I WAS BORN dead. I didn't breathe. Maybe I didn't want to. Perhaps I was simply over-thinking it. I do that. Holding back nervously. Contemplating for just a bit too long whether I actually wanted to sign on to this project, to join this conversation or not. I arrived belatedly. After a medically inadvisable amount of time. With a machine-induced gasp. I didn't want to be here.
I was dead again at two. I was blue on arrival at the hospital. In a taxi. It had happened suddenly. A strangulated hernia. In the supermarket car park. My mother's car failed to start and by the time she got me to hospital I'd given up breathing. Again. A banal miracle of modern medicine revived me. She collected the car and the rotting groceries a week later from the Woolies car park.
I don't remember either event. I remember the tests. I remember being measured to determine the damage done. Whether I was 'normal'. Whether I could see (poorly, but probably unrelated), hear (intermittently, but not connected as it turned out), think (too much probably), run (yes, but rarely felt the need to), walk (yep, fine) or whatever properly. Whether I had been 'delayed', disabled or otherwise disadvantaged by those formative events.
My mother told those stories over and over again. Long after the tests. Not that I had had a close call but that I had been dead. Twice.
MY DAD LOST everything because he went crazy. My dad went crazy because he lost everything. Two very different narratives. The chain of events is important but it's not within my power to know. Either way the results were the same.
My parents were once a glamour couple. The dad I never knew was a man who everyone wanted to be. I wanted to be him. He raced at Bathurst. Was a junior swimming champion. A champion pilot and record-holder. He played in a band on TV. He rolled it all into a successful car dealing business.
My mother was glamorous. Blond. Beautiful, intelligent and ambitious. She'd had a career as a fashion buyer for an uptown department store when Newcastle had such places. A good woman's job at a time when women's ambitions were manifested in the men they chose to marry. She chose the wrong one.
It's all out of sequence. I was too young. Unreliable memories. The steelworks laying off thousands of people. Record interest rates making credit and car purchases unaffordable. Newcastle's deep recession. Dad's tears at laying off his staff. Cleaning the shit-smeared walls of a rental property we were suddenly forced to sell. Salvaging the hole-in-the-wall air conditioner – the last thing of any value – from the abandoned remains of his car yard as old SALE signs, empty ledgers, and unexecuted finance contracts were strewn in the gravel around us.
I was six or seven when the man from the Bank of New South Wales supervised us leaving the house. We found ourselves in a crumbling weatherboard cottage. Mum, my brother Stuart, and me. The kitchen and the bathroom were falling away from the rest of the house. Paint almost peeled off. Seagrass matting covering up the holes in floors. Still the backyard had a lantana and choko vine overgrown shed complex that made for a great cubby house.
The order of events matters. It didn't then. Dad receded from our life. He moved to Deniliquin to sell cars for a while. He couldn't hold down the job. He became erratic. Unpredictable. Intimidating. He moved not to another place but another reality. Paranoia, schizophrenia and a cocktail of prescription drugs. He became his delusions – in his mind he worked for ASIO or something so secret and so important it wouldn't let him tell us, he had to constantly hint he was not a failure, but an undercover success.
We didn't see him often. When we did I was afraid. On some days he was almost normal – without fail he would spit on something and clean my face with it. I hated that, but when that was the worst of it, I was thankful. He'd create chaos at random. Insisting on speaking in code. I'd hear snippets of conversation from others, 'He's in hospital. He broke his leg jumping out of a window – he thought someone was chasing him.' You laugh. You have to.
In primary school he barricaded himself in the toilets at our State MP's office until the cops removed him. When the same MP presented our school awards, I was terrified I might win something and they might read my surname aloud. In high school the police discreetly secured the school grounds while I was 'evacuated' from the school library. Dad had called the school.
MY MOTHER COULDN'T catch a break. She found solace in yoga for a while. She became a Swami, changed her name to Mahamani and mine to Padmaratna, Stuart's to Satwaratna and took us off to an ashram. The ashram disintegrated. Cults do that. So much comfort getting into them. So much pain getting out. Fortunately, the mess of financial and sexual abuse allegations that followed were once-removed from us. The people weren't. The naive, the vulnerable and innocent lost everything. It broke an entire community. It was the last thing I remember her ever putting her trust in.
She worked teaching yoga, running health food stores. She had a bad fall at work. Her ambition became her worker's compensation claim. The last steady job she ever had was in a health food store. It never reopened after the Newcastle earthquake.
