This is the second in a series.
Amongst the books I have salvaged from my late father’s house is a copy of George Johnston’s last book, A Cartload of Clay.
My copy is ex the YMCA library in Sydney. A pristine date due slip and loan card in an envelope pasted inside the back cover suggest it was never borrowed from that library. The front page bears the name of a colleague of my father’s, with whom he lunched practically every day when they were both at work (I joke that he was “the other man”). Judging from another, pencilled note “1st ed. $1” he bought it second-hand.
Published in 1971, this the third instalment of Johnston’s “David Meredith” trilogy, following My Brother Jack (1964) and Clean Straw for Nothing (1969). I heard My Brother Jack read (abridged, obviously) as a serial on ABC Radio some time in the early 70s and later read it and Clean Straw for Nothing when I was about 16. I surely also read Cartload of Clay then, if only out of completism, though I have no real recollection of that. I was probably too young to get what it was on about.
The trilogy is autobiographical – David Meredith is Johnson, subject to the usual fictive rearrangements. Cressida is his second wife, Charmian Clift. Johnson and Clift returned to Australia in 1964; Clift committed suicide on the eve of the launch of CSFN.
Cartload follows a day when the widowed Meredith sets out on a “practice walk” up the street to the church where his daughter is to get married. Like Johnston, Meredith has lung problems. He doesn’t get far. Taking a breather at a bench by a bus stop he meets various local characters and dozes off and his mind wanders – to an interlude in wartime Kunming – an affair and his friendship there with the poet Wen Yiduo; – to a trek on the Tibetan plateau with a photographer friend who later fell off a mountain when stepping back to take a picture; to his time in Greece; to his return to Australia and his encounters with the younger generation; to the suicide by Cressida with the stock of barbiturates he had kept by his bed to do the deed for himself; to his childhood in Elsternwick – revisiting a subject already dealt with in My Brother Jack, but now treated with less scorn.
It is hard to see how the novel could have finished other than with the death of David Meredith. In the end, Johnston beat his character to it and the book was published unfinished. There is a good introduction by Sydney’s Mr Literature of the day, John Douglas Pringle.
I realise that I am pretty much exactly same age that Johnston must have been when he wrote this – he died just two days after his 58th birthday. I am sure this makes me more receptive to its themes than I can have been when 16.
I’ll squib the duty of a literary critic just as I do of a musical one: I don’t profess to say what the book is about (as if a novel can be reduced to a syllogism). There are some quaintnesses of period (the Youth generation; women) but also much that is resonant to me – poetic even. I have enjoyed reading it.
Here is an extract – omitted yesterday on account of ANZAC day.
Meredith discovers he has bitten his fingernail down to the bleeding quick:
That is in chapter 14.
Chapter 16 starts with Meredith sitting at the bus stop:
“If at this stage you were to imagine the scene as being presented on the stretched-out oblong of the modern cinema screen it would be most interesting to visualize it through whatever is the opposite to a zoom lens; the retreating viewpoint, that is, soaring higher and higher like an escaped balloon, focused at the figure of Meredith huddled lonely and solitary on the mundane suburban bus seat…”
to the point where he is just an invisible speck amongst “the drab red expanses [of red tile and red brick and …cement and asphalt], now from our great altitude resembling a parched desert.”
There’s something a bit overbearing, like an old-style newsreel voice over, about the second person address in this chapter, but I love how the fingernails come back into it.
One funny thing. Johnston’s final home was in Raglan Street, Mosman – thinly disguised in the novel as Inkerman Street, “Northleigh.” I cannot imagine that I knew this before I looked it up in a biography of Johnston also salvaged from my father’s house, but as I read the book I already had a distinct picture in my mind of a street in Mosman and the bus stop where Meredith pauses. It wasn’t the exact street, but it was pretty close.