A Boy, a Preacher, and a Wizard.

I remember 1997 well. It was the year that the Ricky Martin phenomenon hit the rural Victorian town of Echuca. The girls at my high school were losing their minds over how hot he was. Little did they know that they were wasting their time. It was the year, too, in which I fully committed myself to a life of music. My drum teacher reckoned I ‘had what it takes’ to make it as a pro, and this was all the prophetic input I needed to chart out the course of my life. But 1997 was also the year of religious enlightenment, for it was in this year that I finally conceded that the Church had more than its fair share of nut-jobs (myself included). There were plenty of warning signs, mind you. But this particular Sunday in February was to take the cake for weirdness.

I remember that Dad was preaching his usual kind of sermon. During this phase in his ministerial career, he seemed to be focussed on the Old Testament. Although I can’t remember exactly what the theme was that day, it was probably something to do with ‘the principles of living in God’s Kingdom’ (a favourite theme of his at the time). He was even harping on about this stuff up home. My Brother and I couldn’t commit any minor misdemeanour without Dad reminding us that we were failing to live up to the ‘principles of God’s kingdom.’ Of course, very few people know exactly what God’s kingdom is. Even Jesus never specifically told anyone. But Dad knew, and apparently, it was related to combatting insubordinate behaviour from one’s sons.

Whatever the topic was that day didn’t matter to me one iota. You see, I happened to be in love with Melissa, and she was sitting a few rows over from me. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her. We had recently shared our first kiss in the back of the youth van on our way back to Echuca after an underwhelming Christian concert in Melbourne. After going in for the kill I was surprised and relieved to find her kissing me back with just as much passion. I felt bad for Marie who was sitting next to us, but what can you do? It was young love and by the time we got dropped of home our relationship status had become ‘official.’ Since that time things had progressed nicely, although the constant intrusions of our parents were a real thorn in our sides. We had taken to going for long outdoor ‘walks’ by the Murray River to get our desired alone time.

Anyway, as I glanced sideways at Melissa on this warm Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I would like to do with her (within the sanctity of marriage of course.). She was responding to my borderline psychotic glare by giving me this cheeky scolding look as if to say that she loved the attention but was also aware of where we were. She was killing me softly just by looking at me. I was utterly transfixed; a teenage boy reduced to a pathetic entanglement of nervousness and infatuation. Even writing this makes me feel awkward, and I kind of feel like I want to punch my teenage self in the face and tell him to stop being so nauseating. But such was the depth of our longing, which we were sure was going to last forever. Nothing could break the spell of our love (note: she left me a few months later), and I planned on gazing at Melissa adoringly until the service ended. These plans, however, were rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Wizard and his family of freaks.

chase-clark-HKKM537I_Ik-unsplashI say Wizard more as a visual reference point than a vocational reality. His long, thin, wispy beard reached down just above his slightly protruding stomach. It was grey, with flecks of brown hair dotted throughout. He was wearing a matching sports tracksuit that looked old and tattered. But what I remember most was his eyes. They were the eyes of a sneaky, wily, and potentially dangerous individual. They kept darting around the room, sussing it out for any potential threats or opportunities. There was a cold and calculating shrewdness in them that immediately raised the hair on my arms. His menacing disposition was complemented by the corner of his mouth, which was turned slightly upward in a faint smirk. If the Norse God Loki was amongst us in physical form, I can imagine him looking exactly like this guy (minus the tracksuit, perhaps).

Although I sensed trouble, I contented myself with just keeping an eye on him. If possible, I wanted to pre-empt some sort of attack that he might unleash. Perhaps he had explosives strapped to his torso? Maybe he had a syringe loaded with some sort of contagious virus? It pays to be prepared for every scenario. As I watched, however, I noticed that he seemed focussed on listening to the sermon with an intensity that would make even the most devout of believers envious. The Wizard rocked back and forth in his pew, with each vocal crescendo of my Dad’s sermon elevating his enthusiasm to a fever pitch. He started dripping sweat, although at least part of this because the Church was located in a stifling former school demountable. Whatever the cause, the sweat accentuated the manic quality of this random visitor and made me even more worried.

In turned out that these fears were well and truly justified. Arriving at the central point of his sermon, my Dad implored the congregation to follow the precedent of Scripture and apply it to our own lives. Without further encouragement, the Wizard stood up unannounced and proclaimed to the entire congregation that he would do exactly what the sermon said. Now, this might sound all well and good, but one got the sense that the reason for this public display was motivated less by a passionate response to the Lord and more by the desire to be seen and heard. The Wizard gazed intently around the room as he made his statement of conviction, almost challenging us to some sort of fight. Once his eyes had completed their 360- degree survey of the congregation they returned to focus solely on my Dad.

