Archive for the ‘Eternity’ Tag

eternity

1. What Happened to My Eternity T-Shirt

After six years, the lettering on my Eternity T-shirt has for some reason started to bleed and smear. It’s a shame, and it’s messy too; but it’s also kind of cool, because it now looks even more like Arthur Stace’s original chalk graffiti.

2. How I First Heard About Eternity

If you’re not from Australia you may not know about Arthur Stace. A true Aussie folk hero, Stace was a reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian who spread the gospel by writing chalk graffiti all over Sydney for decades in the mid-20th century. His one-word message was ETERNITY, written in a beautiful copperplate script despite the fact that Stace was otherwise illiterate. He’s estimated to have written the word 500,000 times over his career. As a longtime friend and graffiti aficionado/perpetrator says, “Dude got up.”

I first read about Stace in Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney, one of a series of travel books written by famous authors. The Booker Prize-winning Carey is probably Australia’s most highly regarded living novelist. I read 30 Days in Sydney in 2005 while still living in New York, shortly after my first trip to Sydney, after I had already started dreaming of migrating here. (As it happens, Carey lives in New York.) Subtitled A Wildly Distorted Account, it’s a feverishly brilliant, sometimes hallucinatory meditation on Carey’s hometown that reads like a work of fiction; it’s one of my favorite books. In many ways I think it’s the best thing he’s written, though it’s probably considered a footnote to his career compared to bestselling novels like Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelley Gang. Reading all of these books was an important part of my preparations for migrating – among other things, they gave me valuable glimpses of the dark side of life here.

In 30 Days, Carey interrupts his drunken, sometimes nightmarish misadventures while on holiday here in Sydney to muse on the enduring local appeal of this legendary figure and his ministry.

I had been at home in New York on the eve of the millennium celebrations and at seven forty-five on that Friday morning, while my wife and sons were still sleeping, I ran quietly down the stairs to witness my other home enter the year 2000… I turned to NBC, where I saw the opera house, the habour bridge. Then Sydney passed into the next century and the bridge suddenly exploded.

Few cities in the turning globe would equal that display at millennium’s end, and yet I, the sentimental expatriate, was less than enchanted and my emotion suddenly cooled. I’d seen this trick before. These fireworks were very similar to that display at our bicentenary in 1988. Then too the bridge grew green and fiery hair. OH WHAT A PARTY the Sydney Morning Herald had written then, and it had been true, the whole town was pissed. We had a classic Sydney rort and we disgraced ourselves with our total forgetfulness of what exactly it was that had occurred in this sandstone basin just two centuries before.

In the heat of our bicentennial celebration, the 50,000 years that had preceded the arrival of the First Fleet somehow slipped our minds. All right, it’s a white-settler culture. It’s what  you might have expected, but that does not explain why we forgot the white people too, or most of them. In 1988 we commemorated the soldiers, but the men and women beneath the decks just somehow were overlooked in all the excitement. The twin forces of our history, those two cruel vectors which shape us to this very day, had been forgotten and what we celebrated instead was some imperial and bureaucratic past towards which we felt neither affection nor connection.

Twelve years later I stared balefully at the fiery bridge but as the smoke cleared I spotted an unexpected sign. Just a little to the left of the northern pylon… a three-foot high word was written in illuminated copperplate.

Eternity

Seeing this, all my spleen was completely washed away, and I was smiling, insanely proud and happy at this secret message from my home, happier still because no one in New York, no one but a Sydneysider, could hope to crack this code, now beamed through space like a message from Tralfamador. What fucked-up Irish things it finally meant to me, I will struggle with later, but I cannot even begin to imagine what it might mean to a New Yorker.

An Aussie brandname? Something to do with time? Something, perhaps, to do with those 50,000 years of culture that this city is built on top of? But although 50,000 years is a very long time, it is not an eternity, and it is not why the people of Sydney love this word, or why the artist Martin Sharp has spent a lifetime painting it and repainting it… The secret of Eternity does not belong to Martin but he has been one of its custodians and I was determined to talk to him about it…

The man who designed Cream’s album covers for “Wheels of Fire” and “Disraeli Gears” looked all of sixty when I saw him, hungover, with his handsome face unshaved, and creased with a classic smoker’s skin. But I am of an age myself, and if I noticed the creases, I also noted with envy that his hair, though greying, was thick and strong.

I first saw Eternity when I was a kid, he told me as he rolled his second cigarette. I came out of my house and discovered this chalk calligraphy on the footpath. No one ever wrote anything on the streets in those days. I thought, what’s that? I didn’t think about what it meant. I didn’t analyse it. It was just beautiful and mysterious.

For years and years no one knew who wrote this word, said Martin. It would just spring up overnight. We now know the writer’s name was Arthur Stace. We know he was a very little bloke, just five foot three inches tall, with wispy white hair and he went off to the First World War as a stretcher-bearer. Later he was a ‘cockatoo’, a look-out for his sisters who ran a brothel. Then he became an alcoholic. By the 1930s, when he walked into a church in Pyrmont, he was drinking methylated spirits.

The church had a sign offering rock cakes and tea for the down and out.

Well, Arthur went in for the cakes but he found himself kneeling down and joining in the prayers. That is how he gave up the grog and got ‘saved’ but the God-given task of his life would be granted to him at another church, the Baptist Tabernacle on Burton Street in Darlinghurst.

On the day Arthur came into the Tabernacle the Reverend John Ridley had chosen Isaiah 57:15 as his text. For thus sayeth the high and lofty One who inhabiteth Eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

Eternity, the preacher said. I would like to shout the word Eternity to through the streets of Sydney.

