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Remembrance of things past – an extract from Michael Gawenda’s “Rocky and Gawenda”

October 22, 2009 – 10:53 am2 Comments

GAWENDA“Remembrance of things past” is an extract from Michael Gawenda’s latest book, Rocky and Gawenda, published by Melbourne University Press.

Michael will appear at Monash University (Caulfield) tonight, in conversation with James Button about his journalistic career, growing up Jewish in Melbourne and, of course, Rocky & Gawenda, a collection of essays celebrating the love between a dog and his human friend. Michael’s children, Evie and Chasky, will sing some of the great Yiddish songs discussed in the book. Click here for more info.

There was a gale blowing this morning and the sky was covered in dark grey, almost black clouds. The water was dirty green, and the waves were angry-looking, topped with dirty white foam. The sand looked like it was covered in acne, dull brown and pock marked from the rain of the night. We walked towards Port Melbourne, into the head wind. The beach was forlorn, empty, but for a few seagulls hovering over the boardwalk near the windswept, shuttered cafés. In most places, mornings like this would be taken to mean the start of winter, but not in Melbourne. There is every chance that tomorrow the still, cold nights and soft, sunshine-warm days of autumn will return. In Melbourne, the seasons do not progress in a linear fashion, but rather move in a dance, forward and back, the steps and the music known only to God—if God exists.

I cannot say that I love such mornings, but there is something about the wind and the waves and the threat of rain and the flattened pock-marked sand, the rain-glistening boardwalk and the empty cafés, that feels comforting. All the money spent by the local council—on boardwalks and patterned stone paths and freshly planted palm trees and fancy lights—to make this beach into what it calls Melbourne’s playground counts for not very much in weather like this. Melbourne is not the Gold Coast.

michaelandrocky2Rocky is unconcerned by the weather. Indeed, he whimpered and whined, even as he lay beside me, on his back, prone, fearful that there would be no beach outing this morning. I checked the weather forecast via Google. Then we went outside, into the back courtyard, and we could hear, in the darkness, the whistling of the masts, high-pitched and eerie-sounding, on the sailing boats at the Elwood Marina a couple of hundred metres away. Were it not for Rocky’s whimpering and whining, I thought, perhaps, this morning I would let the weather have a victory and stay in front of the computer, read the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal online before going to RealClearPolitics and Comment is Free for a summary of what’s being published on op-ed pages around the world and then have a quick look at what’s in the Australian newspapers.

I remain a newspaper reader—how could I not after a lifetime spent on newspapers and magazines?—but more than infrequently, the papers are scanned but remain mostly unread. I no longer, as I once did, wait for the thud of the papers landing on the front porch, wondering what wonders might be in store for me. By the time the papers arrive in the morning now, I am out with Rocky. By the time we get back, both of us in the thrall of the morning, of the light and the wind and the way time passes and changes everything, moment by moment, unwrapping the newspapers feels like a chore or at least a responsibility. The joy of anticipation has gone.

Perhaps this feeling is simply the result of the end of my life in newspapers. Endings are never without unexpected sadness and self-doubt, even if the end was a long time coming and, to a certain extent—for these things are never clear-cut—came at a time of my choosing. Live long enough and there will be many endings of many things. If you are lucky. In newspapers, tens of thousands of journalists, young men and women, have been told they have no future. I have no idea what happens to them or what will happen to the thousands more, in Australia and elsewhere, who will soon be told they are no longer wanted. Newspapers, many of them, are dying.

I remember my first day at the Age, back then considered one of the world’s great English-language newspapers! By me anyway. We sat, a group of young men and women, in the editor’s office, squeezed together in awkward silence on two couches. Exactly what Graham Perkin, by then already a legendary editor, said to us I cannot recall, but I remember that he looked like a hawk, fierce-eyed, unsmiling, severe, as if to suggest that this was the start of a consequential life for us. During that day, I thought about my mother, and I wondered what she would have made of this, me sitting there telling Graham Perkin that I thought journalism and writing could change the world. I did say that, I am sure. I think he raised an eyebrow in response, and for a moment I thought he was wondering why the hell I had been hired.

