A Beautiful Moment in China

A Beautiful Moment in China
Yes, I look weathered; it had been a long climb. But I was about to reach the Buddhist temple outside of Shao Xing.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Stones: a Memoir

“You can throw stones only if everyone aims out across the water and no boy stands in front of another,” I say. “Okay?”

A wide azure sky, a glassy lake and a chorus of kookaburras in the red gums to each side.  On school camps like this I feel the same vigour and sense of freedom that I see in the kids.  The boys cannot resist the billion or so smooth pebbles covering the shore; a sort of magic draws the hand to them, impels the arm to throw at something.  I am feeling what they feel – or is it a faint echo from my childhood calling through my body?

Other echoes from very recent events ring in my mind, such as the staff meeting in which we tried to thrash out the issue of whether boys need a different education from girls.  The proposal to ban some potentially injurious games in the yard was a particularly hot potato.  “We have to give boys scope to be themselves, to find themselves,” I recall saying to colleagues.  “Yes, they also need to learn how to respect others, to empathise, to express feelings the right way.  But they’re wired to take risks and to push and shove and throw and jump and all the rest of it.  Try to repress all that and it’ll break out in ways we can’t accept.”

The thirty-odd boys in my charge are waiting on the lake shore for the rest of the campers to collect us in a bus.  I’m weary after a long hike.  I would love to sit for a while, but the bus is already over half an hour late and the kids are aching for physical activity.  With sixty feet crunching deliciously on a thick carpet of pebbles, I know that before long some boy will pick one up and it will be on for young and old. But I have to prevent them from hurting each other.  So, cursing the bus, I try to direct the urge constructively.  I show them the water-skipping technique.

Decades ago my father would walk my brother, sister and me along the beach and show us how to send pebbles bouncing across the surface of the sea.  He dissected the whole routine – finger-grip, arm action, stance, type of pebble.  Whenever the chance came I would lose myself in endless practice.

It was simple repetition with an effort to discover tiny variations that could make the difference between the satisfaction of achieving a clean skip and the ecstasy induced by a perfect triple-skipper or better.  And occasionally all the heavens would ring with triumph when my little missile happened to leap off the crest of a smooth wave and soar high into an arc undreamt of.  It was a quest every bit as heroic and compelling as that of the alchemists and the seekers of the grail.

As rapt as when I listened to my Grade 3 teacher read the story of David and Goliath, I acted out a myth living deep in the human unconscious.  The myth adopts you as its own, ennobles you and infuses you with its power.  And somehow, swelling with this hubris, you believe that you are beyond moral reproach, that whatever you aim for must be the right target.  Most boys are seduced thus at some stage of their lives; adulthood, too, brings the occasional relapse; some men even seem to live the myth constantly.

There is something about the stone itself, the feel of it in your hand, stirring the hero within.  Pondering this recently where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet Australia’s coast, I walked over massive granite boulders that taunt the green mountains of water into furious white suicide.  The scene has continued for millennia.  One gigantic eruption of spray follows another, and the long lines of the waves keep coming from over the horizon towards the same fate.  The only variation from one day to the next is in their size; the action and its direction never changes.

There was little more imagination or self-questioning among the military master-minds under whom my grandfather fought in the Great War.  They would send wave upon wave of men in attacks against the German lines, knowing full well that most or all would die without taking any enemy ground.  The war of attrition: just keep attacking for however long it takes to wear the bastards down, regardless of how many of your own you lose.  But now the rock, not the sea, seemed to epitomise my grandfather and all those whom the war claimed.  They and their stories and their sufferings, like the boulders I stood on, endure in the collective memory of the generations.

I clambered across the granite shoulders just above the water-line.  The rock, so cold and hard, gave deep comfort, offering a sort of unconditional, perpetual stability.  A sort of love, even.  I remembered how, as a boy, I would picnic with my parents at Port Elliot and Victor Harbour, in another State some thousands of kilometres to the east along the same coastline.  At the first chance I would run away along the sand, past all the idle sunbathers, run until no other human voice could reach my ears, to where brilliant fingers of spray leapt from the outcrops of boulders with one huge roar after another, and go to a spot where I could feel cradled by the granite all around me.

