by Stephen Sewell
I suppose I’ve been a writer all my life, and it’s always been getting me into trouble. I was nearly expelled from school when I was thirteen when the school paper I was editing began an investigation of the local parish priest, and my relationship with authority has been fraught ever since. It’s not that I’m a natural rebel, I don’t think, though most children are, but that I just can’t stand being pushed around. Fundamentally, that’s what it is. So maybe I just never grew up. Of course, I don’t like hypocrisy and can’t stand inconsistency, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more understanding, and perhaps even more forgiving. It’s hard, living up to your principles. But start telling me what to do and my body tenses, my voice grows hoarse and I’m ready for a fight, and when I let rip, look out, because there’s a lot of anger in me. Why that is, I don’t know. I can’t say that I suffered a particularly difficult childhood. In fact in most ways I was very privileged. My mother and father loved me. I had two beautiful brothers whom I persecuted relentlessly. We lived in our own house, a Federation cottage with a Hills Hoist in the backyard and close to a school that taught Christian principles that in many ways I still adhere to today. I honestly try as hard as I can to love my enemy. I wrote a play a few years ago, called The Gates of Egypt, in which I tried to investigate the plausibility of loving your enemy, and the audience reaction, marked by bewilderment and outrage, indicated to me that, as a nation at least, we’ve drifted a long way from what my mother used to tell me was a central Christian practice. But maybe that was something I misunderstood at the time, and no-one ever really believed you could, even then; they just thought it was a good thing to say in front of the kids. It was the fifties and sixties, and people still spoke bitterly and unselfconsciously about the “filthy Japs” and the “Yellow Peril.” My games with my brothers were war games, and the television shows we watched – when we finally got television – were war related. I can still remember the thrill of shooting my brothers with my toy guns and then disputing who got who first. Horrible memories that make me shudder now at what little children are capable of imagining. Of course, we couldn’t really imagine it, and those of our uncles and family friends who did have a direct experience of it never wanted to share it with children they thought were too innocent to understand. And perhaps we were. Innocent. One time two of my uncles returned from Bathurst, where my family had its roots, with a collection of aboriginal shields and spears, and I and my brothers played cowboys and indians while the men talked in the shadows of the garage. I never knew what it meant, but it troubles me now to think about it. My father is dying, slowly, wheezing out the last of his life. He still recognises me, but I wonder if he remembers those aboriginal shields, and where they came from, and how they fell into my uncles’ possession. They’re dead themselves, my uncles. One from dust, that he got in the mines; the other from the TB that still stalked the slums of this land only a few decades ago, both of them what you’d instantly recognise as Australian, the kinds of Australians that Albert Tucker used to paint. Hard, angular, with heads like axes, but troubled and lonely, even in each other’s raucous company. I saw the dusted one just before he died. I was maybe eighteen, bluff and thoughtless, and I lit a cigarette, and he looked at me and cried. I’d never seen my uncle cry. I didn’t know why he did. Mysteries. Family mysteries. My mother used to tell us stories all the time, not just of her family, my one living grandparent, her mother, and her brothers and sisters; but of my father’s family, miners, boxers, sheep farmers, their hands deep in the country, searching for its fleece and its gold. Good Christians, I was told, when they weren’t drunk and making trouble. Australians, like me. Making trouble seems to be a trait. Or used to be. We’ve lost the larrikan and become civilised. There are larrikans out there, for sure, but the coppers and the clobberers have got them on the run. But that’s what my father’s side of the family was. Mad. Like him. My father was mad, like a mad bull penned up inside a slaughter-yard waiting for the hammer. He taught me how to hate, and how to live with your hate. I wonder what he’d say to me now if I asked him does he love his enemy.
All photos of the Sewell family property of Stephen Sewell