Safer Waters: Evading the Shark of Life
I was fourteen when my mother bought me my first ‘adult’ novel: John Hooker’s The Bush Soldiers. I was into war stories, you see, and the premise of this one was so good it appealed even to my mum.
Imagine this: the year is 1943 and Australia’s been invaded by the Japanese. What happens next? Battles, I hoped, and lots of ’em, like the gory ones in James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, which I read a few years later.
Wrong. Here the fighting is finished before the story starts, and all we’re left with is a rag-tag bunch of would-be resistance fighters who traipse around the desert looking for arms and ammunition they never use.
That was my teenage take on it. Today, as an adult, I think I know better. Now I’d say the book is less about the Pacific war than it is about the age-old struggle between white Australians (in the shape of the soldiers) and the continent’s red centre (the bush). There’s plenty of drama really, but it’s purely psychological.
Bored with the lack of explosive action, though, I never finished the thing. Which is why I’m surprised that, a few weeks ago, I allowed myself to be hooked by the Hooker again. This time by a novel of his called Our Jack, which, I’m pleased to report, I’ve read right to the end.
Jack Lamberton is a clever kid who grows up in the Antipodes during the 1940s and 50s. Like his country, he’s confused and weak, caught, as he is, between the old and the new, the near and the far. His mother is a remote Englishwoman who never really left her homeland, while his father, a hard man who admires Americans, is obsessed with order, discipline and concrete.
It’s an impossible upbringing in many ways and yet Jack finds a way through.
. . . by the time I was twelve, I had learnt that lying and deception were, for me, the ways to survival, and even success . . . Books had made me deceitful and knowledgeable – and we all know that knowledge is power
It’s a strategy that almost works. Despite his dodgy looks, Jack wins over a series of winsome women; one by one, though, they desert him, tiring of his ‘eternal childishness’ and his failure to come to terms with anything.
Our Jack admires another Jack: ‘strong, cheerful, reliable’ Jack Martin, the hero of R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Like his fictional namesake, Jack wants to master life’s challenges, and by the end of the novel – well, almost the end – it seems he might’ve done just that, since the book he writes becomes a bestseller.
This time it was I who was in command . . . Like Jack Martin, I had succeeded – I had thrust an oar down the throat of the shark of life.
Which brings me to my point. I, too, have viewed life as an enemy, as a predator I must repel in order to endure and prosper. I, too, have assumed that by re-imagining reality I would one day come to rule it. I, too, have been wrong.
Because, in one last vicious twist, Jack sees the error of his ways. His dying father, he realises, knows his secret: that his book is a deception, an imitation of an old bestseller beloved by his long-dead mother. The shark of life has dodged Jack’s thrust.
And yet it doesn’t have to end this way.
Having seen off the shark in Ballantyne’s book, Jack Martin and his pals leave their lagoon. They know there are more throats in the ocean than they have oars. Instead, they seek safer waters and are thrilled with what they find.
Inside the basin, which we called our Water Garden, the coral formations were much more wonderful, and seaweed plants far more lovely and vividly coloured, than in the lagoon itself.
This is what I hope to do. By seeking safer waters, I aim to evade the shark of life. Enough self-deception, I say. The world is not at my command and never will be. Far better, I think, to see life as a Water Garden to be immersed in and admired.
But how? By reading and writing, of course, only better. Because the best books don’t distort life; on the contrary, they magnify its marvels.
Jack Martin’s mate, Ralph, has but one book, from which he gains ‘much interesting knowledge’. It’s a volume of Captain Cook’s voyages – the very voyages that, in a sense, brought the British to Australia and thus, by extension, The Bush Soldiers to my bookshelf.
I really should read it one day.
Going Native: How to Change Without Changing
So, what’s your aim in life? To win fame and fortune, to be remembered for your wit and wisdom or, like some lucky folk, to have a plant named in your honour?
Alphonse Karr is a ‘fantastic shading bamboo for any garden’. Originally, though, he was much more (or less) than this; he was, in fact, Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, nineteenth-century French critic and novelist.
Big deal, you say. What has France, the nineteenth century or, for that matter, bamboo ever done for me?
Very little, perhaps, but Alphonse Karr (of the Jean Baptiste variety) is the originator of a very famous, and very useful, phrase. It appeared in his journal, Les Guêpes (The Wasps), sometime in 1849.
‘The more things change,’ Alphonse wrote, ‘the more they remain the same.’
Yeah, that very famous phrase.
I’ve been thinking about human beings, you see. (Clothed ones, I assure you.) Are we capable of change? Real change, I mean, and not just the short-lived superficial kind.
Mostly I’ve thought not, if only because the more I’ve changed – my mind, my manner, my milieu – the more I seem to have, well, stayed the same. (Thanks Alphonse!) Impervious to alteration, that’s me.
And yet for every cynical Karr there’s a doubting Thomas…
Although he never made it as a plant, Thomas Kuhn propagated a very famous, and very useful, idea. It appeared in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, sometime in 1962.
When ‘normal science repeatedly goes astray,’ Tom wrote, ‘then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead . . . at last to a new set of commitments’.
That’s right, folks, it’s the proverbial paradigm shift: the fundamental change in approach or assumptions that takes place every now and then in scientific circles and other realms, including the personal.
