A long time ago (yeah, before you was born dude) I finished high school and my parents moved away to the north coast of New South Wales leaving me with my grandfather’s green chair , a television and a frypan as I waited for my HSC results and my future to be determined. They also left the garden furniture.
I recall my buddy Harry Harrison lying on the chaise longue under the crab-apple tree and we spent many hours drinking beer and imagining ourselves big city boys, our hopefulness shaped by affectation and misunderstanding. For most of those five weeks I picked fruit in the early morning through to just after lunch. Then I would stomp home, hot and thirsty, to the crab-apple tree for beer and the final session of cricket on the radio.
These were the first days of my independence and I wasn’t really sure what to do with them. I went out sometimes, looking for love but finding only drink and pills, but my school chums had scattered and I was not so sure of myself as to believe I was entitled to a seat at the Tavern with the real drinkers. I usually stayed at home, making music with Mick from up the road between his shifts at KFC. At some point in this tatterdemalion summer I received one of those flyers for a book club that says something like “choose five books for ten dollars” and I went for it, I sent off my tenner and I waited.
Eventually, a tad before Christmas, the books arrived in tough strapped brown cardboard. I think three of them were for Christmas presents and I’ve no idea what they were. One of the two I bought for myself was a heavyweight bit of literary criticism, Reinventing Shakespeare I think it was called. I’ve still got it, it is around here somewhere, and I’ve even glanced at it, once or twice. The other book was David Marr’s Patrick White – A Life. This book was how I spent my time that summer, I read it, all of it, and the bits I didn’t understand I read again, and again.
I can’t say what prompted me to choose Patrick White, or why I actually read it. I can’t imagine too many of my peers spent their first adult summer learning about dead, gay, Nobel Prize winning, exceedingly grumpy Australian novelists: perhaps this is testimony to how odd I was by seventeen. I had read only one Patrick White novel then, A Fringe of Leaves, and had no thoughts as to who he was. The book was then, the biggest act of reading I had attempted and Patrick White was not leavened by a chatty inclusiveness. It was big, it was serious, and it was about a world of which I had no real understanding. I worked at it, steadily reading into the night, under the crab-apple tree, playing Don Ellis’ Electric Bath over and over again through my bedroom windows. The greyhounds next door had never had a neighbour like me before (and probably not since).
Twenty years on I’m not sure I can say with any accuracy what I learned from the long engagement with Patrick White. It proved to my own satisfaction that I was in the world, that I was ready for it, and that whatever it threw at me I could think it through and build upon. I think it gave me broad understanding of a life of letters, a life devoted to books, and the legitimacy of choosing such a life. Over the years I read all of White: novels, plays, and whatnot (though I drew the line at all those letters). I still love A Fringe of Leaves. The rest of his oeuvre sits in the fiction shelves rather lonesome.
What I didn’t, couldn’t, leave alone was David Marr. When I read Patrick White I had no idea who he was, David Marr could have been Pearl S. Buck’s pseudonym for all I was aware. Later, as a habitué of second hand bookshops, I found a damaged copy of Marr’s The Ivanov Trail and I read it, absorbed, and from it I began to see ever more of the shape of the world.
Every time I found something by David Marr I read it with determined vigour and each time my sight of the horizon reached a little further. The great gift of David Marr is not concision, or explanation, for which he has an enormous capacity, but an ability to infer the greater connectedness of the things people do for principle and profit, the scope of human thought.
These days, like everyone else, I read David Marr in the SMH and love it. Sometimes I cringe a little at the small l liberalism, at the Sydney-centric tone, and even occasionally at David Marr playing the role of David Marr. Most days I am simply grateful that he’s still there, that he’s engaged and energetic, and that he still gives me a giddy little thrill when he reveals that the world is bigger than I had thought. More than this though, when I see Patrick White and The Ivanov Trail on my bookshelves I get a huge charge because what David Marr really communicates in everything he writes is that, not only are we in this world, we are in it together.