Being the child of immigrants who fled a major world war is a unique experience. Most children, thankfully, don’t have direct, first-hand experience of what it’s like to grow up with parents that, despite their best efforts to carry on cheerfully and stoically, must have had some residual PTSD associated with their flight from their homeland. As little children, their desperate search for safety, the daily uncertainty about their very survival, being immersed in a strange culture and a language they didn’t know how to speak and then, to crown the experience, suffering the unjust persecution and ignorant prejudice that refugees inevitably encounter in their eventual host nations, absolutely changed them as people. They grew into adults with a very different perspective, compared to those that had always known benign stability. It distorts how you perceive everything and how you react to it. Without being aware of it, you unconsciously pass that on to your kids, as my parents did to me.
For the majority of my young life, I was overly encouraged to fit in and be acceptable. To refugees, standing out was something they knew, from horrifying eyewitness experience, could sometimes be fatally risky. The message we were brought up with, reinforced possibly daily, was that you shouldn’t speak your mind; you should say what is acceptable to those around you. In career choices, you shouldn’t follow your passions and interests; instead you should make yourself maximally useful and indispensable, doing whatever it is that those with the power over hiring, firing and salary want you to do. Deference is portrayed as the highest good. You’re relentlessly, repetitively taught that you shouldn’t rock any boats, because one of those boats might be the one you rely on to rescue you from going under.
A consequence of that upbringing (one of the many) was that you learned early to sense the Zeitgeist carefully. Assimilation is a delicate art, especially in a country not renown for its celebration and encouragement of dissent or outstanding individuality. In Australia, they have a special expression to describe their inherent, fundamental conservatism – “tall poppy syndrome”. Stand out in any way and you’re likely to be widely attacked and “taken down a peg or two”. Add a dash of racism and if you, as the child of immigrants (always generally assumed to be a mere guest in the country of your birth), showed even the slightest deviation from orthodox norms, you were deemed to be “asking for it”. You learned not to take a controversial or contrary stance on anything. Being thought of as an “uppity wog” was a very dangerous position to take indeed. We’re talking actual bodily harm, while the authorities turned a blind eye, incidentally.
You had to know which way the wind was blowing, at any given moment, so that you could make anodyne your every public pronouncement, avoiding confrontation and offence meticulously. The flip side of that basic survival instinct is that you also learn to keep a lot of what you think deeply hidden; buried inside where it has a tendency to gnaw at your soul, festering and fermenting, for want of the oxygen of expressing it openly.
It’s like living in a pressure cooker, but with one eye over your shoulder, to blatantly mix metaphors. What you love to do and the truth you want to speak are both self-suppressed, voluntarily, to avoid the inevitable confrontation that you come to expect as the most likely response to just being you. Living like that is a recipe for repressed stress and anxiety. You’re living a lie, to avoid any danger associated with not fitting in. There is no way to be your authentic self because to do so, you were constantly told, is insanely dangerous.
The other half of this distorted way of thinking is on the risk side. You look at every threat as a life and death situation. Potential harm is amplified into something terrifying. You tend to pre-catastrophise and expect the worst case scenario always. Rather than believing in your own resilience and ability to figure things out, if things go wrong, you go to extreme lengths to try to avoid letting anything go wrong, because you feel that anything going wrong will be the end of everything. The panic and anxiety crowds out your ability to respond to set backs in a positive way. From the perspective of your refugee parents, who saw how small changes to their lives had massive, permanent consequences, who can blame them for sharing their life learnings as words of wisdom? They explained their trauma to you graphically, as a child. You couldn’t fail to feel horror at what they went through, as children themselves.
When things do go wrong, which happens in everybody’s life, your ability to cope with it is diminished, because you’ve grown up in a culture where the prevailing belief is the next thing that happens is bound to be worse, not better. You never feel you’re at the bottom of the pit. Instead, you always feel you are about to slip down even deeper. Every stable situation you find yourself in seems precarious. Thus, even minor setbacks come with all the baggage of feeling like this is just the start of the coming cascade of catastrophe. Resilience is much harder to achieve, when that’s your starting assumption.
I found relief from these claustrophobic feelings of keeping everything in, for fear of disaster, in music, as a young man. I could play whatever I wanted, however I wanted to play it, in private. It was my personal oasis and sanctuary. Sharing that music was always difficult, though, because it meant exposing myself to standing out. Stage fright was a very real impediment to playing that music in front of audiences. It didn’t matter that I adored the music and loved to play. What mattered more was whether audiences would accept me. Unconditional acceptance is something rare, for the children of refugees, but something you value above everything else. Being rejected and ostracised seemed like being damned forever.
Singing out loud in public was and remains insanely uncomfortable. My throat literally seizes up with anxiety. The act of giving my performance to anybody I didn’t know was terrifying. In some ways, it still is. Some of my most jarring, traumatic, childhood experiences involve being forced to sing, on stage, in front of people I didn’t know and then having my performance brutally criticised by somebody I trusted. They didn’t understand how difficult it was for me to even open my mouth.
