A Brief Sojourn

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Lake Constance, Friedrichsafen

A year ago I took a brief trip to Europe. Here’s what I wrote upon my return, late 2015.

***

In mid August I boarded a flight bound for England, the start of my two month trip to Europe. Months prior I decided to finally buy a ticket, thinking it was about time. Friends had gone, I’d listened to stories, seen the pictures. Time to go, let’s see what it’s all about. Sheepishly and nervously I boarded my first international flight on my own, without any real expectations. Over 24 hours later I stepped off the tube and out onto Borough High Street in London. It was oddly warm and humid but that aside the city slacked my jaw: huge, busy, crowded, rushed. It was all surreal for a suburban Melbourne boy, and it was the start of my brief sojourn.

My first night in a mixed dormitory was marked by the scene of an Englishman having his bed pissed on by a very sleepy German. The accusations and the perp’s defence woke me. Did you piss on my bed?! The lights turn on to reveal the crime scene, dripping wet. The offending chap could neither definitively say it was or wasn’t him and it took some wrestling with the hostel manager on deck to get him out of bed to face the music. ‘You know,’ he said to the incredulous manager, ‘you can’t really prove it was me’. A Frenchman pipes up, annoyed at the disturbance. The German’s colleagues apologise on their friend’s behalf, despite his denials. Ordered out onto the street, gone, no bed, evicted. Glad to have watched this from a top bunk where my chances of being marked were slim (and gladder still to see that he had at least the courtesy to piss on the foot of the bed, not the head) I wonder if this is one of the first silly nights among many. Yes, yes sir. Yes it will be.
Apart from the drinking that wouldn’t really stop until I left Tullamarine, I set about my site seeing. I travel to Oxford for a day and take a walk through Balliol, the college of the late and great Christopher Hitchens. I sit in the Eagle and Child for an average fish and chips, the same place where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis sat to discuss their writing. The physical closeness and timely distance to and from the great and historical would become a constant thread, and one is consistently reminded of it. My guide at Oxford, Ian, an elderly man whose enthusiasm appeared endless, pointed out Tony Abbott’s old college and upon discovering my nationality, teased me for it. (This wouldn’t be the last time I couldn’t escape from the embarrassing turd: in my journal I would write every so often of any recent attempts at governance or leadership, although it would all turn to glee in the coming weeks when in Prague I learn of Turnbull’s coup.) I catch up with a friend and make a trip to Cambridge. Buckingham Palace’s apparent majesty is lost on me, made unimpressive by its hereditary principles, and paled compared to Westminster. The House of Commons seems even smaller than you’re told beforehand, and this makes it all the more impressive as a house of debate. The busts and statues of the greats line the halls and intersections, champions of politics, actual leaders—something I feel in wanting of.
Being so swamped in history I felt a slight disconnect with the here and now, but despite this I would be brought up to speed. After visiting Paris for three nights I booked a Thalys train service to Amsterdam, and it was a Thalys service that was only days prior, on the 22nd of August, boarded by a man who attempted to open fire with an AK47 before being subdued by off-duty American servicemen and others. The culprit managed to kill no one and was apparently dumbfounded at the terror charges laid against him. Though not at all scared because of this, I was reminded that a holiday doesn’t place you at that great a distance from world events.
Paris was more or less a city sized museum. I visit the Louvre, Versailles, see the Notre Dame, and cruise the Seine. A tour up to Montmart takes us through what has been known as the Bourgious Bohemian quarter of Paris. Or, in other words, home of the hipster. Mystique, an infamous street artist, once lived here and was broken up with and kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment in the middle of August—the worst time to be homeless in Paris—and told he never wanted to see her again. So she stencil’s her face and paints it everywhere she knew he’d ever be, even his home. The loser fled, never to return to the city of love. My other favourite story is that of the Beloved King, a man loved by many and who lived to party. On the completion of the New Bridge he threw a party: wine for all! Once the supply was exhausted, it was champaign for all! He then commissioned his artist friend to sculpt the heads of all his drunken friends, all of which now adorn the New Bridge. This King, amongst all the other monarchs I learnt about, with at least 54 mistresses and over 30 illegitimate children, was quite the cheeky standout. My favourite.
Amsterdam struck me as the first city I’d imagine myself moving to. A bike ride through the city, particularly through the Jordaan district, revealed to me in full the pretty streets and handsome canals. I note in my journal that parts of it remind me of places like Brunswick back in Melbourne. I would later feel and write the same of Berlin, Kreuzberg in particular, decidedly and easily my favourite city. Funnily enough the two places that reminded me most of home were the one’s I warmed to most, where I could imagine living.
The Netherlands is also where I began the necessary moral education: a visit to the Anne Frank museum. Even after later visiting Dachau and Auschwitz, this was easily the most touching, tearjerking experience. Two details struck me hard. First was the preliminary room, blank apart from those four perfect pictures of Anne: laughing, smiling, happy, the pictures spread across one corner of the room, all on their own. Then there was the picture of Otto, Anne and Margot’s father, standing alone in what looks like their hiding place. Such a forlorn look in the eye, a sadness, alone there without a family that came so agonisingly close to emancipation. I couldn’t help but feel there was a man forever recalling. How many small moments must’ve passed before his mind’s eye. I write in my journal that day: ‘my heart could weep forever.’