She got sick. Scleroderma. An ugly auto-immune disease. Her body began to attack itself. Her mind seemed to follow. It was painful for her to live and for us to watch. She had once defined herself by her appearance. The leathering, discolouring and atrophying symptoms made her hate the way she looked.
She took to drinking. It was probably inevitable under the circumstances. But I will always resent her for it. The stoic resilience I had once admired became anger and blame. She pushed away those closest to her. She lashed out with late night drunken phone calls. She burned bridges with close friends and random distant acquaintances. She picked fights with people she barely knew. She retreated into fantasies of better days. She should have chosen differently. She had married the wrong man and been burdened with the wrong children. She threatened to kill herself so often I stopped listening.
THE WORLD NEVER stayed the same long enough for me to feel any confidence in it. It upended itself. So quickly. So often. From comfortable middle-class to poor. From the ashram to the suburbs where neighbours built their demolition-derby cars in their front yards. Recessions. Layoffs. Earthquakes. Nothing ever settled. The realities of one world invited derision in the other. There was nowhere and no one comfortable for me to be. Life had land mines everywhere. With every 'are you related to…' I shuddered. I couldn't explain what had happened. I didn't want to know what they had done. More than anything I wanted to be normal, but I could never work out what that was.
I was a sickly child. Minor things, but an endless accumulation of them. My hearing kept going. Measles one year. Rubella the next. Whooping cough – so rare at the time that the doctors seemed genuinely excited to encounter an actual case. Long bouts away from school. My eyesight deteriorated. No one noticed. I couldn't see the blackboard or the ball properly. I became distracting and distracted at school. I had an unbroken losing streak at squash that lasted three years because the ball kept disappearing.
It pulled me further and further into my own head. My parents were case studies in the dangers of living there. I began to write songs, but I wasn't cool, confident, talented or sociable enough to sing or start a band. They remain unsung. I settled for poetry. I found Auden and Eliot. Someone told me I'd like Rimbaud. 'Rambo?' the lady at Angus and Robertson asked.
'No, I think he's French. I'm not sure how you spell it.'
'Never heard of him. We've got First Blood though.' I went to the Newcastle University library one Saturday afternoon and spent three hours reading Une Saison en Enfer. I loved it so much that I stole it.
The only place I became sociable was online. I got a modem in 1986. It changed my life. Bulletin boards. Fidonet. Amigas. 1200/75. Mail hour. I'm showing my age now, but I wasn't then. On the internet no one knows you're a dog. Or fourteen. Or living in Shortland. Or who your parents are. Or anything else you don't need to tell them. I was a different person online than I could ever be in real life. Bolder. Smarter. Wiser. I could pass myself off as grown up. As normal as that world got. I played games and cracked software. I downloaded 2600 and found secret codes that allowed me to call the world for free. I had no one to ring.
I wrote. It was a text-based world. I wrote a lot. I argued global politics and local development. I learned to write reading Eliot, Auden, Rimbaud and staying up all night arguing with people on the internet. It shows. I was good at it. I argued the school system with a guy for weeks before I admitted I was in Year 11 and my interlocutor told me he was a union rep for the Teacher's Federation. He invited me to the state conference in Sydney. I accepted. I caught a train. I travelled three hours to Sussex Street before, on the verge of crossing from my invisible to visible self, I shrunk back to my actual size. I didn't go in.
Instead I scraped the bookshops and record stores of inner Sydney. I bought cheap books of poetry and records I couldn't find in Newcastle. I found an unwanted copy of Meanjin for 20 cents and realised – belatedly – that the poets and writers weren't all dead. Some were Australian. Some were alive. I wondered who they were, where they lived, how you met them. I thought about submitting some of my own poems – I'd won my school magazine's poetry award four years in a row. I didn't.
IT'S BLURRY HOW it fell apart. But I know the exact moment it began to come together again. I was eighteen. It was around 9 pm. On a Friday. Sometime in June or July 1992. In the line to see a band at The Palais Royale. The guy behind me, Sean, recognised me from uni and initiated a conversation. We chatted for a while. Coincidentally, we both had tickets to the same gig – Ride, at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney – a few weeks later and decided to catch the train together. We swapped details and I took the forty-minute bus ride to my midnight-to-dawn shift at Shell Wallsend.
