Conversations – I had over two thousand kilometres of them during a recent foray into the Australian bush.
For ten days my brother, my best friend and me shared a car, a tent and a track. We talked the whole time as long-separated soul-mates will do, mulling over food and fatherhood, music, the moon and more. It was our way of reaching out, of clasping hands, of arm-wrestling and twiddling our thumbs.
In the weeks leading up to the trip I’d been holding conversations of a different kind, as I gave myself a good talking-to. That’s right – I wrote in my diary.
I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was seventeen, when I started recording my doings on a daily basis, larding my jottings with pithy reports on public events and, er, the weather. Thus, on 3 January 1992, I penned this informative entry:
Overcast and rain tried hard. I had a shave first thing ‘smorning – just felt like it. Achievement: Ironed a wet shirt until it was dry (cuffs don’t count). India has clawed into the Test Match due to an Umpirical decision and luck reversal.
Thankfully I went on to lose that kind of complacency. Over time the tune of my self-talk changed, my manner becoming more managerial as I tried to get a grip on myself on the page. Hence the following entry, made at 8.55 am on Tuesday, 11 October 2005.
Yesterday I did everything I planned to do – yippee! I expect today to be much more relaxed. Apart from sending an email to Bridget and buying prunes (as you do), all my other tasks are work- and study-related.
No sour grapes there – just prunes!
That was then and this is now. In more recent times I’ve written in my diary for a deeper reason: to better understand myself. Here’s the opening of an entry I called ‘Lost Causes (cont.)’, dated 22 November 2017:
What can I write about myself that I haven’t written before? That I’m flaky? Definitely not. Anyways, after ending my last (if only it was my last!) notebook on such a positive and hopeful note, I’m here to dispel the mood and return myself to that thing I call reality. For a day or two.
I really believed I could become a nurse…
Therein lies its beauty, for a diary can be many things to many people.
We get a glimpse of this astonishing versatility in Thomas Mallon’s A Book of One’s Own – People and Their Diaries, which I’ve recently read. As Mallon reminds us, journals have been kept by all kinds of characters, infamous, famous and forgotten, from Degas, Goebbels and de Beauvoir to Byron, Trotsky and Voltaire, their motivations varying wildly.
Some are chroniclers of the everyday. Others have kept their books only in special times – over the course of a trip, or during a crisis. Some have used them to record journeys of the soul, plan the art of the future, confess the sins of the flesh, lecture the world from beyond the grave. And some of them, prisoners and invalids, have used them not so much to record lives as create them…
Diaries are clearly the cosiest kind of literary accommodation.
Of all the diarists covered in Mallon’s lively review, it’s the would-be writer, William Allingham, for whom I feel most. Allingham lived in the shadow of two great poets of his day – Tennyson and Browning – and it seems he never quite came to terms with his own lack of success, as this poem suggests:
A man who keeps a diary pays
Due toll to many tedious days;
But life becomes eventful – then
His busy hand forgets the pen.
Most books, indeed, are records less
Of fulness than of emptiness.
Sad but sometimes true, I suppose.
I finished A Book of One’s Own on my way back from the bush, in an aeroplane. Closing the book, I sat back and wondered about my own diary-writing, and how it seems to separate me from the world as much as it makes me feel connected.
And then, to my amazement, as I watched idly on, two fellow passengers took out journals and pens. Dating pages with due deliberation, they settled down to write, one a teenage girl trying to find her voice (her words kept deteriorating into doodles), the other a middle-aged man reflecting on the book he was reading.
It was an incredible coincidence and one I couldn’t wait to get down – in my diary, of course.
As the song-sheet of history shows, singers are silenced in curious ways. Some, like Jeff Buckley, fall from boats, while others fall down sets of stairs, Fritz Wunderlich-style. Then there are those who, like me, simply fall sick.
Mind you, it wasn’t the pox that bottled me up: it was something my medico said.
The visit started normally enough, with the doctor peering into my mouth and declaring I had a cold. But then the bombshell dropped. Giving my tender tonsils one last lingering look, she uttered two weighty words. ‘Unusual architecture,’ she said.
‘It’s crowded in there,’ she added, by way of explanation, and with that our explosive encounter was over. I was left feeling lousy but enlightened: something suddenly made sense. I knew now why I sucked as a singer.
I’d been reminded of my vocal unloveliness while listening to a home recording a few days before. Revolted, as always, by my unrefined nasal whine, I pictured myself as a poor man’s Bob Dylan, all spit and no polish. The image was awful.
What had I been thinking when I’d first let my cords loose almost thirty years ago? That practice makes perfect, of course. That I could train my voice to sound so much better.
By inadvertently alerting me to my not-so-super inner structure, the doctor had cured me of my musical illusions. Clearly, the inside of my bonce wasn’t built for beauty. Nascent sounds need headspace: room to grow in richness and roundness; time to mature into a loftier kind of chamber music, a harmony of the sphere.
