Sunday, August 20, 2006

An introduction

I remember, as a very young kid, rummaging through a back shed at Dad’s parents’ place near the old boat harbour, looking at all the pictures of starchy strangers from another century, not knowing who any of them were. They stared back at me, expressionless, sitting and standing in their very, very old Sunday Best, in rooms from a long-lost, dusty era.

I’d found them in bulging, stiff-paged ornate old photo albums, stuffed into the bottom of two old iron trunks shoved into a corner of the shed. They smelt as dusty and mouldy and old as they looked. And once discovered, I kept returning to them, usually after Sunday lunch with Nana and Granddad, and before Granddad’s ritual raking of gum leaves into two bonfires for a late afternoon burn-off far up in the back yard, near the shed.

Now in my own middle years, I understand they represent long-dead life fragments, snap frozen on photographers’ glass plates. Just as I remember fragments of my own life as it hurtles towards completion. And the faster life hurtles, the more I scramble to remember, sweeping the fragments together, like those long-past gum leaf piles, before they scattered to the winds of time coming.

I think I know and understood my parents – to the extent they’ve been prepared to let me in, and I’ve been prepared to understand. But I knew and understood their parents – my grandparents – far less. They were from another era, another steam-driven century, born before radio, cars, TV and aeroplanes. My mother’s Dad had died as a result of an industrial accident when I was a baby, and my father’s Dad had died, suddenly, when I was seven, leaving only kindly fragments, smells and sounds to remember him by. But my grandparents’ parents and living relatives are, at very best, nothing but names on registers and flaking cemetery headstones. Or the nameless, mysterious strangers that stared back at me from the pages of these ancient photo albums.

Yet all these people had lives worth living. Loves worth exploring, Sadness they’d have rather avoided at all cost. Kids that grew into families, who had families of their own. They had friends, and lovers, and business associates, and workmates, and comrades, and foes. Now, starting back at me The Kid, they only had their humourless, unblinking stares, and Sunday Best. Their stories had disappeared.

The older I’ve grown, the less of a nameless mystery I’ve wanted to be to the generations that will follow me. I realise may not have had all the fragments down accurately, or their timing quite right, but who’ll care so long as the gist is right, and the intention more or less honourable?

I know mine has been an ordinarily extraordinary life. One worth recording, if only for its wonderful uniqueness. If only for the times I’ve bridged – from slide rule and wind-up watch to computer and digital, on-demand TV. Jesus! My Granddad only ever learnt to ride a bicycle and a shaggy cavalry pony in the Great War. And his father – by all reports – had been terrified the first time he traveled faster than 60 miles/hour in a steam train! Yet I drive to work without a blink, in a car that runs on battery and petrol power, already in the looming shadow of a world running out of oil.

I’ve just never wanted to be a nameless, humourless stranger, lasting well beyond my real days in the bottom of some iron trunk deep in some forgotten backyard. Or worse still, fading from all records, courtesy of what one academic friend describes as the New White Century – a digital era in which images are never going to be as hard and fast as those recorded onto glass photographic plate.

Philip Adams once told me that history should more rightly be called myth-tory. Or should that be myth-story? Either way, when it comes to extremely well-recorded events, historians argue interminably about what really happened. And why. So what hope have we mere mortals, with our seemingly unimportant and ill-recorded lives – so far as the greater world is concerned, anyway – of ever fathoming the ‘truth’ around us.

I’m increasingly comfortable with the idea of swinging through a Gonzo Family Tree. I’ll tell you lots. Some fragments will be bigger than others. Some will be truer than others. (To me, they’ve all become true through the constant re-telling in my own head.) The bottom-line reality, though, is that it’s my tree – right or wrong – and it’s up to you to swig along beside me, determining what you’ll accept or reject.

Anyway, Dad has told me many more times than I believe I can remember that life isn’t a dress rehearsal; we only come on stage once.


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