I was the child of this savage, elemental world, and its wisdom and power were passed on to me through contact with the rock.  Here, as huge swells loomed and the southerly wind whipped my face, I could cry irresistible commands to humanity, knowing that the words came straight from the heart of creation.

From trips like this I would inevitably bring home pebbles and sometimes bigger chunks of stone to add to a collection scattered in nooks and crannies of my room.  Certain pebbles became very special: a smooth, ovoid piece of conglomerate, mostly blue-black but orange-brown at one end; another piece of conglomerate like a shiny, buckled plate, pale brown with a couple of dark grey pieces and a set of wavy lines like some ancient script.  And there were many others, and often I would take one to school, where I could escape from the tyranny of some boring teacher by fondling the pebble to be empowered anew with the natural force that was my birth-right. I would polish it lovingly.

The stone linked me with my origins.  I had come from a past so distant that it could be timeless, a past that hummed in my mouth songs with no words but with meaning that I could feel in my belly.  It was like the euphoria that follows a delicious meal after a laborious day of fast.  Daily life and its people were not enough to quell the hunger pangs I felt; succour came only from a source to which time was irrelevant.

Thus could stone empower the spirit, but it could also become an instrument for seeking worldly power.  In my primary school years I yearned to belong to a certain neighbourhood gang which roamed the local paddocks.  They were an exclusive group with high status who made and played with “stone guns”, wooden catapults shaped like small rifles or pistols.  The hierarchy of authority that boys lean towards was explicitly based on the quality of each person’s gun and shooting.  The idea of owning such a weapon captured me. Though far less able than other boys at hand-craft of any sort, I spent hours at Dad’s work-bench, driven by desire to rise in the estimation of my peers.

It was a hopeless product that I turned out.  When I took it out to play with the gang they were aiming at targets like boxes and posts. The device which released my elastic and the stone it propelled just wouldn’t work.  I resorted to pulling back the elastic and holding it between my fingers like an ordinary shanghai until I was ready to shoot.  This made the aim very unreliable.

I let go and there was a scream of pain.  My mate Roger was on his knees with both hands clasped to one eye!  On all sides the fingers of scornful accusation immediately pointed at me.

I fled home in bewildered shame.  Roger came to school for a day or two with a bandage over one eye, but the injury was not serious.  As far as I can remember I didn’t know what to say to him.  I think it was the first time I had ever caused a perceptible injury, and I was too shocked to think of an apology. The rest of the gang, I felt, were quite hypocritical in using me as a scapegoat.  They ostracised me permanently.

It’s in most of us from birth, the urge of boys to throw and hit things, embedded in the brain like rock-bound fossils from aeons ago.  I wonder if neuroscientists Bill and Ann Moir had some such image in mind when they wrote about “brain-sculpting” – the way hormones released in the third month after conception shape neurological structures into male or female, homosexual or heterosexual forms.  Certainly the evidence presented by the scientists is as hard as granite: in general, boys are better at certain things than girls, and vice versa.  Because of innate brain-structure, males tend to excel in such areas as judging size, distance and spatial relationships, along with gross motor activity.  Little wonder that they want to aim at targets, propel, jump and climb, run over much bigger spaces than most of the girls. 

Such knowledge was still to reach me when, at the age of twenty, words bruised like rocks as spectators hurled them at me and my companions walking down the middle of city streets.  As when the gang had ostracised me in childhood, I was again the target of abuse – but this time for refusing to shoot guns.  I had registered as a conscientious objector against conscription into the armed services fighting in Vietnam, and now marched in protest.  Many other marchers surrounded me, but the accusations of “Traitor!” and “Coward!” stung.

Were my birth-date to be drawn from the conscription barrel I would have to become a soldier unless I could defend my beliefs in court.  While not completely pacifist, I vehemently opposed Australia’s participation in that war.  This was not a basis for a defence according to law, so I doubt in retrospect that I could have argued my case successfully.  In the end I was not conscripted but discovered that several of my mates had been.  And two, perhaps the gentlest and least defensive of all, had been killed.

