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The Scrivener: Where Do You Live?

…So where do I live? In a tumbledown little house once described as ‘quaint’. In a quiet crescent among other elderly type people. In a leafy suburb with green parks, reserves and beautiful wetlands. In a city with three million people and the tallest residential apartment building in the world…

Brian Barratt muses entertainingly on dwelling places and identity, then he asks a huge, huge, HUGE question.

To read lots more of Brian’s sparkling words please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. Also, please visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

‘Where do you live?’ is a common enough question. When we were kids, we used to head our letters with our street address, suburb, town, country, county, plus The Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way, The Universe, just to be exact about that question.

A couple of days ago, I was chatting about semantics — the meaning of words in context — and semiotics — the symbolic function of words, layers of meaning, and language structure. One tends to chat about such things when in the company of an intellectual 4th year university Honours student. I just use long words and pretend that I understand. He asked, ‘Where do you live?’ That wouldn’t be unusual if I’d never met him before, but we’ve known each other for about twelve years.
When he was a bright 11-year-old, I was asked to be his mentor. Mentoring of this kind is called ‘a meeting of minds’.

Our weekly discussions went along so many tangents that I sometimes had to remind him, and myself, with mock seriousness that we were supposed to be doing something ‘useful’ That’s still one of our running jokes — he reminds me with a wry grin that we must be useful.

So where do I live? In a tumbledown little house once described as ‘quaint’. In a quiet crescent among other elderly type people. In a leafy suburb with green parks, reserves and beautiful wetlands. In a city with three million people and the tallest residential apartment building in the world. In a State which was once a British colony and had a gold-rush in the 1850’s. In a country which is trying to establish a genuinely multiracial society but still has its political problems. However, at the time he asked, I was living in this room and on this chair, simply because I was alive and sitting where I’m sitting now. Earlier that day, I had been living, because I was alive, at the local shopping centre.

Aha, says a little voice in my mind, are you sure? Are you the same person today? Haven’t you changed, even if in only very subtle ways, from being the person you were earlier today or a few days ago, or sixty years ago?

Sailing in the stream of consciousness, I went back sixty years to the time when I loved ‘dressing up’. Old wardrobes would be raided for new costumes. If I couldn’t find what I wanted, I made it, sitting in the middle of the floor with pieces of cloth and a needle and thread. Strange child, OK, but in those days children made their own entertainment. My father observed that I took after my great-grandfather who also sat cross-legged making clothes. He was a tailor. Then someone gave me a set of stage grease-paints and false hair, so that I could change my face. I could become anybody.

When a new persona had been created, I sat on the front fence, ostensibly to watch the world go by. We lived on busy London Road, so there was plenty of world to watch. The real reason, I suspect, was that the performer inside me was showing off. I could be a circus clown (my boyhood ambition), a terrorist (Palestine was in the news), a Victorian gentleman (toffee-nosed and wearing my father’s top-hat), an Indian prince (though attempts to darken my skin with a mixture of cocoa powder and my sister’s face cream was less than satisfactory).

A school-pal lived five doors along the road. One day, his tiny, elderly grandmother waddled by, on her way to afternoon tea. In her slow, musical Scottish accent, she gently enquired, ‘And who are you today?’ The question stayed with me, remains relevant, and has no simple answer. The clown is still here, turning mental somersaults and being ridiculous. The terrorist doesn’t blow things up but there is an occasional urge to argue or, at least, to stir. The Victorian gent reappears in bouts of inherited pedantry, but without the black silk top hat. The prince and his cocoa have faded away but the Indian influence hovers around at a distance, in diluted Roma genes, which is probably where the performer comes from, too.

And now there’s a more complex question. I’ll write it slowly: Why are you who you are where you are? I think we’ll leave that one for another time.

© Copyright 2006 Brian Barratt

Footnote: The Roma are the Gypsy people, who left India about 1,000 years ago.

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