"I'll be home a bit late tonight, love -- I'm going down to VISE."
"Who the hell is Vi?"
"You wouldn't know her. Keeps the best massage parlor in St Kilda Road."
How to break up a marriage, ten easy lessons, enquire within. Actually VISE is the Victorian Institute of Secondary Education, and I've been doing a spot of proofreading on its jolly little publications. Rewriting, some might call it. You would hardly expect the educators of Australia's youth to know much about English, especially the tricky bits like verbs and commas and stuff, and if they did there'd be no work for me, so I'm not complaining.
They're a good crowd to work with there at VISE, and one of the best things about the job is that there's a John Foyster in the building. I won't reveal his shameful reason for being there. Neither will anyone else. It seems to be some kind of state secret. Another good thing is that within easy walking distance of the place is one of the best bookshops in the country, Kenneth Hince's. I went there during my lunch break on the first day -- and again, with John, on the second day. Ken was shocked to see me two days running, since the last time we'd met there was in 1976. He recovered himself sufficiently to mention some first-edition Peacocks he hoped to have in soon. John could see me calculating whether I'd have enough left over from selling the Renault to buy an old VW as well as the books (how to break up a marriage, advanced diploma) and somehow he spirited me out of the shop.
I haven't been back again, not out of consideration for Ken's nerves but because we've decided it's more efficient for me to work at home most of the time. I have a dictionary at home, for a start, and a desk all to myself. Some of the people at VISE reckon I've been sent home because I've been seen fraternizing with Foyster, but that can't be true. All sorts of people there fraternize with Foyster, from the tea-lady down.
And suddenly light dawns! It's nothing to do with efficiency! Like any seasoned pro, I turned up for work with a good supply of coffee and a mug and an ashtray, and they came in handy, but on the second day, at a time not appointed for tea breaks, and entirely without the tea-lady's permission, I made a cup of coffee -- and I used one of her spoons. That was stupid. That's probably the real reason why I'm back working at home. How could I have forgotten so much about the Public Service as to slight the tea-lady? Oh, what a fool I've been!
The good thing about working at home, reading the course handbook for Year 12 Economics, say, or Pure Mathematics or Lithuanian, is that I can listen to music all day, and if I feel like it I can drink something stronger than coffee while I'm working. The bad thing is that after the second or third bottle all this alien stuff, whatever language it's written in, starts making sense. First rule in editing academics: when they start making sense you are losing your concentration.
Lee Harding has had a mystical experience in a tower. At Geelong. "The Buck Mulligan of
the science fiction world," I said. "Who", said Harding, whose brain has rotted from
reading too much of that crazy star-wars stuff, "is Buck Mulligan?" "Stately, plump Buck
Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a
razor lay crossed," said Damien Broderick, approximately. Damien reads as much SF as
Lee does, but he's younger. "You mean Hop Harrigan," said Lee, and went on to tell us
about some mystical experiences he'd had as a youth with Hop Harrigan.
Keats and Chapman often had mystical experiences in towers. One of them happened while they were in Germany doing a spot of proofreading for a local publisher. The first few books they read in their rented tower did not overtax their knowledge of German, but during the third week they were given a job that nearly drove them crazy. It was a very long, intense, convoluted novel by someone named Dan Vinniken about twenty-four hours in the life of an ancient astronaut. This rather improbable being had spent a day in June 1904 wandering the streets of Darmstadt, apparently quite undetected, observing the stolid Hessian burghers and poking about in their minds by some sort of alien psychic means. The story was hard to follow, and the author's style was the most complicated abuse of the German language the friends had ever seen; after a while they gave up checking the spelling, as the typesetters had before them. Altogether they spent six weeks on the book, and for most of that time they were haunted by the feeling that they had been there before, a feeling intensified by the author's frequent use of the mystical term "déjà voodoo" and many other slogans and names that began with the letters DV. At last they reached the end, and were annoyed rather than surprised to discover that the last sentence in the book was the same as the first sentence. "Well," said Keats, "what do you make of that?" Stately, plump Chapman took off his spectacles, dusted them, and said: "Vinniken's fake." Keats fell sobbing on a great pile of galley proofs.
That story, such as it is, is dedicated to Lee Harding. Lee and I had a mystical experience on a mountain one night, years ago, and he has never come down from it, bless him, and I read Joyce, pardon me, rejoice for him, winner of the Australian Children's Book of the Year award in this year of some surviving grace 1980. The book is called Displaced Person, it is not an autobiography, and if you don't rush out and buy a copy you're an enemy of the people.
What happened on that mountain? Well you may ask. I have read and heard several versions, so my memory is confused. What I remember is that we were standing there one chilly night, somewhere near Mount Dandenong, and I was dying to go home because I was freezing, but I stayed because I'd been a bit rude and unfeeling towards Lee in recent weeks or years and I really do like the man. He was going on and on about how he wanted to be a writer, had always wanted to be a writer, and was a writer, but somehow he wasn't making it, and here he was, nearly 30, and what do you do when you're nearly 30 and not making it and all you've ever wanted to do is be a writer? and so on. "Be a writer," I said. He looked at me with a wild surmise -- silent, upon a bit of a hill in the Dandenongs -- and then we went home. Well, what would you have said? Anyway, he has gone on being a writer, and he's very good at it, and I am happy for him.
It's time I confessed that I have always wanted to be a writer, too. What I mean by that and what Lee means are different things. I don't want to sit for weeks on end over a cold typewriter, poisoning myself with cigarettes and hard thoughts about the human condition, resenting phone calls from Porlock, getting nothing in the mail but bills and summonses and polite rejections from idiot publishers and invitations to address gatherings of litry folk at no cost to myself -- in short, frittering away my life in sustained creation. All I want to do is be a writer, with a modest dozen or so books on my shelf each positively reeking with exemplary taste and bearing my name on its spine; I don't want to have to work at it.
More than anything, though, I have always wanted to be a philanthropist -- just a simple, secretive, plain-living and very rich philanthropist. What do you do when all your life you've wanted to be a philanthropist, and here you are, past 40, without a savings account, and you've never even learnt how to fill in a Tattslotto coupon?
But it could be worse. There are wilder ambitions. I might always have wanted to be a tea-lady.
Australian Book Review, 1981