December 26, 2003 | Graham

Powderfinger, My Dad and Christmas

One Christmas I remember being given a game of “Pick up sticks” where the aim was to gradually extract tiny straws from a tangle without moving any of the others. It is an entirely opportunistic exercise where you take relationships between sticks as they come. I’m finding writing about Christmas like that.
One definition of humour is the “sudden shock of recognition of the unfamiliar”, but it can work the other way. That’s why I laughed watching a television programme yesterday to find that Powderfinger’s latest album is called Vulture Street. Vulture Street has played an important part in my life – it’s where I grew up in a typical Brisbane two-bedroom worker’s cottage that had been extended to make it into four bedrooms by adding one room and “filling in” the verandah with hopper windows and fibro sheeting. It’s where my Dad grew up after being delivered by a midwife in the front bedroom in 1912. It’s where he and Mum still live, so naturally it’s where I often spend Christmas. Obviously it has played a part in Powderfinger’s existence too.
Vulture Street is one of those Brisbane streets. Dad used to tell me that it is the longest street in Brisbane, which always seemed like a bit of a fiddle. When does a street become a road and therefore entitled to be much longer than a street, but without attracting comment? It is home to the Gabba cricket ground, which takes up two-thirds of a very large city block but only one street number. Consequently, our house, a mere two blocks further along is 483, but the house on the other side of the street is five-hundred-and-something.
Last night there was an attempted knife murder in Vulture Street at West End. The police shot the assailant dead. At East Brisbane, where Mum and Dad live there was another knife murder a month or so ago just up the road in Sinclair Street. Vulture Street stitches the southern suburbs that marked the boundaries of old Brisbane together – the rougher boundaries of old Brisbane. Famous names lived on or near Vulture Street. David Malouf grew up in Browning Street, a tributary down the South Brisbane (another boundary suburb) end. Former Lord Mayor of Brisbane Sallyanne Atkinson briefly lived opposite us above her father-in-law’s surgery.
It’s a street of contrasts. Big houses like Jon le Court’s mansion leave little worker’s cottages like ours jostling for breath on their 10 metre frontages. Down David Malouf’s end there is the odd chamferboard defaced with a stuccoed faux Aegean front applied by a Greek or Italian immigrant 40 years ago, with a market garden instead of a front yard. Our end the immigrants were more likely to be “White” Russian, or Balts or Slavs. There are three churches along its length. West End Uniting, where Mum was once the Deaconess, the Greek Orthodox at Kangaroo Point and St Paul’s Anglican just up the road where Dad has his name on a foundation stone.
Multi-cultural as that world was, it hung together. Not because of the thread of geographical connection, but perhaps paradoxically because we all had a sense of our own separate communal identities. We went to different churches, but most of us did go to church and believed similar things even though at times it seemed we prayed to different gods. I used to play with the dentist’s son up the hill in the house with the tennis court, but money didn’t really matter – we both went to school in bare-feet. While each of us in our community might have borne different fruits we were branches grafted to the same trunk.
Now the community has gone. It is not just the knife murders in the street. It is not that we believe different things. It is that we don’t really believe anything at all. While we appear to have more in common than ever before we actually have less because we lack any sort of structured way of interpreting the world. Without structure we have no language capable of communicating to others what we think, and they cannot interpret what we express in any complexity. Our world is existential. Who knows what drove my knife murderers? Like Meursault it may have just been the sultry weather.
The same murderous apathy and lack of connection and commitment seems to have done for Christmas. This is a religious festival that we are afraid to celebrate as a religious festival. Christmas cards now rarely have any reference to Shepherds, Wise Men, Mary, Joseph or Jesus. Children sing “Christmas” carols where the jolly fat man in the red suit sitting down stage center dominates, and “naughty and nice” have replaced good and evil.
Church organists have a bird’s eye view of the congregation. I went to church twice this Christmas. There were fewer worshippers this year, and far fewer visitors. In some ways this is a good thing – those who attend have shown real commitment. In another it is devastating. If I were living in a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist country at the height of one of their religious festivals I would attend a ceremony if at all possible, and if allowable according to their customs. Whether one believes in Deity or not, there is no way that you can understand the complexity of a society without understanding its religious belief, and perhaps more importantly, its religious observance. There is also the small matter of respect, of being a witness to that which a community believes in most strongly.
Anyone attending a Christian ceremony this Christmas would be witness to the complexity of beliefs which have underpinned our society. At the same time as we celebrate the mid-winter birth of the King with carols and pomp and ceremony, we anticipate his death in early spring by partaking together in a symbolic meal of bread and wine. So birth and death are entwined, and one becomes the other.
On Christmas Day there were murders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan committed by people with motive. These people see Christianity and Christians as their enemy, yet they understand more about Christianity, and the mysteries of life that Christianity attempts to explore, than most of us in the Christian world. They understand, and most of us have forgotten, that there can be more important things than life, and that death can be a beginning rather than an end.
Throughout the time since 9/11 I have been struck by our collective lack of imagination: our inability to walk in our enemy’s shoes and see the world through his eyes. As a result we are almost equally divided in how to deal with him, and in dealing with our own internal panic and feelings of insecurity we pass laws which destroy some of our most basic rights and liberties, compromising those things most worth protecting.
The transformation of Christmas from a celebration of deep communal values and mysteries into a combination mid-summer holiday and consumption binge is a sign of our decline as a society. It also represents the crux of the liberal dilemma, which is the dilemma of the Enlightenment – how does one keep form in a society when the only control on an individual’s exercise of his or her rights is the exercise of rights by others and where the limits to what one can believe or do are very few?
Once upon a time I might have found some answers walking up and down my street – Vulture Street. Not now. The street might be more violent, but it is becoming homogenous as the houses are gradually eaten up by unit blocks. Perhaps this is the way that the world ends, not with a bang, just a steady decay. Or maybe this is merely the way that the world continues – grey, bleak, undifferentiated, timid, inward-looking and unimaginative. Happy Christmas.

