Forty years of friendship
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During the days before the celebration I looked back to when I first met D. in Sydney. I had been away from Australia for six years, and returned in 1974. I had never lived in Sydney, but then so many Sydney people, I soon realised, were arrivals from all parts of the country and had not been born in Sydney. I knew three or four people, that was all. One of them invited me to a film on a Saturday afternoon at the theatre in Double Bay, which no longer exists, where I could meet D. All I knew of D. was that our first books had just been published by University of Queensland Press, which had started an ambitious program of publishing fiction. I forget who it was who took me to the theatre, and I don’t remember a thing about the film, including its title. To this day, D. could reel off who I had arrived with, and with little effort provide the name of the film, who had the leading parts, and whether the cameraman had done any work for Preston Sturges, his favourite director.
In the darkness of the theatre I was conscious of D. jumping up slightly in his seat whenever there was something funny in the film. Otherwise I could not form an impression of D. in the seat next to me, or later on the street in broad daylight. Soon afterwards we saw each other at other places, and barely a few weeks would pass before we would see each other again.
Over the years constantly in his company it was only inevitable I would be influenced by D. Whether he in turn had learnt anything from me, I do not know.
Thinking about it 40 years later on his 80th birthday I realised D. had influenced me in four different ways.
The first thing I learnt was sophistication, how to be sophisticated. This lesson was demonstrated early in our friendship. I was living in a terrace house in Balmain. D. dropped in for a meal; it was the only way, since I didn’t have a telephone. I was in the kitchen, trying to cut up a mango. D. came in and took the knife. “This is how you do it.” After a few practised cuts he turned the mango inside out into a sort of orange-yellow hand grenade, the tessellations all ready to be eaten from the skin or sliced into a bowl. Mangoes are notoriously difficult to cut, and I had never seen such a solution before. As he did it D. remained expressionless. This was how it was done in Brisbane. Brisbane, I remember thinking at the time, must be a sophisticated place. And D., he was born and grew up in Brisbane. It followed (ergo) that he too was sophisticated. Ever since then I have not changed my view that Brisbane must be a very sophisticated city.
The second thing I learnt from D. was about fear – terror and so on, how to handle it. One morning for no apparent reason we decided to go to Canberra. It was one of D.’s appealing qualities. If I said, “Let’s go to Canberra,” he’d say, “Alright.” One time on impulse we went to Newcastle in the train.
On the way to the small celebration for D.’s 80th birthday at his house in Sydney, even though it was a few days after his birthday, I recalled the day we had gone to Canberra. It was a hot day – very hot. As we left Sydney and drove down the Hume Highway, D. beside me, he began explaining that the silly names Dickens gave his characters, such as Mr Gradgrind, and Mr Bounderby, and Little Dorrit, were not silly at all but had definite purpose, as did the examples of Dickens’ humour, and the coincidences throughout his novels were not silly either, but were there for good reasons (serialisation?), and that the ghastly sentimentality Dickens draped over his characters, an addiction Balzac or Tolstoy would never have succumbed to, had their purpose, which was to … This was still being explained in detail as we entered Canberra late in the afternoon.
It was even hotter in Canberra than in Sydney. It must have been over a hundred. It was so hot we took virtually the first motel, and jumped into the pool. Later we had a meal.
Back in the room I realised we had in our haste booked a single room. It had twin beds, although they were set close together. D. and I sat side by side at the end of our beds, and I listened carefully as he talked.
I had removed my shoes and socks, and was staring down at my feet, as if they were dangling over a jetty, and as I stared I wondered who would make the first move. Would D. go first? Was he waiting for me? One of us had to get undressed and into their pyjamas, then jump into bed.
Such a prospect only increased the uncomfortable familiarity between us. As I searched for a solution by studying my feet, I thought of something else. D. was a writer! He was just as likely to write a short story or even a novel about the predicament of two men in a motel room, each waiting for the other to remove their trousers and clean their teeth, the dreadful awkwardness of the moment and what it meant to them – only to find some sort of redemption at the War Memorial next morning. D. could easily knock off a piece of “fiction” along those lines. And people would recognise me, the narrator’s friend who was a Methodist from Adelaide. I wanted to put my head in my hands.
