And just like that, I’m back in cancer-land. I was cancer free for eight and a half years; long enough to make me feel that every damn cancer cell had been vanquished for good. Earlier this year, like just about everyone else, I had a lingering cough. It lasted through a few days at a music festival, a long drive to and from my uncle’s funeral in Brisbane and quiet festivities for Steve’s mother’s 90th birthday on the south coast. “Oh, that’s the hundred day cough!” people said. So I wasn’t particularly concerned, just tired of it, always on the lookout for a nice lozenge that would soothe my throat.
Then one day I was doing my usual walk that goes in a big loop past the dog pound, past the cows and alpacas, past the Catholic girls’ school, and through the soccer fields to join up with the road back home. I sometimes do this walk while talking on the phone to a friend who is also walking, in her case along the Linear Park Trail that follows the River Torrens through in Adelaide. This time, just past the dog pound, where the road goes up a bit of a rise, I found it hard to walk and talk at the same time. I was short of breath. I’d never felt out of breath on this stretch before. It was a bit of a worry. I mentioned it to my friend. We agreed I should see my doctor.
My GP ordered a chest scan. A few days later, I was fully expecting to be told I had walking pneumonia or something that could be zapped with a course of antibiotics. Turns out it was something far more sinister. A few blood tests and a CT scan later, Steve and I were back where we’d been nine years ago: shaking in our boots, staring at the doctor, receiving information that we were barely able to process. Damn. Back here. There was a week of Googling and worrying before we got in to see the medical oncologist in Orange, a town about 40 minutes’ drive to the west. The oncologist assured us that while the situation was certainly bad, it was not hopeless. Yes, my original cancer (primary peritoneal cancer, a form of ovarian cancer) had crept into my lungs when no-one was looking, but it was “eminently treatable” with a course of chemotherapy. “Eminently treatable” is a good pair of words. There are no guarantees in them, but room for hope. Buoyed up, I slid him a copy of my new novel, The Vitals. Not wanting to take up too much of his time – the waiting room was full of others in their own personal combinations of hope and fear – I gabbled about how, funnily enough, my cancer had come back just as my book about cancer was about to be launched! He leafed politely through the first few pages as we bundled ourselves out of the room.
The Vitals has a rabbit on the front cover (by Sandy Cull). This is because, in The Vitals, one of the tumours goes by the name of Bunny. Bunny’s replicating cells are getting ready to run free across the wide brown land of my body (okay, it’s fairly wide but not at all brown), dodging all attempts to eradicate them. The connection between rabbits and my cancer came early after my first cancer diagnosis in 2014, when I’d been told that one of my tumours inhabited a piece of territory in the female body called the pouch of Douglas. This territory was named after Dr Douglas, a “man midwife” in the era when midwifery, until then part of women’s business, was being taken over by (male) doctors. In London in 1726, Dr Douglas was invited to examine a certain Mary Toft, a poor woman who claimed to be able to give birth to baby rabbits. Toft was a national sensation, but Douglas was very suspicious. He soon outed her as a fraud who had been procuring baby rabbits, secreting them inside herself, and giving excellent performances of the birthing process.
The rabbits made me think of Ginge, a cat we knew when I was kid. Ginge’s mistress would say, “Go and catch a rabby, Ginge!” Yesterday, I started work on a crochet portrait of Ginge. It will be almost life-size, from a pattern. I need all the help I can get in catching rabbits.
Meanwhile, The Vitals is now on sale in bookshops across the land, or online.
I’m sitting all by myself in a motel room in Cooma, waiting for Part 3 to drop. It’ll turn up right here, on this laptop, any time from about 7pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, when it finally clicks over to Saturday in Los Angeles. I’m talking about Peter Jackson‘s marathon documentary Get Back, streaming now on Disney Plus. It takes us back to the month of January, 1969, in which the Beatles are hard at work in two studios, writing and rehearsing material for their next album. With clashing schedules – Ringo has promised himself to a film crew in February – the whole project needs to be in the can by the end of the month.
The footage was originally shot for a television special that never eventuated. Instead, it was cut into the 1970 film Let it Be, which emphasised fractures in the band and was forever associated with its break-up. The Beatles didn’t like the film, and it was quietly withdrawn from circulation after limited release.
