In ten days it will be a year since my father Alan died.
I was pleased his body was still warm when I rested my hands on it back then on the day; on my way for more facial surgery when he died. About to have a significant portion of my bottom lip, a large slice of my nasal lobe plus a strip of flesh over my spine removed due to some cancerous cells resulting from childhood sunburn.
First thoughts that emerged while I was feeling his still warm dead body, I told Alan I would sing at his funeral one day. I was only a young lad at the time but these were the first memories that flooded in. When I told him obviously I had no idea I would have a few dozen stitches holding my mouth and some of my face together while I sang “My heart belongs to Daddy”.
It would have made him laugh.
My father was a harsh fellow who could be violent in his younger days. I stood frozen in the shadow of the house when I saw him thrashing my brother with a cricket bat. It was one of those moments; me at eight years old or so, the youngest child. I would not want to paint a picture of my father as some kind of monster. He was born in 1927. He left the United Kingdom with a new family and came to work at BHP in Whyalla, South Australia. The idea of climbing onto a boat with your wife and young children to travel to a new country seems very brave to me.
The thought of having to discipline a child who has done something exceptionally wrong must have been daunting to him when he took to my brother with the bat.
Back then in 1969 it was not so unusual for people to rule with the thump. When I say ‘people’ I include teachers, bus drivers, shop owners, strangers.
Violence was not unusual when I was a lad. One school teacher once pushed a kids head into a desktop from behind and broke the kid’s tooth at Primary School. Mr VanS may not have meant to break George’s tooth but he certainly meant to hurt him and used violence to do it.
We were played with by teachers in other very odd violent ways. If you were to be punished in some instances you would simply be asked to take a note from the teacher during class to another teacher at another classroom. It happened to me in Grade 6. My teacher Mr VanS asked me to bring a note to Mr K in Grade 7. I brought the note to Mr K as directed. Mr K immediately suggested I had read the note on the way to his class full of students. I had not. Mr K addressed his class telling them it was very unlikely that I had not read the note. The class were silent, I was ordered to bend over in front of the class. I bent over. Mr K hit me on the rear with a plank of wood. It hurt. I was told to return to my class. I did so.
I myself was one of those boys who looked out of the window because I was more interested in what I could see and understand. I was dyslexic and needed glasses in Primary School but nobody knew so I was often mistaken for being inept. The art teachers could see I wrote words and letters backwards; one once told me I was very good at it. I never got into trouble as often as the other kids but I had my fair share of being slapped around by teachers. Like I said, I was the youngest. My brother had been slapped across the face by a teacher at school, I had been slapped around the face by my friend’s mother, lifted from the ground by my scruff and shaken by another friend’s father because he thought I had pinched his daughter. Seriously, I am borderline autistic, quite a shy kid at the best of times unless given the opportunity; but not to be bad or naughty.
There were all sorts of complex issues at play way beyond our comprehension as kids in school during the late sixties and into the nineteen seventies. Violence was only one of the elements we were dealing with as young people on our own under the care of our keepers. I went to public schools by the way, Government schools provided by the Sate Education Department and the Commonwealth of Australia.
We used to march around the quadrangle in the morning, salute the Australian flag, sing the Song of Australia in unison and recite our multiplication table as we entered the classroom fresh off the asphalt in line.
There was nothing private about the kind of abuse we were educated with by example all through school. Most often this violence was done in the classroom in full view of everyone. I do not recall the students getting together to rally against it. The violence we accepted was the way things were.
So imagine, if any school teacher can randomly smack me around the head, if that is the usual way a school day plays out, my father becoming violent with my brother seems less extraordinary even though he did not take to these types of actions often. What my father did often was consume alcohol; vast quantities of it. He could easily consume a flask of Hock as he watched the cricket in black and white on television over the course of a single afternoon, even two on a hot day.
He drank beer but there were a variety of wines available in the local area. Dry Sherry, Hock, Riesling, Brandy, Sweet Sherry. I was too young to know more than it was off limits and so was he when he drank it.
Curious what we know and how we know it as kids I think. Maybe in reflection as adults we are only thinking we know what we knew and how it was we had come to know it, I don’t know. It is fun to think back on in the context of my father because he developed as a character beyond being the fellow my mother married and had their three children with.
As children I think we three brothers and sister had come to accept that he had grown and life as it does had moved on. He was eventually a gentle man who remarked on his angry moments as unavoidably part of his life process. He described some remorse for pain he caused well before he died but after his death I was reminded of the strange petty things people do and say in anger. He had evidently told my mother, long after their divorce, he did not want her at his funeral. She had clearly taken this to heart and did not attend.
