Much “Achtung!” about nothing. Episode 2

Leaving the Dead Heart Behind.

“The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror.”

-Hans-Georg Gadamer

In hindsight, it may have been sheer desperation that drove me into Germany’s corpulent embrace. The will to survive drove me to end our turbulent and damaging relationship eight years later.

I had applied for jobs in France, Spain, Latin America and Asia. I thirsted for adventure. I dreamed of interesting and fulfilling work in unusual – maybe even slightly dangerous – locations, where dusky women with voices like opium smoke haunted the shadows by day and at sunset emerged to drink and dance the humid, fragrant evenings away. I saw myself leaving behind the stifling constraints of Australia’ protestant Victorian society, in which I felt I had lived for too long. The big English-speaking global hubs – New York, London – didn’t hold a great deal of allure for me.

I wanted to go somewhere that was off the usual maps, some exotic backwater where just getting a newspaper out or a radio program to air was an adventure. Ernest Hemingway or Hunter S Thompson type stuff. Yet my hundreds of application letters to Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Portugal, France, Fiji, Spain, Sri Lanka, the Scilly Isles, Vietnam and Vanuatu seemed to have vanished, gone to the bottom of the sea in ill-fated ships, or charred into delicate black fragments in the incinerated carcasses of planes lost in obscure mountain ranges. The response to so many thousands of words on so many hundreds of A4 pages was a deafening silence.

I had been working on a News Ltd paper in Alice Springs, which was widely known by its rather unflattering nickname, the Certainly Inadequate. It was my first full time gig in journalism, and after nearly a year there, I was desperate to get out. Ironically, to many people who had blown in from elsewhere to work in Alice Springs, ‘The Alice’ was the exotic adventure they had dreamed of.

Alice Springs. A desert for the wandering soul.

After three months on the Inadequate, the town’s Aboriginal population threw stones at me as I rode along the banks of the Todd River on my way to my desk, already wet with sweat though the shadows were still long. With each edition I dreaded seeing what the misanthropic chief sub-editor had made out of my words before the pages hit the presses. It was my name at the bottom of the article that criticised a program to help petrol sniffers out of the habit as nothing more than a waste of taxpayer funds. There were snatches of my original writing, but the piece had been changed and twisted to the extent that sometimes my work was barely recognisable. It was my byline on the article beneath the photograph of someone’s dead relatives. It was my name on the piece which included the name of the deceased. (Aboriginal culture prohibits the depiction of the dead or the use of their names).

People in shops refused to serve me. My byline was on the article with the photo caption that misspelled their names, or the article that misattributed their quotes or had words coming out of their mouths that were the exact opposite of what they’d really said. After six months there I was punching out three job applications a week. By the time I left it was five a week. In the Dead Heart no-one can hear you scream.

I quit the job in Alice and was preparing to return to Sydney with no prospects lined up, just a feeling of relief to be leaving the dead-end that was Central Australia.

I was wrestling with half an acre of bubble-wrap to make ready for the removalists the 1960s gooseneck lamp with the anodised shades, which I had bought at Central Second Hand in Todd Street, when the phone rang. I had no idea that that phone call on my last day in the Alice would be the start of a journey from the Dead Heart of Australia to the Dying Heart of Europe.

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