Jackson’s Get Back is a completely new edit of the original material, revealing footage that has never previously been made public. It shows John, Paul, George and Ringo in full flight, gloriously young and far less fractious than the original cut suggested. Jackson has used 21st century technology to restore picture and sound to give an immediacy, immersion and vibrancy that almost seems too good to be true. We’re right there in the room with them as they jam, joke, argue, smoke, drink, stand up, sit down and sometimes dance. Ringo has already tweeted that he loves it, and Paul does too, so it passes muster on that front. It goes for about eight hours, divided into three chunks, culminating in the famous rooftop performance above the Beatles’ own Apple studios in Savile Row, London.
In his review in the Guardian, Alexis Petridis describes the documentary as “eight hours of TV so aimless it threatens your sanity”. I’ve only seen the first two chunks – as I said, I’m waiting for the third to drop – but I’m more than ready to leap to Jackson’s defence. Get Back is long, but it’s far from aimless. It successfully, respectfully and joyously makes the most of the precious raw footage made available to him. It is beautifully framed, crafted, paced and contextualised. Yeah, it’s long, but for me that’s not just a bonus but a hallelujah. Never assume that I don’t want to watch someone eat a biscuit.
Okay, so just to get something out of the way. Like Jackson and – oh, a few million humans around the world – I’ve been a fan for a long time. I do believe that some things can be ubiquitous and excellent at the same time. (Galahs are another example.) Back in August, in the middle of lockdown, I happened to catch Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s documentary about the Beatles’ touring years, on SBS TV. I was moved to tears for days afterwards, in a way that I couldn’t quite explain. A sort of exquisite grief. I’d always loved the Beatles but now I found myself at the bottom of a rabbit hole, tunnelling up, down and sideways. I watched YouTube clips, I downloaded whole albums, gave myself virulent ear-worms. I tracked down movies like Backbeat about the band’s Hamburg days, and Nowhere Boy about Lennon’s childhood. I’d get sick of it and write myself post-it notes to stick to my computer: BEATLES-FREE DAY! (I had other work to do). To no avail. I’d find myself sliding back to the Beatles Bible for another factoid. In other words, over just a few weeks I reached a tipping point. I went from common-or-garden fan to fully-fledged Beatles tragic.
Which is to say that this review contains not a shred of objectivity. It is the enthusiasm of one tragic for the work of another tragic.
But then, as I just said, there are a lot of us around. If you gather common-or-garden fans plus tragics plus ordinary people hearing snatches of music in supermarkets aisles feeling a stab of pure nostalgia, then we have a strong case for the very long version. We really do care that much. You wouldn’t do it in 1970, but because the Beatles have been continuously gathering meaning ever since – social, historical, personal – over the ensuing 50 years, there’s a case for a the long, slow, forensic version.
Not that their cultural importance is universal, or forever.
I find myself thinking about BTS, the Korean boy band that is huge right now, at least as important to teenagers now as the Beatles were in the 1960s. There are seven boys for young people to swoon over. Each has a different look, a different personality. They write their own songs. Where the Beatles had Apple Scruffs, BTS has its Army. The BTS video clip, “Dynamite“, has had 1.3 billion views on YouTube. (“Hey Jude”, by way of contrast, has had 41 million views.) It’s all about what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledges“. There’s no God’s eye view; only particular, situated views.
Jackson’s documentary is not supposed to be universal; it’s for the lovers. That may seem indulgent, but it fits with the way we consume media these days. In an era of personalised media consumption, often consumed alone, wearing earplugs, “content” (I hate that word but it’s the best description for “things we watch, listen to and interact with”) is changing. Released from the constraints of cinema release and time slots on free-to-air television, content-producers are more free to play around with the parameters. Content can be stretched and adapted in all sorts of ways. It can get down to very specific audiences, subsets of subsets. For example I can sit here in this two-star motel in Cooma and pursue my interest with abandon. I don’t have to drag my partner into this, or family members. It’s just me and this lil screen, mooning and communing.
I do like a director’s cut. Sometimes I want to see an artist’s vision in its entirety. There are times and places for constraint but we’ve bent the stick too far. There’s too much asking audiences what they want, too much market research. I often think about Tiny Tim. Nobody knew they wanted Tiny Tim; he arrived in all his bizarre glory and added something really nuts to the party.
