Although I am a fairly obscure writer – by which I mean not terrifically well known – I do get asked questions about the craft surprisingly often; and it is quite probable that there lies not so far beneath the surface an urge to blather mildly on the subject. After all, language is often cited as our most significant accomplishment, without which we could never have done this, that and the other. Of course it would not have got us so far without the parallel development of numerical calculation – which in turn relies on words and/or pictures and signs to identify the items being organised, sorted, added together, subtracted one from the other, multiplied etc; and the methods of calculation called into play, some of which I have just named. Obviously we can play such games before we even begin to apply these disciplines to anything important or useful. And that is part of their richness.
I have heard people say that they could not remember actually learning to read or write, and this has surprised me. As it happens I can remember both, but the idea that one can perform such sophisticated functions without being able to remember when we began is just as profound, if not more so. It is like reaching back into an invisible pool of knowledge whose origin lies somewhere beyond the conscious mind, or a tide into which one was spawned, already swimming. I can’t go so far back as to remember learning to walk, though I can clearly remember learning to swim, and I can remember trying to write simple descriptions of events (stories, however brief), colours and things about me before I had more than a smattering of language itself. To go further back, I can remember pretending to read before I had even begun to sound the alphabet phonetically and make words like C-A-T. or even D-O-G. There is no sense of destiny in this urge to read. I was bullshitting myself and (mostly) imaginary onlookers that I had mastered something at a freakishly early age.
I also pretended to write out invoices and balance accounts without knowing what invoices and accounts were. What was produced was always unsatisfactory. Marks and the occasional real number I had remembered, that would never quite coalesce into convincing patterns, their pretend meaningfulness enhanced nevertheless by the expressions of mind-splitting concentration, purpose and self-importance that passed across my face, and the portentous sense of deliberation and practicality with which I held and moved my blue pencil, whose end I licked occasionally because it deepened the blue and somehow seemed fitting – and anyway if you were an accountant who meant business you occasionally licked the end of the pencil, as everyone knew.
This fantasy was inspired by the fact that my grandfather, Robert Hercules Doyle – after a life of riding horses in peace and war, bossing shearing sheds and travelling as a wool buyer – was spending his last working years as a clerk in the office of Riechhold Chemicals, which was situated, with its factory, in Roseberry, an industrial area in Sydney. Mildly confusing was the fact that he often drove an A C Hattricks truck home. The two companies were affiliated. The truck was a large International flat bed and my Aunt Joan’s cocker spaniel (called Wings for obvious reasons) often stood proudly out on the tray, balancing as we moved through the countryside. I usually leaned against the cab when I did not ride inside with Pop, facing forward or backward in the wind.
How did I pretend to read?
Simply by standing in front of one or other of the small cluster of shop windows just up and over the hill behind our flat, and purposefully – very purposefully and rather in slow motion – scanning the lettering before me at a speed that might suggest I was reading it. Too slowly I imagine, but I was pretty sure that any adult watching would think, ‘Look at that clever little boy. He can read already but he doesn’t seem old enough to go to school!’ When I turned around it was often the case that no one was watching at all. Just my mother waiting patiently, and just on the point of telling me to come on. Reality often fell disappointingly short of fantasies. When these were absent uninterpreted reality was mysterious and thrilling. And it was that quality I wanted write about. For I did in fact want to write very early.
And indeed I did begin writing in a more or less literary sense quite early, but for a while I reached toward the realities and myths of other times. I liked the sounds of words, of themselves and in propinquity – their rhythms, harmonies and dissonances and in the beginning all the stirring cadences seemed to belong to hallowed days beyond my recall. Days in which my grandfather rode, Prince Valiant swung the singing sword and Biggles flew through the clouds. Here is the earliest poem I remember writing – the first two lines anyway:
Round and round and round they go
The rickety old wheels of Cobb and Co.
Obviously I was aware of Banjo Patterson. He was my grandfather’s favourite, and for some brief moments of self-aggrandisement I thought my poem was quite a good imitation. My grandfather was not quite so impressed as I had hoped. He offered serious criticism and I was too young and ego-centric to take this as a compliment.
Alright. The rickety old wheels of Cobb and Co. Very funny. Terrible in fact. But show some compassion. I was only six months old! As far as I remember anyway. Hmm. Okay call me a liar.
You could be right there. Maybe I was six or seven years old.
