My stepfather (Manfred), who was in Germany during the Second World War as a teenager, and in the Hitler youth, always likes to say “you can shit on my plate and I’ll eat around it”. Manfred has told me stories about the deprivations that he and his family went through at the end of the Second World War, when they were forced by the occupying Russians to leave what was once the German part of Prussia known as Upper Silesia (now a part of Poland) and walk to Berlin with no supplies.  When I was a teenager and I used to peevishly complain what was for dinner, Manfred used to remind me about how he and his family had to live on grass soup for two weeks and that I should be just grateful for what I have in front of me. 

“HARDEN THE FUCK UP!”

My mother who grew up in post-war England during the time of rationing had very little patience for any sign of picky eating.  My mother’s standard response to any question about what was in a meal was “Shit with sugar on it!” “What do you think this is a restaurant?” “Shut up and eat it!”

“HARDEN THE FUCK UP!”

Some people really have it tough

The woman in the picture above is a beggar that I saw in 1974 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during the war. There were so many pathetic beggars in Phnom Penh at that time.  It was a regular freak show of maimed soldiers; orphaned children; refugees, lepers and war widows, not attractive enough to become prostitutes. In short, people with REAL problems.

I saw the woman in the photograph nearly every day, and one day I saw her on her hands and knees vomiting onto the sidewalk.  Her whole body just convulsed with spasms as she retched up what little food she had in her stomach.  When she had stopped being sick she scooped up the vomit and re-ate it. She obviously was too poor to be able to waste food by leaving her vomit on the footpath.

This brings me to the whole concept of contrast.  Chiaroscuro is an Italian word describing light and shade. It’s a term that one will see quite often in books about art and in particular, the Renaissance era.  By varying the tone of a drawing by simulating highlight and shadow, an artist can create the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. A bit of contrast makes things in general, more…….. “real”.

As I go through life and get older, I’ve come to realise that the old adage “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, has a lot of of truth to it.  I think that the bad things that have happened to me in my life have helped me appreciate to a greater degree, the good things that happen to me.  I also think that because I’ve had such an extreme range of highs and lows that I am better able to deal with life’s little disappointments. A little chiaroscuro serves me well.

When ever I have some difficulties, I just reflect on some of the really negative benchmarks that I have, in my stupidity, accumulated. I was nearly killed when I came under mortar fire by the Khmer Rouge. I’ve been beaten up by the police and a mob in Morocco, nearly had my foot torn off on a train, smashed my car in the desert nearly killing my wife and I, and last but not least, lost 10 kg (22lbs) in two months when I had malaria and was starving in Phnom Penh.

To lighten the mood of this rant, I’ve put in this little video, titled “Harden the fuck up” by Ronnie Johns (an Australian comedian), impersonating a famous Australian criminal and murderer called Chopper Reid (the subject of the excellent movie “Chopper” starring Eric Banna).

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Criminals just want to have fun. Stanthorpe, Qld, Australia. 1990

When I used to live in Brisbane back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my friends and I used to enjoy going to the Apple and Grape Festival in Stanthorpe. The festival is basically an excuse for a giant piss up. There is a lame little parade but drinking is the main item on the agenda and the police relax the rules a little so that when people get drunk they can just sleep where they drop. Unless one was violent, the cops left you alone to get to down to the real business of the Festival.

The picture below was taken at the Festival in Stanthorp and is of me. 

Razzbuffnik with Hans

The guy behind me, pulling my nose up as the picture was being taken, was a German friend of a biker mate of mine (called Ron). Since I’ve forgotten his name and for the sake of convenience, I will call him Hans. 

Ron had met Hans when he had been travelling in Europe, and when Hans came to Australia with his girlfriend for holidays he looked Ron up.  As you can see from the photograph, Hans had quite a sense of humour and he and his girlfriend were fun people to party with.  For the month that Hans was in Brisbane (where I used to live at the time) I got to socialise with him quite a bit as he was staying with Ron, who was my cousin Andrew’s housemate.  The shared house that Ron and Andrew lived in was in a constant state of party and I used to almost live there with them.

One evening when I was at a party on a big sugarcane farm up near Bundaberg,

My cousin Andrew at the party at the sugarcane farm near Bundaberg

Hans told me a little bit about his life.  Apparently he was the leader of an organised crime gang that specialised in stealing heavy earthmoving equipment in Germany.  Because such big money was involved, Hans didn’t actually have to use force or break into building sites.  All he had to do was bribe a few lowly paid security guys to look the other way, while he and his mates turned up with a few semitrailers (tractor-trailers for you North Americans out there), drive the earthmoving equipment onto them and then drive away with them.  He also intimated to me that sometimes the builders were involved in the thefts as they were happy to collect the insurance money.