Anatomy, I decided, is destiny, so I sang no more.
. . . . .
Mine was a musical journey of discovery and self-delusion, a thirty-year odyssey encompassing shifting styles, identities and instruments, none of which I ever mastered or made my own. I played around but was never any good.
It started back in high school when, bored with maths, a mate and I conjured up the Stumpjump Ploughers, a sham country band whose singles – ‘River Full of Beer’ and ‘The Barnyard Blues’ – took our senior year by storm.
Emboldened by success, I moved on to the mouth trumpet. Jamming with cool cats in classrooms, I tried – and failed – to jazz up the campus.
Real trumpet soon followed, and I was quick to perfect a faulty technique. My signature sound – a kind of wavering bray – was captured on Foolhardy Adventures, an album produced by a real musician, my brother, which featured the playing of an unreal musician, my sister.
Musicianship, it seems, does not travel in threes.
Not-so-grand piano came next, and for a time I saw myself as Horowitz reborn. Alas, I was simply horriblowitz, despite my bumbling best efforts. Once, while ‘working’ at a boarding school, I made a desperate Liszt-like pact with the devil, whose short-lived support inspired me to write a wicked piano part for one of my brother’s best songs.
For a full five minutes I felt truly divine.
The guitar brought me back to earth; on its fretful board my fumbling fingers were never at home. And yet even I could string together a few basic chords, a fact that encouraged me to become a singer-songwriter of sorts.
I devised my debut offering, Climbing Falling Trees, in the early 1990s. It opened with ‘You’ll Get Hurt’, the first song I ever wrote and the only one to feature this head-turning refrain:
The time to look
Is the time to look the other way
Rounding out the almost-album was ‘Taking Care’, a song that serves up some of my tastiest lines.
There’s air enough for smoke rings and a last breath
He holds his nose and tries to live a slow death
Butter to hide the knife
Bread to burn his toast
Surely it’s here somewhere
Honey cut the other loaf
Impressed by my early efforts, I shelved plans for my symphonic masterwork, War Machine. Instead I practised playing my two songs right through, something I could rarely do.
History shows that my first album failed to get off the ground: those trees just kept on falling. And although I tried not to let the fiasco affect me, I was tongue-tied for a time. My voice returned in ’98, when I wrote a four-legged number known as ‘Hard Easy Chair’.
Just room in these boxes, a little despair
There’s a box in this room, but no hard easy chair
E7 to C7, if you don’t mind.
As the new millennium broke, I got bitten again by the song-writing bug. I’d moved to a small island and was feeling bigger and bolder. As if to prove the point, I dabbled in punk, forming Osterberg’s Angels one day before disbanding it the next.
Punk ain’t dead
It’s just got nothin’ to wear
Locked in the bathroom
Spikin’ its hair
Seeking something more serious, I then dreamed up an indie outfit called Ready Reckoner, whose first full-length offering I christened Nothin’ Adds Up.
Nothin’ adds up the way it should
But that don’t mean that nothin’ ain’t good
This almost-album featured three cracking tracks: ‘Solitary Confinement’, ‘Clocks Without Hands’ and ‘Just a Potato’. Another corker, ‘Truer Than the Truth’, cut to the core:
There is no mystery
Without false clues
The lies you tell about yourself
Are truer than the truth
And, yes, that was an FM7 chord in there.
Like all good lemons, I had a side project or three on the back-burner.
I used to think faith
Would set me free
That if I believed in God
He’d believe in Me
Bombadier blossomed briefly in 2015. ‘Interstellar Cinderella’, a song from the band’s one and only almost-album, Electrocutie, was fit for glory.
Home at midnight
Out all day
Across the Milky Way
Doubts, however, had begun to creep in.
We’re all stars in the making
With hearts made for breaking
The harder we try
The harder we’re faking
Finally, the deadweight of my delusions became too much to bear, and I caught a cold. I called in the doctor, who, as we’ve seen, dealt the deathblow to my musical dreams.
Happily, I only ever gave two performances, one at the outset, the other at the end.
In 1989, the Stumpjump Ploughers appeared in a busking competition. I played the lagerphone and we won best comic act. My last public showing took place in a church. Afterwards I was praised for the way I masked my mistakes.
Shadows, life disappearing
Substance swept away
Echoes, double dying
Silence here to stay
Although this wasn’t the song I sang as my last – I attempted another number instead – I wish now that it had been, if only because it seems so prescient.
For, as a real singer-songwriter, Peter Allen, sang,
All that’s left of the singer’s
All that’s left of the song
Of the sounds I made only words remain.
Growing up in Australia, I gained a love of wide open spaces. Not from my surroundings, as you’d expect – I lived in a narrow-minded provincial city – but rather from a book. A British book. Here’s the passage that worked its magic on me:
The sun was setting in a dull red glow behind a mighty bank of cloud that was rolling up from the west. Below him the world was lost in a vast well of deep purple shadows, while the east was already wrapped in profound gloom . . . Around, above, and below, was a scene of peace and unutterable loneliness.
