Luna Park. Photo: Loulou Han.
Photo: Loulou Han.

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Hellfire

Coney Island is the most human thing that God ever made, or permitted the Devil to make – Richard Le Gallienne.

‘Just for Fun’ is Luna Park’s motto, but to any Sydneysider the phrase sounds more like an entreaty than a declaration. Few cities place their fun-fairs so prominently, but the Park’s position – under the Harbour Bridge, facing the Opera House – is a misdirect in a city with such an uneasy relationship with pleasure. It has been harried throughout its existence, and survives only as a carnival where most of the carnival atmosphere has been removed.

Instead it has an air ocf enforced, old-timey nostalgia that children find bemusing. In Sydney the value of leisure alone would never sustain such a coveted location, so the park has stayed alive by emphasising its ‘heritage status’. It has wound up over-emphasising it. Everything seems frozen in the past, apart from the prices.

It has another significance though, another purpose that a visitor might sense, but not see. Luna Park is really a war memorial, a monument (if not quite a triumphal one) to a victory over Sydney’s insatiable mercantilism and corruption. The dark, greedy energies that threaten to contaminate the rest of the city were seen off here.

There have been compromises and casualties. Since it opened in 1935, the Park has been temporarily closed and almost shut many times. In 1996 the Big Dipper roller-coaster was closed forever by noise complainants, led by the architect Harry Seidler. (His Blues Point Tower is the blank-faced colossus sabotaging the horizon to the Park’s west.) The objections were tenacious and indicative: one court filing suggested a ‘compromise’ plan where patrons would ride inside perspex bubbles. The becalmed coaster stayed on site for five more years, used only for film shoots and special occasions.

Despite this setback, the Scooby Doo plotline history of Luna Park – amusement park saved from developers – is the most well-known. (One owner was even called Mr Fink). There is another version though, a story not only of the Park’s survival, but its salvation. The central actor in that deliverance did not experience these battles as the preservation of a recreational landmark, but as a struggle for the soul of Sydney against occult and satanic forces. In the vision of the pop-artist Martin Sharp, the dodgem cars and swivel-headed clowns were witness to Armageddon.

Martin Sharp is dead now, but Luna Park would not exist without him, and even when people mock or deride him as outlandish or mad – ‘Robert Hughes called me an acid casualty’, he told me rather sadly before he passed away – they usually do it affectionately. Here was someone who took eccentricity to the level of an artwork, before eccentrics were priced out of the market. After the Dipper went down and the Park almost went with it, he was able to spearhead a popular movement to finally make its existence less precarious. But the pronouncements Sharp delivered in private weren’t taken seriously, and even the people who appreciated him didn’t really believe him.

I do believe Martin Sharp. I am a skeptic, albeit it a superstitious one, so I do not believe him literally. When he told me a portrait that looked like Satan had the highest hang at the Archibald Prize because Satan was ascendant in this town again, I was unpersuaded. I did not believe in every portent of disaster and death that he revealed to me. But nor did I believe that his version was solely an aesthetic sense, or just an allegory.

No supernatural explanation is required to recognise Luna Park as a ley-point, a reflection and conduit and depository of the city’s wants and pleasures that cannot be measured by rational means. Its prominence was an accident, from a time before Sydney was really populous, and its increase in value, both financial and sentimental, meant it often revealed the city’s priorities in real time. (It’s no surprise it was once considered a prime site for a potential casino.) It is not just a battleground, but a piece of permanently prized terrain.

In the past, Luna Park had a more libidinal presence than it does today, and was really a place for young adults, not small children. When its construction was proposed in 1933, a Reverend Calder feared there ‘would be nightly orgies there which could not be checked.’ No such luck, but not as crazy a fear as it sounds now: the face-shaped entrance was likely inspired by a Parisian nightclub called ‘Hell’, where people entered through the mouth of a red-faced devil.

