A while ago I received a letter from Susie. When we were very young and she was Susan, we were in the same class at primary school. I rang her at the gallery she was running in northern New South Wales, to thank her for the letter, to say hello and to ask her a question.
Susan had been in a memory of mine for 60 years and I’d always wondered whether the memory was accurate or whether I’d edited it anecdotally over the years to the point where, like Captain Cook’s axe, it had six new heads and nine new handles and no longer bore any resemblance to Captain Cook’s actual axe.
I told her this and asked if she remembered an incident that might conform to these general guidelines. She thought for a minute but sadly she didn’t. I told her that was okay and she asked me if I could give her a clue. I told her I didn’t want to give her a clue because I wanted her memory to exist on its own so I could check mine against it.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I can remember it. We were only in the same class for a year.’
‘It didn’t happen at school,’ I said.
‘Really?’ she said, more deeply mystified. ‘We didn’t know each outside school, did we?’
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Where did it happen?’ she asked.
‘It happened at a birthday party,’ I said.
There was a pause.
‘Oh my God,’ she said to her own considerable surprise. ‘It was at David’s birthday party.’ She then described a memory she didn’t know she had, and which was almost a complete facsimile of my own. We were seven or eight years old and there were a few of us looking at an old shipwreck on Waiterere Beach. Susie and I and a couple of others were on the seaward side of the vessel when a very large wave came in and swept us out to sea. David’s older brother ran into the sea yelling ‘Who can swim? Who can swim?’ Susie and I both yelled out above the roar of the sea that we could swim and he rescued the other kids first, running into the waves again and again, fishing kids out and getting them to shore. In my mind Susie and I were just off the coast of Peru by the time he got to us but we probably weren’t. I felt no panic or fear and I remember being comforted to see Susie’s head bobbing in the sea. She had big hair and she was to the north of me and we were both bobbing in the enormous sea.
By the time we came in there were some very concerned adults on the beach and we were put into dry clothes and we ran back along the beach to the house. For some reason the song ‘Hi-Lily Hi-Lo’ ran all the way back to the house, in my head, in time with my feet on the wet sand. I’ve never heard that song without the feeling that I’m running along that sand in the late afternoon in a big man’s jumper. And I’ve never thought of Susie without the idea that she and I are together, bobbing along, and that we’ll be fine.
The sparkling Christine Collins was a gifted actor with a particular understanding of the voice. She became an acting and voice coach in London but for many years before that she worked in Beckett plays, often as second voice with Billie Whitelaw as first voice. Many of these productions were directed by Samuel Beckett himself and Christine told good stories of working with him. One of my favourites concerned a meeting at Beckett’s seventieth birthday party, which was held at his apartment in Paris. Christine had met many of the guests before; they were academics, Beckett scholars, publishers or broadcasting and theatre friends. But she got talking to a very interesting man in the kitchen, whose understanding of Beckett’s work was remarkable. He seemed to have seen or read almost everything Beckett had done and seemed to have been a friend of Sam’s forever.
‘When did you first meet Sam?’ asked Christine.
‘The first time I saw Sam,’ said the man, ‘he was sitting in a railway carriage between Foxrock and Dublin. He was trying to read and there was a lot of noise in the carriage, schoolboys and so on; so I went over to him and said, ‘Excuse me. If you’re trying to read, you might like to come with me. It’s a bit quieter in the next carriage,’ and I took him into the first-class carriage. There was no-one in there and he had the place to himself.’
‘And where do you work?’ asked Christine.
‘Oh, I’m retired now,’ said the man.
‘I see,’ said Christine. ‘And where were you before you retired?’
‘I was a porter on the Dublin railways,’ said the man.
‘So you’ve known Sam for a very long time,’ said Christine.
‘Yes,’ said the man. ‘Except for the war I’ve been to every one of Sam’s birthdays since he was nineteen.’
When Beckett was a young man he studied languages, experienced matters of the kind described in his story ‘First Love’, was mentioned in Wisden (Dublin University v Northamptonshire, left-handed batsman, left-arm medium pace bowler) and went to Paris, where he met James Joyce and other exiles. Joyce was a generation older and his eyesight was problematic, and Beckett became an amanuensis. Much of what Joyce wrote in this period was dictated to Beckett. When asked many years later what the difference was between the two of them, Beckett said Joyce was a synthesiser whereas he was an analyser. In his own writing, he said, he tried to reduce things to the essential, whereas Joyce wanted to include everything; every sensation, every sight, every sound, every thought and feeling. As an example, he recalled that Joyce was dictating Finnegans Wake one day when a man arrived to see him and Joyce said ‘Come in’. When Beckett was reading this section back, he got to ‘Come in’ and Joyce stopped him and considered the merits of a completely extraneous phrase. There followed a brief discussion and Joyce decided to leave it in.
