Brumal wanderings

D is away.

It is winter, or what passes for it in Sydney.

Parsnips and porridge are in. The dishes pile up and are intermittently scraped, soaked and washed.

It is my first complete winter in the Ashfield house. The house is all electric and I am dreading the electricity bill when it comes.

On the weekend June tipped into July I made a trip to Canberra to see my father. We went together to an NT Live screening of Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman at Canberra’s Dendy cinema, which lives atop a Westfield shopping centre in Civic.

It is easy to feel like Rip van Winkle whenever I go to Canberra. When I lived there in the early eighties the site of the Dendy was mostly open air carparks, save for the Griffin Centre, home of various community organisations including the Canberra Recorded Music Society which I suspect may now be defunct judging from the date (2004) of its latest web presence – though I note it is still at least listed as a tenant of the new Griffin Centre.

The screening was at 1pm on a Sunday. Driving towards the enormous carpark I spotted an archetypically Canberran elderly couple in the car next to me. I bet to my father that they too were going to the screening and sure enough when we had finally navigated the carpark and found the cinema (both new to me) so they were.

I looked around at the rest of the audience.

“I think I may be the youngest person here” I commented to my father. Right at that moment someone younger than me sat in front of me but she was just about the only one I could spot.

“Well I’m probably the oldest,” replied my father, just a touch triumphantly. He is 88.

I wasn’t so sure. There were quite a few who could have at least given him a run for his money and I suspect there may have been a few people there in their nineties. I put it down to the combination of old-fashioned high culture (for which a certain class and generation of Canberrans have a particular enthusiasm) and the matinee time. The couple next to us (who had booked seats on the aisle) brought out a thermos of tea at interval and they weren’t the only ones who had brought their own refreshments. I sensed a self-reliant spirit of days gone by – something which in a way the Recorded Music Society also manifested.

By contemporary standards, Man and Superman is an impossibly wordy play. Indeed, even by the standards of its time it was wordy to the point that the wordiness of the protagonist (played in this production by Ralph Fiennes) becomes of necessity a kind of running gag in itself. It came in at over 3 hours even with substantial cuts.

Some of the most substantial cuts were within a dream sequence, which has often either been cut or performed separately, where Don Juan (ie, Don Giovanni) goes to hell. There is a bit of a literary tradition of philosophical riffing on the Don (ETA Hoffmann and Kierkegaard, for starters). Nowadays the libertine figure he cuts is generally depicted as less attractive and more rapacious. Femininism may have something to do with it but I suspect, looking at Shaw’s approach, that it is also because the conventional morality the Don defies is no longer felt to have such stultifying force.

It was almost dark by the time we drove home round Lake B-G, past Black Mountain and catching the last of sunset over the Brindabellas.

Back at my father’s house I looked in vain for the Complete Works of George Bernard Shaw which my parents used to have. I knew that the book (in a way a monument to GBS’s fame at its height) had been left with my parents along with a portable typewriter (on which we all learnt to type) by a friend who left Adelaide in the early 1950s leaving these with them for safekeeping and who never retrieved them.

I asked my father more about this mysterious person. Apparently the book and typewriter owner, Jim Wright, had a friend who was a non-English speaker (necessarily at that time a European; if anything else that would have been remarkable). Somehow my mother had got involved teaching that man English (she was at least a teacher though without any special ESL skills). Not long after, Jim left Adelaide for Europe (my father thought Italy). A couple of years after that my parents moved to Sydney.

I suppose it is possible, depending on exactly how this teaching arrangement had arisen, that Jim might have returned to Adelaide and been unable to trace my parents to Sydney. If they had any acquaintances in common, though, he could have traced them. More likely, he did not return, at least until the trail went cold.

I mean no disrespect to JW to say that this tickled my historical gaydar. Single man with European friend travels to Europe in the 1950s and does not return. Makes you wonder.

2 Responses to “Brumal wanderings”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I don’t think you have to wonder too hard. Today my 20 plus year old niece introduced her ‘uncles’ to a neighbour. So you are brothers, the question was asked. And then it got messy with us all taking the coward’s option and fudging the question.

    • marcellous Says:

      Andrew, these days there can be new Centrelinkish reasons for fudging the question given that the rules have been changed with no account taken of the position beforehand.

      In your case and at your age and with the separate bedrooms and all I would have thought you might enlist the old standby “longtime companion.”

      When I asked my father about JW he said it was not something he had thought about at all at the time. Plenty of educated people left Australia in the 50s in search of old world culture or indeed any culture at all – the (Western/European) cultural topsoil was pretty shallow.

      What made me wonder was the combination of a friendship between a native Australian and a foreigner, the relics of culture (actually I expect the GBS was a bit unwanted) and the departure from Australia rather exotically not even for the old country but for the Continong. Not a few of Australia’s “cultural” exiles from that period were also (we have belatedly learnt) also sexual exiles.

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