No 12 - September 2000
or Talking To Harry
I like street-markets. They are the basis of human commerce. There we buy our needs and sell our surpluses. Markets are blessed by time. We have traded this way for millennia. They linger in the memory long after all the supermarkets have dissolved into one dreary check-out. They are untarnished by advertisers and marketing managers. My travelling memories are full of market scenes: the fat man selling larks and thrushes at Aigues-Mortes, turning over the little bodies for appraisal by a perfectly groomed old lady; the rows of vegetables in New Guinea and the bulky women with their bilums on their heads; the churlish old woman who sold me potatoes on a chilly, wet morning in Malmö; the cheerful Malay man who offered me an enormous groper on the jetty at Semporna.
Australian markets have their own style. As well as food, there are garden plants, knick-knacks, second-hand tools, incense and massage oils. There are books and woodwork at Apollo Bay, garden plants and fluffy dolls at Burnside, coconuts and custard-apples in Cairns. They are also the meeting-places for those who dwell on the edges, those who hear another call beyond the roar of mortgage and superannuation. These people are our hill-tribes, our charcoal-burners, the didicoi of our technological and regulated society. Their symbols are as varied as they are themselves: worn dreadlocks; a sly tattoo on a band of flesh; bare feet; second-hand floral pants; the smell of dope and hand-rolled cigarettes. I delight in them. They are our hope in the face of smothering conformity.
When I lived in Darwin, I often took an early walk along the beach on a Saturday morning and then went to the Parap market for breakfast. I remember one day in particular. A cormorant was fishing on the glistening sea, the sun a slice of light on pewter, with a soft focus on the reluctant monsoon. There were growls of thunder and mounting cumulus across the harbour. The bird hunted methodically, diving from the surface of the water until it seized a fish in its beak. It juggled the flapping creature, moving it around until it was able to swallow it headfirst.
Once I reached the market I was wandering around rather aimlessly, enjoying the activity of the place when I heard my name called. I turned and saw a rather paunchy man in middle-age, hiding from the morning sun behind a pair of sunglasses. I didn’t recognise him. I like eye-contact and the sunglasses formed a barrier. Even when he called my name again, he kept his glasses on. I still did not recognise him.
“Harry”, he said, finally. To help me.
I hadn’t seen Harry for two or three years. Someone had told me that he had gone overseas and had a part-share in a bar somewhere. I’ve forgotten where it was; it doesn’t matter anyway. Somewhere in south-east Asia. He had put on a lot of weight. That morning, he was red-faced, sweating and redolent of last night’s whisky. The platitudes had barely fluttered between us when he started on his diatribe. Looking back on it now, it seems almost like a prepared speech. Certainly, it never seemed like a spontaneous conversation between two people who used to have a drink together quite often and who had met casually after a long separation.
What started him off was the young woman. She was standing on the edge of the market in a vacant spot, offering a petition for people to sign. It was on a clipboard, resting on a rickety folding table. She was wearing patched jeans and a very faded, shapeless black top. Her feet were bare and rather dirty, the toenails chipped and uneven. Harry looked at her with scorn.
“We should throw her kind to the troops, for their pleasure,” he said.
I looked at him. He did not see my shock. He had achieved momentum now so he dredged on.
“They don’t know what they’re talking about, bloody do-gooders. It’s a different situation over there. You’ve got to keep law and order. Otherwise, there’ll be chaos. All this nonsense about peace. Load of shit,” he proclaimed.
Around us, there was the cheerful clamour of the market. The babble of languages, splashes of Thai, Malay, Greek, French, Italian, Portuguese, Kriol, Tiwi, several shades of English. The rival smells of cooking: sizzling chicken, bacon sandwiches, laksa, nasi lemak, dom yum. Fruit and vegetables: bunches of dewy kangkong and frail coriander, round, crisp, green Granny Smith apples, spiky jackfruit, sensual, mellow pawpaws, fresh coconut milk. Secondhand clothes. Sarongs from Asia. Orchids from Humpty Doo. Appealing, fluffy kittens looking for a good home. Pottery, jewellery, trinkets. A mendicant poet. And petitions for good causes.
Law and order is the socially approved context for violence, the reason to kill Jews or Arabs, Serbs or Kosovars, Christians or Muslims. I remember a lunchtime in the wine-bar, Harry. We had both drunk too much and were lured, tangentially, into reminiscence. We talked of our fathers. I recall how you stood at the bar and suddenly looked very serious, very sober even. At the time, I respected you for what you said and how you said it. You took a sip of your drink and raised your glass for a toast.
“Lest we forget”, you said, Harry. You repeated your toast, took another sip of your drink and raised your glass.
“Lest we forget.” This time I joined in.