Eugène Atget, Cabaret de L'Enfer, boulevard de Clichy (1910).

Eugène Atget, Cabaret de L’Enfer, boulevard de Clichy (1910).

The phrase ‘the changing face of the city’ rarely has so literal a manifestation as the Park’s entrance, but only someone very old and very attentive would remember that the Face has changed many times. These shifts were so frequent that the pylons upholding it began to crack. The Face has now passed into landmark status, so it gets glanced at rather than looked upon. It is easy to forget that it is also an artwork. Children are usually frightened by it (especially its staring, glowing nocturnal form) and adults nonplussed. Very few locals know that the current Face depicts Old King Cole, or that it in the past it has shed tears, and had its teeth stolen, and its eyelashes are made from a tight row of black anti-climbing spikes.

The incumbent design is a redux of a 1950s effort by Arthur Barton, the ‘Rembrandt of Luna Park’. He had a glass eye, and would paint wearing white overalls offset by a bow-tie. He had to be gently fired in his eighties, because of fears the commute across the bridge would kill him. The Barton Face is a successful Face, from one of the Park’s happier periods in the 1950s, hence its restitution. Earlier versions of the face struggled to render beneficence. Some of the artists seemed overwhelmed by working on that scale. Some wanted to convey other emotions entirely.

Before Barton, the Face’s expression was in constant flux, and often frankly sinister. It changed colour: stone, silver, pink, pastels, white. In the midst of the Depression, it sneered at the city. At different times, it was described as ‘melancholic’, or having a ‘slightly sad neutral expression’. Its eyes narrowed, and its skin sank and suppurated. It is difficult to understand how a monstrosity like the so-called Grotesque Face from 1947 came to be. Was it a mistake? The historian Sam Marshall suggested that it ‘reflected the mutilation of war’.

Robert Hughes said that he liked ‘that easy confrontation of elite and mass cultures, the funfair and the temple, whose symbol in Sydney is Luna Park facing the Opera House across the Harbour’. That juxtaposition (which transects one of the Harbour’s deepest points), did not exist until the Opera House opened in 1973. Before then, Luna Park itself had periods as the temple, and not a benign kind.

It was Martin Sharp’s own version of the Face that first looked upon the open Opera House; they were completed in the same year. His had the white mask of a commedia dell’arte clown, intended as a satirical presence. ‘When we had finished painting the face, we wrote ha ha in huge letters on the base of Luna Parkʼs towers,’ he recalled, ‘laughing at those who chose to open the Opera House without the great Dane. That day the entrance to Luna Park became the biggest cartoon in the world. The carnival and its child, the opera, linked by the mighty Harbour Bridge.’

On the back of monumental mask, Sharp and his cohorts, working late and stoned and high up on uneasy ladders, also painted a psychedelic third eye.

‘For protection’ he told his biographer. ‘It didn’t work’.

‘At this level, there are no coincidences’, Martin would tell me, but it was a coincidence that brought us together. I had persuaded him to produce cover art for a magazine I was working for, and our calls began to take on the unmistakable, ominous quality of a missed deadline. ‘I’ve almost finished’, he said, publishing code for ‘I haven’t started yet’, and I knew this meant I would have to go and see him in person, like a bailiff. We arranged an interview, but for me it wasn’t much more than a pretext.

Sharp had returned to his boyhood home, Wirian, near Woollahra Library. He was invested in what he called the ‘eternal world of childhood’, and now at the end of his life he had reverted to it. He was doing what he had been doing half a century ago, making collages in the same house. His art had had a psychedelic quality when he was still a schoolboy, long before he had ever taken drugs. There was just ‘something in the air’. His old school, Cranbrook, was next door, and still an adversary. It had an eye on his valuable land, and had already purloined the tennis court and garage.

