Basic necessities

It is common knowledge that the Dunny School of  Philosophy owes little to the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. Less well known is its debt to his more famous contemporary, William (‘No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary’) of Ockham, the inventor of the razor. Allow me to demonstrate by means of anecdote and inventive memory.

As a very junior teacher in the bush years ago, I led an enviably simple life. I would teach English to Forms 2G and 3H and other amiable bottom feeders, practise cricket or football, and play on Saturday afternoons. During what used to be that hiatus between the two seasons—after we’d missed the finals as usual and before the season’s first cricket match—I would participate fully in weekend cultural activities.

These involved getting up about ten on Saturday morning, studying the racing form over the kind of large, eggy, fatty and greasy breakfast that, in later years, marriage would cancel out in favour of muesli, getting some bets on with the SP (this being in the exciting days before the TAB), and arriving at the pub about midday for a few heart-starters and a counter lunch. In the evening, of course, it would be off to the opera or a chamber music concert. Or possibly the local dance.

While enjoying this routine one October Saturday, I had occasion to go to the toilet, as you do. There were two other blokes in there: one, a hefty local farmer in check shirt and overalls, with his chewed-up, sweaty hat firmly planted on his head; the other, a very young man, propped in the angle made by two of the walls, being, how shall I put it, comprehensively sick, heaving his heart out. It took no insight whatsoever to infer that he was a neophyte drinker whom peer pressures had brought to temporary ruin.

As the farmer and I completed our toiletries, he turned to me, nodded towards the regurgitating young man, and said in tones of studied reasonableness: ‘I dunno—these young bastards. They’re always out and about without a hat and so the sun, beatin’ down mercilessly on the head, makes ’em sick. Whaddya reckon?’

A saturnine flicker crossed his rugged features as he said these last words and I nodded with equally ambiguous agreement. Then, our fleeting communication concluded, we rejoined all the other ironists in the bar, leaving the young man to the ravages of sunstroke.

Many years later and a thousand or so kilometres south-west, I was camped on an isolated estuary near the western end of Kangaroo Island with three other reprobate philosophers, dedicated to catching whatever fish navigated those wild waters. It was a Saturday morning. A hesitant patter of rain had started before dawn and by nine o’clock it had set in. At ten, one of the blokes observed, with the kind of prescience that defies analysis, ‘Well, they’re open.’ So we set off for the pub at Parndarna.

The rain, coming in from the south-west, had just reached Parndarna when we arrived around lunchtime, and the bar was filling up with young men in whites (this was November—early cricket season) and much older men in the uniform of the bowling club. There would clearly be no bowling or cricket that day. Well, we played pool, drank beer, told lies to the locals about the fish we’d caught, and so on. At a certain point, I went to the toilet, as you do. There was one other bloke in there—a bowling club elder of maybe 70 hard summers.
‘Rain’s set in,’ I said to him, with the sort of brilliant small talk for which I am justly known.

‘Where’d you come up from?’ he said.

‘Right down near Cape De Couedec,’ I said.

‘Yeah, well you woulda got it early down there. Thing is, I live just a few miles out. I could see it blowin’ up. The missus was still in bed. So I went like a cut cat to get ready, y’see. “What’s the weather like?” she says “Not looking too good is it?” “No,” I says, “It’s finin’ up nicely down in the south.” Actually, it looked like there was gonna be a bloody cyclone. “Better get goin,” I says, and I’m out the door before it starts rainin’, y’see. I’m halfway here and Huey chucks it down, just as I expected. No bowls, but I’ll have to wait in the pub, case it fines up.’

He allowed a thin smile to reveal his true opinion of this ludicrously optimistic weather forecast. As if in cosmic support, rain lashed across the galvo roof of the pub dunny.
‘So I’m free, see. And I’m not goin’ home till the normal time. Round six-thirty. Case it fines up late. There’ll be hell to pay then, but, well, bugger it.’

We returned to the bar and rejoined all the other rain-bound escapees from domestic bliss and daily responsibility, Ockhamites every one of them, because, in line with the great man’s razor, they refused to presume the existence of any more things than were absolutely necessary—like the irresponsibility of drunken youth, or the rage of neglected wives. There was just the ‘merciless’ sun or the convenient rain, and a glass or two. Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily—as they would never have said.

Brian Matthews is a writer who also holds professorial positions at Victoria University, Melbourne, and Flinders University, Adelaide. He lives in the Clare Valley in South Australia.



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