My mother, while my father had taught her to sign her name and even read a little Yiddish—simple things like children’s stories—was illiterate. She had never been to school, which was not unusual for women her age, born at the turn of last century, in a small town in Poland. Jewish boys were sent to cheder to learn Torah until their bar mitzvah, after which most of them were sent off to do apprenticeships, in my father’s case as a weaver, but girls needed no education, for they were destined to be wives and mothers, balabustas—homemakers. My mother could barely speak Polish, let alone read and write it, and her Yiddish in the main was the Yiddish of domesticity and familial love. What would she have made of this son of hers, talking about writing and changing the world.

I remember the first article published in the paper with my by-line on it, there on page one—page one!— about a little girl with a hole in her heart who had been brought to Melbourne for what was then groundbreaking surgery. I had stayed at the paper until midnight waiting for the first edition, and I had then sat in a mate’s car, in the back seat, reading it again and again, not the article and not even the caption on the photograph of the little girl, but my name, my name, in the Age, my name. By Michael Gawenda, the by-line read. I felt at that moment that things would never be quite the same again, as if a deep need I had not even known existed had been met.

There were two other articles I wrote in the first few months that even now, decades later, I can recall. I wrote them both late at night and into the early morning, sitting at the portable typewriter my father had once bought me, more in hope than expectation that one day I would be a writer. I was nervous and excited, fearful, hoping to write like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer and, if not them, if that was not my destiny, then perhaps like Roger Aldridge or John Larkin, who back then were the Age’s best approximations of those writers.

One article was a personal reflection on Portnoy’s Complaint that was animated, I came to realise, by my belief that Philip Roth had somehow stolen my thunder, for I had long planned to write a novel about the meaning of Jewish mothers after the Holocaust and the consequences of their essentially neurotic relationships with their children, sons in particular. I had even written half a chapter, in which the main character was a young Jewish man with proclivities not all that dissimilar to Alexander Portnoy’s, who had fantasies of his parents conceiving him in a Nazi death camp. This half chapter was written before Portnoy’s Complaint was published, and my first reaction, on reading the book, was anger and disappointment. I felt robbed. The article therefore had a tone that to most readers must have been puzzling: angry and disappointed. Creighton Burns, who later edited the Age for many years, was then the paper’s features editor. He was a wise and perceptive editor. He called me in, having read the piece, and said that it was very interesting but that I had totally misunderstood the book. And did I really want the piece published? I did, and it was, and as a consequence I became, for a short while, a figure of some notoriety in Melbourne’s Jewish community.

The other article I remember was a review of a Rolling Stones concert, over which—the article I mean—I laboured all night and into the next day, each sentence written and rewritten, each rewrite a devastating disappointment, for what I wanted to do was write about the Rolling Stones as if I were James Joyce, a stream of consciousness–type piece without punctuation, which somehow had the rhythm and the tone, the raw, threatening and sexually charged tone, of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, the Stones song that I thought back then was their best. I was, of course, bound to fail: James Joyce in the tone and rhythm of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ proved beyond me. It was published nevertheless, and Les Carlyon, who was news editor at the time, and who was even then considered a terrific writer — he has, of course, gone on to write a landmark narrative history of Gallipoli — said it was a very interesting piece and, just out of interest, he asked, was I taking anything when I wrote it?

Newspapers are dying. Some people tell me that I am lucky to have left newspapers, and maybe I am, though what then do I make of the sadness? Perhaps it isn’t personal. I left at a time of my own choosing, I tell myself. That former life was not a life I wanted to live any more. Most mornings, even a morning like this, of gale-force winds and black-grey skies and a beach that is empty and abandoned, Rocky and I are both thankful for the moment and for the morning’s promise. Things end. Many things if you are lucky and live long enough.

© Copyright Michael Gawenda and Melbourne University Press

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