Half Memory Foreword

In the late 1980s I travelled with my father for 3 years, when I was aged 13, 14 and 15. I’m always reluctant to speak much of it for a few reasons. When people talk about their travels other people seem to get annoyed about the bragging. It’s always a struggle against self indulgent wallowing in these memories, when there is work to do and the future to think about. It’s embarassing and shameful to be so self obsessed. But when ever my father tries to write literature, it always seems the true stories of his own travel anecdotes might be more interesting. It’s a shame he’s reluctant to write them down again, having burnt them once and lost them a second time in a hard disk failure. So since this is a unique experience, a sort of coming of age on the road story, a child in the world, I figure there might be some interest in this memoir.

When it comes up in conversation, most people make similar remarks:

– What about school? I studied through the Queensland Secondary School of Correspondance. We carried books for a minimum amount of subjects. I studied when we stopped for a while. For most subjects I would do two days work in a day so we could travel again. I did a bit of time in a real school in Portree, Isle of Skye. In Guardiagrele, I was meant to be studying but didn’t.

– Why did your dad do it? I usually joke that it was a mid life crisis. Perhaps it was but that’s only a small part of the story. My father spent 6 years hitch hiking from Australia to England in the 60s, one of the first to make the journey that came to be known as ‘The Overland’ or later, ‘the hippie trail’. He made the journey ‘before it was cool’ and hates being thought of as a hippie or beatnik (there are pictures of him with his trumpet back in the day though, he loves jazz and he read Jean Genet et al and aspired to be a writer, so…). So being a traveller is a defining part of his life, as it came to be for me, since it happened to me at that formative time of life (that it was something that he did, and that is was something that happened to me, is a big difference). My parents were divorced when I was 2 years old. They hated each other. Each said the other was a liar. Who knows what’s true and what’s not, but since my father got custody, and my mother got visits every second weekend, it seems my mother got her revenge by vowing never to let him leave town. Brisbane and the working life was probably something of a prison for him, though we grew up in a few different houses. He was a hard worker. He was proud about having every job there was – shovelling gravel, welder, liney, footballer, lifesaver, milkman and so on (in his day it seems you could just walk out of one job and into another). Thanks to Gough Whitlam he was able to get a degree when we were little and as a journalist he quickly rose to be Press Secretary for the Minister of Transport in Queensland, and working hard, starting Iron Man magazine, and making property investments he saved some money. So I guess that hard work and the higher level position, lead to a ‘mid-life crisis’ but it had a great deal to do with his travellers longing, his contempt for sedentary society, a strong desire not to be defeated and imprisoned by it, and the need to pass this on to his children, so that they too might not suffer the same prison. His eldest son had already left on his own, to briefly live with our mother, dropping out of school, getting a job at a pottery factory and buying a ticket to England. When I was 12 we lived in our Grandparents house in Toowoomba for a few months and I went to a different school there. Then we went to Proserpine and lived in a tent then some ramshackle fibro rooms full of cockroaches and geckos for a while. He was seeing how I travelled. One night soon after high school started he sat me down for a serious talk and asked if I wanted to go travel around America, see Disneyland and so on. I didn’t have a strong opinion about it, it seemed like it would be interesting, but he seemed to very much want to do it, so I agreed. He said that if I wanted to go it could only be on the condition that I didn’t tell my mother. I couldn’t tell her or she’d stop us, so if I wanted to go I couldn’t tell her. It’s was only about 2 years ago that I realised this would be called an abduction, that to explain it to people I might say, ‘My father abducted me’. All this time I’ve simply been saying, ‘I travelled around the world with my father.’

– Most people remark, “Wow that must have been amazing!” and it certainly was, but that’s not all it was. I almost cried when I started talking to my daughter about it a while back, to know that nobody understood me as well as my own daughter, because instead of saying, “Wow, that must have been amazing, you’re so lucky.” her first thought was, “Wow, that must have been lonely.” Indeed, when I got back, I was unable to say more than “Hello.” and answer direct questions, and in some cases I couldn’t even force the word “Hello” out of my mouth, like someone who had been locked in a cellar for years, though it was quite the opposite.