Having said all that, I will admit that some parts of Jackson’s documentary do drag. For example, there’s the bit where the band is sitting around at the Twickenham film studio doing absolutely nothing. They face the camera, listlessly. The actor Peter Sellers joins them and sits there, awkwardly (he’s working on The Magic Christian, the film that Ringo will start work on in February). Sellers is famous for being funny but in this particular instance, nothing funny emanates from him and conversation fails to take flight. After a moment he gets up and wanders off. Perhaps this sequence could have been left out. But then we’d miss seeing the Beatles listless, Sellers awkward. There’s something in this. Creativity is often about showing up, getting irritated, feeling awkward. There will be down time, flatness and boredom. It may look aimless (and in that moment the Beatles themselves were certainly pretty aimless) but part of Jackson’s aim, I believe, is to show this. This is how albums and films and books are actually made.
Then again, maybe I’m just happy to look at these four young people under any circumstances at all. To paraphrase George Harrison: I’d have them any time. I just want to be around the magic. I want to be there when John Lennon and Paul McCartney, playing their guitars, look intently into each other’s eyes for cues and inspiration, excluding the rest of the world. I want to see Ringo start drumming and George experimenting on the guitar, supporting and co-creating something we’ll still be talking about in 50 years time.
The story arc that languidly – and finally with more urgency – emerges out of it all is Paul McCartney trying to keep the band together, to try something new that will get John out of his drug-addled, love-sodden state, that will get George to hang in despite feeling bossed around and overlooked. While Ringo seems happy to keep playing along indefinitely, Paul is at real and immediate risk of losing the other two.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a Lennon girl (and more George & Ringo as time goes on), and have never particularly warmed to Paul, but watching Get Back, you can only be astonished. His surging creativity is almost supernatural. You can see he wants to play all the instruments himself, tell everyone what to do, make the world realise his ideas, but he forces himself to tone down, to stick to his bass as required, to preserve the unity of the group. And the result is infinitely better than if he did do it all himself. He knows he can’t do it without them, and he doesn’t want to do it without them. He wants them, he wants them so bad, but they’re drifting away. They’re joking around, they’re having fun, riffing and jamming, but you can see the stress and desperation in Paul’s eyes. “And then there were two,” he says, at one point, and struggles to hold back tears.
In the end, he triumphs. By the time they’ve done the rooftop concert, they’re all energised and ready to do it all again. We know that they get straight back into the studio and record Abbey Road.
That’s more than enough story arc for me.
Meanwhile, such a lot of smoking. Takes me right back to my own childhood surrounded by brimming ashtrays. Even this makes me weep for something lost, even though it is something that should be lost. “All things must pass,” sings Harrison in Get Back, trying to get the others interested in his new song. They’re not that interested.
And then there’s the Woman Question. Let’s just say they’re seen and not heard. Yoko is in just about every shot but the original film makers were clearly not interested in a word she has to say. Another thing that must pass.
8pm, Saturday November 27
I have started watching the third episode. I’ve just seen Ringo sharing a scrap of “Octopus’s Garden” with the others, for the first time. He’s bashing it out on the piano, trying to think of more words. George comes over to help. We know how this song goes before they do. They still have to struggle to get there.
And then it’s fun again. John and Paul holding hands, rock n roll dancing. George Martin sitting on the floor, enjoying the vibe. Billy Preston, spontaneously brought in to play keyboards, is smiling all the time, pleased to be part of it all. Later, everyone’s tired. Hair is bedraggled, especially John’s. The Apple studio is looking very lived in. It is full of friends and family, assistants and onlookers, littered with brimming ash trays and tea cups. Maybe BTS sessions also seem like magic. But they’ll never be the particular magic that was the Beatles. Get Back took me there. It didn’t let me down.
UPDATE: For a little balance, see this fab review by my old mate Bob Short. Note that he uses the words “the horror the horror” and “get an editor” 😉
Where the bloody hell am I? I’m here! I’ve been here – at my desk, at this computer – since the dawn of time, since the days of earliest life in hot vents under the sea. Well, maybe not that long.
For a little while though – a precious and odd little while that feels like a dream now – I was occupying an office on the second floor of the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University, right out the back near Missenden Road. My name was on the door! I was the Writer in Residence in an illustrious building full of petrie dishes and test tubes. People chatted about knockout mice as they were getting a coffee in the staff room and the fridge had a big sign warning everyone to use it for human food and drink ONLY (and presumably not for storing parts of scientific experiments or chow for the knockout mice). Two different tech dudes appeared to get my laptop to speak to the large monitor and once that was sorted, I started having odd conversations with scientists. One of these chats actually started with both of us declaring that we loved poo. Yes! (His area is the gut microbiome.)
