To the birds
The falcons are buffering again.
A clump of peregrine chicks, downy as only chicks can be, and white as new bedsheets, are sleeping in their nest box.
Fatigue is still upon me. I feel lighter than before; I feel blurry. The book that I’d been working on for years was, last week, finally sent to the typesetter.
Before it stopped, the livestream fed to me the sound of wind, and hooting trains; the ring of tools on steel girders. On the telephone, my grandfather recalls to me his underage years as an ironworker.
The noun sheet is related to the verb sense of shoot, ‘to project’, says the dictionary, though it’s not clear if ‘project’, in this context, means to set something in motion, or to cast the sense of something onto something. A projection of an image on a screen, for example, or the imprint of a body on the bedsheets.
Tomorrow I’ll rewatch Weekend, a film by Andrew Haigh, in a mostly empty cinema. So much of the film has been shot in such close-up that the difference between sheet and shoot collapses.
The actors’ skin is the thing in motion, the thing that sets the camera into motion, and, pressed onto sheets in a bedroom that we learn, in the course of the film, is fourteen storeys above ground, this performance of new lovers becomes the screen a viewer can project on: desires, loneliness, etcetera.
Inevitably, this essay bears the imprint of the book I have just finished, having only just cast it away from me.
What is a livestream? Is anything set into motion?
No one says roll, or shoot.
One peregrine chick has its head hanging over the edge of the nest box, its beak a small arrow to the ground, while the others, from this angle, are faceless. The image lasts for ages.
The falcons’ nest is crouched on a ledge of a Melbourne skyscraper:
Buffering, buffering, then suddenly: the adults have returned to the nest.
An ironworker was meant to be twenty-one, at least, but my Papa was seventeen when he started, balanced on the frames of buildings, storeys up into the air, and with only a tool belt for company: wearing no harness, no hard hat. The job—and it was not his first job—was to bolt the steel girders, the bits that hold a building together. At lunchtime, a rest platform would be hoisted in the air; a worker wouldn’t touch the ground until the end of the day.
And though I am tired, the old doubts recur to me, about what ‘real’ work is and who does it, and whether I deserve any rest. A labour of love, my Papa says to me, when I tell him that my book is done, and he’s right in more ways than he could know.
What kind of present does the livestream present?
And where does the present of it go, when it is buffering?
Offline, a buffer is a barrier, but online, buffering would seem to refer to an older sense of buffer, as to stammer or to stutter, like the livestream does when it catches on the threshold of its present tense.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the worst industrial accident in Australian history: the West Gate Bridge collapse, in Melbourne, when thirty-five men who were building that bridge were killed after a section of it fell into the Yarra.
He lied about his age because the hazard pay was worth it. Worth the hazard of one’s life? That’s the question I don’t ask because he’s still alive, and so it appears that the answer would be yes.
I’m walking at night across the local golf course because the nearest footbridge that crosses the river got removed, and is being rebuilt. As I follow the golf course that follows the river, I get nearer to the local tennis courts. Their artificial grass glows hot in the spotlights. I can’t hear the thwock of a tennis ball hit true because I’m listening to music, loud in my headphones: a song called ‘To the Birds’, one of the earliest by Suede: the double A-side of their debut single, ‘The Drowners’, which came out in 1992.
‘To the Birds’ sounds very of its time—as does ‘The Drowners’—though no one thought of it this way in the Nineties; the era has only recently become past enough to be regarded as historical. I hear the trace of shoegaze in this song, My Bloody Valentine: multi-tracked guitars that want to be a painterly texture as opposed to a clean line, and a shuddering and beating from within, like the weight of a creature set in motion by its wings.
But there is something sharper going on, too: a sense of pop and all the necessary artifice implied by it, which includes the pose—or poses—that one may adopt in order to move far from one’s origins. I think that I’d also call this glam, and when I write the word glam I see, in my mind’s eye, a piece of footage of LaBelle in their genre-smearing, disco-funk glory, dressed in astronaut sparkles and blue feathers, singing ‘Lady Marmalade’, in 1974. And the fact that their album that year was called Nightbirds. The thing that strikes me most about the adult peregrines when they appear in front of the camera on the livestream is the yellow of their talons—so yellow as to seem synthetic.
I wanted to get Suede inside my book but couldn’t make them fit, and instead spent years jotting post-its that said things like animal nitrate queerness and fake leopard print. Suede is manufactured from the flip-side of an animal’s skin. I thought about animals as workers, and pop music as anti-work; I thought about the video for Suede’s third single, ‘Animal Nitrate’, which I first saw aged eleven, in 1993.
