Just when I thought my opinions of humanity couldn't sink any further, I encountered some recent quotes by Mark Latham in one of the newspapers fate provides me on my travels. For those who don't know Australian politics, Latham briefly headed Labor during John Howard's term of government and challenged the ruling Liberal party in one federal election. He was decisively defeated and retired to write some scathing memoirs; and in light of his recent outbursts, it is with some embarrassment that I admit I voted for him. Like many other young Australians I was disillusioned with Howard for dragging us into an unpopular war, declared on flimsy pretexts, and fought on the behalf of an even more unpopular foreign leader, though I doubt a Labor government would have behaved much differently. I supported Latham for other reasons but I'll get to them later on.
Latham's latest rants seem trivial compared to those used to justify war; but for me they bespeak an impoverished soul. According to this luminary no random stranger on the street, but a former Opposition leader who once entertained hopes of ruling a nation classical music is intolerably boring, only useful for sending people to sleep, and exclusively appreciated by a small clique of rich elites who know they can doze off to it untroubled by the unwashed hordes. Latham went on to add most Australians would rather cut their fingers off than forsake football for classical music. If there is any truth in this it's proof I was born in the wrong time and place.
I'm not part of some elitist clique. Not long ago I belonged to the group Latham claimed to champion: what he called the "aspirational class." I have not been to university. Any impression I might give of being articulate or knowledgeable comes from the reading I have done in my own time. I went straight from school into the workforce, and during a regimen that included 16-hour shifts and three years without holidays, I acquired two mortgages in Australia's most expensive city before my 24th birthday. It was while working night shifts that I took a break from the usual (black metal and horror novels) to explore old European culture. Kafka and Dostoyevsky echoed my sense of estrangement; I read Dante's Inferno during a harsh summer that killed the air conditioning; and certain pieces of classical music, not least Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Wagner's "Faust Overture," were the perfect accompaniment to the dark and stormy winter nights that drove most customers away. I came to find the pop music I heard on the radio by day, when my boss had a say in the matter, insipid by comparison. I'm not trying to be elitist or belittle fans of pop music. I'm just describing my tastes as they were.
During my first stay in Melbourne I had no source of income besides the rent I was meant to receive from a problematic tenant; and though I lived beneath my means, moving from a backpackers' to the cheapest boarding house I could find, the next few months were largely defined by hunger and anxiety. I was asset rich but income poor, one step above being homeless, and ineligible for government handouts by virtue of having worked hard and saved responsibly for most of my adult life. My cohabitants also proved difficult, though they quickly learned there was no point in asking for money I did not have (and they were eligible for handouts, having never worked hard or saved responsibly). Yet during this time I produced some of my finest work, including such unusually positive pieces as "Escape from the Aeolius." I also gained a new appreciation of music I had heard but not truly experienced. Bach, which I had considered boring compared to the later Romantics, evoked a world devoid of suffering, a universal human dream that transcends Latham's talk of classes and their aspirations. I might add that Bach was inspired by a faith I had previously held in contempt; and revisiting his music, and comparing what I heard on the radio in public places, was at times quite humbling.
Latham, of course, would insist Bach is far less relevant than football, an activity many have described as a national religion. This is one cult I can't respect; I don't see the appeal in watching a highly ritualised re-enactment of two tribes fighting over a piece of dead pig. This is not elitist blather from some cultural commissariat. It is an honest admission from someone whose work has included mopping vomit off floors and replacing "Made in China" stickers with "Product of Australia" ones. I don't think getting a ball across a line is any more inspiring. It's too simple to be interesting and would be an even simpler affair if both teams co-operated. Perhaps it's meant to be a metaphor for other forms of human endeavour; if so, it's a depressing one.
Latham is not alone in his views. I regularly meet people who fanatically follow football and treat those who don't with suspicion or hostility. It's apparently not Australian to have no interest in football; it's not even heterosexual, though how this applies to a game that features grown men grabbing each other is beyond my comprehension. I've come to expect as much from local acquaintances; but hearing it from a politician not least a politician who once claimed to speak for me, and whom I once loyally supported just furthers the alienation that has prompted me to withdraw from the world, choosing hours of solitude over social interaction, and the remnants of a culture we once had reason to be proud of over the new dross I so often see. Latham once aspired to lead a Western democracy; he should have first aspired to know more of Western civilisation. For anyone who's interested, Europeans have done more than put Africans in chains and pass around infected blankets. Their more positive achievements are worthy of appreciation, and should continue to inspire us regardless of our ancestry. My hope that Latham will read this can't match my belief that he never will; but for those who have, thanks for your time.