In an age that seems embarrassed by gods, we look for other explanations. We have visited such places, seen such things, played with the toy, driven the car. Or perhaps the feeling derives from a film we’ve seen, a song we’ve heard. The alternative to reality is spirit, and that’s too much. Religion was done away with (neatly) long ago. In The Rings of Saturn, a meditation on walking, discovering, experiencing past worlds in the present, WG Sebald recalls a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that describes death in Holland. Where it was custom to drape black ribbons over mirrors in the homes of the dead. Also, over paintings depicting landscapes or people, ‘so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.’
Lost forever. Is that the key? As I stare at the black and white photo of my Grade four class, 1976, grins, smiles, although I suspect the photographer might’ve asked for straight faces. Is that what Sebald meant? Are all of these kids still alive? Fat, miserable, suicidal, redeemed, found God? And what are they up to? Either way, lost to me, as I continue my journey, always taking glimpses that are last glimpses.
Does thinking about endings make you miserable? Is it a sin to be morbid in the land of doing things, getting ahead, making money? Better always to act, than think. Better to kick, than read. Because reading (despite how we’re told it’s good for us) leads to thought, questions, regrets. And what good’s that in a world where the sun shines every day?
I start with a hankering for charity shops. I’m always drawn, wandering, searching ties, the sad, limited bookshelves of Margaret Fulton and Virginia Andrews. Jackets, but they’re always too old, dated, embarrassing, even for someone with no sense of fashion. I search the knick-knacks – the glass swans and toast holders, costume jewellery, electric can-openers – and feel content. I smell the place. Old, finished.
It’s not so much a textbook, subconscious déjà vu, because I can remember when it began. Somewhere around 1972. A year or two, perhaps, before I started school. My Gran, and our neighbour, Mrs W, an old Pom with nicotine fingers. They’re standing behind the counter at a charity shop on OG Road. Perhaps they’re pricing items; sliding shirts onto hangers. Either way, Peggy’s got a fag in her hand. I’m mostly forgotten, on the floor, in the womb of security: reading the books piled in the corner (Boys’ Own, old, even then); trying on the shoes in the mountain of footwear with a sign (something like): $2 a pair, three for $5; playing with the broken toys (jigsaws with missing pieces, a metaphor twenty years too early). And then standing, in the middle of the dress rack, sandwiched by naphthalene frocks and knitted dresses, touching them, holding them, like the thousand phantom mothers we have as kids. Someone coming in, looking, surprised to see me behind the suits and jackets. Hi, sweet, what are you doing back there? As Gran or Peggy said, Don’t mind him.
Bookshops. Which, sadly, have been the obsession of my adult life. The less organised, smellier, crappier the better. Rugs held down with gaffer tape. Perfect. The Keeper of Books making sardines on toast as he or she prices Rimbaud or a manual for a 1978 Datsun 120Y. Books everywhere. No organisation, except for Fiction, Memoir, Hitler. Strange, how you can start a war and yet get your own category in a bookshop, seventy years later. Piles of books, leaning, collapsed, haemorrhaging, decades after publications, like old soldiers with never-quite-healed war wounds. The impossibility of finding anything specific. Which is the greatest joy. Every discovery accidental. Much more potent. More scope for unexpected discoveries, which (I think) are the only ones worth having. In which case, bookshops are the repository of déjà vu, hints about who you are, where you’ve been, other lives lived, places visited.
Bookshops are doomed. Not because of online reading, Kindle, streamed movies, anything. Just because they’ve became too organised. Lost their potential to surprise us. Chosen genre over sardines. Neat, descriptive shelf titles, everything on a computer, so that, say, if you asked about déjà vu, they’d present a collection of volumes: self-help, academic, a biography of Freud, and so on. Worryingly, literature is doing the same thing today. Turning away from the unexpected (Let us Now Praise Famous Men), instead, choosing the product of someone’s market research. Dystopia. Jillaroos. Wizards with nothing particularly magic about them.
I have no memory of where the bookshop thing began. Libraries, perhaps. I was taken to the State Library on a Sunday afternoon, roamed, explored the forest of shelves, plucked random volumes from the foliage, read which mushrooms were dangerous, which dogs came from Pomerania, wherever that was (which led me to the atlases). This world of possibilities seemed superior to my world: braised steak and Paul Hogan, Baby Burgess and long division, endlessly, through stinking hot asbestos afternoons. Or Tea Tree Gully Library, where I’d watch the woman line up the books, photograph them, hand them to me. Mine, for a few weeks. No one else’s. Like the suits I’d wear on OG Road, becoming the Chairman of BHP, for a few hours, at least.