When I asked Hans how he managed to get rid of such big pieces of equipment, he told me that he had contacts with larger organised crime gangs that used to fence the equipment for him in other countries. Hans told me that the building industry was full of crooks who didn’t ask too many pointed questions about where the cheap equipment came from.

As I got to know Hans it amazed me how “normal” he was.  There was no bluster or bravado with Hans, he was just a down to earth happy-go-lucky guy that happened to steal large pieces of earthmoving equipment for a living. Talking with Hans made me realise that being a professional criminal was not dissimilar to having any other professional career in that he worked hard at what he did and felt the need to get away for about a month a year and go on holidays and relax.

I met another guy when I was in Vancouver called Peter.  Peter was born in Poland, and his father was a professional artist.  When Peter was a young boy, and still in primary school his father pulled him out of school and took him to a professional thief friend of his and told Peter that this criminal was going to be his mentor.  From that point onward, Peter told me that he was trained to be a professional thief. 

I find it strange when I meet people who inhabit the demi-monde of the underworld, because they are so different to the stereotypes portrayed in the movies.  To look at Peter, you wouldn’t think that he was a full-time criminal.  Peter wasn’t suave, macho or cool, like how criminals are quite often portrayed in fiction.  I guess that’s how people like Peter and Hans stay out of jail, they just look and act like fairly normal people.  I also found that just like other people, they just want to have fun.

It’s just too bad that people like Hans and Peter make their livings at other people’s expenses.  When I think about it, they aren’t that morally different to the people who operate in the so-called legal, corporate world, like the tobacco companies and arms manufacturers.

Dicky and his butt. Tokyo, Japan. 1975

Dicky was from Winnipeg and was without a doubt the most eccentric person I’ve ever met in my whole life.

Just before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge back in early 1975, my girlfriend’s (at the time) parents sent her some money to get out of Cambodia, because they were worried about the deteriorating situation there.  Instead of flying back to Australia, like my girlfriend’s parents wanted her to do, my girlfriend spent the money on two one-way tickets to Japan via the Philippines for the both of us.

When we landed in Japan, we had very little money, so we started looking for work teaching English straight away.  I didn’t let the fact that I hadn’t finished high school, stop me from thinking that I could teach other people.  We both found some work fairly soon, but the stress of travelling together wasn’t very good for our relationship, and we broke up not very long after.

At the English school I was teaching at I met an English fellow called Simon, who was in Japan studying shotokan karate.  When Simon found out that I needed a place to stay, due to my break-up, he said I could come and share a flat with him and his friend Dicky.  Simon struck me as a pretty sensible guy, so without a second thought, I jumped at the chance because of the expense and difficulty of finding accommodation in Tokyo at that time.  Back then, you had to pay, what was known as “key” money as a deposit when you wanted to rent accommodation.  The trouble was that the “key” money was usually about $1500 US and I was told that you didn’t get the money refunded when you left.  It was a huge amount of money at that time.

The apartments in Japan are quite small by Western standards, and Simon’s two room flat was no different.  Simon and Dickie shared the bedroom in the back, and I slept in what was laughingly called the living room.  There was a very small kitchen about the size of a galley on a sailing boat, and there was no bathing facilities.  Each night, we used to go down to the public bathhouse with all the Japanese.

Dicky was also in Japan studying karate at the same dojo as Simon, plus he was also studying kickboxing.  Dicky told us that he didn’t go to high school and we later found out that he struggled to even read a comic book.  It used to take Dicky about a week to read his Bruce Lee comics.

The fact that Dicky was almost illiterate didn’t get in the way of him being quite successful in business.  He told us that he started off mowing lawns in the summer as a kid and then when he saved up enough money for a snow blower, he used to blow snow in the winter.  When he made enough money from his mowing and snow blowing he started buying old Cadillacs and Corvettes with his brother and fixing them up, reselling them for a profit.  Dicky was a real go-getter in many more ways than one.

When it came to women Dicky was amazingly fearless.  I had seen him on numerous occasions, when I was on the subway with him in Tokyo, just walk right up to the local women and start prattling away to them in his broken Japanese.  I remember on one hilarious occasion, he walked up to this young woman and whilst adjusting his glasses, tried to tell her that he thought she was cute but he mispronounced the word. Instead of saying “kawai” (cute) he said kawii (afraid) much to the embarrassed confusion of his prey.

Dicky of Winnipeg

As is obvious by the photograph, Dicky was very proud of his physique and was totally un-ashamed of his nakedness.  The Japanese are fairly blasé about nakedness and Dicky would think nothing of walking from his apartment to the top of our apartment building, with just a towel wrapped around his waist to go sunbathing naked on the rooftop. 