Thomas Hardy, perhaps, or D.H. Lawrence? No, this is the work of a less exalted author: Captain W.E. Johns, whose Biggles books are better known for their entertainment value (and these days for their dated moral values) than for their ability to elevate and inspire. And yet, as late as the 1980s, they gave this earthbound Antipodean boy a glimpse of a higher realm – of literature and life.
My childhood was ‘ocker Aussie’ in lots of ways. During the day, I frolicked in the sun, knocking balls around the backyard until the cockatoos came home. Darkness brought tea: lamb chops or steak, followed by swags of fresh fruit. In other respects, though, my upbringing was baldly unpatriotic. Beaches were closed to me and barbeques out, for as a family we kept to ourselves, rebellious and remote.
My amusements, too, were less than true-blue. With its talkback and livestock reports, local radio lacked the punch of the Beatles and Goons. Britannia ruled our airwaves. She dominated the small screen as well, winning us over with the Goodies and Doctor Who. But it was on my bookshelves that the Brits reigned supreme. Blyton, Milne and Kingsley led the charge; in their wake came C.S. Lewis and then W.E. Johns himself.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1893, William Earl Johns fought at Gallipoli and later in the air over the Western Front, where his stint as a bomber pilot – all six weeks of it – ended when he was shot down and captured. After the war, Johns served as a RAF recruiting officer in London, famously turning away Lawrence of Arabia when the well-connected writer tried to enlist under an alias. It was then that Johns separated from his wife, whom he had married early in the war. Posted to Birmingham, he met Doris Leigh, the daughter of a neighbour, and they became lifelong companions.
Johns wrote his first novel, Mossyface, in 1922; by the end of the decade his aviation illustrations and articles were appearing regularly in print. A versatile and prolific writer, he published crime, science fiction and romance novels and had long-running columns in My Garden and The Modern Boy magazines. Biggles himself was born in 1932. As Johns explained,
The first stories were written for a magazine of which I was the editor, and apart from the entertainment of the reader had the more serious purpose of presenting a picture of war flying as it was in its infancy.
A self-appointed ‘Captain’, Johns wrote over 160 books, a hundred or so featuring his most famous fictional creation. In a career spanning several wars and most of the globe, James C. Bigglesworth fights the good fight in various guises: air fighter, charter pilot, air detective and more. Armed with unerring instincts and an aeroplane, Biggles gets the better of his every enemy, common criminal and sinister Erich von Stalhein alike. It was a winning formula, and by the 1960s Biggles had become the golden boy of children’s fiction in Britain and beyond.
There the joy ride ended. Later in his life, Biggles faced his most formidable foe: academics and educators who felt he was a literary menace. Johns’ books, they argued, oversimplified reality, glorified war and demonised outsiders. Biggles was banished from library shelves. Latter-day critics tend to be more sympathetic; they accuse Johns of simply failing to keep up with the times, a charge that is hard to dispute. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Biggles has kept his commercial appeal, and a range of the books are still in print today.
To my credit, I was a discerning fan: the early Biggles stories appealed to me more than the rest. And, having reread them recently, I understand why. At their best they’re fast-moving, funny and affecting. I was barely thirteen when I got them as gifts: three sleek anthologies whose vivid livery sucked me straight into their slipstream. On the cover of one, a leather-clad Biggles strides away from his biplane, fists clenched, a faraway look in his eyes – a look, I fancy, that mirrored my own.
Like all good adventure tales, these stories have an irresistible impetus. Their drive is provided in part by the action itself, which Johns is adept at describing, for he details the thrills and spills of old-fashioned aerial warfare with dexterity and dash. Here’s a burst from ‘The Funk’:
The dog-fight became a delirium of whirling machines, zooming, rolling, and banking, firing and firing again through a network of tracer bullets. Machines flashed across his sights, and his guns chattered incessantly.
An exciting mix of poetic and pictorial effects, John’s prose delays the resolution of tension as deftly as it demands it. There’s a rhythm to the way he structures these stories – an oscillation between action and reflection, conflict and peace, the serious and the silly, whose impact owes much to the contrasts within aerial warfare itself.
In ‘The Thought-Reader’, for example, we lounge in ‘a patch of deep, sweet-scented grass in a quiet corner of the aerodrome’, staring ‘lazily at a lark trilling gaily far above’. The war seems distant to us – as it does to Biggles, who lies alongside. An enemy aircraft disturbs the peace, its antics luring us skyward. The story’s undulating dance has begun. Back and forth we sweep, nearing the flashpoint of the action with each shortening swing. It’s the pas de deux of a tale well told, and it delivers us to our destination with sure-footed finesse.
War is no laughing matter and yet some of our comic masterpieces – Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse 5 among them – are books about battle. As terrible as combat has been, authors have found its funny side. Johns is no exception, for his early stories are laced with laughs. In these droll double acts, the irony and understatement of the old soldier share the stage with schoolboy jesting and japes. This odd coupling reflects a reality: that in the air above the Western Front most veterans were painfully young.
