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Temporary inanity

A grey Melbourne day of dust-wind and mud-rain, all the windows sueded with topsoil blowing over the city from the west. A slight cold leaves me disinclined for anything but sloth and gluttony. The fireplace is sharp and clear and the television is a glittering jewel. Comfort food, footstools, cushions and cups of tea. I cocoon all day and well into the night, watching TV, chatting on the phone or fiddling aimlessly with the laptop. I am the luckiest being in history, warm and fed and sheltered and entertained and surrounded by family.

What are you writing? asks my son after dinner. He is acknowledged lord of the remote control and is feeling indulgent towards me because he has just managed to show me how to do text messages on my mobile. I have felt too lazy to bicker with him about program choices, and so my brain is replete with Big Brother, so popular that I wonder until I take account of what else is hugely popular and successful right now. (Let me think. Hmm. Rainforest destruction going fine, no stopping that one—pass me those disposable mahogany chopsticks; poaching rare and endangered species, yes, invest the super in that one and make a real killing. It’s obviously time to distract myself from distraction.)

The lord of the remote is summarily deposed. He sighs when I insist on watching two ABC previews, Wild West (Thursdays at 8.30pm) and Walking with Cavemen (Thursdays at 8pm). I smile wickedly as he goes off with his cousin to play guitars and talk young-bloke talk. All really fine pleasures feel a little guilty, a bit stolen. What a Catholic I am, to be sure.

And so I watched Wild West with Dawn French as grumpy lesbian Mary, stealing pleasures as well. She was choccing out (only wimps veg out) in front of a nice big TV herself, watching whatever while I watched her. Her pleasures were stolen from the satisfyingly hateable and objectified rich absentee holiday-house owner, who was adding to the drama by racing to her hideaway. Would the squalor left by Mary’s orgy be discovered, or would she get out in time to make the political point she was supposed to be making? It said something sharp about the strains on small communities like St Gweep, the Cornish
backdrop to the story. Moneyed weekend house owners contribute nothing to the place, even doing their grocery shopping in the city before coming down to suck up the ambience of the seaside Cornish quaintery. The rich woman and Mary both envied what the other had: suburban guerrilla warfare ensued.

You could see the origins of such rivalries in Walking with Cavemen, Robert Winston’s latest foray into biology, archaeology and anthropology. He imagines scenarios around the fragments of our fossil ancestors—starting with Lucy, the famous Rift Valley discovery of the Leakeys. We are shown a turf war that results in her death, not by design, but by depressingly familiar chance, along the lines of what clever Mr Rumsfeld might describe as collateral damage.

Winston wanders through the scenarios as himself, a pretend time-traveller kibitzing on the urgent life-business of our foreparents. We trace our evolution in four episodes until we reach the Africa of 150,000 years ago. In a moving final moment, Winston, coming upon an absolutely adorable baby, picks her up lovingly and says that if he were to take her home and bring her up as his daughter, she’d be no different from his other children. The real mother returns to the child just after Winston has laid her tenderly down where he found her. She looks around questioningly but calmly. Eve.

There was a book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, published a couple of years ago, claiming that anyone of European descent can trace their lineage to seven individual women through mitochondrial DNA. You can even send them a sum of money to investigate your DNA (they send you a kit, presumably, with scrapers, slides, little bottles and placky bags).

Meanwhile my descendant is bored. His ancestor has controlled the cocooning for too long. I swiftly horse-trade the remote for a cup of tea made in my favourite mug (the one that says I am woman, I am invincible, I am tired) and, too lazy to shift, watch as he and his cousin flick restlessly through multifarious cable channels. He settles on the Metallica special on MTV, and I am content. Our German shepherd, sprawling even more abandonedly than I, begins a low croon in the root note of their modal frenzy. I was going to watch an SBS documentary on shaky fish futures telling how we stupid children of Lucy ravage the oceans and how if we don’t stop it right now there won’t be any at all within a decade—but right now just knowing it and deciding not to buy ocean fish any more is enough. Metallica’s music crashes round us, blasting care away: violent, beautiful, fierce, fertile. Look, says my son, it’s giving me goosebumps. Me too. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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