Because of the scarcity of land, there was no yard for the tenants to dry their clothing, so all clothes drying was done on lines up on the roof.  One day Simon and I went up to the rooftop to hang out our washing and we found a naked Dicky on his knees, with his forehead on the ground, with his backside poking up into the air towards the Sun.  We asked him what he was doing and he said he was trying to dry the pimples on his backside. 

Seemingly oblivious to Dicky and his odd pose was a housewife who was hanging up her clothing with her little girl (about 4 years old).  As Simon and I were questioning Dicky, the little girl walked over to Dicky’s rear end and stuck her finger into where the sun was currently shining, whilst naively asking the question “kore wa nani?” (what is that?).

Dicky and Simon used to hang out with Kame (Turtle) who was the middleweight kickboxing champion of the world at the time. Kame used to come over and spar with the boys and they would put on quite a show.  Dicky just loved the whole idea of being a human weapon.  He would regularly shave off the top layers of skin of his knuckles with a razor blade to form thick scar tissue so he could hit harder without damaging his hands. He used to tell us that he was thinking about getting castrated because it thought it would make him a better fighter, like one of those eunuch generals from Korea or China.

Eventually Dicky had to go back to Canada, and his barely legible letters, back to us in Japan, were hilarious. 

It would seem that Dicky spent most of his time going to bars and beating up football players.  When Dicky wasn’t beating up football players, he told us that he’d go into other karate dojos and challenge their instructors. Another thing that amused Dicky, was to go to fortune-tellers, expose himself and proposition them during readings. Dicky was afraid of nothing, be it people’s opinion of him or the consequences of his actions. Now that I’m older, I’d say he was a borderline sociopath.

One of the last letters that Dicky sent us was about how he went to the doctor’s.  His description of the doctors visit went something like this. “I  was taking a crap, the other day, and when I looked between my legs I saw all this stuff hanging out of my arse so I went to the doctors”.  “I said to the doctor, I’ve got these things hanging out my arse every time to go for a crap”.  To which the doctor replied, “don’t you mean your rectum?” “No, no, my arse!”, was Dicky’s reply. Dicky then went on to tell us that he came very close to punching out the doctor for making fun of him. 

So it was from Dicky’s letter that I learnt that it’s possible to get tapeworm from eating sushi.

Deck class (part 1). Gulf of Siam 1974

This is part 1 of a 2 part story.

The picture below is of a Belgian ( or perhaps he was Swiss, I can’t really remember) guy I met called Beet. 

Beet on a ship we travelled on in the Gulf of Siam

I first met Beet in the southern Thai town of Hatyai near the Malaysian border.  I was only 17 years old then, and I was bumming around Southeast Asia with my girlfriend.  Back in 1974, Hatyai was a very nasty, horrible little town, and I wouldn’t have a clue what it’s like nowadays, as I consider it to be the second worst place (the worst was Belize City) I’ve ever visited and I have no intention of ever going back.

On the first day in Hatyai we were in the centre of town when my girlfriend (at the time) bought some cold coconut juice from one of the street hawkers without first asking the price.  We had already been in Asia for a couple of months and we knew what things cost so when the woman who sold us the drink asked for five times more than usual we tried to give it back to her. She wasn’t having any of that and she started raising a ruckus that attracted a large angry mob. It was scaring the hell out of us as a group of well over a hundred yelling and aggressive fist waving locals started pressing in on us, threatening us. My girlfriend and I just didn’t know what to do.

Just as things were starting to look the most dangerous and blackest Beet lunged forward and pushed a couple of guys to the ground. Beet’s behaviour was so aggressive and forceful the crowd immediately shrunk away from him with a collective gasp. The guys he pushed over scrambled to their feet and ran to the back of the crowd.  Beet then advanced further into the crowd with his eyes bulging and fists up, while screaming at the crowd “O.K. who’s going to be the first?!” Beet must have been channelling the spirit of some long dead Gaul warrior, because he scared the shit out of everybody. Like a modern day berserk version of Moses, Beet parted the ocean of Thais and set his people free.  My girlfriend and I followed in his wake, whilst neglecting to even pay for the drink.  Nobody dared to come near us and not a soul bothered us as we walked away.

I was impressed. I had learnt a lesson right then and there, that I was to use a few times later on in my life when I have been faced with similar situations.

As we were walking from the centre of town, where we had just avoided getting our collective arses kicked, we headed down a side alley just in time to see a mugging in process.  A gang of about five teenagers had just punched another young kid in the face and then threw him against the wall.  The kid just stuck in his hands in his pocket and threw his money on the ground.  As a few of the muggers scrambled for the loose change, one of the guys pulled a knife out and was about to stab their victim as the rest of the gang held him with their hands around his throat, pushing him against the wall. 

