Thursday, September 25, 2014

Travel companions

[....] Charles hated flying. He hated the whole business - the queues, the claustrophobia, the take-off, the sound of the wheels retracting, the bullying music, the seat belts, the staff's psychotic switching from servility to contemptuous indifference. It was bad enough setting off to somewhere reasonable, like Paris or New York or Los Angeles. But Baldai - no, crazy.

Margaret Drabble, A Natural Curiosity(1989)

In a fortnight I'm setting off to somewhere reasonable - Frankfurt, to the Book Fair - but I'm going much further than Charles is: Paris, New York or Los Angeles from London. Pah! And I hate flying. It's the reason I haven't been to Europe for well over 30 years. I think. Sometimes I think that I merely found staying at home writing and reading and gardening interesting enough.

My trip will involve leaving Wongavale (somewhere quite unreasonable) to arrive at the Gold Coast in time for an earlyish flight. Then after an unreasonably long wait at Sydney(due to the BA/Qantas thing) I leave for Heathrow, and from there to Frankfurt. I'm not even counting up the time.

I will need companions to comfort and distract me.  I've chosen three books:

The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac (1958), a re-read:

Once I was young and had so much more orientation and I could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won't do - just to start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that's what I'll do -.  It began on a war summernight - ah, she was sitting on a fender with Julien Alexander who is ... let me begin with a history of the subterraneans of San Francisco ...

Faces in the Water, by Janet Frame (1961):

After the doctor performed the last shock treatment of the morning he used to go with Matron Glass and Sister Honey for morning tea in Sister's office where he sat in the best chair brought in from the adjoining room called the "mess-room" where visitors were sometimes received. Dr. Howell drank from the special cup which was tied around the handle with red cotton to distinguish the staff cups from those of the patients, and thus prevent the exchange of diseases like boredom loneliness authoritarianism. Dr. Howell was young catarrhal plump pale-faced (we called him Scone) short-sighted sympathetic overworked with his fresh enthusiasm quickly perishing under concentrated stress, like a new plane that is put in a testing chamber simulating the conditions of millions of miles of flying and in a few hours suffers the metal fatigue of years.

Beat Writers at Work, Edited by George Plimpton (The Paris Review Interviews) (1999):

Ginsberg:    [...]   You have many writers who have preconceived ideas about what literature is supposed to be, and their ideas seem to exclude that which makes them most charming in private conversations. Their faggishness, or their campiness, or their neurasthenia, or their solitude, or their goofiness, or their - even- masculinity, at times.  Because they think that they're gonna write something that sounds like something else that they've read before, instead of sounds like them. Or comes from their own life. In other words, there's no distinction, there should be no distinction between what we write down, and what we really know, to begin with. As we know it every day, with each other. And the hypocrisy of literature has been - you know like there's supposed to be formal literature, which is supposed to be different from ... in subject, in diction and even in organization, from our quotidian inspired lives.

It's also like in Whitman, "I find no fat sweeter than that which sticks to my own bones," that is to say the self-confidence of someone who knows that he's really alive, and that his existence is just as good as any other subject matter.

I could make no better description of the books of Jack Kerouac and Janet Frame than Ginsberg's words, as quoted above.

With companions like these, I think I'll travel well.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Power in the Darkness

Searching for The Radiant Way

Sometimes I cull my books too enthusiastically, throwing away ones that I later want to read.

So it was with Margaret Drabble's 1980s trilogy, The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity and The Gates  of Ivory.

The last two I found easy to replace, thanks to our local Lifeline op shop, which contains the best bookshop in town.

Not so The Radiant Way, the first book, without which I did not want to start re-reading the trilogy.  Looking online, it seemed to be out of print, but I found it recently in Canberra, in the industrial suburb of Fyshwick, in an enormous second-hand bookshop that had previously never been open whenever I was there. There, an Aladdin's cave of delight, the books were two deep on the shelves, and the very tall Underground Man unearthed a copy of Radiant Way on a high shelf, hidden in a back row in the Ds.

I've just finished reading it, and found it almost obscenely entertaining. But I can see why I threw it out. My younger self (and I'm talking almost 30 years ago) would have found the lives of these three friends who met at Cambridge rather too drearily middle-class and a bit pretentious, especially Liz, a Harley Street psychotherapist. Alix I remember identifying with - she and her husband get by on piecemeal teaching work, subject to budget cuts and change of government policy.  Esther, an art historian who also manages to survive on scraps of work is recognisable to me now.

Now, I am older than these characters, then, I was at least 15 years younger. I imagined that I would never want to read it again, but I can see that some books, like some clothes, if you keep them long enough, regain relevance and desirability.

Radiant Way begins before a New Year's Eve party held by Liz and Charles Headleand, at the beginning of the 1980s. Liz is in her room getting ready. One of her teenage daughters is in her room listening to the Tom Robinson Band: 'The Winter of '79'.

(There is a photograph of me that has hung on our wall for well over 30 years. I am dressed in dyed bright yellow men's overalls, with a pale pink t-shirt. My feet are bare. It is 1978, I am 26, and have just had a baby, and I have a mild, soft, diffident expression on my face.  I lean against the back of an old 1960- something Holden, a car we bought for $200 in Sydney before moving to the north coast . We called this the Tom Robinson car, because we stencilled the boot with a clenched fist and the words 'Tom Robinson Band' curved around it - the stencil came with their album 'Power in the Darkness' which we listened to relentlessly - he was angry and left-wing and gay - what was not to like?)

 The Radiant Way trilogy is set in the Thatcher years - it is personal and political, rambling, sometimes rather incredible (there is someone in Harrow beheading young women, and rather coincidentally he turns out to be the quiet young man living upstairs from Esther; and he kills one of the young female offenders Alix used to teach,  and leaves the head on the front seat of Alix's car which she had to leave overnight because the tyres were slashed.) Sorry for the bad syntax.

There is a strong sense of the travails of life, the importance of family, for good or ill (largely ill), the turns that individual lives take, the effect of politics on one's life (or not), and the way the past is never really past. I found it this time very life-like, though I don't think I have any murdering beheaders in my vicinity. 

It rather reminds me of my own friendships, many of which cover many decades even though none of us are English and don't include a Harley Street psychoanalyst.

It reminds me that we in Australia are entering our own Thatcher-like years, with a ridiculously right-wing government, punitive to young people, pensioners, and anyone else they deem not to be 'lifting' heavily enough, and very willing to take us off to war again (and here I remember Robert Wyatt's heartbreaking version of 'Shipbuilding', a song also of the early 80s.)

Time to get out Tom Robinson. Power in the darkness, indeed.