The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly on what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

When in Greece – part 1: “Good” to be here

When I was learning Greek as a child, I was taught that there were three words that one could use as a greeting, or parting wish, at different times of the day: Καλημἐρα – kalimera – good morning, Καλησπἐρα – kalispera – good evening, and Καληνὐχτα – kalinichta – good night. That was it. Those three things.

As the years have passed, however, more “good” greetings and “good” wishes have been added to the Greek lexicon.

Now you have to understand that in Greek, notwithstanding a few variations, the standard seasons greetings all begin with “good”, for example, Καλὀ Πἀσχα – Kalo Pascha – Good Easter, Καλἀ Χριστοὐγεννα – Kala Christougenna – Good Christmas, Καλἠ Πρωτοχρονιἀ – Kali Protohronia – Good New Year.

But alongside these and the standard greetings I learnt as a child, there has been a steady increase in other wishes, so that you now regularly also hear:

– Καλὀ πρωϊ – kalo proee – good morning (this is different to the good morning above which is a greeting, whereas Kalo proee is said when you’re heading off and the morning is still ahead of you)

– Καλὀ μεσημἐρι – kalo mesimeri – good lunchtime (which is the period from about 2pm-5pm and takes in the siesta)

– Καλὀ απὀγεμα – kalo apogema – good afternoon (the period between about 5-9pm; different to Kalispera in the same way Kalimera and Kalo proee differ)

– Καλὀ βρἀδυ – kalo vradi – literally “good night time” but used in the sense of good evening (the period between 9 and whenever you go to bed)

– Καλὀ Σαββατοκὐριακο – kalo sabbatokiriako – good weekend

– Καλἠ εβδομἀδα – kali evdomada – good week

– Καλὀ μἠνα – kalo mina – good month

– Καλἠ χρονιἀ – kali chronia – good year

– Καλἐς γιορτἐς – kalles yiortes – literally “good holidays” used in the American sense of “seasons greetings” for either Easter or Christmas

– Καλἐς διακοπἐς – good diakopes – good holidays, in the Australian sense of good vacation

Then about seven or eight years ago I became aware of even more “good” wishes that had been added:

– Καλὀ ξημἐρωμα – good ximeroma – good day break (said the night before, either instead of or with Kalo Vradi and/or Kalinichta)

– Καλἠ ξεκοὐραση – kali xekourasi – good rest (usually said before the siesta)

Don’t you think that’s a lot of wishes? I mean, in comparison to what we say in English? And yet, on this trip I heard a new “good” wish which seems to have emerged between now and my last trip to Greece in January 2013.

People now say, Καλἠ συνἐχια – kali sinehia – good continuation.

You hear it everywhere: you’re at a shop, the teller puts through your things and wishes you a good continuation – i.e. of your shopping. Or you wish them a good continuation – of their working day. You’re travelling on a long haul coach or train, the conductor checks your ticket and then wishes you a good continuation – of your travels. Basically whenever you’re in the middle of something, any person you interact with can wish you a good continuation – of whatever it is you’re doing.

I often joke with a Greek-Australian friend who lives in Greece about all the “good” wishes that people pass on in Greece. Where will it end? we wonder. What will they come up with next?

My friend called me when I was at the first “OXI” rally about a week ago (that is, a rally supporting a ‘no’ vote in the Greek referendum held on 5 July). I told her that one of the speakers at the rally had just announced the long list of artists who would be performing at the rally concert. At the end she signed off by saying, Καλἠ συναυλἰα, καλὀ ΟΧΙ και καλἠ συνἐχια – Kali sinavlia, kalo OHI kai kali sinehia – Good concert, good ‘NO’ and good continuation.

“Did she really say “Good ‘NO’?” she asked incredulously, and we both laughed.

The next night I told the same story to another Greek-Australian friend who has lived in Greece since his teens. He also saw the funny side. As I ended the call I wished him, Καλἠ τηλεὀρασι – Kali tileorasi – good television!

I truly am amazed – sometimes hilariously so – at the way the Greek people are constantly finding new ways to wish each other well.

But how much does it say about the spirit of a people that has been going through so much hardship in the last five to eight years that they continue to find the positivity required to give these upbeat good wishes to each other?

It’s like people know that together they can give each other strength to carry on, in spite of what life is throwing at them. Every “good” wish implies that the person saying it to you cares for your wellbeing. They want life to be good for you. So they keep coming up with new and innovative ways of giving each other that strength and support.

The truth is, notwithstanding all my laughter, I actually find something profoundly beautiful and admirable in that.

Euro Visions

A few weeks ago I found myself in Copenhagen for Eurovision with my friend Rachael.

