Essay: Mel Campbellon thin skin

Smoothing Things Over

For most of 2020, I had a rash on the back of my hand that would not go away.

I noticed it at the start of May that year: three dappled red splodges surrounded by red-brown pin-spots. It’s strange now to remember how uneasy it made me feel – a constant, low-level worry that something wrong had settled in me. It looked upsettingly like those videos made early in the pandemic to explain how Covid-19 spreads, in which particles ping around like pinballs and disperse through the air. Clumping. Settling on exposed skin and surfaces. My rash looked as if a person with the novel coronavirus had touched me with three fingers.

Feelings were raw then. It was a diligent time of hygiene theatre and proximity paranoia: of elbow-bump greetings, wiping down recently purchased groceries, consulting published lists of exposure sites and screaming inside your heart. Because I live alone, I turned for advice to my lockdown lifeline – my WhatsApp group chat ‘Happy Pandemic Friends’. My friend Lucy is an intensive-care doctor; she had bigger concerns than my hand rash. But she’s also tremendously kind, so she recommended an over-the-counter steroid cream, plus moisturising five times a day. 

That was on a Sunday. By Wednesday, doom scrolling through feature articles about viral infections that manifest as discoloured extremities, I was freaking out that I had ‘Covid hand’. My friend Anthony began to taunt me with modified lyrics from Redgum’s anti-Vietnam War anthem: 

And what’s this rash that comes and goes?

Can you tell me what it means?

God help me, it was Covid-19

Unfortunately for Anthony’s joke, the swab came back negative.

The epidermis is the skin’s outermost layer, and the stratum corneum is the outermost of five epidermal layers. It is almost like organic masonry. Corneocytes – flattened skin-cell envelopes a micrometre thick, composed mainly of the protein keratin – are stacked like bricks in vertical layers of about twenty cells, mortared together with lipids. Over your eyelids and under your eyes the stratum corneum is thinner, while it’s thicker and tougher on your hands, or the heels of your feet.

Once thought to be composed of mere ‘dead skin cells’, the stratum corneum is now understood as the body’s fortification against infection. Natural hydrating substances seep up into it from the deeper layers of the skin, and a surface film of sebum and sloughed corneocytes naturally slows evaporation of water from the skin surface. But when this layer becomes dehydrated, it loses its flexibility and becomes cracked, scaly and itchy. 

Ironically, the fretful apotropaic rituals of 2020, my frequent, soapy hand-washings and lashings of alcohol-based sanitisers, probably invited in the rash.

Robert Macfarlane observes, in his 2019 book Underland, that when we shrink in fear and disgust from underground spaces, associating them with ‘dirt, mortality and brutal labour’ and seeking to smooth over the surface evidence they leave, we condemn ourselves – both perceptually and politically – to a two-dimensional worldview. ‘Our “flat perspectives” feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit and to the deep time legacies we are leaving,’ Macfarlane writes. ‘For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greed and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking.’

Sometimes I’ll walk past a construction site, or underground council works, and get the uncanny feeling that the skin of history has been incised and peeled away. I realise how light and shallow our lived experience is. This feeling echoes the vertigo I felt as a dinosaur-obsessed child, pondering that the skeletons I loved to visit in museums were not even bones, but stone that replaced organic material over millions of years, in hard-pressed layers.

In 1924 during excavations for what is now the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street, Melbourne, workers were astonished to find a perfectly preserved wooden picket fence that was older than the 1865 building they’d just demolished. And in 2017, redevelopment near the bluestone Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street unearthed an entire residential block two metres below street level, complete with gardens, fireplaces and windows. Archaeologists believe dozens more of these pocket Pompeiis are dotted around Melbourne’s CBD. 