Before I could even register what was actually happening, Beet, who I guess we still pumped up from a few minutes ago yelled out at HEY!! And went running forward towards the small gang.  The guys just dropped their victim, and ran for their lives.  The poor kid who had been mugged, was already starting to develop a black eye, and he was rubbing his jaw.  He looked absolutely terrified so we indicated to him as best as we could, without being able to speak the language, that he could walk with us for protection for a while.  We walked with the Thai kid for about 15 minutes until he was close to his home and he waved us good bye.  Unfortunately, we had got ourselves a little bit disorientated, and we couldn’t figure out which way our hotel was, but we knew it was near the train station.  So we asked a passing group of three Thai guys for directions to the train station (a word of warning to those of you who are reading this, who haven’t travelled very much.  don’t ever tell strangers where you are actually staying). 

One of the guys spoke a little bit of English, and seem to be enjoying the chance to practise his English, so he insisted on actually showing us where the station was rather than just telling us where it was.  Both Beet and I didn’t like the idea that these three strangers were going to find out where we were staying. We just couldn’t shake them.  Eventually, they took us to the station, and we thanked as we said our goodbyes.  Trouble is, they just hung around and waited for us to make our next move. 

Eventually, we just got sick of the game and went back to our hotel, only to be followed by the three guys.  As we walked into the hotel, they tried to enter the lobby with us, but we explained to them that they couldn’t come in.  But they still wouldn’t leave, so we just walked upstairs leaving them downstairs.  As we walked by the fellow running the hotel, we told him not to let the three guys in.

We went back to our rooms, and I was so exhausted by the tribulations that I’d just been through, that I immediately got into bed and went to sleep for a short nap.  I was woken up by the need to go to the can.  When I went outside of our room, who should be sticking his head up like a ferret over the top of the stairs? It was one of the three Thais who had shown us the way back to the station with the other two guys, just behind him.  As soon as they saw me, they bolted off down the stairs.  I went downstairs and raised to hell with the guy running the hotel and told him in no uncertain terms that those guys were not to be allowed in the hotel again, as they were obviously up to no good.

I guess I’d been pretty shaken up by the whole day and I didn’t sleep too well that night.  I had a recurring dream that I was trying to stop a letter I was writing, from falling down a crack between the floor and the wall.  The cycle of me dropping the letter and searching for it over and over again was finally broken by a piercing scream that entered my consciousness.  I awoke, standing on the top of the stairs rocking backwards and forwards as the hotel owner’s wife was screeching hysterically. I guess a red haired, semi-naked, pasty white somnambulist teetering at the top of a steep set of stairs is a scary thing to see.  It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever done any sleepwalking.

Click here for part 2

Internet cafe. Hue, Vietnam. 2007

A comment left on the previous post, by William from the blog cafe selavy got me thinking how the world is becoming more homogenised and less diverse.  

Internet cafe in Hue, Vietnam

I basically agree with what William had to say and that’s one of the reasons why I went to Vietnam last year.  A few of my friends had been there and said that I should go very soon, because it was changing so quickly.  When I did visit Vietnam, I certainly felt that it was a society in transition, as it hurtled forward into the future as its economy grows.

One of the main reasons why I’ve travelled is because I’ve wanted to see different ways of being. After years and years of travelling, I’ve come to the conclusion that although most of the world can look a bit different, it is all basically the same.  Everywhere I have been, I have found that most people have a very similar moral code to myself.  Incest is taboo everywhere.  No one anywhere likes a thief or a liar.  Most people just about anywhere in the world will also do the right thing if given the choice, and they do not have some desperate need.

Years ago I was talking to a wise, old friend of mine Ed Arteaga, about travel.  I was telling Ed that I thought that he should travel some more, because I thought it was good for one’s intellectual growth (not that he really needed it as he is far smarter and wiser than me).  Ed just countered my suggestion by saying, “travelling is just changing the scenery”.  I can remember at the time when he said that, thinking to myself, that’s quite heretical!  Now that I am older, and I’d like to think wiser, I feel I understand what he was trying to say.  The mental architecture that we carry around in our heads, informs the way how we decode the world around us.  Basically, we project our own world view onto the world itself.

Recently I heard that up in Queensland, some primary schools have started to teach philosophy to young children.  Just think what a better world it would be if people were taught how to think.  Every now and again, the country I live in surprises me with how forward-thinking it can be.

A review of the Ensemble Theatre production of “Death of a Salesman”

Last Friday night, my wife and I went to see the Ensemble Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of a Salesman” at the York Theatre in the Seymour Centre, Sydney.