Eurovision 2014 stage in background and green room with performers in foreground

We’re both big fans of Danish TV (shows like The Killing and Borgen), and we both love Eurovision. So when Denmark won Eurovision 2013, Rachael began petitioning me and, despite having no regular employment and no idea how I’d pay for the trip, after two months of lobbying on her part I said yes.

Eurovision is much-loved in Australia. Over three nights, but especially during the Grand Final, people have Eurovision parties, compete to have their #SBSEurovision tweets appear during the telecast, and indulge in drinking games (Smoke machine? Drink! Male artist takes his shirt off? Drink!).

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - men in colourful suits

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - red and white traditional Polish design

Still from live act - stage shows words "I wanna have a moustache"

That Australians should love Eurovision so much is perfectly understandable given our European migrant history and our love of all things daggy. We love to laugh at the costumes, the props, the songs and the whole over the top aesthetic. For us Eurovision is utterly foreign and utterly hilarious.

But going to Eurovision is a very different experience from watching it on telly.

Absolutely the fun is still there: the fans who dress up, the festival atmosphere in the host city, the general excitement of an event as massive as Eurovision is (as well as the three televised finals there are another three family rehearsals and three jury finals).

Fans in Spanish and British flags

Fans in pink suits and hats.

Fans wearing sequinned clothing

Fans in red and white with drawn on beards

What is different, however, is the realisation that for the European fans, Eurovision is still an important song contest. The artists and performers are not trying to be over the top, or kitsch, or weird. That’s just how they are. And the music is the music of Europe. That’s what they listen to over there.

There are still a lot of fun elements. Interval entertainment for the last couple of years has included a comedy piece, usually the host city or nation poking fun at itself self-deprecatingly.

Ironically, given we’re a nation that loves to laugh at Europe, when the second semi final interval entertainment included a piece that poked fun at many Australian stereotypes, a lot of Australians back home cringed. “But that’s not what we’re like!” was the refrain on social media. As if the act was a serious examination of Australia’s culture and diversity. We’re always happy to laugh at Europe, it seems, but not so comfortable if Europe laughs at us.

Still from live act at interval of Eurovision 2014 semi final 2 - shows Michaelangelo's God and Adam clinking beers

You also get a far better understanding of how Europe chooses its winners when you’re there. Yes, there are a lot of politics and block voting going on in Eurovision. But countries that win rarely do so because their block voted them through. And countries that are not in blocks have won in the past, too.

Conchita Wurst, singing for Austria, was not the favourite going into the semi-finals. It wasn’t clear whether Europe was ready for a bearded drag queen diva singing a song that sounds like the theme from the next James Bond film.

Silhouette of woman on stage

As it turns out, they were. Overwhelmingly so. There is a great post on My Blue Danube that examines some of the politics behind Austria’s win.

I have now watched Conchita’s performance twice live and several times on YouTube and television, and have heard (and sung along!) with her song many times. So this is my take on Austria’s win:

Conchita gave an outstanding performance, never faltering once, with no props or dancers or musicians on stage to distract from her. Mostly standing still, her only movement was to raise her arm dramatically at the chorus.

Woman in gold dress on stage, arm extended upwards

Which brings me to the song. Let’s just recap part of the lyrics:

Waking in the rubble

Walking over glass

Neighbors say we’re trouble

Well that time has passed



You wouldn’t know me at all today

From the fading light I fly


Rise like a phoenix

Out of the ashes

Seeking rather than vengeance

Retribution

You were warned

Once I’m transformed

Once I’m reborn

You know I will rise like a phoenix


Conchita sang this song for all the LGBTI men and women like her who had been put down in life and told they weren’t normal. The people who believe, as she said in her winner’s speech, in peace and freedom. In unity.

But the song is bigger than one individual. As she sang, all underdogs saw themselves in Conchita’s song. And that included European underdog nations who are waiting to rise like a phoenix from the economic ashes they find themselves in.

How else to explain why Spain, Italy and Greece – known more for their macho, if not entirely homophobic, culture – all gave Austria 12 points?

Conchita Wurst singing for Austria captured the zeitgeist.

The voting score board at Eurovision 2014 and a woman wearing a fake beard on screen

Many of the fans we met at Eurovision asked us if this was “our first Eurovision”; they had all been to several. I can understand the addiction, though of course it’s much easier when you don’t have to travel from the other side of the world to get there.

I found Eurovision exhilarating but exhausting, too. Going to all three televised shows was pretty full-on.

On the other hand, now that I’m home and some time has past, I find myself thinking about Eurovision 2015. After all, I’ve always wanted to see Vienna….!