As a young man Beckett had appeared in a celebrated court case in Dublin in which the surgeon, athlete, senator and pilot Oliver St John Gogarty had been successfully sued for libel. When they were students, Joyce and Gogarty lived together in a Martello Tower and Gogarty appears as Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. The book begins in the tower with Buck Mulligan gently mocking Joyce while shaving and looking out at ‘the snotgreen scrotumtightening sea’.
Many years later when Gogarty was a senator he was captured by IRA gunmen and only escaped by diving into the River Liffey and swimming across. In one version of the story he was shot in the arm while swimming and when he turned up in the Senate the following day with his right arm in a sling, he was questioned by political opponents about what had happened. He reported that he had sprained his wrist falling from his bicycle and wanted to keep it immobile. When questioned further he removed the sling and rolled up his sleeve. There was no bullet wound and the matter was dropped. Gogarty had been shot in the other arm.
While he was swimming across the river that night, Gogarty promised the Liffey that if he survived he would bring it a gift, and years later he and Yeats and president Cosgrove were photographed on the river-bank where Gogarty released two white swans, the pair from which the white swans on the Liffey today are descended.
When I was even younger than I am now, there was a book in our house called Plutarch’s Lives of the Greeks. I was a bit busy being a child at the time and didn’t read the book but a few years ago I bought a spoken word version of it and listened to it in the car. As I drove, a world opened in my head.
Plutarch, born in the mid forties of the first century CE, was Greek and was writing about what we can learn from ancient Greece about how to run a society. Each chapter describes an individual contribution to the rise of ancient Greece. Themistocles, for example. Themistocles’ response to the impending invasion by the enormous Persian army was to order the construction of 200 ships. He sailed the ships across the Aegean to Persia and made loud and offensive threats before turning and sailing back towards Greece in full sight of the Persians, who changed their plans and put their very large army on ships and set out after the Greeks. The Greek ships led the Persians into the narrow straits of Salamis where the smaller Greek vessels were more manoeuvrable and where the much smaller Greek army was positioned on the hills to welcome any Persians who managed to get ashore. The Persians were comprehensively defeated and Themistocles remains an example of how superior tactics can triumph over superior numbers.
This lesson was not lost on Alexander the Great, who was waiting in the wings of history. Before he was great, Alexander was nevertheless thought to be heading in that direction. One day his father Phillip of Macedon was presented with a magnificent, huge, strong and beautiful horse. Unfortunately, at the presentation the horse was wild and unmanageable. Alexander was 12 or 13 but he demurred and said it hadn’t been established that the horse was unmanageable. Phillip snapped at his son and the conversation went something like this:
‘Alexander, since you’re such an expert, would you like to have a crack at riding the horse?’
‘Happy to, yes, by all means,’ said Alexander.
‘It’s an easy boast, Alexander,’ said Phillip. ‘Talk is cheap. What will you give us if you can’t ride the horse?’
‘How about I give you the value of the horse?’ said the boy, who didn’t have the money.
The horse was then brought out again and Alexander walked out to the horse, talked to the horse, stroked the horse, got on the horse and rode the horse, to amazement on all sides.
Asked later how he had done this, he said that when first presented, the horse had been petrified. There were people yelling all around his head and men pulling him this way and that. Even more terrifying to the horse was an enormous monster moving about on the ground. Realising that this was the horse’s own shadow, Alexander turned the horse to face the sun. The frightening monster disappeared.
Alexander was given the horse, which he named Bucephalus, and together they conquered the known world. I watched the movie Clueless the other night. I’ve seen it before and it’s 20 years old but it still holds up as an amusing cautionary tale about a pampered young woman with nothing better to do but manipulate the lives and feelings of her friends in the belief that she is assisting them to find love, about which she knows nothing. In order to enjoy the movie you don’t need to know that it is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (and a very good one too). I also recently watched a movie called The Queen, a drama starring Helen Mirren about the behaviour of the Queen at the time of the death of Princess Diana. I struggled not to see this as ‘Toad of Toad Hall’.
The Queen, who is Toad, lives in an enormous house and is tolerated only because in the English social structure it is a sustaining pleasure for the poor to look upon the wealthy with love and admiration, as is also the case in Australia and in many other egalitarian nations. When the Queen/Toad behaves badly, however, Blair/Badger needs to say: ‘Excuse me. What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re in a fabulous position and everyone wants you to stay there but if you’re not interested, the media/stoatsandweasels will completely take over and tear the place apart. Do exactly as I say or you’ll have this whole thing in the ditch.’ The Queen then does as she’s told and Badger goes out and deals brilliantly with the stoats and weasels. Nothing changes. Reform has been averted. Big success for Badger, who wins the next election going away. Diana is nationalised as ‘The People’s Princess’ and Ratty and Moley go back to buggering about on the river.