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Issue 13

 June 2024

Cannery Row Magazine

A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits

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Section 2

We are Canaries
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Editor's

Desk

We Are all Canaries . . .

by John Jantunen

It is perhaps fitting that this, our thirteenth issue of Cannery Row Magazine, will likely be our last since the Journal is the offspring of the house in Kingston where we've been residing now for four years and which our landlord has just sold.

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         As tends to happen with any such upheaval, it’s put Tanja and I in a reflective mood, thinking about all that’s happened over these past few years and where the road might lead us. Memories of how we overcame past challenges - often avoiding calamity by the barest of margins with plain, dumb luck as our closest ally - have, as they tend to during trying times, been a source of considerable consolation for us, even as musing over what the future might bring has increasingly become a source of anxiety (and it is small consolation indeed that this has become the 'new normal' for so many of us).
        Much of our present angst, naturally, revolves around finding another suitable residence. Over the course of our twenty-eight years together, Tanja and I have lived in fifteen different places, spread across four provinces, and thus are equally familiar with both the pitfalls and the potentialities inherent in relocating; whether it’s to the far side of the country or just down the street. Again, reminiscing about our past successes in this regard has been a considerable balm for our flagging spirits as we sift through the meagre listings for detached family homes offered up on Kijiji and FB Marketplace, our ears attuned with the desperate acumen of a starving predator alerted by the rustle of a possible meal scampering through the underbrush every time our phone chimes to notify us that a new listing just popped up. We have, after all, always been able to find a place to live, even if it wasn't always in ideal shape or the location we were hoping for.

 

I think back, for example, to the first apartment we rented together - a ground floor, one bedroom flat half a block from Robson and Denman street in Vancouver’s West End. It was a dark and dingy place infested with mice and boasting a narrow slit of a kitchen wedged between the bed and living room that was barely wide enough for us to open the stove’s door. Its only saving grace was its close proximity to Stanley Park so one morning, when we saw a “For Rent” sign appear in front of the much nicer King George Apartments right across the street, we immediately rang its building manager to enquire.

         This was how we met Bernie, a scrawny little bundle of nervous energy from Newfoundland whose own forced relocation would inspire me to write “A Certain Kind Of Drunk", the short story Tanja would choose to include in Cannery Row Press’s first issue. It thus seems rather appropriate that she would then choose “Canary” for this, our last, issue in that its lead character lives in the very apartment Bernie would agree to rent to us, all of ten minutes after we rang his doorbell.

As described, it was a bright, fourth floor corner flat. While he showed us around Bernie confided, almost conspiratorially, that it was the best unit in the building. Aside from having to hear our closest neighbour’s occasional fits of rage through the wall - also depicted in Canary - we felt inclined to agree. We’d furnish it mainly with loot from late night 'back alley shopping' expeditions, scavenging a used kitchen table and chairs, a computer desk and a couch from fellow apartment dwellers who’d left plenty of useful stuff beside their building’s dumpsters when they’d either moved or redecorated.

       When leaving Vancouver in the rearview mirror three years later we, in turn, stacked most of our furnishings beside the King George’s back alley dumpster, taking only those belongings which fit into the 1981 Cutlass Cruiser Brougham Station Wagon we'd bought for the trip back to Ontario; a pattern of divestment - or perhaps liberation - that would persist throughout all our subsequent moves. This was also the beginning of what we’ve come to call our Great Adventure which would see us travelling from one end of the country to the other in search of that special place to finally call home. Upon reflection, it’s hard not to view the radical shift in our experience between looking for a new abode then and trying to find one now as a rather dire reflection of the times. 

Take Montreal, for example. After I’d been accepted into a Master’s program at McGill, we spent five glorious days crashing at my  cousin's place on the Plateau, a sprawling seven-bedroom house which she boasted had once been a prominent brothel back in the 1930s. Using it as our base of operations, we walked in ever-widening circles looking for a suitably cheap apartment within the vicinity of McGill's campus.

     During the late afternoon of the fifth day, we finally happened upon a large piece of Bristol board tied to the balcony of a third-floor walk-up on Rue De Rouen in the heart of the Montreal's predominantly French East Side, advertising a one bedroom with den for the unbeatable price of $365 a month. It was the first time we’d explored a new-to-both-of-us city together and so it’s hardly a surprise that it’s become one of our fondest memories as a couple.

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Our finances, or rather lack thereof, would ultimately prevent me from actually attending McGill but we nonetheless moved into the apartment and spent ten months in the city, living on money we’d saved over the summer working at my uncle’s restaurant in Muskoka and the six hundred or so dollars that EI provided every month. Just before Christmas that year, Tanja’s father, a German expatriate, would pass away in Barcelona and, while the week we spent exploring the Spanish city - after our flight there to claim his ashes - is certainly worthy of more than such a brief mention here, it merely heralded the next phase of our adventure, aided and abetted by the small inheritance he left his daughter.

        It would amount to barely more than a modest downpayment on a house in Ontario and so, lured by the promise of cheap real estate in the Maritimes, we loaded up the station wagon and headed East. For five weeks over the following summer, we camped our way through northern Nova Scotia looking for a house, ideally by the water, where we might start a family and lay the ashes of Tanja’s father to rest.

Our search would ultimately reward us with a three-bedroom bungalow in Guysborough County, overlooking an idyllic inlet teeming with wildlife, for which we paid the almost unbelievable sum of thirty thousand dollars, in cash. I wrote of how seminal this experience was for me as a writer in “A Story Seldom Told” (CRP's second issue) but what I didn’t mention there was that three years after we moved in, dwindling finances and limited job opportunities forced us to abandon our own little piece of paradise. The next twenty years would see us bouncing around Ontario in search of a suitable place in which to raise our kids, such that I began to liken our quest to the TV series Quantum Leap, with us hoping that every new move would finally be the one which brought us home.
       

These days, as we find ourselves facing the dwindling prospects on offer in Kingston, such a notion seems almost as quaint as Quantum Leap’s late-Eighties' vision of the future. Increasingly, it now feels more like we’re caught in the final round of a game of musical chairs, except that instead of just two people circling that one, last seat, there’s dozens of us.

      As in every city and town in this country, Kingston’s rental market has turned into a complete and utter nightmare, increasingly controlled by a few investors and their property management companies - bloated behemoths as indifferent to the suffering they’ve wrought in their ambition to maximize profit by converting every detached family home in the city to multiplexes as Godzilla is to the cries of anguish from those fleeing his carnage. Nor has it helped matters that Queen’s University has grown by several thousand students since we moved to Kingston, without any corresponding increase in dormitory space or, for that matter, any apparent concern from their leadership regarding their part in this rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis.
 

Then, of course, there’s the municipal governments' unwillingness to take any action whatsoever, even as it insists that their primary goal is “to create safe and healthy communities by addressing the underlying causes of complex issues” - espoused in what can only be construed as an Orwellian-titled 'Community Safety And Well-Being Plan'. For evidence of what this conspiracy of negligence means to a family such as ours, we needn’t look further than the first house we viewed in our search.

