The morning is cold and dark, so dark that on the beach, the water of the bay looks like an undulating sheet of black tin. Rocky however is as eager as ever to pursue the ball he has found and which I have thrown perhaps twenty metres into the darkness. I can just make him out, his body submerged so that it seems that he is only a head, furry and white bearded, moving in a semi circle towards the object of his desire. The boardwalk is frost-covered and slippery and in the distance, the kiosk at the end of the pier has two illuminated windows blinking in the moving fog. The trouble with winter is that by the time we come home, dawn is still an hour or so away.
In late Autumn, the beach most mornings suddenly came alive with birds. I wondered where they had come from, the black swans and the pelicans and the big black birds that looked like crows and teased Rocky, waiting until the last moment as he galloped towards them, to fly off and then hover just above his head. The swans flew in sometimes, low, just above the water, six or more at a time and then settled in the shallows, diving every now and then in unison, their beautiful necks fully submerged, hoping to snare small fish I suppose. The pelicans mostly sat in groups on the rotting posts of the old abandoned pier. They looked pre-historic, as if they had descended from those bird-like dinosaurs, able to swallow the biggest fish whole. There were large white birds with grey markings on their wings and I wondered whether they were albatrosses and of course I thought of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and how Coleridge, high on opium, made the killing of the albatross a metaphor for sin. Rocky, not knowing Coleridge, chased the birds with energy and determination, running in wide circles, as if he could corral them somehow in the sky.
Now, with the shortest day of the year a couple of weeks away, we hear the birds coming towards the beach and when they arrive, they are no more than black silhouettes of different shapes in the shallows and on the wooden posts of the old St Kilda marina and beside the concrete pylons of the pier, it too now likely to be demolished and replaced with a new one that will match the palm tree -lined wooden boardwalk. I had considered going out later in the morning in order to see the birds and the sunrise, but then thought that Rocky’s impatience –and mine I suppose–would be too much to handle.
I look for Rocky in the water and can just make him out heading back to shore, the tennis ball in his mouth. I wonder whether dogs ever swim out so far that they cannot get back. If Rocky was in trouble, would I try and rescue him? He always seems to me to be fearless, prepared to pursue the ball no matter what the temperature and no matter how far into the bay I manage to throw it.
As I watch him come safely back to the sand, ratty looking, his head much too big for his body, his fur flattened and soaked, I wonder what he would think of this writing. What would he think about my version of him and of our time together? What would he think of the fact that where I write, in this space, there are a million or more shouters and abusers, rumour- mongers and haters, conspiracy theorists and psychopaths, each with room in this place of infinite space? I feel liberated, after a lifetime of writing within certain boundaries, accepting the limits set by editors and proprietors and marketing gurus and advertising salesmen. I once believed in objectivity and fairness, in facts that could be checked, even in truth perhaps, but in cyberspace there are no limitations and no filters and mostly there is no fairness and certainly no truth. What there is a lot of self-obsession. I fear, at times, that I have succumbed to the lure of it. Perhaps Norman Mailer summed it up best in the title of his 1960s collection of essays and journalism: Advertisements For Myself.
If he were to write–and perhaps some time in the future I will help him find his voice– I am sure Rocky would make the point that my recounting of our conversations, indeed of our relationship, is something of a distortion. He would say that we discuss all manner of issues, including most recently, the question of whether or not Kevin Rudd’s apparent popularity, if the polls are to be believed, is evidence of a collective weakness for nostalgia. By this I mean a weakness for prime ministers who sound like they are part of an Australia that is disappearing .
