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The Path Not Taken

In recent weeks, Rocky and I have spent our mornings exploring the stretch of St Kilda beach that starts at the grassy park in front of the white painted  lighthouse beside the Elwood Marina and ends at the outcrop of porous sand- coloured rocks which mark the boundary, the transition, from St Kilda to the more up market Albert Park beach. It was at Albert Park, when we walked there, that we found that both the breeding of the dogs and their human companions was rather more clear and well-defined than in polyglot St Kilda. The dogs in the main were of a recognisable breed and their human companions, in my long dead mother’s lexicon were mostly goyim, a term that strictly speaking, was applicable to all non-Jews, but which she used to describe `old’ Australians, but not, as far as I can remember, the Greeks and Italians and Yugoslavs of our Fitzroy neighborhood who like us, were lumped together as wogs.

Just why we have confined ourselves  in recent times to this kilometre long strip of beach is unclear, though I am not displeased that we have done so. Each morning, the light is different, sometimes dramatically so, depending on the shape and color and drift of the clouds. Each morning the contour of the shoreline changes depending on the tides and the state of the moon. The birds come and go according to a rhythm that is beyond our understanding, the black swans in particular, are capricious in their habits, there some mornings in numbers, some in repose on the sand while others swim beside the pier in formation like synchronised swimmers resting between their routines. At other times the swans are away somewhere–perhaps on the beach at Albert Park performing for the goyim?  To a large extent I hold Rocky responsible for our St Kilda confinement.

Until a few weeks ago, there was no way of knowing which direction Rocky would take once he was unleashed after the five minute walk through the park and then across Marine Parade to the grassy park beside the lighthouse.  I’d say it was odds on that he would head in the St Kilda direction and 6/4 towards Elwood. In other words, St Kilda was his favored direction, but quite often, he would chose to go the way of Elwood and Brighton. Now Elwood and Brighton have lost all interest for him. His path is set, his direction clear, with no regrets.  Rocky has not read that wonderful Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

I love the poem. It fills me with yearning and regret for the paths I will now never travel and possibilities no longer open to me. And yet I am not regretful that Rocky treads a well-worn path. I see it, this inhabiting a small strip of beach each morning, as an act of defiance, a statement of our belief that despite the seductions of cyberspace and its uncountable virtual communities, geography matters . Without geography, there is no history and in the end, no memory. Home for us, Rocky and me, has become this piece of St Kilda beach where we know the pull of the tides and the changing shape of the clouds and the changing light, moment by moment and we know the rock formations and more and more we know single rocks that are patterned with holes and uneven surfaces, sea-washed and shaped, and we know the man in the plastic bag stuffed raincoat who stands each morning at dawn on the lovely little stone bridge, the bridge of childhood memories for it is all that remains of the St Kilda beach my parents took me to on hot summer days. We know the inexplicable comings and goings of the black swans and we know the fishermen on the pier whose faith in landing a fish or two remains unshaken by morning after morning of disappointment.

 These St Kilda mornings remind me of Fitzroy, when I went to school just down the road and when I lived my life, me and my friends, within clear geographic boundaries. Our area was a rectangle, formed by Gertrude Street and Johnson Street and between Smith Street and George Street. We knew every house and every lane and every person and every dog in that rectangle. When I sat out at night on the tin awning of my parents’ milk bar and mixed business transfixed by the brawls outside the pub and comings and goings at the brothel across the road and the marriage dramas played out there on the street every night, before my eyes, the world seemed mysterious and unknowable, but never, as I can recall, alien or threatening.

 We were shaped and made by our geography back then. These musings may seem rather predictably nostalgic for an ageing man who came to the conclusion that he would see in the sunrise every morning for as many morning as possible , rather late in life. These musings may also seem rather contrived based as they are on Rocky’s determination to tread the path that somehow has come to define his place in the world–the place he knows best in other words. I can’t help that. This is where Rocky has taken me. I do however wonder whether these musings, in part at least,  have been prompted by

Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly Essay profile of Malcolm Turnbull. It is a lively and engaging profile, written with a lightness of touch which belies the thought and the research that has gone into its creation. The profile is full of anecdotes about Turnbull, many told by him, for he seems to be a man who likes to talk about himself, and many told by enemies and supporters. There is a kind of Turnbull life narrative I suppose in this 12,000 word piece of journalism, which is to be expected now that Australian politicians have adopted the American cultural tradition of personal narratives that in America, are designed to illustrate the American Dream — overcoming humble and disadvantaged beginnings to reach the pinnacle of political success. Kevin Rudd of course has his narrative, the most poignant part of which is that his mother and the Rudd children lived in a car for a while after his father died when Kevin was 15. Turnbull has his poignant moment too, for he lived in a modest flat with his father after his mother left the family. The trouble with both these narratives is that neither Rudd nor Turnbull has anything much of great interest happen to them after their poignant moments. Or so it seems.