As I have gone through my life I’ve come to realise that many classic pieces of literature are justifiably well-known.  I can remember reading Moby Dick, and thinking to myself “no wonder this is so famous”. Melville’s book was not only very well written with an interesting story it also covered a lot of ground, in regards to the human condition.  It’s just like every time I’m exposed to something created by Shakespeare I’m in awe of his consciousness of the multitude of facets of existence.

It would be very easy to dismiss American cultural artefacts as dross, produced by greedy money grubbers for morons, due to the fact much of it is. 

But not all of it is! 

Fifty years ago the protean Arthur Miller stood surefooted and neck deep in the swift current of post-war stupidity and ignorance. Not only did Miller reject the idea that mere self belief and popularity was enough to succeed, he also stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era by refusing to name, names.  Arthur Miller was a freethinking giant whose thoughts were well ahead of their day.

I have to admit that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going to see “Death of a Salesman” as I had preconceived ideas that it would be just a dreary little kitchen sink drama about a salesman getting old and losing his mojo.  Yes, “Death of a Salesman”, is on the surface, fairly much what I thought it would be, but, it is so much more than just that.  It’s all about how our lives are shaped by the architecture of the cultural myths many of us carry around in our heads. It’s a testament to Arthur Miller’s genius that “Death of a Salesman”, still rings true and has relevance 50 years after it was written. It really is a modern classic.

The play is basically about a salesman (Willy Loman) at the end of his life and career as he comes to terms with the onset of dementia, the futility of his life, the estrangement of his eldest son (Biff), and the realisation of how his mistaken belief system has led him from the path to happiness and fulfilment.

The Loman family is held together by Linda, as the conflict between Biff and Willy threatens to tear it apart.  Linda Loman is the loving wife who soothes the troubled spirit of Willy and doting mother who tries to get her two sons to understand her husband and what he is going through.

Without totally retelling the story I would like to discuss a few of the themes that were raised during the play that resonated with me.

Self image, and how it affects the way how we interact with the rest of the world.
I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that I think that Arthur Miller felt that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t accept another person’s love for you.  Much like what Groucho Marx once said, “I would never belong to a club that would accept me as a member”.  The character Willy Loman, whilst occasionally acknowledging his frailties is basically all bullshit and bluster.  Willy may talk up a storm about his popularity, success as a salesman and how he has followed the right track in life, but it’s pretty obvious his self-loathing is interfering with the relationship he has with his eldest son, Biff. The estrangement between Willy and Biff has its genesis in an incident from Biff’s high school graduation year.  Up until the incident in question, Biff had always had a high regard for Willy, and Willy in return, basked in the sunshine of his eldest son’s love and respect.  After the incident, Willy realised he could no longer present himself as an honourable and decent role model worthy of love and respect and this fact, poisoned all his other relationships for the rest of his life.

Delusional self belief.
It has long been promulgated in America that if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything.  Just follow your dream. It’s only recently here in Australia, that such a proposition has been argued against.  I guess many of us over here have secretly thought that perhaps such hubris was the cornerstone of American success.  It would seem that Willy has a huge amount of self belief in himself and his sons.  The only trouble is reality doesn’t seem to agree.

Happiness through consumption.
The advertising world would have us believe that happiness can be achieved through our purchases.  All we have to do is trade our lives by getting onto the work treadmill and make enough money to buy the products that are offered.  Now that Willy is older, he realises that many of the things that he worked so hard to acquire aren’t providing the joy he had hoped.  All the material things in Willy’s world seem to be breaking down and failing just like his mind. In his pursuit of things material, Willy has neglected his family and his friendships.

The danger of conformity, and the danger of not conforming.
On one hand, Willy (who seems to be the personification of the aspirational American archetype), respects the idea of marching to the beat of a different drummer and going out into the world on one’s own to make one’s fortune.  On the other hand, Willy feels that one has to knuckle down and be part of the system to get ahead.  Willy’s brother, Ben, (who had invited Willy to come along with him, but Willy stayed behind) had gone out and made his fortune in Africa.  Willy had self belief, a wife, family and a stable job and he wasn’t about to put that at risk, much to his regret later in life.  All throughout the play Willy is giving conflicting advice to his sons.  Go out and take a chance to find yourself and your fortune like your Uncle Ben!  Stop being a bum and get a job like me!  Willy’s youngest son Hap (short for Happy) is following Willy’s lead of trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, whereas Biff has been drifting doing odd jobs out west on farms. 

Popularity trumps education.
Willy always had high hopes for his son and Biff, who was very popular high school football star. There are several times during the play, where Willy makes the point that all a man needs to get ahead in life is to be popular and make a good impression.  He takes every chance to pour scorn on his neighbours son’s academic achievements and actually seems to take delight as he retards his own son’s education.