Rachael???

Chance Encounters of the Inspiring Kind

Remember the movie Sliding Doors? It centred on the idea that a tiny difference in timing could be life-changing. Someone who changes your life and becomes a central figure in it, could be someone who, but for a few seconds, you might have missed completely. Make the train and meet them, or miss the train and miss out.

In terms of this sort of thing playing out in my own life, I can only really think of one example on a similar scale. When I was travelling to Positano in 2007 it was by sheer luck that I shared the bus into town from Sorrento with a woman named Donna, who was from the States. Not only did Donna help me get off at the right bus stop but her warm, friendly nature broke through my natural barrier of introverted shyness and we went on to form a friendship on that trip that is still going strong seven years later. In fact, it was with Donna that I travelled to Spain early last year.

I’m also very aware that tiny little examples of the Sliding Doors scenario (for want of a better description) are happening all the time.

There has been a remarkable number of interactions, conversations or simply things I’ve seen while walking down the street, stuck in traffic, or sitting on a train that have stayed with me for a long time because they moved me, or taught me something, or simply reminded me of the joyful, simple beauty of life.

Things I would’ve missed if I’d walked on the other side of the street, made the green light, or caught an earlier or later train.

It could be a conversation overheard on the train between two friends. Or a look exchanged between a dog and their walker.

The young man I met on the street late last year, who’d sung to me so unexpectedly and so beautifully, was a recent example.

And this morning it happened again. I was in the car for five minutes driving from the local shopping centre back to my house and I happened to have the radio on, tuned to 3RRR. “Aural Text” was on, a show dedicated to all things literary.

One of the presenters mentioned a spoken word artist, the poet Maggie Estep, who had recently died at age 50, and then played two pieces by her: “I’m an Emotional Idiot” and “Happy”.

The poems spoke to me. They were witty, clever and ironic. They made me laugh at the same time that I was nodding my head in recognition. I know people that are like that, I thought. Hell, at times I have been like that! As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

I had to know more. When I got home I Googled Maggie Estep and found her obituary, first, and then her blog. I looked her up on YouTube and found her there, too. I found her fascinating: a very intelligent writer who’d led a hugely interesting, albeit short, life. I can’t wait to discover more of her work.

What kills me is that a number of random factors had to be synchronised for me to not only hear about Maggie Estep but to hear her performing her poetry on the radio. I’d been delayed at the shops because I’d decided to shop for a gift – I had originally only planned to pick up some groceries. I had ummed and aahed over what I bought for a few minutes and the saleswoman had struggled for a few minutes with wrapping the gift for me (the ribbon wasn’t behaving itself).

Had I not been delayed to the extent that I was, I would’ve been in the car at least five minutes earlier and missed the whole thing. But as it turned out, everything synchronised perfectly, and I was introduced to this incredible artist whose work I find exhilarating and inspirational.

I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if I’d tried.

Postscript on an Artist

“The Web does not just connect machines, it connects people.” – Tim Berners-Lee

Some months ago I wrote a post on the artist’s voice which mentioned two women that had inspired me: blogger Vy Chazen, and artist Joyce Meier.

Vy follows my blog (as I do hers) and commented on my post almost straight away. I never expected to hear from Joyce Meier, however, as I’d only read about her online.

So you can imagine what a very big and pleasant surprise it was when her daughter, Sue Lovitt, contacted me a couple of weeks ago after coming across my blog.

We corresponded very briefly by email. I was incredibly touched to learn that Sue had read to Joyce what I’d written about her.

Sue also told me that as a result of the article in The Age, the Bridget McDonnell Gallery in Carlton would be holding a solo exhibition for Joyce Meier and she invited me along to the opening, which was on Sunday, 10 November. After participating in many, many group exhibitions, this was to be Joyce’s first solo show… at age 96!

At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it. 10 November is the date my father passed away and I wasn’t sure that I should be out and about on the anniversary of his passing. But as the day drew closer I knew I would always regret not going and missing out on the opportunity to meet both Joyce and Sue.

And so I went. The gallery, in an old, narrow, multi-story, building in Carlton, was absolutely packed. Despite the crowd I immediately spotted Joyce, seated and looking radiant, and standing next to her, her daughter Sue. Both were beaming with pride.

I introduced myself to Sue and she warmly clasped my hand and told Joyce who I was. Joyce looked up at me and said, “Well, what do you know!” I could’ve fainted with delight.

As so many of Joyce’s paintings depict children (either as part of broader scenes of everyday life, or as groups playing traditional games), June Factor, author of many children’s books and researcher of children’s play and folklore, was invited to open the exhibition.

