An interview with Clive Chabrier
Q. Do you have a sense of the kind of man you would like to be as you grow older?
Clive: As I have puzzled over what it takes to be a good man I have become painfully aware of the lack of older male role models with whom I can identify. I have been keeping an eye out for such men and this interview is one result of that search – I hope there will be many more. It is hard to summarise why I was so inspired by this meeting, but I think in essence it was a combination of his playfulness, passion and tolerance. Things I have found sadly rare amongst the older men I know.
I met Clive Chabrier seven weeks before this interview. He is 63 years old with a massive white beard, long white hair and he wears a fez. He has a range of these, many of which he makes himself. In many ways he fits the classic image of the English eccentric, but not quite, as he is a highly personable and social man. I interviewed Clive at the Brisbane airport a few hours before his return flight to London.
In 1959, when Clive was 20 years of age, he was shanghaied into the French foreign legion and spent a year escaping and another three making his way home, via Australia! He carried a great deal of distress and guilt from that time, as he was involved in horrific action by the French in Africa. To try to understand and deal with this he wrote his story down. That story became a book, which is presently with potential publishers; it speaks to many of the issues of our time.
By the gentle use of the mythological archetype of the Fool from the Tarot to inform the story’s depth, Clive achieves what Edward Tacey refers to as a ‘resacredisation’ of this period of his life. Issues of cowardice, courage and manhood are explored from the point of view of an unusually tolerant and wise man. For me it was also a snapshot of an Australia that is lost to us now.
I have become painfully aware of the lack of older wiser men in our culture. Our heroes (mostly sports people) embody the Peter Pan myth – never wanting to grow up. Clive is a man who has managed to live a true life of the soul. He offers no clear answers, no certainty. Instead there is sorrow, awe and mystery, all spoken of with a lightness and humour that suggest better ways to approach life in the midst of horror.
I was particularly interested to use this opportunity to further explore the question of what makes a good man in our modern world.
Peter: I wonder, what is ‘manliness’ to you?
Clive: Manliness or humanness, I’m not sure I make a distinction – at the time of life I describe in the book I gained strength because everything was just part of going to Australia. [Which is what he had originally set off to do.] I was following the archetypal path of the fool and that innocence got me through a lot of dangerous stuff, not deliberately, it’s just what happened. Later I became the ‘magician’ so no matter how bizarre things got I knew who I was and what I was doing – being a magician – it was another archetype. Later still I became more of a guide for people who became lost (yet another archetype). It became a way of being present.
I place humanness above spiritual aspiration and in that sense I am anti-spiritual despite pursuing the archetype of the magician.
Truth is an unfolding – not something you can know; it’s always shifting and changing.
Wisdom says to me, don’t even talk about it [wisdom].
Peter: How do you see a father’s role? Is there a difference between that and the mother’s role?
Clive: It is also a very nurturing role. The difference is related to how love is expressed – kind of an unconditional acceptance. There is something unwavering in my role [as a father] though I don’t know how to quantify it. A bit like seeing a friend after years and it’s still the same – an unwavering quality.
In our family I’m not the ‘pillar’ (upon which the family relies) from all the normal ways of looking at it. Yet somehow I am. Maybe we draw that straight from our genetics or something.
At an early stage in my life I felt as if I was pointing at some promised land (I could see it), but not going there myself. Now, without noticing how, I’ve found myself there.
I didn’t know my own father; somehow I was more concerned with making it as a human being rather than any gender roles.
I’m concerned that maybe I am conditioned a bit to express some physical courage when it’s required. For a lot of my life I’ve felt very cowardly. I’ve dealt with that by going back and realising that none of those situations were ones where braveness would have been useful. When things did matter I rose to it, to my own surprise. For example, my step-father used to beat me a lot. When he went to beat my little brother I faced up to him ready to fight. My mother walked in then and what she saw triggered something—my brother never was beaten.
Peter: You laugh a lot; is humour always critical?
Clive: I went to a school with a headmaster and headmistress (who lived at the school). When you got detention you had to stand under the clock. Everyone would go home and 10 minutes later she [the headmistress] would come out and say something about why you were there and then leave you there for a while longer—then she would come out again and send you off home. This was always the pattern, so one day I went to the toilet when I figured she would be about to send me home. Then I went back and stood under the clock. She thought I’d gone home so I ended up standing out there till 10 pm. When she finally found me, there was great consternation and apologies galore. Somehow I think there has always been great importance for me in finding harmless ‘turning the tables’ gestures.
The following excerpt from Clive’s book gives another wonderful example of this.
A Legionnaire given the role of barber, was ordered something along the lines of—‘LEGIONNAIRE SCHMIDT—HAIR—REGULATION—CUT.’
As the clippers mowed as close as they possibly could, up the sides and back of the recruit’s head, handfuls of hair fell to the ground. Then the top was clipped down to a quarter of an inch, an absurd tuft the size of a fried egg was left, which definitely wasn’t fashionable in those days. The acting barber stood to attention and screamed,
‘A VOUS ORDRE SERGEANT’ Then the order came;
‘HEAD—GEAR—REPLACE’ and so on. All along the line the actions were precisely repeated, until it was my turn.
‘VOLONTAIRE—ENLEVER—LE CAPOT’ came the order, which I duly obeyed.
But I was totally bald—shiny razor bald, not even so much as a shadow. The barber hesitated, the Sergeant stiffened, barking the order even louder,
Ten grown men stood waiting, while another grown man ordered and oversaw yet another grown man, absurdly run his clippers impotently up the sides and back of my shiny hairless head, and with scissors, clip the air a quarter of an inch above my skull. Then step back, and standing to attention, shout,
‘A VOUS ORDRE SERGEANT.’
I stood stiff as a board, face impassive, eyes staring straight ahead, just like the other men. But as the order came to replace my silly hat I, for the first time since that door closed behind me without my consent in the recruiting block at Lille, had an inner smile. For I knew that I had won a very small victory against overwhelming odds.*
The ritual haircut was to demean us. It is a military tactic the world over. I had seen it coming and got Johnny to shave off every hair from my head.
Peter: What do you think makes someone ‘good’?
Clive: I have a lot of respect for people who manage to hold a tolerant posture despite being amongst bigots. There is a man here I know who has little education and has spent his whole life working in tough, rural labouring jobs amongst tough, racist and aggressive men—yet he remains deeply gentle and tolerant of difference. Then there are those cultivated into political correctness and it doesn’t really mean much.
It’s fine to be utterly selfish as long as you realise that you are connected to everything. I’ve borrowed and changed a quote from somewhere that sums it up for me:
‘Aspire towards the greatest truth available to you at any given moment.’
Peter: ‘So do you feel as though you have some sense of manhood now?’
Clive: ‘I feel as though I shifted to manhood at 63. [He laughs; he’s 63 now] I have a very good feeling recently: I feel at home in my self. I would hope that I had made progress. It is to do with managing any process that comes up. I’d want to go through any experience fully, however upsetting or distressing. Even if I fell apart I hope I would do so without becoming bitter or hard or smaller.
Peter: What about wisdom?
Clive: Wisdom says to me don’t even talk about it [wisdom]. I only do so because you are a friend. It’s like therapy—you have all those skills but you don’t use them unless the time and place is right. Wisdom is the same.
We don’t make the times or spaces to listen properly any more, so we don’t make the times and spaces for wisdom.
*The fool plays magician and turns the tables.
Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 5, March ’03