I was thinking this week about what it is to be lost.
I grew up in Australia, in the capital city, built out of the Australian bush. It was a city miles from anywhere. I lived in a freshly minted suburb, right on the edge, the new tarmacked roads wandering artificially and the brick veneer bungalows rising tidily out the scrubby ground, like cosmetic dentistry in an old man’s mouth.
Beyond the end of the road was a tangle of low bush, the occasional clump of ghost gums and beyond that the Brindabella mountain range, glowing blue. It was a safer version of the wild west. You could walk out into the bush for a day without anything and get lost forever. It’s something that is so much harder to do these days.
Every new house in those new suburbs had an allocation of ten trees and forty-two shrubs to try and create a sort of new England. You can see that attempt in those early Australian landscapes made by the official painters to the colonies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They’re representations of an England in Australia, overlaying the comfortable pastoral aesthetic of Britain onto the harsher scrubland of New South Wales. A palimpsest in wishful thinking.
There’s a sort of longing for England in those paintings that betrays in part a homesickness and a desire to escape the harshness of the Australian bush. Back then, a journey to Australia was for the most part a one-way trip. It took death-defying months to make the voyage. There weren’t any travel agents. You said goodbye to your family, boarded the boat and were lost to them.
All the quarter acre blocks in those new suburbs waited in turn for the man with the tractor to come and rotary hoe the baked clay so that we could lay our lawns and make our own high maintenance patches of England. The pukapukapuka of the early evening sprinklers is a sound that I can never forget.
You can see this nostalgia, hiraeth, seledreorig, homesickness mapped from above. In the middle of Canberra are some mountains – Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie – and from their tops in the Autumn the inner suburbs are a fiery pond as the deciduous imports shed their leaves.
There was nothing much to Canberra then. A few public buildings, a civic centre, an artificial lake, a small Parliament and sprawling suburbs, each with a primary school, a local shop and a set of bus stops. Canberra had two black and white TV stations – one commercial and one public service – and few homes had phones. This was 1970.
My Internet was the World Book encyclopaedia, sold to us by Mr Deards, my elderly sixth grade teacher whose finely honed anecdote started with him telling each group he met that he was 16, having had the fortune to be born on February 29th.
This was long before mobile phones, video recorders, walkmen, digital cameras. We would often ask permission to use a neighbour’s phone. If one of us went out for the day, at best any messages home were reliant on a one-way call from a call box and the presence and good humour of a neighbour to take the call and relay the message. It was almost less sophisticated than the Pony Express. When my younger brother would go out to see his friends and wasn’t home when dusk started to settle I’d be summoned to ‘call for Matt.’ Not ‘call Matt’. I’d go out and walk the streets shouting for him.
The cultural diet we had was restricted to what the television provided, what we’d get from an occasional visit to the cinema and what we’d borrow from the Kingston public library. I’d watch Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Time Tunnel, Adventures in Rainbow Country, Gentle Ben and Flipper. I knew all the ads off by heart. Once a TV programme was broadcast, it was lost.
I was a pretty solitary kid, with my head mostly dreaming of other places.
I stayed in Canberra, mostly, until I left Australia. I went to University there and did a degree in words and pictures (English Lit and Art History). I lived on campus and found an outlet for some of the ideas that had been lost in my mind for years.
Each year, the University ran a competition called Inward Bound. Teams of four were blindfolded, bundled into the back of a van at 10pm and driven for two hours out into the bush. We were given a map and a compass. Marked on the map was the destination. We were given no information about where we were. In Britain you could walk for a mile and find a roadsign. Today you could check your location with the GPS built into your phone. In the Australian bush, two hours’ drive from the national capital, you could be entirely clueless about where you were. It was entirely possible to disappear forever.
Even without GPS, today, in the middle of the Australian night, there might be clues. The overhead passing of a plane en route between Adelaide or Melbourne and Sydney would give you directional gist, but back then the flights were as infrequent as UFOs. A plane in the sky was an event.
Of course, anyone with a bit of knowledge of sky on a clear night could steer a course, but me and my team mates were not then inclined to the sky. We’d check which sides of trees held the moss (a decent clue that they faced south) and would try and keep an eye on the sun, though north and south in a race to a place gives you little to work with.
So the next day, after several terribly wrong hunches we’d hobble to the finish, last in our group, having covered fifty dusty miles on foot. We’d go from being lost to being unlost – a change in state that we never experience today other than for a moment here and there when a battery fails us.
There were people who I became friends with at University who I knew, given a clear run, would do great things in the arts or science or law. Some of them I still see today – in Australia, which is now easier to visit, or here – and some of them I search for endlessly on Google. There are some friends that are mystifyingly lost. And this mystifying feeling is what I’m shooting at. We just don’t do lost anymore.
I was thrown, for instance, when the Malaysian airline disappeared somewhere, we assume, in the roaring forties, where the boats that brought the first settlers to Australia were sluiced by waves that towered above their masts. We are all tethered to masts these days – mobile masts or satellites or wifi networks – and being lost just doesn’t seem to happen anymore. That makes the unfindable so much more difficult for us – and so incomprehensible. There are almost no unknown knowns.
I often think of one friend of mine from University. He was a gifted wordsmith and composer – always a lighthouse in a room – one of those people that you meet from time to time that you know will be in the middle of lots of big ideas forever. He felt like he might become one of Australia’s great cultural expats – like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes. I saw him once in London many years ago and the last I heard, in the late eighties, he was heading to Africa in search of a girl he’d fallen in love with. Since then he has been lost – and I’m left with the worst. I cannot find him despite all our digital hunting tools. That is all the more affecting, I think, for having grown up at a time when going missing was everyday. That has been supplanted by a world in which everything – however pedestrian, however mundane – ought to be found. That something can’t be found in a world that has become an electric catalogue in which our every movement and thought is chronicled, pinpointed and shared – is all the more affecting.