June spoke about Joyce’s life and about her art, noting that overwhelmingly Joyce’s art displays a “warm and affectionate embrace” of everyday life.

I couldn’t agree more. As someone who loves writing about the common place and the everyday, what I especially loved about Joyce Meier’s work is her eye for the small details of life. The arch of a back, just so, in The Doorway, capturing perfectly the body of a young girl straining to see. Or the dogs saying a tentative hello to each other in the foreground of Winter, Powlett Reserve.

Painting depicting five young girls, four of whom are standing at a doorway, looking in, their backs to the viewer

Many of the paintings in the exhibition were large group scenes but there were also portraits that captured intimately the relevant detail of their sitter. The focussed, deeply engrossed face of The Surgeon, Atherton, for example.

portrait of a man in military uniform (bust size)

While the portraits are characterised, as most portraits are, by their stillness, the group scenes are mostly action shots: beautifully capturing the movement of life. There is the playful movement of children jumping under a skipping rope, climbing a tree, contesting a mark in a game of football or riding their bicycles. But there is also agitated, urgent movement, most evident in the rally captured in Study for Confrontation and in Confrontation itself.

painting depicting a rally with protestors in foreground waving banner, and police on horses in the background

Joyce Meier is an artist who has loved both the movement and the stillness of life and has painted with her love on her sleeve.

Eventually it was time to go, though not without asking first if I could get a photo with Sue and Joyce, who gratefully obliged me. My friend Joi at the ready with my camera, the photos were taken.

When I look at these photos now I can’t help but think I look a little starstruck. Which is fair enough, too. To be honest, I still can’t believe my luck, to write about an artist who inspires me, and through that writing meet her.

Onesie is the loneliest number*

This afternoon I visited a friend of mine who has just had a baby. With big puffy cheeks and an itty bitty nose, little ‘M’ is cuter than cute; you can’t help but smile when you look at her.

Like so many other Australian newborns, ‘M’ was wearing a Bonds wondersuit. Her mother extolled the virtues of the all-in-one and we agreed it was the perfect outfit for newborn bubs.

Let me just repeat that: all-in-ones are perfect for newborn babies.

On the other hand, what’s with all-in-ones for adults???

I like to think I’m pretty hip and down with the latest trends. Even if I don’t participate, I like to think I understand them. But I’m struggling with the onesie phenomenon.

I’d heard about onesies being worn by young celebrities and knew they were out there. I didn’t take it particularly seriously, though. Despite the local shopping centre’s Two Dollar shop stocking a rack of animal onesies, I hadn’t actually ever seen an adult wearing one during the day or in the evening. Surely, it can’t be that popular a fad, I reasoned.

Then a few days ago I saw a fully grown woman walking down one of the main roads of my suburb in a leopard onesie. In broad daylight. With other people around.

She would’ve been around 20 years old. She was slightly overweight, her shoulders were stooped, she had a backpack on and she was very focussed on the footpath in front of her, not really looking up at all. Maybe that was because of low self esteem; she certainly didn’t come across as an individual full of confidence. Or maybe she just didn’t want to see the expressions on the faces of the people who were looking at her, because if everyone reacted like I did (mouth open, staring wide eyed), it would be a bit disconcerting, I’m sure.
adults in different animal all in one costumes with banner that reads "Pants suck. Get a onesie."A few weeks ago, there was an article in The Age that suggested that the animal onesie phenomenon was basically Generation Y’s cry for help. An ironic statement of the frustration felt by 20 year olds who can’t afford to move out of home and be an adult and are thus choosing to wear outfits that, as I’ve said above, are really the domain of the baby.

I get that, but I can’t help think the animal onesie is about far more. I agree for a handful, it’s an ironic statement. I can also imagine that for those young girls who wear onesies with high heels to nightclubs or parties, it’s another manifestation of the sexualisation of childhood and – in reverse – the infantilisation of adult women’s sexuality.

In the Daily Telegraph’s “Crime or Cool?” review (for God’s sake, “crime!!!!”), the ‘yes’ argument is that it’s a playful fashion item. In other words, an extreme variation of dressing up as the sexy school girl, or the sexy little playbunny. (By the way, it’s worth reading the ‘no’ argument by Kerry Parnell, which more or less sums up my feelings.)

Then there is the girl walking down the main street of an ordinary Melbourne suburb dressed like a leopard, with her shoulders stooped and her head down, unable to meet the gaze of the other people on the street. I can’t help but think that for her, and young people like her, the animal onesie is an expression of her complete and total divorce from the reality of life around her. If you don’t fit in with society and it refuses to accept you as you are, forget wearing your feelings on your sleeve. With the animal onesie you can wear a whole outfit that expresses your feelings and allows you to retreat from the society that you don’t feel a part of.

