Listening to Unheard Voices

One of the beauties of civilisation is learning from geniuses. For millennia, people have been imparting useful knowledge through song lines and storylines. Life is a personal journey, with personal battles, but you can pick up some battle skills by reading and listening. Reading enables us to better understand the world and gain insights into human nature; our own mortality, neighbours, friends, family and all the permutations thereof.

I regularly go back to The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – a perfect book that I read for the themes, characters, prose and stunning language throughout…

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

And one of the most perfect concluding lines in all of literature…

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I frequently dip into In Our Time, a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, particularly Big Two-Hearted River and A Clean Well-Lighted Place. It’s a collection of stories about a guy going fishing; a waiter; and a subtle story about abortion called Hills Like White Elephants. It’s the book where Hemingway nailed it; where he was at his most perfect. There’s not a wasted word…

In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.

Hemingway at his best. In Our Time comforts me like a holy book.

I was an English teacher, so dealing with words was my daily bread, and the poetry I taught springs easily to mind. There was a time when I could quote Tennyson’s Ulysses from memory…

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world

… or Easter, 1916 by Yeats

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild

When I’m listening to music, it’s often Paul Kelly, himself a great Australian poet. His song Careless spoke to me as a young man. Like many young men, I probably wasn’t as respectful or supportive of those in my life as I could have been…

I know I’ve been careless
I lost my tenderness
I’ve been careless
I took bad care of this

That was me as a young man.

I love the southern American writers: Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers; Suttree by Cormac McCarthy and The Border Trilogy – All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain. I love those books. I read modern American writers too. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Noise by Don DeLillo are favourites. The Cider House Rules and Setting Free The Bears by John Irving were the big, impactful books of my twenties.

These days, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee with my kids. It was a book I used to teach…a great book. Harper Lee takes you on a journey where the morality and imagery become part of your conscience. Atticus Finch, “the deadest shot in Maycomb County”, was the reason I became a lawyer. I taught To Kill A Mockingbird for eleven years as an English teacher. Like many lawyers I went into law to be like Atticus Finch; to give the unrepresented voice a chance to be heard, helping people who are dealing with challenges in their own lives and need the benefits of an advocate to negotiate on their behalf, while not necessarily holding all the cards. This is the fundamental calling of progressive politicians.

Representing the interests of capital is not a great calling, because capital has its own voice, its own power. It’s not unrepresented in the world. My calling is to give the unrepresented a voice.

At teacher’s college, I listened to the punk sensibilities of The Clash and the raw power of The Saints, from Brisbane. It was not the world I was living in, in country Queensland, but The Saints seminal song (I’m) Stranded captured what many of us felt. It might not read like poetry now, but it sure felt like it at the time…

Stranded I’m so far from home
Stranded yeah I am on my own
Stranded why don’t you leave me alone

I read Black Death White Hands by Paul Wilson, about the death of an indigenous man. It’s the book that turned on my political switch. The author has since been in trouble for serious crimes, but it was a brilliant book. Based on the murder of a young wife by her partner, it exposes all of the circumstances that created this young man; a very powerful book to read in Queensland in the 1980s. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the Premier. There were rules against walking down the street with the wrong person. It was a different time, and that was a very powerful book.

Paul Kelly picks up the theme of indigenous challenge in his song Special Treatment. He wrote it in response to a newspaper article suggesting that Aboriginals get special treatment…

Mother and father loved each other well
But together they could not stay
They were split up against their will
Until their dying day

Special treatment
Very special treatment

Mama gave birth to a stranger’s child
A child she called her own
Strangers came and took away that child
To a stranger’s home

Special treatment
Very special treatment

I never spoke my mother’s tongue
I never knew my name
I never learnt the songs she sung
I was raised in shame

We got special treatment
Special treatment
Very special treatment

Kelly writes some of his best songs in the voice of a woman, as does Raymond Carver in the short story So Much Water, So Close to Home, a story that lets you gaze, at close quarters, on masculinity gone wrong. There’s a scene where a woman is driving to the funeral of a murder victim and there’s some creep on the highway who pulls up alongside her, waves and toots his horn. They pull over…

“You all right?” the man says. He raps on the glass. “You okay?” He leans his arms on the door and brings his face to the window.
I stare at him. I can’t think what else to do.
“Is everything alright in there? How come you’re all locked up?”
I shake my head.
“Roll down your window?’ He shakes his head and looks at the highway and then back at me. “Roll it down now.”
“Please,” I say, “I have to go.”
“Open the door,” he says as if he isn’t listening. “You’re going to choke in there.”
He looks at my breasts, my legs. I can tell that’s what he’s doing.
“Hey, sugar,” he says. “I’m just here to help is all.”

You can hear the unheard voice of indigenous Australians in the song This Land Is Mine, by Kev Carmody. It has two different voices, firstly the squatter and then the indigenous worker…

This land is mine
All the way to the old fence line
Every break of day
I’m working hard just to make it pay
This land is mine
Yeah I signed on the dotted line
Campfires on the creek bed
Bank breathing down my neck

They won’t take it away from me

This land is me
Rock, water, animal, tree
They are my song
My being here where I belong

This land owns me
From generations past to infinity
We’re all but woman and man
You only fear what you don’t understand
They won’t take it away
They won’t take it away
They won’t take it away from me

A beautiful song that perfectly captures the Australian struggle for identity, ownership and belonging, which has been a big theme for me throughout my life. The combination of writing and politics provides the basis upon which I seek to make the world a better place, inform people, provide some analysis and hopefully enrich people’s lives. As a politician, I strive to make people’s lives even a little bit better. I represent the community by listening to as many voices as possible, but mainly to voices that aren’t being heard.