Matters of opinion
What is the cost of persistently reporting one’s observations?

I started writing at nine or ten. I wrote polemical verse with titles like “Acid Rain Will Kill Us All”, and fretted about the Golden Triangle’s opium yield. And while I wrote and fretted, I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t as committed to halting the destruction of the planet, which was, it seemed, being aggressively waged on multiple fronts.

By this age, I’d decided I would become either a poet or detective, and to these ends I filled scrap paper with doggerel and started a private investigation agency. Starting one was as easy as giving friends business cards made from cut-up shoeboxes. “Investigations Inc.,” I wrote on the cards with texta. “Crimes and mysteries explored.”

Finding cases was simple: like Pete Evans or Roseanne Barr, I glimpsed criminal conspiracy everywhere. An early case involved a diaper. Dumped beneath a tree on the edge of school, the disposable nappy had suspiciously spilt its absorbent, gelatinous insides. This wasn’t right, I thought, as I prodded the jelly with a stick. This was contraband. This was the work of Triads.

To me, the influence of the Triads seemed ubiquitous. They were a formidable enemy who schemed with Baroque inventiveness. To defeat them, I’d have to be patient and hyper-vigilant. I prodded the gelatine some more. Drugs in diapers. Those sneaky bastards. I spat out the blade of grass I was chewing.

I sketched the crime scene in my notepad. Then I tore out a blank page and made a crude envelope into which I deposited a sample of the suspect jelly. I didn’t have a forensic lab, but I did have a plastic magnifying glass at home that came with my first stamp album. I could examine the evidence there.

Before going home, I walked to the library and found three books on the Asian cartel. I flicked to the index of each and ran my tiny, trembling finger down the column to where “diaper”/“nappy” should be. There was nothing. Unfamiliar with the concept of logical fallacy, I regarded the lack of reference to diapers as proof that I was the only detective on Earth who knew about this method of drug smuggling.

Sustaining my detective work required a rich fantasy life. Books helped. From the library I borrowed Sherlock Holmes books. I thought the stories could help my craft; sharpen my instincts. But when Dr Watson first meets Sherlock, he’s shocked to find that the great man is a dilettante. He knows nothing of literature, philosophy or basic astronomy – is unaware that the Moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth the sun, and impudently vows to purge the fact from his mind when Watson volunteers it. 

What Sherlock did have, I was surprised to learn, was an uncanny knowledge of chemistry, a love of pulp fiction and a basic grasp of common law. He was also a bad-ass boxer, which presumably helped his street cred and ability to brow-beat suspects.    

To me, these were strangely anomalous and unattainable qualities. And unlike Sherlock, my voice hadn’t dropped yet – the importance of which I discovered when trying to investigate, by telephone, a local act of vandalism. 

“Angelo’s Restaurant, hello.”

“I understand a hammer was thrown through your window on Tuesday night.”

“Who is this?”

“Detective Murray.”

Detective?” — peals of laughter. 

“Well, private investigator.”

“What do you want, Detective?”

“Can you tell me what type of hammer it was? How large? What colour handle? Did it have a claw?”

They hung up.

My interest shifted to the paranormal. Telepathy, the Bermuda Triangle, will-o-the-wisps. My next case concerned spontaneous human combustion, a phenomenon I discovered in one of my aunt’s Reader’s Digests. The photos were incredible. There was one of a woman who had been suddenly, inexplicably cremated in her lounge room – all that remained was a perfectly preserved leg and shoe. Another photo showed a man spontaneously reduced to ash in the driver’s seat of his otherwise untouched convertible.

It wasn’t really a case, I suppose, just a sustained fear that I would also succumb to this weird hellfire. I considered ways of lowering the odds of my incineration, like becoming a vegetarian and having longer baths. For months I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It didn’t matter what I was doing. At the crease, watching the bowler run in, I thought there was a fifty-fifty chance I would ignite before the ball reached me.

After a few months, I finally shed the fear of becoming a human candle and began investigating the stone heads of Easter Island. They were less traumatising. The books I read suggested an alien provenance. But then, these books always did. Aliens or ghosts were the answer to everything. Crop circles? Aliens. Depressed wages? Disturbed burial site. 

All of this is just a strange and personal prelude to a bit of wisdom shared with me from Twitter a few months ago, and of which I’ve thought about often. “I sincerely believe you can’t have a job where you have to publish opinions on things regularly without it damaging your mind in a tangible, alien way,” comedian Ben Jenkins wrote. “This probably was a problem in the past confined to like a handful of weirdos in monasteries and now it’s most working writers.”

He’s right, I think, and I love “alien way” and its suggestion of the ineffable mental corrosion that follows a sustained participation in our perpetual and hyper-tribalised production of political opinion. But the effects aren’t alien in that they’re knowable. We can see what years of being paid to replace thought with provocation looks like – it’s defending Trump’s incitement to sack the Capitol and transforming climate change into a communist fantasy – but perhaps the moral and intellectual effects are unknowable to its worst practitioners.

While I’m sure Ben will laugh at this weirdly lengthy analysis of an old tweet, I’m also sure he was speaking more subtly: what damage occurs to the mind or nervous system when you compel yourself, repeatedly, to transform ambivalence or ignorance or hunch into clicks, followers and An Undeniable Personal Brand?

Anyway, now you have this. An anti-column. Long, weird and futile, but for the private pleasure of writing one sentence and then another, while unburdened by the pretence that I’m changing the world.

While I was investigating the stone heads, Dad was dying in hospital. Cancer.

It happened suddenly. At least, it seemed that way to a kid distracted by his own mortality. In retrospect, his hospitalisation was preceded by months of tests and fearful discussions with Mum. But when you’re trying to stop a global drug cartel while eluding your sudden immolation, you miss some things.

Then suddenly, there he was: my skeletal father in a hospital bed, surrounded by nervous relatives whose names I didn’t know. He looked like an intubated Pompeii victim (Mount Vesuvius was another of my research interests).

When I first saw him, I was overcome with nausea. A nurse brought me a paper cup of water and walked me to the TV room where the dying were watching afternoon re-runs of Murder, She Wrote. I promptly puked on myself, and was rushed to a spare bed. The nurse pressed the cup to my lips, and gently tilted my head back. “It’ll be okay,” she cooed.

“Have you ever treated a survivor of spontaneous human combustion?” I asked.

My father defied his prognosis. But back then, after the doctors told him that he would die and that he should prepare his will, he came home and seemed as gently resigned to life as he had been to oblivion. There was no transformation, no carpe diem moment, no visible exaltation. He spent no more or less time with his children. He didn’t adopt a lover, start a memoir or trek across Nepal. He didn’t mythologise his body’s surprising defiance; he didn’t spin webs of mawkish pseudo-spirituality. He filed his will away in the study, and went back to selling insulation door-to-door. His transition from deathbed to doorbells was, in hindsight, remarkably unselfconscious.

I can now write this about my father because I’m no longer a child – he’s no longer obscured by my childish fantasies. My priorities have reversed: if I am to do any lasting good, that good will derive from greater attention to my family, and not from my letters.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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