        Located on Montreal Street, a mere two blocks from our present location, it was, by any standard I’d care to use, a hovel; a once-respectable two story that, not too long ago, was likely cherished by a family much like ours and which has since been reduced to an abysmal state of filth and disrepair by a succession of students whose antipathy against the very idea of hygiene was only matched by their willingness to live with the pervasive stench of mold and cat piss; all while paying a combined twenty-six hundred dollars a month for the 'privilege' of simply having a roof over their heads. The words 'flophouse' and 'human trafficking ring' coloured our conversation on a rather dispirited walk home after the viewing and it wasn’t much of an exaggeration when I grumbled angrily that I’d rather erect a tent in the homeless encampment ballooning within nearby Belle Park than pay three grand with utilities to live in that fucking dump!

The very notion that any family might actually have to consider a choice like this in such a prosperous city - and nation - had me literally frothing at the mouth by the time we mounted the steps of what we’d once thought of as our home; now just another reminder that we’d likely forever be consigned to paying off other people's mortgages while never being able to qualify for one ourselves, even though our payments would be substantially less than what we've had to afford every single month for years on end. 

This is, of course, a common gripe amongst long-term renters. In fact, it’s become so common and pervasive that, in April of this year, the federal government announced its intention to introduce a Renter's Bill of Rights in their next budget, mandating the inclusion of rent payment history for credit appraisal and mortgage underwriting.

   In his address, the Prime Minister himself highlighted the fundamental unfairness inherent in the current system, whereby a history of paying, say, $2000 in rent every month for years doesn’t factor into one’s credit score, a conspicuous oversight in my mind given that my own, excellent Equifax rating of 838 is almost exclusively based on the five years I’ve used my Mastercard to pay for relatively low-cost services such as phone and internet.

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Mind, even if this Renter's Bill of Rights became law, it wouldn’t be of much, or really any, benefit to most low-income earners given that it doesn’t address the number one barrier renters face - whether it’s finding a place to live or qualifying for a mortgage: the dreaded 30% rent-to-income ratio used by mortgage lenders, and increasingly landlords, to determine one’s eligibility for either a loan or a rental property.

        Now I’ll readily admit that, at one time, such a consideration might have made a modicum of sense. I think, for example, of how my grandparents three-bedroom, one-and-a-half story house in downtown Bracebridge sold for a 'measly' $129,000 in 2000. Factoring in a 20% down payment, the mortgage would have been less than $600 a month, meaning a potential owner would've only had to make $1800 in monthly income to qualify for a loan. At risk of stating the obvious, this afforded them a modest, but quite manageable, $1200 dollars for other household expenses.

     Fast forward twenty-four years, when a much smaller, one-bedroom residence right around the corner from their house is currently being listed for $487,000. Again, factoring in a ten percent down payment, the mortgage on this property would be around three grand a month. To be eligible for a loan, a family requires a combined monthly income of at least $9000, meaning any qualifying buyer would now have to have a whopping six grand left over every month after paying their mortgage. Having lived, and even thrived, on a third of that income for much of the past twenty years - while, I’d add, raising two fairly healthy and well-adjusted children - such a highly reductive formula for calculating one’s eligibility feels decidedly punitive in nature; as if, having proven that we can live well enough paying 50% or more of our income towards housing, we are being sanctioned for exactly the kind of financial prudence that should make us eminently appealing to mortgage lenders.

And this dissonance is even more pronounced when it comes to tenants since we, after all, aren’t directly responsible for paying property tax, home insurance or the kinds of costly repairs that arise during home ownership. Between 2007 and 2017, for example, we paid an average of $1000 a month for a two-bedroom brick bungalow in downtown Guelph. At the time, we lived off of the roughly twenty-five hundred dollars I made while Tanja stayed home to raise and educate the kids, plus the $1200 in child tax benefits, bringing our total household income to about thirty-seven hundred a month. This amount placed us firmly within the acceptable rent-to-income ratio and, accounting for utilities, left us with around two thousand dollars for food and other expenses.

       

Fast forward to 2024 where a hovel like the aforementioned on Montreal Street is renting for $2600 a month. To qualify as suitable tenants, we’d have to maintain a monthly household income of $8000. Or, to put it more pointedly, we’d have to have double the excess income we had a mere seven years ago for the owner to even consider renting to us. It should come as no surprise then that such a formula has come to feel highly discriminatory in nature for so many tenants.

     What has come as a surprise though is that the federal government seems to have, at long last, recognized where such patent inequities - enshrined within the Rental and Real Estate Market, if not everywhere else - are leading us. When announcing the Liberal government's proposed changes to Canada’s Capital Gains Tax, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland prefaced her pitch by asking the richest Canadians whether they want to live in a country where those at the very top live lives of luxury, but must do so in gated communities behind ever higher fences, using private health care and airplanes, because the public sphere is so degraded and the wrath of the vast majority of their less privileged compatriots burn so hot.”
       

In my hubris, my first thought coming across her remark was to wonder if maybe she happened to have read any of my last four books - for envisioning Canada’s progression towards exactly that kind of future was my prime motivation when I started writing novels some fifteen years ago. Mind, the likelihood of our esteemed Federal Finance Minister having actually read a single one of them is about as likely as any potential landlord recognizing that we can live fairly well on, say, three thousand dollars a month above what they’re charging in rent, instead of the mandatory six grand that we’d need to earn if we wanted to stay together as a family in a place that’s not a complete dump.     

        Still, I took some satisfaction in that the apocalyptic tenor of her comment was so perfectly aligned with my own aspirations as an author, particularly because when I write ‘apocalyptic’, I’m using the word in the same context as author David Michael Pritchett does in his collection of essays, Mossback:

     

Apocalypse,” he writes, “means ‘unveiling. [...] In apocalypse, everything hidden will be revealed […] Occasionally unveiling is beautiful, like the brief moment near dusk when the light slants through the pines and the woods reveal a momentary beauty previously unknown."

"But mostly apocalypse pulls back the social fabric of cloth and skin to show the structural bones underneath. For writers in the ancient genre called apocalyptic, the revealing is about power, history, and hope. Their prophetic imaginations pull back the veil on empires like Babylon and Rome to expose a view from the underbelly […] Apocalypse is an exercise of what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘imaginative counter power,’ which is to say, it helps the oppressed name the powers that seem to control their lives, as well as to imagine an end to these powers. As oral stories, they inspire the hearer. As texts, they show the reader a view from the belly of history, from the people with a knife to their throats as the military raids the coffers and the granaries.

 

That our honorable Finance Minister would be willing to engage in this rhetorical pulling back of the veil does proffer some hope that we, as a nation, might avoid the most catastrophic outcomes of this imagined future. I do wonder, though, whether she isn't being overly optimistic - by addressing her remarks to the wealthiest among us - or just plain naïve. The defining quality of our elites, after all, lies in their ability to not only inure themselves to such realities, but to feed off of them like the gluttonous parasites they truly are.