Because the city’s Hoddle Grid of streets had disregarded natural topography and water flow, much of early Melbourne was built on stagnant ground, and disease regularly ravaged the cramped homes of the town’s poorest residents. Clement Hodgkinson, a civil engineer and future Victorian Surveyor-General who would plan and develop Melbourne’s now-cherished city parks, vividly described the ‘overpowering’ stench of decomposing organic matter in a letter to the editor of The Argus on 7 May 1853:

The cause of the worst of these miry sloughs, in some of the blocks composing the city, is the impossibility, under existing circumstances, of surface-drainage, owing to their sites being below the level of the streets surrounding such blocks. In a locality of this kind, I noticed last week an impassable slough, which the inhabitants of the surrounding tenements assured me was some feet deep in the centre, the whole forming a semi-fluid fetid mass.

Hodgkinson’s use of the word ‘slough’ leapt out at me. While the word is pronounced ‘slow’ and comes from the Old English for ‘soft, muddy ground’, worry over my hand rash led my thinking to the biological verb ‘to slough’, rhyming with ‘rough’: the act of shedding or casting off dead tissue. Reptiles and amphibians are said to slough their skins. Humans also shed dead surface skin cells: either as a response to sunburn, environmental irritants or immune shock, or as a deliberate cosmetic practice using abrasive scrubs or chemical exfoliants.

An 1853 law mandated Melbourne’s street levels be raised to drain the stagnant ground, which also required landowners to bury their existing buildings. Much like Premier Daniel Andrews’ six Stage Four Covid lockdowns between 30 March 2020 and 21 October 2021, this wasn’t popular. Business owners demanded compensation for property loss and damage. Meanwhile, The Argus reported on 4 July 1855 that anguished Little Lonsdale Street residents had petitioned the Melbourne City Council, ‘complaining of the raising of the level of that street and praying that some other mode of effecting the desired object could be found.’ 

Evidently it could not. The residents complied – leaving plenty of material for archaeologists to discover – and the public health law served its purpose. Now we can stroll from east to west along gentle slopes forcibly smoothed over an inflamed landscape, one that bears no surface indication of how that place tried to slough off its colonisers. 

Viewed on the scale of deep time, contemporary Melbourne is a rash on the skin of Naarm, the salt-lake country. Its arterial river, the Birrarung, flows over the dark basalt Melburnians call bluestone, which erupted through the earth’s epidermis between two and 4.5 million years ago. Eight hundred thousand years ago on Wurundjeri country, the Merri and Darebin Creeks ran with molten lava until they met the Birrarung at Dights Falls. Further west, the Koroitj volcano on Gunditjmara country last erupted a mere 34,000 years ago.

‘Even though Melbourne is central to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, I don’t feel connected here. I really don’t,’ Uncle Dave Wandin told an audience of twenty invited architects, landscape designers, horticulturalists, artists and Indigenous knowledge-holders at Landscape as Protagonist, a March 2019 symposium during Melbourne Design Week. Uncle Dave, a Wurundjeri Elder, leads the revegetation of Coranderrk Bushland Reserve near Healesville – a small fragment of the self-managed Aboriginal property hard-won in 1863 by his ancestors Simon Wonga and William Barak, and then shut down by the Victorian government in 1924.

‘I am in the city most days now, unfortunately, but I really can’t wait to get home and get out to that spot,’ he told the audience. ‘When I come over the hill, I can smell the change in the air. I can hear the trees and I can relax. That’s my connection to Country. I should be connected to all of it.’

Arrernte/Kalkadoon filmmaker Rachel Perkins uses a striking phrase in her 2008 documentary series First Australianswhen she narrates how Wonga and Barak ‘overcame the authorities who tried to wipe them from the face of the earth’. To wipe them from the face. Britain really did treat these sovereign people as a grime to be removed. And Melbourne was an extreme makeover; Britain seized and transformed the land around Naarm with amazing speed. 

John Batman was a Parramatta-born grazier who’d previously travelled to trouwunna/lutruwita, where he participated in the murderous Black Line campaign to wipe out the island’s First Peoples. On 6 June 1835 he met with Wurundjeri representatives, then returned triumphantly to Launceston, claiming he had negotiated a treaty to permanently rent 600,000 acres in exchange for an annual cash amount, plus assorted flour, knives, tomahawks, scissors, mirrors, blankets and clothing.