In the video, a very pale Brett Anderson, Suede’s vocalist, bare-chested and hairless beneath a leather jacket, steps out of the doors of an elevator and along a rain-soaked council estate walkway and into a flat that has been transformed into a crimson velvet cave. He twists his hips and bites his thumb; he is skinny but soft and curved at the waist like a girl. Back then, I clipped a colour photograph from a magazine: his face obscured by shadow and fringe, just the stage lights shining through his cropped white shirt and his hips bared again; I wanted my body to be this.
When I rewatch Weekend it will suddenly occur to me that bisexuality, as I inhabit it, feels nothing more or less than knowing an attraction to men is always framed by the context of being attracted to women, and vice versa. That different kinds of bodies (and not necessarily defined by any gender binary) overlay each other in my mind, including other versions of my body, which, for a long time, I wished was more boyish, and tried to make so: lighter in space, with cleaner lines. And I wonder why it has taken me more than twenty-five years to arrive at this simple explanation.
We kiss in his room / To a popular tune, sang Brett Anderson on ‘The Drowners’. The interview quip from the early Nineties that he’s never quite lived down was that he was a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience. Today, we’d probably call this queer-baiting, but it made sense to me (still does) that the singer of a Suede song––the character, the vocalist, the vocalist in character—could be male, female, or both, and that bisexuality might be experienced unevenly, in terms of sexual encounter. Desires, loneliness, etcetera.
In 1993, I bought Suede’s self-titled debut album, released that year, from Penrith Kmart. Or that’s how I remember it. My memory may sound incongruous now, but in 1993––in Britain, at least—Suede was the fastest-selling debut album in nearly a decade: a new kind of mainstream. And I felt it as a bursting of confines.
Car rides I took as a child (and was I still a child?), looking out of the passenger-side window at the rush of other cars on the Great Western Highway and the stretch of market gardens leading down to the river, all built over now; nights on my grandparents’ sofa bed, or standing on the balconies of flats in the suburbs and wanting to want to disappear, to surface elsewhere. Suede is porous: a queer material.
Seven people are currently watching the livestream of the penguin enclosure at Melbourne Zoo. No penguins are in shot, just a stretch of black absorbent matting laid between a sanded area and the birds’ pool.
The space which they inhabit is artificial, wrote John Berger, of animals in zoos, in his essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’, which was published in 1977.
Glam was over by then, despite the fact that much of its transgression and irony—more than glam is often given credit for—would end up surfacing in punk. Hence their tendency to bundle towards the edges of it. (Beyond its edges there may be real space.)
Does this mean, to follow Berger’s argument, that when a seagull lands in the penguin enclosure—I’m watching it—it’s an emissary from this other place, real space? It’s the same sort of matting in the penguin enclosure that one finds in the changing rooms of swimming pools. And I hadn’t forgotten since I first saw Weekend, nearly a decade ago, that the film’s main character, Russell, the one with the bedroom in the air, is a lifeguard.
I think of the members of my family who have worked all their working lives at swimming pools. Or of my grandmother telling me, in passing, how she’d thought as a child that designing fabric would be a nice job. A nice job. In the video for ‘Animal Nitrate’, Bernard Butler, Suede’s short-lived guitarist, is dressed in a fuchsia-pink blouse unbuttoned halfway down his chest.
I didn’t know at age eleven that ‘Animal Nitrate’ was a pun on amyl nitrite, the party inhalant, or that over 21 in the lyric of the song was a reference to what was then the legal age of consent, in Britain, for acts of male homosexual intercourse. The door to the flat draped with crimson velvet curtains opened onto more than I could see, but in my dark I sensed the size of it.
Suede changed my life, I said, on a livestream a few months back, now archived on YouTube. I’m not sure that it matters anymore: to have turned on the television at the right minute. Perhaps I’m glad of that.
I never wanted to work, and in the Nineties, in the absence of anything or anyone mainstream that said capitalism would be other than an unceasing present, the end of history, pop music was the thing that demonstrated, to me, what not work might be.
It must start again, writes Esther Leslie, of the role of the intellectual as a historical materialist, and their responsibility to think with doubt, and to act against the flattery of fatalism:
And sometimes it might name the enemy as itself, while not obliterating the material context in which some are allowed to be intellectuals or artists and some are condemned to be something else, and, in not obliterating that, try to find routes around and out of this inequality.1
In years to come, I taped the video of ‘Animal Nitrate’ from Rage, and I would sit up in the dark with my 35mm camera, snapping at the television screen, trying to capture in a frame the sense of movement that the video gave me.
Berger concludes his essay by writing that zoos are monuments of modernity, in so far as the forced retreat of animals into zoos is paralleled by the disappearance of a peasant class: the only class, who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals.
Lastly I think of the promise of an old song renewing itself in the present, whenever it is set into motion, which is also my description of history, I think, when we can think of it as something we inhabit, and not simply what is passing.