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Escaping Oprah and Christmas

Brian Matthews |  10 December 2010

Oprah WinfreyIt was Christmas eve. In fact, the hot night had ticked along and it was probably Christmas morning by the time the events I'm remembering took place.

I was sleepily awake, sweating with heat and apprehension, wound to a pitch of excitement manifesting itself somewhere in my chest as a sort of exquisite weight that made breathing an effort. I was about seven years old but, despite my advancing years, I remained a dogged believer in Father Christmas.

This belief was maintained in the face of a cacophony of cynicism and derision from the youthful toughs among whom I grew up and despite my own unspoken perception of certain evidence that would have shaken my belief to its foundations if I'd allowed it any room to move.

Armed with this fragile faith, curled up in my bed in the darkness to which the skylight in the passage just outside the door lent a ghostly luminescence, I sensed his imminence.

Sensing Father Christmas's imminence involved an even greater willing suspension of disbelief than you might think because I shared the room with my two uncles, Jim and Alex. Jim's snores rolled gently but insistently through the darkness like the distant gunfire from which he had so recently and with great relief escaped. Alex, too, was pleased to have survived active service, but daily expressed that gratitude in spectacular binges round his St Kilda watering holes, so that his snores, when at last sleep claimed him from other kinds of oblivion, were neither distant nor gentle.

So, to imagine Father Christmas fairy-footing it across our worn bedroom lino amid what sounded like the Normandy landing was a hard ask. I managed though, and, sure enough, he arrived — a dark shape who seemed to take ages, tinkering and rustling and adjusting.

In deference to his visit, I squeezed my eyes shut and, of course, when I opened them after what seemed only a few minutes, it was morning. The snores crackled on but bright sun glowed in the skylight and silver dust motes swirled in its slanting beam. Inching across the floor like a tentative dawn it revealed a series of marvels.

A camouflaged fortress with soldiers pointing rifles through the crenellations dominated a battlefield below on which were arrayed tanks, platoons of diggers, columns of ghurkas, marines and other battle-ready armies. Confronting each other or milling around with static resolution, they would no doubt have been very surprised to find themselves sharing the same field.

Inside the closed doors of the fortress, gun carriers and jeeps awaited their hour. Behind the fortress, emerging from the tunnel of darkness under the wardrobe, a line of trucks carrying machine gunners at the ready and flanked by foot soldiers wound towards the action.

It was a truly wondrous sight which left me wide-eyed with amazement. Avuncular snores suddenly sounded right. This was battle and those nasal eruptions became the crump and staccato mutter of shell and machine gun.

I suppose it's all a question of what you're prepared to believe in. I knew very well that my father, a brilliant handyman, had made every inch of the panoply that greeted my Christmas morning gaze: the fortress, the soldiers — from plaster of Paris moulds into which he poured the molten lead then meticulously hand painted the finished figures in various, carefully researched military hues — the troop carriers and gun wagons, and so on.

Yet at the same time, in another part of my imagination, I happily attributed them to 'Father Christmas'. It was a harmless, pleasurable doublethink which, within a year, would yield to the onslaughts of ruthless realism ('How can he get round to every house in the world in one night?').

As for the war theme, the guns and the militarism: with the Second World War still a vivid memory and the Cold War brewing, such things were on everyone's mind and were evocative and exciting. As George Orwell once remarked: no matter how stern one's anti-war credentials, it simply doesn't work to tell your children to go and play with their toy pacifists.

What prompted me to recall all this was not a sudden surge of nostalgia but something like its opposite which, I believe, is apodemialgia: a desire to escape, not relive. And what brought on my attack of apodemialgia was the news that Oprah was coming and long hours of diligent research had revealed to her that Australia was a land of blokes and sheilas who hung out in places affectionately known as McCafés laughingly shouting 'Gimme five' and 'Hi' in the cute Aussie vernacular way.

Add the brash all-American, McDonald's-sponsored presence of Oprah to the pleasant but undeniably testing rigours of Christmas and apodemialgics all over the country will be reaching for something stronger than McCoffee. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.



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Submitted comments

Well said. Tourism is an important industry, but the tourist activity which will follow this woman's visit will be tourism on her terms. Back in the USA, the story of her visit with her 300 clients will be viewed through the lens of the usual American misconceptions about our culture and way of life. Perhaps it would be better to focus our attention more on the burgeoning tourist trade from China.

Peter Downie 10 December 2010

Please do not knock Oprah. she has done much for the advanced of women, black and white. She has opened up violence and sexual abuse of women and children. The Australian Tourist Industry had the major hand in bringing her to our Aussie summer.

Bev Smith 10 December 2010

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