I have lost two fathers this past year, one biological and one matrimonial, each of whom were a simulacrum of what I came to imagine a father might be. To lose one father within a year might be regarded as misfortune, but to lose two begins to look like carelessness.
There was no lack of care, in fact. In the hours following, there have been shower-bursts of tears but, like the experience of many sons, my fathers were both central and yet ultimately marginal to my own manly life.
Zaporozhian Cossacks write a Letter to the Turkish Sultan. Oil on canvas, by the magnificent
Ilya Repin, 1880-90, State Tretyakov Gallery. Hale fellows well met, but not great fans of the Jews.
Weeks earlier, trapped in Australia by Covid-19, I had been building a new terrace verandah at my mother's house when, lifting a pile of files from the dining room table, the old lawyer, my mother's second husband, my Godfather at first instance who later became my step-father, had simply fainted and fallen over.
Unable to lift her prone and wounded husband, my had mother called me into the house.
The largely forgotten play by John Mortimer, A Voyage Around My Father,
in which Alan Bates, despite his great success as a barrister, can never please his father.
I saw him lying there on his side, conscious but unable to move, exuding a familiar irritation honed over nine decades. A scattering of paper and pens lay about him, the mise en scène of the way he had lived, and a bellwether of the way he was beginning to die from that moment forward.
I eased him onto his back, and gently checked his breathing, then the presence of sensation in his feet and hands; that he could turn his head from side to side and that the bloody gashes were not too deep.
I asked him where it hurt, and ran my fingers up and down that arm, pressing gently to feel for any obvious fracture, and then his rib cage for any breaks there. I hoisted him to a sitting position, then bound his arm in a tight sling before dead-lifting him beneath his armpits.
As my stepfather lay in hospital, I delved into his liber confugerunt, the book lined conjoining rooms in which he slept and worked. There were perhaps 15,000 books stretched across scaffolds of groaning shelvery, his refuge from the world. Alwyn was a scholar of Shakespeare and a poet, and I had often wondered if an arch of book-laden shelving would collapse and crush him one day.
I was looking for a memento for him that might bring him solace in hospital, and I saw for the first time a small portrait I'd never before seen, yet a face I knew had endured the untimely frost of a death-too-young, that of his mother.
Here, death hadn't yet drawn the honey from her beauty, that of a 15 year-old, stolen from the sabre sweep of the Ukrainian Cossacks, now safe in London where her father had carried her from the 1905 Odessa pogrom when just an infant.
It was the impression of this picture, more than any of the gory facts unfolding about us in the weeks that followed, things about infection and blood pressure, and oxygenation and heart valves, that had me yield most to sadness.
The perky tilt of Lucy's hat, the bloom of her pom-pom, the elaborate brooch and richness of her satin collar, eyes coolly submitting to the photographer's lens, the dance of a smile that spoke of light irony, intelligence, and the full life that stretched before her. It is a charming portrait, taken perhaps a century to the day before her son died.
But Lucy, the refugee from Czarist Russia, did not live a full life. She suffered for years with a disease, and then died when Alwyn was 21, in the same hospital in which her son would die 69 years on. Married that same year and scrabbling to make a living, Alwyn fulfilled neither of his inclinations to philosophy and poetry, but eventually became a lawyer. Even on his final day, he insisted to the doctors the urgency of leaving hospital in order to complete several pending legal matters.
An illustration of the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom in April 1903, published in "L'Assiette au Beurre -
The Crimes of Tsarism and the massacres of Kishinev." (Photo/JTA-Culture Club-Getty Images)
I know of just four poems Alwyn published during his lifetime, all in the same magazine founded and run by his intellectual brethren, Quadrant (he was a member of the Sydney Push, students such as Germaine Greer, mostly from Sydney University, who gathered around the Scottish-born philosopher John Anderson in the 1940s and 50s).
In hospital, still in the shock-wave of his fall when it looked as though he would die immediately and he'd been told as such, he mused out loud on a poet he had admired, a man who left Australia for England, lived on the smell of a cheese cloth, and spent his entire time writing. "Well that's it then," he said. "I didn't have it in me, not like him." What did he mean?
Most of us knew Alwyn as a man who abjured God and the practice of Judaism, physical labour or ability, casual social life, the small inspirations of familial life, and small talk. He was a man of whisky and wine who worshipped words and solitude, and who, in the jutting and jotting of his notebooks (the thousands of pages of his hand-written poems were increasingly unreadable), constantly rhapsodised the power of the written word.
Yet curiously, as one daughter commented, he was no practitioner of the word in his daily speech but rather, when he chose to speak, spoke plainly and without adornment.
Gerrit Dou (Leiden 1613-1675), A Hermit Saint Reading in a Cave.
I grew up in his household. That is, as the single senior male in my boyhood from the age of 4 – no uncles, or grandparents, or older cousins, or even close constant male friends – Alwyn was it, the figure to which a boy must look for signals, social norms, patterns of personal behaviour, relationship formation, guidance for work and life, and skills to be seen, picked up, toyed with, and deployed for passage through this world. Yet, my friends remark to this day how they found his sarcasm, teasing, hostility to the sounds of childhood, and moody presence formidable.
Like my own father, Alwyn's death has left an absence not of longing, but of wanting.
The 'war poet', Siegfried Sassoon, who hailed from a family of Iraqi Jewish origin.
