Unfinished Man

When you walk down Willis Street in Wellington, from the former BNZ building to Unity Books, you come to Chews Lane.  There has been a lot of development in this area over the last few years, and a run-down street front on Willis Street has turned into a series of stores selling designer clothes for the over-paid woman.  There is a lot of plate glass with finely stitched cloth hanging from manequins.  When I was in my  twenties Chews Lane was how you got into a bar called The Carpark, a bar where someone infamously got knifed, a bar off a lane that may as well have had “mug me” graffitied on the walls.  Now it is full of cafes selling variations on the theme of coffee, and overcharging customers for a glass of wine.  I was walking down Chews Lane at lunchtime last month and found that it was filled with two kinds of men. 

The first kind of man had come out of the office blocks in a navy suit with a colleague and a cell-phone, and was confidently walking somewhere with starched white table cloths for lunch.  His shoes were very shiny and his shirts were very white.  One of these men was wearing a black, felt trilby hat.  He probably was considered the office eccentric.  I think we can also allow ourselves to imagine BWMs, SUVs, two kids in a “good” school, golf clubs, etc, gold cards, etc. 

The second kind of man, a temporary interloper, came out of the construction site in one of buildings next to Chews Lane.  He wore work boots, and dirty jeans, a hard hat and a loose singlet.  His hands seemed large and hard, and his face sun beaten and grimy.  He walked in a different way.  Less upright, a laidback, wider sort of stance.  He was slouched across a bench smoking a cigarette and grinning wolfishly at the passing ponces in their navy suits.  His mates were taking their packed lunches down to the park. I think we can allow ourselves to imagine Holdens, SUVs, kids in school, watching the game on Sky, etc, mortgages, etc.

Aside from the man slouched on the bench, neither type of man seemed to notice the other.  Probably this is for the best.  People are different from each other and it’s just better if everyone goes about their business with a minimum of interaction when they are forced together in a lane, or a shop, or a job.

Of course, on camp it’s different.  On camp you are all forced together into activities and dining halls and dorms.  The result can be messy.

slave

 

Without rules you have anarchy and with too many you have a dictatorship.  The middle ground is called democracy in which nothing is ever finished.  Democracy is the best way but it is not easy because part of us wants to tear down the walls and be totally free, and the other half wants all the things (and people) that annoy us to be dealt with, regulated and punished.  Democracy attempts to do both things, and because doing these two things is impossible it always seems like it is failing.  This appearance of failure is precisely the thing that means democracy is succeeding.

 

As with society, so with man.  I always want to be finished with myself because it would be a release from the pressure of always finding myself in flux.  But what would I be if I finished?  Either a deluded idealist on the dole thinking I was going to be a rock star or a writer without my wife or my daughter; or man who had put away all my childish things and lived without singing songs, or feeling hurt, or being petty, but had mastered the machinery of being a well oiled cog in the large machine of a business?

 

 slave1

 

I was able to save some boys on camp from the herd.  I was able to take them out of cabins where they felt bullied and alone and put them in a safe place with sympathetic souls.  Others could not be saved.  They were also hurt but their response was not only tears, it was anger and violence.  I don’t know how to save them.

 

One of these boys sat with us and was told where he had failed, and he had failed, and through his tears he swore at us, and held his head in his hands, and ran and hid.  He was driven home to the people who had made the problem, and hurt their kids, and had passed the circle of anger and hurt on to their children.

 

The other of those who could not be saved abused me (“faggot, pussy”), and told me he was going to “knock me out”, he stood up and marched at me puffing himself up and shaping to throw a punch.  I have enough anger and foolish pride in me to stand up to the beast and he didn’t throw his punch.  He wanted to.  I could feel the blow flow through the air between us and land, but it was just the dream, the imaginary hope of a blow and not the real thing.  He had another go at me later, and then punched out a window instead.

 

I feel like I have been disrupted.  I am tired of being responsible and mature with the irresponsible and the immature.  At school I had believed that it was useful for someone like me to be a dean.  I’m not the construction site worker, or the man in the suit, I am somewhere in between.  But somewhere in between means I’m never finished.  Tired.  I’m tired.  To be myself I will have to always appear to be failing.  The problem is that the appearance of failure and actual failure seem the same to me.