Three fateful hours on the train. Sean was older. Everything about him was as open as everything about me was closed. His plans and dreams. He wanted to start a warehouse – just like Andy Warhol's Factory – but in Newcastle… So did I! He was really interested in this computer stuff…how it worked…the first person I'd met (not through a computer) who actually found that interesting. In that three-hour trip we dreamed aloud about having a magazine, writing a book, maybe starting a band or a record label…we could put on gigs and save the planet and…and…and…
A week or so later I was at Sean's twenty-first party. Surrounded by guys I vaguely recognised from uni. Steve was an aspiring filmmaker. Nick was a philosopher-cum-communications student. Guys I recognised from local bands. Girls who seemed to like smart guys. It was okay to be unusual. They were all writers, or thinkers, or poseurs. It was the first time it had occurred to me that being dark, smart and brooding could be a good thing. My eclectic interests connected me. Somewhere between the drugs, the music, the painting, the girls (although I don't recall plucking enough actual courage to talk to them), I didn't want to leave. I didn't. They made me breakfast and asked me politely to leave the next morning.
I'd never shared a dream before. They were always isolating. I was afraid of my own ambitions. I was scared to say them aloud. They weren't fully formed. They didn't belong to any of the worlds I'd lived in. They weren't reflected in my culture. I was probably over-thinking it. Holding back nervously. I do that. Once prodded, I gaspingly, graspingly exhaled them. Everything came to life. A world of ideas, where I was no longer an observer, an anonymous contributor, but a co-owner and a participant.
The next few years changed everything. I moved out of home. I got the dole and moved into a share house. I went out forty nights in a row and came home with different girls on quite a few of them. I failed or was kicked out of uni twice. I spent three years unemployed. There was no shame in it. Our community had 40 per cent unemployment. No one I knew had a job.
But I made things and I made things happen. That creative community became my project. I needed to build a community. I had nothing else. I didn't fit in anyone else's. We started to live those dreams. Sean and I actually knocked off a lot of the things on that list from that train trip. We edited the student paper. We put on gigs and dabbled in student politics. Half a dozen of us – all unemployed – got together and lied to social security about needing $500 dole loans for some 'job-related purpose'. The first capital most of us had ever had. We paid the bond on that warehouse. It wasn't The Factory, but it happened.
I FOUND SOMETHING I was actually good at. For a kid who had feared his own dreams I was surprisingly good at enabling the dreams of others. Making them my own. We created Newcastle's first Fringe Festival from nothing. In ten weeks. Hundreds of artists. Scores of gigs, comedy acts, performances and readings. We put on exhibitions in a dozen empty shops. Only at the end did someone ask me where the funding had come from. 'Funding?'
'Really? You mean they give out money for this stuff?' I filed that away under 'things I wished I'd known earlier'. I'm glad I didn't – we'd done it for next to nothing, on sheer enthusiasm. In the professional world that's impossible, but none of us knew that then.
The bar was so low that I became the stable one. Somehow I became the 'responsible adult'. I fronted the principal when my brother was in trouble at school. I was almost happy. My mother drunk-drove herself into a telegraph pole and ended up in hospital for weeks. My father had moved to Canberra, but returned chaotically. He arrived somewhat unexpectedly to cause me to cancel my own twenty-first. It was probably the only night I didn't go out that year.
Then I grew up. I moved to Sydney. I got a real job and that phase of my life should probably have ended there.
By the time I was twenty-four, I was employed, almost professional, and I was travelling the country for work.
My job took me to Canberra. For the first time I can remember, I sought my father out. He was living in Ainslie Village, a half-way house. We met at a pub in Civic. I tried to talk like grown ups. As equals. I was different. I was confident. I wanted to reach back through the decades. I wanted to find out if the man I never knew was proud of who his son was becoming. I wanted to change the dynamic. I wanted his acceptance. I wanted to step out from that long dark shadow.
I wish I could remember the conversation better. I was fuelled by adrenalin. I couldn't get past his delusions. Not just of him but of me. We struggled over identity and reality. I challenged him but, strangely, in doing so I connected with him. I recognised him not from the myths but from the mirror. I probably treated it too much like an internet argument where I felt I needed to win. Yet, it was the most honest conversation we ever had. It was the only time we'd parted without me crying or cutting or kicking something afterwards. I wanted to see him again.
