Books, and the worlds they present, when they are passed from hand to hand, can be coded but open messages: ‘Here, read this and see who I am and what it is that I see in you; what I want to say but can’t say so well or so openly.’
One afternoon on 1951, in the old Queensland State Library in William St, as I sat sweating over a Latin prose, Johnny Milliner, who had been in my Sixth Form class at Grammar and whom I had first met when we were eight or nine years old down the beach at Scarborough, sat down opposite and pushed a book across the desk. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘you should read this’.
I was doubly surprised. First because we had never been close at school—he was the wildest boy in the class and I had always thought he found my quietness boring. Then he was ‘on the science side’, a geologist, and the gap in those days between science and the arts, especially at the University of Queensland, was very large. The book was Nietszche’s The Birth of Tragedy.
I read it, and a week or so later we discussed it over a beer at the Criterion. I went on to Beyond Good and Evil. Beers at the Criterion on Friday night, and later at the Greek Club, became a regular thing. A the end of the year Johnny went off to do his three months National Service (I had joined the Air Squadron and did mid-year camps), and every three or four days an envelope appeared addressed in Johnny’s big sprawling hand. The contents were so inflammatory I was surprised they hadn’t spontaneously combusted in the post. I got rid of them immediately.
After more than sixty years, and several moves between continents, I still have two books on my shelves that I owe to Johnny.
The first is the 1953 Faber edition of the Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens, who has been along with Auden, among twentieth-century poets, the most constant companion of my writing and reading life as a poet.
Johnny and I were off for a week to Stradbroke Island. We had rented a house this time, rather than one of the bunk bed cabins at the Wallers’. I was at the ferry landing, looking anxiously at my watch, Johnny was late as usual. They were already pulling up the ropes when he appeared at the top of the steps leading down to the ramp and we had to leap the gap between the throbbing ferry and the wharf. ‘Sorry,’ Johnny panted, ‘I had to wait for Barkers to open’—our preferred bookshop—‘to get us something to read. This one’s for you.’ (I knew, and have described elsewhere, Johnny’s boldness as a shoplifter. I did not enquire what ‘get’ might mean.)
Stevens was not new to me but the Selected was. The first Stevens from an English publisher; which meant the first extended selection of Stevens’ poetry to be available to Australian readers. Johnny had, as usual, exactly met a moment of readiness in me, as he had three years earlier with the Nietzsche, and as he did again early in the next year, when as a going-away present—he had graduated and was off to the Congo as a mining assistant—he gave me the 1952 bilingual edition from Rupert Hart-Davies of The Drunken Boat, thirty-six Rimbaud poems translated by Brian Hill, very formally signed ‘To David, from John Milliner’; a reminder of a shared enthusiasm, or something perhaps, that each time I turned to it would set him powerfully before me, both physically and as a source of disruptive energy; keep him alive as a presence I would never—however far off he might be, in the Congo, later in Paris and in the end further than any merely nameable place—shake off.
Originally published as part of a series for the Meanjin 2014 Subscriber Drive.