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.
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!