How do you fill the years?

During the week I bought a book of Robert Hughes essays at a much-reduced price.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Hughes since around the mid-eighties, first in print, then on screen. His voice in either medium was unchanged. Read his writings, and you can hear his voice in your ear. It’s the authoritative voice of a man confident in his, sometimes controversial, opinions. Educated, intelligent, bullish, and very literate, Hughes was about a muscular a critic as you’ll come across, and maybe that pushed him forward in the rank of critics. Read his stuff though, and it’s marked with insight and conjecture that makes you stop and wonder – the best sort of critic, in other words. Almost without question, he was the best communicator/writer of all of them. That voice, again, resonant, sometimes magisterial, occasionally abrasive, he wrote with lovely, rounded phraseology that stuck in the mind. It was clear to understand and memorable and sometimes almost biblical in its succinct description.

I met him once, in about 1998. It was around the time of the push to become a republic, and he was one expatriate Aussie who felt strongly about it. He gave a talk at the Arts Centre about why we should become a republic, and afterwards, I met him briefly for a shake of the hand and a brief conversation. I admired him. I may even have seen in him some sort of model.

He’s been dead a few years now. In my mind, I always associated him with another Aussie ex-pat, Clive James. They actually knew each other at uni in Sydney in the sixties. James is another gone, though much more recently. There’s a third I roughly lump into this group of celebrated Aussie ex-pats, and he’s still around – Barry Humphries.

The funny thing is, whenever I think of these guys I find myself thinking of my father. Doubtless, that’s because they’re all of around the same age – born around the beginning of WW2.

I had lunch again with dad this week. We’ve caught up about four times now after being absent from each other for years. Each time I see him I find myself surprised at how frail he’s become.

He’s still of active mind and will, but he moves slowly with the aid of a cane. On his forearm, there were two small medical-grade adhesives. When I asked what they were from – I was thinking skin cancers – he told me they were from biopsies, the purpose of which he professed not to know. He’s not someone likely to allow any treatment without knowing everything about it and so I concluded that he didn’t want to tell me.

I have a lifetime of memories to choose between when I think about dad, but the first memory that always comes to mind is prosaic. I picture him in a pair of shorts and bare-chested busy bustling around the yard and garden doing things. He’s tanned and healthy-looking with an unthinking physicality. It’s an old memory – specifically, it comes from the time he lived in Sydney, and no more than ten years ago. He was active then, he moved with an intent that his body no longer possesses (though, as ever, he has intent of mind).

I look at him now and I feel sad at how things change, though he appears to have accepted it. It spooks me a little too, wondering at how I’d cope at being slowed down so much – is this what I can expect, too?

It’s funny how your mind works. On the news the other week was a report about some notable who had died at the age of 78. I thought to myself, that’s a fair innings. But then I realised that dad is 78 – and my view on that was completely different: much too soon.

Dad may go on to live another dozen years or more, but it comes for everyone – Hughes, James, one day Humphries, and one day my own father – and millions more.

I wonder – how do you fill the years? Ideally, with passion and curiosity. I think that’s true of the men I refer too. They made their mark. They explored the things that fascinated them and shared the journey with us. That’s a good way to live and to leave behind when you’re gone.

Legacies are personal, I guess, and the important thing really is not what you leave behind, but how you lived. I wonder what dad thinks about that, if at all. He’s always been a man driven, a man of incisive opinion and dauntless ambition. He chose what was important to him and lived by that, but I wonder how it stacks up now in the waning years? Ultimately, we become our own judges, and that’s the most important judgement.

Hughes and James shared their discoveries with us, but the discoveries were their own. The sharing was a part of it, but it was the finding and knowing and understanding that filled them, I bet. They set their marks – this is what I’m interested in, this is what I want to follow, and they made it work.

For someone like me this has meaning, but I reckon for many it’s inconsequential. They live by other things, very different, and there’s no gainsaying that, except I know I’m not of that type. Nor is my father, I think.

What moves me is curiosity and wonder and the urge to create something meaningful from that. If there is to be an endpoint then the time to achieve that is running out, though it’s not about achieving. It’s about living. That’s how I want to live, with those things at the forefront.

Funny how I can never make anyone understand that.

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