I’m surprised to learn that Anne was born in 1929, the same year as Werner, my Opa—my grandfather, my mother’s father. It was with this in mind that I made my next visit to Freiburg, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest. In the dying days of the war, Opa, only a teenager, was sent to the Western Front to face off the American tanks. Sent out in groups of three and under threat of punishment, he went out and was always the only one to return. At war’s end, he walked home, through the forest, through the hills. I took the Schauinslanbahn to the top of the mountain range and walked the paths, listened to the breeze running through the trees, touched the bark and the Earth in an unwitting ceremony of connection and left with two leaves placed in a book. My next stop was Friedrichshafen, Opa’s hometown on the edge of Lake Constance. Lacking any addresses, I attempt to gain at least an idea of the town, and it was just that: a small industrious population, home to one university campus. I had hoped to have a swim in the lake like my Opa must’ve done and before my hopes were dashed by the weather, I was encouraged by one of the students living in the apartment I was staying in. ‘You can’t not go in now that you’re here!’ Despite the odd looks from the locals, I wade in. Just a swim perhaps, but it’s the same lake Opa grew up by. Whether it means anything, I don’t know, but it felt necessary. A touching of bases, a loose connection despite separation, a brief dive into remembrance. I feel the cool rush of the water, the rocks beneath, and lying back my eyes are drawn to sun breaking through the clouds. I think of Opa and how strange it feels to think he died earlier this year. He lived a long and happy life, Anne did not. I take a couple of pebbles from the shoreline—a piece of Friedrichshafen for Mum.
Leaving behind the familial connection I travel to Munich, enjoy the beer, sit in Hoftbrauhaus for a pork knuckle and two litres of HB, and otherwise continue my backpacking as well as the education, paying a visit to Dachau, forerunner concentration camp for the Nazi’s. Why the gas chamber and crematorium if the killing was done beyond German borders? No one really knows for sure, apparently. After leaving the birthplace of Hitler’s popularity, I travel to Prague and was happy to stand on the same ground the Velvet Revolution made its stand on. I visit a monastery where monks undertook what was considered a sacred duty: the brewing of beer. It was the safest thing to drink, once upon a time. It was during my final hours in Prague that I learnt of Turnbull’s challenge and I knew that as soon as he made the pitch, he’d won. So much experience and political maturity means he’d know when to strike. It was all over for uncle Tone, and if there had been a time to drink to it it would’ve been right there and then but there was a night bus to catch. I write an ecstatic email home instead. In any case, much much more drinking is to be done at my next stop.
Budapest. Staying at a party hostel, I book for six nights but in the end I stay for nine. This is a common theme, I discover. For eight nights straight it was a party and I quickly empathised with those who told stories of arriving at the hostel a long time ago, planning only to stay for a couple of weeks but ending up staying for a year, two or even three. I’m reunited with my high school chum a few days in. Seeing an old friend is most welcome alongside the sea of new faces. There’s a spa party, a boat party, a karaoke night, ruin-bar pub crawls, and most memorably a beer bike. I learn here that it’s a very small world by running into a friend from Melbourne on the street at 2.30am. ‘Is that Luke Burns?’ I hear a voice to my side. I turn and we embrace, laughing at the coincidence. Some of the best people I met I met in Budapest—Buda-Fuckin-Pest—so it was with a slight pang that I left for Serbia. The night before I leave, two Mexicans check in to my dorm and upon learning of my next destination they are shocked, being concerned primarily for my safety. Irony always goes down well.
The wars of the 90’s and their closeness were obvious in Belgrade and especially so in Sarajevo. There was a slight hint of terseness from one tour guide when I asked how Serbians think of the wars, with the answer being they don’t, ‘we just want to move on.’ Another was more open to the topic suggesting the Serbs suffered too, although granted they weren’t invaded nor was there a Srebrenica equivalent committed in Republika Srpska and there is definitely no denying the plans for a greater Serbia under Milosevic. In Sarajevo the act of remembrance is strong and reminds me of the German tradition. The Srebrenica exhibit was thorough, though interestingly it isn’t at all supported by the government. Sarajevo Roses—fatal mortar impacts painted red—keep announcing themselves throughout the city. Bullet holes riddle building facades, houses still lie in ruin and one realises that many, if not most of the people walking the streets lived through the siege, were there, were shot at, targeted, and you can’t help but feel that the old man passing by looks slightly more weathered because of it. Youth unemployment here is at around 65% and our guide, who was just a boy at the time, taking us to the Olympic bobsled track and Serb sniper and tank positions, tells us that you only get work by making friends, connections, doing favours, that much could be solved by a constitutional change and, most obviously, much less corruption.
It wasn’t all war and bad economies. The befriending continued in both cities. Sarajevo is beautiful, a true melting pot: there is a real line in the stone that shows the Austro-Hungarian side and the Ottoman and my best meal was had in Belgrade, in a theatre styled restaurant with live classical music, made all the better by a more than favourable exchange rate. At this point, one becomes proficient in delivering a standardised, verbally efficient account of their trip and circumstances when meeting fellow travellers. Many I will never see again, and names become, because of this realisation, a passing detail.
I take a flight up to Krakow and, despite experiencing the worst hangover I’ve had for a couple of years, I make the most of it. There comes the eventual trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where I wasn’t necessarily surprised by any of the details, even those new to me. Made clear to me was the scale of the murder, made into a large-scale industrial process. In Krakow, a walking tour takes me through the old Jewish quarter of the city and we pass through sections and passages related to Oscar Schindler and the film. The guide makes sure to tell the group that it’s important to remember that the businessman at first took full advantage of the dispossessed before a change of heart.
Berlin is my final destination, and I saved the best until last. Again, I’m reminded of home as soon as I arrive in Kreuzberg and I arrive just in time for the Fall. By chance I find that a good friend is staying at my hostel and he tells me this is the place where he’s felt most at home, where he’s most able to be himself. A few days later I begin to think he’s onto something. It must be the diversity—in people, cuisine, music and art, all in a once divided city. I ride a bike along the East Side Gallery, I’m shown the underground art scene, I experience the Berliner nightlife (It’s easy to have fun in Berlin. In fact, one is offered fun in many forms as they walk certain streets and parks. Prices negotiable), and there is the history lesson at every turn: the marks left by the Third Reich, the catalogue of crimes and police terror in the Topography of Terror, and the Cold War. I’m amused by the story of the bronze Goddess of Victory that rides atop the Brandenburg Gate. When Napoleon took it as a war trophy it was known as the Goddess of Peace but when he then felt defeat the Germans took it back, renamed it Victory, and the Goddess now looks down on the French Embassy. Another detail. Thoughts of home started to resound in the last couple of weeks despite my fondness for the city. Happy to go home, sad to leave Berlin.