       Just how long our body politic has allowed them to suck the life from its very marrow was brought starkly to mind while reading Thomas Wolfe’s 1934 masterpiece You Can’t Go Home Again, a book I’d place in the same league as similarly apocalyptic works like The Brothers Karamazov, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Another Country, Blood Meridian and, more recently, 2666. In You Can’t Go Home Again, we witness the unveiling through the eyes of protagonist George Webber, an aspiring novelist who merely serves as a thinly disguised surrogate for Wolfe himself. As did Wolfe, George is carrying on an illicit affair with a much older woman. In the novel, this woman, Esther, is a celebrated Broadway set designer and wife of wealthy businessman Frederick Jack. The latter is introduced on the morning of the annual party the Jacks host for New York’s glitterati in their luxury apartment, a party that Wolfe quickly informs the reader “was staged exactly a week before the thunderous crash in the Stock Market which marked the end of an era.”

The first inkling we’re given that the Jacks' world will shortly be reduced, figuratively at least, to rubble occurs as Mr. Jack peers down at the street from his luxury, ninth-floor apartment.

“All at once a trembling, faint and instant, passed in the earth below him. He paused, frowning, and an old unquiet feeling to which he could not give a name stirred in his heart. He did not like things to shake and tremble.”

    On the next page we learn that, when Mr. Jack asked the building’s doorman about the trembling, he was told the great apartment house had been built across two depths of railway tunnels and all Mr. Jack had felt was the vibration that came from the passing of a train deep in the bowels of the earth. The man assured him it was all quite safe, that the very trembling in the walls, in fact, was just another proof of safety. Still, “the news disturbed him vaguely. He would have liked it better if the building had been anchored upon the solid rock. So now, as he felt the slight tremor in the walls once more, he paused, frowned, and waited till it stopped.

Over the next few chapters, Wolfe spends considerable time describing how Frederic manages to inure himself against these early morning feelings of unquiet. Here, for example, is how he describes Mr. Jack’s daily drive to his Manhattan office:

       At nine o'clock in the morning of every working day, Mr. Jack was hurled downtown to his office in a shining projectile of machinery, driven by a chauffeur who was a literal embodiment of New York in one of its most familiar aspects. As the driver prowled above his wheel, his dark and sallow face twisted bitterly by the sneer of his thin mouth, his dark eyes shining with an unnatural lustre like those of a man who is under the stimulation of a powerful drug, he seemed to be--and was--a creature which this furious city had created for its special uses. His tallowy flesh seemed to have been compacted, like that of millions of other men who wore grey hats and had faces of the same lifeless hue, out of a common city-substance--the universal grey stuff of pavements, buildings, towers, tunnels, and bridges. In his veins there seemed to flow and throb, instead of blood, the crackling electric current by which the whole city moved. It was legible in every act and gesture the man made. As his sinister figure prowled above the wheel, his eyes darting right and left, his hands guiding the powerful machine with skill and precision, grazing, cutting, flanking, shifting, insinuating, sneaking, and shooting the great car through all but impossible channels with murderous recklessness, it was evident that the unwholesome chemistry that raced in him was consonant with the great energy that was pulsing through all the arteries of the city . . ."

       "The unnatural and unwholesome energy of his driver evoked in his master's mind an image of the world he lived in that was theatrical and phantasmal. Instead of seeing himself as one man going to his work like countless others in the practical and homely light of day, he saw himself and his driver as two cunning and powerful men pitted triumphantly against the world; and the monstrous architecture of the city, the phantasmagoric chaos of its traffic, the web of the streets swarming with people became for him nothing more than a tremendous backdrop for his own activities. All of this--the sense of menace, conflict, cunning, power, stealth, victory, and, above everything else, the sense of privilege--added to Mr. Jack's pleasure, and even gave him a heady joy as he rode downtown to work.” 

     

Here then is the consummate adrenaline junkie in his element and, as with any thrillseeker, it’s precisely this teetering on the precipice of self-destruction that feeds their addiction, which is to say that the Finance Minister’s dire warning is likely to have the opposite effect intended when addressed to such individuals. But, of course, not all rich people are adrenaline junkies and in Esther Jack, Wolfe presents a contrasting, but no less damning, portrait of the primary means by which the more level-headed among our upper classes are able to remain so willfully blind to the true suffering of those on the lowest rungs.            Considering herself a 'worker', she feels a genuine affinity for those in the lower classes even as she strolls about her suite glorying shamelessly in the luxury her privilege has provided. Having recently watched Zone Of Interest, the passages of her admiring her own handiwork reminded me of the film's 'protagonist' Hedwig Höss and her obsession with creating a perfect garden; primarily how the more the reality that her affluence was predicated on mass murder forced itself upon her, the more detached she became from the world outside her own little slice of paradise. 

Here in Canada, Sandra Hüller’s performance as Hedwig Höss should have sent a collective shiver down our spines for such is the exact defense mechanism so blithely embraced by the vast majority of our middle and upper classes - whether as a reaction to the apocalyptic realities surrounding the ongoing genocide against Indigenous Peoples, the tainted drug supply/overdose crisis or the growing encampments of unhoused people proliferating throughout every city in the county.

       

So. if our Finance Minister’s comments are likely to have only the opposite effect on her intended audience then to whom, one might ask, could she have been speaking?

      The obvious answer would be the lower classes; although, I’m afraid, that would be just as ineffectual, not because of the oft-expressed suggestion that poor people don’t vote and thus seem to have no interest in listening to politicians but, quite frankly, because we’re sick to death of all this fucking talk.

       We are sick of listening to you prattle on with your fucking platitudes and your fucking acknowledgments and you thoughts and fucking prayers. We’re sick of your fucking studies that only serve to point out the blatantly obvious but offer no direction whatsoever and which are, in fact, doing more harm than good because they allow our citizenry to believe something is being done when, in fact, the opposite is true (and one need only read the TRC’s final report to know how comprehensive that ‘nothing being done’ amounts to in this country.)

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We’re sick of of the constant, thinly veiled implication that it’s we who are a burden to the system when the real burden is everyone of you in the middle and upper classes who think that this country - and this planet - is your own, personal playground, to do with as you please, regardless of how many bodies you leave in the wake of your relentless pursuit of personal gratification. We’re sick of you telling us, with your every breath, that we don’t deserve a safe place in which to raise our children simply because our appetites aren’t as excessive as yours. We’re sick of the whole lot of you acting like greedy-spoiled-oversized-toddlers-hoarding-all-the-best-toys-in-the-box and we’re just as sick of those startled looks of indignation when we tell you this to your face - as we are of the smirks of bemused indifference with which you greet us whenever we assure you that it doesn’t have to be this way. 

     

Our wrath burning so hot? You're damned right it is and if I thought it would do anything but feed into your adrenaline junky’s insatiable desire for self-destruction or drive you deeper into your own personal 'zones of interest', I’d tell you the truth about just how scalding our wrath is becoming. If I thought it might do any good at all, I could also write a whole lot about the sort of concrete actions which could easily be taken to placate our anger but that wouldn’t matter a goddamn to you either and, to get back on point, certainly wouldn’t do anything to help our family find a new place to live - the only thing that really matters to me at all in this moment.

        So I shall simply leave it at that, except to invite all those reading this to raise a glass in toast to Tanja for all the hard work she’s put into opening the can of worms that is Cannery Row Press.

Kippis, Tanja!    

  

As always, our Adventure continues….