These young adults turn society’s rejection on its head. After all, you can’t be hurt by something you’ve rejected, or so we like to think. “I’m a leopard!” these outfits seem to scream. “I belong somewhere far more exotic where people appreciate me! I know I don’t belong here and you can’t hurt me!”

On the one hand, you could see it as being about empowerment and taking control. On the other hand, I find it incredibly sad that you could feel so rejected as a young adult that you would retreat so dramatically from reality as to wear a child’s animal outfit out in public.

Having said that, it’s not all bad news. In my day, you wouldn’t be caught dead in an animal onesie in public (unless you were on your way to a fancy dress party). You would’ve been ridiculed at best, violently abused at worst.

It says a lot about the tolerant nature of today’s society that the animal onesie generation feels comfortable enough to walk around like that in broad daylight. We may stare wide eyed and open mouthed, but perhaps we’re a far more accepting lot after all.

* With apologies to Harry Nilsson.

Boogie Fever

“Dance is the body at its maximum.” – George Balanchine

Before I started writing compulsively, before I wanted to be a paperback writer, there was dance. Dance was my first love.

I was about five or six when my mum took me along to ballet classes. I was enthralled. It was like learning a secret language that your entire body could speak. It totally captured my imagination.

young girl in bright blue leotard and headband posing with arms out

I can’t tell you how long I attended but I know it wasn’t too long. We moved house to a suburb far away and I was so shy that the idea of having to make new friends not only at school but also at ballet terrified me. When Mum asked me if I wanted to take it up again in our new suburb I said no.

It wasn’t the end of dance in my life though. I was already growing up with dance in my home. My parents had music on all the time and it was not unusual for us to break into dance – whether Greek or otherwise – at any point in the day. My mum could be cooking and a song would come on and she’d down tools and start dancing, grabbing me along the way. Dad was the same.

I absolutely adored musicals, not for the singing but for the dancing. Gene Kelly was the love of my life; I was sure I was going to marry him when I grew up. Singin’ in the Rain was my favourite film until I was in my early 20s and it’s still in my top five. It’s funny, it’s romantic and the dancing is spectacular.

Movie poster from the film Singin in the Rain - two men and a woman in yellow mackintosh raincoats and with umbrellas

These days I listen to a lot of music and no matter what I’m listening to and where I am, I’ll dance. I often dance around the house with the music blaring when I’m cleaning, cooking or even ironing. If I’m in my car, my fingers will tap, my head will nod. I just can’t help it.

I hang out for opportunities to dance with friends and family, be they New Year’s Eve parties, weddings, milestone birthdays or anything else.

One of my favourite TV shows is So You Think You Can Dance. What I love about it is that it exemplifies, in popular format, but not without art and grace, the power of dance to tell a story or express emotion, whether sorrow, passion or pure joy. And the dancers themselves inspire me. Dancers are everything you admire about elite athletes but with art thrown in.

As with other TV talent shows there is always the possibility of an unforgettable moment on each episode. The first one that really took my breath away was a short jazz routine of exquisite artistry choreographed by Wade Robson in Season 3. Two amateur dancers symbolising a hummingbird and a flower dance to perfect music in a piece that both delighted and moved me. Since then I have been delighted and moved many, many times.

The joy of dance can be contagious. One of my favourite clips on YouTube is the Sound of Music mob dance that was performed at Antwerp Central Station in 2009. The expressions on the faces of the onlookers are priceless, as is the reaction of some people who, despite not actually being part of the organised ‘mob’, begin to dance along as well. Dance is like that. It draws you in.

(And if you have any doubts about whether dance can make you laugh, check out the “Stavros Flatley” routine from a past series of Britain’s Got Talent.)

The other day I was stopped at lights in my car. Across the road from me a young man in a t-shirt, shorts and runners was waiting to cross. He had his headphones on and was dancing as he waited – and I don’t just mean nodding his head or swaying his hips a little. I’m talking about full on, out there dancing. He was clearly in a disco wonderland of one, clearly not self-conscious and utterly oblivious to anyone else around him.

I couldn’t help but smile as I caught his very obvious joy. I turned to see if the driver in the car next to me had also noticed him but the young woman I saw at the steering wheel was in her own disco wonderland, not only singing along to whatever music she was listening to but also swaying her head vigorously and gesturing with her hands in what I can only describe as a Saturday Night Fever way.

What can I say? I turned the music up loud and began to dance. Boogie fever had a hold on me.

Man in white suit on dance floor striking dance pose