It’s a Hard Life

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My girl and I visited the Hyde Park Barracks the other day and took in some excellent exhibitions about the harsh life of convicts aboard prison hulks and the early female immigrants to Australia.

I feel a small personal attachment to the restored Barracks building as I was one of the 250 or so volunteers back in 1980/81 that spent time sifting through the dust and dirt that had been vacuumed up from between the floorboards. I vaguely remember that a friend discovered an old matchbox, but I don’t think I found anything. I did get a chance to scramble up into the pidgeon-infested clocktower though.

Today, the barracks houses exhibitions about the building and its many uses over the years, and early Sydney in general, and its spacious courtyard is also the venue for various Sydney Festival events–bands, temporary clubs, etc. There’s also a great little restaurant where we had lunch in the sun, eating salad and vegetable tempura and listening to the crows in the nearby trees.

As I looked over the scattered ephemera of people’s lives dredged up from the sea where rotting prison hulks lie, or picked out from rat’s nests between the floorboards, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a lucky bastard I am. A couple of centuries ago I probably would have experienced the days of my (short) life in one of two ways–unremitting tedium or relentless drudgery. Considering the history of at least one side of my family, probably the latter (there’s at least one horse thief and one axe murderer in there). Throughout the small span of years that human beings have occupied this planet, most people have had a pretty rough time of it. They certainly have had very little choice, counting themselves extremely lucky indeed to simply be able to earn enough to put food in their mouth, or have a place to sleep at night.

Whether a domestic servant, a convict working off his fourteen years for stealing a hat, a clerk hunched over paperwork in a stuffy office, an immigrant coming to a new country in search of a life–millions have lived a life where only rarely one could snatch just a few moments of happiness here and there.

After viewing the exhibitions I sat outside in the sun, was served a high quality meal, and sipped a cold beer in a chilled glass. I live in my own home that I can’t be thrown out of (as long as I keep paying the mortgage of course) with the woman I love, and get to do something everyday that is creative and remarkably easy in contrast with most jobs throughout history. I am, and so is just about everybody I know, obscenely privileged in contrast with all of those souls that came before.

It really puts things into perspective.

Image: Jacks (detail) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, c1880

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