Dad, to his credit, took the interruption in his stride. He calmly reassured the Wizard that he would chat with him more about the sermon after the service. He probably assumed that the Wizard was merely caught up in a moment of religious zealotry and would settle back down in his seat like everyone else. This particular Pentecostal church was known for its public outbursts of spiritual adoration, to say nothing of the random outbursts of flatulence from one particular member whom, it was said, had endured a brain injury in childhood. Yet if my Dad sensed that his corrective to the Wizard was the end of it, he was very wrong. Offended by what he interpreted as my Dad’s rebuke, the Wizard struck back in a tone revealing his combative intentions: “But Pastor, I want to talk about it NOW!”

Not one to back away from a confrontation, my Dad stood his ground. “Please sit down and wait until after the service. We will talk more then.” His tone was polite but firm and conveyed a sense that this was a non-negotiable point. This was all the impetus needed for the Wizard to reveal his true purpose. To the shock of the gathered faithful, the Wizard arrogantly strode toward the front of the church, yanked the microphone from my Dad’s hands, and whacked him on the top of the head with it. This was done with considerable force. Dad was knocked out cold, and it is to my lasting shame that I confess I found this image mildly amusing. It’s not every day in which you get to see your own father temporarily unconscious in church due to the actions of a visiting Wizard.

Instead of calling the ambulance, the congregation saw it fit to host a prayer meeting in which we prayed for my Dad’s speedy recovery. This was led by a more conservative member of the congregation who, despite her fundamentalism, really enjoyed the glam rockers Poison (she once told me that the tune Fallen Angel summed up her life prior to conversion). Another strapping gent from the gathering took the microphone (which still worked) and proclaimed to all and sundry that we had just witnessed an attack of the devil. The threat of coming under demonic attack spurned an even more vigorous prayer circle.

This divine supplication must have worked, as after a few moments Dad came to and sat upright. Bewildered, he smoothed his ruffled hair and laughed the incident off. Meanwhile, the Wizard had gathered his family together and forced them outside the church building and into the family car. Here he proceeded to do donuts in the parking lot while laughing and shouting maniacally about something understood by no one but himself. Eventually, he drove off down the street never to be seen or heard of again, except in the faithful retelling of this story at family get-togethers where it has become the stuff of legend.






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Kilkenny Trains

Dad used to walk me to the train line near Kilkenny station in suburban Adelaide when he felt like a bit of train-spotting. The station was a short walk from my Grandparent’s house, where my Dad spent his boyhood years. I guess these walks were nostalgic for him, but for me, the late afternoon trains rolling in and out of this lonely and neglected station transfixed my imagination.

Then-as now- the station wedges itself in the middle of rundown industrial buildings. Graffiti lines the brick walls, the windows have been smashed out, and the usual debris 70680206_10218760734542412_2286841811903184896_nof squatters and discarded construction materials litter the earth. These remnants of a more prosperous age create an isolated and faintly foreboding atmosphere at the station, despite the major road that cuts through the track just beyond the end of the platform. Positioning ourselves just past the station and away from the city, we would stand alongside the track in the twilight glow. Often Dad would bring my Grandpa’s old video camera to immortalise the moment for posterity. It was one of those 1980s models that had a large microphone attached to the top of it. Cumbersome, inconvenient but cutting-edge technology in those days.

As the trains turned the corner in the far distance, Dad would put his hand on my shoulder and guide my attention toward the faintly approaching light of the first carriage. “That’ll be the 4:44 pm,” he would say. “It’s running a bit late.” As I turned my gaze to the oncoming light, I would find myself stuck in a sort of trance. The approaching noise and light contrasted with the silent calm of our position alongside the track. The impending meeting of the worlds of silence and noise more exciting to me than a feature film.

As the train belted past, I would close my eyes and bask in the rush of air as it blew across my face. Then, just as soon as the last carriage passed, I would turn around and watch it retreat into the distance. The soft glow of its fading light and gentle rattle of  carriages whispered their goodbyes for another day.


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Grandpa’s House

As I opened the back door to the house, a rushing blast of pent-up air hit me squarely in the face like the onslaught of a summertime northerly. It was as if years of accumulated stuffiness had been expecting this very moment, longing to set itself free from its black confines. In reality, the house had only been unoccupied for a few months or so since my Grandfather died.

I say house, but it was really like a Fort Knox; locks on every window as well as those roller shutter things that blocked out the apparent curse of natural light. Just to get to the back yard required a set of keys to unlock to the garage, and then there was another couple of extra keys required for the deadlocks. For this reason, it made no sense for me to feel that there was danger lurking inside. It would have been nigh on impossible for anyone to break in, yet in these early Saturday morning hours I was convinced that something sinister lie in wait.

