I fell in love with Alan when I was 25, and he came to my place with a camembert. We’d met previously at Monash around theVietnam war. But that day he came alone and unannounced. He said he was passing by and thought I might like a camembert.
On that day I fell in love with him when he said ‘Why wouldn’t we be helping the old woman crossing the street as though she was our grandmother’. There was something in the way he said it. We started a relationship. It grew into being each other’s best friend for the rest of our lives.
After a few years we were in Paris where Alan was doing research with French physicists and I a PhD.
It was 1970 – a time of great social hope. Alan loved expanding on the idea that this time it wasn’t just about the workplace but about a change in the culture.
I could speak about this time when this hope seemed to be realised, about weekly political meetings at our place, tear-gas in the street, new openness in our interactions. But I’ll jump to the hope itself.
What was it, even when the hope of the 60s was long passed and revealed as naive?
First, in one word, it was for Alan ‘self-management’. Then, the weight shifted to ecology, to the project that we would give up addiction to consumerism, and become aware that we all inhabit one ecosystem and must fight for its survival.
He’d describe his position by quoting Gramsci: Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.
There was a period when he was totally absorbed by Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic resonance, and spoke of practically nothing else – as it used to happen when a book or a new concept would catch his attention and he was making sense of it to himself. In the last two years of his life, it was Life on theEdge by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, the coming together of quantum physics and biology.
It wasn’t only science and politics that were guiding him. When he was in England in 1970 (on a visit from Paris), he spent a long time looking at one picture by Turner in which land, sea and sky are interwoven and become one transcendental landscape. I wish I remember his exact words. He said that looking at this picture he felt that perhaps he could have seen and lived life very differently. There is also a similar painting described inProust, over many pages, that Alan read and re-read, and spoke about for hours.Land and sea merging into one fabric together with the sky. As though art was helping him to know better what he would later call the most encompassing ecosystem. He was struggling with expressing something along the lines of one life that goes beyond the illusion of separateness, and even division between life and death as we understand it in our limited way –
His sheer presence brought this experience often to me. Even when he was cranky or difficult, it would descend, an intimation of deeper life.
He engaged with life in many ways. I’ll mention three, with nature, with dogs and with humans suffering from violation of social justice.
With nature: We walked a lot. Decades ago, we walked in the streets of Malvern when we lived there. Then he somehow veered towards streams and we walked along various creeks and parklands around them. For hours. He had time, he was not advancing a career. He would stop and take a leaf or point to a branch, and start explaining why this shape, how this color attracts the pollen bearer, give reasons why this tree is leaning towards water…
He loved his dogs. Misha, Bobby, Billie. He marveled: ‘How can one species be so lovingly disposed towards another. And the two of them live so well together. There are mysteries in the universe.’
And he was engaged with his own species, humans in need as though they could be as close as his family.
Let’s have clarity about that. His family was dear and extremely important to him. He spoke about where he came from as lower than proletariat. He wanted a better life, education and dignity for the few of his closest family who survived.
But he was also helping other people as though they were family. Often, when he met someone who needed to fight agains tinjustice, particularly at a workplace, he would respond. With great passion he would mount a full campaign. It could be a friend or someone he didn’t know very well, a friend of a friend. He would provide psychological support as well, listen patiently to the injury, and debrief, and devise step by the step needed strategy using his intelligence and political experience.
He helped the person not only to win the struggle, or at least to conclude it with dignity. But also to gain awareness that they belonged to a larger world where an injustice needs to be repaired.
I hope that wherever Alan finds himself, he might hear us today and hear our love for him. The Persian poet Rumi said that there are many ways of kissing the earth. Alan, wherever you are, thank you for your way.