Op Shops are great for books. There must be people who are forever refreshing their shelves because you can find not just new and new-ish novels but classics that you’d think would just keep their own permanent spot like perennial plants in the garden. Recently, on the book shelf in the Vinnies Op Shop on Phillip Island, I found a few classics I didn’t have – Madame Bovary, The Trial, The Mill on the Floss. There were also some Margaret Drabble novels. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Margaret Drabble book, so at $2 a pop I took a punt and bought one. It’s called The Radiant Way, and when I got back to the holiday house and took a look at my haul (which also included some ceramic coasters with Germanic Gothic-y lettering and illustrations, a very nice skirt and a cardi) I found that the book had been signed. There it was – Margaret Drabble – in blue biro on the now-yellowing title page. A very bold signature, with large initials and loops. What would a graphologist say? Well, I have to say this signed copy there in the Phillip Island Vinnies gave me a bit of a thrill – I don’t really know why – and I got to wondering how it had ended up where it did, twenty-five years after the publication date. And where and when it was signed. At a launch? Though this is the Penguin paperback, not the first hardcover edition. Perhaps a fan got her to autograph it at some literary event. Here in Australia? or perhaps in the UK. Or did Margaret Drabble just sit at her desk and sign a whole pile? I went back the next day and bought the other two novels in the trilogy. Unsigned.
I’ve just finished reading it. “HER POWERFUL NEW NOVEL FOR THE EIGHTIES” it says on the cover, but now reads almost as a historical novel; all the changes and losses, all the rifts in the social fabric in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain have receded into the past, and her picture of displacement and dis-ease in troubled times which would have probably seemed powerful then seem like just background noise now. What I enjoyed was the foreground, and apart from the three central characters – three women, Liz, Alix and Esther – and their intertwined stories, I loved the descriptions. I’ve often noticed that how-to books about writing peddle the advice that you should avoid like the plague cascades of adjectives. One word, the right one, should be sufficient. And of course eliminate the dreaded, dreadful adverb; the gold standard seems to be a kind of perfect pared-down minimalism. Perhaps it all goes back to Hemingway. Well, bugger that, I say – and obviously Margaret Drabble doesn’t go for it either.
And wonderful it was, like a fairy story, a Bohemian fairy story. The little room was illuminated by candles, by a paraffin lamp, by crackling packing-case twinges in a real fire in a real Victorian grate:its walls were painted a dark midnight blue, its floor was painted a deep red with a dark-blue and green patterned border. wooden painted chairs stood at a table covered with a white embroidered cloth and painted bowls and plates, huge cushions lay in heaps in a corner, there were two comfortable chairs covered (Alix recognised the material) with the old velveteen curtains her own other had brought down from Leeds years ago and which she’d never got around to hanging. “Sit, sit,” said Nicholas, and Alix and Brian sat in the comfortable chairs, while the angels hovered, with glasses of fire-light-glinting red wine, with olives on a white plate, with nuts on a blue plate.
She gives the same lavish treatment to all sorts of settings – a cocktail party, a woman’s bedroom, a country picnic, even the disgusting decay of a squat – ...a narrow corridor, smelling of damp, ancient glue, wet plaster, chalk mice; the floorboards were soft and uneven with layers of debris and newspaper and cardboard and bits of under felt…
These wordy descriptions give me the sense of reading what I not-so-secretly think of as a “real, proper old-fashioned novel” – one that’s full and perhaps maybe too-full to the point of brimming-over with ideas and people and words and life. Generous, nothing stinted.
And speaking of generous and unstinting – though on a totally different track – I went with friends to the Bruce Springsteen concert at Hanging Rock last weekend. He is 63 and (amazingly) played, full-bore, for more than 3 hours. I’ve never been a devoted Bruce fan – and knew so little of his repertoire that (though only for an instant!) I mistook the lyrics “Old Tom Joad“ for “Jean Cocteau” – so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience. Actually, I’ve been raving most of the week. It was such a feel-good show – at the risk of sounding like an old hippie, I’ll say that you could feel the love. Waves going from the crowd and back from the stage. He smiled nearly all the time – he appeared to be having a fine time – and must have felt a little like a god, with around 15,000 people singing his own song back to him. Well, if not like a god, at least spectacularly good. A good concert is a life-enhancing thing.
So is a good play. A few years ago, I went to a performance of Bell Shakespeare’s – it was Twelfth Night – at the Capitol in Bendigo. It was not long after the fires; they set the play amongst a group of fireys in smoke-stained overalls with a huge pile of donated clothes on the stage behind them. At the end, the cast gathered at the front of the stage and sang a song – it was a version of Katrina and the Waves Walking on Sunshine – and it was there, that feeling, a current of love, of give and take with the audience. I thought then how wonderful it must feel for the actors, to have given so many people such pleasure. I know I floated out, arm in arm with my husband and son, misty-eyed and on a high – and I don’t think I was the only one.