Wirian bridged an era of high bourgeois eccentricity and the counter-culture that followed it. Even when it was a doss-house for hippies and artists, there was still a reactionary old caretaker living there. There was also a symmetry: the drop-in and drop-out artistic commune Sharp founded in Potts Point, the Yellow House, had a piece of Wirian in it, and when he worked on Luna Park, that had some Yellow House in it. Wirian now had become a site of reclusion, the seat of Bohemia-in-exile. Martin greeted me clear-eyed, chuckling and hospitable, but I could make out a stripe of medical gauze under his shirt.

I did not then know much about the phenomenon of Martin Sharp. I knew only that he had been one of the driving forces of pop art in the 1960s, especially on concert posters and album covers. He had created the ‘blown out’ artwork of the 1967 Cream album Disraeli Gears, and posters for Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. He was a cartoonist for the satirical magazine OZ in its Sydney and London editions, and had once shared a house with Germaine Greer. Like Brett Whiteley he had returned home from London, and a job updating the look of Luna Park had helped draw him back.

He was the youngest seeming old man I could remember, and there was nothing forced or anachronistic about his boyishness, which was light and curious. We quickly dispensed with the light fiction that the cover existed in any form, and got started. Martin worked alternating between a cigarette and a pair of scissors, while chickens fussed outside. He didn’t mind if we talked while he worked. I soon felt more like a temporary acolyte than an interviewer, and when I checked the recordings later against older Q&As he had done, Martin’s obsessions were so recurrent that they felt almost continuous, like he was just doing one long interview stretched over forty years. Ours had just been a single episode in a multi-year, multi-audience cycle of preaching.

I was not buttonholed though. Paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists often talk like someone describing a dream. The emotion they feel doesn’t transmit, and their words more insistent and cloying, as their audience becomes more estranged. Instead, Martin had a congenial way of talking about his strange ideas, and would laugh gently as if to say ‘I can’t believe it either – but there it is!’ There were signs of someone else in the house, but not a partner. There had been women, maybe too many women, he said, but there wasn’t one now. He was not lonely, however, and visitors arrived all afternoon, like characters in a sitcom.

One was Richard Neville, an old friend and colleague from OZ magazine. I started Neville-agnostic – his transformation from hippy radical to unconvincing ‘futurist’ had dismayed me for some reason –  but I warmed to him over the afternoon. He looked like an aunt, and laughed when he realised what I was doing there. ‘Why you’re here waiting for him to finish the bloody cover, of course! We had to do the same thing!’ He had sat the same vigil decades earlier at OZ, co-piloting Martin through deadline. Collage had become a Sharp signature partly because it could be produced last-minute, with someone looking over his shoulder. Martin clipped away, unembarrassed, and I wondered if Eric Clapton had done the same clockwatching for the Disraeli Gears cover. We had tea, set on a wicker table in the garden, and Martin and Richard gossiped and reminisced without malice. I was struck by a sensation of bearing witness. Here was the twilight of the 1960s hippy aristocracy, the near-end of a period of enormous fun and promise, never quite realised. Afterwards, packing up the crockery, Martin asked me some questions I didn’t really understand, perhaps because no-one had sounded me out as an undercover emissary for the forces of darkness before. Satisfied I was who I thought I was, he lit a cigarette, and began divulging his real thoughts.

‘I’m pretty sick of Luna Park by now,’ he said. ‘Looking across the harbour, it’s quite a sad place I think.’ He then talked about it unceasingly for the next four hours.

‘I believe that Temples of Moloch went underground and became amusement parks,’ he said, and seem oddly comforted that I knew what Moloch was. Moloch was the god of the Canaanites, a bull or demon who demanded child sacrifice through an insatiable mouth, until his worship was forbidden in the book of Leviticus. Martin had switched on to Christianity at some point, but his obsessions had always had biblical proportions. In a way he had his own version of the New Testament, suffused with prophecy and grace. There had been a decade or more playing apostle to the singer Tiny Tim. Arthur Stace, who had chalked ‘Eternity’ in copperplate on Sydney streets a million times, was something like his Saint Paul, an alcoholic deadbeat who had undergone epiphanic conversion. The calamity that befell Luna Park in 1979 was Revelations.

