Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Forgotten Generation.



It’s a difficult building. A cube basically, but with late Victorian columns astride the entrance, and windows of genteel Georgian dimensions. It sits like a toad on its plinth and glances sideways down to City Hall across the hard-baked tarmac of Turbot Street. In front broad steps cascade down to san uneven treet level, giving it an attempt at grandeur that doesn’t quite come off, it being the basic squared-off lump that it is.

It’s the Brisbane Dental Hospital. And it’s sat there oozing the smell of disinfectant, fear and pain, and the occasional whiff of nitrous oxide into the heat outside its thick walls for decades. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time. But the vile things I know went on there in the 60s and 70s have a reach that exceeds the grasp of polite conversation. And everywhere I go it’s there somewhere waiting for me to ask the question, to turn the key again.

For more than a year now I’ve been here in Canberra with the Lady Colette learning how to love again. She’s a very organised woman is my darling and she lines up the things I need to make this new life, ready for me to hammer them into the ground and tie off the ropes. Today we went to the dentist. She had an appointment booked and I’ve been nursing a sore tooth for a while, never having been one to rush to the dentist’s chair. So she organised, and I fell into step, and off we went together.

The dentist, Dr Hartford, turns out to be a talker and he gives me the history of one hundred years of dentistry as he thinks aloud and invades my mouth with rubber gloves. He’s from Brisbane originally, he tells me, having heard from Colette that I’m from there, and he trained, but of course, at the Dental Hospital. It’s a moment, you might say, and I’m trapped there with the bib round my neck and the smiling nurse beaming inanely and this man’s gentle, practised hands in my face.

I think about it for a while, five, maybe ten minutes while he talks and scrapes and wedges and takes the tiny x-rays. But I know I’m going to ask. Because there’s dread inevitability and surgically clean surroundings, and a fresh new piece of it waiting to be bitten off and chewed over, right here in this bright little room with the pictures of bears and puppies on the wall to reassure the children who come here.

“You were at the Dental Hospital in the sixties. Do you by any chance remember a dental technician by the name of Bill Harris?”

“No. No, I don’t think so. I do remember one technician though, tall, red-haired, name of Ray something. Can’t recall his last name. He was very good to work with. He.. Well you’ve got kids, how old’s you’re daughter?”

“She’s twenty-two.”

“Well, you know how it is. When you’ve got kids you take a sort of fatherly interest in kids that age, with their friends and so on..”

I nod carefully, mouth full of professional silverware.

“Well, Ray was like that, really fatherly, always ready to help the younger staff, always took an interest, that sort of thing. He was a really nice man. What was his name? It’s going to drive me mad..”

Mouth full of ironmongery I’m all ears. I’m waiting for the shoe to drop. It’s quite fascinating. There’s something horrible coming, something wicked this way bound. It’s obvious and palpable, and there’s no problem at all. It’s just about to arrive, that’s all. Just getting ready to step out onto the stage and say ‘Ta-daah!’.

Behind his blue paper mask Dr Hartford’s mouth is forming the necessary shapes.

“His son studied there and became a dentist. He opened a surgery on the north-side, in Wilston or the Grange, on Sandgate Road, I think it was, can’t recall now.”

He pauses for effect, stops tinkering with the tools, and looks me in the eye.

“Of course now he’s in jail. He was sedating young boys in his surgery and interfering with them.”

He gives me the hard look.

Bingo. There it is. Hartford’s moved on, explaining about the unpleasant and expensive things my teeth require. Professional, capable, clinically clean. But it’s out now. Simple. No drama. Just a sentence or two launched into the ether through his hygienic blue mask. And it’s been so clear, so necessary, so bloody necessary.

Afterward Colette is waiting for me, solicitous and tender. I’m brittle and clipped, paying the bill, arranging the next appointment. Inside I’m building a head of steam. When we’re outside I open the valve.

“For fuck’s sake! I fucking hate this. Everywhere I fucking go this shit jumps out at me. It never fucking ends. I’ll be glad when this is written and out of me. Shit. Shit. Shit!”

We cross the road and find my car parked under a tree. I lean against it, hands in pockets, spitting anger. I tell the lady about the conversation I’ve just had.

“Of course he’s from fucking Brisbane. Shit! The thing that drives me nuts about all this? It’s never just one man abusing one child, it’s never just one brutal bit of bastardry on its own. That’s what people never get. That’s what they never think about. It’s a stinking little piece of nastiness that spreads out like an infection. It goes on and fucking on, infecting people’s lives and families and the whole fucking thing just pops its nasty little head up whenever it finds enough room, enough dark little patch of.. Oh for fuck’s sake!”

I’m kicking the tyres on my own car. Angry, exhausted by the long, long drag of the chain, the clarity of thought, the endless awareness of evils done, and passed on from generation to generation. These are the sins of the father that get visited upon the son.

“And you just know where the son got it from don’t you. From good old smiling Ray, the bastard. Who was a good mate of you know-fucking-who, you can guaran-fucking-tee it.”

My head is pounding, my shoulders are knotted in rage and frustration. Colette, my beautiful Colette, makes a phone call and cancels the rest of her day. She takes me home, and loves me for who I am, and in her arms I feel safe finally. She knows who I am and she likes who I am, and it’s a miracle I am profoundly grateful for.

The Prime Minister apologised to the Forgotten Generation on Monday last. He was slick, professional and forthright. He was sorry. They-a culpa. But no compensation. Malcolm Turnbull apologised too, choking up when he hit the tough bit. He may be a policy vacuum, but he’s clearly a good man, a nice man. It brought me to tears too. But there’s one thing that really hurts more than the details. And that’s the numbers.

There were 500,000 of them, those abused and battered and shattered children. Half a million of the poor little mites who went through the hell of the orphanages, the charity homes, the kiddies gulag. But the important point isn’t that number, it’s this. The population of Australia at that time was just 5,000,000.

That’s right, 10% of the population went through those places. That’s a massive figure. And it doesn’t even include all those who were battered and ruined privately, by their own parents, or relatives, or strangers. I reckon that puts the true figure around 15-17% of the population at the time. And that’s got to be one hell of a percentage of all the children in this country at the time.

That’s one huge pile of misery and pain and horror. It’s cast a very long, long, shadow. And it goes on still, although what the numbers are now God knows. But there’s one other number I’d like you to consider. One I don’t have a figure for, perhaps you can imagine one. And that’s the percentage of the people in this country who were on the other end of the stick, dishing out the beatings, the rapes, the crippling pain.

How many? What percentage of the adult population were those who did, and those who turned a blind eye, and those who covered it up, hushed the mouths and stifled the tears? How many those complicit? How many the Forgotten Generation of Swine?

That’s what’s kept me awake for the last two nights.

That’s what makes me weep.

. .

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