Dark Arts

Grant (not his real name) was born, I believe, somewhere in the 1940s, or perhaps the 1950s. When I met him in the 1980s, he had just got out of prison, having served a long custodial sentence. For first degree murder.

He had become interested, as a young man, in martial arts. Given such arts were in no way fashionable in Oz at that time, I have no idea what attracted him to them. I believe, although I can’t recollect with any certainty, his particular interest was in Kendo, which originated in Japan, and which involves the use of bamboo staves as props.

Those of the day inclined to err on the side of a generosity of spirit, and to take a more or less neutral stance on contentious issues, might have described Grant as an early adopter.

These days, in the enlightened new millennium, martial arts have become, to a large extent, mainstream. To have a black belt in karate is to be highly regarded. For some young kids, it is a preferred substitute for Scouts or Guides and, given some of the baggage that comes as part and parcel of Baden-Powell’s club, it is (I think) a great deal more wholesome. But back when Grant was a young man, say in the 1960s or early 1970s, such attitudes were far from commonly held.

Back then martial arts, and particularly those of Asian origin, were highly suspect, especially in the more conservative milieu. Two decades previously, or less, Australia had been threatened with military invasion by the Japanese, and Australian POWs had been subjected to horrendous (often fatal) treatment at their hands. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Australian public could not avoid hearing of ‘the yellow peril’ and the ‘falling dominoes’. Everything north of our shores was commonly assumed to be hostile. And, of course, the White Australia Policy was just getting into its stride.

The bottom line was that Asian martial arts in these times were considered subversive. They were in the category of black arts, on a par with voodoo, satanism, and witchcraft.

So when Grant lost his temper one day while playing pool, and accidentally killed his opponent with a billiard cue, the judge took community values into account. He threw the book at Grant. He ruled it murder, and gave him life.

Grant did his time, excessive though it was. When he got out, he gravitated to an inner suburb of Melbourne that was then in the process of strenuously resisting gentrification, but ultimately to no avail. I lived there at the time. Presumably this made me one of the ‘gentry’.

Unemployed, Grant was referred to a federally-funded training and job-placement Program of 17 weeks duration operating in his locality. The Program was designed to get people like Grant into the workforce. I worked on that Program at the time, which is how I came to know Grant. I taught workplace mathematics and computer skills.


Perhaps I might digress. I think you should know a little about the Program and the part I played in it.

The Department of Social Security (DSS), as it was then known, referred clients to us. The human clay they wanted us to knead was quite a mixture. There were many Asians, some not altogether legal, coming to grips with English as a second language. There were people with specific problems, like drug addiction, alcoholism, a criminal record, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, physical disabilities, and/or an alleged propensity for suicide. There were young people just out of school and unable to find a job. There were people of all ages who were presently down on their luck. And there were people who had done time for murder.

… talking of suicide, we did have one actual instance over the decade or so the Program ran. The debriefing process we staff felt obliged at the time to convene for the benefit of her fellow clients (and of ourselves) was pretty intense I can tell you …

Yes indeed, the range of clients with whom we dealt was diverse to a fault. There was even one of the co-producers of an iconic Australian film with international acclaim who turned up. I knew him.

What are you doing here? I asked (as you would).

Shit happens, he replied.

In my life, I have worked in a variety of environments but this was, by the legendary country mile, the best job I have ever had. I lived only a few hundred metres from where I worked. Easy walking distance. The staff were highly skilled and adept at handling the inauspicious clientele. The work was challenging and endlessly fascinating. At the end of each 17-week intake, clients and staff would part close to tears. We had become, in this short time, a close-knit family.

I have maintained contact with one of my former clients to this day. She too was a murderer. It was her claim to fame back then, but she has others today that are more acceptable in polite society . I feel privileged to count her among my friends. She will certainly be reading this blog.

Sadly, the Program ran for just under a decade. As is prone to happen to successful programs, it was de-funded. By the then Keating government. But governments of either political stripe are wont, at a whim, to deliver a bullet to the brain when it comes to successful Programs such as ours was. Their finger is always on the trigger.


Back to Grant.

Grant and I got along well. I sensed he was thoroughly institutionalized. We, the staff, had to work hard to gain his trust, because he did not take kindly to people he did not know. Though he had no trouble learning new skills or brushing up on old ones, I guessed we were going to have difficulty slotting him into conventional employment.

Some mornings on my way to walk, I would come across him walking his two Staffordshire terriers, his best friends.

One day, Grant presented at the Program in an extremely distressed state. It took us time to calm him down. Then he told us his story. Apparently, two of the local constabulary had come across him in the street where he was walking his Staffies.

We know who you are, one of them had said, and you’re not fucking welcome around here.

If you don’t make yourself scarce, the other had said, we’ll shoot your fucking dogs.

Andy (not his real name) was Director of the Program. He got on the blower to the local cop-shop. Things were sorted out, and I can only hope, but without a great deal of confidence, that the two renegade cops got hauled over the coals.

Grant stayed in the district and continued on the Program. But I never saw him walking his Staffies in the streets again after that. His faith in humanity had received a significant setback, and we had to work on him overtime to regain his confidence. It should never have come to that.

So we approached the 13-week mark of the 17-week Program. It was time for clients to ready themselves for their trial work placements. Andy was a whizz at organizing these, and he found one for Grant despite the latter’s unfortunate background. The CEO of a private company with quarters in the CBD, was prepared to give people like Grant a second chance. He offered Grant a clerical role in his organization.

Come Monday morning of week 13, and our premises were empty of clients. They were all out on their trial placements. The staff were on deck, engaged in preparation for the next intake, and in other sundry desk duties. The premises were uncharacteristically quiet. It was in the nature of our client group, when present, to be vocal and demonstrative. There was always somebody’s prize ox being gored. Personal dysfunction quickly became communal dysfunction in this milieu. We constantly had bombs to defuse. So we cherished peace when it came.

Peace was not to last. At lunch time, Grant was back, verging on the hysterical. We calmed him down and tried to coax the story out of him. Though he was incoherent and effectively unable to communicate in any useful sense, we managed slowly to piece things together. Apparently, he found the office environment unbearably hostile. Given he was not inclined to trust people until they proved themselves worthy of it, perhaps this should not have come as a surprise to us. He was a claustrophobe. An agoraphobe. A social isolate. His time in the slammer had not prepared him for anything like the interactions with people that came with a conventional office job.

So, we asked ourselves, where to from here? Do we give up on Grant? We had skilled him up heroically, but placing him in employment looked like an impossibly hard ask. Unfortunately, job placement was the main brief with which we had been entrusted by DSS and, ultimately, by the government of the day who were funding us. Should we concede failure in Grant’s case?

This story has a happy ending. Fate solved the problem for us. What happened to Grant was an unlikely story, in the nature of an urban legend, that most of us have heard but think only happens in la la land. But I vouch it did happen to Grant.

At just the right moment, an uncle, well set up but with no direct descendants, died. In his will, he left Grant his farm with ancillaries in Central Victoria. Grant retired there and, assuming he is still alive, would almost certainly be there to this day. I imagine him, a virtual recluse, picking up the necessary farming skills, and successfully putting them into practice. He was not a slow learner. And I imagine there might be a couple of farm dogs running round the traps, much loved by their owner.

The tooth fairy is alive and well. Fairy tales do happen. Just ask Grant. If you can get him to trust you.