And that was it, said Martin. Arthur’s brain just went BANG. He staggered out of the church in tears. In the street he reached in his pocket and there he found a piece of chalk. Who knows how it got there? He knelt, and wrote Eternity on the footpath.

According to the story, he could hardly write his own name until this moment, but now he found his hand forming this perfect copperplate. That was sign enough. And from then on he would go wherever he felt God call him. He wrote his message as much as fifty times a day; in Martin Place, in Parramatta, all over Sydney people would come out onto their street and there it would be: Eternity. Arthur didn’t like concrete footpaths because the chalk did not show up so well. His favourite place was Kings Cross where the pavements were black.

Actually, God did not always send Arthur to write on the footpaths. Once, for instance, He instructed him to write Eternity inside the bell at the GPO although, Martin Sharp told me, the dark forces may have tried to rub it out since then. Of course he didn’t have permission. Arthur always felt he had permission ‘from a higher force’.

I didn’t have anything directly to do with that word appearing on the bridge, said Martin, but I have kept it alive; I suppose you could say that I have continued Arthur’s work. The paintings you know, but I have also just finished a tapestry of Eternity for the library in Sydney. I’m pleased Arthur’s work is finally in a library. He was our greatest writer. He said it all, in just one word. Of course he would be amazed to find himself in a library. And imagine, Peter, imagine what he would have felt, on that first day in Darlinghurst, to think that this copperplate he was miraculously forming on the footpath would not only be famous in the streets of Sydney but beamed out into space and sent all around the world.

I stayed with Martin talking for a long time, but we said no more about Arthur Stace. So it was not until much later that [sleepless] night… that I attempted to pin down the appeal of his message, not to Martin whose fascination seems both spiritual and hermetic, but to the less mystical more utilitarian people of Sydney.

You might think this is no great puzzle. But it is a puzzle – we generally do not like religion in this town, are hostile to ‘God-botherers’ and ‘wowsers’ and ‘bible-bashers‘. We could not like Arthur because he was ‘saved’, hell no! We like him because he was a cockatoo outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast. He was his own man, a slave to no one on this earth.

Thus, quietly reflecting on what might be the idiosyncratic, very local nature of our feelings for Eternity, I began to follow the vein back to its source until, like someone who dreams the same bad dream each night, 200 years just vanished like sand between my fingers and I was seeing Arthur Stace as one more poor wretch transported to Botany Bay.

3. Why I Think Peter Carey Is Kind of Wrong About That Last Bit

Carey says the appeal of Eternity to Sydneysiders is “a puzzle” because “we generally do not like religion in this town.” Maybe. But which town is he referring to? The one he is familiar with, one populated with artists and writers? Sydney is a big place, made up of all kinds of people. Just recently I heard an elderly lady speak about the founding of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. It was a momentous occasion, the uniting of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches into one entity with a decidedly progressive agenda – the church’s founding statement called for peace, human rights, the eradication of racism, justice for the poor and protection of the environment, streets ahead of its time compared to the Aussie mainstream. This lady proudly spoke of being there at the commemorate service at Town Hall 35 years ago. Perhaps Carey and his artist mates weren’t paying attention, but it was a big deal all the same.

Just to name one more example, Sydney also has a huge community of Polynesians, many of whom are churchgoers. A lot of them are into hip hop, and might therefore appreciate Arthur Stace as a graf legend as well as a man of faith. See what I mean? Which town are you talking about? What if someone said “We generally do not like art in this town.” It would be a pretty rude and dismissive thing to say, and someone who had devoted their life to it might object, but it might also be true. I recently read the autobiography of Robert Hughes, art critic and author of The Fatal Shore, the essential history of Australia’s convict experience; he had some very bitter things to say about his countrymen and their lack of taste. (Like Carey, he too lives in New York.) So it’s all about perspective.

“We could not like Arthur because he was ‘saved’, hell no! We like him because he was a cockatoo outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast.” I get it, you’re suspicous of religion; and it’s true, there was something a little crazy about him. (There’s something a little crazy about all Christians, or there should be. Christians, and graffiti artists.) But I don’t think it’s fair to Stace to give all the credit to only the first half of his story. And anyway, who are you calling a ratbag, mate?

It’s absolutely true he’s an easy figure to love because of his humble, even miserable origins. And Carey’s spot-on in connecting Arthur’s story to the injustices of the convict past. But the crucial thing is that he was, as Stace himself would have put it, born again. If he had just stayed a drunk, none of this would have happened. He was inspired, and driven, by the tremendous feeling he got from being saved, and he did it in the most elegant and unintrusive (and yes, humble) way – while still getting that mystical, beautiful-yet-terrifying word out to everyone in the city for decades. That feeling is tangible when you look at that word; it speaks for itself. Can you imagine the same impact with a different word – a more pedestrian or “utilitiarian” word? UTILITY! Not really. That, I think, is the reason he’s a legend. Carey seems to have made a puzzle out of something self-evident simply because the faith thing jams his radar. Which I understand; I’m not trying to say you have to have faith to ponder eternity – not at all. I’m just addressing one lapse in his emotional logic. If you think I’m biased feel free to ignore me, but I think this case shows that even people who don’t partake can appreciate the power of faith if it’s genuine and comes from a place of love.

Not to nitpick Carey too much – his tripped-out perspective on Australian life and history constantly informs my own since migrating here, and I’m eternally grateful to him for teaching me the secret of Eternity. It’s something I’ve always taken as a sign that I came to the right place.

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