Violence of love, betrayal, longing, whatever it may be it is violent. Right now in Australia there is a movement against domestic violence and I am all behind that. The way to stop violence it to call it out, identify it, protect against it, expose it, I agree. What keeps getting missed is the full stop in these campaigns that are calling against violence against women, girls and children. The punctuation in the rhetoric is all wrong. I mean it has not shifted along to really point to the problem, which is violence. The acceptance of violence as a productive means of communication in the real world needs to be raised forward. It is violence that leads to violence. Keep on saying ‘violence against women’ and you overcomplicate matters in my opinion; nevertheless it is good to be able to speak about it because there has been a great deal of it around for a long time.
Almost one year since the death of my father I just attended the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival in Sydney Australia. That was very exciting. Flying out of Adelaide I knew that there were Grape Hyacinth and Dutch Iris blooms about to open in my backyard inherited from my father’s wife who passed away nine months after my father. I needed to leave them shade and make certain they were going to be moist enough. I was only away overnight but the harsh sun in South Australia can heat the ground up so fast young things in pots bake in a day. I have an ongoing love affair with the shade I am growing in my backyard. I do not like a backyard with no shade which is what I got when I moved into my dwelling a couple of years ago. I only really have a backyard as I live in a one bedroom flat so I cherish being able to go out and sit in it. When I moved in it was just lawn but I have managed to fix that. It was imperative that I did because one year after I arrived the heavily greened yard over the fence next door was demolished along with a house that had been empty for some months. The occupants of the house next door had died and the house was sitting quietly as all of the paperwork was being processed. The abundant native flora in the yard next door was habitat supporting several native birds local to the area. Awful to see this yard so alive with birds suddenly be gone. It set me on a mission to provide them with as much foliage as possible as soon as I could. I have an ongoing relationship with the birds in my backyard. Some of them are very dear to me. They are wild birds and I like them that way. Some of them feel like part of my extended family and we interact in significant ways. Every so often I feature them in my writings.
Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival in Sydney was a wild ride. I decided to enter the competition to write 25 words or less about what I love about the Fashion Festival. Over the past couple of years I have entered a few competitions and been really thrilled to win them. To anybody else they would probably be insignificant little things but I have really enjoyed the process. It reminds me of having an assignment to do; you go collect the material, put it together and wait for assessment. Know what I mean?
I like to enter something that requires me to write a few words and I only really like things that are of actual interest. I don’t so much as go looking for competitions to win as I do for opportunities that may inspire me on some level.
I have been in a funk a bit and it does have to do with violence and fashion and birds and everything if I am to be honest about it all. I am in the middle part of my fifty-fourth year, so much goes on in life I would rather not miss.
I won a pass into the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival in Sydney via a competition run by Nikon Australia so the focus was on photography. To cut a complex story short I have taken photographs a lot over my life and in recent times have come to own a Nikon camera. Here, I thought, is a great opportunity to photograph something that would be really well executed.
I have had some very unexpected blessed moments working with photographers over the years. I had the job of being George Lucas’ stand-in for a Vanity Fair photo shoot Annie Leibovitz was doing in 2004 on the Fox Studio Star Wars set. I sat with Darth Vader behind me R2D2 and C3PO beside me and strangely Yoda on my lap. I say ‘strangely’ because I had handled an official Yoda from LucasFilm way back in the 1970s in my job for a department store in the display and design team; not the exact same one as sat on my lap for Annie, but it added to the already surreal situation. After all here am I because I have silver hair and am the same height as Mr Lucas, not because I am special in any other way. It was a Masteclass of its own sitting watching as Annie had lighting set-ups arranged and changed. She was constructing a composite image catching up with cast members around the world. I was enamoured with her as I sat quietly holding Yoda at the correct angle.
I interviewed Elizabeth Anton when she was a guest of the Biennale of Sydney some years ago. We went to her hotel room and talked for some time. She approaches some of the images she creates with a process based on old time Hollywood, I had been creating interactive, intimate theatre, we found many areas to compare notes on in a marvellous conversation.
Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival Sydney was at Sydney Town Hall. I know it is going to be an event that takes itself seriously; I have done location photo shoots and had plenty of experience in front of cameras, not so many experiences of actual fashion parades. I did attend one in the 1980s in William Street Kings Cross with Nell Schofield and Jo Kennedy. I bought a Linda Jackson short sleeved shirt. It was blue and green with gumleaf motifs. I loved it and wore it to death over the following decade until it disintegrated; sad face.