I had been in Adelaide on tour.  Instead of crashing with the band after the show, I had asked my Dad if I could stay and Grandpa’s house. It would be nice, I thought, to have a break from the endless drinking and fart jokes. I also wanted to visit the house one last time before it was sold. Grandpa was the last of my Dad’s parents to pass away, and with this loss came the end of an era in my family. I have fond memories of our family making the pilgrimage from rural Victoria across to Adelaide during the school holidays. During these visits, we would stay and Grandpa’s place. My brother and I would share the same bedroom that my Dad and his brother slept in when they were kids. I can still picture this room clearly in my mind: two single beds with brown quilts, and old organ and a row of books including various editions of the Guinness Book of Records. The cupboards in the room towered all the way to the ceiling, hiding whatever secrets they contained beyond the reach of a mere child.

My Grandpa and I did not particularly get along. I think he found me weird, as I indeed was (and am). For my part, I found him confusing. At times he could be sentimental and warm, on other occasions he appeared reserved and faintly mocking. I remember one time he observed my (admittedly terrible) heavy metal outfit and stated that I was “a real weird one.” I shrugged my shoulders and walked off, not knowing how to properly respond. Yet there were times he was capable of kindness. From the vantage point of his off-peach colour reclining chair, he would observe the family, slightly tear up, and comment that he loved having us all around him. I was a part of that feeling, I liked to think. Given my mixed feelings toward my Grandpa, I was surprised to find myself bursting into tears at his funeral. As he was lowered into the ground, I remember thinking that we hadn’t simply lost a family member, but that what had ended was a small piece of our collective memory. There would be no new stories about my Grandpa which we accumulate in the coming years. As a family, were now confined to conjuring up the past through wandering anecdotes and fragments of fading memories.

Perhaps this is why I felt so strange stepping foot into the empty house. I couldn’t associate this place with anything other than my Grandpa, and to enter his sacred enclave after his passing felt like some sort of criminal activity. I didn’t want to touch anything, because I wanted it to remain exactly as it was in my memory. Yet it was not all just projection, I am sure of that. Some energy that didn’t want me there either. I was intruding in a space that should have been left in peace. This energy made itself known to me via a cold shiver as I attempted to orient myself in this familiar yet new environment.

mainI walked into the living area felt around for the light switches, hoping that the light would instantly dismiss the eeriness. Yet when I turned them on it just made things more surreal. The lights were dim and served only to illuminate my sense of aloneness in the house. I had started to wish I stayed with the band. I decided to walk throughout each room and switch on every single light in the house. Grandpa would have hated that, but I wasn’t doing it to spite him. I needed to convince myself I was alone. As I stepped throughout the house, I saw ghosts of years past. On the far side of the otherwise empty kitchen stood my Grandma, mixing her horrible green sludge health drink. I had flashbacks of my brother playing the old organ and serenading the family with awful but hysterically funny original compositions. Then there was the time that my Mum had a run-in with Grandma in the hallway over whether Adelaide or Victoria were the rightful heirs of the Grand Prix. I looked in the pantry, too, so often the scene of my ravenous scavenging. To my surprise, there were still some items left in it- remnants of Grandpa’s time spent here alone before he passed away.

It was late and I was tired, so I soon went to bed in my Grandpa’s old room. I don’t know why I chose it. It was a bad idea. It would have been much better to choose the old room my brother and I shared. I reasoned that as the front door to the house was immediately next to my Grandpa’s room, I could escape quickly if anything happened to me. This false sense of security did not help me sleep. I tossed and turned for the remainder of the evening, alternating between periods of intense cold and clammy sweat. Sooner or later I must have succumbed to sleep because the fear subsided, and the next thing I knew I was witnessing the rising of the morning sun.

As I prepared to leave on that day it dawned on me that I would never see Grandpa’s house again. It was due to be sold soon, and I did not doubt that the new owners would spruik the place up. Even if I was to return one day, it would never again be as I remembered. As I walked through the various rooms one last time, I knew that this was my only direct line to my Grandpa. When I stepped out of the house and onto the street, I knew that my Grandpa would also become an abstraction, someone to be revealed to me only through the stories of others and my faint memories. This made me sad.


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Small Moments in Love #3

The paths we walked became sacred to me, but like all things beautiful the memory is laced with pain.

The moments we shared- nothing more than tiny windows in time really- was mostly spent walking together.  These were occasions that allowed us the momentary chance to dream. Extracted from the complexities of the rest of our lives, these walks provided space to imagine the future. There was no clear destination in mind on these adventures- an apt metaphor perhaps for our drifting yet intoxicating bond. Mostly we would end up in the city after navigating some course through the suburban backstreets.

As we walked we talked about plans. She wanted a house with a white picket fence- in this, she was firm an irresolute. “With me?” I once asked as suspicion grew within me that I might have been an accidental character in her fairy tale.

“Of course my darling! Who else!” she replied.

“What else do you want?” I asked.

She responded with growing excitement. “Well, not much really. Just a house by the water, a family and lot’s of money so I can travel.”