Befriending people came easily and I fell into the company of many fine people. Australians were everywhere and it was clear to me how small the world can be. I’d make friends with people who were friends of those I was yet to meet; I ran into friends from back home in the dead of night; there were unexpected rendezvous with others, and I even ran into the same person three times in three different cities (and would later see them on a Melbourne train, months later). The refugee crisis I largely missed, though the increased police presence here and there and the unexpected border checks were a reminder. I also learn niche things about myself: I prefer the Impressionist movement of the 19th and early 20th century rather than the ghastly aesthetic of the 16th and 17th century and in seeing the Van Gogh collection, I realise the similarities between painting and poetry. More details.
Tim Winton in his essay Thoughts on Landscape suggests we, Australians, have part of our consciousness still dominated by our geography. It’s still so wild, large, and at times menacing compared to Western Europe, relatively boxed in by mountains and cities. Our landscape still holds a profound place in Australian art because we’re yet to reign it in. During his time in the Old World, Winton found that the European cities cramped his constitution. He was too used to the long horizon and the untamed nature of the island continent. At first I didn’t feel this. I enjoyed the enclosure of the forests, the sight of Swiss Alps, the old and dominant architecture. Though towards journey’s end I began to feel the need for a hotter sun, a bigger sky, for the dry Australian air. The foreign allures, but the home country is still that.
I’ve heard people refer to such a trip as a right of passage for young Australians. Maybe it’s just a holiday. Whatever you want to call it, it would be, overall, an education in difference, an exercise in character development and indeed, perhaps a necessary one, for despite the grandiose natural world of our home continent we share no borders like many other states. We’re not entangled in a group of smaller nations, of huge language groups. Regardless, many of us tend to look beyond our shores, and young Australians seem typically drawn to the Old World.

