Indonesia Sketches: Flag of the Southern Cross

A foreigner with glassy eyes and a gut, par for the course, it was his ears which caught my attention, like classroom models complete with painted on veins. He was with a diminutive woman, hers was an alcopop, his a large bir Anker. A German, who had lived in Australia for twenty years; when he recited Henry Lawson’s poem “Flag of the Southern Cross” tears welled up in his eyes – because, he said, Australia didn’t live up to the spirit of the work – there was no fairness in that country.

“Let us be bold, be it daylight or night for us – 

Fling out the flag of the Southern Cross! 

Let us be firm – with our God and our right for us, 

Under the flag of the Southern Cross! 

Austral is fair, and the idlers in strife for her 

Plunder her, sneer at her, suck the young life from her! 

Fling out the flag of the Southern Cross!”

Australia had caused disillusionment and allowed him too much alcohol. Indonesia is littered with these kind of guys. He was now committed to Java. He spoke Indonesian well and was trying to learn Jawi, the Arabic script for writing Malay. At one stage he invited me to the Kos guest house he lived in up the road to see his depressing dark room with beer bottles and a couple of books on the floor. I lent him a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s “Viceroy of Oudijah”, a novel about a Brazilian becoming a slave trader in Benin. Herzog turned it into a movie, probably the worst one he made with Klaus Kinski. The book is tropical baroque and the narrative is dreamlike, in the nightmarish sense. The German couldn’t get into it. Worst book ever, he said – he brought it along to our next meeting and wrote down some questions he had about the subtleties of English grammar inside the front cover. This annoyed me greatly, he never gave the book back either.

When floods came to Jakarta he was away in Bandung – he rang wanting me to go up to his Kos and salvage his stuff. The whole street was flooded and I couldn’t get there. He didn’t accept this excuse and so the friendship ended, a relief.

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