Sex and alcohol are a small man’s sunshine.
Willy’s younger son, Hap, seems to be living the life that is promoted by Willy. As the play progresses Hap’s life is revealed as an empty sham of soulless carousing.  

When the play first started, I found the American accents very jarring and I was wondering why the play wasn’t just performed in the local accent.  That was until I realised that the play was actually set in New York, and refers to many places in New York, and therefore a generic accent couldn’t be used.  Another reason why I found the American accent a bit disconcerting was that I was afraid that the actors wouldn’t be able to pull it off for the whole length of the play, and it would all start to sound a bit lame.  For the most part the accents, while being a little over the top were pretty good and after a while, I didn’t even notice them.  The only actor who didn’t seem to be able to do the American Accent very well was the fellow who played Willy’s brother Ben.

Most of the play takes part in the here and now, but every now and again there are hallucinatory flashbacks representing Willy’s decaying mind.  I found that during the flashbacks I couldn’t help but marvel at how well a job of directing that Sandra Bates had done in keeping the story comprehensible.  It would have been so easy to turn the story into a confusing opaque mishmash.

Sean Taylor is completely believable as the flawed Willy Loman, and much to his credit I didn’t feel like I was watching an actor act.  Taylor manages to convey Willy’s decrepitude and lack of character very convincingly.

Jacki Weaver plays the careworn Linda with a steely pathos of such conviction that I found myself being angry with the Willy character, for not treating her with the kindness and thoughtfulness that her character deserved.

Anthony Gooley is a wonderful Biff.  One minute he is a self doubting and tortured lost soul, then the next he is a confident and enthusiastic high school sports star. I really enjoyed Gooley’s transformations during the show.

Tom O’Sullivan plays the cad about town, Hap with the enthusiastic relish of a fox terrier that’s spotted a rat.  He just leaps on the part, gleefully gives it a good shake and then runs off with it.

Judith Hoddinott’s set serves the play well, but its multi-levelled design looks like it would be an actor’s nightmare to navigate in the darkness of the scene changes.  I hope nobody gets hurt on it.

Without trying to sound too dismissive of the obviously evident talent displayed on stage, it’s the writing of the play, and the ideas that it carries that are the stars of the show. 

The play triggered many memories of conversations and shouting matches I had within my own family as I was growing up. The myths that are presented to us as important goals in our culture can be very distracting in our search for a meaningful life. Mr. Miller has erected a few hazard signs for us with this excellent play.

Without any deliberate hyperbole, I’d say that “Death of a Salesman” is a play that everyone who lives in a first world consumerist society should see at least once in their life.  Preferably sooner than later as it would pay to be conscious of the lessons that it has teach before life passes and myth created mistakes are regretted.

Our lives hang by a thread. Lake Eyre, South Australia. 2000

Back in 2000 I nearly killed my wife and I.

In the northern part of South Australia there is a large dry salt lake called Lake Eyre.  Lake Eyre is 15 m (about 50ft) below sea level, and receives what little water it ever gets from the channel country, in southwest Queensland.  Since central Australia has some of the driest country in the world, Lake Eyre generally only ever fills up once a generation.  In the year 2000 there were heavy rains in the channel country and six weeks later, the water trickled its way over the thirsty land to fill Lake Eyre.  The seemingly dead salty sunbaked mud of the lake bed bursts into life as the water awakens billions of tiny brine shrimp as they hatch from their protective shells. The brine shrimp, provide food for freshwater fish that have been washed along with the floodwaters from the north east.  This sudden explosion of life attracts coastal birds from over 1000 km away.

When Lake Eyre fills with water, it is such a rare event that it is reported on national television and when my wife and I heard about it, we thought we’d go and have a look.  Because it was winter at the time, we also thought it would be a good opportunity to travel to the very centre of Australia in the cooler weather to see Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) in the Northern Territory as well.

After 3 Days Drive, we finally reached the Oodnadatta Track that passes through the Tirari Desert and past the south end of Lake Eyre.  Unfortunately, it seemed that we had arrived too late, and all the bird life had moved on.  By the time we got to Lake Eyre.  The water was already starting to disappear, and all that was left was miles of salty mud and shallow salty water.

Lake Eyre. We travelled a long way to see this?

After spending about an hour slopping around in the mud, we headed off north to William Creek.  The track up to William Creek is surfaced to with rounded, marble sized gravel.  It’s not unlike trying to drive over ball bearings, and when our front right tyre blew out we had what could only be called a character building experience.