Unfortunately for the ambitious Batman, this treaty was not binding by either Kulin lore or British law. The Wurundjeri believed they were granting him tanderrum: guest rights for temporary safe passage through their lands. Meanwhile, New South Wales Governor Richard Bourke declared the treaty void on 26 August, because the Crown considered it already owned the land. 

By 1837 the shimmering, chest-high meadows of grass ‘as green as a leek’ beside the Birrarung had been trampled. Sheep and horses had exfoliated the yellow-spangled murnong terraces. The new Hoddle Grid turned its back on the river. Batman the superspreader was here now, and the colonial cluster began to multiply.

There are three kinds of moisturisers. Emollients are light oils including jojoba oil and squalane, which soothe discomfort by softening the stratum corneum and filling in rough patches, making dry, tight skin feel smooth and pliable. The word ‘mollify’ comes from the same Latin root and means to appease or pacify – to smooth things over and relieve a situation of tension. But dermatologically speaking, an emollient is the least effective kind of moisturiser because it only relieves the feeling of dehydrated skin.

Humectants, meanwhile, pull water molecules from the air into the skin’s surface to ‘plump it up’. Humectant ingredients include amino acids, sugar alcohols like glycerol and sorbitol, honey, molasses, egg white and yolk, aloe vera gel, ceramides, alpha-hydroxy acids, glycerine and hyaluronic acid.

Finally, occlusives are heavy substances that form a physical barrier against moisture loss and external irritants. Common occlusive agents include waxes, silicones, and vegetable and mineral oils. Dimethicone. Lanolin. Paraffin. Petrolatum. Coconut and olive oil. Cocoa butter.

I began to take obsessive photos of the rash on my hand. Racially I am white, but my skin is really pink. The ‘Hand Rash’ album on my phone looks like piles of uncooked bacon rashers or discarded rubber gloves. Scrolling helplessly, monitoring the spread of the rash, I felt ashamed. Was this me? I felt strange and grotesque, even to myself. 

White colonial narratives observed that Aboriginal people often called Europeans ‘ghosts’. Indeed, words for ghosts and spirits in many languages later came to refer metonymically to white people. The Woiwurrung language term is ngamatji, the place where spirits go after death; so the Wurundjeri treated the corpse-pale newcomers as lost souls who needed to return to their proper domain. 

Conversely, many colonisers’ accounts of first contact have a complacent tone because the European rationalist view is that ghosts are categorically ‘unreal’; anyone who speaks of living people as ghosts can be patronised as naïve, irrational, gullible. For instance, in 1836 Francis Armstrong reported that the Noongar people were in the grip of ‘a delusion’ that white colonisers were reincarnated Noongar dead: ‘The obstinacy with which they persist in this conviction … is so great, that [he, the author] has never been able to persuade them of the contrary…’

What Armstrong and many other colonial chroniclers experienced as intellectual superiority is a failure of imagination, because the Dreaming meaningfully connects people to country in deep time. Palaeontologist and author Caitlín R Kiernan describes deep time in a 2012 Weird Fiction Review conversation with fellow author Jeff VanderMeer: ‘Our smallness and insignificance in the universe at large. In all possible universes. Within the concept of infinity.’ Deep time is a sharp rebuke to the colonialist universe, which revolves around the coloniser’s own agency. So yes, colonisers are ghosts, because a ghost’s defining feature is its absent presence. Like ghosts, they inhabit the surface of a place without seeing its true significance.

It’s telling that Western modes of encounter with deep time – the Romantic sublime, the Freudian uncanny, the Lovecraftian eldritch, the Kristevan abject, the Lacanian Real – ascribe psychic pain to moments when the Self feels uncertain and powerless. The colonial project demands that the colonised cede everything – land, language, connection, sovereignty. Yet the coloniser perceives any surrender of their own Self as horror and violence: a tear in the thin skin protecting the comfort of home from existential threat. 

