The inspiration behind In The Mood

About nine years ago, when I was living in England, I bought a boxed 3 CD set of jazz music from the thirties and forties from a stall in the Portobello Road. I hadn’t heard much of it before, and I loved it. Songs like ‘Golden Wedding’ and ‘Moonlight Serenade’ were captivating to me. They were so full of elegance and wit and life. They defined savoir faire. Then one day I was listening to Radio Four on the anniversary of D Day and they were having a discussion of the music of the time. A woman phoned in and said how much she disliked it. How, having lived through that terribly dark and horrific time, she found the jauntiness and upbeat optimism of it false, and tyranically American. ‘All that cheerfulness being forced down your throat,’ she said. ‘Such a smooth seductive surface with no substance behind it.’

The contrast between her point of view and the charm of the music fascinated me – they both made a lot of sense. If you do have to go through trauma, perhaps the best way is to seek distraction, to put a brave face on it, and try to avoid thinking too much about what’s hard. On the other hand, what does this do to your emotional wellbeing? Or your capacity to experience intimacy? What are the consequences of that kind of repression?

As I read more about the war I learned that the attitude of the music was in fact a popular one. Soldiers were encouraged to ‘forget’ about the war and assimilate back home as quickly as possible. ‘Battle fatigue,’ as post traumatic stress disorder was known at that time was something to be ashamed of, and glossed over. War veterans’ families and friends were encouraged to ‘act as though nothing had changed’ and similarly to avoid talking about what had happened during the war. This lead me to think about the general challenges of dealing with trauma, on an individual basis as well as a societal one, and the threat to intimacy, and happiness repression poses.

At about that time I came across a book of censored photos from the Allied war effort: Photos of women looking serious about their work, of women out with soldiers on crowded streets, of negroes holding guns, of horrific injuries – all these were censored in favour of photos of white, healthy looking soldiers standing on top of trenches; and women looking pretty and young, and chaste, wearing badges saying ‘holding down a job for our boys’.

Slowly over the years a story began emerging for me of some people who the photos of the time don’t show, and also that the nostalgia of our time for that period doesn’t represent. Men and women like me and the people I know – yet shaped and formed by the conditions of their time. Catherine isn’t a happy go lucky single gal – she takes her work seriously and is riven with anxiety for her husband’s safety. Robert isn’t an easy going larrikin – he is a sensitive, gentle man who has to leave a whole part of himself behind in order to make it through the war.

This connected with an experience I’d had a decade earlier when I was driving to work one day in Summer Hill, in the inner west of Sydney, and I became lost and drove down a street I’d never driven down before. To my surprise I saw a house I recognised, and I pulled to a stop. The house was a pink wooden bungalow, and I had a very strong feeling that I had been there before. I opened the front gate and walked straight up to the front door. No one was home, and so I walked down the side of the house and out to the back garden. That’s just not something I would normally do on someone else’s property, and yet I felt perfectly entitled. Annoyed, almost, that I didn’t have a key. I hadn’t had an experience like that before, and haven’t since, but ever since then I’ve wondered what kind of story I might tell that was set in that house. This is it.

See also: An interview about In The Mood