An Aesthete at Surfer’s

When I was a young aesthete, a long time ago now, I sat down and watched the movie Death in Venice. The image of Dirk Bogarde sunk in his deckchair on the Venice Lido, hair dye running down his face, as everyone else (including the object of his obsession, Tadzio) fled the cholera-ravaged city, all to the strains of the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th, made a big impression on my sensitive soul as I sat in my Mum’s front room drinking cups of tea. I may not have had money, women, or good weather in my life, but I did have art. I bought and read Thomas Mann’s novella, on which the movie is based, and in my enthusiasm foolishly lent it to one of my friends (who wasn’t an aesthete) and that was the last I ever saw of it. Great art is fleeting, I learnt.

I’ve been working from home for a month now. I suppose I’m one of the lucky ones in that I can do my job in my front room in shorts and a Finnegan’s t-shirt as easily, more or less, as I can in the office, and there’s no prospect (that I’m aware of, anyway) of me being laid off any time soon. Which is probably what people who are about to be laid off think, but sure what can you do? The kids have been doing schoolwork from home for a couple of weeks now, and as things stand it looks like they’ll be doing that for another two at least.

Eoin, Peppers Soul, Alex

Most days, I take the dog for a walk to the local bush reserve, stopping occasionally to try and make out the koala everyone else is staring at high up in a eucalyptus. At this stage I know every gum, bush, and wattle tree, every Pride of India and Texas Sotol plant in the reserve. I’m on nodding terms with a lot of people, and several dogs, I wasn’t before the restrictions hit.

Most days. Some days I can hardly motivate myself to leave the house and act out Groundhog Day once again down there in the reserve. Having read that Surfer’s Paradise beach was open again, I made a plan to go there on the weekend come hell, high water, or police checks. Official advice still was to keep to your own backyard, give or take fifty kilometres. It’s sixty-seven to Surfer’s. Bugger it, we’re going.

That Sunday morning I lined up a podcast, stuck Alex and Eoin in the car and took off southbound on the Pacific Highway like a hare out of a trap. A hare observing the speed limit, I hasten to add. By Springwood, I was thinking ‘so far so good’: there were no cops pulling people, cruelly directing them straight to their local bushland in the suburbs. Traffic was lighter than usual but still there were more than enough vehicles that it seemed unlikely that police checks were going to be a problem. We reached the great mushrooming of residential skyscrapers called Surfer’s Paradise within the hour and got parking easily along the seafront.

That clean, wide expanse of sand lapping up the southern edge of the Coral Sea never looked or felt better than it did then. My senses, muted by weeks of life, of work!, stuck within the soft prison of my house and surrounds, took everything in greedily. The sand, the shells, all the textures of the beach seemed richer than usual after the long confinement. Vines of beach morning glory snaked from the dunes down the slope onto the sand. Look – pandanus trees! She-oaks! Aussie and NZ flags, navy blue against the azure sky, fluttered at a memorial site nearby on the esplanade, there from the previous day’s Anzac Day commemoration. The alabaster skyscrapers were like lighthouses shining their wealth out to sea. I told the kids to count the storeys in the enormous Soul Peppers, one of the two dominant towers along the beach. What was the tally? 70? 80? 100? 77, turns out. I wondered if from the top you can see Cape Byron or Cunningham’s Gap.

On Cavill Avenue we did our best to keep our distance from people, but it was hard to stop the guy who got close to us to ask for five dollars. That was a bit optimistic, considering I was waiting for the kids to finish their burritos so I could have their leftovers. Plus, he was smoking. Half-way through finishing Eoin’s burrito I glanced up to see him walking by, nonchalantly eating from a tub of gelato.

If one was minded in these times, as we were, to extend one’s recommended expeditionary perimeter by a cool seventeen kilometers, then it behoved one to at least support one’s favourite cafés and restaurants. Not that Guzman y Gomez particularly needed rescuing, but the Montmartre café on the Esplanade might. Open for takeaways, but not for sit-in trade, I got a post-burrito flat white. The guy who made it, one Adan, was from Alicante and asked me “Conas atá tú?” when I told him I was Irish.

Strolling along the esplanade, I came across a friendly guy with a cool-looking bike. He’d made it himself, he told me, in what he called the ‘salt flats’ style. The ability to make things with your hands is something I admire more and more as I get increasingly useless with my own. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Photography, which I studied (during my ‘lost’ years as an aesthete) just gave up on its chemical and mechanical roots some time over the last twenty five years and became, like everything else, one more thing you do on a computer.

My experience of photography in those years was a satisfying one of using alkalis (developers) and acids (stop baths), keenly discussing the properties of silver bromide and halogen lamps, and having to come to grips with a vast array of mechanical devices like enlargers, various tripods and their parts, and the wonderful, confusing world of view cameras. In the darkroom we dodged, burned and spotted, honing our darkroom chops, and taught our hands to unspool film reels in a ‘granny’s knickers’ dark bag. Nowadays I just feel like a Tyrannosaurus Rex with its crap front arms. Anyway, this photo reminds me of the one I took of another bike nut, ‘Lowrider‘, in Merida, Mexico, a couple of years ago.

Being middle-aged, I needed a lie-down after lunch. Maybe I’d read a few pages, if I could keep my eyes open. As the skyscrapers leveraged the waning sunlight into changing shadows around us, the boys made sandcastles or whatever Lord of the Rings-inspired business it is they get up. We were tens of metres from anyone. I took out my book but struggled to get into it, to be honest. Entering the court of Henry VIII, with all its intrigues and duplicities, requires a mental gear change at the best of times, but trying to read Wolf Hall on a beach in Surfer’s Paradise…well, I supposed I probably should have taken a different book. Still, aspects of Tudor-era England half a millennium ago could still resonate. I read about the ‘sweating sickness‘ doing the rounds, and about Cromwell and his wife’s debate whether or not to comply with the social distancing strictures: ‘A fever, it could be any fever, we don’t have to admit to the sweat … If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill. ‘ I could have been reading one of the QLD government’s Covid-19 updates. ‘No,‘ he says, ‘We must do it. My lord cardinal made these rules and it would not be proper for me to scant them.’

Scanting rules is a stressful business. I just wasn’t cut out for it. On the way back home the urge to turn myself in to the cops and come clean on those extra, sweet seventeen kilometres was strong, but in the end we had to get to Coles (supermarket) before it closed. These days I always seem to be in Coles. Aesthetes don’t go to Coles. I miss being an aesthete.

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