The feeling of fear, for saying what is on your mind, is strong and it’s a hard habit to break. One small challenge to your carefully crafted enunciation of an idea and you have a tendency to crumble, having to start back at square one again, the next time. That means even when you’re right, or saying something insightful or novel, if its unpopular, it will meet with vitriolic disagreement. Those moments of having to explain your reasoning and evidence, in the face of people reacting emotionally, based only on their opinion and nothing else, can be debilitating. I hate them. For this reason alone, I am quick to abandon pushing my viewpoint and leave people to their own ignorance. I can’t stand the debate or abuse.
Problematically, being exquisitely attuned to sensing the Zeitgeist, you pick up on things other people miss. It is, for better or worse, a route to finding the truth of matters and to making connections that other people don’t immediately see. You begin to read between the lines accurately and to see hidden agendas for what they really are. You also develop a sense of when you are being manipulated or subtly lied to, for ulterior motives. The difference between what people say and what they mean, or do, is something you perceive in stark relief, like a peculiar form of synaesthesia. That insightful skill manifests in uncomfortable realisations about other people, the state of the world, its leaders, its corporations and the myths they propagate to hide their devious, dark, true intentions. You might call it paranoia, or a tendency to invent conspiracy theories, but it’s a very different sensation to those. Rather, it is the deadly combination of uncommonly clear sight, revealing unpalatable realities and then being very afraid of saying what you see, out loud. You begin to know things that other people don’t know, with as close to certainty as you can have, but without being able to tell anybody.
Historically, artists that found themselves in this very predicament disguised their story in their art. This way, they could say what they knew, but in a manner that was plausibly deniable. Only those with eyes to see would perceive the hidden message. Those less enlightened would read the art superficially and miss the coded truths within entirely. It’s a compromise, but one that permits authenticity with attenuated risk. During the Soviet era, writers and comedians did a lot of this. They exposed pointed truths, but in parable or jokes. If, as a reader, you were in on them, you understood exactly what was being said. Authoritarians, however, were frequently confounded by this artifice.
Quite recently, I found some song lyrics I started writing nearly a decade ago (about the same length of time ago that I started writing this blog, actually). The lyrics I rediscovered were long-forgotten, unfinished works-in-progress, but the subject matter was all about perceived, hidden truths – things I had figured out, but was having trouble saying. Song lyrics, for me, are an art form that allows you to say significant things, but in a seemingly trivial way. You can reveal truths, but only through allusion. In short, you can say what you mean with concision, but it can only be received that way by people who have the right mind set. Others will simply hear mysterious, sung words.
Back then, I used to write lyrics feverishly, late at night and at any moment I felt the anxiety, to soothe the pained confusion at the uncomfortable realisation that the world was in this utterly chaotic, plutocratic state, that things were getting worse rapidly, that it wouldn’t immediately be self-correcting and most disturbing of all, nobody seemed to be reacting to it. Understanding the root causes was such an alarming, discomforting thing and I was sure I was one of the few that had figured even a little bit of it out, so I felt the burning need to share it, but the risk of censorship and danger to life and career was real and scary. I had an income I needed to make and children to raise. If you remember what it was like in 2008-9, we were in the middle of the Iraq War – a war which we now know was started on the basis of lies, deception, herd mentality and propaganda. We’d had the financial crash of 2008 and although the banks had caused it, with their precipitate lending practices and financial instrument voodoo, they were now working feverishly to convince the general public that it was somebody else’s doing (and didn’t they succeed spectacularly at shifting the blame?)
Weapons inspector Doctor David Kelly was already dead, in mysterious circumstances, having made his revelations about the non-existence of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which had been the primary justification for the Iraq war. Politician Robin Cook had also died suddenly on an isolated hillside, but had previously openly mocked the idea of Al Qaeda being anything other than a security services confection and had been vocal in his opposition to the official story spun about the reasons for the Iraq war. Whistle-blowers, such as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange had been releasing damning documents, proving wrong-doing and would soon enter the Ecuadorian embassy under something resembling siege conditions. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning would pay a terrible price for releasing damaging materials in 2010 and Edward Snowden would go into exile in Russia in 2013, following his whistle-blowing revelations. The official explanation surrounding the loss of New York’s Twin Towers had left important questions wholly unaddressed and defied the laws of physics, yet everybody that disagreed with the official story was immediately branded a lunatic conspiracy theorist.
There was something awful in the air. Things were crooked in the state of global governance and, as we can now see with hindsight, governments were prepared to punish anybody that revealed what dirty deeds they were up to – viciously and vindictively. The majority of the general public, for its part, were only too willing to go along with the fictions, rather than entertain the unthinkable possibility that high crimes were being committed routinely. It was a real risk to even articulate this stuff. I was well aware of the violence (state and privatised) that could be brought to bear on dissenters.