Things are not always what they seem in these stories. Thus the sun, that light of our lives, routinely harbours death in its impenetrable glare. Beware the Hun in the sun, the old adage went. Johns’ characters, too, are adept at saying one thing while meaning another. ‘Anything for a quiet life,’ Biggles remarks, when asked to lead an attack. ‘There’s no sense in sleeping while there’s a good war like this on,’ he assures an exhausted flight engineer on another occasion. It’s a dry wit born out of desperate times.
And then there’s the other kind of comedy. In ‘The Battle of Flowers’, Biggles’ cousin, Algy, digs a garden on the aerodrome. ‘It isn’t hot enough for bananas,’ he says, fielding one flippant request. ‘Holy mackerel!’ Biggles says. ‘It feels hot enough to me to grow doughnuts.’ When the squadron is bombed Algy roars off to seek his revenge – not on the Huns’ hangars, as expected, but their geraniums. ‘Germaniums,’ Biggles splutters. ‘Am I going crazy?’ It’s a plum comic set-piece, one almost worthy of Wodehouse.
What sets these stories apart from Johns’ later works is their pathos, for they have some genuinely moving moments. None is more affecting than the ‘The Decoy’, in which a young pilot dies from his wounds soon after landing. ‘I got the bus home, Biggles,’ he whispers. There’s poignancy, too, in the full sweep of the stories. Taken together, they tell the tragic tale of a young man’s emotional undoing, of a pilot ground down by the depredations of war. Traumatised by the loss of his comrades, by the callousness of his countrymen (in ‘On Leave’, he is given a white feather) and by the betrayal of his French lover, Biggles is driven to the brink of a breakdown, as his C.O., Major Mullen, perceives. ‘Biggles is finished,’ he observes, ‘unless he takes a rest.’
This is the Biggles that spoke to me when I was a boy. For while the indomitable air fighter won my admiration, it was the damaged, delicate youth with whom I identified. This Biggles is slight, serious and self-contained, a keen reader who fell for books while bedridden as a boy. And he’s a loner to boot, someone with ‘a tendency towards individual action’, as Johns coyly puts it. This Biggles is at his best in the air, where he acts alone. Ordinary earthbound existence is beneath him, it being too much like life in the trenches. ‘It’s worse than flying in clouds,’ he growls, in ‘Biggles Finds His Feet’. ‘No altitude, no room to move – no nothing!’
I felt the same. Unlike Biggles, though, I was a sheltered thirteen-year-old who knew little of the wider world. ‘The Great Arena’ changed all that. In this story the last big push of the war has begun, and Biggles is tired of life. As another day ends, he makes a final test flight, a trial as much of man as machine. Buoyed by the beauty of the twilit sky, Biggles is filled with ‘a curious sort of rest’. His revival is realised a moment later when, drawn into a duel with another airman, Biggles is left defenceless, his guns having jammed. Death awaits him. And then a remarkable thing happens.
The enemy pilot waved cheerfully, turned steeply, and before Biggles was aware of his intention had lined up beside him . . . For some minutes, they flew thus, smiling at each other across the void.
It was uplifting stuff for a lowly boy like me. Biggles and his stories widened my horizons; they acquainted me with the long reach of literature, prompting me to read less for escapism than for escape – escape to places more real than my own. Five years later, I finally took flight.
When Johns died in 1968 he was working on another Biggles book, although his hero had, in a sense, already ceased to exist. For in the last of the early stories, Biggles is disabled during a dogfight; hurtling earthward, he knows ‘his time has come’. Had Johns known it, too, his literary star might have risen much higher. To me, though, Biggles will always be up there with the best, circling in the sun.
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.
These days, fans accost me in the street. Rick, they say, how did you do it? How did you get where you are today?
Waal, it wasn’t easy, I reply, adjusting my codpiece. The bus was late and I missed my stop. But I got here. Eventually.
The fans don’t think so, oddly enough. They look at each other and edge away, leaving me wondering why I can’t come clean about my sudden ascent.
You haven’t heard about that? Think about it, you nonce – what else could prevent me publishing a post here since mid-May last year? Illiteracy? Lumbago? Wild horses?
Nay, nay and nay. Nothing but success, pure and simple. For let’s face it: a bloke who hits the big time doesn’t need to blog. (Or beg for that matter, which is much the same thing.)
Now, as I bask in the glory from the isolation of my grandiose grotto, I feel a plectrum of guilt. One that picks at my nylon nerves. I mean, don’t my fans deserve better?
Yes, you do – you know you do. Well, here it is: a retracing of my path to prominence. Follow it, and you too might aspire to greyness. To greatness, I mean.
Milkman. If cheese is made from milk, big cheeses are made from milkmen. Delivering milk, midnight to dawn, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swinging me along – such was my first job of work. A month or two on the dark side set me up for an enlightened life.