Perhaps colonisers felt more powerful when they projected onto Aboriginal onlookers their own fear and repulsion at having to widen their worldview. Perhaps sailors, sealers and pastoralists enjoyed imagining themselves as the spectres that confronted the Gunditjmara people: ugly ghosts made of fire, their skin glowing sunset-pink, smoke billowing from their noses and mouths. Or they basked in the Noongar people’s horror when they – yes, they, djanga, spirits of the dead – came staggering inland, their skins sloughed away to reveal the pale flesh beneath. They revelled in stinking like corpses; that their death-swollen tongues had lost their language; that with bleached eyes they did not recognise this place, or their loved ones.

However, they struggled to understand the generous connectedness of the Dreaming: the fluttering hope with which a bereaved Quandamooka woman of Moreton Bay might call to one of these dokkai, the fire-cooked ghouls, using the forbidden name of her dead husband or son. Thus, in the 1820s several escaped convicts were welcomed home to Quandamooka country, as the Gamilaraay similarly welcomed George Clarke in 1827. The newcomers (re)learned their land, language and lore. Old initiation scars were reinscribed in their new flesh.

In 1803 another escapee, William Buckley, was lost on Wadawurrung country when he stumbled upon a family group who recognised the broken spear he was using as a walking stick. ‘They called me Murrangurk,’ Buckley recounted decades later, in a memoir-pamphlet co-authored with Hobart journalist John Morgan, ‘which I afterwards learnt, was the name of a man formerly belonging to their tribe, who was buried at the spot where I had found the piece of spear…’

Adopted as a Wadawurrung man, Buckley rose to the respected position of ngurungaeta, and later mediated between the Kulin peoples and British colonists. But the British found him stupid and even monstrous. His height was reported at between 191 and 201cm; George Russell, who met him near the Birrarung in 1836, unflatteringly described his ‘face very much marked by smallpox … just such a man as one would suppose fit to commit burglary or murder.’

By late July 2020, the three patches on my hand had merged into one angry red welt. My skin felt tight, dry and flaky, and stung whenever I used hand sanitiser. I abandoned the cortisone cream and began to use a dermatological occlusive cream containing paraffin and lanolin.

I took to obsessively moisturising my hands at my desk. Masked passers-by might have glimpsed me through the window, cackling and rubbing my hands together, and mistaken me for a supervillain. But I was only laughing at something I’d just seen on Twitter, a picture of Ned Kelly-branded hand sanitiser on sale at Piedimontes supermarket in North Fitzroy in brown glass 750ml bottles, like longnecks of beer. Melbourne whisky distillery NED – which uses the now-iconic image of the notorious bushranger – had pivoted to making hand sanitiser, which it distributed to frontline health workers, taxi companies and community groups. Such is life.

What made NED hand sanitiser so funny to me is that Kelly epitomises the Australian fascination with criminals and anti-establishment sentiment, despite our actual love of policing and being policed. Hand sanitiser represents our obedience to the state’s moral rhetoric of Covid-prophylactic hygiene. Ned himself would not rub his hands with the 65% alcohol liquid that bears his image – although, admittedly, he did wear a mask.

‘I have spent and will again spend many happy days fearless free and bold,’ Ned wrote in his famous piece of self-propaganda, the Jerilderie Letter. Perhaps Ned would have joined the inchoate convoy of ‘freedom protesters’ who converged on Canberra a year ago to oppose all anti-Covid restrictions, long after most such measures ended. Perhaps today, Ned Kelly would be mocked as a ‘cooker’ – because Australians do not actually love freedom. What we love is whingeing, dobbing on each other, and soothing our own small discomforts by punishing others with disproportionate exercises of institutional power. And we define racially marked bodies as particularly risky. They are what we want to wipe away. 

Now there are no Covid mandates in Australia, only recommendations. Public PCR testing has finished. We need no longer wear a mask, scan QR check-in codes, report our positive Covid tests or even isolate when sick. Only frontline healthcare workers are required to be vaccinated, and only travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macao require a negative Covid test to enter Australia. A year ago, tennis star Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia over his vaccination status; in 2023, Australian Open participants were not tested and could even play while Covid-positive, just as several cricketers have done this summer. 