Perhaps the Tiny Tim fixation had salted the earth for Martin’s later warnings. For others, Tiny Tim was a one-hit wonder, who achieved fleeting fame with a falsetto, ukulele-accompanied version of ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’. For Martin, he was a figure on par with Leonardo DaVinci, perhaps his superior. On Eric Clapton’s recommendation, Martin saw him perform at Albert Hall in 1968, and an imprinting occurred. A documentary project, finally filmed at Luna Park, became a figleaf for Martin’s decade-long intimacy with Tim. He showed me a bookshelf laden with stacks of recordings across different technology generations, like sedimentary layers. There must have been thousands of unlistenable hours. ‘Do you miss him?’ I asked, but he said they were still collaborating. In the mid-1970s they had even painted together, a version of Hokusai’s wave engulfing the towers of Luna Park, called ‘Babylon the Great is Fallen’.

In the mid-1970s, Martin did not need access to the occult to become concerned about Luna Park. A more mundane concern was enough – as he painted cartoons and murals and rides, he could see the internal mechanisms of the rides, and their poor condition. The decay was caused not by negligence but high level corruption. The owners wanted to do more, but could not obtain a lease from the state government. The New South Wales Premier Neville Wran, whose administration later became a by-word for graft, had a personal animosity towards Nathan Spatt, Leon Fink’s business partner. He had made a joke about Wran, the joke had been relayed, and while Spatt was still linked to the Park, it would get a one-year rolling lease, and no more. When Martin’s paints were brightening the exterior of the Park, the maintenance areas were only being palliated.

Martin began to fear that this chronic state of under-repair would lead to an accident, and his concerns fixated on the Big Dipper. He went deep into the Ghost Train, off-track, became terrified, then discovered a secret door that led to the River Caves, where an authentic Burmese statue of the Buddha sat indifferently. ‘I love Luna Park and sometimes I feel Luna Park loves me, but itʼs been an arduous romance,’ he wrote in Quadrant magazine in 1977.

It was an unusual article, a request for help, but also a warning:

Itʼs not on the walls of an art gallery that our fears lurk, but here in the endless twisting tunnel of eternal night. Past the dancing skeletons and lost souls, the eerie silence of the frozen screams. The Battersea Fun Fair died with the children when the scenic railway fell. Fun fairs are living museums. Time has made them fragile. Time can make them survive.

He sought Wran out in person at the opening night of Kold Komfort Kaffee at the Nimrod Theatre. ‘I’m really worried about Luna Park’, Sharp said. The premier ignored him.

Then the inevitable accident came, on the Big Dipper, just as predicted. In April 1979, fourteen children were injured when a car stalled. Sharp wrote Wran an urgent letter.

I believe a situation is developing at Luna Park where an accident was becoming inevitable. Indeed, my article in Quadrant was aimed at warning all people concerned that a dangerous gulf had developed in communications between the staff and management. That the parkʼs safety and future depend on a profound change in attitude by both the management and the government.

But he did not mail it.

Sometime in 1979 Sharp took a tab of acid, and headed to the Park. He saw monsters and werewolves, draculas and vampires. The masks were being sold for thirteen dollars, he later recalled.

Then Cracker Night, the ninth of June 1979. By the time Martin had rushed to the Park, it was too late. ‘The whole sky was orange, like a huge bush fire surging out of the middle of Luna Park,’ he said. ‘You could see it as soon as you got anywhere near the bridge.’ A fire had started in the Ghost Train, and those riding it had become trapped inside, unable to find the door to the River Cave hidden in the smoke. Seven people, six of them children, had died. A father and two sons – the Godsons – were found huddled together.  The residents of nearby Milsons Point had believed the glow was a light show, the screams the sound of people enjoying themselves.

