A couple of months ago I ordered in a book from a rare and secondhand bookstore in London. The book was The Torrents of War, by Igor Sentjurg – one of the better novels to come out of world war two, but long out of print and hard to find.
I first discovered this book many years ago – shall we say 40 years? My grandfather was a gentle, learned man whose passion was books. At my grandparents home in Strathmore, a whole wall in the living room was given over to bookshelves crammed with hundreds of books. We were regular visitors, and on school holidays I’d spend a week there with my grandparents. I can remember bits and pieces of my visits there – the roast meals, my grandmother’s Anzac cookies, a day out shopping with my grandpa, my grandma driving an old silver Holden. I remember the elegance with which my grandfather always dressed, and the severity of my grandma (doted on me nonetheless).
There’s a vivid memory of one day being dropped off in Joliment near the Hilton hotel with my grandpa and walking to the MCG the day of the Boxing Day test when Kim Hughes struck a magnificent hundred, and Lillee bowled Viv Richards on the last ball of the day. I remember the garden – roses in the front, and fruit trees in the back my grandfather had grafted one on another – and taking the border collie, Lassie, for walks in the evening. I remember how he would measure me against a piece of timber, scratching in it my latest height. How tall am I? I would ask, and I remember the last time he measured me before he died telling me I was six foot and three-quarters of an inch – how I cherished those three-quarters of an inch!
All this was true.
An abiding memory is my grandfather’s books. I was a book-loving kid and I would browse his shelves every time I visited, plucking books from the shelves to check out, returning some, and taking others to read myself. Often I would find myself in the rear bedroom that had been my uncles growing up, but which I would sleep in when I stayed. The bed had drawers beneath it, and a rug across it broadly striped in yellow, white and red. I would lay on the bed with the book on the floor and my grandma going by would say, “can you read that? Aren’t your eyes good!”
One of those books was The Torrents of War, but there were many others too. Forty-odd years later I own some of those books, history mainly, but also grandfather’s books on Muhammad Ali (I was with him when he bought the Wilfrid Sheed book) – I wish I had spoken to him about Ali – as well as the Sentjurg paperback. Its pages are brittle and yellow now, and the spine cracked from decades of reading, a keepsake rather than something I could read – and so ordering in a replacement (the same edition, the same cover) was as much an act of remembrance as it was of literature.
All this is recalled to me now because I began a book this morning about the great Australian correspondent, Alan Moorehead. Moorehead was one of the very best war correspondents covering the second war. It was a great observer, which he would render in evocative prose. He came to write several books thought to be classics now, but an author seemingly long forgotten – a man from another age.
My grandfather had Moorehead’s Nile books. I can’t remember if I read them, but I can picture them on the shelves still. No doubt I pulled them out and browsed through them (and I was curious enough to read Moorehead’s classics on the North African war as an adult). Memory was at play, but so too was imagination. These old books became a part of life in my mind, long passed.
Once upon a time, Moorehead would have been almost a household name. I imagined my grandfather, younger, hale and hearty, a doting father, a dedicated employee of the PMG, a quiet man of refined tastes and routines, spotting the Moorehead’s as they were being released and thinking to himself, that sounds interesting – must buy that. And he would, as he did for decades, his one real indulgence.
That was real world for him. Real life. And it was for Moorehead then in his own way, scratching out his books in a life that was current and vibrant – no matter how dusty and distant it appears now.
It’s not that you forget that there’s a time and a history before ours, but it doesn’t have the same pulse and vibrancy of today because, well, it was long yesterday. It doesn’t feel quite real because you weren’t there to see it. What was current and present and often in the balance has passed now into history. The outcome has been determined, the characters no more than names long gone, and all of it given a solemnity by being recorded history books and literature. It’s all true, but it has a flavour of hearsay because it’s not now.
It’s good to remember – and not just remember, but feel it – how there was a time before and it was real and people lived their lives as we do and probably thought much as we do and even if times have changed, and tastes and desires, then there are universal truths that persist, and probably do going back millennia. My grandfather would get out of bed and catch the train to work (probably an old red rattler), as I do, he followed the footy and cricket, and even if the players are different, it’s much the same. He read his books and made his plans and nurtured his children, and it was all real for him, though he’s been dead nearly forty years.
One of the things I inherited from him was a leather-bound scrapbook in which he had cut and glued newspaper articles of the day – the fifties mainly, the sixties – little home improvement projects, and carpentry tips, gardening, even architectural design. It’s always fascinated me because it was of another life – and now I could imagine him reading an article in the Argus and thinking, I’ll do that, before cutting it out and putting it in his scrapbook.
One day there may be someone reading this from a time when my today seems long distant and me, long gone. Let me tell you – I lived. Sometimes the days went fast, but mostly just one at a time. I can hear a bird sing as I write this, and the sun is shining. This morning as I walked by the foreshore, the sea seemed particularly briny. There are things in me – but you know that if you’ve read the stuff that comes before – as there was my grandfather, though I don’t know what they were. We all look, some of us see, we feel even if sometimes we’d prefer not to, we hope and cheer, grizzle and grumble. The trivial looms large before falling away, and the great bewilders us.
These are my times. And now I’m going to make myself a sandwich for lunch.