But there are still hand sanitiser dispensers in public places. Of all the anti-Covid gestures, hand sanitiser is the simplest and shallowest. Like our fear of the virus, it evaporates invisibly. Hand sanitiser helps us hold the uncanny, unsettled feeling that our physical bodies might be permeable. Cup your hands and receive the gift of not worrying how to navigate the stratum corneum of public space. Imagine Covid is over and we are all free.

Syphilis announces itself with weeping sores around the genitals and mouth, and a rash that flushes the entire body with reddish, wart-like lesions and pustules. Sufferers also experience flu-like symptoms, weight loss and hair loss. Then the disease lies dormant in the body for years before resurfacing. 

If left untreated in its secondary stage, it eats deep, disfiguring craters into the flesh, collapsing soft tissues such as the nose and lips. Tertiary syphilis causes blindness, paralysis and dementia as the disease dissolves bone and reaches the central nervous system.

Before penicillin was discovered in 1928, syphilis was incurable. The most common treatment was mercury, whose side effects could be as devastating as the disease itself.

John Batman was diagnosed with syphilis in 1833, and was noticing its effects when he came to Naarm. By 1838 he was in constant pain, unable to walk, and swathed his face in bandages to hide his missing nose. This macabre image is only heightened by Batman’s heroic profile in Charles Nuttall’s 1912 sketch – an idealised posthumous portrayal based on an even more fanciful 1861 painting by Frederick William Woodhouse.

It’s tempting to view Batman’s physical decay as cosmic justice for his atrocities in trouwunna/lutruwita. I certainly think of him when I look at an 1866 portrait of Wurundjeri leader William Barak, who as a boy had witnessed the signing of Batman’s ‘treaty’. Taken when he was 33 – around Batman’s age when he came to Naarm – the photograph captures Barak’s strong, straight nose, high cheekbones, and lush hair and beard.

Batman’s wife, the ex-convict Elizabeth Callaghan, was described as having ‘a marked face’. Like William Buckley, she had smallpox scars. (Eliza’s prison record reads simply, ‘Bad.’) As John’s disability became increasingly abject, Eliza abandoned him for his former secretary William Willoughby. In his final months, Batman was tended only by his Darug servants from Parramatta, who wheeled him around in a wicker pram.

After his penurious death, the state government requisitioned his house at the foot of what was called Batman’s Hill, and the hill itself was levelled for railway yards. Batman had sought to make his mark on this new landscape, but instead his own marked body had collapsed.

Now, Batman’s atrocities mean he’s being smoothed out of Melbourne’s civic body. The former electoral division of Batman is now named for Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper; Batman Park is now Gumbri Park; William Barak Bridge and Tanderrum Bridge cross Batman Avenue. And today, from the facade of an ARM Architecture-designed apartment tower, Barak’s portrait gazes down Swanston Street. His stern presence reminds passers-by whose land this always was, and always will be. 

Towards the end of 2020, my rash was finally subsiding. It was back to brownish dots that I massaged with moisturiser; but I didn’t always remember to, because the unmoored, vertiginous feeling that had dominated my year – the low-level panic I had really been soothing – was also fading fast. I wasn’t curious about what had caused the rash. After all, we’d worked hard to smash Covid, and now it was gone. We deserved a smooth icing on our donut days.

It could be a long time before the true damage of Covid becomes clear to us. Shallow, short-term thinking is convenient for business and governments. Even people who once championed the social cohesion promised by rules and masks and jabs now shy from making small sacrifices to help protect vulnerable communities. We are treating immunocompromised people, and those disabled by Long Covid, as ghosts at the feast. 

I have always responded to discomfort with diligence. I’ve felt a strong impulse to research and learn so I can avoid the shame of being wrong. I’ve wanted to make things better, smooth things over. But I am trying to listen more deeply. I want to accept the dizzying scope of what I don’t know, and to allow newfound knowledge to shape me slowly, rather than wielding it immediately like a weapon. 

Eastern Arrernte artist Kathleen Kemarre Wallace urges in her 2009 collection of oral history and cultural lore: ‘Listen deeply and let these stories in. They are for all time, for the old days, to help remember the old people, but also for the future and for young people now.’

My hand rash flared up again in December.