“You want to travel with me, right?”

I had asked a stupid question, apparently. “Stop being so silly,” she said sarcastically. “Of course with you.”

We continued on. She was beautiful and I wanted to be around her.

I knew she was just trying to make me feel good. I grew increasingly sombre, as I too joined in the illusion that everything would work out as we planned.  This was in spite of a gnawing realisation that everything we were experiencing would soon end. I held her hand, telling myself that in so doing we would be bound together somehow. She gripped my hand in return and everything seemed OK for a while.

The twilight hours would eventually descend, and the sun would retreat so that it could commence its shift on the other side of the world. We hurried our pace, not wanting to be caught in the darkness. Once in the city, I would drop her at the train station. She always needed to leave by sundown. One day she left for good. I returned to walk the path home alone.





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An Afternoon BMX Adventure


My BMX had white tires. It was a cheap knock-off brand from K-Mart, but I rode the life out of it. I had initially wanted something cooler like a Mongoose, but I knew I this was a pipe dream fuelled by watching the movie BMX bandits. My family had little money for such indulgences. In those childhood years I took what I could get, and what I got one birthday year was a functional yet basic BMX. Despite its lowly status, my BMX did everything I needed it too and I was thankful.

I made custom modifications to my BMX, as boys often like to do with their machinery. The trend in the early 90s was to use Spokey Dokeys. Spokey Dokeys were coloured plastic beads that you would clip on the wheels. As you pedalled they would move up and down, making a pleasing clickety-clack sound. I used to pretend that it sounded like an actual motorbike, until the day my friend Shane showed me an even cooler modification: using a clothes peg, you attached a little piece of cardboard to the wheel so that it would flutter in between the spokes as you pedalled. This was advanced BMX modifications 101. It sounded a lot more like a motor than the Spokey Dokeys.


Part of the thrill of riding a BMX is to ride as part of a gang. My own BMX gang roamed the streets of rural Warragul in a spirit of adventure which had no clear goal in mind.  A motley gathering of about five misfits, after school we would grab our bikes and head off to different locations around town in search of intrigue. Favourite destinations were the Kiah Park nature reserve, the so-called snake-pit off Edinburgh St and the creepy cult house up towards the local cemetery. This house has remained the same in the decades since- a two-story wooden building which one can barely glimpse due to the dense foliage and trees blocking passing views. To be fair, it was not verified fact that the occupants (who no-one ever saw) were part of a cult, but it sure seemed that way. Either that or they were serial killers.


My own true love, however, was to get away on my own.

On the occasional weekend, I would take my BMX out for little road trips. With my trusty backpack, I would take my snacks (mostly a cheese and Vegemite sandwich and piece of fruit) and head out into the countryside to see what I could find. Most of the time these were uneventful, but I found them therapeutic. I loved the feeling of endless open space. As I built up my confidence I would travel a little further each time, gradually pushing the geographical boundaries of what I and my BMX were capable of. This all took place in the days before everyone was paranoid about everyone else being a dangerous criminal, and so my parents were relatively carefree about my pilgrimages to various outposts surrounding Warragul.

A favourite trip was to ride through a local park where the town council kept an old steam locomotive as a testament to a bygone industrial era. Once there I would crawl all over the locomotive and examine every square inch of this strange beast. I travelled to this site just last year and the locomotive has since been removed. I felt a sadness wash over me looking at the bland strip of grass where the locomotive used to sit. Must everything be a war on history?


There was this one time I got real adventurous: I decided to ride my BMX along Brandy Creek Road for as far as I could before I got scared. I was headed nowhere in particular, IMG_0117-600x340but I harboured a secret ambition to one day ride as far as Rokeby- a tiny farming town about fifteen minutes drive down the road. At Rokeby I could have parked my BMX
alongside the lake and skimmed some rocks. But it wasn’t to be. 
On this day I only got as far as the driveway to Mary Seabrook’s house, which was only a kilometre or so outside Warragul. I got increasingly worried that I was going too far and that I might be kidnapped or run over. The noise of the cars as they approached behind me was mildly terrifying. I didn’t trust drivers. 

It was near the letterbox to the Seabrook’s that I decided to park my BMX. I sat and watched the wheels turn as they slowed down to their resting position. I glanced over toward the Seabrook’s house, which stood at the end of a long driveway. It was a solitary, melancholy house that sat perched on a hill overlooking the countryside. Mary’s husband shot himself in the chest with a shotgun some years before, and I wondered if this gruesome act took place on the property. Perhaps it was haunted. What would it be like to explore this location at night time?

I ate my sandwich as I observed the mountains surrounding the town. In the distance, I could see the towering pinnacle of Mount Worth. I noticed that it was covered in trees. In fact, the whole panorama before me was so very green- the depth of which I have not seen since. It had been a sunny day but there was a crisp, fresh breeze building by the late afternoon.  As I sat I closed my eyes and felt the wind blowing across my face. I imagined I was the captain of a ship and was on a daring sea voyage. It was a nice feeling.


