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Where do I begin? Andy Williams’ schmaltzy song ear worms into my head. It came out in 1970 as the theme to the film Love Story, which I never saw. I vividly remember the girls at school talking about it, their obsession with it, my envy because I hadn’t seen it and wouldn’t see it and couldn’t join in. But maybe I’m misremembering?
I was eight years old the year Love Story came out, which seems too young for the memory, which was surely from high school. Wikipedia tells me it aired on US television in 1972. Was it broadcast here? I started high school when I was 10 years old, so maybe it is plausible. Maybe the movie was released in Australia later than everywhere else? I don’t remember.
Memory is like that. Events overlay and confuse each other, some disappear altogether. As you get older, it becomes harder to remember the order in which things happened. Everything rushes through the narrow aperture of the present into the wide, dimensionless ocean of the past. And that ocean just keeps getting bigger.
New Year’s Eve 2019 seems like years ago. I loathe New Year’s Eve: it’s the one night of the year I’m guaranteed to be home. As the clocks ticked over into 2020, I spent the evening glued to Twitter, watching as bushfires raged across eastern Australia threatening township after township: Mallacoota, Batemans Bay, Merimbula, Cobargo, Conjola Park, Corryong, Cudgewa, Sarsfield.
Like anyone raised in the country, bushfire days – those days when you wake up and smell the north wind roaring down from the hot inland, when the air is dry and the whole countryside is tinder – invoke a deep dread. The wind kicks up memories of smoke-darkened skies; of our neighbour’s charcoaled fence posts; of my father coming home from fighting the fires, his eyes reddened, his face blackened with ash; of driving past paddocks where dead sheep lay on the scorched ground, their bodies bloated, their four legs in the air; of red moons rising like swollen avatars of doom.
Everyone knows that we have bushfires in Australia, that it’s part of the ecology. And everyone knows that these recent bushfires are different.
On Ash Wednesday in 1983, I was a journalist working for the Melbourne Herald, watching the reports come in on the telex machine. That night I went to a party in Port Melbourne, and watched glowing embers fall from the sky in the middle of the city. Forty-seven people died in Victoria, 28 in South Australia.
In 2009, on Black Saturday, I was living in Williamstown. The day was so hot that the leaves of the mirror plant in our concrete backyard turned black. That was the first time I knew that something was different, that this was more than the usual catastrophe. I remember the dread coiling in my gut as I scrolled through the news that day. There was no news coming out of some places. No news. I remember watching the death toll rise over the next few days to 173 people: the worst death toll from a bushfire since colonisation.
Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images
This New Year’s Eve it was different again. Fires that had already been burning for months joined up into megafires. Photos were posted on Twitter that I had never seen before: people fleeing in boats from Mallacoota or houses burning underneath a sky of glowing crimson. At first I thought it was some trick of the camera, but I scrolled through photo after photo after photo, all showing the same glowing red. It looked like the air was on fire.
And then, for months afterwards, there were the photos of Canberra and Sydney, when the sun was a glaring red eye at midday, when the city skylines disappeared in the haze of smoke. The scale was, and remains, impossible to comprehend: the reported deaths of more than a billion animals, the long-term health effects, the clouds of smoke that drifted over New Zealand and changed the stratosphere. The grief, rising thick in my throat, for everything that has been irrevocably lost.
New Year’s is, of course, a purely imaginary division of time. But I think all of us knew, as we woke up in 2020, that this year was going to be different.
Because I’m a writer, I spend most of my day in my home office, witnessing the world through windows. My study looks out through lace curtains onto the front garden. I live in a modest suburb in inner-west Melbourne, where nearly every house, including ours, has roses and some fashion of picket fence.
We came to this house in 2019 – an exhausting move, forced by the sale of our last rental, that came at the end of an exhausting year. At the time having to move felt like a curse but, ever since I’ve been here, my primary feeling has been gratitude. Gratitude that we’re paying less rent for a house that has no cracks in the walls and a decent bathroom. Gratitude that there’s air conditioning. Gratitude that we have a home at all. I keep touching wood superstitiously: we don’t deserve our luck. I can’t help wondering when it will run out.
Having a garden feels sweet and old-fashioned. When we were house hunting, I was shocked by how many houses were penned in by decking or concrete or astroturf, with no garden of any kind. An agent showed us around a shabby home in Spotswood, with a scrubby, stark back lawn. Nestling against the fence were freshly sawn stumps. “We got rid of the trees,” the agent remarked. “They weren’t doing anything.”
I think of the earth suffocating and growing sour under all those structures across greater Melbourne, how there’s nothing for birds or insects, for all the grubs and bacteria and fungi that turn leaf litter into rich humus. I think of all the trees massacred because they’re not “doing anything”.