Now, nearly forty years later on the shore of this lake, the boys bubble around me with glee, competing to see who can get the most skips out of a pebble.  Glad that I introduced the idea, I squat down to show them some stones of superior shape and size.

And then my head explodes.  Stunned, I see that my hand has found sticky blood oozing from just above one eye.

The rock came from slightly behind me; it did not travel directly towards the water.  An innocent child’s clumsy technique, perhaps?  I hardly try to find the culprit, because somehow it seems wrong to relate the cause to the boys around me here and now.  The pain in my head feels many, many years old.

“Sorry, Roger,” I groan.  “Please forgive me.”

© Stephen Crabbe 2002

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Away with the birds: a character whose centre is music

I’d like you to meet Neddy. He’s a seven-year-old in my book of historical fiction, Song of Australia. When the story opens he’s out at night by himself.

Bare feet on cool ground, Neddy watched the stars. So bright, so clean. He could hear them—happy, sharp, poking his ears to make him sing with them. He opened his mouth, sang little notes like hot sparks from a fireplace, sent them shooting into the sky. ‘Ting! Tong! Ting-ting-tong!’

Neddy relates to the world mainly through sound, and especially through music. That same night, when he hears a public speaker address a meeting inside a hall, he makes a judgement of the person accordingly.

Neddy stopped listening to that voice. It was empty, dead, no music in it. It made him lonely. ‘Ting! Tong!’ He sang softly to the stars and smiled when they all answered together. He had friends.

The boy begins to pay attention again when he hears piano music coming from the hall. He looks through the doorway.

A girl sat at the piano, older than Neddy. He knew her. Sometimes in the front garden of a house near home, she smiled and waved to him as he passed. Her long fair hair twisted into a rope behind her shoulders. Someone in the house called her Elsie. Now her hair-rope was pinned up on her head as she played the piano. Elsie’s music was nice, like magpies he liked to sing with out in the bush. Neddy learnt a lot from magpies.

Both Neddy and Elsie are lead characters in my story. Although she is highly successful at school and he is the polar opposite, they are linked by their gift for music. Yet they approach music quite differently. Elsie is trained in classical pianoforte, but Neddy has had no training—not from a human anyway. He embodies a way of being that our civilisation has largely forgotten—much to its detriment, in my opinion. We have largely forgotten that we are creatures evolved to live in song. Scientific research in recent years indicates that human speech emerged from human song. Reflect on that: song enabled language. What are the implications—in education, for example?

Our civilisation demands that, of all the perceptual modalities available to us, we use vision as the primary channel of awareness. The implicit dogma is that vision is far superior to hearing, touch, smell, taste and kinaesthesia as a means of cognition. In Song of Australia, Neddy’s whole being is centred on hearing and sound, particularly that organised sound which we call music. In fact he’s highly gifted with singing ability, while finding literacy very difficult to acquire because it is taught mainly through vision. Schooling in South Australia a hundred years ago (the setting of my story) was only rarely modified to meet individual needs—unless the student was deemed significantly lacking in intelligence, given an official label like ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘moron’, and placed in a special class or institution. Consider how he must have felt about his schooling: no wonder he runs away to sit in the boughs of the big red gum and sing.

And the magpies? Bear in mind these are Australian magpies, quite different from species by the same name in other countries. They are perhaps the best songsters in the avian world, with a vocal pitch-range of four octaves, a voice with rich overtones (sometimes called ‘flute-like’), an amazing repertoire of calls and a propensity for melodic invention. They can even sing two-note chords! Some people have developed musical relationships with these birds with specific whistle-calls that they answer. Magpies are adept at mimicry: they have been known to learn to utter human words they hear frequently in their territory.

The best of the magpie music, in my experience, is heard in autumn. Breeding is over, the fledgelings have taken to the air, and the bird seems to find leisure time to just sing. Sometimes it’s a duo carolling: one takes the low part and the other erupts into ascending harmony, reaches a climax and then … silence. A few seconds later they begin again, repeating more or less the same phrases. This may continue for ten minutes or more.  Even more enchanting is the warbling of a single magpie at night, usually when the moon is bright. In this context the notes are not as high and the volume also is much lower, too soft to be intended communication with other birds. The magpie high in the gum tree seems to be singing alone for the pure love of it, sometimes for over an hour.