After some time I gathered my backpack and prepared myself for the return journey. The shadows were growing long in the late afternoon sun. I loved this time of day precisely because it frightened me. The shadows signalled danger, and my mission now was to keep myself moving ahead of the encroaching darkness before anything bad happened to me. It was a manufactured sense of impending doom of course, but the strange tingling sensation felt good throughout my body.

As the darkness grew, the headlights of the cars behind me shone ominously over my BMX as they overtook me furiously pedalling along the side of the road. I felt like I was in the spotlight of some interrogation, except I couldn’t defend myself because I couldn’t see exactly who was advancing on me. All I knew is that I had to pedal faster and faster. Eventually I caught sight of the lights of the local Milk Bar around the corner ahead. I knew once I got there I would be safe. From there it was not too far to my house, and the streets from that point on were all lined with homes with their lights on.


I made it home safely and rejoined the noise and clamour of my family. My BMX was stored safely in the empty space under our house, where it would endure the stuffy darkness until the next afternoon’s adventure. Despite walking into a flurry of family activity, I was still imagining myself out by the Seabrook’s letterbox, planning future trips to the faraway vistas I had observed that afternoon. I had done well to make it as far as I had, but I promised myself that next time I would go even further.



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Portrait of an Anxious Mind

I realised I had been on the same webpage just 1 hour before. It was 2am and my panic resulted in another bout of sleeplessness, so I had been indulging in a favourite pastime: googling my headache symptoms in a subconscious attempt to prove to myself I was about to die.

I didn’t really want to die, did I? Perhaps it was better than this? Why was I so anxious about dying anyway? Perhaps it was because I knew I was going to hell?

I had been scrolling through various health and medical websites for the past 3 hours, trying to find something to would convince me things were not that bad. I doubled back on WebMD for the second occasion, thinking that I might have missed something the first time around. When I first loaded Dr. Google I was content to merely list my symptoms- right side headache, head pressure, dizziness, stiff neck …ad nauseam. This repetitive action brought up a staggering array of results, each of which informed me that I was about to die. I could feel my stomach twist and turn in a familiar yet still unwelcome knot of fear.

My wife suddenly turned in her sleep. She murmured something and then resumed her bliss. I was jealous. 

I kept going with the checking, convinced that somehow the information online would make me feel better. I then remembered something: I could put quotation marks around a search term to pull up results that contained that exact phrase. The Lord was indeed shining his light on me. I set about this new task with the eagerness of an apprentice determined to prove himself to his master. There was no turn of phrase I didn’t try:

“It is unlikely to be cancer”

“Cancer is rare”

“Rare in people under 40”

“Recovery rates are good”

“It’s probably nothing serious”

And so I continued my paranoid search in the darkened moments of the early morning. It got so bad that at one point the Google server sent me an automated security message: “Your account is displaying suspicious behaviour.” Great, I thought. I was now marked as spam.

My wife woke-up. “What are you doing? Stop that for God’s sake. It doesn’t help.” I knew this but simply couldn’t look away from the screen. 

The glow of the screen transfixed my eyes as I gazed into a world of medically induced fear. What I learned over the past 3 hours of relentless checking was that I had cancer. I also had Multiple Sclerosis. It was also likely I had some sort of thyroid problem, with a possible bout of TMJ thrown in for good measure. Overarching all of these perilous conditions was the ongoing threat of instantaneous demise due to stroke or aneurysm.

“Just put the bloody phone away,” my wife muttered under her breath. 

With reluctance, I put the phone down. Just one more website and I would have been OK. It would have told me that I was overreacting and that my anxious mind could produce the very symptoms I was seeking reassurance for. Having woke-up my wife and got myself listed as a spam account on Google I placed the phone in my draw and shut my eyes.

Sleep came slowly. I woke the next day exhausted from last night’s battle. I had to face the world- a world of superficial appearances and never ending pursuit of all forms of success, where everyone wants you to be healthy and well and just super confident and together all the time. A world where daily lies are the currency we use to co-exist: “I am doing great thanks, how are you?” “Oh yeah my wife? she is amazing! we have the best life!”

It was a performance I had undertaken countless times before. And I was good at it. But this morning my body would not let me. I called in sick and opened up google on my phone.