Often while talking D. had a worried expression; that was not unusual. I noticed now that D. seated barely at arm’s length away was explaining in a somewhat hoarse voice that the paintings of Jeffrey Smart were not merely graphic art, much more than that, I heard him saying, that his figures were not plasticine or if they were that was hardly the point, that his colours were not really banal and always the same, and that the real point about his paintings was …
Unable to bear any further praise of Jeffrey Smart’s paintings, which are little more than soft mysteries, depending as they do on a solitary figure wearing a suit and necktie standing in front of a motorway, or a wall of peeling posters, or a petrol tanker, compositions of colourful melancholy, all done with a small brush, which is why people are happy to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them – I leapt up while D. continued talking about the paintings of Jeffrey Smart – who also grew up in Adelaide, and signed his paintings “Jeff Smart” until he went to Europe where no serious artist would sign their paintings “Jeff” – “Colin” and “Brett” and “Ian” are other unsuitable names for a serious painter – unable to listen any longer to any further analysis, let alone praise of Jeffrey Smart, who D. had probably met in Tuscany, I leapt up and went into the bathroom. It was there as I removed my trousers and slipped into pyjamas that I realised D., who was still talking through the door, had been talking not to convince me of the importance of Jeffrey Smart’s paintings but to cover his own awkwardness at our situation, and that he may not have liked the paintings as much as he was saying, in fact he may not have liked them at all.
Courtesy was among D.’s most attractive qualities; Haydn remains one of his favourite composers, not only for his music but also, as D. liked to say, because of his courtesy, his ordinariness – a hardworking and loyal worker, not given to tearing his hair out and being rude, unlike Beethoven who had food stains on his waistcoat and shouted and wrote ill-tempered letters to his publishers. By all accounts Haydn had little of the unpleasant selfish characteristics found in the Romantic artists. D. was invariably tactful; and going into detail about the paintings of Jeffrey Smart may have been his way to allow me to reach the bathroom and the safety of my striped pyjamas, without embarrassment. For he knew all along I had never liked the paintings of Jeffrey Smart.
The following morning before returning to Sydney we visited the War Memorial where any lingering fear from sharing the motel room soon vanished amongst the barbed wire, the light and heavy machine guns, the photographs, diary pages and descriptions of true courage. Soldiers sleep in all sorts of intimate proximity, D. might have said.
The third thing I learnt from my friendship with D., which has lasted for half of his life and slightly more of mine, was about fame – the pitfalls, and how to handle it.
I forget the program at the Opera House. D. had been to hundreds of concerts and operas both here and overseas; nevertheless, he would recall in detail the program of this concert, if asked, along with most of the other concerts he attended, the good points or otherwise of the performances. More than once when we had gone to a film and it showed a hotel on the Italian Riviera, he would lean across and whisper, “I stayed there in 1986. There was a giant cactus in the foyer.” If we had gone to the concert at his suggestion it was probably Berlioz or Mozart or Haydn. It was a summer evening. At interval we went down into the foyer. Hemmed in on all sides by concertgoers spilling their white wine while nodding and speaking earnestly, D. began explaining not for the first time his serious reservations about Wagner. He preferred the Mediterranean composers, the Italians with their incorrigible gaiety. He included Mozart, even though he was German. Mozart had the Mediterranean qualities of sunlight, D. was saying. And the trouble with Wagner, D. went on, was his instinct for shadow, for darkness. His operas have a death-worship, as far as D. was concerned, and music, or opera in particular, should transmit the very opposite – the wonder of life. The deep-shadow effect of Wagner’s operas troubled Thomas Mann as well, D. told me in his soft voice, who felt uncomfortable with Wagner’s “double focus” which was, D. explained, Wagner’s instinct for satisfying sophisticated needs, while in the same breath satisfying “commonplace” ones. According to Thomas Mann it was dishonest artistry. It created effects that it scorned. There was an alternative art, Thomas Mann had pointed out, D. was telling me in the crowded foyer, that knows none of this, “an art that is chaste, austere, cold, proud, even forbidding …”
While he had been explaining the problem with Wagner, perhaps knowing I had been “Wagnerised” in 1988, a woman with a sharp nose and small eyes like buttons on a purse stood staring at D., next to me. When I moved away for a moment, she held my arm. “Is that,” she said, “who I think it is?” I looked at D. who was talking to someone else about Wagner. I replied to the woman, “Yes, it is. It is him.”
After a few minutes when I returned, D. said to me, “You’ll never guess what happened. A woman came up to me and said, ‘Ben Kingsley! I just love your films.’” D. was smiling, though with some uncertainty. “You were a wonderful Gandhi,” the woman had added, before moving away.
Over the many years of knowing one another there was a fourth thing I learnt from D.; I have forgotten what it is. Caution is something I might well have learnt from him, but I don’t believe I did.