 

Hektor and Achilles

Notes from the journal of a school master in 1905

Tuesday, 28 February, 1905

Dear R.,

In the papers there is much indignation about two Maori fellows denied entry to Australia.  The Evening Post runs what I would call a poisoned defence: “We take second place to no man in the earnestness of our desire to see the Commonwealth realise its ideal of a White Australia….  It is not for New Zealand to complain of reasonable barriers against the tide of black or yellow immigration… but there is such a thing as reasonable discrimination in matters of this kind.”  The two Maori wanted to work as shearers but were sent packing by Australian customs officials.  I complained about the hypocrisy of supporting racist immigration policy while taking up the cause of the two Maori gentlemen to Hopper in the staffroom.  Hopper coolly replied, “you picked up some pretty odd ideas in Africa.”

Keep your mouth shut.

There are an endless stream of students to see, and an endless stream of enquiries and meetings to attend.  The students come steadily through each day: before school, between lessons, at lunch, after school, in fact anytime except the middle of the night.  Their concerns range from the trivial to the alarming with most things in between.  The boys seem to hit each other when they get mad, and the girls seem to band together in resentful groups and start hurtful rumours.

One girl shuffled into my office with a friend and told me she didn’t want to be friends with Lizzie anymore “coz Lizzie had been whispering about me to other girls.”  The victim’s friend nodded solemnly and they both looked at me.  “I see,” I said, trying to inject some empathy in my voice, “and what on Earth would you like me to do about that?”  The girls seemed confused.  Apparently I was to tell Lizzie that she was no longer wanted as a friend.  Perhaps they thought I was twelve years old myself and wanted to participate in their little social world.  I told them they would have to solve these problems for themselves.  With a look of disbelief they shuffled back out of my office into the harsh, unforgiving world.

Another girl walking with me between classes suddenly blurted out, “My mother had two strokes”.  I stopped and said I was sorry and asked how was her mother now.  The little girl said, uncertainly, “she’s at home now, getting better.”  I wasn’t sure what else to say.  She went off to her class and I to teach Latin.  That was on Friday last.  On the previous Monday a girl told me about a strange man following her to school.  “He had dizzy eyes” she said.  I suppose he was drunk.  She didn’t want me to talk to her father about it but of course I had to.  Father seemed less alarmed than I had expected when I spoke to him.  “I see,” he said and scratched at his arm.  “Perhaps she better stay at Gran’s for a bit then.”

classroom

Another father came to see about his son.  “How is he in classes?”  Not a boy I taught so I had to say I didn’t know.  “His mother died late last year,” the father explained, “and Will has taken it hard.”  The man in front of me seemed like he had taken it hard too.  His eyes looked tired; exhausted pits.  What are you supposed to say?  Death is a hard thing.

We are doing The Iliad in one of my classes now, and it struck me again how pitiless that ancient Greek world was.  When Hektor confronts Achilles and realises that he is about to be killed, and that the gods have deserted him, it is a terrible, lonely moment without consolation: “now evil death is close to me, and no longer far away, and there is no way out.”  No way out.

It was the second time that week that I thought of Hektor and Achilles.  Earlier I went to a meeting between the Headmaster and a boy in my cohort who had been caught over the fence in the Preparatory terrorising the children there with a toy gun.  The Headmaster is a very thin man who looks like he might play the role of a hanging judge in a cowboy story.  He seems a little like Death in his long black robes, and with his haggard face.  When he talks he strokes his peculiar long fingers and tilts his head.

It was late in the day, after school and the miscreant boy looked very young and out of place in the Head’s rather dusty, over-sized office, sitting in a too large armchair with cracked leather arms.  I thought of Hektor and Achilles because of Achilles’ anger: “the heart within him loaded with fury.”  I’m not sure how to describe it but for some boys there is a kind of madness in them, that almost cannot be controlled.  I watched the boy as the Head interrogated him.  He squirmed in his seat.  He had been bad, and he had been caught, and he knew all the things he had to say, and he even wanted to say them, but it was hard because he was fighting down the demon in him that was screaming “NO, NO, NO – NOT TO GIVE IN – NOT TO SAY SORRY – NOT TO BREAK.”

He said the things he needed to say in the end, and we were both satisfied, the Head and myself, that the boy had meant it and wanted to mend his ways.

The next day he punched another boy in the head.