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A world of babble and collapsing civilities

By Morag Fraser - posted Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Travel broadens the mind - so they say. But I had some difficulty thinking expansively on the plane home just after Easter. The season should have filled me with new thought that springeth green. But the lithe young fellow next me was thinking different territorial imperatives - his. So as his biceps shoved me off the armrests during the flight and his person shoved me out of way as soon as we landed, I found myself biting my tongue instead of smiling with reconciliatory goodwill.

When I bite my tongue I compensate the small gods of psychological necessity by breathing strenuously though my nose - it's a habit picked up from my Presbyterian father. But the lithe fellow couldn't hear my coded, suppressed fury because he was communing with his mobile the minute the wheels hit the tarmac.

And as he disappeared up the aisle, thrusting a few more passengers into his wake, I was left with the bitter aftertaste of an opportunity lost. No human exchange - not even a mute smile - had come of our chance hour together.


The news I'd been reading (with difficulty, given the squash) in The Canberra Times provided on the plane was mostly of Alan Jones and the Australian Communications and Media Authority's findings on Jones' contributions to enlightenment during last year's Cronulla riots.

Acres of newsprint have already been devoted to the issue so I won't rehearse it here, except to say that Jones' reflexes on air were not unlike those of my aggressive travelling companion: assertive and territorial. A “power of one” he may be, but Jones also makes a powerful appeal to the tribal in all of us.

When we retreat into the tribe we lose the chance to experience of the kindness of strangers.

After the miserable flight a kindly Punjabi taxi-driver took me home. We didn't have much language in common but it didn't matter. There was enough to exchange some road gossip - Punjabis are regular drivers in my neck of the woods, so we share a territory. Before Easter one Punjabi driver showed me where the speed cameras were on the Western Ring Road, so after Easter I reciprocated with first-hand experience of the streets and underpasses where police camera cars lurk. It turned out that we'd both been booked on the same downhill trap. Shared adversity is a great obliterator of difference.

My cabbie had a long spade beard and a black turban. The wary might have avoided a driver who looked so stereotypically like Osama bin Laden. I experienced him only as the smiling young man who now has three children at school in Australia and who was born near Amritsar 20 years after I lived in India - a fellow sufferer who was booked at 68kph where I was booked at 67kph! I shall carry his rueful smile in my memory.

On the same day I shared a meal with the Polish-born Melbourne writer, Jacob Rosenberg, whose memoir, East of Time, has just won the 2007 National Biography award. Jacob's family all died in the Holocaust. On a perfect Melbourne autumn day he could remember the full horror of the experience - evil far beyond my imagining - and smile the smile of a man who does not seek scapegoats, who can laugh and tell the truth about evil and evildoers, who comes of a tribe but who is not locked inside a tribe.


At home again I reread a passage from Dreams of Speaking, a splendid new novel by the West Australian Gail Jones. In it she describes an incident in the Paris Métro where the novel's protagonist, Alice, witnesses an assault on a young woman.

Alice picks her up and wipes the blood from her nose with her own woollen scarf. The young woman shrugs off the help and limps away after the man who abused her. An old woman who has also witnessed the attack tugs at Alice's sleeve and murmurs to her in a language Alice does not know.

This is what happens next: "She may have been speaking Polish, or Yiddish; in any case, it was an expression of friendship and approval. Alice nodded, submissively. The encounter with the bleeding woman had left her with a giddy anticipation of despair.

Random violence, no matter how minor, had this predictable effect: the shuddering sensation of watching the concussive recoil of flesh, the general collapse of civility, the reminder, above all, of graver, sorrowful things that exist beneath the hyper-shine and fast-motion of cities. Alice smiled at the speaking woman, and they waited together, side by side, for the next underground train."

While the train comes, the two women get on board together. The older woman pulls up the sleeve of her coat and shows her arm to Alice: "There, on her forearm, were blue tattooed numbers. The woman nodded at the numbers, then smiled sadly at Alice. She knew, Alice thought. She knew what all this meant. It was the barest of communications, a wordless understanding."

In a world of babble, and collapsing civilities, we might look for more such wordless communications.

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First published in Eureka Street on April 17, 2007.

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About the Author

Morag Fraser is a former editor of Eureka Street. She is currently Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, and writes for a diverse range of magazines and newspapers.

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