I nodded in sombre fashion. My father had died in the war, when I was a few months old. My family had always seen the loss as a private one. We didn’t lay wreathes at cenotaphs or attend marches and get drunk afterwards. But we had not forgotten. For once, in the wine-bar, I was acknowledging it publicly.
But now I thought: Lest we forget what, Harry? Your father died, the prisoner of a brutal and expansionist régime. Dysentery dissolved his guts in Changi. Mine died bobbing up and down somewhere in the chilly waters of the Solent, his fate summarised in that telling phrase ‘Missing in Action’. They were fighting brutal and expansionist tyrants. But please tell me what they died for, Harry. What was the great, bloody crusade all about? Harry, do you not see that we all live under the shadow of history? Don’t you recognise a brutal and expansionist régime when you see one? You just want to hear the boots on the streets!
Did our fathers die so that, half a century later, we forget the reasons for their deaths and allow militaristic governments to shoot unarmed civilians? Is that why those names, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and Treblinka scoured a furrow in our collective consciousness? Harry, I said, tell me about these places. The Nazis just wanted to do things their way, is that it? Things had always been different in Germany so the Nazis had to employ different methods, did they, Harry? Is this not a denial of morality when we reduce it to what is expedient? You do the right thing as long as it is advantageous to do the right thing.
I thought about the cormorant catching fish. The bird had killed another living creature so that it itself could live. A brutish transaction, if you like. Since the beginning of thought, humans have been trying to reconcile the beauty of nature with its brutishness. Some of us have used the ways of nature to justify what we do. But when the cormorant ate that fish, it did not tell the fish how to think. II did not threaten the fish if it failed to conform. It did not say: ‘If you do not think the way I want you to, I will eat you.’
I could not share these thoughts with Harry as he stood there, flushed, throwing words at me. But Harry, why do we comfort a hurt child, rescue an abandoned puppy, run a gentle hand over a brow that is furrowed with care or sorrow? Why do we wipe away tears or clasp a hand that is clammy with fear? Perhaps you don’t do that any more. Perhaps you never did, Harry. It may not matter to you but I want to be at peace with myself, misbegotten and misguided though this idea may be. I want to do more than just reason, I want to feel. I want to be able to say ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad’ and to know the difference. I want something more than the expediency of simple solutions. Finally, my thoughts turned into words.
“Yours is the easy way, isn’t it, Harry? It gives you the mental ballast you need so you can stand up straight and tell them how to think. And when they stand there in mute defiance or shout back ‘No’ or raise a defiant placard, you get the army to shoot them. Simple. Bit messy cleaning up afterwards. The blood attracts flies and makes the streets rather slippery. Bad for business for a while, too.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the best thing for these ... dickheads ... would be another Desert Storm!”, Harry said suddenly . “I’m ashamed at you. I thought you had more sense!”
He was sweating profusely and his face was even redder. He stomped off, barely in control of his temper. He did not say goodbye. His last gesture was to adjust his sunglasses so that they sat more comfortably on his nose. Almost at once a disturbance broke out. I heard raised voices and sensed that strange, sudden lull in conversation which occurs in a crowd when something unusual happens. I saw Harry. His face was swollen and now purple. He was being restrained by a bulky man in blue jeans and studded leather belt who had tattoos on his arms and an untidy bush of a beard. Harry was yelling, unintelligibly, at the top of his voice.
“Settle down, mate, settle down, willya?” his captor said in a gruff voice. Harry’s words were lost, distorted by the echo of his violence. The bulky man gave Harry’s arms another jerk up towards his shoulder-blades.
The object of Harry’s wrath appeared to be an Asian man selling vegetables from a stall. The man seemed totally bewildered, as if he did not understand what had released this ghastly, misdirected force. He was standing at his stall slightly stooped but with his head raised so that he could watch Harry. His posture was half-defensive. He looked like a tortoise which had been frightened into its shell but was now, with inchmeal caution, extruding its head and neck back to view the outside world.
With a surprisingly agile twist, Harry suddenly broke loose from the grip of the big man and turning, stomped off away from the stalls. He was cursing volubly. At first, the Asian man jumped back, withdrawing the neck into the shell again. As soon as he saw his assailant retreating, he stood completely upright and grinned. He extended his arm to the other man and they shook hands. The Asian man nodded vigorously at him several times and smiled copiously. The bearded one looked stern and turned to glance over his shoulder. Harry had disappeared into the crowd.
This left me standing by the young woman with the petition. She smiled at me. I don’t remember what her petition was about. Forests. Whales. Uranium mining. East Timor. Aceh. Irian Jaya. Refugees. I am not sure that I even knew what it was about at the time.
I didn’t care. I wanted to protest every war waged, every tree felled, every hillside mined and every tribe dispossessed. I just saw her smile and thought of the shameless violence Harry had offered her.
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