It was hardly a conspiracy theory to believe the fire was deliberately lit. The coronial inquest speculated on a discarded match igniting rubbish, but there was no doubt the police had been sloppy. This was an era when sloppy policing was often deliberate, and there were many shady candidates who wanted a piece of the Park. The government put the site up for tender and it quickly found four new owners who had links to the organised crime boss and developer Abe Saffron. One member of the consortium was his nephew. After Saffron’s death, his niece said he had been behind the blaze, but had not intended to hurt anyone. She told the Sydney Morning Herald that Saffron liked to ‘collect things’.

The cause of the fire was uncertain, but not its effect.  It was a city-wide embarrassment and shame, though the government blamed management. Unable to prevent the tragedy, Martin could at least avenge it. He formed the Friends of Luna Park. The group managed to buy out the Park, reopen it in 1982, close it for refurbishment, then reopen it again in 1990. The ‘eager army’ Martin had called for in 1977, to preserve the treasures of pop art, to maintain the museum of childhood, had assembled and won. Too late.

If this version seems succinct, even perfunctory, it’s because these occasions were secondary for Martin. To the public, that was the order of events, but it was not how he experienced them Martin. Something had happened that would hold spiritual fascination for him for the rest of his life, to be explored in countless artworks and conversations. But what had happened, exactly?

‘The question must be raised just how closely does this city perceive itself?’ he wrote afterwards. ‘There are many of us who feel a similar complicity. The whole tragedy is surrounded by a web of synchronistic events. These are the signs and endorsements of some more mysterious presence at work which sometimes becomes visible through the scheme of everyday reality, for the language of images is far older than the written word unless accessible.’

Conveying the cosmology that Martin generated around the Ghost Train fire isn’t easy. His theories have a synaesthetic quality, an intense, furrowed search across time for rhymes and echoes, acquired over half a lifetime. It encompassed all things. Strangely Martin was not angry his warnings had been ignored, and not frightened in the presence of evil. Perhaps he felt protected by something. The events as he experienced them were not a sequence, even though they led to a conclusion. They were a loop, ever-present.

‘The stop on the Luna Park ghost train line was called H.E.L.L’S RAILWAYS STATION,’ he said. ‘Hell’s railway.’ Across the afternoon Martin told me there was also a full moon that night, that a fake fire started a real fire, that there was a railway strike, so the only training running in Sydney was the Ghost Train. The Pope was taking a train to Auschwitz at the same time, and Bob Dylan had Slow Train Coming coming. At the turn of the century, a concession at Coney Island called Hell Gate caught ablaze and destroyed the great theme park called Dreamland. These moments took place in the realm of images, which were truer and deeper than words.

The record, the Jeannie Lewis record was an unmistakable sign. ‘The Jeannie Lewis LP, called Tears of Steel & The Clowning Cavaleras,’ he said. ‘I contributed the artwork.’ Before the fire, there were concerns the ‘death side’ of the record ‘was too strong’, its songs too dark. Before the fire, Lewis performed at Luna Park in full Day of the Dead make-up, with a real piece of the Ghost Train on stage. Afterwards, the lyrics and song-titles haunted Martin: ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’, ‘Putting on the Mask’, ‘The Crucifixion’, ‘Tears of Sorrow, of Source’, ‘House of Laughter’.

Then there was the picture. We made our way through the dark and cluttered rooms to see it. It was a photograph, blown up to poster size and mounted, not a professional photograph either, but a soft point-and-shoot candid.  It was taken at what is still recognisable as Circular Quay, and showed a man dressed as a devil with his arm around a young boy. The devil costume is very unusual. It has a mask like a featureless bison’s head, with tufts of fur around the horns and a piece of sagging animal hide with eye-holes cut in it sufficing as the face.

