Essay // Where lies the romance of our time?

Nostalgia is a peculiar thing.

It is a pleasure coupled with sadness, for it is, in essence, a fondness for something that is ineluctably unattainable, being both indefinite and lost. It is a wistful pleasure, laden with regret for we-know-not-what. A pleasure stunted by the non-existence of the very thing it treasures.

For some, nostalgia is personal, defining us, or who we once were. Perhaps it is the inevitable product of a generation coming of age—as the last sprigs of nonage seem sparse, we look inwards and backwards to our own childhoods, to a time when our needs were (surely?) simple, our pleasures intense, and the illusion of freedom held never-ending promise. We romanticise and censor memory.

Then there is the cultural nostaligian, who is convinced of the creative power of the past. We immerse ourselves in the literature of the dead and let out a silent plaintive cry, ‘Oh! to be there, to be then!’ In deference to the means of writers whom time has judged as great, we trade our laptops for stiff typewriters, as though it were the machine that generated elegance and wisdom, and not our selves at all.

For others, nostalgic yearnings are less precise, perhaps centred on a notion that ways of living were once, simply, better. They think, not of themselves, but of indistinct collective goodness. Didn’t we have more when we had less? Weren’t we healthier when our peaches and lemons came from trees in neighbours’ yards, our eggs from hens we fed with scattered grain, and our children’s milk from a bottle on the doorstep? Weren’t we happier when our toys were few but lasting, when television and magazines demanded respect, and when missives from friends came, not in bites of text stored in bytes of data, but in paragraphs of informative leisure imprinted on creamy pages? When our expectations could still be exceeded by the feats of humanity, when wonder could still be roused?

Although many of us long to shift our lives into the past, few of us can point when pressed to an epoch that satisfies our generally vague and varying desires. One day it is the 1920s and Paris, where we live in an apartment above a baker’s shop with a fledgling Picasso on the wall and take morning excursions to Sylvia Beach’s bookshop. The next day, we crave wartime London—we breeze through the Blitz, blaring swing from an already-retro gramophone, dressing in hats and coats and polka dots. Or perhaps it is the seventies and New York, where we have dinner at Max’s Kansas City, attend poetry readings, and drift in and out of the Chelsea Hotel. Or the 1890s and nightclubs, the sixties and music, the 1930s and Hollywood. Everything is ideal, conceptual, and unchallengeable in its impossibility.

But say it were possible; say we could go back—here whispering doubt raises its sly voice. We wonder if, having somehow effected our journey to the bygone, we might find ourselves yet muddling through those great mises en scènes of the imagination, blind to our extraordinary condition. For if we are muddlers now, are we not simply the muddling sort, ever destined to life at the periphery? Or is it that we all feel dissatisfaction with the known, and only see the spectacle of our lives, the momentousness of our time, once it has passed?

Thus we yearn for that unspecified ‘simpler time,’ or that better, more romantic time, as though our interior worlds would somehow match the imagined simplicity and romance of the exterior, as though the equanimity we now lack would then reign, and the cruel provocations of life would be dampened and soothed by the hands of some agent that has since jilted us.

But no age is any simpler than another, for the clamour and commotion of the mind endures. Now is as good a moment as those before, for romance lies not in time at all.

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Essay // A Serenade in My City

street art

THE TOWN IN WHICH I wasn’t born, the town in which I grow. The town in which I go exploring, the town in which I show to all. Windsor, the town in which I live.

There are places I remember, or, rather, that I store away for future remembrance. Places of familiarity, cultivated, romanticised, true? The antique shop on Chapel, where, confused and a little infused by the thickening, chuckling air, you pay happily for cocktail shakers priced at three dollars, but she’ll give it to you for five. Only as you walk further down the street, past the other op-shops, and as you hover on a corner outside a glitteringly full-bodied pub, only then do you realise you’ve been taken for a fool and a ride. Taken in the flood, perhaps, carried away and drown-ed.

Then there is the other one, the op-shop down the road, where another strange lady in another strange fog — not of the same source, they say — sells you shavers of old, trolls under woods and bridges, and measuring sticks o’ pink.

Walk on, to the left, crossing at the grocery shop. And there, the building repurposed, lost to its former function, its halls empty and windows boarded and bare, there is the old department store that still proclaims its wares. Hidden rhyme to long-lost time. Back we go, down the measure to the past, where a different woman than I or you strides with purpose down the walls, paces the boards, gentle, oriental umbrella in hand.

Bright juices and greasy foods in windows that shine. Herbs in pots, tall, overgrown, wild, trapped in their greenhouse cafe.

Here we take a small detour, down a street less known. It is the tyranny of distance that we seek, the furthest trip to another world, somewhere in Miami perhaps, or far-flung Mexico. Sweet music, dj obscura, drifts around the room in whirlpools powered like a dam by the rotating fans above, a touch of Singaporean glamour or rustic Australian ‘charm’? Drinks, they’re cheap, beers brought to you. Above, hanging there, the remnants of a fuselage.

But no. That part wasn’t true.