Astronomers
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Poetry

&

Musings

Two Astronomers Chat at a Coffee Break
by Roger Nash

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“The Hubble telescope focuses on light
from just after the Big Bang started,
all we know – & all we don’t.
It’s a Bang rehearsing to Bang again
& again, for a series of different universes
– & coffees, & whoever their drinkers’ll be.
Hope the next pot’s as good as this.”

 

“No, it focuses near the start
of a universe that doesn’t Bang itself
into beginning again and again, but just
expands infinitely outwards; the same
universe and the same coffee that won’t
stay infinitely fresh and hot.
So pour the rest of what we’ve already got."

She

(Elegy)

by Roger Nash

She strode like a dancer.
Swam like swans flying.
Floated like a lotus.
Slept like small geraniums.
Awoke busy as a highway.
Cussed like rusty brakes.
But sang like a pizza.
Her ideas always handy
as Swiss Army knives.
She smiled like hot treacle.
Could jump like a "Bingo!"
But dropped like a stone.

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Woomera
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Natural

History

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Woomera

Kinetic Encounters in the Outback

by Randy Eady

So here I was, come face to face with what could well pass for an earthly version of Hell.

       The sun beat down mercilessly onto this barren stretch of the Australian Outback as I dug my fried egg of a ball out of the heat-encased, oiled sand and lined up my putt on, what amounted to, one of the most challenging golf courses ever designed. With its narrow fairways completely composed of sand, its rough terminals and 'greens' veritable burning pits mocking you through the flimmering air, one got the pronounced sense of standing at Hades' door. Your only defense against being smitten by the infernal heat were the small squares of synthetic turf you carried along to hit your next shot off of and a rolling device that smoothed the path for your next putt.

       

How, you may ask, did I come to voluntarily subject myself to the trials of this sadistically envisioned golf course carved out in the middle of that red gibber of a desert? Well, to answer that question, we have to reach several decades back into the past.

      A few years after the Second World War, Britain and Australia signed a joint agreement to develop ballistic missiles in a region perceived as too remote and barren to be of any other use (under the Doctrine of Terra Nullius - despite Aboriginal groups holding native title to the area for tens of thousands of years). Len Beadell, 'the last of the explorers', surveyed the supposedly uninhabitable red desert of South Australia for the construction of a rocket range and created a town that became tagged as 'Woomera', paying a rather ironic homage to the Aboriginal spear launcher of the same name.

       

The Woomera Prohibited Area became an integral part in the development of space capabilities for Britain, Europe and the USA through the launch pads and tracking stations established in and around the boundaries of the vast, restricted zone that, at 127,000 square kilometers, was larger than England and covered one-seventh of the entire state.        

During the late 1960s, Australia joined the 'Space Club' and, in the early 80s, was at the forefront of developments in both civic and military technology. The infrastructure provided by Woomera enabled Britain to conduct a series of nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu Field, thus serving as another location from which to proliferate the Cold War. In its heyday, Australia had a renowned position in space research and development that saw it as second only to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the number of annual rocket and missile launches.

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Nowadays, Woomera is remembered more for its infamous and massive refugee detention center (closed in 2003) than for its past prominence as the world’s second busiest spaceport.

About a decade ago, I'd been invited to attend the Woomera Range Complex as a consultant on electromagnetic fields during the testing of military Unmanned Aerial Systems (drones). After having completed several demanding days of diagnostic test flights with our NAVSIS antenna array, my Aussie mates had promised me a "unique golfing experience" unlike any other. Eagerly, I crammed my 7-club travel set into my gear kit and scooted over from the hangar to test my golfing prowess.

       After arriving at the Woomera golf course, an Aboriginal fellow hanging around nearby regarded me silently for a while as I puttered about the club's shack. Out of the blue, he addressed me with a string of questions that, at first, appeared mere gibberish. 

The main gist of his inquiry turned out to be, what were we planning to do with all the water we found and would we be sharing our discovery with him and his tribe mates. I politely tried to shoo the man away, answering with a quizzical look, "We're not doing anything with water". Then I picked up my scorecard, selected an artificial turf set of three pads (fairway, rough, rougher-still) and headed for the first tee - with my new acquaintance doggedly tagging along. He stayed with me throughout my inaugural solo-round, emanating a quietly determined persistence and watching my struggle along the course with an earnest expression.

On the next occasion that I decided to brave this 'Fairway to Hell', my Aboriginal companion - who I'd since come to know as Andrew - suggested he 'walk-me-about' the course to provide some insights on how to get a better handle on the infernal setup. I happily concurred and off we went.

      Drudging along the sweltering barrens, the question of dowsing for water was once again revisited, followed by a dip into the healing arts and leading to curious queries on my part about the spear thrower ensemble that never seemed to leave his side. Shortly, a wager was proposed: Andrew would use his woomera and spear against my clubs and golf ball. He'd launch from the same tees, but only needed to sink his spear near the target on the oily 'green' while I still had to putt out to win.

Full of bravado and, again, not taking Andrew seriously, I confidently drove my ball a robust 250 yards down the left side of the fairway (with a slight fade). Then Andrew hopped up on the tee box. Standing a polite two meters away - slightly behind and to his right side as is habitual when on the tee - I soon noticed a quiet hum suffuse the air. As he prepared to launch his now-vibrating spear, the palpable whir grew in intensity until - SNAP! - the sound reached a level of such eerie harmony with my entire being, it completely riveted my attention to the peculiar execution of his throw. To this day, I shall never forget how awestruck I felt, witnessing a spear thrower in action for the first time.

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The spear rocketed off down the heat-distorted fairway and, as I visually followed what looked like its contrail, it instantly hit me that I was doomed right then and there. My little Benjamin would most assuredly be liberated from my wallet and find a home in my companion's pocket. Later, I'd find out that Andrew and a few of his tribemates regularly enjoyed their side hustle of betting against the odd, unwitting military visitor. In our case, though, it would certainly go much deeper than just your typical 'bling and ka-ching' story.

Over the course of our encounters, I'd surmise that Andrew’s people, the Kokatha, were a large nation of desert dwellers with lands from Coober Pedy to the coast. With water perpetually scarce (an average of just 175 mm of rain a year and evaporation rates 20 times greater) the Kokatha tend to move around in small family groups, coming together for big events at large soaks, rock holes or sacred sites.

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The region they've inhabited since time immemorial presents as a mix of scrubby barrens; from mallee and red sandhills to spinifex country, gleaming white saltpans, shrublands on red gibber and grasslands of woolly Butt, white tip and kerosene grass. The average summer temperature hovers at 37°C, but locals will tell you they’ve clocked in at 55°C on occasion. The air swarms with flies eager to crawl into your mouth as they scrounge for precious moisture - which is likely where the thin-lipped drawl of the Outback's original peoples hails from. Along the dog fences which skirt the area, skulls of dingoes and foxes lie among yellow everlastings and wild geraniums.

Archaeological evidence has unearthed a vast network of at least one hundred stone cairns at a site just to the south of the Woomera Range - each about a meter wide - that bears witness to the long-standing inhabitation of this region.