– When I write about it, or about things influenced by this experience of the world at that age people’s reaction tends to be, “This is a bit far fetched. People don’t think like that. Kids don’t think like that. You shouldn’t write about people and places you don’t know anything about. You should write what you know.” It’s a shame they can’t imagine anyone to have ever had a life beyond their house in the suburbs, or that a person might not think about whatever it is they think people really think about (maybe what car they want to buy, or how to get a promotion, or how to get revenge on that bitch/bastard, or where to go for holidays, or how to get into bed with someone or run a scam or what colour curtains to get? Who knows?) Granted, I’m not the best writer but I do walk around thinking about literature and philosophy, as I have always done. In reading these memoirs which are intended to be as directly close to the experiences and thoughts as I remember them, rather than commentary on them from the perspective of this man grown old, the reader should bear in mind that I was alone almost all the time, on transport, looking out a window, walking the city or the land, seeing all the world in all it’s infinite variety, rich and poor, ancient sites and cities that seemed from the future, without talking to anyone, without money to spend to spend on anything, reading sometimes, but mostly doing nothing but observing and thinking, thinking, thinking. At times I found some philosophy, like Descartes, in the library I was doing schoolwork in and read it instead because I’d heard the name. My father often dropped in literary references like Hemingway or Camus and we often had a book around relevant to the place we were in – Mark Twain, Damon Runyon, Jack London, Paul Bowles, Naguib Mahfouz and sometimes I got my hands on a book I shouldn’t have, like The Painted Bird or Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas. All things most 13, 14 or 15 year olds wouldn’t spend so much time with. Books and thoughts were my only friends. So, soon enough, I started writing bad teenage poetry and what would be called prose poems. Unfortunately, my writing hasn’t improved much, but the point is that if I wax lyrical, or don’t seem to have outgrown teen angst, or conclude with some hackneyed cliched philosophical insight – it’s not because I’m a bad writer trying to instill some literary affectations into a memoir, it’s because that’s honestly how it was. I am writing what I know.

My father always insisted that we weren’t tourists. We were ‘travellers’. At that time, that didn’t mean people who have lived on the road for generations and developed a culture and linguistic variations around it. It just meant, mainly that you were ‘serious’ not just a ‘tourist’ and if pressed on what the difference was, he might have agreed with the adage, “A tourist travels to go home.” His favourite answer to the question “Where are we going?” was “We’ll see when we get there.” But if you look at the photos it’s pretty obvious that at times we were tourists. At other times we were travellers. It is difficult to place who we were in conventional terms. It all depends on how you put it. If he was the press secretary for the minister of transport and spent 3 years on a world trip – it sound like a story of exceptional privilege and wealth. If I was abducted after a bitter divorce and we lived in the the back of a car and cheap hotels living on baked beans and ham and tomato sandwiches, and as a pretty teenage boy was always being sexually harassed in train stations and hostels and souks, it sounds like we were trailer trash. My father definitely would prefer the latter, but above all, as with anyone, we hate to be reduced to labels. These memoirs may be candid, as I grow older I become more and more exhausted by affectation and hipocrisy. I too, being human am guilty of affectation and hipocrisy and there’s no use pretending otherwise. I just must mention that because of the candour, some people’s identity and photographs are not included to protect the innocent.