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Small Moments in Love #2

The Church I attended throughout my childhood was small but vibrant. Each Sunday evening we would have a more informal service that was designed to ‘reach out’ to people from non-church backgrounds. I remember these services as a lot of fun, particularly as they were followed by a relaxed dinner in which we would all chat. One of the women in the Church had connections with the local First Australian community, and would regularly bring along a group of girls to these services. They were of similar age to me- perhaps around 11 or 12. Over a period of a few weeks, I noticed that I had caught the attention of one of this group, who would often stare at me at various junctures during the service. Was it possible that she liked me?
I certainly liked her. She had deep, searching brown eyes. I liked the way I would catch her smiling at me from across the Church. I pretended I didn’t notice for the most part- a mixture of disbelief that someone as pretty as her could actually like me and an equally strong desire to be seen as ‘cool’ and nonchalant. Even so, I would steal a gaze in her direction when I felt it was safe to do so.
Yet my ability to wistfully stare was hampered by the fact that she was always surrounded by her friends, who banded around her in what I perceived as a mildly protective stance. They used to stare at me too and would giggle in a way that made me feel as if there was something positively ridiculous about the simple fact of my existence. Again, I tried to ignore it, whilst simultaneously enjoying the attention. However, one evening after the service this group of friends approached me as I stood alone in the Church foyer. I noticed my future beloved (my imagination was working perfectly well) was not with them. Continuing to giggle, one of them shyly told me “My friend likes you.” And with that revelation, they skipped back to their friend and proceeded to assess my face for a reaction.  I smiled at her and tried my best to display a combination of  romantic interest and apathy- a difficult mix to get right.
Eventually, we all left for the night. I only saw the love of my life on one more occasion. Later that same year I attended the Warragul Show with some friends. It was the usual kind of country town deal; a blend of kitsch entertainment with exorbitant prices. Nevertheless, the whole town seemed to be there and it was the most fun one could reasonably hope to have as a grade Sixer. At some point, I noticed the same group of girls from the Church service. They were hovering around a stand selling cheap trinkets. I decided to keep back, too nervous to approach. I didn’t want to appear desperate.
Unbeknownst to me, the girls were already fully aware of my presence at the Show. In fact, at the precise moment I saw them they were helping my beloved choose a bracelet to give to me. Upon deciding, her friends raced up to me and said it was a gift to me from their friend who ‘really, really likes me.’ With that, they ran off, keen to observe my reaction from a distance. In pleasant and nervous shock, I unwrapped the tissue paper in my hand. The contents appeared to reveal nothing more than a crinkle of plastic. It seemed there was no bracelet after all. I looked toward the group of smirking girls, sighed, and deposited the object of my rejection in the nearest bin.
I went to stride away in defiance but was stopped in my tracks by the same group of girls, who had ran up to me before I could escape. “Why did you throw away the bracelet?” they asked. “She really likes you and chose that herself. HOW COULD YOU?” I was mortified and explained that I thought it was a cruel practical joke and also that I thought I was in love with their friend. I raced back to the bin and retrieved the crumple of plastic. On closer examination, there was indeed a small, faux-silver bracelet inside. One blink and you would miss it, as I indeed did.
With my heart overflowing with regret, I put on the bracelet and chased down the object of my love. For the first time, I approached her directly. I ran up to her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before running away so that I could watch their response to my kiss from a safe vantage point. It was to be the last time I would ever see them. They were still laughing together and smiling back at me.
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Western Civilisation in the Twenty-First Century Conference

I will be speaking at the University of Adelaide History Department’s Western Civilisation in the Twenty-First Century conference on 20-21 February, 2020. My paper will deal with nationalism and racism as manifest in various extreme heavy metal subcultures. The event looks fascinating with lot’s of interesting speakers and topics.

More details can be found on the event page:






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Nazi Show Trials and the Politics of Condemnation

Roland Freisler was one of the more unsavoury personalities of the Third Reich-era. This achievement was no small feat given his competition: Himmler, Bormann, Goebbels and Streicher were all strong contenders in the crappy personality department. Nevertheless, Freisler occupied a unique place in the pantheon of Nazi functionaries as the odious Judge responsible for condemning thousands of political prisoners to their death.

Born in lower Saxony in 1893, Freisler saw action in the German Army throughout the First World War, receiving the Iron Cross first class. Captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front, Freisler used his time in captivity to learn Russian and cultivate an intellectual interest in Marxism, and some doubt exists as to whether he actually became an ideological sympathiser by way of a dubious associations with Russian military forces. Following his return to Germany in 1920 Freisler resumed his legal studies at the University of Jena. He received his doctorate in 1922, which was eventually published as Schriften des Instituts für Wirtschaftsrecht (Fundamentals of Business Organization). A respectable career in the legal profession followed, in which Freisler distinguished himself as both ruthless and articulate.  Freisler’s biographer Helmut Ortner describes the young lawyer as being “extremely competent in his field and a skilled public speaker,” as well as being a master of “stalling tactics and the art of the probing question”[1]-skills Freisler would use to great effect in coming years.