Trolley-boy. Nothing’s harder to handle than twenty shopping trolleys in a row, especially in the swirl of customers and cars. My short stint at a supermarket taught me that control is an illusion. Holding on is the best we can hope for.
Administrative Officer. After accidentally acing a public service exam, I wrote letters for the Minister of Police. Few of us are truly happy, it seems. In almost a year I discovered that, for many, life is a complaint for which there is no cure, judicial or otherwise.
Law Clerk. Speaking of the law, I was in it for a bit. Just long enough to learn that every firm – every group big or small – has its own unwritten rules. Which I broke. Stuck out the back with the stationery, I wrote satirical news stories until I earned the sack.
Assistant Resident Boarder. Living with fifty teenagers gave me a good gauge of my own mentality. The results weren’t pretty. Clearly, I’m no leader of boys, let alone men. Which is why it’s best to go it alone, all the way to the asylum.
Investment Relations Officer. God is not always the best guide, especially when it comes to gold. I discovered this while working for a posse of preaching prospectors. Tasked with placating doubting Thomases – irate investors seeking imminent earthly reward – I realised that the faith of others is never enough.
Medical Typist. To be a good listener, you need someone to talk to you. For months on end I had doctors whispering in my ear, dictating letters. After a while, I thought they were talking to me. But they weren’t. They were talking through me. Dodge the dictators – this became my motto.
Writer. Okay, so I wasn’t a real writer. For a time there, though, my words did earn me some dough. Three kid’s stories netted me $800 (one was reprinted), at about 40 cents a word. Evidently, this invaluable experience taught me nothing, as I ain’t published anything since.
Data Entry Operator. Data – it’s everywhere. And it needs to be entered and operated on. That’s where I came in. For ten years I dealt with botanical data, sampling along the way something of the poetry of science. Lesson No. 9: there’s an art to everything.
Casual Research Assistant. To zone out, that’s what I learned while casually assisting a friend with her research. Numbers aplenty cried out for input and, as an aimless Arts graduate, I was ready to put in. As I daydreamed, my digits became, well, the digits. Truly, trying too hard makes trying too hard.
Ten sure steps to success or a beagle’s blighted breakfast? Call it what you will, this serpentine, potholed path has made me what I am today: a humble Passport Officer (ongoing), no less. Which is perhaps more than a trifler like me deserves.
And yet, as the Lonestar Hitchhiker himself, Don Dilego, puts it:
I want to build a brand new road,
But I’m not so sure I know where it goes…
For someone who has a lot of friends, I get pretty bloody lonely. Okay, so all my buddies are imaginary, but what has that got to do with it?
Years ago, I made a big decision, and probably a bad one. I decided that real people suck – as pals, at least. Phantoms, I felt, make better friends. What led me to such a pretty pass? Was it the misanthropy of my parents or my own social awkwardness? A bit of both.
Mostly, though, I put it down to the crazy ideas I had as a teen. Back then, all my friends – bar two – seemed to lack a couple of crucial qualities: complexity and concern.
No-one called me, you see. No-one came after me. No-one seemed to care. The friendships I had were fed solely, I believed, by me. And, in my youthful eyes, one-way streets inevitably led to dead ends.
Sure, there were no smartphones in those distant days, but I wasn’t that hard to contact. No, my unpopularity had nothing to do with my remoteness and everything to do with the way I perceived my pals: as shallow and lacking in seriousness.
You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I was an intense individual, one obsessed by the quest for, err, Beauty and Truth. I was, in other words, a pompous git; amusing at times, but definitely not someone to chat to about your holiday plans or family news.
People who thought about such things were superficial – such was my elevated opinion – and no doubt I made it clear to my friends that I felt this way. Thus they didn’t call me. Why would they?
Like nature, culture abhors a vacuum, and into the breach stepped books.
When I was little, my mum gave me a bookmark whose inscription I took to heart. You might know the poem. It begins, ‘Books are friends/Come, let us read’. What hope did I have?
So, over the years, instead of making friends, I bought books. Second-hand ones, of course, because they have more character. Books became my imaginary friends.
And now I’m lonely. Why? Because just as, years ago, I categorised my real friends and lost them, I’ve gone and put my books in boxes. Somehow I’ve managed to distance myself even from my imaginary mates.
Come, let us read. If only I could!
On Saturday, I pitched my kid’s book to a prospective publisher. The ten-minute session ended with six immortal words, of the kind usually spoken by an Achilles or King Lear.
‘I just don’t like the runway.’
For a book about, say, a seafaring family, this kind of response wouldn’t be such a big deal. I’d have simply offered to replace the runway with something a bit less flat and featureless – a Ferris wheel, perhaps, or a skate park – and the contract would have been signed there and then.
But for a book called Dad’s Runway, it’s a bit of a blow. For me, its aspiring – expiring – author, it felt like a knock-out punch.