Rudd left the car and was brainy and hardworking and that was that. Turnbull became a quintessential Sydney—well, that glitzy, flashy, deal-making Sydney in which politics and business and celebrity are melded together—identity, smart and ambitious and on the make. And that was that. Or so it seems from Crabb’s profile. There is nothing in Crabb’s profile of Turnbull that even begins to describe the geography of his childhood. Not only that: there is no sense at all of Turnbull’s contemporary physical world. There is passing mention of his mansion in Point Piper but having never been there, I have no idea what to make of this. In a profile this long, it means something that Crabb thinks it unnecessary to even give us a brief description of Turnbull’s world. I mean the physical world that the writer Tom Wolfe argued the great writers of the 19th Century used to reveal the class and status markers of their characters—the way they dressed, the jewelry they wore, the way they had their hair styled, the houses in which they lived, the streets of their neighborhoods. I think Wolfe was on to something: imagine Dickens without the physical rootedness of his characters. Where, I wondered, was Turnbull’s Fitzroy? Where is his strip of St Kilda beach?

Turnbull’s world, I have concluded, is alien to me, in a way that John Howard’s world and Paul Keating’s world and certainly Bob Hawke’s world was not. I am not sure why this is so, except that Malcolm Turnbull, is almost entirely a creature of a peculiarly Sydney elite that neither Keating nor Howard belonged to. Certainly not Howard. I could imagine Howard’s childhood geography, the lower middle class suburb in which he grew up, the feel and even the smell of his father’s small business, the rather nondescript office he worked in as a small-firm suburban solicitor. In some ways, in terms of where they came from, John Howard was the Margaret Thatcher of Australian conservative politics. Formed and forever tied to the values and the realities of small business.

Unless Malcolm Turnbull finds a way to refine his personal narrative, to locate himself somewhere beyond the sum of his ambitions and achievements, I think he will never be prime minister. For all that the revolution in communications has wrought— a connectedness that transcends all physical limitations— we live most of our lives in a small physical world, from childhood on and in a sense, we know each other only to the extent that we know that world and can relate to it. There is much about Crabb’s profile that is admirable, but in the end, Malcolm Turnbull remains a sort of alien figure, floating out there in a reality beyond geography, clever and rich and ruthless and engaging and self-obsessed, but floating nevertheless, out there, just beyond my grasp.

All of this may be, I fear, the musings of an ageing man who does not understand that the world of his childhood no-longer exists and that his memories may be of some historic interest but have no contemporary resonances. And yet there is Rocky every morning, choosing to head off in the direction of the St Kilda pier, alert to the possibility of further exploration and revelation along this strip of beach that has become so familiar to both of us. I do wonder whether one day, he will decide to head the other way, along the path not taken and whether, if he does, I will be pleased or disappointed.

 

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  • 1
    Averil Bones
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I am living something of harbourside Sydney, and when I walk down to the local jetty I pretty much look across at Turnbull’s mansion. There’s something about the harbour that has me captivated. It’s not the pricey real estate, or the views so much. It’s the stingrays and the surprising garfish. It’s the fairy penguins and the green and yellow ferries that, if you know where to get on and off, you can ride all day for free. I guess it’s much the same over Malcolm’s way, but I don’t think Crabb would know enough to sit under a nice shady fig and watch the tide creep up the sandstone crevices, lift up all the rickety sail boats.

    Just so you know, underneath all that clever, rich, ruthless concrete, the Kirribilli that once was – in truth ‘good fishing spot’ – is right there, like Playing Beattie Bow, shimmering beneath the surface. And like all the laboured stitches that make up our vast embroidery of humanity, I’m sure your childhood is there, just like mine, swimming, flashing like a rare and sudden iridescent fish.

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