It is a strange change of pace to be home again. I’ve woken several times not knowing where I am, more often than I did in Europe, and it’s odd to be alone again after being surrounded by others so often—over breakfast, along walks, over dinner, whilst going out. But it feels good, even after only two months away, to be home. Some details amiss, indiscretions and naughtier details aside, but there it is, my brief sojourn.

A Poet’s Consolations

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The artist’s struggle is real. And in the great war against cliché, this struggle comes up again and again—the poet in pains, the writer in melon collie, the painter in bipolar, the musician in addiction. In many ways it is true, and maybe the artist is in more pain than others, or at least a kind particular to their life and craft. Then again, any life, ordinary or peculiar, can cast a morbid shadow, can cause a schism in the heart and at times contain such lowliness as to be too much.
It was a couple of years ago when I picked up Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke. I was in flux at the time. I wrote about it. I was feeling ‘melancholic and even forlorn and a series of questions and uncertainties have been pulling at me.’ It was indeed a result of uncertainty as well as idleness: no study, no work, just my own ideas and modest undertakings. ‘I’ve begun to seriously question what it is I ought to do with the years ahead of me and I’m far from certain…’ Since then I have studied more, have improved my drumming and writing and I’ve gone travelling. But here I am again, at a crossroads, knowing the things I want but not knowing quite how to go about it, or if any of it could ever work out. I had wondered back then, ‘am I wasting my young years?’

I did find some solace in Rilke’s words, and still do. In these letters, addressed to Mr Kappus—a young poet in need of advice—Rilke talked of solitude and how necessary it may be to the creative process. It’s easy to become lonesome and depressed with one’s own thoughts but Rilke suggests harnessing the solitude. ‘Therefore, dear sir,’ Rilke wrote, ‘love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.’ Harness the pain, in other words, and furnish something good; use it to reach introspective depths; treat the solitude as something sincere and useful. I do think there’s a fine line between wallowing in one’s pain and learning from it like Rilke suggests. If anything, this takes practice, and I doubt there are any true experts.
Whatever the case, this is a return to basics. When despair sets in, maybe you’re better off facing the dark, to look into and learn from it, than to push it aside or to reel from it. Listen to it, and hear what it says to you.
These dispatches to Mr Kappus are as much a guide to art as they are to life—love, thinking, sex, society, creation. On the doubts that are bound to surface in one’s life, he again suggests the harnessing of them:

And your doubts can become a good quality if you school them. They must grow to be knowledgeable, they must learn to be critical. As soon as they begin to spoil something for you ask them why a thing is ugly, demand hard evidence, test them, and you will perhaps find them at a loss and short of an answer, or perhaps mutinous. But do not give in, request arguments, and act with this kind of attentiveness and consistency every single time, and the day will come when instead of being demolishers they will become your best workers—perhaps the canniest of all those at work on the building of your life.