It needn’t have. Only an hour earlier, Chopper (not her real name) had stressed the importance of finding the right publisher for your project. One man’s trash being another man’s treasure and all that.
Me being me, though, I took it hard. To heart, no less. Within minutes I was questioning my whole reason for being. I mean, why persist with this book thing?
It’s a fair question. Given my dire lack of time and space, wouldn’t it make more sense for me to write something else – haiku, perhaps, or greeting cards?
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why we write what we write. When I was a teenager I wrote free verse. Like my poems, I lacked form; I was all feeling.
In air too close
our shoots entwine.
roots shallow and starved,
our little hothouse family
and we fall.
In my twenties, I experimented with short stories. Plot had become important to me, as I sought to find a pathway through life.
After he broke his tooth, Wat decided to wrap things up.
1. He called his girlfriend on the telephone.
“I’m going away,” he said.
“But why?” she asked.
Wat said it wasn’t her.
“But why?” she asked.
Wat told her about the breaking of his tooth.
“Oh, Wat,” she said, “your beautiful teeth.”
He hadn’t known they were beautiful.
“Have you put it in milk?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“You have not,” she said. “They can glue it back in, you know.”
“Can I have your coat?” asked Wat.
“Oh, man,” she said.
“You can have my books and my discs.”
“Get your tooth stuck back in.”
Wat didn’t say anything.
“All of them?”
“Yes,” said Wat, “except the bible.”
“Especially except your bible. I didn’t know you had a bible, Wat.”
“I do,” Wat said. “Or else I’ll buy one.”
“Don’t bother,” she said, “I’ll give you mine with the coat, dammit. I’ll put it in the pocket. Should we have a last fuck?”
Wat didn’t say anything.
“I want to feel your broken tooth.”
“A kiss goodbye?” Wat said.
“Nah,” she said, “might as well fuck.”
Then I hit my thirties and non-fiction took over. It was time to get real.
I’d heard about not seeing the forest for the trees but hadn’t expected the world’s tallest hardwood tree to be hidden in the forest – the forest debate, that is. But, as I discovered, it is.
And now, as reality bites, I return to long-form fiction.
It’s the longest, straightest road in outback Australia, and it runs from, well, somewhere, to, er, somewhere else. No-one knows where it starts or where it ends. About halfway along this long straight road there’s a yellow sign that says, ‘Welcome to Nankervis, the little country town with a big heart of gold.’ Underneath, it adds, ‘Population 300’, only some wag has gone and crossed out the zeroes.
That’s where we are now, beside the sign, waiting for a car to come along so that we can get this story moving. And not just any old car, of course, but one that – that looks a lot like the old car approaching us now, in fact. A squeaky, square old Land Cruiser that was once white but is now a sandy shade of cream. It’s chugging along at a steady, sedate pace, which suggests it’s being driven by a local, someone who knows there’s no point in hurrying because for every kilometre you travel out here there’s always another two hundred to come. So what’s the rush?
Yeah, what’s the rush. As a kid, I read novels so that I could escape into another world. Back then, the runway in a Biggles’ book was a starting point, the site from which adventure took flight. These days, though, with my urge to escape more about returning than fleeing, the runway – Dad’s Runway – seems a safe place to land.
Try pitching that to a publisher!
I’d been away from home for a week, working. Over breakfast, and out of idle curiosity, I asked my five-year-old son to tell me what he thinks I do for a living. ‘You make books,’ he said, playing with his porridge.
‘Well…’ I began, and stopped myself. His answer was understandable, I supposed, since he knows about the stories I’d published and about the book I’m trying to write. Understandable but awry.
‘Well…’ I started again, before stopping a second time. I sat and sipped my tea. Whether my son knew it or not, he was actually right. In its own way, my employer is the biggest publisher in the land, pumping out two million titles a year. I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.
‘Spot on,’ I said to my son. ‘Your dad makes books.’
What’s the simplest story you can think of? No, not Hemingway’s six-word classic, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, which probably isn’t even Hemingway’s. I’m picturing the modest passport, and the spare biographical details those slim volumes contain.
Name, sex, date and place of birth – now therein lies a tale. Think of Homer’s heroes, for instance, and the thrills and spills their lineage bequeaths them, as they try to live up to their names, and to being both Greek and male. (Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, has it really bad.)
Think of almost any pre-modern story, in fact, and note how its characters strive to meet the expectations laid upon them at inception. Expectations encoded in the facts of their birth.
Identity – it’s part of our inheritance as humans. An inheritance that, in recent times, we’ve come to resent and reject. Today, we change our name and gender at will; today, we fudge our age and our origins on a whim. Which is why the modernist (literary) text – yikes! – is invariably about escaping our ancestry by trying to ‘make a name’ for ourselves, however ugly or empty the new one might turn out to be. For, as Eliot puts it in ‘The Wasteland’,
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . .
All this (and more) brings me to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which I happened to read during my recent time away. Its hero, Tom, yearns to be a ‘living, breathing, courageous individual’, not a ‘cringing little nobody from Boston’. He hates the reality of his impoverished existence, and he’ll do almost anything to escape it – he’ll even alter his identity by becoming Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a rich industrialist.
Sadly, I know how he feels. There have been a few people in my life who, I’m ashamed to admit, have known me only by the wrong name. (I mumble, you see.) I’ve never corrected them – then or since – because I prefer to be seen as someone other than myself. Call me a coward or just call me Will, as one of them used to do.
It’s kind of ironic, then, that I now work for the Passport Office, helping to make those shrewd little books that authenticate identity. Like Tom Ripley, I’ve tried hard to escape the facts of my birth, and yet they’re still with me, a kind of passport, perhaps, to another life – possibly even my own.
Just don’t tell my son about my real job or he won’t want to grow up to be like me. Then again, maybe he Will.
What do sausages and civil society have in common? A lot, I reckon, if the following story is anything to go by. Set in a butcher’s shop, this telling tale has a cast of three: Mal, Muir and me…
It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m out shopping for food with my omnivorous offspring, Angus and Eliza. Having gathered groceries from the supermarket, we go hunting fresh meat, tiptoeing across town in the Magna-Carter. The trail ends, unsurprisingly, at the door of our pet butcher, Mal.
I park on the street where the kids can see into the shop. Handing them two super-sized apples, I utter those famous last words: ‘Won’t be long.’
Mal himself is behind the counter.
‘Now I know why I pay my staff extra on Sundays,’ he says, as I pass him a tray of lasagne ($11.95), two packs of dog’s mince ($19.60) and a carton of eggs ($5.20). ‘It’s bloody hard work.’
I glance around at the crush of customers and grin. ‘Looks like it,’ I reply, trying to remember what’s next on my unwritten list.
Mal pauses in the totting up, which buys me more time. ‘Usually I’m such a neat freak,’ he confesses, ‘but it’s been go go go all morning. I wouldn’t normally leave this tray of chops here – I’d have to put it straight back where it belongs. It’s just been that kind of day.’
As he fiddles with the register, I wave at my curious kids, who are watching me intently over their hot-air balloons. A fellow customer almost waves back, out of instinct. Almost.
‘Get you anything else?’
‘Bacon,’ I say smoothly, as if I’d known all along. ‘A pack of your smoked stuff [$4.90]. Oh, and about 300 grams of your ham [$5.25].’
As Mal weighs it out, I notice a sign behind the glass advertising a freebie: one peri-peri chicken burger per customer. An award-winning peri-peri chicken burger, at that.
‘Not happy being National Sausage King?’ I ask him, in jest. ‘You gotta be Burger Baron as well? Talk about greedy.’
He looks a little sheepish and slows down on the ham.
‘Just trying to stay on top,’ he says. ‘Actually, the awards were only the other week. Talk about nervous. There I was taking selfies from under the table and up on stage. Almost dropped my phone, not to mention the trophy. Very happy, though.’
‘Keep this up you’ll need a new shelf for your silverware,’ I joke, looking at the full one above his head.
‘Funny you should say that,’ he replies. ‘I’ve been thinking about making room on the wall over there…’
‘It must make marketing easier,’ I add, perceptively. ‘All these prizes.’
‘Well, that’s it. It’s so competitive these days.’
The only competition I can see is for first place in the queue at the counter. Short-sighted, that’s me.
‘Get you anything else?’
I ask for a dozen beef sausages.
‘Thick or thin,’ Mal wants to know.
And this is where Prof. Muir comes in – figuratively, of course, as befits his theoretical status. ‘Thin,’ the Prof. hisses. ‘Go with the thin.’
So I do. And while Mal is out the back securing the snags, Muir states his case.
‘You wanna live in a civil society? Of course you do. Well, here’s the thing: it’s not your relationships with friends and relatives that matter so much. Nope, it’s the interactions you have with your acquaintances that really count.’
‘Okay…’ I mumble, thinking back to the journal article in which I’d first encountered this idea.
The Prof. snorts, and charges on.
‘It’s not okay, you ninny, unless you work on the “thin trust” you share with others. By that I mean the relationships you have with virtual strangers. Forget the “thick” stuff – the bonds you form with those you know and love. They’ll tend to be civil anyway. Always go with the thin. Got it?’
‘I think so. Try to empathise with the people you meet, and society will be all the better for it.’
‘Something like that,’ Muir says, disappearing into thin air – yes, thin air – as Mal returns.
‘That the lot?’ he asks, weighing the sausages ($8.40).
I respond with my customary closing rejoinder. ‘Yeah, I’d better stop there.’
‘That comes to sixty-one,’ he says, bagging me my free peri-peri chicken burger while I’m fishing for the cash.
‘Thanks, Mal,’ I say, taking the bag from him. It’s the closest we come to shaking hands, our exchange having come to an end.