[Listen to a variety of magpie song here.]

In Song of Australia Neddy loves human music but, for him, magpie song is the best. As suspicion, grief and hatred sear the home-front during World War 1, for Neddy the music of magpies is the epitome of beauty and truth.

No breeze stirred the leaves of the old red gum where, cradled in the crook of a thick branch, Neddy sat waiting. They would be here in a minute. The shadows in the little clearing below told him that. This was always the time for the songs to start.

The big tree waited too. The tree wanted to sing. He hummed for it, stroking the trunk. This old tree was always his friend. Like a mother sometimes too. Teachers couldn’t boss him here. Children couldn’t tease him. Tree looked after him. And the magpies.

Neddy stopped humming. Wings whooshed around the trees up there. He stood up on the branch, took a big breath and sang. Magpies joined in. Sometimes their voices were low and soft, sometimes high and loud. They stopped and he sang again and they answered. This went on and on, until the magpies swooped to the ground to feed.

He felt better now. Teachers and nasty children had gone from his ears and his body tingled from singing. He sat again on Old Tree’s branch. But down on the ground … Who?  That girl—Elsie. She was down there, staring up.

‘Hullo Neddy. I love your singing. Come and talk with me.’

You can find Song of Australia on sale at your Amazon website

Friday, 6 September 2013

National Anthem: Advance Australia or Dance Australia?

“What country do you come from?” someone asks me during an overseas trip.

I rise from my chair and stand erect. Eyes gazing to the far horizon, I place hand firmly over heart and announce in tremulous voice: “I come from Girt-by-Sea.” And walk off before the obvious question comes.

Advance Australia Fair, our Australian anthem, is wide open for criticism on the grounds of anachronistic language. “Our land is girt by sea” is the most glaring example. (Although I must say that “girt” is a crisp, concise monosyllable with a lovely ring.) I daresay some other anthems could also be derided in the same ruthless way.

Words and music
But why, when people discuss a national anthem, do they almost invariably talk about the words rather than the music? Oh yes, there may be a brief comment on the tune, calling it “stirring”, or “dull”, or whatever. But the commentary on the text tends to be much more elaborate and analytical.

I suppose one could blame our education system, in part, for not equipping the populace with the skills, concepts and vocabulary to appraise music and explain why the listener considers it good, bad or indifferent. (Learning to actually make music gets even less priority.) Going further, it seems clear that the curriculum of the education system is largely a reflection of the prevailing values of society—or at least of those society places in authority. Literacy and numeracy hold sway, with some recent emphasis going to science—and now history, by which hangs another tale or two.

If my country could conduct an informed public debate about alternatives to our current anthem, I would urge attention to questions about how the music might induce a better attitude towards life within our community.

For instance, why do nations always assume that their anthems must have the beat of a walk or march? Musically speaking, we are talking here about 4/4 or 2/4 time. There seems to be an unwritten rule that the song must suggest military discipline (through marching) or stately pomp (as in a slow procession). Sometimes this feels to me like humourless authoritarianism.

Let the nation dance!
Surely there’s another way of loving one’s country and caring for it? A more light-hearted way that might even be fun. A way of feeling free within social relationships. Such an attitude might be better expressed and encouraged with a 3/4 or 6/8 rhythm, as in a waltz. Why not have a national anthem sung with the joie-de-vivre of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube? You laugh perhaps, but I’m serious!

All of this leads us to the question of what a nation is. Do we want it to be a fortress, perhaps a base for campaigns of conquest, whether military or economic? Or can we conceive of a nation as a fertile ground for joyful cooperation and creative freedom?

Put it another way: should we have an anthem whose tune imparts a message of not “advance Australia”, but “dance Australia”? Really.

A book for our time
Matters like these—the State and freedom, language and music—preoccupy the minds of the battling characters in my book, Song of Australia. They are living during the First World War when Australia was only fourteen or so years old and confusion about national identity was huge. The themes still echo in today’s society. This is a book for our times.

Song of Australia is now available as both e-book and paperback. I invite you to look at it—here and here.