‘The widow gave me a copy of this,’ said Martin. ‘This guy came out and put his hand on the shoulder of the boy who died in the fire.. and said “you want to take photographs?” That’s the boy… and the father… straight across there.’ It was probably the last known photo of Damien Godson, and though there is a shadow over his face, you can see he is looking in the direction of Luna Park. It was hard not to find it chilling. Wirian took on a laden quiet. The photograph had been a tabloid newspaper favourite for a time, and now appeared on internet sites exploring the unexplained. The man in the devil costume had never been identified. For Martin, this was it. They were called Godson, for God’s sake. He painted the deceased family members into a cross, and called it Golgotha. The place of the skull. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthan.

‘The fire was an exhibition of power. God spoke,’ he said to me. ‘That’s why I say there’s this image that sort of came through it, that were unexpected, unpredictable – could never have been planned. They were happening on some level which was beyond….’ he trailed off. ‘This picture is sort of an example…’

The Godsons had a Sharp cosmology all to themselves. It was even harder to keep track of. Mary Magdalene was involved, the boys had been blessed at Rose Bay before they went out that evening, the priest’s name was significant, Martin stayed in touch with Jenny Godson, the sole survivor from the family. He wrote an entry for John Godson in the Australian Dictionary of Biography… It was endless. He had expended his industry on it. The disguises, for one moment, had all dropped.

‘There’s images of the devil about,’ said Martin. ‘Everyone laughed, there are skeletons, some mockery of death, and at certain point the track snaps, and there’s no way out. That’s when the sacrifice is made.’ The next decade was then called a decade of greed, he said. ‘You had a conjunction of corrupted police, and organised crime, and Moloch worship and Mammon worship. It is on a satanic level as well. There was a struggle for the city, you know.’

‘Do you think good has ultimately triumphed in that battle for the city,’ I asked.

‘Well we are here talking about it.’

‘But aren’t these things coincidences?’ I said. ‘Even if they are significant coincidences.’

‘When it gets to this level… there’s nothing that’s a coincidence. I’ve never seen anything like it, not in my life.’

‘The level… this is the shadow level?’, I said.

‘Yes.. that’s right. Make your hair stand on end. I am used to it now, but it’s chess pieces that have been moved around in a cosmic sort of dance. They’re out there for some reason. Luna Park is a part of it of course.’

‘What part do you play?’ I asked, but he did not give the answer I expected. He talked about employers, and employment, the Fink contract that had drawn him away from London. ‘It’s not that it came up at the time,’ he said, and I couldn’t figure out what he meant. He had been invested in our conversation, but somehow unaffected. It was only a long time later that I found out his true emotion about the fire. It was guilt. This passage in his biography, Sharp, stopped me.

I see it as a conquest of Buddha by dark forces. The Face has always had an unconscious manifestation – being the Face of Sydney – the largest face visible in the city. Also it’s a Horned God. Through the two towers, it has a Satanic element in its look. Like Abraxas – comedy/tragedy…Unreal reality. Illusion becoming reality, the beauty of a lion the instant it strikes down its victim, the saint and betrayer, the curse of God – of good and evil. Beyond the comprehension of man. If you do try and understand it, it drives you mad. Fear of it is wisdom.

The tide going in and out at the same time. Terrible Abraxas. To look upon Abraxas is blindness. To know it is sickness. To worship it is death. To fear it is wisdom. To assist it not is redemption. I don’t know what that means. I’ve never been able to work that out. It’s not for man to know Abraxas. When you’re locked up in it, I suppose it destroys you. Abraxas is the Sun, but at the same time the terrible sucking gorge or the void.

Repainting the Face, he had been meddling with something he did not understand. Luna Park was a dual nature, that could be placed in the service of whichever power was ascendant, and Martin, 1970s Martin, pre-Christian Martin, perhaps could not be absolutely sure who he had been serving. No wonder it had to be cleansed, exorcised, the Barton face restored, with defensive measures around its eyes.

