I once read somewhere—and the reader should know from these words that this is the beginning of a most unscholarly piece of writing—that men and women were born, grew up, aged and died while Queen Victoria still ruled and was in good health.
I was born in the year before Meanjin was born, and I did not become aware of its existence until we were both in our late teens, but I have grown up and aged while Meanjin has flourished, and I cannot even conceive of the possibility that the older of us two might outlive the younger.
Since I first became aware of Meanjin, it has been for me a means of measuring myself: a standard; a benchmark. I once read in a Reader’s Digest—and I wonder how often that publication has been cited in the pages of Meanjin—a report of a man who had become wealthy after having started, as the saying goes, from nothing. The man wanted a simple means of reminding himself each day of what he had achieved. The man chose to unwrap a new razor blade each morning, to enjoy a smooth shave, and then to throw away the blade. I have always supposed that the man who did this had, as a poor young man, practised many economies, the most tiresome of which was to go on shaving with the one blade for week after week until he felt as though he was rubbing at his whiskers with a butterknife.
In 1990, when an anthology was published to mark Meanjin’s fiftieth anniversary, I was named on the cover as one of the co-editors. If the layout of the cover had been designed to suggest the proportional contributions of the three persons named there, my name would have been printed in letters very much smaller than those actually used. Nevertheless, my name is on the cover as an acknowledgement of my having read in the summer of 1989–90 every piece of fiction published in Meanjin during its first fifty years and having then supplied to Jenny Lee for her decision a shortlist of pieces that I considered worthy of being included in The Temperament of Generations. As to the question why I rather than anyone else should have been the person who delivered this shortlist to Jenny Lee, I have to say that I had been for several years before then the Fiction Consultant of Meanjin, which position I reluctantly resigned soon after 1990, when I could no longer find the time for the work entailed.
In the years since 1990, I have had continually at hand the means to perform each day an exercise similar to that performed by the man in the Reader’s Digest anecdote, who threw away each morning an almost-new razor blade. If ever, during the years mentioned, I had felt a need to remind myself that I had come some little distance, according to one or another reliable scale of measurement, I had only to set out in front of myself on the one hand a copy of The Temperament of Generations with its front cover uppermost and on the other hand a photocopy of a page from among the earliest documents in the chronological file that I have kept for nearly forty years in order to record my progress as a person and a writer. If ever, during the years since 1990, I had wanted to feel as the wealthy man must have felt when he threw away each morning the scarcely used blade, I had only first to read the remarks handwritten in the margin of the photocopied page and then read my name as it appeared on the front of The Temperament of Generations.
If ever, during the years mentioned in the previous paragraph, I had taken a photocopy of the page mentioned in that paragraph, I would have had to find the original of the page in the folder labelled 1960–2 in the filing cabinet containing the earliest of my files. The original of the page is one of a swatch of pages that I addressed to the editor of Meanjin in a certain year in the early 1960s, when both Meanjin and I were in our early twenties. Each page of the swatch had a poem typed on it. Each poem had been written by me, a young teacher in a primary school in an outer suburb of Melbourne. I was a teacher in a primary school by day but a poet by night, and I began in a certain year in the early 1960s to send swatches of pages of my poetry to various periodicals that published poetry. I believed in that year that Meanjin was of all those periodicals the most distinguished. I believed that Meanjin was distinguished as a result of its connection with the University of Melbourne.
In the mid 1950s, in my last year at school, I had passed the matriculation examination, but I had chosen not to go on to the university. My motives were complex and somewhat confused. Among them was a belief that I would soon become a published writer of poetry and prose fiction and that three or four years of full-time study would get in the way of my writing. As a teacher by day and a writer by night in the early 1960s, I was still trying to prove myself other than by earning a degree at a university, and yet I was somewhat in awe of the university. Meanjin, so I thought, was an expression of the literary taste of the University of Melbourne. (In 1990, while I was reading some of the early letters in the Meanjin archives in the Baillieu Library, I learned that Clem Christesen had had to struggle continually to keep up the tenuous connection between the magazine and the university. Not everyone in the university wanted a literary flagship.)
All the swatches of pages of poetry that I sent to editors in the early 1960s were returned to me. None of the editors had wanted to publish any of my poems. Few editors thought it necessary to tell me why they had so decided. One editor who took the trouble to report to me something of what he thought about my poetry was Clem Christesen. He wrote in the margin of one of my pages a few sentences. What he wrote was not so much a comment on the poems as a prediction of what I might be capable of writing in the future. It was a cautious prediction, but it was the only bit of encouragement I can remember ever having received in those years, and to think back on it nearly thirty-five years later is more satisfying than even the smoothest shave.