Friday, June 25, 2010

Meeting your heroes

A few years ago, I was walking through a bright, cool morning in Albert Street in Brisbane on my way to class at QUT, where I was teaching in communication studies. In among the first commuters were late walkers and joggers. One, a middle-aged man dressed in black shorts and a black T-shirt, had stopped to read posters that hung in the tall, black windows of a property development showroom. It was Clive James.

And, if I allow myself to be guided by the strange logic of coincidence, there was every reason for me to bump into him just when I did.

1) I had been reading as much of James' work (well, non-fiction) as I could lay my hands on. I had come to James fairly late, and it seems was all the more smitten, in a literary sense, for it.

2) I was also, at the time, helping my friend and supervisor Martin Duwell build some wooden steps down from the road to his house. Over a few months of Saturday mornings, we had talked a lot about James' writing - Martin knew whole sections more or less off by heart. He had also, by chance, recently been in touch with James about a poem, "Occupation: Housewife", that was to go into the The Best Australian Poetry collection for the year.

Now comes the time I fly to sit with her
Where she lies waiting, to what end we know.
We trade our stories of the way things were,
The home brew and the perm like rabbit fur.
How sad, she says, the heart is last to go.

The heart, the heart. I still can hear it break.
She asked for nothing except his return.
To pay so great a debt, what does it take?
My books, degree, the money that I make?
Proud of a son who never seems to learn,

3) I had appeared with James in an issue of the Australian Book Review. (His contribution was his "Lucretius the Diver", mine a "Letter from Iceland".)

Bumping into Clive James in Albert Street seemed like the most natural thing in the world. And the coincidences had a textual dimension, too.

4) James himself had once had a similar experience, when, on the London-Cambridge line, he had spotted W H Auden, who, like me, James loved. He had gone up to him and spoken some nonsense, and Auden had apparently taken it well. Here is James on meeting Auden on another occassion.

Auden shuffled through in a suit encrusted with the dirt of years – it was a geological deposit, an archaeological pile-up like the seven cities of Troy. I don’t think anybody of my generation knew what to say to him. I know I didn’t…I can still remember those unlucky hands; one of them holding a cigarette, the other holding a brimming glass, and both trembling. The mind boggles at some of the things they had been up to. But one of them had refurbished the language. A few months later he was beyond passion, having gone to the reward which Dante says that poets who have done their duty might well enjoy – talking shop as they walk beneath the moon.

The part, "The mind boggles at some of the things they had been up to. But one of them had refurbished the language", was one of the Jamesisms that Martin knew by heart.

5) As it happens, Auden talking shop beneath the moon might well have taken place in Iceland, his spiritual home. In fact, it was in his life as a traveller to Iceland that I had first encountered him.

In my childhood dreams Iceland was holy ground; when, at the age of twenty-nine, I saw it for the first time, the reality verified my dream; at fifty-seven it was holy ground still, with the most magical light of anywhere on earth. Furthermore, modernity does not seem to have changed the character of its inhabitants. They are still the only really classless society I have ever encountered, and they have not – not yet – become vulgar.

(from his Letters from Iceland)

As Umberto Eco says, stories speak to each other, and so, I think, do coincidences.

6) I now remembered that Markings by Dag Hammarskjold, which in a way had got me through my late teens, was translated into English by W H Auden. It could almost be said that Clive James, W H Auden, and Dag Hammarskjold were literary cousins, and not merely joined by my admiration for them.

The final coincidence came much later - early this year.

7) During a meeting, Martin mentioned a review of James' latest book. Apparently (as I haven't got to the book yet), James talks about a time when he snubbed someone who came up to him in the street. I really must read the passage to see if it's anything like this one that I wrote after I went up to him in Albert Street and mumbled some nonsense.

It could all just be a coincidence. But meeting your heroes is always more than that.