Not long ago I had a beer with my brother. I’d been reading and seeing Noh theatre, performed the same way for hundreds of years, reading the Popul Vuh and its manuscript history, and thinking about how skateboarders can go anywhere in the world and have something in common, and many other things and come down to this simple definition of ‘culture’ as those experiences we have in common with others. This definition pleased me and seemed to cover most meanings of the word. We have them in common over the years, and in trying to preserve them we perpetuate an experience beyond our own death. What is important about that is not the distinction that some experiences are uniquely personal while some are shared in common, but the relation between the two – our individual experiences we may see as shared, we may seek them, or they may define us because of this, and some experiences uniquely our own, may come to be shared and come to define cultures, as Joyce’s internal monologues do, or as accidental moments become memes, as we recognise each other in each other. Culture is life’s answer to death. Culture is how we survive our own death. In culture we are part of and serve something greater than ourselves, so are humbled, yet, it doesn’t exist unless we as individuals carry it on, continue the practice, know the experience, and so we each as individuals become vitally important, because without us, this thing greater than ourselves ceases to exist. Yet it’s seems that although I love ‘culture’, and go about my daily business within a culture that constrains what we do and think to some extent, that I have no culture. When people say ‘community’ I have never know what they mean. I understand the term ‘community’ in the abstract – that it’s a shared group feeling or people collaborating in a common interest for mutual benefit, but I don’t understand what it really means, in the heart, to be part of a community. I suspect sometimes it’s a made up word that makes people feel better, or wins grant applications or enables politicians to say they are relevant. Anything I outwardly appear to be and the place I’m from I feel no commitment or affinity for. Any place, or book, or people that seem appealing I have no claim to call my own. I have love for individuals but nothing beyond that.

In reminiscing with my brother about places we slept, hungry times, the times in England and Europe, the mystery of our aboriginal great grandmother, and out mother’s immigration from England, and the way our father is and how we both had to get away, there were many things that only he and I know about. Only he and I know what that is like. ‘So here we are, a culture of two’ I thought to myself, looking up at the radiator in that warm pub on a cold night in midwinter Wellington. He had to get the last train home, and on the way back to the old flop house, drunk, passing by a man taking a photo of a homeless person sleeping in the freezing cold, stopping in at a Chinese restaurant, eating a pile of warm food alone while a work crew joked around the meal on their table, I thought, “…but there’s some things even he doesn’t know. No one in the world knows what that is like.” Though surely there are such isolated experiences for everyone, it is probably this that causes my own writing sickness.

Not long after the travels, my brother said to me, something about going through life thinking that these things happening here now we will remember. That each moment we exist we think we might revisit. That there’ll be plenty of time to contemplate. That as we figure out this puzzle at hand it will be important, remembered, and we’ll build on it. Or on the other hand, that we don’t pay much attention because we think it will be in our memory. But in reality, how often do we think back on it. This thought looms large now, but can we remember all those moments even a few days ago? The reality is that of the things we live through, we only remember a few, and as we carry on living, pre-occupied with things at hand, there are many things might only remember once or twice for the rest of our lives. Over time a few things stand out and similar days merge into one. In looking over the photographs of this trip and trying to place them on the map I was surprised in sometimes dropping the pin on where I thought a place might roughly be and as it slid into street level view, finding it was exactly right. In other cases I spent a long time hunting for a profile of a mountain, or turn of a street corner that matched the photograph. I was surprised to learn that I have been to Palmyra and to Heliopolis, which in my mind had all become Ephesus – at the same time, a vague image in my mind that I couldn’t place of a long collonade in the desert, turns out to be Palmyra. There are still some scenes in my mind I don’t know where they were and while I know I was thinking intensely all the time, and thought I would remember what confusions I faced and what I figured out, I don’t. Over time I remember less and less, like the half life or decay of radioactive substances – memory decays, and so this is called ‘Half Memory’.

In the end it doesn’t matter. I’m not Homer or Shakespeare, will never write anything as poignant as Li Qingzhao’s Records Of Metal And Stone, Chomei’s Hut or The Words of Khakheperreseneb yet so many haven’t even heard of those words, so why should the dross of my hand? If I were wise I would have better spent my time leading others to those better words. This pathological need to write, and to endlessly sift over memories, despite the near certainty that nobody will ever read this, is like a sand mandala, or Sisyphus. Whether no-one, or a thousand people read what I write, for a breif moment or for centuries, I will live and die, and these words will be brushed away in time. All that is becomes what isn’t. So there is only the doing. So we write on knowing full well the futility.