Here now, back to the street where we don’t live, the one down which we traversed before the detour that took us willowing and wandering through the tortures of a mind. We had supped and sweated in the tropical heat.

Turn back. Take me home. Upwards, not upwards, but away from the Chapel, and on to the winnowing alley, blue and grey, spotted like a dog, portrait frames on a midnight wall. Way in; way out. Look this way. Walk this way, hand in hand. Back to the back door, the one from which we sprung at first, and through it with the correct key, of course, into the house where we live. It’s warm inside, although we don’t have a fire in the hearth or onions on the stove, making our eyes cry as our chests say, ‘no.’

A shelf for shoes, and all in order, and key (correct of course) back in the bowl by the bright red door.

Notes from a journey

edinburgh train

ROLLING GREEN HILLS, sheep, and Georgian country manors. Scraggy cliffs, never-ending ocean, ruins picked out against the sea. A great crenulated, turreted house in dark stone, geese, flocks of gulls, small towns spread around an ancient spire, farmhouses, chimneys.

Blue blue skies.

Green and ochre.

Patches of snow, churchyards, and wooded hills. A lighthouse, a golf course, a great rock out of the sea near Dunbar. Railway-side towns, a seventies housing development, laundry on the line, playgrounds. Low, snow-topped mountains over the water. Horses with coats on in snow-covered fields.

And suddenly the coast again. Container ships in the distance.

Essay // ON DRESSING UP AND FITTING IN

WHEN I WAS FOUR, my mother dressed me as Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding. Grey tights, grey skivvy, a stocking over my face with currants drawn in permanent marker, and a pudding basin atop my head, the outfit’s crowning glory. No, she wasn’t indulging a deranged whim – it was dress-as-your-favourite-book-character day at kindergarten.

Already, I was different and, even at four, I knew it. All around me swirled tulle tutus and streaks of satin, glittering pinks and purples, cute little button-nosed Goldilocks and Tinkerbells. And here was I, a goddamn pudding. Refusing to submit to the indignity of the stocking, I gazed maliciously at the camera, unwittingly completing the impersonation of that bad-mannered, ill-tempered edible.

Years later, as I entered the painful so-called ‘tween’ years, there came another occasion for my mother to gratify the passion for dress-ups that invariably resulted in her children arriving in the most full-on interpretation of any theme. A friend held a birthday party for which we were invited to dress as our favourite pop stars, an assignment that filled me with inexplicable anxiety. Who to be? What to wear? It was an agonizing thought – my wobbly status as either cool or nerdy hung in the balance.

I’d embraced the Spice Girls, dabbled in a little Hanson and purchased the single of Barbie Girl, but this was about as far as my contemporary musical education had gone. This was the late nineties, and there was a plethora of socially acceptable girly pop stars from which to choose – Britney Spears, Natalie Imbruglia… all I needed was a crop top and a bit of sparkle. Even coming as one of the Backstreet Boys, although dressing as a boy was something I would not contemplate, would have been a better move than what eventuated.

I found myself, on the morning of the party, in a costume shop in the city, where my mother and the shop assistant consulted over who I should be, dragging out horrifying relics from the piles of musty clothes. Unlikely disco shoes were followed by jeweled sunglasses, worn pleather jackets and a seemingly unending supply of bedraggled feather boas. Suddenly one of them – my mother or the nutso costume lady – had a brain wave. Cyndi Lauper! Oh, wouldn’t that be fun! Fun? Fun! I didn’t want to be an object of fun. I didn’t even know who Cyndi Lauper was! And yet somehow, because of my panicked inability to make a decision or assert my social needs, Cyndi Lauper it was to be.

Looking back, I can only admire the effort and dedication that went into producing that outfit. Hair sprayed pink and teased up beyond repair, an aqua sequined boob-tube (although how I kept it up, at eleven, I’m not sure), miniskirt, inappropriately bright make-up, and the obligatory feather boa. Who are you supposed to be? Asked countless Britneys and Natalies as they took in the unfamiliar 80s aesthetic. Cyndi Lauper? Who’s that? You know, she sang Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, I’d respond defensively, clinging to the one fact I knew about my so-called ‘favourite’ pop star.

I remember tearfully gazing at my ludicrous reflection in the bathroom at the friend’s house, fighting back panic and irritation at my mother for having sent me like this, asking myself, why? Why can’t I just be like everyone else?

But if I had just been like everyone else, if I had been able to fulfill my painful desire to simply fit in, who would I have become? Would I have been imbued with the creativity, the courage, to start wearing Alannah Hill, vintage purses and pearls when those around me stuck to Sportsgirl and the surf brands? Would I ever have found the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, if I’d conformed to Britney Spears and Cher at an early age? Would I be an avid reader, a writer even, if my mother had just handed me an off-the-peg Cinderella outfit that day in kindergarten, rather than taking the time to read me gems of Australian fiction and draw currants on an old stocking?

While I found it painful at the time, perhaps dressing me in pudding basin was one of the best things my mother did for me – teaching me that to stand out, and take pride in your differences, is far more interesting, far more fun, than fitting in. And after all, girls do just want to have fun.