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Although their original purpose and usage are uncertain, cultural artefacts within the Woomera Prohibited Area - such as extensive rocky assemblages, petroglyphs and other rock art found at Wild Dog Creek and Eucolo Creek and monumental natural formations like the giant salt pan of Lake Hart - are of vital, cultural importance to the Kokatha people and other Western Desert tribes. 

They are all part of the 'Tjukurpa', the creation period when Ancestral Beings, the Tjukuritja, birthed the world and on the base of which religion, laws and moral principles were founded. The journey of the Spirit Ancestors across the land is recorded in 'dreaming tracks' that - akin to ley lines - join a number of sacred sites, thus tracing the paths of these Beings as they move through the landscape; forming its features, creating its flora and fauna and laying down social and religious customs. The idea that this landscape was empty of human life under the Doctrine of Terra Nullius is clearly refuted by ample evidence reaching back to the beginning of human existence in the area.

"You can virtually walk off the Stuart Highway and find artifacts out in the middle of nowhere,” notes Andrew Starkey, Indigenous Liaison Officer for the area. He points out another knapped stone on the ground. “Look, someone’s dropped their pocketknife here.”

To get back to the hunting tool this region was named after and how the military drone testing I partook in relates to Andrew's original question of tracking water sources in the area, we have to delve a tat into the field of vibrational energies. 

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The woomera’s design aligns with its agility and simplicity. At the core of its potential for remarkable accuracy lies the intention of the wielding hand. As such, the process of casting the spear is intrinsically an act of self-reflection, an awareness of one's entire being as the body’s vibration is perfectly aligned with that of the spear's. Furthermore, it’s a harmonic acknowledgment of kindness within the universe; an act so in tune with the moment, the environment and an entirely committed focus of execution that, at the time of release, the spear seems to have already impacted the target.

To watch a master woomera wielder hunt a rabbit is to witness the oneness of true immersion in the energized focus of flow. The body-hand-eye coordination appears to forecast the hare's movement in a real extension of time. Thus, the spear releases at a moment that predicts the exact spot its target will next occupy in its zig-zag motion.

It is the vibrational energy inherent in the flexing of the spear that has endowed it with its added purpose as a water dowsing device amongst Aboriginal tribes. The kinetic effects of the vibrating spear are believed to attract responsive properties implicit in the vibrations of water molecules above and below ground - scientifically explored in the field of quantum mechanics that studies the unifying forces which underlie all living things, including the subtle patterns of water in motion. (Law of Attraction: whatever frequency you are vibrating at is attracting back a similar vibration.)

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Learning about the spear thrower's use as a 'divining rod' certainly explained Andrew's puzzling, initial inquiry. To him, the vibrational hum of military drones cruising above the desert landscape reflected the vibrations of the spear thrower in dowsing action - if in a modern-technology kind of way.

     As Indigenous peoples, these sensually spiritualized Animists (as I call them) reveal an astounding sensitivity to and awareness of natural patterns and their underlying forces: from observing birds in flight and the formation of internal organs in creatures to air patterns producing sound vibrations in musical instruments, the formation of earth and water, changes in weather and space and the development of life before and after birth. I was told it takes about forty years to absorb the full breadth of Aboriginal knowledge - to become a 'living encyclopedia' of life in the Outback and, in particular, to accurately 'interpret' (sense) how the woomera divines water.

In fact, I'm sure I couldn't hide a wry look of bemused astonishment when an elder gave me a map of the area we were surveying. His rendition showed (a few weeks after our GPS testing was completed) where the 'water' was forming from the temporary antenna poles we had randomly placed around the gibber. 

       Perhaps these people also know other secrets about the universe, like how rainbows are woven from the threads of forgotten dreams. And we are just there - standing as witnesses to their take on the Outback as a celestial ballroom where the ordinary entwines with the extraordinary, and the mundane search for water dons a momentary cloak of magic.

In Energy's Presence

 

The exploration and use of kinetic energy inherent in vibrations plays an utmost role in Aboriginal life well beyond the dowsing for life-sustaining water.

Vibro-acoustic harmonization is a method commonly used in Indigenous health restoration, known as 'panpooni' in the Outback. Ngangkari healers identify where the issues of disruption are - sensing that the spirit is the core component of the human body - and apply a specific combination of vibrations and touch healing that removes whatever interferes with the health of their patients; whether it's pain, a blockage or an imbalance. The restorative effects of vibrational acoustics are no mystery to civilizations all over the globe. They are most commonly found in incantations during religious meditation practices (prayer, mantras) and the general enjoyment of producing, listening and moving to music. 

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Didgeridoo Vibrational Healing is such an example which employs the well-known Aboriginal wind instrument in sound therapy. It is played by means of circular breathing and its sound vibrations are specifically crafted by the healer to cleanse and balance the body, revive the mind and awaken the soul. It's based on ancient scientific and spiritual wisdom that reaches back to an age when humanity still lived in harmony with nature.

"If it's not in the right place it can cause problems, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. With their healing touch they push it back in the right place," notes hospital administrator Francesca Panzironi. "They're more open. Because they are traditional, they're respected. The healers also respect the clients." The Ngangkari healers are popular with patients of all backgrounds, but for Indigenous peoples especially they have been making a world of a difference in improving attendance rates at clinical appointments.    

Advocacy for mainstream doctors to work side by side with Ngangkari healers has not only served to make hospitals more culturally acceptable to Aboriginal clients, but has also aided in educating staff on how traditional Indigenous methods can effectively complement modern medical practices. Today, we are witnessing the renaissance of a 60,000-year-old tradition of Ngangkari healers (considered the treasure of Aboriginal communities) born from the Outback now making its way from outlying regions like Woomera to South Australia's Royal Adelaide Hospital and other rural clinics.

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~

Since the 1970s, Australia’s Aboriginals have slowly been moving back to their ancestral homelands reclaimed from the government. The results are healthier communities with lower rates of diabetes, obesity and alcohol-related injuries.

     Sadly, as their lands are slated for heavy mineral rights exploitation, the protection of culturally significant artifacts being dug up as a result is of great concern to the Kokatha tribe. Lack of recognition regarding the Kokatha’s title to the land and legal rights has had a traumatic impact on their population as a whole. With older people passing on, the devastating gap left behind by politics of assimilation - in particular the depraved practice of wide-swept, forced child removal (stolen generations) - and the destructive influence of colonial culture, there is a dire need to deliver accessible programs in such a way that people can revive and, once again, share pride in the treasures their own heritage.

B & W Dusk
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Musical

Interlude

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Black and White Dusk

by Rebecca Kramer

Life is full of little twists 

The unexpected plays of light

Anticipating orange dusk 

When film was black and white

 

If you use imagination 

Twilight coloured candles grow

In a real life silent movie

Fractal perfect . . . ebb and flow

Even though there may be beauty 

In the classic black and white

Visions of the warmest colors 

Hold us calm through darkest night

 

Posted weeds are pastel chalking 

Charcoal dusting faded sky

Lighting gives the earth its meaning

Daylight anthem . . . evening cry

 

Lighting holds our painful memories 

Blurred in films of black and white 

Colour in your life long movie

Feel your pain . . . come back to life

Dark Window
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Short

Fiction

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Dark Window to the Sea

A Cannery Row Gothic

by Greg Patrick

“The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble. - John Steinbeck (Cannery Row)

The mysterious disappearance of fishermen along the coast coincided with the disappearance of the sardines from their nets. The ocean was once said to be as silver as it was blue with the surge of sardine schools. The captains of the fishing industry toasted their wealth as men toiled on the waters and net after net fell and rose squirming with sleek, silver-gold fish.

