You are in the army now

Greek Cypriot National Guard January/March 1998

It does not take much to strip us down to our skin and bones humanity, to our base ‘animal’ nature, for our repertoire of the most beautiful songs to turn into howls and screams. When our stomach is full, when we are not thirsty, when we live in a comfortable home and have decent paying work, it is not difficult to act sophisticated and cultured. How refined would we be if there were ten of us fighting over one loaf of bread? Trying to outrun each other for a cup of water to sate our thirst? These thoughts are disturbing not only in the context of our hierarchical needs and natural instincts towards self-preservation, but also when ‘self-preservation’ leads to questions of motivation, self-defence, and punishment.[1] I was faced with some of these implications during my short service in the military and could only imagine what this life on a long term basis could do to the spirit of a human being.[2] We are only weeks or days, even hours or minutes away of being stripped from the personalities and personas we ideally choose to present ourselves to the world, and according to which society rewards us. It is a sobering, humbling thought: from starry-eyed thoughts and profound pronouncements on Politics and Art to sinking deep into the mud and minding nothing for the stink of excreta. Self-awareness makes strong demands of us and it can be painful.

A week into boot-camp and the sewerage system in our block broke down.[3] We were not permitted to enter the quarters of another company. For the first few days shaving and making use of the urinals, despite the awful stench, did not overly concern us. The officers informed us that all necessary repairs would be made. As the days passed and the promised repairs did not eventuate, we started to worry. As a child and even later into my adulthood I was particularly sensitive to smells, and when it came to going to the toilet I was obsessive about cleanliness and privacy. After that first week most of us gradually started to give way to our initial strong hesitations of becoming overwhelmed by the disgusting surroundings. We started to make our way to the ‘sanitary’ block, no longer too sensitive or concerned with what was there. Here we were all equal. It did not matter whether you were a professor or a young upstart just out of high-school. Things of an ‘aesthetical’ nature which might have been highly important to us a week or two before, Homer or Hesiod, Bruckner or Mahler, or our different and sometimes extreme political affiliations, these now gave way to our other base and more urgent needs.

This experience with the sanitary break-down to our living quarters was not insignificant for it equipped me with vital insights when it came to doing future battle with some of my demons. This fast turn-about in thinking was especially revealing and would later help me to better engage with my OCD. I had seen first-hand how the mind can be strong and over-look certain prior dispositions, if only we keep moving ahead, remain busy, and allow for priorities. When it reaches the point when there is nothing else we can do, the priority of our natural human needs can overrule eccentricities, fears, obsessions, and taboos. Under certain conditions, much more catastrophic than what I have here described [especially in regards to thirst and hunger], theories of knowledge and philosophical systems unless serving to invigorate the human spirit and to address life with meaning, become completely useless.

Until the last of the repairs would be made to the plumbing we steadily grew accustomed to the overflow and reek, to the extent where it all became too normal. Many analogies could be drawn and made from this experience. Most of these have to do with the question of familiarity and desensitization, but also to the rise of corrupt regimes, inhumane corporate systems, and our turning away from human suffering. This truth, this reality which most of us know to be true, is one we would rather not have to face too often and is what the “corruptors” of the world prey upon and take advantage of. It is what the Turkish poet and political activist Aziz Nesin describes in his devastatingly confronting poem, Silence! Do Not Speak:[4] “We have swallowed our tongue. We have a mouth but no voice. We even formed an association: ‘The silent ones’/ And there were many of us…”


[1] This is not a literal reference to Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, for over time we have seen that the theory contains some glaring inconsistencies (i.e. a small subject sample) and omissions (the spiritual dimension). But for my purposes here it suffices.


[3] Though hard to believe it was rumoured these ‘sewerage problems’ were not uncommon. They were supposed to get the new recruits ‘desensitized’ to the stench of rotting corpses.


The unspeakable violence which men can do

“He stood at the window of the empty café and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (1992).


Most of my memories growing up in the Reno are happy ones, but given the amalgam of humanity a few were not so pleasant. Things I saw or heard which would leave a lasting and sad impression on me such as the too often ruinous fallouts of gambling, prostitution, and heavy drinking. One of these experiences however, was wholly terrifying for a young child, and it would haunt me well into my adult years. It would be as a result of this happening that I would find it extremely hard to forgive those who would take advantage of children, especially if this was sexual abuse. As consenting adults we are more often than not deserving of the consequences of our relationships and we should fight against that ‘self-righteousness’ which would squarely place the blame on the other, but when it comes to children it is far better that we lose all that we possess than it is to harm even one of these. It is also very difficult for me to understand why otherwise very good and sensitive authors would feel the need to describe such violation graphically. It never made any proper sense to me. 

