Books: Falling Towards England — Preface |
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Falling Towards England — Preface


This is the second volume of my unreliable memoirs. For a palpable fantasy, the first volume was well enough received. It purported to be the true story of how the author grew from infancy through adolescence to early manhood, this sequence of amazing biological developments largely taking place in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, NSW, Australia. And indeed it was a true story, in the sense that I wasn’t brought up in a Tibetan monastery or a castle on the Danube. The central character was something like my real self. If the characters around him were composites, they were obviously so, and with some justification. The friend who helps you dig tunnels in your back yard is rarely the same friend who ruins your summer by flying a model aeroplane into your mother’s prize trifle, but a book with everybody in it would last as long as life, and never live at all.

As for the adults, they were shadows, but that was true to how children see, and my mother, in particular, was too much of an influence on my life for me to appreciate at that age — or at any subsequent age, for that matter. Her quiet but strenuous objections to Unreliable Memoirs arose from my depiction, not of her, but of myself. Apparently I was not the near-delinquent portrayed, but a little angel: to suggest otherwise reflected badly on her. The insult was not meant. Perhaps I should have pointed out more often that without her guidance and example I might have gone straight from short pants to Long Bay Gaol, which in those days was still in use and heavily populated by larcenous young men who had chosen their parents less wisely.

Unlike my mother and my father, who were robbed by history of a rounding to their youth, I had come peacefully to my middle years and wanted to celebrate my good luck, or at any rate atone for it, by evoking a childhood blessed enough to be typical. But the typical, for even the most high-minded male child, does not exclude the revolting. I tried to leave some of that in. One might argue that I should have made a more thorough job of it. A Scots lady ninety-three years old sent me a charming letter saying that when young in Ayrshire she had done all the things I did. The book must have been read aloud to her, by someone who knew which pages to pass over in silence.

To tell my story in the belief that I was remarkable would have been sufficiently conceited. To tell it in the hope of being universal was possibly even more conceited, not to say pretentious. He who abandons his claim to be unique is even less bearable when he claims to be representative. But at least he has tried to climb down. There is a story by Schnitzler, called ‘History of a Genius’, about a butterfly so impressed by how far it has come in one day that it resolves to dictate its autobiography. Yet Schnitzler, so greatly generous about human beings, sells the butterfly short. The butterfly’s only mistake is to imagine itself unusual. The story of its day would be well worth having, and all the more so if it realised that millions of its fellows shared the same career. Usual does not mean ordinary. A butterfly’s compound eyes, which can see in the infra-red, are no less extraordinary because every other butterfly has them. The same applies to human memory. When I hold my hands as if in prayer and roll a pencil between them, I can smell the plasticine snakes I made in Class 1B at Kogarah Infants’ School. There is nothing ordinary about that.

Far from being all done in a day, my own story is of a late developer: one who, deficient in natural wisdom, has had to learn everything by trial and error. In this book my errors continue, but in a different context. In Sydney I had come of age but still had a lot to learn. In Europe I forgot what little I knew. London in the Sixties, it was generally believed, had sprung to life. Lost somewhere in the hubbub, I either marked time or went backwards. Readers who grew up faster, wherever they did so, might still recognise in these pages something of what they went through in order to become what they now are. Those whose personalities were handed to them in one piece might shake their heads. There are such people, and often they are among the saints, but they are denied the salutary privilege of remembering what they once were, before they knew better. It is possible that they are also denied knowledge of where the human comedy begins, in the individual soul. But I wouldn’t want to be caught suggesting that the past dissolves in mirth. Things happen that can’t be laughed off. Our hero is a bit older in this book, and the same ways are not necessarily so winning.

Not that I have registered here the full squalor of my past derelictions, some of which I can’t begin to recall without an involuntary yell to quash the memory. But to confess would be an indulgence, and there are bigger sinners growing old in Paraguay. Young Australian men living in London drank a great deal but broke nothing except the hearts of young Australian women. Feminism as a mass movement was imminent but had not yet arrived; women were still exploitable; and men duly exploited them. For the sons of the Anzacs this wasn’t a very noble chapter, and the girls who suffered, should they read this book twenty years later, might justly complain that I have glossed it over. For them to know that the crassness of their young men was waiting for them at home was bad enough, without encountering more of the same when they arrived abroad. Some of them might find their faintest outlines here, sharing a false name, catching someone else’s bus to work in Lambeth or Fulham. No disrespect is intended: quite the opposite. The full complexity of the human personality is something I no longer presume to sum up, or even to suggest.

I can’t remember having been consciously insensitive. I can hardly remember being consciously anything, except cold. It was all a bit like being on the Moon: you moved forward because you were falling forward. The clear path is revealed later, looking back. Which doesn’t mean that one disclaims responsibility for one’s actions. We are what we have done; and besides, we can’t deny it without giving up our pride. ‘For my part, since I have always admitted that I was the chief cause of all the misfortunes which have befallen me,’ wrote Casanova in his old age, ‘I have rejoiced in my ability to be my own pupil, and in my duty to love my teacher.’ Did knowing himself to be vain make him less vain? Leaving the metaphysics to others, he died writing his life story — which, considering the other things he might have died doing, was not the least dignified way he could have gone. What a swathe he would have cut through Kogarah! A thought to keep the reader’s expectations in proportion as I begin this account of my impact on England, drawn there by gravity like a snowflake to the ground.

London, 1985