Shadowy doubts can be as constructive as they are destructive, it’s up to the individual to decide what they are.
And it’s clear, things aren’t always meant to be easy:

Of your life, Mr Kappus, which I am thinking of with so many hopes and wishes. Do you remember how this life of yours longed in childhood to belong to the ‘grown-ups’? I can see that it now longs to move on from them and is drawn to those who are greater yet. This is why it does not cease to be difficult, but also why it will not cease to grow.

The difficulties one faces might not represent a malaise or entropy. We might look at those who are comfortable and be envious, but should we feel this way? A comfortable life is as much that as it is static. Might they float down the same stream for years only to beach themselves and ultimately stale? On the other hand, those bearing the brunt of difficulties are only feeling the symptoms of improvement—they are the callas to your hands, the soreness in your feet, and the ache in your muscles. Difficulties are the sign of progress and life is hard.
The more intimate parts of our lives deserve, apparently, just as much scrutiny. ‘Sex is difficult, true…’ he writes. ‘But difficult things are what we were set to do, almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.’ I don’t know if everything is serious or if everything should be considered as such all the time. Still, I can’t help but interpret Rilke’s views on sexuality as not only progressive but entirely helpful:

And perhaps the sexes are more closely related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in man and woman, freed of all sense of error and disappointment, seeking one another out not as opposites but as brothers and sisters and neighbours, and they will join together as human beings, to share the heavy weight of sexuality that is laid upon them with simplicity, gravity and patience.

Our sexual lives can do without the societal demands and expectations that we know so intimately. It can be a simple coming to terms with our selves. To love one another as human beings, without being roped up and made to dance, is a good thing, to me at least.
The following words struck me hard when I read them. I had only recently put down Letters to a Young Poet when my grandfather died. I don’t believe there’s life after death, none of that stuff—there have been times when my Atheism has been firebrand and I believe the material is everything we can know. But Rilke’s words made me realise that death isn’t the total obliteration of the person, of the people we have known:

And yet they are in us, these people long since passed away, a disposition, as a load weighing on our destinies, as a murmur in the blood, and as a gesture that will rise up out of the depths of time.

I spoke those words in the eulogy I gave for his funeral the same week he died. The dead remain to touch us in other ways, as echoes and subconscious arrangements—the furniture of our minds—in objects, memories and stories, and as a part of our very selves: ‘…perhaps like the way the blood of our ancestors moves unceasingly within us,’ suggests Rilke, ‘and mingles with our own to make us the unique, not-to-be-repeated being that we are at every turn of our lives.’ Their remnants float around in us, clouds in our sky, never really going away.
I’ve strayed, but all of this bears the same relation. Even in doubt, loneliness and unhappiness, improvement is possible. Go back to basics. Reach into the heart of your anxieties and pull out something good. We’re placed down here out of no permission of our own, into a contract we had no part in signing. It cannot be annulled. So if you can, take your despair, look into it, ask why and light might be drawn. If not, do away with it—make the most of your time.

Letters to a Young Poet has been a source of encouragement for creatives for a long time. But there’s no need for exclusion. I cannot help but feel whilst reading the words of this dead poet that these humble letters of advice apply to many if not all, that the consultation of literature can be most helpful in the lowest of times. Maybe these, a poet’s consolations, can be a guide for all of us.

Letter to my Country: Filth on the Flag

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I love my country. I love the landscape, the big sky, the size of it; I love my home city, the multitude of peoples, the languages, the complexity of our culture. I think there are many good things we are capable of as a nation, so many opportunities for greatness. I like it here. But as I sit down in my comfortable home, as I enjoy what’s around me, I know there is something spoiling its grandeur, making it sour. Something else is going on and it is rotten.

