Mon Apr 26, 2004 9:57pm
It’s not easy to write interesting things about your own country. So many of the telling details are invisible to you. Over the weekend I flew down to Sydney. The main reason was to see Radiohead, which – according to the number of CDs in my collection – is my favourite band. But I also managed to fit in an IMAX documentary on the Sun, some theatre, and a trip to the art gallery to reacquaint myself with the treasures of the Shanghai Museum.
‘Victory’ is set during the 17th century in the depraved court of Charles II, where the king fucks his concubine in open view and the widow of a failed revolutionary endures rape and other degradations while attempting to recover her husband’s dismembered body. Barker’s language is vibrant, bloody, hacking into Decorum’s milk-white torso like a manic woodchopper. It was a cruel, bitter play, but also one with an unsparing wit and moments of tenderness, with things to say about life in a changing world. Among other things, it’s an actor’s dream script, and the players attacked it with vim, spittle flying from their lips.
The bleak outlook on the human condition was echoed in the Radiohead concert. Firstly, by the nameless Aussie support act, who appeared to have deluded themselves into thinking that tossing punk, rap, metal and electronica into a blunt blender and shaking furiously would distil the nectar of the rock gods. It didn’t. Not even when the lead singer writhed on the floor. Even their retorts to the (equally weak) catcalls of “You suck!” lacked bite. (In the interests of appearing objective, I should add that some people did cheer for them, so maybe they were better than I thought.)
Secondly, by Radiohead’s emotional symphony to the 21st century.
For some reason I sleep little or not at all before a flight. Usually it’s because I’m packing, even when I’m leaving the country for a year. This was for one night, but I still only slept a few hours before I had to get up for my 5am taxi. It’s the anticipation, I think. Travel lifts my spirits like nothing else I know. The freedom of travel is probably just another form of bondage, but it’s one that makes me happy. My lack of sleep – and a glass of wine – meant I was distinctly drowsy by the time Radiohead arrived on stage. As the night progressed the music took on an increasingly somnolent, ominous air. If the play was organic ego, this was electronic id.
Despite the capacity crowd, the stadium was still. Even the mosh pit was motionless for long stretches, as if the people were attending midnight mass rather than a rock concert. But this was the stillness of an intent audience, compared with the brownian motion that greeted the first performance; there was no mistaking the audience response at the beginning and end of each song for apathy. I enjoyed the entire show, even as I felt slightly disturbed that this is the music that speaks to us. The standout for me was the driving rhythmic bass of ‘The National Anthem’.
The image of the night that will stick with me though was in its dying moments, ‘Everything in its Right Place’. Thom Yorke’s eerie voice finally fell silent and one by one the band members filed off stage, until the screens were filled with grainy pictures of the last one. From the back row but one his crouching body was the size of an insect, but turning our attention to the screens we could see a human figure crawling over an ancient console of knobs and switches, making adjustments randomly, like a young Doctor Who. Finally, he too departed, leaving the machine to play itself. It sounded like a choir of tortured whales. Above the stage scrolled a text message in demonic red: ERFOREVERFOREVERFOREVERFOREV.
Everything switched off.
Yesterday was ANZAC Day, when Australians rise in darkness to celebrate our defacto national day and recall the forebears who, at 4.28am on April 25, 1915, went to their slaughter beneath the cliffs of Gallipoli. We commemorate defeat half a world away, not victory on our own soil. One important part of the rather strange amalgam of attitudes and beliefs that make up the Australian character. And I say this as someone who feels chills when the bugle plays The Last Post. Somewhere between starting (and hating) school here in 1989, and today, I became an Australian.
I’ve sensed in recent times that we are finally throwing off our defeatism and beginning to accept that we can achieve as much, and sometimes more, than the other peoples of the world. Of course, any attempt to capture the zeitgeist only succeeds in recording oneself. Perhaps it was just the cosmopolitanism of Sydney, where the buskers near the Sydney Opera House included a dread-locked Jamaican on steel drums, a Chinaman on erhu, some Aboriginals on didgeridoo and drum machine, an American on unicycle, an Asian girl on violin, some bloke on bongos playing half-heartedly to a tape of corny Australian songs, and a couple of true blue Aussies, spray-painted in silver and frozen in ridiculous poses, on drugs. Australian flags were everywhere, as the ANZAC Day Parade finished and the crowds flocked to the foreshore, among them old diggers in suits and medals and wraparound sunglasses.
I read an article which argued that the reason for the success of Australians on the various battlefields of the last century wasn’t supreme sporting prowess, endurance, anti-authoritarianism, moral superiority, mateship or any of the other pillars of Australianism (for Australians can talk the talk, if not always walk the walk). It actually lay in our ability to innovate, to learn new ways of doing things. Our generals were better educated than those of other armies and the soldiers unbounded by ritual and tradition. This may or may not be true (and, if judged solely on my own military experience, not very well-supported) and it is just as much a part of the Australian myth as all those other things. In my mind though it points to one of Australia’s strengths: it is a new country, a slate largely empty of all the tired and dangerous associations that choke other parts of the world. We’re not quite there, not quite ready to embrace uncertainty, possibility. We have yet to come to terms with the Martian landscape at our core – and its people – and we still hang a little too much on the praise of strangers. But in the kind of world we live in, I can think of no better quality for a society to have than a readiness to adapt to change. Even if this does mean mobile phone usage is so high that some mating native birds now triumphantly cry out the latest ringtone.
People often worry about my other parent, America, colonising Australian culture. Perhaps Americans should be the worried ones. Aside from Oscar success, Australians are also in charge of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, those bastions of US commerce. Some might question whether that’s a good thing, but just as business follows culture, so too does culture business. Of course, for all my jingoism, I’m still going to leave this shitty country as soon as I can. How very Australian.
It’s a strange world we live in, one where biotech, nanotech, and infotech are all converging toward organic silence. Or death. The knobs and switches are being absorbed into our skin, like a suicide bomb. But I’m optimistic. So long as we can crack open the wireless cranium, and understand ourselves. An Australian invented the black box; perhaps others can help defuse the mind before it reaches critical mass. The former leader of Hamas said, shortly before he was killed, that the terrorists will win because they love death and their enemies love life. If that’s defeat, bring it on.
p.s. You can hear Radiohead live Tuesday April 27 @ 9pm Australian EST: http://www.triplej.abc.net.au