Posted by Graham at 11:52 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Really nice piece, Graham. And a merry New Year. Peter.

    Comment by peter McMahon — December 27, 2003 @ 3:46 pm

  2. Graham, your reflections on Vulture Street brought back memories of my youth. I cannot claim ever to have been a true resident of the South Brisbane area but I was a student at King’s College which was then at Kangaroo Point shortly after the outbreak of WW2. Later, I was camped on the Gabba Cricket Ground, just after Pearl Harbour and before going to New Guinea in 1942.
    Perhaps more important than that, my Mother and Father lived in the area for a period before I was born. My recollection is that it was Stanley Street. I remember too the old Bohemia Stadium, not far from the South Brisbane Railway Station from which, for a while, I used to travel from school – at Brisbane Grammar – down to Beenleigh where my parents had their home for a few years. Beenleigh is the “real” location of my novel, Haverleigh, which records the way of life of those who grew up in the Great Depression, went through the turmoil of WW2, including New Guinea, and survived to enjoy some good and nationally – and internationally – blossoming years in the quarter century after the shooting stopped.
    Just coming out in the New Year, probably in January, is a novel called Uncle Rupert, which is very largely based in Stanley Street in South Brisbane. It is there, at the second-hand, pawnbroker shop of Deadly and Maisie Morbid, that IWW agitator, Godfrey Bronze, lives humbly but actively. From there, he goes to chain himself to the railings of the State Parliament House at the university end of George street, wave a banner and shout, in his beautiful baritone, Paul Robeson voice, for the Workers of the World to Unite!!! That’s where Uncle Rupert meets him and embarks on a scintillating political career.
    Godfrey Bronze is based on a fine old left-winger whom my parents knew when, as a young married couple, they lived in Stanley Street. He later became a senator in Canberra and, indeed, President of the Senate for eight years.
    Uncle Rupert tells, in part, something of the story you have told: how we stuck together, especially those at the bottom of the pile, in the depression and war years, but how the worker’s century – if there ever was one – has fallen apart in the last few decades. What we need to do is somehow to put it together again.
    Thank you, Graham, for a most fascinating piece – and the inspiration to think and even to plan for some new and brilliant initiatives for peaceful change in the New Year.
    James Cumes

    Comment by James Cumes — December 29, 2003 @ 7:10 pm

  3. My URL seems to have got tangled. I hope it is now correct.
    James Cumes

    Comment by James Cumes — December 29, 2003 @ 8:33 pm

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