I’m writing a novel in the form of a cancer memoir from the point of view of my abdominal organs (working title: The Pouch of Douglas). There’s Panno the Pancreas, Ute the Uterus, Liv the Liver, Maureen the Greater Omentum, Col the Colon, and so on. They’re all freaking out because two tumours, Bunny and Baby, are refusing to obey the rules of cell regulation and are getting way too big for their boots. With the Charles Perkins Centre dripping in experts of the human body and how its various parts speak to each other, the centre was the perfect place to get inspiration and advice for this venture.
Actually, I still am the writer in residence, the project continues! But the “in residence” bit of it has been made untenable (for now) with the onset of Covid19. I don’t have a spleen, I’m a cancer survivor, and while I feel robust, I’m probably in the “could end in tears” category if I actually caught the virus. So I was quick to scuttle out of the building and retreat to Bathurst. I thought I’d lay low for a couple of weeks and, once the coast was clear, head on back. Ha ha ha! The virus got the last laugh there.
So, like many others privileged to be able to do so, I’m working from home. I continue to Zoom in to scientific presentations when I can. There’s one coming up later today titled “The greasy link between obesity and cancer: membrane remodelling mediates selective exosome miRNA loading”. Well, I get the first part of that title but I’m entirely lost by the end of it. Approximately 95% of such presentations fly right over my head but there’s always something in it for me. First, I’m slowly absorbing biological information by osmosis and second, someone always says something so damn poetic that I get a little shiver. And they don’t even realise they’ve done it! I write these things down. As Margaret Atwood has said, I’m here to steal the shiny bits.
But not just to steal the shiny bits. Science is having a lot of trouble hanging in there in the face of nonsense, like people refusing to wear masks because this whole virus thing is a government conspiracy. Arrgh. I’m loving this opportunity to be a humanities gal in the midst of the hard sciences, with the respectful exchange this project provides. They might be able to work out who’s who in the zoo in terms of molecules in the petrie dish, but we can help get some of those ideas out into the minds of lay folk.
At one point there it looked like I’d be back in the building by the end of July. But with these new viral waves in Victoria and New South Wales, I may need to hang back. Sadly, I may not physically get back there before the residency officially ends at the end of November.
So: my bum is on this seat in Bathurst but my mind is Zooming both far and wide and also deep into the material of my own guts.
Yesterday, I went and saw Yesterdaywith Mum. It’s a high concept film, which means the audience is invited to walk through one great impossibility in order to play around with a giant What If. In this case: What if you were the only person on earth who remembered the Beatles? What if every last trace of the band’s existence was wiped out in a 15-second cosmic glitch, leaving you, a struggling musician, with the memory of their entire back-catalogue? You could, perhaps, sing Yesterday and let everyone think you wrote it yourself.
Yesterday is a family-friendly rom-com that satisfyingly reaches a heart-warming and highly ethical conclusion. It is almost ridiculously wholesome. Watching this film about twenty-somethings communing with the pop music of their grandparents’ generation, it’s hard to believe that anything about the Beatles was once considered edgy. The playlist leans towards McCartney (“Yesterday”, “Let it Be”) over Lennon (there’s no “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”). In this movie, there’s actually a first kiss in which the girl says, “Oh! You’ve touched my bottom!”
While Yesterday is strictly feel good, it does push the envelope in its own way. Himesh Patel, a South Asian actor, is cast as the romantic lead, and this is presented as entirely unremarkable. There’s no explaining it, no tracing of origin or identity, no making anything of it at all. Jack Malik (Patel’s character) is just one of a group of twenty-something friends. While it’s no big deal in the movie, in the real world it is of course a big deal. The number of South Asian romantic leads in mainstream English movies might even be as low as one: Patel himself, in this one.
Patel’s presence – his unremarked but undeniable difference – gives the Beatles story a revivifying angle and some much-needed gravity. At the same time, Patel delivers an effortlessly believable, perfectly understated performance. A bit of a miracle happens: the over-familiar Beatles songs really do come back to life.