       Men remembered when the first nets gorged with sardines were hauled up to euphoric cheers. And to the end of their days, those men would remember the sinking desolation in their hearts when the nets rose empty to their collective groans. The sardine industry was an insatiable monster, impoverishing the sea and all those creatures that dwelled under her surface. The ocean has many hungry mouths to feed and, in the wake of the last sardine boats trawling its waters, that hunger would rise to the surface with voracious intent.

Part 1: The Creature
(Monterey Bay and Submarine Canyon)

The shaft of a lighthouse beam slashes through the fog enshrouding the black, roiling sea. Under cover of fog and darkness, a dinghy manned by two abalone poachers rows hard against the tide and relentless winds, striking out for a remote stretch of the bay. The two men curse and argue as they soon find themselves hopelessly immersed in the ghostly waves of mist, swirling around them like vapors from a boiling cauldron. Meanwhile, below the restless surface of the sea, cold fathoms descend into a dark chasm. Amongst the flowing shadows of a sunken shipyard, ghostly shapes stir. 

Moonbeams ripple as they pierce the gloom, flickering over the figurehead of a Spanish galleon. Upon it, a lone specter crouches, silhouetted in the faint light like a question mark poised for the depths. Its eerie pallor casts the figure as in an apparitional spotlight, shimmering over patterns of reptilian scales, rows of frilly gills and a distinctly membraned spine. Whereas the others in its brood shrink from the alien intrusion of light into their realm, this creature seems to bask in the spectral glow.

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Eyes smoldering green with predatory intent, it observes the struggle of the small and vulnerable craft tossed about upon the waves that churn high above its perch. The creature looks to the others. Its spawn cowers among the debris as the faint echo of whale song quavers through the broken masts and rotted timbers. Their frilled cheeks appear sunken and their bodies dangerously emaciated. The land dwellers have plundered the ocean, insatiable for the sardines that once sustained his kind over the span of eons. Again, the creature’s attention is drawn towards the surface above, enticed by the vibrations of the oars and the boat's hull tossing about the waves. With undulating movements, it glides upwards through the waters, the caress of the currents sweeping its senses. The creature ventures further towards the surface fixated on the turbulence above. 

Meanwhile the two men’s navigational quarrel atop the waves has come to blows.

       A well-placed punch splays the stockier of the two, Ben, out on the deck. As he curses and struggles to right himself, his hand strays into the water and within easy reach of the creature sidling along the boat's swaying hull. The fallen man cries out in anguish and terror as sharp claws hook into his soft flesh. Trying desperately to pull out of the talons' grip, he recoils in horror as he confronts bared rows of serrated fangs and eyes dark with malevolent intent; cold and lethal as a great white shark's. Clinging onto the side of the boat for dear life, he struggles with all his might against being pulled overboard.

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Bewildered, his mate Steve calls out in alarm, lunging for and gripping the sailor's legs to keep him from being dragged into the turbulent sea. Still clutching at Ben's thrashing hand, the beast slips with sinuous grace back and forth along the side of the vessel, probing for an opening amidst the flailing limbs of its quarry. Spying a momentary chance, the creature strikes like a force of nature and Ben howles in agony as the eviscerating slash of its claws rakes along his side, turning the water crimson-red with his blood. Stradling Ben's legs, Steve grapples for the net and frantically casts out, trying to enmesh the beast, only for the snare to be wrenched powerfully from his grasp. 
    “A knife! Throw me a knife!” Ben croaks in agonizing pain. Steve struggles to reach the blade strapped to his belt and haphazardly attempts to pass it to his flailing mate, only to find himself dislodged by a sudden, violent impact that capsizes the boat, casting both men into the shockingly cold waves. Steve cries out in anguish as Ben's silhouette quickly fades from sight next to a bioluminous green shape; as if a specter were dragging him down into the ocean's deep. Blood trails from the black fathoms, mingling with peculiar, iridescent-green droplets. Steve clings to the overturned wreckage of their dingy, sobbing inconsolably, vainly searching the roiling mass for any signs of his mate. Finally, he gives up all hope and kicks for the safety of the distant shore.

   

The fog slowly dissipates, unveiling the outline of a rugged coast. Beyond its shroud, he can make out the lunarscape of distant dunes along the sea's edge. It has been a long, torturous swim with the anguished screams of his mate still echoing in his troubled mind. He kicks harder, fighting the rising tide of terror that threatens to engulf his mind.

Part IIDoc
(Cannery Row, Monterey)

 

“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” - John Steinbeck (Cannery Row)

 

Who was this newcomer to Monterey?

     Everyone in Cannery Row only knew the enigmatic stranger, rather patronizingly, as 'Doc'. A reclusive and eccentric outlier, he'd simply appeared one day, shuffling along the pungent, bustling streets of their fishing village. He had an unmistakable New England accent yet none knew or thought to ask about his story.

Habitually armed with a small net and magnifying glass, he could often be spied marching towards the tidepools on the hunt for 'specimens', perpetually seeking that one elusive treasure which would, one day, elevate him to recognition amongst his scientific peers. Curious passersby would notice him pacing the shore amidst the dark pines, gazing longingly out to sea with melancholy eyes. Whatever secrets he brought to these new shores, he kept them as tightly sealed as a message in a bottle cast out to sea.

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Since Doc’s arrival, Cannery Row had descended from a vibrant fishing and canning hub to a gaunt sullen shadow of its former self. The shock and depression following the demise of a once lucrative sardine industry soon plunged into dark rumors that whispered of a demonic beast prowling the waves, devouring the little that was left of the once abundant fish stocks as well as any hapless sailor who had the misfortune of straying overboard.

     Doc had always prided himself in being neither a man of poetry nor of superstition. He tacitly scorned the old sailors’ yarns of monsters and mermaids. And yet, since his arrival, he had been plagued by recurring dreams, vexing him with some cryptic calling that even pursued him into his waking hours.

       

On this particular night, Doc has fallen asleep going over some notes as a storm rages beyond the walls of his small laboratory which conveniently borders his favourite haunt along the coast. He abruptly startles awake from the throes of another nightmare that had him writhing in his sleep. Struggling to orient himself, he senses the wind whispering with such unusual urgency at his window, it feels as if the sea were summoning him more insistently than ever before with her disembodied sirensong.

       Lightning flashes over the charts of scientific names and sketches on the walls around him. The sea creatures he keeps in the lab's aquariums seem unusually restless and perturbed for no apparent reason that he can fathom. The eels undulate furiously within their glass enclosures while the fish wriggle inside their tanks in a mad frenzy.

       As if infected with their restlessness, Doc feels irresistibly drawn to the dark tidepools just beyond the window; they call to him with an allure akin to an oasis in the night beckoning to a parched soul. Without thought or hesitation, he dons his coat and hurries for the door.