The magazine cover was done, finally, and I remember stepping out of the house, out of Wirian, where among the rotating guests Sally-Anne Huckstepp had stayed before being murdered, and I was holding Martin’s collage like a talisman, the glue fresh enough to curl the cardboard. I stepped outside and the suburban street and cars and everyday business felt exposed and raw. After our conversation, they had a fissure in them, and I went back to the office as quickly as I could.

The haste was wasted in the end. ‘Not a vintage Sharp,’ the editor thought, and it wound up on the back cover, the interview a stub.

Afterwards, I would think of Martin from time to time, like when I heard a ride at Coney Island called ‘The Hell Hole’ had once malfunctioned and thrown riders through the air, severing a woman’s leg. It was decorated with a devil and the legend ‘You who enter here, abandon all hope’. He would have appreciated that.

And I was sad to hear when Martin died. The obituaries all mentioned his ‘sinister’ theories, but I found my feelings towards Luna Park had changed. I had never much liked it, or even registered it, walking past. (Wendy Whiteley’s Garden was always my preferred part of Lavender Bay.) But I knew it had been fought for, really fought for, against elements in Sydney that had never been vanquished, elements I was coming to despise more and more deeply all the time. Even keeping the territory out of enemy hands made it hallowed ground.

There is not much of Martin’s vision left at Luna Park. A memorial to the fire victims mysteriously disappeared during a refurbishment in 2003. Up some stairs, where the Big Dipper used to be, there is now a mural in front of an uninviting courtyard where no-one sits. It is a trompe l’oeil, showing the scaffolding of the absent Dipper, like the skeleton of an extinct vertebrate, and in front of it, painted on a fusebox, is a variant of the Sharp Face. It looks ugly and sour though. There is something wrong with it, with its expression.

Not a fitting tribute to a visionary, a sullied term now, but for once a fitting one. Hadn’t Martin’s insane dedication been, in its own way, not only rational, but right? He was not wrong about the sheer investment, the emotional and spiritual investment, that was required to preserve Luna Park. ‘I care so much about you that my feelings are beyond intellect’ he wrote in a poem dedicated to the Park. And wasn’t that what it took? If something like religious fervor was needed to save the Park – didn’t that mean that something deep and dark was arraigned against it? Wasn’t the ‘other side’ almost as dedicated? Didn’t, in some real way, the very necessity of Martin’s mania prove him correct?

Postscript: I was in New York covering the Trump campaign, which meant everything had taken on an out-sized quality, when I read a news report from back home. It was about another fatal amusement park accident, this time not at Luna Park, but at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast. A car on a water-slide had flipped, or something. In those early reports it was hard to make out exactly what had happened, the details were too indeterminate to create a clear outline of the events. A phrase the police used stuck with me, though. ‘Injuries incompatible with life’. I had never heard it before. What did it mean?  Press-conference euphemisms here were supposed to cast a tasteful shroud of ambiguity over the details, and this one had the opposite effect. It was an abstraction more charged than any specifics I could (and did) think of.

It wasn’t a shock to find out I knew some of the victims, more a climbing sense of absurdity. Perhaps I’m insulating myself from something, but that absurdity has never really gone away. Close deaths often feel unreal, and the ghoulish circumstances of this one mean it has never quite registered right. Sometime later, I went through my friend’s social media, our last conversations, staring at the tiny ‘read’ icon and the timestamp on that last message. It suggested a meeting that will never happen.

Do I regret looking at the last Facebook photo he posted as well? It must be the last photo of him ever taken, or one of the last. I won’t let myself look at it again, so my description of it might not be quite right. The image is not indelibly impressed on my mind, in fact I can’t quite conjure it, and nor do I want to. It shows my friend on Halloween night, at Dreamworld, and he is with another man in costume. It is a mottle-skinned devil, a zombie devil, perhaps for a parade, and you may have guessed already that they are standing in a familiar, close-posed embrace. Just a coincidence, but not one I can cast out of my mind.

We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish these essays.