Just a word about The Girl. Jack’s love interest, Ellie (Lily James), never gets to be more than The Girl. That said, I still found aspects of their relationship interesting. Let’s not forget that the Beatles once wrote a song called “Run for Your Life”: I’d rather see you dead little girl/Than see you with another man little girl. While men and women have had valuable friendships since forever, it’s not something you see much in popular culture. But here, fifty years after “Run for Your Life”, we see Jack and Ellie in a serious discussion prior to imminent sexual activity. They’re talking about how they’re going to shake off that brother and sister feeling that results from having been friends for so long. We may have a pussy-grabbing leader of the free world, we may have a long way to go, but it’s also true that millions of young people really are working at treating each other respectfully. But as this is a rom com and as feminism has not quite played out in the way we might have anticipated back in the 80s, we must still return to a climax of wedded bliss, complete with a montage of adorable future children and dancing in the marketplace. Obla di la da.
So back to that what if. What if the Beatles had never existed, and a young singer/songwriter – the sort who hones his craft in his bedroom replaying YouTube clips, not in bands in sweaty pubs – came along today who could write like Lennon and McCartney? There he’d be, uploading “Hey Jude” and “The Long and Winding Road” to Soundcloud and updating his insta. Would anyone notice? How much do works of art rely on their context, and how much can they stand on their own two feet? Maybe the answer is right there in that contorted metaphor. Maybe without a supporting context, a work of art can’t stand up at all.
The very existence of the Beatles themselves requires the confluence of countless facts and flukes: human evolution out of the primeval swamp, the history of Western Europe, industrialisation, the history of Liverpool, slavery, the invention of the radio, black music, Paul McCartney’s parents meeting each other and having children; Paul McCartney meeting with John Lennon at a fete in 1957, the particular skills of producer George Martin. “Eleanor Rigby” was sent out into the world on the crest of the wave that was the Beatles, a wave that only took that particular shape because of the (fleeting) world that created it and held it. Yes, it’s brilliant. But so are, and were, other songs. It was Eleanor Rigby that was able to reach out, lending her particular flavour to the idea of loneliness in our culture, because she had a spot on the crest of that particular, unrepeatable wave.
It makes me think of a discussion over dinner at the Varuna Writers Centre earlier this year. One of the poets told how someone had sent out a chapter of a Patrick White novel to a list of Australian publishers, without letting on the writer’s identity. The work, surprise surprise, was universally rejected. How disappointing that our publishers can no longer recognise genius! On the other hand, we also said, reading White today, knowing the context in which he wrote, would be very different to reading the same words if actually written today. If they were written today, you might think the work was strangely caught in the preoccupations of an earlier time, strangely unaware of its twenty first century audience. You might recognise beautifully crafted sentences but finally put the work to one side, regretfully, thinking that perhaps the time for this sort of thing had passed.
Perhaps. And yet.
The artist is always striving for work that takes leave of the ground it grew in. Art that comes at you directly, in words or images or sounds or movements so powerful that they seem to defy the normal rules of time and space, so unexpected when they first arrive, so fitting when they do that their creation seems inevitable.
There is the hope that a work of art can be better than, separate to, the miserable artist. Alice belongs in a different dimension, somehow, to the possibly pedophilic Lewis Carrol. Young Elvis is a luminous idea that persists despite the corporeality of Fat Elvis bingeing on hamburgers. It’s a trick, this separation, but it’s the artist’s only trick. Afterwards, the artist will put their name on the work, although this will never feel quite right, because they’ll suspect that they are only a conduit for bigger, longer-lasting, more important forces or perhaps they’re simply fashionable, or well connected. In Yesterday, the combination of joy and misery at having tricked the world is written all over Jack Malik’s face.
Yesterday‘s thesis is that great art can and should take leave of the mere artist; can and should go out into the world across time and space. The songs of the Beatles are so good that they are guaranteed to move people 50 years later, at first hearing, without explanation or back story. Brilliance will be seen, understood, duly rewarded, no matter what. In Yesterday, Jack Malik goes straight to the top. People are soon saying he’s the best songwriter in the whole world.