Like a sleepwalker traversing a shimmering dreamscape, he strides with cautious haste over the familiar rock formations. The night’s storm has mostly subsided by the time he makes his way across the flotsam and jetsam rich aftermath of its wrath.

      “So here I am. What is so urgent? What do you want from me?” Doc whispers dreamily into the darkness around him. The night is eerily quiet, the constant, chanting bark of sea lions inexplicably absent. No otters or seals lounge on the barren rampart of rocks or bop amidst the kelp. He studies the dark, moon-ensplendored waters, the canopy of the kelp forest swaying with the ebbing tide.

        About to give up and turn back towards home, he is jarred from his brooding solitude by the shrill cries of gulls at once arising from the water's edge. The birds appear to be swarming the rocks, quarreling and clamouring over some treasured scavenge. Then a momentary glint of bright yellow catches his eyes. Upon closer inspection, he makes a discovery that leaves him deeply confounded. A sailor's body clad in a yellow rain slicker sways in the tide's ebb and flow, closely entwined in the limbs of a creature the likes of which he has never encountered in all his years of researching the ocean's myriad inhabitants. Both bodies appear tangled up together within the mesh of a fishing net. His first instinct is one of utter incredulity.
        “The locals are trying to prank me. Clever hoax. I'll give them that,” he grumbles as he inspects the torso of the strange figure for telltale stitches and seams.

All of a sudden, the creature opens its eyes and he recoils in fright, almost dropping his lantern as the beast's pupils dilate to pitch-black holes. At first glance, it appears somewhat human yet with striking reptilian features such as webbed appendages and a frilled and spine-framed face gleaming with scales. A rusted abalone knife that the mortally wounded sailor must have used to fend the creature off with is embedded to the hilt in its torso, oozing luminous, green blood.

     Carefully drawing out the blade and staunching the blood's flow from the wound with a torn strip of his shirt, he warily severs the mesh of the net to release the creature. He lingers in awe at his discovery, the lantern light shaking with the tremble to his hands.

Jarred from the moment by the uproar of drunken sailors staggering from a tavern down the road, he hastily covers the creature’s body with the yellow coat scavenged from the dead mate to keep it hidden from the prying eyes of curious passersby. He then gently lifts the sedate torso onto his shoulders and carries it back to his lab where he has one remaining tank left that he figures might be large enough to contain the creature since it had once held a wounded sea otter that had washed ashore.
 

Doc’s great dream has finally come within his grasp. He basks in visions of the acclaim he'd garner from esteemed scientific societies and institutions. The man who's discovered an extraordinary, new species that may well revolutionize the world of science. Newspapers and lecture circuits clamouring for his attention. The answer to his professional hopes and dreams so tantalizingly close . . . and yet, something still troubles him deeply.

        He looks to the sea otter, its body stuffed and mounted on display after he failed to nurse it back to health from the shark bites that had proved lethal in the end. Taxidermy simply would not do as an adequate substitute for a living specimen. If he were to present the creature as a preserved carcass, then it might well be dismissed as a mere hoax. But the question he, first and foremost, needs an educated answer to remains: What is this creature and where did it originate from? He laboriously pours over his notes and text books, cataloguing all known ocean fauna, then starts to tremble with rising excitement.

“I think you've just discovered an entirely unknown species!” he exclaims to himself. Doc ponders what to name his new find, conscientiously rejecting the term 'monster'; there were none in science, he dogmatically lectures himself. “Humanoid features . . . curious indeed!” he muses.

       The creature has evidently suffered malnourishment from the scarcity of its natural prey, which, in all likelihood, has forced it to feed on human flesh, he hypothesizes as he studies its body in minute detail. The creature’s scales present a sickly, discolored hue as it rests lethargically at the bottom of the tank. Its gill slits shudder with painfully strained breaths. Doc is aware that there are some wild organisms that would slowly perish if confined to a tank or a cage for any amount of time and his mysterious patient appears vulnerable to such confinement. Outside, the sigh of the waves beckons. He looks back at his captive with emphatic eyes.
        “I know . . . I’m out of my element around here, as well.” he whispers.
     

The creature warily presses its palm to the glass as if beseeching him for help. On impulse, Doc holds his own hand to the tank's wall, mirroring the gesture. The creature’s eyes dilate and contract in the lantern's light, glowing blue, as its membraned fingers spread wide across the surface. Its eyes transfix him, their dark pits observing him as much as he is observing his unique guest; in fact, they appear to dissect him as if trying to see what lies truly hidden within the man's soul.

       He feels hypnotically drawn into their black depths, succumbing to a strange transformation that imbues him with the sensation of falling at a dizzying pace. Within moments, he finds himself immersed in the watery realm of the creature. He vicariously suffers the torture of hooks and nets . . . the pangs of starvation as the schools of fish are plundered ruthlessly by the boats casting their shadows from above, leaving his brood and fellow sea denizens to languish in the wake of their fleets.

        Jarred back into his own body, he slowly comes to, his image distorted in eyes dark as tidepools as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. He staggers back and stands at the threshold of his lodging, panting hard as he tries to catch his breath. He feels the sudden urge to flee from the creature's gaze, to get away from its hypnotic allure. He needs time to think, to make sense of what he's just witnessed through the other's mind.      

Moments later, with no recollection of how he got there, he finds himself in front of one of his favourite drinking haunts. His shadow casts large upon the creaking mermaid sign of the tavern frequented mostly by fishermen and cannery workers. Seating himself in a corner by the hearth, he clutches his tumbler of hot grog and gazes into space with distant eyes. His brooding silhouette, so aloof from the crowd, with his drink untouched and himself lost in contemplation, does not go unnoticed. In a place such as this, all it takes is an unintentional gaze to provoke a brawl and, before long, he draws unfavourable attention from those around him.

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A  jobless brute of a sailor slams his tankard down and rises heavily from his bench. Wiping the drink from his bearded chin, he glares with bloodshot eyes at the solitary figure by the hearth, intent on a vulnerable target to displace his impotent rage on. The man lumbers towards his quarry with a mighty flex to his thick, heavily tattooed arms and a menacing clench to his callused fists. Other patrons grin widely in anticipation, eager for a solid brawl to pass the time, even as a barmaid’s pleas for calm are shrugged aside. Before the sailor can make good on his plan though, help arrives from unexpected quarters. The door bursts open with a crash and a disheveled figure, clothes blood-stained and in tatters, stumbles over the tavern's threshold, ranting and raving madly about a sea monster that has devoured his mate.

The tavern is instantly thrown into an uproar. A frenzied mob quickly gathers outside its doors, chanting with incensed fury for the head of the man-eating beast. An old sea captain rallies the roaring, drunken sailors to a one armed with marlin spikes, harpoons, and clubs, urging them to march towards the shore to hunt down this accursed demon of the sea.

       Fleeing for his laboratory, Doc charges ahead of the vengeful posse. At once, his hasty flight away from the crowd catches the suspicious eye of the drunkard who, mere minutes ago, regarded him with such malicious intent from across the tavern's common room. With a roar, the brute incites the mob to give pursuit, spurring his quarry on mercilessly.

