O death, where is thy Sting?

David Walsh | Posted on September 25, 2015

Who'd have thought thirty year ago we'd all be sittin' here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?
—Monty Python, Four Yorkshiremen, 1974

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don't break
Walking on the moon
—The Police, Walking on the Moon, 1979

In late '79 or early '80 I first heard Walking on the Moon, at a bar at Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, in the very early, desperate days of my gambling. I was stunned by the song, not the first time that The Police had that effect on me. But I said to my mate, ‘Why would your legs be more likely to break on the moon, just because the reduced gravity makes you take giant steps. It's ridiculous.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it isn't ridiculous. If you had been on the moon for some time, your bone density would be considerably reduced, so breakages would be more common when exerting the same forces, like the ones that allow you to take normal-sized steps on Earth, and giant leaps on the moon.’ Chastened, I listened to the rest of the song, and from then on paid more attention to Sting's career.

Thirty years later I name dropped into an alternate universe when I found myself drinking (proverbial) Château de Chasselas with Sting and his wife, Trudie. They came to Mona and asked to have lunch with me. Fortunately, and coincidentally, I had seen Sting in concert (for the first time) about a week before so I had something to talk about. He had something to talk about too – he had read my book. But unlike others who claim to have read my book, he had read my book. In particular, he was interested in the chapter on the organisation and management of capital (‘The evolution of investment’) and he thought I should form a political party based around those ideas. I was gratified, of course. I have thought about entering politics a great deal but decided against it because: I don't know that I can achieve any more ‘inside the barrel pissing out than outside the barrel pissing in’ (to quote my brother); I don't like living to someone else's schedules; I don't like the idea of living in Canberra; I don't handle criticism well; and I don't know what I'm talking about (some might suggest that that last point means I'm ideally suited to politics).

When Trudie suggested that it was time for them to leave I asked, ‘What time is your flight?’ Trudie and Sting glanced at each other but said nothing. Later I realised that they said nothing because the only thing they could have said would have been, ‘Whatever time we want. It's our plane’, but they were much too polite to say that.

Interval the first.

Donna Smith: Donna was my housekeeper, and my friend. I knew her for eight years and yet never had a reason to be annoyed with her. Conversely, she had many reasons to be annoyed with me, but never was. Three days before she died of breast cancer, I picked up her daughter Celeste so she could spend some time with my daughter, Grace. Donna was sick, but defiant. She had been told the end was near but insisted she could have handled more chemo. My wife, Kirsha, and I were then about two months away from the birth of our daughter Sunday. Donna wanted to talk about that. She told me to have two children, quickly. She thought that that made each child more balanced. She thought a lot about my welfare. Three days before she died she was still concerned about the concerns of others.

Mark O'Rourke: Mark worked for a gambling services company that used to place bets for us. His metal-head, swinging, pill-popping, party lifestyle never interfered with his professional performance or competence, but it may have interfered with his life expectancy.

At one of his swingers parties Mark introduced a colleague to an attractive young lady, who was to become his kept mistress. His wife became aware of his perfidious behaviour, however, because his opportunistic paramour wrote a book about their affair, titled Sugarbabe. (Holly Hill?)

Although he pushed boundaries Mark managed to elude epic failures of this type (until his death), because he was unfailingly respectful of other's choices.

Interval the second.

Kirsha, an American in Tasmania, was astonished to find that the beautiful River Derwent is contaminated with heavy metals. Unlike locals (me) she could not take the state of the river for granted and she launched into a series of awareness-generating art projects. When the University of Tasmania architecture school failed to give her the support she desired, her response was to contact M.I.T. Her temerity astonished me, but I was more astonished when M.I.T. readily agreed to participate in her project.

I wrote a poem about life and death, and Donna and Mark. I liked it and I sent it to my erstwhile collaborator, Dean Stevenson. He didn't reply. Embittered by Dean's indifference, but emboldened by Kirsha's arrogance, I sent my poem to Sting, the biggest musical name for whom I could conjure an email address, asking if he would set it to music. To my astonishment and delight, he agreed to be my musical M.I.T.

Here's the poem:

Donna Smith died today
Not in a dramatic way
Gentle into the night she went.
Now she is just chemistry
Yesterday a complex entity
When death has this proximity
Sentimentally, I lament

That something so complex, something so whole
Could no longer be, makes it easy to see why so many
Cling to the notion that they have a soul
Immortal, immutable, incorruptible – indisputably
It just must be so – if it isn't what's the point, they need to know.
But there isn't a purpose, life's a circus, no one gets a safety net,
And I say all that without regret.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Mark O'Rourke died last week
His death preserved his mystique
Against the night his rage maintained
Now he is just bone and skin
Force of life not within
The times, they sure are changin' him
And with his end, I'm changed.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

And you'll die one day soon
Hemingway in the afternoon
Or Agatha, dead, in denial
But until then we'll live a lie
Act as though we'll never die
Seasons not in short supply
Never go out of style.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Why is it that we worry?
Our history makers are not forgotten
Their tombs are grand, their remains are rotten.