‘Enjoy,’ he says. ‘Now, who was next?’
Back in the car, the kids have given up on their apples. ‘That took a long time,’ Angus points out.
‘It did, didn’t it,’ I say, rather proudly.
I sit for a moment and ponder the thick and the thin. Thing is, I think I believe all that stuff. Why? Probably because, for me, ‘thick’ relationships have always been a bit thin on the ground. Connecting with strangers – that, I muse, is more my cup of tea. After all, it’s only when we face the unfamiliar that our moral mettle is truly tested.
Sixty-one dollars? I reach into the bag for my receipt and, closing my ears to the chorus of protests from behind, I do the sums.
They don’t add up.
What price a civil society? Oh, about six dollars.
Cheap at half the price, I tell myself as I drive away. Mal and me, we’re as thin as thieves, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way, even if it leads to a miscalculation or two. Our future might just depend on it.
Halfway home, I remember my free peri-peri chicken burger, which puts the icing on the cake. I’m hungry too. Saving civilisation – or even simply shopping – sure gives a bloke an appetite.
Two years changed my life. The first was 1984, the year I lost my voice. I was twelve at the time, and on the cusp of adolescence. Things were going well. My family had moved to a small country town, where for the first time in my life I had enough freedom to flourish. My father was often away, so as his eldest son I grew in stature. I was popular at school and captain of my cricket team, and I even had a girlfriend of sorts.
Ironically, I also became one of the ‘voices’ of my school that year, being chosen to speak on some kind of recording – I can’t remember what. Boy, I wish I had that tape. Why? Because my fall soon followed, and I didn’t talk again for thirty years. Not freely, that is, not as ‘me’.
It was my own fault, I suppose. Instead of creating an imaginary world, as we usually did, a friend and I set about ‘reshaping’ a real one: a sewage works on the edge of town. Into the open tanks went sprinklers and rocks, on more than one occasion. Thus did we become vandals; thus were we caught and disgraced. Thus was I stripped of my new-found liberty and life, and of the town I loved. Thus did I drag myself back to that devil’s playground and try to drown myself in the muck. Thus did I fall silent, smothered by shit and shame.
Years later, I fictionalised my downfall in a story called ‘Adam and His Other’. It starts like this:
We begin and end with an image. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face. Overhead, the sky, faded and flat; close by, skirting the high chain-metal fence, a dusty track fringed by scrub. And silence, too, for nothing moves, not even the figure in the water. Yes, the boy above is no Narcissus; the face he beholds is not a reflection, but solid and real. Look closer. Study the looks on the faces. Are they not identical, like their features? There, around the eyes, shock and dismay; there, in the eyes, sadness and a shadow of hope. Now look down. Yes, the boy has his hands in the muck; yes, his hands are on the shoulders of the other. Effortlessly, the boy holds him under; effortlessly, one boy holds the other boy up.
2014. The second year that changed my life. Or will. Because a few months ago my voice came back, bursting up from below with astonishing clarity and force, like the unitary yowl of a newborn and its labouring host. How did it happen? Not through trying, oddly enough, but by letting go.
Since high school, I’ve been obsessed by two things: writing and singing. Both have been about recovery – I know that now. About recalling my voice and with it ‘me’. Thus I began book after book and took lesson after lesson; always, though, my voice – real or written – came out ugly and weak. The harder I tried, the worse it became, until something inside me gave up and gave. Only then did I let myself go.
Twelve years my recovery took. It started when I allowed myself be led to a quieter place, to live and work amongst people who like to listen. As I let myself speak, I found that my written voice grew louder. I produced articles, posters and displays at work, and I wrote children’s stories for magazines at home. I started to study again and, despite having failed before, I finally wrote my way through. Reflection, research and a receptive readership – all three things encouraged me to speak up. I graduated in April, a straight-A student.
This year, too, I ‘came out’ as a writer; I laid bare my literary persona by starting this blog, and I conceived a small writing business-to-be, my first. Slowly but steadily, I climbed out of the muck.
At the same time, my real voice grew stronger; by letting myself go, I grew into a man as well as a maker. The past eight years have seen me become a husband and father, and respect and responsibility have given me voice. Sure, arguing with my wife and yelling at the kids have loosened the cords, but only singing to and around my children has brought me release. The emotions my offspring invoke – all that agony and ecstasy – have filled me so full that I’ve come rushing to the surface, borne back to life on a sudden upsurge of song. Miraculously, my voice has regained its upper register, and with it me my higher self.
Of the songs that have served me well, ‘The Starting Line’ by Keane is special. I find the first two lines of its soaring chorus particularly ‘uplifting’:
Drag your heart up to the starting line
Forget the ghosts that make you old before your time
So, you see – 2014 has been a big year for me. By putting the ghosts behind me, I’ve made it back to the starting line. Now, of course, I’ve ‘got to get underway’, but that’s another story. What about you? What kind of year have you had? Go on – get in touch. Let yourself go.