As I write this it’s still autumn. I need to point that out lest winter arrive before this is posted. You know how pedantic my blogmeistress can be.
Winter is lurking, waiting its moment. I left the hospital last night and walked into the dark and rain. Rather than wait in the wet for the correct tram I took another which would take me close to the station. ‘Close’ was actually a mile or two. I enjoyed a philosophical walk through the bleak, absorbing heaven-sent water through hat, jacket and leather shoes. Three jolly Chinese women sheltered in a doorway beneath bright umbrellae that flapped in the wind. Nice and damp by now, I thought of the umbrella, a found object, furled, resting in my bag. If ever I’d have an umbrella moment this would be it. I don’t like umbrellas – a prejudice from childhood dressed up as a principle. The umbrella stayed furled.
On the tram this morning three young women sat and consulted their screens. Melbourne passed by them, damp, dark, unnoticed. Their devotion was religious. One of the three wore an eskimo jacket, her face fur-framed, her free hand clutching two slices of vegemite toast. The bread looked like rye. A semicircular bite in the upper slice showed where the screen interrupted the young woman’s breakfast. Twenty minutes after boarding, eskimo-lady alighted, her neglected toast undepleted. I mention the breakfast because it looked hearty, just right for the weather.
At the hospital last night I ate the meal I brought from home, a soup described as ‘Tuscan Lentil & Grain Broth’. A woman I know found the recipe in one of the weekend magazines. The soup was new to me. Among the ingredients were carrot, celery, onion (of course), garlic (gratefully), tomatoes, lentils, barley and a green called cavolo nero. That’s Italian for kale. I saw through the disguise; I don’t eat kale, like umbrellae – a matter of prejudice. Well I ate the soup, hot and hearty. Oh what a moment! The soup warmed me and filled me so all the wet and wind and cold that followed could not dampen the love I felt for the soupmaker. I decided I wanted her to be my wife. Which, happily, she is.
I blame Seinfeld.
Someone has to be blamed.
My kids watched as they grew up. My wife watched. I tried not to. There was the hapless George: no shabbier soul ever sullied a screen. Every so seldom Kramer might pop up. He’d break me up. A wondrous comic creation. But between cackles I could feel something niggling at my austere soul. It was only later, with the advent of ‘Friends’ – not as funny, the characters even more ordinary – that I could define what offended me.
Nowadays, what was subtext in Seinfeld and in Friends is the explicit in the great world. What those characters (Seinfeld) and those nonentities (Friends) did constantly was normative and, in time, became normal. The banks do it, the captains of cricket, the captains of industry do it. The incumbent in the White House does it, the churches, the military, politicians (of course) – they all do it.
They all lie.
In those TV shows the ethos was subterranean. You could feel the tremors but you didn’t always sense the accumulating weight of untruth; nor how truth as a value kept receding into distance. In response to any difficulty, every character lied. They lied by reflex. Awkward situation? Tell a fib. Everyone does it…
I’ll tell you a story from the Olden Days. It goes like this: A child goes into a bank with his piggy bank. The banker, a man in his fifties, helps the child to open a savings account. The banker congratulates the child on her thrift. The banker does not sell further products to the child.
Today that’s a fairy story. That banker will never drive a Ferrari.
Here’s a contemporary story: A customer goes into a bank and asks the banker a question. The banker replies, “I’m a banker. I tell only lies.” Should the customer believe the banker?
The makers of Seinfeld knew what they were doing. They were blowing a whistle on untruthtelling.
The makers of Seinfeld made us laugh. We laughed and we laughed. And we paid no attention to the whistle. And now the Liar in Chief sits in the White House tweeting. And the laugh is on us all.
The ruler of this blog disqualified the title of my previous post. I’d proposed “Autumn Notes -III”, but the blogmeistress ruled that out. ‘It’s a book review, Dad, it’s nothing to do with autumn. You’ll confuse people if you call it that.’
So here we ago again. I’m writing this in autumn. Brown leaves are falling, the air is chilling, malicious winds lash the streets. What’s more, I’m in the autumn of my days. And today when I visited my aunt I glimpsed Winter.
My mother-in-law is a beauty. At 91 years she dresses like my daughters and she’s still admired as a beauty. Her name’s Helen. As in Troy. Ma-in-Law Helen remarked to me once, ‘Your Aunty B was the most beautiful bride I ever saw’. On a separate occasion Aunty B said to me ‘Your mother in law was the most beautiful bride I ever saw.’
I’ve seen wedding photos of them both and I can’t disagree with either of them.
Today I visited Aunty B. Family news had filtered through the dark: B isn’t doing well. I found her sleeping in her room, surrounded by her daughters and her doctor-granddaughter. I saw her, I saw that same face, beautiful still. I thought of Aunty B’s life of battles, of her buoyancy and grace, her good cheer. I remember how she took this bewildered country boy under her wing on lonely visits to Melbourne. Now Aunty opened an eye. Was that a smile? Her hand opened to my touch, the grip strong. My last surviving aunt opened her mouth to speak. No words. The eye closed and she slept. Like Hemingway’s Old Man (of the Sea), did she dream?
It’s not yet Winter but it’s coming.
Every so seldom I come upon a book to treasure. Every day I read. I inhabit a forest of books,
I sleep between towers of books, some read, some half-read, most unread. No day goes unbooked.
Some in my world of books inform or advise or enlighten. Others – not enough of them – delight or tickle me. Some inspire, some shock, others outrage and a few disgust me. Plenty bore me. But every so rarely comes a story that calls for that overused word, love. Robert Hillman’s ‘Bookshop of the Broken Hearted’ is a book to love.
What do I mean here by love? In two separate surveys carried out a decade or so ago, respondents were asked to name their most-beloved Australian novel. I saw listed many books I’d enjoyed, by authors I admire. Before reading the results I made my own nomination – Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’. I read the rankings, and there, topping both surveys, was Cloudstreet.’Just so: Winton’s characters, their stories, their rich and variegated humanness, are given to us in their fulness, given us to love. ‘Cloudstreet’ stays with the reader and is recalled with love. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is another such.
Ripe for adding to that list is Hillman’s ‘Bookshop’. It broke my heart and it healed it. I laughed (my guffaws this morning alarmed a tramful of screen-trapped commuters) and I ached for the child. And for the adults who saw this child and that child torn from them I felt a distress that has visited me only once outside of a book, when the (false) report arrived that my child had a fatal malignancy.
‘Bookshop’ left me hopeful but not complacent. I will cherish the simple farmer who is the protagonist and I will tremble for him so long as memory abides.
I invite you come to Readings Bookshop in Carlton, to hear Robert Hillman in conversation with this happy blogger at 6.30 pm next Monday, May 7th.