Kate Fitzpatrick the Australian actress, from South Australia; she and I have had very engaging conversation about fashion and style. Her book, an autobiography, it has a lot of very fine detail around the garments she was wearing at certain times. I have not really attended fashion events other than that Linda Jackson show years ago, but I am interested in fashion and style. I am interested in art and the function of things and the interactivity between everything. I think I am usual in that way, I have opinions and I base them on what I am informed by.
Attending this fashion event if I was living in Sydney would have been simple but nothing is simple right now, not as simple as it can be. I am in Adelaide and essentially what I won was entry to a class I could have accessed if I were back in my old place; the one I left a decade ago when my father went into intensive care. I felt it was an appropriate time to travel home and be with my family when he became so ill so I got a job, packed up, returned to a place I had long put behind me for reasons you can catch up with some other time when I am not focusing on this extraordinary little adventure.
The pass I won I decided I was going to claim. I was going to drag my sorry self over to Sydney, sleep on a couch and get some top tips from fashion photographers in an environment that would be reliably realistic; the real thing really. It was all going to be a twenty-four hour adventure for me and most certainly it was.
I seem to meet a lot of very amazing people, don’t get me started on that; my funk, or the Black Dog as some people call it. I need to explain here that I generally do not refer to depression as the Black Dog for a quirky personal reason: I wrote a play with a gentleman called Bruce Keller some years ago. He was a fine man who has since passed away. He suffered from depression and anxiety quite a lot. He had lost a very dear friend, Lance, an awful accident. Bruce had moments of violent reaction in his grief. He would throw a whack in rage. In those days, the 1980s there was clearly violence connected to complex mental health issues around but in a contained environment like ‘the theatre’ it wasn’t really always called out as such at the time. It was passed off as a tantrum or an ego related outburst. In our process of working creatively together one of the characters Bruce and I developed was a character called Big Black Dog.
Big Black Dog was dear to us both and represented something different to depression; the character Big Black Dog in the play ‘Puppy Love: The tale of a dog’ represents isolation, abstraction, alone-ness, abandonment. Things that may lead to depression indeed, but the character did not represent depression and we both loved him very much. I even wrote a play after him called Little Big Black Dog that attempted to explore the way things can imprint on a plastic mind. I usually call my depression a funk. I would describe it as a dreadful scent that doesn’t go away.
Given I have been in a bit of a funk, why not head to Sydney and take some photographs?
It was great, what can I say? The opportunity to meet and take advice from Nikon experts was worth it to me. We had a briefing from Ben the guy from Nikon Education based in Sydney; he introduced us to Christian who was going to guide us with suggestions. Christian said my recent capturing images of magpies was going to come I handy in relation to shooting moving models on the runway which was good to appreciate. The models do move at quite a speed. A fast show is a good show. Because I was photographing and catching words from Christian through the actual event I was not watching the event so much as capturing elements of it. The brilliant thing about this all is that the event is presented in such lighting that makes it possible to shoot clearly without a flash. We were positioned front row centre at the end of the runway facing the models’ entrance before they approached us and then turned away to our right to walk the middle section it would have been completely disruptive to use flash photography.
Upon arriving home after my journey I start to go through the pictures. I am very pleased. I am so proud to have taken a shift away from feeling sad about so many things, to have grabbed an opportunity, to have such a treasure trove of images, some of which I have featured for you to enjoy.
I did have a little buzz around the Star Bar and saw plenty of glamorous people, wonderful things including mini Mercedes-Benz that had been designed by specific people. There were a lot of things that reminded me of any other Festival really, though this was all terribly stylish and slick. Everyone seemed well presented, professional, The Hub seemed quite similar to any other artists bar at any other Festival to me; but listen to me. I have had a charmed life I suppose because of the work I have done and am always seeking to do.
I was taken by the youth of some of the models. These girls are fourteen and fifteen years old I should think. They worked really well under pressure. I do know what it is like to be out on show. These models were presented extremely well and the fashion looked pretty good most of the time. I think some of the Ready To Wear stuff was a lot of fun.
Quite a lot of it reminded me of the 1970s in shape, the fabrics seemed fresher with more fluidity. I liked the event very much. I remain impressed that my Nikon Masterclass experience was as good as it was and I send a shout out to the Nikon Education Team.
Thumbs up that was great!
Blog more of my images from #MBFFSYDNEY 2015 soon.