Interestingly, the original screenplay by Jack Barth starts with the same premise – the cosmic glitch that wipes out all memory of the Beatles – but reaches precisely the opposite conclusion: even the back catalogue of Beatles songs isn’t enough, by itself, to lift a struggling musician into fame and fortune. He’s quoted in The Australian saying: “My view was, even if I woke up and I was the only person to know Star Wars or Harry Potter, I probably wouldn’t be very successful with it because that’s kind of the way things have gone for me.” Once screenwriter Richard Curtis, king of the feel good and rom com (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary) got on board, he reversed Barth’s premise, plumping for what he called “optimism”.
I was 16, and the year was 1980, before I heard a Beatles song all the way through, at least consciously. It might seem odd that something so culturally prevalent could have failed to reach my own corner of the Western world. We were living in a small town that only had ABC TV and radio, and neither ever played the Beatles, as far as I can remember. Our small collection of 45rpm singles included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Glen Campbell and Tom Jones, but no Beatles. If we went to a barbecue at someone else’s house, it was Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” or perhaps, later at night when parents were drunk, the more soulful “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. When Countdown arrived in 1975, my preteen sister and I were smitten. We watched every episode between 1975 and 1980 without exception. Skyhooks, ABBA, ACDC, The Clash, Blondie. But never a Beatles song. The Beatles were ancient history; Countdown was now. Maybe it’s not such a big deal that I got to 16 without hearing a Beatles song. We lived in our own niches, even then.
I was standing in the doorway between the living room and Mum and Dad’s bedroom when I heard a kind of organ piping, an intriguing sound and tone that I couldn’t place. I walked over and stood in front of the portable radio/tape player. The music was not like anything I’d heard before (not that I’d heard much, as you can see) and nor were the words.
Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever
Whoa! Who knew? A little bit of my soul was psychedelic, and this song was making it vibrate.
Context: John Lennon was inspired by the garden at Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army children’s home where he played as a child against the advice of his Aunt Mimi.
Work of Art: This context, this “real” garden, doesn’t for one moment explain the song’s Strawberry Fields, their mysterious, strawberry-coloured, dreamy energy. Context and work of art. Maybe one can pull free of the other.
In the ’80s I binged on the Beatles for a while. But I moved on pretty quickly. There were the share houses that always had Patti Smith’s Horses album in the milk crate beside the record player.
In writing this piece, I’ve been realising something weird. I’d always claimed to be a John girl, if asked (and perhaps something of a George girl). Paul was always considered a bit naff. But now I find I’ve changed my mind or at least opened up the door. I’m thinking about “Eleanor Rigby”, written by Paul with a little help from this friends, the song that Jack strains to remember in Yesterday.
Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for
What is this? It’s fucking brilliant. It’s a sad song that can make things better. It deserves a long and decontextualised life.
I’m crocheting a big blue Murray cod out of recycled baling twine. Anyone with horses, and anyone who has been hand-feeding stock through the drought, will be very familiar with the stuff. Starting out, I knew I’d need a lot of it. On spec, I rang a horsey business in Forbes, because I was going to be driving out there for something else, and asked if they had any blue baling twine lying about. Bullseye! First time lucky! I pulled up outside of a two-storey brick house on the edge of town, near the river. There were about eight horses in stalls out the back, and it had one of those back yards with a bit of everything in it – parts of machinery, old tins, building materials, the odd half-buried child’s toy. I knocked on the door. Silence. Try again. Wander around the back, noting two chained dogs watching but not barking. The horses watching, too. Note the large drifts of blue baling twine. Wonder if I should just start gathering it. Finally, a window opens on the second floor, and a bloke’s face appears in it. He explains he’s minding a small child so he can’t come down, but go right ahead. He watches me from the window as I gather up my treasure. It overflows my arms so I grab a large empty stock-feed bag and stuff the twine into that. I turn to go but the man in the window urges me on, clearly happy to be rid of the stuff. But I can’t take it all, there is just too much of it. I gather one or two extra bits to be polite and make my getaway.
Hours later, I dump it all onto the living room floor. There’s a satisfying amount of hay amongst the twine and a nice farmy smell. There’s some pink twine as well as the blue. I snip the machine-made knots out of it, sort it by colour, vacuum thoroughly.