It’s a weirdly settler-Australian thing, this hatred of trees. When I was a child, we lived on a small farm in western Victoria. Our neighbour, Mr Pearce, had a paddock next to our back paddock in which there was a single, rather beautiful locust tree. One day he cut it down, I suppose because it wasn’t “doing anything”. It was such a shockingly reasonless act: he never bothered to grub out the stump, so he was still forced to plough around it. He just hated that tree being there. I thought he hated it because it was beautiful.
Where do I begin? Did all this start in the 1980s, when Exxon executives read the reports on greenhouse gases and coldly decided to pour millions of dollars into disinformation campaigns to undermine action against climate change? Or should we go back earlier, to the Industrial Revolution? Should we reach back to the 1500s, to the beginning of colonisation, when the superpowers of Europe began to decimate Indigenous cultures and lives and, with them, their knowledge of the environment?
Like everyone else, I perceive the world through windows framed by my background, my history, my gender, my personal inclinations. In the digital age, there are so many different kinds of windows – millions, billions of them, each showing a different, partial view of reality – that orienting yourself within them becomes a challenge.
When we locked down for the pandemic, windows were all we had. I lost some of mine. Theatre and dance have been a huge part of my life for decades – professionally, socially and personally. In a single week in March, with a shocking suddenness, there wasn’t any more live performance.
On 13 March, the upcoming Melbourne Comedy Festival – the largest ticketed event in Australia – announced its cancellation. And then the cascade began. Over the following week, I watched as culture across Australia shut down. The pandemic hit live performance – and any activity that requires people to be together in the same space, such as writers’ festivals or exhibitions – especially hard.
As with the bushfires, it was difficult to comprehend the scale of the disaster. The Australian website ilostmygig.net.au asked arts workers whose incomes had suffered from the lockdowns to tally their losses. In the end the website logged more than $340m of lost income affecting 600,000 people. Theatres lost 90% of their annual revenue. And that was just the immediate effect – the pandemic closures hit an arts sector already cut to the bone after almost a decade of savage cuts.
Now we gather online, watching actors perform live through the small window of a screen, because it’s too dangerous for us all to breathe the same air. So begins the voyage into the unknown. Artists have always lived with precarity, and those uncertainties have been amplified into catastrophe. The long-term effect remains incalculable. What shape will our culture be in five years? Ten years? The last show I saw was on 12 March. It was Caroline Guiela Nguyen’s beautiful, epic play Saigon, touring from France with her company Les Hommes Approximatifs as part of the Asia TOPA festival in Melbourne. It was a reminder, as I said in my review of it, “that a mainstage play need not be, as we see too often in our state theatres, a mediocre branch of commercial theatre.”
It struck me then how poverty-stricken our view of main-stage theatre is in Australia. Any work that has ambitions for its vision rather than its box office is largely considered to be the province of independent theatre. When, against all the odds, those artists begin to find an audience, the larger theatres swoop in to pick over and exploit their ideas. When I consider what our under-resourced theatre makers achieve in the teeth of constant precarity and indifference, I am often astonished. Imagine what they could do if that imagination and grit were properly supported? If the so-called ‘arts industry’ actually valued artists?
It’s been commonly remarked that the pandemic has starkly exposed the existing inequities in our societies. It seems that every problem that has rumbled beneath our feet for the past 60 years has hit crisis point, all at once. In the successive shocks of 2020, the gulf between those who have power and agency and those who don’t has become bitterly clear. Wounds and conflicts that have long festered in silence and fear are being torn open.
The Black Lives Matter protests that are still galvanising cities around the world are one very visible response to this exposure. But it’s happening at granular levels everywhere. Every day I read another story of a life ruined by institutionalised bigotry, of voices silenced – sometimes violently, sometimes covertly – by the foundations of white supremacy that shape our psyches from the moment we are born. Our perceptions and ideas are so stunted by such impossible binaries – white/black, male/female, right/wrong, winners/losers, innocent/guilty – that we are unable to see our world as it is. We are even unable to see ourselves.
Arts and culture are no exception to this reckoning. I believe that art should be one of the solutions but, as we have shaped it now, it’s part of the problem. Australian arts institutions are as classist, racist, sexist, transphobic and ableist as in any other sector. In fact, they are worse: women arts workers earn 25% less than men, compared with 16% less in the wider workforce. The representation of people of colour in positions of authority is disgraceful.
If art only reproduces the inequities of wider society, what is it for? It’s just a rich person’s hobby, bling for the apocalypse. Do I want that? I have never wanted that. It’s not what I have ever believed art is. I believe that art is a technology for consciousness: it brings connection, it brings recognition. It can allow us to see ourselves and our societies, it helps us to understand how all our truths are complex. It shows us that we are both alone and not alone in our all vulnerable, joyous, contradictory humanity.
I sit in my study, looking out my window at the roses. I open news websites on my computer and read of a world riven by fear and violence and injustice. Where do I begin?
I think. We must never go back to normal.
• This essay will be part of the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, edited by Sophie Cunningham and published by Penguin Random House in December
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: When we woke on the first day of 2020, we knew this year was going to be different | Australia news