Nostalgia – mine, ours, and theirs

Book Review

smiley-happy005 Penny Becchio, Now Tell Me This (Sid Harta Publishers, Glen Waverley 2009)

Sid Hartha publishes books of memories, fictionalised to one degree or another as in Now Tell Me This, or straight non-fiction. I have already reviewed another from their catalogue: Goodbye Crackernight (2009) by Justin Sheedy. Aesthetically Sheedy’s is the better book, but Penny Becchio tells a worthwhile tale.

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Photo by Andrew Introna Photography

Des Simpson wants to be a professional piano player, but in 1938 opportunities are rare, so when he gets the chance to play in a dance band he takes it. However, there is a catch; he also has to join the NSW Police.

Despite his larrikin-like approach to life Des soon discovers that he is respected in his job, and the community, and his music career takes off when he becomes an organist at the Capitol Theatre. He also meets Kathleen, a lovely Irish girl, and life is wonderful.

Then he is transferred to Ivanhoe, NSW, where policing takes on a new meaning. On call 24/7, part of the community yet removed from it, learning to ride a horse; there are everyday challenges that make Des draw on his resourcefulness and his limited supply of life experience.

With the onset of WW II, and Kathleen far away in Sydney, Des returns home, only to be caught on Sydney Harbour during a Japanese raid. There is little he can do to soothe her worries before he must return to the outback. Will Kathleen be safe? Will the separation of so many miles be too much for their relationship? Des has real fears.

clip3_sml As noted there, a significant part of the book is set in 1942. In that year the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour from the sea. Soon after on 8 June 1942, “the Japanese submarine I-24 fired ten rounds at Sydney Harbour in a five-minute period. Only one of the shells exploded, in Bellevue Hill.” See Sydney Harbour and Coastal Menace. When I visited Watson’s Bay last weekend I took a photo of one memorial to these events.

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In 1942 it looked like this:

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Sid Harta, it seems to me, may well be interested in Jim Belshaw’s work.

Their nostalgia

There’s an interesting article by Benjamin Schwarz in Atlantic Monthly.

Davies’s work is replete with similar moments, though the difference is that Orwell, romanticizing what he didn’t know, put the father at the center of the picture, and failed to bring any agency into the scene. Davies, on the other hand, leaves no doubt as to the figure creating his happiness, preparing that toast and cocoa after the day at New Brighton and arranging those tangerines in tissue paper: his mother. Which isn’t to suggest an oedipal preoccupation, only that Davies grasps that family life and childhood contentment are orchestrated by a presiding intelligence, almost always female, and nourished by a thousand domestic details, meaningless in themselves. Davies has said that Humphrey Jennings’s classic Listen to Britain, a 19-minute wartime documentary, was the inspiration for Of Time and the City; I’d bet that his deepest inspiration was Jennings’s loveliest scene, in which a woman with a son in the army looks out from an upper-story window on small children at play in a schoolyard across the street. (Davies, uncannily, has found several pieces of archival footage that echo that scene.)

Of course, the fleetingness, and the awareness of the fleetingness, of childhood and family happiness is hardly a novel artistic theme. It lies at the heart of, say, Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” (a poem conspicuously absent in Davies’s narration) and Little Women—and, for that matter, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” Meet Me in St. Louis (one of Davies’s favorite movies, which he has discerned “tapped into something primal, almost like a fairy tale”), and, well, that famous Carousel scene in Mad Men. But usually the accompanying emotion is merely rue, and the intended effect cathartic—the acceptance of loss. This film insists that the loss is absolute and all-consuming. Davies has often said of his childhood, with a conviction as though freshly wounded, that he will never again be so happy. At first that remark seems naive or perverse or, at the very least, immature. But Davies’s genius—and no doubt much of his chronic discontent, a psychological state to which he readily attests—lies in his inability to reconcile himself to that passing. Davies’s nostalgia, I think it’s fair to say, isn’t exactly that of an integrated adult, as the mental-hygiene professionals would put it. But owing to his immaturity and his solipsism, that land of lost content has rarely been recalled so insistently and its loss raged against so defiantly. In averring that his wound will not heal—I will never be so protected and I will never be so loved, he seems to mourn—Davies forces his audience to recognize that they are similarly afflicted.

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