Way back in December I’d heard on the grapevine that polypropylene baling twine was to be this year’s Waste to Art theme, even though it hadn’t been officially publicised. So that was in the back of my mind when, as summer temperatures soared and stayed frighteningly high for days at a time, we got news of fish kills in the Murray Darling at Menindee. It felt personal. The Macquarie River (Wambool) that runs through Bathurst heads west and north until it gets to the Macquarie Marshes out past Warren, and these finally drain into the Murray Darling. Some of the water that runs through town here gets all the way to the mouth of the Murray in South Australia.
Rob McBride and Dick Arnold with dead fish at Menindee. Click the image to see the video on the Tolarno Station facebook page.
A perfect storm of factors – water diverted to cotton farms, nutrients running off farms, drought, high temperatures – created an algal bloom that killed millions of fish. The blue-green algae bloomed in the heat and then died as temperatures dropped, and in death it de-oxygenated the water. The fish drowned in their own river. A video of big dead fish held in the arms of farmers near Menindee went viral. Images of thousands of dead fish floating on the surface of the water turned up on social media and in the news. Giant Murray cod that had lived through drought and flooding rains for a century had finally been felled by human beings recklessly taking more from the river than it could give. Would the Murray Darling recover? Perhaps yes, to a point. But the future of the Murray cod is looking grim.
As a part of the River Yarners, I meet with my craftivist posse every Friday afternoon. Since late 2015, we’ve been knitting and yarning a representation of the Macquarie River/Wambool from its beginnings south east of Bathurst to its nebulous end-point across the Macquarie Marshes. I took my bright blue baling twine along to our next meeting, and started crocheting a simple continuation of our 80 metre-long woolly river. I had to split the twine to make it thinner and easier to work with, rolling it between my fingers to unravel what a machine had ravelled. My intention was to add lots of small dead fish. I’d enter this in the Waste to Art exhibition and then fold it back into our long woolly work.
But then the magic of anatomical crochet, the journey I’ve been on since my illness in 2014, began to kick in. What did a Murray cod really look like? I turned to Google images and there they were, pages of them.
I noted the big thick lips, the large mouth, the relatively small eyes, the mottled surface, the big pale belly that gets bigger bigger over the years, like a beer belly, the rounded, not pointy, shape of the tail. I started working on a big fellow, starting with the shape of the lips and working back. I thought I’d make a big fish and lots of little ones. But then my artist friend Karen Golland urged me to think about doing just one fish. So I’m making just one big fella, to stand in for its myriad peers.
Along the way, I have become obsessed with blue plastic. On my walks around the soccer fields, alone now without Bertie the black Lab (who is now in eternal repose, so at odds with his personality, in the back yard between Taro the yellow Lab and Prince the tabby cat), all I can see is bits of blue plastic in the ground. I’m like a satin bower bird, attracted to the colour. Lots of lids from bottled water. Lots of Mentos packets and chip packets made of layers of plastic coated in a thin film of shiny aluminium.
The obsession has grown to encompass litter in general. After kids’ games over the weekend, the soccer fields are littered with clear plastic Slurpee and McDonalds cups, Zooper Dooper packets, plastic straws, soft clear plastic bags for ice bought from the service station, sports drinks, some with a good slurp still left in the bottom. So much to do with cooling and hydrating young human bodies, while the bodies of our fellow creatures, the fish, die and decay.
I collect some of it in a calico bag, channeling a lady we used to know as Old May in Carnarvon, who collected things from off the street and out of rubbish bins to add to her big calico sack. In my hat and oversized white shirt against the sun, and the calico bag bulging with rubbish, I look a bit mad. People tend to avoid my eyes.
At home, I wash my collections and try to sort them. Amongst the ordinary litter, I find bits of treasure: a tiny blue comb for a doll, hard plastic spoons in a beautiful translucent green, Nerf gun bullets, a whole golf ball with a split rind. My plan is to stuff my blue Murray cod with this rubbish (I’m washing it carefully and putting it out to dry). I’m tempted to make the rubbish more visible in and on the fish, to make the piece louder and more didactic. I want to stitch the Mount Franklin bottled water labels over it. I want to use the Slurpee cups to represent the cotton growers taking more than their fair share. But then I remember Karen’s mantra – just the fish, just the one fish. Do justice to the fish, its shape, its being.
The size and shape of my fish is inspired partly by the image of Mr McBride holding the cod in the video, and partly by the length and width of my coffee table. I’m now about a third of the way along from the snout and I’ve already got a bit of the tail. But there’s a long road ahead, creating the body out of small stitches of single crochet.