During this period Freisler involved himself in the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) via a role on the Kassel city council. A skilled political strategist, Freisler was able to steadily increase his profile within the Nazi party and when Hitler made Chancellor in 1933 Freisler was rewarded with a post as the Director of the Prussian Ministry for Justice. Freisler functioned as a fanatical advocate for the Nazification of Nazi law and helped institute legal changes that would reflect the ideology of Nazism- many of which related to so-called ‘inferior races.’[2] In terms of historical memory, however, Freisler’s lasting legacy is as the noxious president of the Volksgerichtshof– the People’s Court. It was the People’s Court which hosted the infamous Nazi show trials, which are known to history as the stuff of dubious legend.

imagesThe Nazi show trials were nothing more than exercises in party propaganda. Film recordings of these events[3] depict a lonely, crestfallen defendant who had been condemned to death from the moment of arrest. Facing a panel of Nazi-appointed judges and legal staff, the accused were berated, screamed at and mocked in what appears to be little more than an exercise in inflicting humiliation and shame. Behind the defendant lie the courtroom audience and press- many of whom gathered for the purposes of obtaining enjoyment through watching the condemned receive Nazi justice. When called upon to present their defence, the accused faced the intimidating task of facing Freisler disdainful glare. Surrounded by antagonism, many of the defendants were reduced meek whimpering in the face of Freisler verbal ferocity. Appeals to reason, lack of evidence or clemency were utterly in vain, as the proceedings inexorably hurled toward their pre-determined outcome. Many of the accused were at pains to express their loyalty toward ‘Volk und Vaterland,’ and many could appeal to their military service during the Great War as a sign of sacrifice for the nation. That this meant nothing in Freisler’s ‘People’s Court’ merely reflected that the trials were not about prosecuting specific crimes but were instead oriented toward condemning the failure of individuals to reflect Nazi ideology in a sufficiently fanatical and zealous manner.

It is the public nature of these trials which attest to the essentially voyeuristic nature of law and punishment. The punishment being meted out to these alleged ‘criminals’ was in actuality an exercise in entertainment and sadism- twin elements of Nazi justice in which the public was also complicit through their willingness to inform on their friends and family at the slightest misdemeanour. In the Nazi ‘courts’ it was not enough for the prisoner to receive their inevitable sentence swiftly and with minimum of fanfare. Rather, what was essential was that the accused be stripped of their dignity and credibility in the most public way possible- the legal equivalent of the guillotine in the village square. For Freisler, the true crime of the accused was not simply their arrestable offence but related instead to a broader failure to conform to the type of individual required by the Nazi dictatorship. And of course, I use the word ‘individual’ loosely here, as the ideal ‘individual’ for the Nazis was one who did not think critically or independently, but instead unquestioningly submitted themselves to the Führerprinzip.

In his study of the history of the prison, Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault gives expression to the idea that justice primarily functions as societal revenge toward an individual who dares to defy the moral conventions of the time. The reflections raised by Foucault remain pertinent in our own time of pervasive outrage and mercilessness:

The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social-worker judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. [4]

According to Foucault, the criminal is judged both officially (according to the law) and the members of the society in which the ‘crime occurred.’ This dual dynamic can be observed in the show trials, as the filming and public spectacle allowed for the maximisation of shame and degradation- and all for the most trivial of misdemeanours (where they did occur at all). The goal was the non-existence of the accused- both literally and symbolically. In the process of condemnation, they became a persona non grata– one without a history or a future. This all had the additional benefit of acting as a fairly effective deterrent to others who might contemplate acting on their rebellious convictions.

The question now becomes: far have we evolved from the era of Nazi show trials? The answer is perhaps not as clear-cut as we might think. Any response to this question must give primacy to the role of technology in our society. The possibilities for self-expression inherent in the age of social media, for example, have also brought with it the curse of superficial moral condemnation, in which the failings of an individual are broadcast to great swathes of people ready to pounce on the accused. What has emerged is a ‘people’s court’ of our own making- one which runs parallel to the state legal system. The new court of public condemnation functions as a space for mass humiliation and degradation, in which those who have failed to meet the moral expectations of a particular group fall prey to humanities lust for blood. Today’s accused remain immortalized in digital memory- broadcast around the world to suffer a condemnation perhaps far worse than any fate that could be meted out by Freisler’s court. And if the reality of this seems overwhelmingly bleak, we can perhaps take small comfort in the manner of Freisler’s death. The Nazi parties toughest and most fanatical Judge died during a bombing raid as he was trying a case in court- a somewhat satisfying end for a truly obnoxious individual. Apparently, no-one mourned his passing.[5]



[1] Helmut Ortner, Hitler’s Executioner: Roland Freisler, President of the Nazi People’s Court (Yorkshire: Frontline, 2018),

[2] In these effort Freisler found inspiration United States racial segregation laws. See James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 103–6.