Yeah, well, that’s my extrapolation of an interpolation of mine, because Tom himself didn’t apply his ideas to individuals as such. That said, he went close.
He writes, for example, about how those who have changed can convince others to do the same. To him, it’s all about language and communication, which is music, I’ll admit, to my writerly ears.
Fundamental change is portrayed by Tom as a kind of conversion, one aided by the act of translation – a special type of translation.
And here I’d better let him speak for himself.
To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.
That transition is not, however, one that an individual may make or refrain from making by deliberation and choice, however good his reasons for wishing to do so. Instead, at some point in the process of learning to translate, he finds that the transition has occurred, that he has slipped into the new language without a decision having been made.
If Tom is right, we can change ourselves: by immersion and not through abstraction alone.
So, surround yourself with the people you want to emulate. Learn to identify with them and one day you will change. By then, though, it won’t even seem like a stretch: your new self will be more familiar to you than your old.
Change, you’ll say. I haven’t changed a bit.
And that’s the thing about true change, I suppose: it doesn’t feel like change at all.
Perhaps that’s what our man of bamboo, Alphonse Karr, really meant.
Teenage Me: Living for the Line Well-Sung
There comes a time in a man’s life when he has to face facts: he’s a teenager and always will be. He ain’t never growin’ up, so he’d better get used to it.
For me, that time is now.
I’ve been back in the workforce for over a year now, you see. Long enough to be reminded that all the well-adjusted adults out there ain’t nothing of the kind. They’re selfish pricks, really, just like me.
So why bother trying to become Mr Maturity? Better to admit that all I’m interested in is ecstasy. And adulation. In music, I mean.
Because, for me, life lives not in a job well done but in a line well-sung. A line like the one from ‘Jeremy’, as belted out by Eddie Vedder: ‘Try to erase me from the black boar-oar-oard’.
Know what I mean?
Anyway, the time has come for me to return to my roots, stunted though they may be. That means more guitars, more songs, more singing, more stupidity.
As I’ve put it in a dodgy song-to-be:
The teenage twin I never had
Has come back,
And twice as bad.
Or, in the words of my new favourite singer, the late Gavin Clark of Clayhill:
How do I feel?
I embrace my destiny.
How do I feel?
I feel like me.
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, you pricks!
Conflicting Interests: What Happens When You Want What You Don’t Want
Study. I thought I’d learnt my lesson, but here I am again yearning to return to the unreal world of deadlines and demands, arguments and ideas. Am I mad? No, just human. For although I couldn’t wait to finish my undergraduate degree, I waited twenty-five years to do so. Indeed, I was in such a hurry to get to the end of it that, in the end, I didn’t want it to end.
I’ve been reading David Lodge’s A Man of Parts, a novel about H.G. Wells. An avid womaniser, ‘Wells’ holds contradictory views about sex – for him it is ‘just fun’ as well as being a sublime spiritual experience – and Lodge has him explain this inconsistency thus:
I oscillated between those two attitudes to sex without ever reconciling them – but that’s the human being for you. We’re a bundle of incompatible parts, and we make up stories about ourselves to disguise the fact. The mental unity of the individual is a fiction.
Incompatible parts, conflicting interests – this goes a long way towards explaining why, now and forever, I want what I don’t want.
I’ve been training at work, you see. Cramming so that I can take on a new role in the near future. All the thinking and note-taking has sent me back a year or two, to a time when I was studying from home, while helping my working wife raise our two kids.
It was the best time of my life, despite the stresses and strains. And why not? I spent most of my time reading, writing and thinking about the finest things life has to offer: literature, history, philosophy. When I wasn’t deeply depressed or drowning in self-doubt, I was happy, oh-so happy. And when I graduated, in 2014, I was happy, oh-so happy.
Now, though, the light has gone from my life. Yes, I have kept on ‘reading’ and ‘writing’, but I lack the guidance, encouragement and criticism that comes with formal study. Without these things, I am – to my great shame – lost.
I have attempted to explain this to myself once before, in a short piece entitled ‘An Uneasy Ego’. Here it be.
Into bondage we are born – this much is known. But whom do we serve?
‘It may be the devil,’ Bob Dylan intoned, ‘or it may be the Lord.’ True, I suppose, but not true enough. For, in reality, we have a second master: damnable Self.
Why, mine or thine own. For years, I have sought to serve the former – myself. Alas, I have failed to do so well, and my higher needs remain unmet.
This is a sharp question, and it needles me. Am I, perhaps, a poor servant? Nay, I think not; for, at times, I have served with success. Am I, then, a poor master? Yes, almost certainly so.
Any man who would be master must dominate and control his menials. I do neither for long; my thoughts are unruly and my passions headstrong. In short, I lack self-control. Also, I do not dominate my selves, of which I, like you, have many. In short, I am rarely myself.
The rub, Maud? That an uneasy ego makes a good servant but a deplorable master.
What happens when you want what you don’t want? You seek help – from your masters. For me, that means I must go back to ‘the books’ and to those who can teach me to read and write them better.
Postgraduate study is horrendously expensive and time-consuming. It’s not as costly, though, as life without learning.