Lyrics were my way of daring, privately, without becoming a fully exposed target for the mainstream and its prevailing, orthodox cognition of world events, heavily influenced by propaganda and official deceptions as that orthodoxy was. I just didn’t see things the way we were supposed to. My lyrics were never finished, because I never felt safe enough to do so.
The actor Alan Alda said it best when he stated, “pretty much everybody misunderstands everybody else. Maybe not all the time, and not totally, but just enough to seriously mess things up.” On any given street, in any given Western city, on any given day, you can be completely surrounded by people whose heads are filled with officially sanctioned nonsense, but they go about their ordinary lives blissfully unaware of their internal contradictions. It’s just accepted. The unacceptable has been completely normalised. There is no point in confronting them with their own logical contradictions or producing hard evidence that disagrees with their settled opinions, because they will turn on you. The messenger is definitely the first to be shot, metaphorically speaking. It’s like living in a gigantic asylum.
It seemed so personal and affronting, to me, that so many seemingly respectable people were getting away with terrible crimes, many of which were omnicidal and threatened all life on the planet, while everybody else was sublimely complacent about it. This, after all, was the world I had brought my young kids into. How could I leave the kleptocrats, plutocrats and sociopaths to do whatever they willed, unopposed? On the other hand, what the hell was I supposed to do about it? I don’t believe in the Hollywood fiction of the lone law-man, armed only with the truth, prevailing over the organised, weaponised forces of darkness. Events had shown that these kinds of would-be heroes were crushed like bugs, using the full force of the state’s compliance apparatus. It’s easy to feel helpless, just as you’re supposed to.
I can’t tell you what turmoil this threw me into, intellectually. It was awful. Nobody had the slightest curiosity about what was really going on, it seemed. Believing the comfortable fictions was the default preference of most people I knew. I was so alarmed that there were so few people thinking along the lines I was. Critical thinking seemed dead. No-one wanted to connect the clues. Facing the horrible reality held no appeal. It felt like a miasma of doom; hard to make sense of. I felt that I was in danger of being sucked into the swirling, endless, black vortex, or else would have to become a brain-dead zombie to ignore it all and let it wash over me. Back to the same old problem – being hypersensitive to the clues that most people miss, because I needed to stay acceptable to others, but unable to share what I perceived with anybody, for fear of the consequences and exclusion.
Reading those old, half-finished lyrics was interesting and cathartic. The lyrics are still pertinent and relevant today, but it now feels like there is a slowly growing and small tribe of people that are awake to many of the issues I wrote about. There’s still a long way to go, though. The previously unthinkable is now sometimes sayable, if you’re defiant enough. The establishment’s control of thought is becoming more difficult to maintain. Cracks in their stories are becoming more evident. What were once considered to be fringe, lunatic conspiracy theories have been shown to be factual conspiracies, often emergent from the rules we made and followed, rather than deliberately concocted by a group of sinister masterminds, by deliberate and methodical design. Sometimes it’s both, though. There are many powerful people acting in very bad faith.
Having lived with the realisations I had all that time ago for this long, they seem to me to be an accurate, high-fidelity description of reality, now, rather than a confronting shock. I’ve learned to understand the shape and form of the chaos and to begin to see that the answer is a general cognitive upgrade for humanity. We need to think better thoughts and harbour higher quality ideas. That’s the only viable way forward, as unlikely as it often seems. The solution to the chaos is a much more coherent proposition, in my mind, having cogitated more or less constantly on the horror of these realisations, for so many years. Maybe I’m just getting older.
I still have lyrics to finish and music to write. These ideas and themes remain important and relevant – maybe more so now, than all those years ago. I know that sounds incredibly self-absorbed and arrogant, but I’m afraid I think it’s objectively true. Finding that old stash of partly finished lyrics re-ignited my enthusiasm for telling this story. My narrative, though, is less about a loss of agency and more about a positive, alternative set of possibilities.
The motivation for wanting to write these songs and get them out is so that I can perhaps do a tiny little bit of good for others by at least presenting a counter viewpoint to the one we’re force fed in saturation concentrations. This frantic lunacy that drives me to keep working on my music is mostly about finding a way of acting with selfless benevolence, even though it may appear to be all about pure ego gratification. We don’t have to be slaves to plutocrats. We don’t have to accept what we have been presented. Another existence is possible.
I’m glad I wrote these things down, way back then. It’s comforting to know I was on the right track and that others are now on that same track. It also helps me deal with my aversion to presenting my ideas in the form of highly visible art. Maybe, one day, I’ll be able to de-programme myself from the distorted world view I received as the child of traumatised refugees, trying to survive, against all odds. All I need is encouragement and acceptance.
I will continue to work on my frantic deeds of lunatic benevolence for as long as I can. Maybe it can help. Who knows?