***

Your person is searched thoroughly. There is a list of contraband that is strictly enforced. You are, with your compatriots, herded into crowded living quarters. It’s hot in the day, cold at night. The food is tasteless. High-wire fences surround you and guards watch your every move. Some might care, but many others take pleasure in the extremes of your discomfort. Others bash you. You cannot return home yet you cannot move on. The locals hate you. Few outsiders are allowed in to see what is happening. Your friends are depressed, anxious, psychotic. You watch people cut themselves, swallow razor blades, drink poison. Children are in despair, contemplating the end. Your sisters and mothers are molested—with nothing else but their bodies in their possession, they become commodities. Mothers talk of ending their sordid lives and dream of taking their children with them into the sea. There is no hope of leaving, no hope in staying. You can smell death.
What am I describing to you? What does it sound like? Is it a prison? Is it a World War II ghetto? Is it a Russian gulag? Is it an internment camp for ethnic or political prisoners in a time of war? No.
You know what it is.
The Nauru files detail heinous conditions for those on the island. The incident reports reveal not only the kinds of abuse, but that there are many more incidents likely to be occurring, unreported, that there are more children in depths of pain you and I cannot imagine. Those who have worked on the island—doctors, teachers, security personal—will tell you it’s the tip of the iceberg, that it is inherently toxic. The files will tell you that incident reports are purposefully downgraded in their level of severity. Those involved will tell you that children cannot understand why Australia hates them so. Anyone with tuppence worth of brains will tell you that this amounts to psychological torture, to leave them stateless and without recourse, that they cannot seek asylum—as our international legal obligations would demand—whilst returning home often means grave mistreatment, or even death. For others, the trauma seen on the island rivals that produced by some of the worst natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It’s almost too much to contemplate. And all the while the world is watching and the world is judging.
Not that the government would have you believe it, but the correct word for this place is something more like prison, gulag, or internment camp. Instead we’re being fed Orwellian terms: ‘Immigration detention centre’ and ‘processing’. We’re told things are done for the sake of ‘security,’ and we’re told by some of the highest ranking officials in the land that these people would take the easy road, would blackmail us with their self-immolation, that they are lying to us about the callous disregard and violence they experience, that comparing this squalid place to Guantanamo is ridiculous. We’re even told that this is somehow not the responsibility of our own government, that it all falls on the Nauruan people. This from the government that has placed upon this poor island nation this squalid mess, that is paying for the system with our money, billions of dollars.
Surely there are alarm bells going off when the fact is that those working on the island face criminal charges just for talking about the conditions there, for letting the Australian people know what is going on. This shroud of secrecy the government seems intent upon is the biggest giveaway, one of the most obvious signs of its wretchedness. The geography is bad enough—Nauru is 3,000 kilometres away from mainland Australia—and journalists are so rarely allowed on the island that we have to resort to footage and pictures taken in secret. Laws have to be broken for us to know the truth, something many of us still aren’t being exposed to despite the admirable efforts of many journalists, whistleblowers and campaigners.
What is going on here? Who is actually believing this government and its sickening minister for immigration?
When did the STASI move in? How long has the Propaganda Ministry been in action? What is happening to my country?
The rationale, unsurprisingly, is irrational. I’ll make this one concession: maybe there is some worth in the idea of turning boats back, maybe the people smuggling trade does need a strict response, and maybe (though my mind doubts this) denying these people a place in our society damages this trade enough. But even if I grant you all that, it is no reason for inflicting great pain on these people. Why do we have to dump them there, these legitimate refugees, in an unforgiving purgatory? There cannot be any point in effectively torturing them on some obscure pacific island when we could deny them asylum in much better, safer conditions on the mainland. Denying them a chance to live among us is deterrence enough. There must be another way.

Contemplating my own life in this context is odd. My life is pretty good. I’ve been educated, I have a good home, a supportive and loving family. I get to play music, to enjoy the company of my friends in a city I love, to enjoy the fruits of our culture, to move and work freely. I can do all the things we, that I, take for granted.
But perhaps it is possible that something so disgusting and violent, something so repugnant and wretched is occurring, even to so few, that everything else is made tasteless, ash in the mouth; that everything else is tainted with the grime of someone else’s torment, covered up in they grey blanket of government secrets. That something so awful can ruin everything else. There are things to be proud of in this country, many great things. But this, and not only this, is the filth on our flag that so many of us like to think we’re proud of; it is more blood on the face and hands of our nation. It makes my heart blue with shame.
The next time you sit for a meal with your family, the next time you enjoy the comforts of a free citizen, picture yourself: destitute, desperate, without hope, wanting to die, beaten, assaulted, laughed at. Picture yourself there and then the nation responsible for it—idle, uncaring, cruel, secretive. Only watching you suffer. Picture its citizens, going about their day, working, living, voting for this government, watching their taxes pay for it all. This Australian gulag. See them there.