Next door to the shoppe was the ‘neighbourhood’ fine food delicatessen.[1] It was only a small place but packed to the rafters with just about anything and everything that could have been considered even remotely edible. Owned by a hardworking Greek-Albanian couple with three children, it complimented the Reno in its longevity at least. The eldest of the three siblings T., who had a remarkable gift for drawing and went about barefoot paying no regard for weather, was my very first best friend. Together we would explore the foreboding nooks and crannies (and not rarely the roof tops too) of that long stretch of King Street, Newtown,[2] running all the way south to Saint Peters. Along this wide expanse of our exploration which included fabulous toyshops, colourful haberdasheries, bloody butcheries ankle deep in sawdust, cagey pawn shops, together with that brilliant splattering of old generation milk-bars and queenly bakeries with the best pink iced finger buns this side of earth, were the numerous pubs. Big and brawny, the beating heart of the street they were. One of these, the Sandringham Hotel (The Sando),[3] was to figure prominently in our lives. Most pubs or ‘hotels’ as they were also known, would rent out rooms. Committed bachelors and widowers would spend large parts of their lives in those popular establishments as borders. One such person, someone we referred to as Uncle A., would hurt us.

During our late afternoon expeditions up and down King Street, which would afterwards conjure up lively images in my mind of two latter day Huck Finns, we looked out for the jovial Uncle A. The middle-aged man with his unruly mop of reddish hair would be frequently seen having a drink near the main entrance to the pub. What drew us to him were the Superhero comics he would invariably be reading. One evening T. and I were out playing past our curfew (which to the ongoing chagrin of our parents was a much too regular occurrence) when we decided to play “chasings” down to the hotel. Normally this would be in our billy-carts, but this day it was on foot. Uncle A. seeing us and second-guessing our fascination for his marvellous magazines asked us to meet him “round the back”. He invited us to his room and brought out a large cardboard box. It was stacked with those colourful thin volumes which illustrated the improbable stories of our larger-than-life superheroes: The Flash, Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and all the rest who made their way into the 1960’s through the Great Depression and World War II.

He cleared some space and dropped the big box onto the kitchen table. What he almost immediately started to pick out were not the comics we were excitedly anticipating. He had placed “comics” in our hands which had real people in them, and what straightaway struck me was that these people were not wearing clothes. And the pictures too, were without colour, the pages were like those of a newspaper. I started to feel uncomfortable and scared. A child has crystalline discernment. This nasty man had thrown pornography into our hands. Something is not right here. There is the throbbing feeling of an outer darkness.

The little boy sees him place the long serrated blade onto that kitchen table next to his yucky magazines. The man runs his tattooed and nicotine scarred fingers through the little boy’s neatly cropped hair. He mutters unfamiliar words under his intoxicated breath. The little boy looks again at the sharp blade which only moments ago had been depressed hard into his throat. Has he cut me deep? Daddy, am I bleeding? He is terrified, even more than that time when he was run after by the angry dog. It was an Alsatian, he was later told. A heavy hand grabs him from behind the neck. The other older boy, the one without the shoes, is perfectly silent. Maybe he thinks this is some kind of game. The room reeks of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The table has a leg missing and is propped up by a piece of broom-stick. In a twisted connection to identity everything in this small dirty flatette appears to be broken. Laws count for nothing here. These things I can still remember. Sometimes almost entirely clearly and other times only loosely in bits and pieces.

I am sobbing and have wet my pants, yet amazingly still enough in “control” to be scanning about the room for any avenue of escape. One of the bonuses of growing up in the inner-city tributaries, we did not panic or frighten too easy. But I knew nothing of death until that hour at the Sandringham where I would receive one of my earliest lessons into the more brutal and violent realities of life. Uncle A. had taken my friend by the hand and led him into another room. I could only just hear the voices but have a distinct memory of running water. The door behind me had a number of locks, for some reason perhaps in his haste and panic, only one or two of these were securely fastened. All I had to do was unlock those bolts near the door handle. They were within my reach. Michael, do not make any noise. Quickly! A few moments later I am sprinting as fast as my legs can carry me up King Street. Our parents have to know of T. being in danger because of the “big bad man.”