Hawke was a tertiary- educated Rhodes Scholar,a child of the middle-class, who became a working class hero who never labored in a factory and who learnt to speak like workers– or rather trade union officials– in the pub across the road from the Trades Hall in Melbourne. By the time he became Prime Minister, the working class that he thought he was talking to and talking like, was disappearing, if it had not already disappeared.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Paul Keating’s was the most authentic–certainly the most colorful and articulate– representative of a certain sort of Labor politician most regularly produced by the Party in New South Wales— Mark Latham was a product of that tradition, but he lacked Keating’s charm and endurance. Language for Keating was a weapon, to be used to destroy opponents, often through merciless, if amusing, ridicule. But it is hard to argue that Keating spoke to mainstream Australia. He spoke the language of a certain sort of political class warfare, at a time when this class war was more or less over. The irony of this was that it was the inner city progressives who were Keating’s great admirers, with not a trade unionist or worker among them.
John Howard spoke the language of the urban lower middle class Australia of the 1940s and 1950s. He never pretended to be anything but one of them. He spoke the language of small business, manufacturing small business in the main, not of the workers but of the owners. It was in the company of these people–and not with those who ran multi-national companies — that Howard felt most real and most comfortable. The irony was that globalisation, which Howard embraced with such great enthusiasm, had deeply wounded this Australia, by the time of his defeat.
Rocky and I have had some difficulty with Rudd’s popularity, for we agree that it is often hard to nail what it is about Rudd that so many Australians apparently find attractive. It could be of course that they do not find him attractive at all and have no great affection for him– the polls cannot measure such things and the media now relies almost entirely on the polls for almost everything–but rather opt for Rudd when they are made to consider the alternative. Sometimes, I wish that my old paper would send out its best reporters to come back with the stories of people coping with what Rudd and all his team continue to tell us is the world’s gravest financial and economic crisis in 70 years. Perhaps that’s impossible now, to do these stories, to send out a team for weeks, months if necessary, to write stories that connect us with each other, something that the great newspapers once did–and what I always loved about them–but which, in these dire times for newspapers, can no longer be afforded.
Paul Keating, during the 1996 election campaign, said `change the government and you change the country’ but our media seem to me less and less capable of documenting that change. How has Rudd changed the country? What is confounding about Rudd is that he can be funny, self-deprecating, pompous and boring, tin-eared and tone deaf, smart and sharp, ludicrously spin-driven, inept and fatuous, cringe-making and silly, incisive and affecting, sometimes all in one speech or one interview.
Barack Obama once said that he felt like a new blank canvas on which people painted their hopes and aspirations. I think that might be true of Rudd as well, a post-modernist politician capable of somehow authenticating a number of different–and often antithetical– political narratives. The trouble is that post-modernism may be on its last legs. It may be that only a politician of Obama’s singular brilliance and facility with language and tone and timing can, at a time like this, be many things to many different people, not just in America, but around the world. Rocky and I agree that Rudd is no Obama.
Just as we were about to discuss who Rudd may be if he is no Obama,, we were diverted by the sight of two black swans blocking our path to the ramp that leads off the sand near the pier. The swans stood still, upright, their long necks only slightly curved, beaks pointing skyward, as if we did not exist. Rocky stopped beside me, his head cocked at an angle, as if he was deeply puzzled by these impervious creatures.
He whimpered softly and looked up at me. He seemed relieved when I put on his lead and gave him a liver treat. We walked past the swans, within perhaps a half a metre of them and they didn’t move, Rocky whimpering and straining at the leash. There was something defiant about the way they stood there, necks tense, I noticed, feathers slightly ruffled, wings starting to spread, but only slightly. When we were well past them, out onto the stone-walled path, they took off, the big birds gliding over the water, low, almost within touching distance, out into the darkness,
I let Rocky off the leash and he dashed for the shoreline, having leapt over the wall and onto the sand, his head tilted slightly upwards, following the flight of the two birds disappearing now, out there beyond the rocks where the fairy penguins nest. Rocky stood in the water, lost it seemed to me, in the mystery of flight, desperate to join them, teased and challenged by the birds. I called him over and so heart-felt was my empathy for his unattainable desires, that I gave him four liver treats, one after the other.
He ate them hungrily, with great gusto. By the time he had finished, Kevin Rudd was the furthest thing from his mind.