Watching you diminish.

Watching, watching, watching. And nothing.

A Few of Us

Two friends, two brothers. Dan and me.
Two friends, two brothers. Dan and me.

Six people wake up in a Newcastle hostel. One of them is sick, another is even sicker. The whole room is listening to a pair of congested lungs slowly rise and fall, sounding as sick as one might look—puffy, swollen, sore. All of them are dead-tired. They arrived at 12.30 the night before and had to ring the manager to leave the key outside. They plan on driving back to Melbourne, 800 kilometres away, by the day’s end.
It’s David’s heavy breathing they can hear. Daniel, on the bunk above him, sits up and shoves a comb into his fro before his alarm goes off for the third time. The bunk behind him sways and Vikuman pokes his head out from under the covers, running a hand over tired eyes and a thick dark beard, unkempt and unwashed. Gabi below is still, also sick and not bearing the thought of getting up. Adrian in the bunk above me is the first to jump down, his long hair shaking against his back as he lands with a thud. The wallpaper is peeling, there are sheets for curtains, and the wall beside me is loose plaster and framework. For a long moment I look around the room, casting a lazy gaze over my friends. It goes faster every time, whenever we do something like this. Eight days have flown by and we’re headed home already. Even though a huge part of me doesn’t want to leave, I’m looking forward even to this last leg of the journey if it means the company around me.
It was wild, it was filthy, memorable and touching.
It was Splendour in the Grass.

***

The weather was perfect. Of all the muddy Splendour’s that have passed before, this one delivered not one drop of rain. It was luck we couldn’t believe as we finally entered the grounds late on a Thursday afternoon, dust moving in waves around the cars as they filed in. Most had travelled a long distance and our group had driven for over 24 hours, so there was electricity in the air as everyone found their place and started setting up. New neighbours greeted each other, there were excited cries, music was already thumping around us and the sound of tinnies being torn open could be heard below the ruckus. Just before we rolled in we had rendezvoused with our final member, Natalie, and finally the crew was together.
The first night is a blur. As we began what would be a four-day marination process, four of us—Gabi, Natalie, Adrian and me—ran off whilst the rest busied themselves attending to the King (David) when his long shot of gin came back for a brief and potent protest. Nothing to ruin an evening, but enough time for the four of us to slip away and go gallivanting for what felt like all night. We later calculated that the night of running around, dancing, tackling, laughing, biting holes in t-shirts (yes, we’re still not sure about that one), more dancing, and politely goading the security, lasted just over one hour. This isn’t so shocking, really. When Adrian ran up the iconic hill where festivalgoers would cross over to the amphitheatre for the next three nights, dragging Gabi behind him, the security guard gave him a stern warning.
‘Get back, or I’ll stand on my head!’
‘What?’ yelled Adrian, a tone of honesty in his voice, ‘you’ll do what?’
‘I said—I swear to god—I said I’ll stand on my head if you come up here!’
At least, this is what we think she said. I know what you might be thinking reading this: just another jumped-up piss-up. Maybe at times, yes, it is a bit of that. But it’s not all that.