I went back to Sydney for work for the rest of the week. I got the phone call in Newcastle the following weekend. Dad was in hospital. There'd been an 'incident'. He'd set fire to his room the day after I'd seen him. He'd been sent to a custodial psych ward. He'd escaped. He'd found a doctor – perhaps more than one of them – got a prescription for sedatives. He'd taken most, if not all of them, at once. He was in a coma. It was the October long weekend. Stuart and I headed to Canberra while the cars raced at Bathurst. We'd hoped to see him. To save him. In the end all we did was switch off the life support.
I have only ever once said it aloud but I've always believed I killed my father. He had been stable for more than a decade. His son upended his universe. I picked away at his delusions. For him I was a character in his alternate reality and I wasn't playing the part. I refused to play along. I don't know whether he intended to kill himself or it just unravelled that way, but something in that conversation unpicked the thread.
I teetered. I went to the clinic but fifteen-minute medicine meant I'd barely warmed up before a doctor sent me home with sedatives and anti-depressants. I teetered. It is impossible to explain. I could feel myself unravelling. I clung to the myth that I was unbreakable. Survival had become a kind of purpose.
I NEEDED TO build another community big enough to hide in. A place where I wanted to breathe. I needed to pick a fight with the system and the National Young Writers Festival became that. Fuelled by Mark Davis's Gangland (Allen & Unwin, 1997) and the righteous sense that the world was indifferent to our culture, the strange skill set of crossing between alternate worlds, and the desire to keep in front of my demons, something special – almost triumphant – emerged from that need for a purpose. The do-it-yourself became the do-it-together. It pulled the hundred people I had met who I had most wanted to meet each other and the hundred people – from that magical, mystical, other world of ideas – who I most wanted an excuse to meet.
The first year's festival took place a year, almost to the day, after my father and I had had that fateful conversation. The timing was not a coincidence. I needed somewhere to be that weekend. The Premier opened it. Hundreds of people came from every corner of the country to Newcastle. It succeeded beyond my wildest ambitions – which were defensive at best. I'd stumbled into a culture war and in the camaraderie it was barely important if we were winning.
Four days after that first festival ended there was another phone call. I remember it in slow motion. It was about my mother. She had overdosed on the morphine she was taking for her condition. There was no life support. No limbo. She was dead. It was a year, pretty much to the day, since my father had died. It was impossible to imagine it was a coincidence.
I stumbled. I teetered and doubled down on my projects. In 1999, the year after my mother died, we moved the festival to the long weekend. We still had no budget, but on word of mouth the people turning up increased about tenfold. It was the same week that the BHP steelworks closed for good. Newcastle needed a new story and the front cover of the Spectrum liftout of the Sydney Morning Herald settled on ours. There was a full-page photo of Sean, another friend and myself under the headline: 'Cool Steel City: The Rebirth of Newcastle'. Two years after my father's death and a year after my mum's – almost to the day.
In the end I worked five years creating the National Young Writers Festival and the This Is Not Art festival that it would grow into. I worked one or more full-time day jobs – often in another city – in order to build that community in Newcastle and around the country. Almost out of habit, when I found time on my hands I returned a decade later with Renew Newcastle and did it again.
I have taken on projects no sane person would take on because I have needed to. I have feared for my sanity if I didn't. I have worked to build a community because it is the only place I have ever found strength in return. I have ensured that the only weekend I can't bear to be alone has, for sixteen years, been the only one I have never had to be. I have returned again and again to fortunes of the place and people that nurtured me because I have lived with what happens when place and people are allowed to be broken. I have realised the unique power of a creative vision to illuminate even the darkest of places because it has been the only thing that has illuminated mine.
Ultimately that's how I ended up here. I retreated into it. As I have grown I have come to question whether those stories of my death were greatly exaggerated. I'm not even sure they were really about me. They were part of another story about what had happened to them. I'm a dad myself and the thought of losing, regaining, losing and regaining my own son is as cruel as anything I could imagine.
Culture to me is about myths. It is about hope. It is the net that catches you and the ladder upon which you climb. Great myths are not about truth. I am not, and never have been, unbreakable. At best I am stubborn, resilient and too scared to give up. Resurrection myths are my last line of defence and my recurring ambition. To return from the impossible. To survive things that are not meant to be survivable. To defy the end. To get up. To breathe. To keep breathing. I can't unpack it from my own identity. Its truth serves no purpose. Those myths and the strength that comes from believing them are the only reason I'm here.