       

Breathing hard, Doc burst through the door of his lab.
       "I need to get you out of here! Come on . . . easy now,” he cajoles as he gently lifts his precious find from the tank. With the creature's scaly arms wrapped around him, he kicks open the door and flees over the tidepools towards the water's edge. The blaze of torchlights follows hot on his heels as
 the angry mob catches sight of the fugitives making a break for the shoreline.
       
“Go on! Back to the sea then . . . go back home!” he urges, carefully lowering the creature into the water at the sea's edge. Invigorated by the rising tide, it shudders in ecstasy as the salty waters caress its scaly skin and undulates with renewed vigor through the exquisitely cold, dark element. Doc tastes the salt of a single tear as it touches his lips. “Godspeed” he whispers in farewell.

Shocked out of his reverie, he blinks with teary eyes at the harsh glare of torches confronting him not moments later.

     “Where’s the demon monster?” a sailor spits with crazed eyes, raising his billhook in menace. Doc draws himself up to his full height and fixes the mob with desolate, accusing eyes.

    “Monster?!? Philistines! There are no monsters and demons except for the greed of Man. That is what took all the sardines and your livelihoods!” Doc's words are met at once with a frenzy of vengeful blows, turning the cherished tidepools crimson with his blood, and he collapses onto the jagged rocks. Sobbing in agony, he drags himself towards the edge of the sea. It calls to him more urgently now than it ever has on those many, restless nights.

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He tastes the salt water on his lips as it washes over him with a comforting sigh, urging him to sink deeper into its embrace. At once, he feels a scaly hand take hold of his own, pulling him downwards away from the curl of waves. His exhale rises towards the surface in crimson bubbles as he sinks further into the dark fathoms.

      He is guided ever deeper towards the ocean floor, arms splayed as if embracing an old friend. His eyes close in anticipation when he senses a strange shift ripple through his body. He opens them again to the sight of a phantasmal world around him, As in a dreamscape, Doc finds himself mesmerized by the vision of a myriad sea creatures gathered around him. The silhouettes of merpeople swirl amongst the wrecks of Spanish galleons in riotous iridescence.
     

Unbeknownst to him, his eyes now sparkle with the shimmer of green fluorescence mirrored by the creatures surrounding him. Feeling for the gill-like slits that have mysteriously opened up along his throat like bloodless wounds, he glimpses a layer of webbed skin between the fingers of his hands. Amidst the graveyard of sunken ships, merpeople move in graceful revel like a danse macabre haunting a castle's ruins. They sing in eerily quavering harmonies that shudder through the depths of his reshaped soul.

     His spirit surges with joyful elation. A man forever out of his element amongst his own kind, yearning for an undiscovered world, he has, at long last, found the place where he truly belongs.

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Hazy Dreams

(Tanja Rabe)

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Rob Roy

1995, R, USA/UK, Biography/Adventure/Drama

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Cast: Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, John Hurt 

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with Tanja

"Honor is what no man can give you and none can take away. Honor is a man's gift to himself. Never worry on the getting of it. It grows in you, and speaks to you. All you need do is listen. All men with honor are kings. But not all kings have honor." - Rob Roy

When I think back of watching Rob Roy for the first time, it's hard to not also recall Braveheart, a memory that instantly conjures up the massive headache I incurred sitting through Mel Gibson's self-aggrandising and lengthy opus at the Vancouver Center Theater.

        Both movies were released about the same time, dealt with similar subject matter (in different time periods) and included a noteworthy cast, but that's where the similarities thankfully ended. Unlike Braveheart, which dragged us through one clamouring battle after another with Gibson ever at the heroic front (I found those continual scenes of combat similarly annoying - if not deeply insulting to Tolkien's legacy - in the Lord of the Rings movies), Rob Roy set out to feed eyes and soul of its audience (much like Tolkien mastered in his books). Sure, there are quite a few well-executed, and decidedly gripping, sword fights in the latter but if you're looking for grand-posturing warlords and massive armies clashing on the battlefield till your ears ring to the point of tinnitus, you can safely stop reading now.

      Besides the stunning cinematography executed on location in the Scottish Highlands which truly lends itself to the big screen experience, the film - based on a swashbuckling novel by Sir Walter Scott - was both written and directed by Scottish nationals and offers up a cast I personally consider quite superior to the Braveheart line-up. 

 

For those unfamiliar with the storyline or who need a refresher, here's a short recap:

       Liam Neeson plays the titular Rob Roy MacGregor, an 18th Century Scottish historical figure who, putting up all his land as collateral, borrows £1,000 from the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) in the hopes to save his clan from impending starvation by investing in a lucrative cattle trade. However, the money is stolen in transit by the Marquis' dastardly henchman Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) who is mired in frivolous lifestyle debts so common amongst the rich and famous of any age.

Rob Roy

Unable to repay the loan and blamed for its theft - even though the Marquis suspects Cunningham's involvement - MacGregor is forced to leave his family and flee for the hills to live as an outlaw, acquiring legendary status in the fight to clear his name and reclaim his honour.

In this tale of British injustice against a routinely beleaguered Scotland, Neeson plays a robust and convincing protagonist, well-juxtaposed by a stellar, shudderingly fiendish performance of Tim Roth as the exquisitely foppish, yet vicious Cunningham. Their conflict culminates in one of the most compelling duels seen on film; an expertly shot long sequence, without tricks or hard-to-believe heroics, that is sublimely choreographed. 

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The violence exhibited throughout the film is realistic, never gratuitous, and the scene where Cunningham violates Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange) to force her husband Rob out of hiding is truly disturbing in its cold, calculated intent. In fact, the whole movie - scenery, wardrobe etc. - feels so true to life, you can almost smell the stink (or cloying scents) wafting off its characters who, thanks to Alan Sharp's intelligent script, come across as well-rounded, intriguing personalities supported by superbly entertaining, quick-witted dialogue. The direction itself is to the point, doesn't drag with frivolous fillers and smoothly transitions between scenes.

It's a shame that Rob Roy got somewhat lost in the slipstream of its Mel Gibson counterpart and the film certainly deserved higher recognition at the Oscars with Tim Roth being the only actor nominated for his supporting role while Braveheart walked away with ten Academy Awards. Point in fact, even fans of Braveheart admitted in numerous reviews that Rob Roy had Mel Gibson's epic beat hands down on several fronts, such as character development, storyline, dialogue and realism. 

      Well, that's Hollywood for you and the world in general. The more noise and spectacle you produce, the more attention you get while the troupers, committed to perform good, honest work, get consigned to the sidelines watching their inferiors reap the laurels. Sure sounds like just another day at the office . . .

 

I leave the last words to a top critic who aptly summed up the film in the intro to his rave review:

I thought I had seen enough sword fights in movies to last a lifetime, but I was wrong. The sword fight in Rob Roy reinvents the exercise, and the movie itself brings hot red blood to the costume genre. This is a splendid, rousing historical adventure, an example of what can happen when the best direction, acting, writing and technical credits are brought to bear [...] Liam Neeson, tall and grand, makes an effortless hero as Rob Roy. Jessica Lange as his wife, Mary, has a fierce strength of character that drives her to defend her home and children, [and] defy her husband when she finds it necessary. - Roger Ebert

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Enjoy the Show!

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