We were travelling at about 100 km (about 60 mph) in four-wheel-drive, when the flat tyre caused the car to start fish-tailing. As I fought for control of the car, my wife and I collectively screamed SHIIIIITTTTT!!! 

The trashed tire pulled itself off the wheel and the rim of the wheel dug into the road. As the front end of the car dug in and basically stopped, the back end of the car rose up and we flew upside down through the air, end over end, for about 10 m (about 30ft), landing on the roof, and then rolling two more times.  I’ve been in these sort of life-and-death situations a few times before, so as we were tumbling through the air I found myself thinking that the best thing to do would be to relax and try and make sure my head didn’t hit the door posts (my wife’s brother died that way).  It’s amazing how adrenaline slows things right down and gives one time to contemplate what’s going on in such situations and to take action.

When a car landed right side up, my wife and I couldn’t get out of it fast enough.  As soon as we got out of the car my wife (Engogirl) started hysterically screaming.  I felt strangely calm and told her to shut up.

A quick check of the car showed that the chassis was bent. It was a write-off.

My trusty Subara meets it's end

Within 15 minutes, people who had I passed on the road, caught up to us and offered assistance.  There was nothing really to be done, other than go to the next town and get somebody to send out a tow truck.  Interestingly, the people who offered us help had to change a flat tyre as they spoke to us.

As we waited for help from the next town to come, we wandered about picking up our belongings that had been strewn all over the track and fended off offers of assistance from other passing motorists.  It’s strange how the first few offers of assistance are really appreciated, but after it happens 20 or 30 times it really starts to get irritating having to explain to people who only mean well, how you managed to roll your car three times on a dead straight road out in the middle of nowhere. 

I was starting to feel really stupid.  I also noticed I couldn’t concentrate very well and I was having trouble organising my thoughts enough to pick up our belongings on the road whereas Engogirl was in complete control of her faculties. In retrospect, I think I was going into shock, and perhaps Engogirl’s screaming had released her tension, enabling her to better deal with the aftermath.  Nowadays, we often laugh about the fact that there isn’t much of an overlap between our skill sets. I can handle drama when it happens better than Engogirl, but my wife is much better at figuring out what the next step should be after the clear and present danger has passed.

Engogirl cleaning up after me

Amazingly, we had not sustained any significant injuries. Engogirl had a small cut on the back of her hand (see the photo) and I seemed to be okay.

It took a couple of hours before help from William Creek finally turned up in the form of a German fellow (the ex-owner of the William Creek Hotel), and his girlfriend in a four-wheel-drive towing a trailer with a hand winch.  It took about an hour and a half to get the car onto the trailer during which time I just stumbled around in a daze occasionally getting in the way and Engogirl made herself actually useful.

It would be very easy to call William Creek, the arsehole of the world as it is not even a cross road, it’s a T-intersection of the Oodnadatta track, and the track to Coober Pedy. William Creek has a pub (William Creek Hotel), a few buildings, a solar powered public telephone and the remains of a R3 rocket, launched from the Woomera Rocket Range back in the early 70s. 

Stage 1 of the R3 rocket in William Creek

Behind the pub is a campground with a very noisy generator that runs all night to make sure no one gets a decent sleep, and next to the campground is an aircraft landing strip.  The William Creek Hotel at the time was run by a family, who seemed to be irritated and resentful by the fact that they had to deal with the public. They sure were a surly bunch.

On arrival at William Creek, we booked into the campground, and I phoned my insurance company from the solar powered phone.  My phone call, bordered on the surreal.

Me. “I’d like to report that I have had an accident with my car”

Insurance Woman (IW)  with the NRMA in Sydney NSW. “Where did the accident happen?”

Me. “25 km south of William Creek in South Australia”

IW. “have you reported the accident to the police”

Me. “No”

IW. “Why not?

Me. ” Because the nearest police station is about 170 km away in Coober Pedy”

IW. ” Where did you say the accident happened again?”

Me. ” William Creek, its out in the middle of nowhere near Lake Eyre in South Australia”

IW. “So why didn’t you call the police?”

Me. “What would be the point when they are so far away, and they’re not going to turn up anyhow because no one was hurt and nobody else’s property was damaged?”

IW. “Oh”

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I was told to stay put and not travel anywhere, until I received a medical check-up that gave me the all clear to travel.  Trouble was that were no doctors in William Creek, and as a matter of fact, the closest doctor was in Coober Pedy 170kms away over very rough 4WD track.  I later found out at the pub that the flying doctor would be in William Creek in three days time as a part of his regular circuit.

My wife and I thought that would be a good idea to travel through the desert country during winter when it was cooler.  What we both didn’t know is that the desert is a very cold and windy place in winter.