[3] For an assessment of the role of film in the administration of Nazi justice see Peter Drexler, “The German Courtroom Film During the Nazi Period: Ideology, Aesthetics, Historical Context,” Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 8 No. 1 (2001): 64–78.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin, 1977), 304.

[5] Granberg, Jerje, “Berlin, Nerves Racked by Air Raids, Fears Russian Army Most,” Oakland Tribune, 23 February 1945, p. 1.


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Writing Passionate History: The Example of Jules Isaac

Must the writing of history always be undertaken in a spirit of cold detachment, or is there a legitimate place for the use of passion as a guiding force in the pursuit of historical inquiry? Traditional wisdom would suggest that objectivity is paramount in the interpretation of historical events and that conclusions become clouded and biased when objectivity is compromised through the influence of subjectivity. While I agree that the need to remain impartial in the study and interpretation of historical materials is fundamental, I wonder If it might not be possible to write genuinely passionate history while remaining faithful to the ideals of academic vigour.

I raise these questions because my thinking on this topic has been challenged recently through my study of Jules Isaac’s The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Isaac had already distinguished himself as a writer of essential textbooks on French history, yet the anti-Semitic climate of Vichy France would present confront Isaac with an existential tragedy that would forever alter the course of his academic pursuits.  Attempting to seek refuge from Nazi persecution in the French town of Riom, Isaac’s wife and children were arrested by the Gestapo as he was out for a walk. Despite his pleading with the Nazi Government for their release, they all died in Auschwitz.

url1The trauma of this event utterly disoriented Isaac, who was stricken with profound and lasting grief. Yet the devastation of losing his family was to prompt a drastic reconsideration of the trajectory of his intellectual interests. Even though Isaac was already in his senior years at the time of the war, the real impact of his legacy was to be felt in the years to come. Having already been interested in the Christian roots of anti-Semitism for many years, Isaac used the tragic death of his family as an underlying motivational force, which fuelled a new passion for examining how the history of Christian theology has codified anti-Semitism. Isaac’s wife perhaps had a sense of his future significance before her death. Before her deportation to the Auschwitz death camp, Isaac’s wife left him a note which said to “save yourself for your work; the world is waiting for it.” (1)

Isaac’s study on the theology of Anti-Semitism is the outcome of his struggle to come to terms with the nihilistic, murderous rampage of Nazism, which symbolized for him the natural endpoint for systematic anti-Semitism. The study utilises a series of theses and correlating responses to illustrate the various strands of anti-Semitic theory. For example, Isaac chooses to place under the historical microscope the widespread theological view that the Jewish diaspora commenced in A.D. 70 after their military defeat in Judea. Instead, Isaac suggests that the dispersion of Jews had commenced far earlier, thus calling into question the established view that the dispersion of the Jews was a result of ‘Divine retribution.’ Isaac continues his study with an examination of the alleged decadence of the Jews during the early Christian period and the age-old notion of the Jews as murderers of Christ. (2)

The intellectual coherency and clarity of Isaac’s study are undeniable, but what immediately struck me about the text the passionate zeal which emanates every page. Isaac makes no secret of his overarching mission to challenge the various theological justifications for anti-Semitism, and the depth of this conviction fuels his intellectual pursuits to the extent that might make a more clinical historian uncomfortable. Does the display of such passion then corrupt the final text? The beauty of Isaac’s work is its deep engagement with representative Catholic and Protestant scholars, each of whom is profiled not just for their contributions to anti-Semitic theological trends but for their status as bearers of historical traditions- many of which may be subconsciously reflected in unquestioned attitudes and doctrinal assumptions.

Despite Isaac’s intellectual rigor, there remains the danger that a passion that arises from an a priori commitment to a religious or political cause can distort both methodology and conclusions. Does this danger- which Isaac manages to avoid- warrant a complete disavowal of passionate history? I maintain that it does not. Yet if we allow for the possibility of the experience of deep passion as motivating historical research, under what circumstances should this be endorsed? I contend that writing history in a passionate way is justifiable when the subject relates to matters of significant moral and ethical import. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, historians have an obligation to incorporate a moral perspective when dealing with subjects of such magnitude. To remain silent on the ethical lessons of the Holocaust would be to detract from its tragedy and would reduce research to the cold reiteration of facts without any requirement of moral education. (3) Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the impossibility of entirely objective historical writing, which is always motivated by the researcher’s often unexamined personal biases. At the very least, Isaac’s work demonstrates a successful attempt at fusing unbridled passion with scholarly integrity and goes part of the way in de-stigmatizing the rightful place of emotion, moral commitment, and passion in the art of historical research.



(1) See Claire Hutchet Bishop’s introduction to Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism(New York: McGraw Hill, 1965), 9.

(2) Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, translated by Martin H. Bertram, in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 47:267.

(3) Robert P. Ericksen acknowledges this in the preface to his work treating the role of German Churches and Universities in the Third Reich. Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), xiv.



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