My Christmas present to myself is a new life. I’ve always wondered what I will do when I grow up, and at 61 am giving myself the chance to find out. I’m moving at last to the house of which I’ve always dreamed – a library with bedrooms, built by the sea. Complete with loving wife, two dogs, my paintings and a secret whisky bar that opens when you tilt a book. A Piranesi etching descends and a light illuminates the shyly inviting malts.
There’s no real reason for the whisky bar to be hidden. We Dutch may have a reputation for meanness second only to the Scots, but I’ve always disliked people who are stingy with food and drink for guests, and hide the best bottles. I blame the bar on books. As a young boy, I’d cycle on my blue Malvern Star each Saturday to the Nightcliff second-hand book shop to spend the money from my paper round. James Bond novels were my most eager choice, along with Agatha Christie’s, and a whisky bar behind the etching is undoubtedly a Bondian influence. Ejector seats may make my guests too uneasy.
My uncle interrupts me. He’s calling from Humpty Doo to boast that he’s just been attacked by his rooster. Don’t be fooled by Bert’s Dutch accent. He’s more Australian than I am. Holland was always too small and domesticated to hold him. He is now the sailor home from the sea, the tyre executive back on the land, the can-do man who taught me as a boy to punch – and punch hard, as two Antifa protesters who jumped me half a century later may attest. Yet he’s also now made for me a replica of Benjamin Franklin’s long book-stick, to get books off a top shelf without falling. Bert’s stick is the loveliest present I’ve ever had.
So it is goodbye to Melbourne. It seems I am not alone. My wife exclaims: ‘Everyone is moving to Queensland.’ By everyone she means people like us. Except not actually like us, because we’re not people of the tropics. Tropical weather seems to flatten life. I need seasons. Contrasts. Rhythms. Spring flowers. But I also need to get out of this city. Premier Daniel Andrews turned it into a jail for most of this year, and I fear what he’ll now do to the survivors. How will he pay for his colossal spending spree to ‘fix’ what he’s wrecked? Head for the hills! Or the beach.
Paying for stuff. Andrews no longer worries about that, but I do, so signed up for another year with Sky News. My new life must bleed into the old for a little while yet. The problem with commenting on the news is that you have to follow it. That’s time stolen from what I’d now rather follow instead. For instance, I’ve just read the life of St. Anselm, of nearly 1,000 years ago, and am now starting on the memoirs of near-contemporary Peter Abelard. I’m fleeing the present, so blighted by the virus, Donald Trump’s defeat, China’s menace and the cackling and hooting rise of the cancel culture. Yet I still hear trumpets. I read how Anselm defied William the Conqueror’s son to insist on the independence of his church. How Abelard fought back when his church damned his writings. Abelard had already lost his testicles in the rage of his lover’s guardian, but refused to also lose his right to speak as he found. And so the past urges me to fight in the present.
Perhaps George Pell feels the same. I’ve just finished volume one of his Prison Journal, written in solitary confinement for a hideous crime he could not have committed. The journal will be an instant classic. There is not just Pell’s courage and equanimity, despite being ruined by false claims of pedophilia. There is also his deep sense of having God’s love, and of being in a culture – a conversation – thousands of years in the telling. He knows he is enduring nothing that hasn’t befallen others that he’s read of. He is consoled by thoughts he’s read expressed many centuries ago by the likes of St. Luke and St. Augustine. I thought priests, in renouncing sex and family, might be lonely. But Pell is surrounded by a smiling multitude. Sadly, history to many now seems a closed book. Literally. No wonder so many people feel alone.
I always dreamed I would be a writer. As in novels. But chance, or misapprehension of our talent, drives us in unexpected ways. I never thought I’d be on television. My mother once sent me to audition as host for a children’s TV show, when I was 15 or 16. I was treated exactly as I thought I deserved. I mumbled just one thing – probably my name – as I cringed in a corner of the couch, while a camera stared at my pudding-bowl haircut. I was flung out with not even a ‘we’ll call you’. I was so impossibly shy and introspective. I have no idea where the shyness went. Perhaps I’ve had to act confident for so long that I learned that shyness is just a vanity with no reward.
But the introspection remains. When I was a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, my wife taped a newspaper cutting to my computer to stop me from frantically over-working: ‘Who do you think is watching?’ Now that I have my library and some savings, will someone be watching if I down tools and just read? Or must I seek immortality and write? This will be my big question of 2021. That is, if I’m as lucky as I have been so far in this accidental life.
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