The rickety old wheels. Old? the wheels of Cobb and Co coaches were probably not old at all in Patterson’s time. Nor rickety. But you may recall that as a child, and when indeed you are singing with old people, if ever you do that, any reference to old things can have quite a powerful effect. In the shade of the old apple tree. Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine. Down by the old mill stream. Way down upon the Swannee River. Far far away. That’s where my heart is turning ever. That’s where the old folks stay. All up and down the whole creation (phew!). Sadly I roam… Far from the old folks at home. Those last nine lines are from Stephen Foster’s song Swannee River, which is the absolute delirious distillation of nostalgic agony. There is a recognition that nothing lasts forever, but in the curious dimension of nostalgia there live and grow things that will live from everlasting to everlasting, and at the same time nostalgia also carries the painful knowledge that these things will pass and that the pain of remembering will burn eternally. The old folks at home suggests a group of immortals who will always be there, but they will not. That they are old and you are far, far away suggests that we may never see them again. All up and down the whole creation is pure genius. On one level it is kitsch, as Walt Disney’s Bambi is kitsch milked some way beyond endurance.
You are very wrong to assume that the rock and roll era put an end to this whole area, the good and the bad. Springing to mind immediately are Teen Angel (Can you hear Me? Teen Angel Can you see me? Are you somewhere up above? And are you still my own true love?) Dream Lover, Love Me Tender. (oh my darling I love you, and I hope you’re on the pill) etc.
Fortunately the neurotic agonising, the masochistic indulgence falls away as we grow older, unless some real tragedy occurs in our lives that can never be entirely dislodged. For some it returns in any case with old age. There is in fact a school of thought that values kitsch and melodrama above the literature that is generally acknowledge as being great. This was part of the post-modernist levelling, which soon became another hierarchical ranking. Inverted snobbism you may say, but that implies a pre-ordained order, that one class of expression is better than another.
Why bother? There is a school of tough guy writing in which it is often said that if your writing reads like writing destroy it and start again. Likewise there is a school of photography in which it is maintained that you should destroy anything that looks like art. But the tough guys (some of whom I like, sure) often go on to produce aggressive and sometimes aggravating street-wise prose that is as mannered and calculated as Augustan poetry. The non-art likewise can be so particular in its effects as to seem subject to as much stylistic convention as Raphael. And just as arty as anything you care to present.
There is a book club program on television that I watch occasionally, for a while. On one they argued and agonised over whether or how you could define a cult book. One chap got a very angry expression on if any author was mentioned whom he did not consider to be a genuine cult author. Dickens made his face go black with suspicion. Well, I suppose he was too enormously popular to be a cult writer. They reached points of mystical paralysis in which they agreed a cult book cannot be defined. I listened for a bit. Without really thinking about it I decided that a cult book was a book that had accrued a cult following and turned it off. Life is too short.
Some lines seem to come from a folk memory and some seem to be the product of an individual genius. But that is because we know the authors or recognize the stylistic conventions. If you remove them from the defining aspect of category, they seem to come from the same place. And I sincerely think they do.
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night,
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch.
Who wrote that? If it was indeed Shakespeare he had an amazing store of knowledge for the education he received. Someone wrote it. That’s good enough for me.
Stand before me Starbuck. Let me look into a human eye.
It is better than to gaze on sea or sky
This lovely light it lights not me
All loveliness is anguish.
That is from Moby Dick. Captain Ahab is addressing his first mate while the ship is becalmed. Vladimir Nabokov, in his often irritating book Bend Sinister, gathered some of the curious iambic lines from Melville’s masterpiece, stacked them on top of each other and referred to that as a famous American poem. He used more of those lines than I have, and arranged them slightly differently. When I was quite young I read some things at this level and, man, they gave me the shivers. But a little earlier than this (from 1947 on into the 1950s according to the dedications in the fly leaves) I also read Peter The Whaler by W.H.G. Kingston, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Biggles books by the under-rated Captain W.E. Johns, Greenmantle by John Buchan, the William books by Richmal Crompton, Under The Red Sea by Hans Hass, The Silent World by Captain Cousteau, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass Of Wyoming by the magnificent Mary O’Hara. And so on. Some quite standard for my age, some less so. I was born in 1940. Incidentally I read James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1960 between on Smiths Creek Wharf between trips while working on a fishing boat out of Cairns and the first book of Remembrance Of Things Past at lunch times in the Mount Isa library while working as a reporter on the Mount Isa Mail.
I dip back into almost all these things from time to time. If I could write somewhere near as well as any of them – popular, cult, high art, whatever – I would be happy. And indeed I am.