Plato, Sappho, and Galileo
Picasso and Caravaggio
Newton's gone and Einstein too
And millions with Chairman Mao.
People died of influenza
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
(But not Oskar Kokoschka
He lingered on a little longer.)
Lincoln and London and Lenin and Lennon
The Strength of the Strong to Imagine no heaven.
In World War Two and in World War One
Men lived by the sword, died by the gun
Died like heroes, or on the run.
Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn't there when he died
But I believe it's mostly true
Maybe he didn't die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can't see in the dark.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna's still dead,
And briefly I'll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I'm not too far behind her.

Sting stymied me by sending back sheet music. I can't read music. But I have friends that can. Here's what Dean, now a willing participant ('With all due respect, I'm not doing a shit job on a Sting tune'), made of Sting's delightful gesture (with a little help from his friends): Dean Stevenson - On With the Show

So, here I am, fortunate to not be dead, fortunate to have had my time on Earth overlap with Donna's and Mark's and fortunate to have collaborated with someone I admire who needs only one name. Elizabeth, my blog colleague, opined that having done this, I should never do anything again.


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Show all responses

Wayne Chisnall | January 8, 2016 at 02:56 pm

David, It's refreshing to read such heartfelt and unfiltered (as in, not bowing down to existing media conventions) thoughts - from both you and Elizabeth.

agneswaters | September 25, 2015 at 08:06 pm

Oh what a lovely set of creations, the poem , the song....this whole shabang. Ta for sharing luv

Helen Robertson | September 25, 2015 at 08:23 pm

Hey, I read your book too.......and laughed that I too worked in the ATO (but before you did, when we actually had fun when the boss flexed off) and shared your sadness, your brothers death reflected in my sisters. Unlike you, I haven't moved on from reading SF exclusively (except for the occasional autobiography). Unlike you, when I think of Sting, I only remember a junk magazine where he espoused tantric sex and never listened to his music anyway. But I really like those lyrics he wrote, you inspired.

Robert Meredith | September 25, 2015 at 01:33 pm

The 'ladies and gentlemen' reminds of Sgt Pepper or Monty Python

Ivan Fatovic | November 25, 2015 at 05:54 pm

Me Likey. Looking forward to the opening this weekend.

Renate Hughes | September 26, 2015 at 09:54 am

And I don't believe in the existence of angels .. but looking at you I wonder if that's true ... but if I did I would summon them together and ask them to watch over you (Nick Cave), to Donna, of many women who make the ordinary, creating calm and spinning care in the small spaces of our everyday lives. To Mark - we burn bright, and then are gone. I have given birth four times and died twice, I didn't believe in the existence of angels .. but now I wonder if that's true. Lately, I summon them more easily. Rest softly. And to you all, left behind .. live long and prosper.

Ruth Francis | September 26, 2015 at 11:25 am

Very comforting. Thank you

Sheena Halson | September 25, 2015 at 04:04 pm

And there it is .... No more , no less than an extraordinary tale of lives lost and life force within set in Ivory & clarinet. One day I would love to invite myself to dine with DW and have awkward conversations on not owning jets.

RubicsCubed | September 25, 2015 at 01:08 pm

Fascinating analysis of "I hope my legs don't break".
Sting jets into Hobart on a private plane and visits MONA.
Sting invites himself to lunch.
David Walsh writes poetry.
Sting sets it to music.

Any one of these things would be an interesting blog entry - but all together!!!

Kaily | September 25, 2015 at 04:18 pm

Sting + Walsh = An unexpected duet that serenades the heart with every note.

Robyn | September 25, 2015 at 08:31 pm


Greg Wilson | September 25, 2015 at 01:25 pm

Yes. A Sting for us all.

Seize the moment, acknowledge the miracle of an individual breath and live life like it is the last, - on with the show.

Carrie McCarthy | September 25, 2015 at 02:49 pm

Reblogged this on CULTURAL FLANERIE and commented: I become a little more enamoured with David Walsh every time he writes something. Such a great wordsmith.

maria | September 27, 2015 at 10:36 am

thank you so much .... we are too lucky ...

Amy Luo | November 16, 2015 at 08:51 pm

David, I love Mona, which is amazing place in Australia, I rank as critical as opera house. I love to host my exclusive event in Mona next year!!

Marija | September 25, 2015 at 01:56 pm

David I am soo happy that you are alive and exist.

Susi | September 25, 2015 at 01:48 pm

David ,my heart is full,reading this,how fortunate for your being. This has come on a day of personal health despair. The following rough translation from German of what my father wrote into my album: "happy the person, that when the curtain falls has no regrets."

tom vichta | September 25, 2015 at 03:34 pm

Thanks David, that inspired me. Currently reflecting in Crete where unlike Oz, the passing of time is visible and tangible at every turn....

Janine | September 25, 2015 at 01:26 pm

This is magnificent. On a day of scary medical news I am inspired to increase being mindful of the precious treasure that each day is. Death neither stalks nor dwells with malicious or unjust intent. It simply is. Thank you.

Stephanie Desira | September 29, 2015 at 09:35 am

Life is amazing until it ends.Thanks David for sharing your prose ,you are just a normal guy with a touch of dare and thank you for sharing the daring!

Chris | September 25, 2015 at 04:26 pm

I love Sting, he is a great song writer and human being. What a great little set of stories woven together by that strange thread, and by an equally great human being I think. On with the show....

Views from a Balloon | October 6, 2016 at 04:39 pm

Brilliant song!!