If my relationship with my biological father was coined in my mind by the Siegfried Sassoon poem Ancient History (the gaunt old man's love for a son, but not that son) my relationship with Alwyn was characterised by the John Mortimer play A Voyage Round My Father. Here, the mature son finds that despite his accomplishments, independence, and separate path and distinct character, he is often drawn into his father's glowering orbit merely by the gravitational pull of the old man's simmering disapproval.
As is always the case with young children in acrimonious divorces, it was a voyage into which Alwyn's step-children had been press-ganged. Our most fragile years were taut-stringed, scratched-out, tip-toed around, and played out the way children do, which is to try to please the adults in the room. Of the 50 years I knew Alwyn, there are probably just two or three photos of us together, but there is only one I can recall with any real tangibility.
That photo was taken during the one occasion I recollect spending any length of time with him, when we were moulded into one another's company by the location. That day early this century, having driven 800 kilometres from my apartment in the Gràcia neighbourhood of Barcelona, we met late afternoon beneath the shadow of Granada's Alhambra, the great palace of the Moorish kings. We took one photo by each other's side, and he later sent me this poem:
For Gordon: Thoughts from Granada 20-6-00
The world is constructed to account for these things
and to remark on them in passing as if they seem unusual,
so its business not only continues but is undisturbed,
but we know better
even if only in silence,
the fear that their prose may dissipate and
the reliable be impinged upon
by, what? They do not explicate:
the fanciful, the heartfelt, the insistent and odd
isn’t uncommon, in fact, is so common
we don’t notice its presence or weight;
but we’re not, and will not be, caught in such concerns,
having met from different directions in the church square
in Granada, hours each of us through Spain,
for that purpose only,
that’s a coming together of those chances, intents,
unlocated sentiments of joint lives
which is what I meant
and meant to celebrate,
we resist the world of all as stated and explicit
and functional as train timetables and tourists’ tours,
we know that well back but not forgotten,
submerged in years and change, in no particular sequence
of time or place, are moments or, some of them,
that work now to bring us together and broke up then
and now the concourse of ordinary days,
you can see that in our photograph
beyond face value and standing for
our single courses converging
to this joint statement,
itself, but not alone itself,
the image’s refraction, indeed,
but, believe me, what is commonly called
the scenery and other incidents of a foreign country
are doubly interpreted and more for me,
we brought ourselves to them
they were not simply there, waiting,
their magic not withstanding,
no small thing, this, one looks into
with difficulty and some pain
but definite in its presences, unseen ordinary,
undoubted in its sway and that it is us forever
as it has been,
what greater benefit could there be
to gain from our inspection of the Alhambra,
its gardens, half dark spaces and poise?
I saw it from the church square below,
hanging it seemed upon the hills and in air,
and said to you what is that?
and you knew, of course.
Accompanying the poem was this statue of the Hindu deity of Ganesh which I treasured and carried to homes in Barcelona, New York, Colombo (where it was briefly stolen), Nairobi, Palermo, and Prague. For Alwyn, it was perhaps marginalia, but to me it spoke at least that, however little I knew of him, he knew enough of me, and cared enough, to acknowledge my capacity to conquer odds, and to break the bonds of obstacles for myself and others (Ganesh is both the creator and breaker of obstacles in the Hindu pantheon).
Alwyn left me nothing when he died, no public recognition of my status.
However I did steal one thing, and that was the chance to nurse the old man in hospital. I hated that he might be lonely. I visited him in the depths of night when I knew he'd be awake, mostly for five or ten minutes. I'd correct the lazy negligence of the nurses – the tightened oxygen mask, the sling cutting into his shoulder, the pillows cricking his neck – and ensure he was calm. Mostly he could hardly speak, until there were really no words at all.
But here is the thing about words, and the way Alwyn loved them.
A window in the Alhambra, Granada, 2002. Looking out to a world below, yet to be lived.
He loved them as though they were his secret mistress. Ironically for a man who so decisively rejected Judaic practice, he hunched over the texts of Shakespeare, whose works he regarded as immaculate, like a Talmudic scholar, rhythmically incanting their sacred texture and music. Words coming from the right hands, and exisiting on paper, were functional symbols that hid sublime meaning. They were esoteric, transcendent, enigmatic, impenetrable, and ultimately unknowable. They needed to be parsed out in small doses like a finite elixir. It was the thing that restrained his poetic accomplishment throughout his life, and transformed it into a waterfall of words at his end that disappeared down the drain as though they had not existed at all.
When my own book was published to some acknowledgment, and the Australian edition was launched at the gloriously shabby Hollywood Hotel (it was actually owned by a former starlet and Peking-based cabaret performer who swanned about the bar looked like Gloria Swanson) my father was nowhere to be seen: his wife Zelda had harried him into taking her overseas.
Similarly, Alwyn was absent as well. Though there in body, he never once said a memorable word to me about the book, let alone clapping me on the back with a "well done, me ol' China." And thus were my two fathers at a peak moment in life, one absent entirely, one entirely present but absent.
At his cremation, I chose to read the poem I recall him quoting most often, Yeat's Sailing to Byzantium:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Eventually, he became that tattered old man, though never a stick. Alwyn disliked those mackeral-crowded seas, and energetically sought all through his long life and that of his children and step-children, to create his own mosaic. It will be for others to decide if he succeeded, I suppose, but I don't think he gave himself the chance, truly lent himself to the possibilities of publication. He shunned it, as if it wasn't worth his time. Words were too precious to waste on casual dispersion, too precious even for conversation, or the tutelage of a small boy it seemed.