The drinking might start early most days, even with a breakfast beer, but it only ramps up late in the afternoon (at least for us). The rest of those days were spent exploring, eating, rejuvenating, and getting up to whatever mischief we could. Four of us took a bus into Byron Bay, taking advantage of the unreasonably fine weather, going for a swim and some lunch. The water felt good and it was strange to be enjoying an ocean swim in the middle of winter—Melbourne would never offer that in late July. By a stroke of what you’d surely consider good luck bad communication, we ordered too many pints at the pub with lunch and ended up delivering a boisterous performance in the back row of the bus back to the festival grounds. There were two or three sniffer dogs at the gate when we returned, the only show of them I saw all weekend. Ironically all this seemed to do was produce a marijuana deficit, yet getting your hands on pills and powder (just about odourless) was very easy. So easy that it would come to your campsite in the form of a friendly salesman.
On another day Adrian and I went exploring. You can do as much shopping you like, eat whatever you want. There are times when the place resembles (or just is) an outdoor shopping centre—expensive brand clothing stores along with the thriftier outlets. We pass one guy, about the same age as us, early 20s, giving a closed-eyed talk on spirituality and creativity, long gaps in his words, others sitting and lying around in the sun and shade listening, or sleeping.
‘And now… I want you,’ he smiles, ‘to harness that… that creative spark for… it could be anything, for designing a… building or… painting portraits.’ He placed his hands together, head craning towards the sun, ‘or growing a hydroponic marijuana crop or… just being naked, free in your own skin… or rearing hamsters.’
I kid, mostly. The rest of the days were relaxed. We sat around together, others went off on their own, friends bumped into friends, and there was enough shit talking and story telling to make your eyes water. Each day was a day in the sun.
The three nights were filled with music. I finally got to head-bang to Violent Soho, to dance around with the Avalanches, old enough now for me to make my parents jealous for having seen them. I stomped in the dust to Gang of Youths, frontman Dave Leaupepe letting us know that he too is afraid of the world. I hummed along to the DMAs on the hillside and swayed and jumped to the Strokes and let go to SnakeHips. These experiences to me were tiers of excitement, of synergy, even a feeling of spirituality and connection that music breeds and imbibes.
‘This is what I love about music,’ Daniel tells me one night. ‘No matter what you do, who you are, it lets you be yourself, to let loose.’
This is one reason why 32,000 people came together: love of sound. And all the while, by my side, are my friends. Sigur Rós, my most anticipated act, played the last show I saw. Adrian and I wasted no time getting there early, knowing we were in for something not often seen. As I stood and listened to the most ethereal, superb sound I’ve ever heard live, I was struck deep and hard. It reminded me, made me feel great heights and deep lows, put sweet and sombre pictures in my mind, and sent tears down my face. I couldn’t turn away. There’s a photo of me, teary eyed, Natalie under my arm, Adrian beside her, and I’m smiling. This is another reason: love of love. As we, a motley bunch of friends, gathered again, we embraced.
This was one moment among many when we felt especially close to one another. These moments spread over the weekend—as we danced together under the stars, as we drank and sang at camp, as we dove into water, as we burst with the giggles and howled with laughter, as we screamed for more from the stage, as we walked together early in the morning, in the middle of the day, in the dust and dusk. One scene represents many: Daniel might be giving an impromptu DJ set out of Vikuman’s car, Adrian is snapping photos of us all, Natalie and Gabi are laughing as Dave delivers a comedic routine and Vikuman is revelling in us all, pouring drinks. I stand amongst it, look up at the blue sky and bleeding clouds, and I am happy.
All good things must come to an end, so they say and insist, and although many of us talk about the urge to stay forever, I dare say it would become rather tiresome. What would the 275th trip to the drop toilet feel like? What would the 854th night sleeping on a thin, damp mat be like? Surely scurvy would settle in. Could you dance for that long? Maybe, maybe not. And this is not to mention the environmental degradation such a high-octane concentration of humans can cause. That all being said, just a little while longer in the field with my friends would’ve been good. Couldn’t we stay, I wondered, just a little while longer?
No. The splendour was just a pause in the day-to-day. It’s back to university, back to work—normal things, expected things. Yet I’m sitting here at my desk, the post-Splendour blues still rolling around in me, and all I can do is think back.

***

We arrive home that night, earlier than expected. We made good time and the drive was easy. We are tired and sick (another typical post-Splendour symptom) but even this, this last piece of the journey, I had enjoyed. It’s almost nasty to be surrounded by your beloved friends for so long to then be suddenly alone, driving late at night, having dropped the last one off home. It’s lonesome, crawling back into your own bed, no one beside you, no one close by to call out to for a joke, no one to whisper to for a hearty giggle.
The festival experience might be thrown around as simple youthful excess, maybe even something to be laughed at, ridiculed. But who could care less? It’s memorable, and this is what you’re paying for. Music, for any one person, is saturated with associations, and these memories are for each of us now in the music we heard and will keep listening to. There’s the music, the attractions, the drugs, the drinking, the journey, and then there are those glorious moments, huge and small, burned into my brain like a hard love bite on my skin.