The police came to the café in a hurry but they were not in uniform. They were the ‘plain clothes’. These were the famous detectives. One of these was a striking looking silver-haired woman. Could this have been the legendary Shirley Morgan with whom I would incredibly work with some twelve years later as a probationary constable?[4] With the permission of my parents the two detectives helped me into their unmarked car and we sped down to the pub. By this time safe myself, I was more concerned for the safety of my best friend. I have forgotten how we managed to get into Uncle A.’s room, but not what we saw once we entered. There was no one in the kitchenette. We heard voices coming from what turned out to be the bathroom. T.’s clothes were lying on the wet ground and my young friend was in the bath-tub. The semi-naked Uncle A. was on his knees. His hands were deep in the soapy water.

And for the second time that night, the sense of an awful and overwhelming dread.    

The rest is not too clear, and maybe it is better that way. I do remember however some time later, going to the “big building” and thinking it odd that the detectives would bring our soiled underwear (mine and T.’s) into the court in plastic bags. For some reason I felt unhappy when I realized what the police had brought with them. I suddenly felt ‘unclean’… and responsible. It would take a long time and countless nightmares for me to comprehend these confused feelings and to be rid of them. Michael, you must remember these happenings are not you. Do not multiply the ghosts. Long afterwards having read Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel poet who emphasizes childhood experience and memory in his work, I discovered that it was possible to write of these things without getting completely ‘fixed’ on them.[5] There exists in Tranströmer’s literature a rich trove of insights for those who are engaging with developmental psychology and particularly with the innateness and environmental influences question.[6] I do not know what happened to Uncle A., but we never saw or heard of him again. I was seven years old at the time and T. was eight.[7] Many years into the future a Sydney based rock band The Whitlams would write an ode to the pub “God Drinks at the Sando”… but for two little boys it was where they would come face-to-face with the devil.


A few weeks later and my first brush with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Make sure the doors are locked, Michael… 123… knock… 123… knock… 123… knock. Surprisingly, it would take some time for me to realize why the skin of the middle knuckle on the index finger of my right hand would invariably be sore and broken.

“I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armour.” (T.T.)


Years earlier I had been sexually assaulted by my Nanny. In lots of respects adults have continued to shock me, in very good and very bad ways. I mean for their limitless capacity to routinely express undreamed-of acts of compassion, as for their day-to-day devastating acts of unspeakable violence.

We may carry the memory of the damage which was done to us, but it is not who we are. And to the extent that we move forward and build and create and share a little of the Light which has been revealed to us, the perpetrators hold on us is increasingly weakened and diminished. And for those who have practised the great and often enough difficult art of forgiveness, the victory itself is greater and goes deeper than the memory. It will take a little time and some heavy loads of endurance, but the ghosts can be surely quietened. 

“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time” (Saint Francis de Sales).


[1] Similarly to the Reno, the small delicatessen went through a number of transformations throughout the decades. It is now a busy newsagency run by a lovely Asian couple.



[4] My initial posting as a junior trainee was at Newtown Police Station, just a few blocks down from the Reno! It was one of the more well known divisional stations with an improbable bag of ‘colourful’ characters.



[7] I literally bumped into T. some thirty years later outside a church in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. He was leaving after a baptismal service just as I was about to attend one. We embraced warmly, but too much time had passed. There was little to say.

The early years at Kingsgrove North High School

Gerringong, NSW

I was in my first year of high school in 1974 when Gough Whitlam’s Labour Party retained government to afterwards introduce the country to the Australian constitutional crisis (the prime minister dismissed by the Governor General after a weeks-long deadlock over the passage of appropriation bills). It would have seemed highly unlikely that one day this legendary political figure and the young boy would cross paths. Around thirty years later we were invited to speak at the Mass Historia conference organized by Melbourne University, the Prime Minister was a keynote speaker and I presented a paper on the “cosmic villains” of the Apocalypse [1]. We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation and had our photograph taken. Father and Mother were very proud. The year Whitlam was returned to office (and Richard Nixon would resign over Watergate), was a defining one for me as well. I was a young boy with an offbeat name reaching outside the boundaries of his old world.