That night as the cold wind buffeted our little hiking tent, I lay in my sleeping bag, mulling over the events of the day, wishing that I could somehow rewind it all and do it again.  The rolling of the car during the accident kept on playing through my head, like some demented loop.  Over and over the accident replayed as I beat up on myself mentally.  I was so angry at myself, and so ashamed at the risk that I put my lovely and long-suffering wife through.  Strangely enough Engogirl wasn’t too happy with me, wrecking the car and all.

As I lay there, and mentally self-flagellated to the steady beat of the howling wind, I noticed it was starting to hurt when I was breathing in my upper chest.  As the night wore on, the pain slowly and steadily increased. I was pretty sure I hadn’t broken any bones and I thought that I’d probably done some kind of damage to the soft connecting tissue between the bones of my chest.  The area of pain coincided to where my seatbelt crossed over my chest.

By the time, morning came around, I was feeling, very sore, very miserable, very sorry and very ashamed.  We presented quite a bleak sight with our shattered car up on a trailer next to our little hiking tent that was popping in and out to the intermittent gusts of cold wind while the low grey clouds rolled over the dry flat land. It was without a doubt, the worst time of my life.  Nothing that has ever happened to me, has left me feeling so low as I did at that time. Full of remorse, embarrassed and in pain.

During our first day at the campground in William Creek we witnessed a steady stream of rally cars racing at high speed along the Oodnadatta track and in my agony, I couldn’t help but keep on thinking to myself, ” guys, guys slowdown!”

As we waited for the flying doctor to arrive, I spent most of the time laying on my back in the tent, dreading having to get up and go to the toilet, because of the pain I was experiencing every time I moved.  The only sense of relief that I experienced in my whole time as I waited for three days for the flying doctor to arrive, was when I went into the William Creek Hotel to buy some food.  A few of the patrons recognized me as the guy with the smashed up car and before long I was regaled with many stories of how most of the guys in the pub had rolled a car at some stage in their lives.  Never were there truer words said than “misery loves company”. Up until the time that the guys in the pub told me about their car accidents I was feeling so alone in my regret and shame at what had happened.  After the guy’s told me about their experiences I almost felt like I belonged to some kind of exclusive club of car rollers and what I had gone through was merely a rite of passage.

On the second morning I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so painful when I saw a long line of city slickers in their big four wheel drives (SUV) getting all agitated as one of the guys from the hotel took his sweet time fixing their flat tires. It was hilarious to watch the self-important guys from the city as they huffed and grumbled about how long things were taking and the way the tyre guy made it clear that they should leave him alone so him could get on with his work. Throwing his tools down he said “why don’t yous all just fuck off!” If yous don’t fuck off, I’m not fixin no-one’s tyres!”

The bleak painful days waiting for the flying doctor eventually passed and I was finally able to be checked out.  In a strange way, I kind of feel honoured to have visited a flying doctor, as they are such a legendary Australian icon. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia was set up about 80 years ago to provide medical service to the isolated communities of the Australian outback and they are highly regarded.

The doctor confirmed my suspicions that I had only sustained soft tissue damage which was caused by the seatbelt.  Better sore than dead. After my examination, I contacted the insurance company and they organised our trip home.  The only problem was that the insurance company could only organise things in places that had large enough populations to support some kind of regular infrastructure.  Public transport from William Creek is a bit problematic because the only way we could get to Coober Pedy was on the 4WD mail truck that only came twice a week. The flying doctor only airlifts people in life threatening situations (fair enough!).

Luckily, the mail truck was going to Coober Pedy the same evening of the morning I had seen the flying doctor.  The road to Coober Pedy from William Creek is really just a sandy rutted track that passes through the Anna Creek Station, which is the largest working cattle station (ranch) in the world.  It’s larger than Israel.  Travelling 170kms on a four-wheel-drive track to Coober Pedy in the mail truck was torture. Each bump in the road was like a hot poker in the chest.

Once we got to Coober Pedy everything was much better.  The insurance company had booked us into one of the famous underground hotels that they have in Coober Pedy.

A very young looking Engogirl in our underground hotel room

Coober Pedy is famous for its opal mining, and the fact that it is so hot that most people there live underground in the old disused opal mines.

After the first decent night’s sleep in three, we flew out in a small and very narrow Fairchild Metro 23 Airliner twin turboprop

Inside of a Fairchild Metro 23 Airliner

to Adelaide and then onto Sydney by jet.  At Sydney airport we were met by a chauffeur driven limousine and driven home. 

I’ll never begrudge paying car insurance ever again (well done NRMA). 

It took me about two months to recover from the damage that I had done to my rib cage, and it also took about that long for an insurance adjuster to make his way to William Creek to check out our wrecked car and to confirm my opinion that it was a write-off.