Childhood friends from my infant and primary schooling days at Newtown Primary [2] would be left behind, Bill, Claudio, Danny, Manuel, Milko, Peter, Rodney, and Carmen the black gazelle who never lost a race. Yet I looked forward with excitement to the new start at Kingsgrove North High School. [3] Given that during the 1970’s KNHS like most other outer suburb schools was not too welcoming of those who were not ‘true Australian’ the first years would be a test of character. After all, this was not the multicultural mixing pot of Newtown which I had been used to and where I was in the company of my ‘own kind’: the Greek, the Turk, the Italian, and the Yugoslav. There was at least one way for us boys to be accepted (it would never be so easy for the girls), if we were good enough to grab the opportunity. It was to play football, rugby league[4] I had played a few games of this contact sport in primary school, but to the absolute mortification of Mother, who thought it a game played only by “those barbarian Australoi!

I knew that to survive in this new environment and enjoy my secondary schooling, I had better make the school football team. We understood that ‘wog footballers’ were ‘honorary Australians’ and the better a player you were, the more honorary you would become. I do not believe most people have understood the extraordinary achievement of the Greek-born George Peponis who rose through the junior rugby league ranks to play First Grade for Canterbury Bankstown and then go on to captain the Kangaroos in a domestic Ashes series against Great Britain in 1979. He was one of my heroes, not only for his background and professional success as a medical doctor, but also because in the juniors I had played for the same club, the Saint George Dragons. [5] Here I would often do battle with the great Terry Lamb who played in the same junior competition with the Chester Hill Hornets. At KNHS I was elated when my name was read out together with those of my future teammates by our moustachioed history teacher who was moonlighting as the coach. I was not passed the ball during the trials so I tackled to the point of collapse. Defence became the key component to my game and this experience taught me to never stop looking for other ways. Each season I improved wolfing down rugby league ‘how to’ books and putting in lots of extra training, often tackling a truck tyre late into the evening until my shoulders were covered in deep blue marks and bright red ridges of stinging welts.

I loved the raw physicality of the sport and the courage it demanded. There was nowhere to hide on the football field. It was a game of gladiatorial dimensions. I also embraced its inherent capacity for ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’. Mateship was another of the great ideals of the game but came with a different set of consequences. Six years later when I would ask our coach for a reference contemplating a career in the military, he would write in one place, “Michael is a fierce competitor; he hates the thought of defeat.” Playing through to the school’s First Grade team and ultimately winning the prized Year 12 Best Player trophy, I was touted by some talent scouts as a player with a future in the game. We had some strong teams during those years and we contested and did well in all of the major competitions, Buckley Shield, University Shield, and the popular televised knock-out the Amco Shield. I would later be invited to trial with the Cronulla-Sutherland club after having had surgical repairs on a broken and badly dislocated right elbow. But this was a number of years after I had left high school and not being a naturally gifted player like some of my other team-mates who went on to play in the then ARL, it was much too late. Though the dream would die, the memories and friendships lived on, each to their allotted time.

After the initial distressing experience which included the cacophony of racial taunts and days of silent treatment, high school would become enjoyable. Within three years I would make my first appearance in the school’s First Grade team and gain selection in a number of school boy representative sides. Even my ‘troublesome’ and hard to miss name, the target of endless attempts at humour, Michael Michael, became the playful ‘Mick Mick’. I had graduated to the ranks of ‘honorary’. Earlier on it would have helped if I had known of such estimable writers as William Carlos Williams and Ford Madox Ford! Later I would come to realize that this unhealthy exaggeration of my personality and self-esteem was ultimately more detrimental than it was good. For afterwards when my depression and OCD really kicked-in living through the wreckage that these twin demons will normally bring into relationships, any form of rejection by friends or colleagues would be magnified a ‘thousand-fold’ and border on the unbearable. I had come to believe that I would be liked and remain popular wherever I might go. It would be one of the great shocks in my life when I would discover I was wrong. One of the most heartrending lessons I would have to learn was that not everybody would like me; that not everybody would want to become my friend; that friends would find fault with me; and that sometimes even those whom I loved and who in turn had professed love for me might one day walk away.    

My entry into Year 7 was with class 1L. I look back on that class photo with those expectant smiles and wonder how many of us would not change a thing to be at the place where we are today. In another classroom down the lime colored corridor was one more young boy with a background similar to mine, my closest friend during the next six years (and ball playing prop to my hard-hitting second-row), Andrew N.

Postscript In 1974, given my future research interests, The Six Million Dollar Man first airs in the United States on the ABC network; Robert M. Pirsig publishes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; the first extra-terrestrial message is sent from Earth into space; the Universal Product Code (UPC) is scanned for the first time to sell a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

And I am re-looping Terry Jack’s sickly-sweet Seasons in the Sun not yet understanding why.