And the habit persists. Hours in Foyles and Watermans in London, or the excellent Scheltema bookshop in Amsterdam. Each with their five stories of other places, other lives. Me thinking, why can’t we have Scheltema? Writers’ handprints in concrete. Like they’re celebrities. Like someone actually values them. Maybe some cultures see writers as ciphers, ferryman between the real and imagined. People whose gloom somehow allows them to see more clearly. Again, wet weather boys who don’t like cricket.
Or maybe, maybe (and let’s make it clear, I’m not condoning this), maybe the Buddhists are right, and we’re just going round and round, and last time round I owned a bookshop, and died (one sunny day) between Theosophical and Cooking. Or the life before that? Each time, as I return, trying to define this fascination, becoming a writer so I might better describe it.
Or perhaps I was a writer? Joseph Conrad, sailing into Port Adelaide, catching a train to town, the hills, to convalesce from a long journey. As I scribbled Almayer’s Folly. Listened to the shrikes outside, first (and I’ve been doing it ever since) wiped the hundred degree heat from my forehead, ate frog cakes (did they exist back then?).
And the most powerful pull of all: graveyards. Not something you’re meant to admit. It shows a certain maudlin streak, apparently. Again, looking backwards, instead of the length of the M20. Darkness, instead of sunshine. Although, to devotees of burying fields, the whole experience is quite uplifting. And portable.
So, there I am, rising at six-thirty, standing at the window to our Edinburgh apartment, looking down at Dalry Cemetery. Resist, I say to myself, but it’s no use. I slip on my shoes, grab my camera, and head across the road.
Dalry is its own bookshop. No one’s laid out paths. The grass has grown, colonised the living and the dead. Rain has made mud, and pools, and it’s worse where someone’s come in with an excavator, trying to control the bramble. The trees are leafless, as they should be, the growth of another year rotting on and in the ground. Admitting the grey light from what promises morning, and day. But I like it like this. In the gap between night and day, life and death, real and imagined. All the spirits déjà vu-ing; settling for another sleep, or rising, seeking lives to colonise.
I like the signs of actual life. Broken handlebars from a scooter. Blue twine strung from an old tree, a stick as a seat, muddy footprints. I can hear kids playing, laughing, falling on their arses. But now the twine just moves in the little bit of wind, a fresh spirit moving towards town.
Déjà vu. As I stand in the light rain. The street lights yellow, diffuse, muddying the morning, nearby apartments humming to breakfast television, and toast. I wonder why I’m here, getting wet. Looking for clues, still. Boys’ Own (describing the life I might lead); O’Connell’s, Treloar’s, even some bookshop at Murray Bridge, a hundred Year 10 Mockingbirds sold for a song. Where am I? West Terrace Cemetery. Looking for Percy and Horace Trenerry, the Mystery Man, but aren’t we all, living our recycled lives? Maybe that’s what they found on Somerton Beach. A muddle of life, between one person and the next. Or maybe Enfield Cemetery, where Gran lies, with her marked down dresses and the smell of Peggy’s smoke eternally in her nose.
Dalry’s headstones are already speaking to me. Here, Julia died at one month (1836), followed by Janet (seven months), Margaret Anne (seven months), and a son, who didn’t have a name, because he only survived a few hours on some cold morning in September 1863. Maybe he has a better claim to rebirth than anyone. As I walk around, the pattern continues: William burying William (four years), Cecilia (seven months), Nelly (ten years), William, again, although it didn’t end any better. No mention of how they died, because it’s too late for all that. Cholera, typhus, tuberculosis? What does it matter now?
Close by, beside the Burying Ground of William Campbell, I find the first of the soft stone memorials, where life has given up even the words that describe it. A family crest, worn away by hundreds of years of rain. And lines that used to be names, dates, no longer readable. The final indignity, or perhaps life’s last word (according to Edwin Muir, ‘Past all contrivance, word, or image, or sound, Or silence, to express, that we who fall, Through time’s long ruin should weave this phantom ground…’).
In the middle of the cemetery, vines have covered everything. No one seems to have made an effort to clear the vegetation. Thankfully. I take a photo of the chaos, but it blurs, and I leave it that way. I think of how much time, how many people, how much poison it’d take to reveal the headstones, the names, the stories. Obviously families have stopped coming. Probably, have no idea their ancestors are buried here. One wall, with its ‘Sacred to the memory…’ is being pushed over by a tree. A few broken headstones have been gathered, stacked neatly, respectfully. As though no one wants to throw them, but knows what to do with them. Can you just put them in a skip? Does it come to that? Family vaults, locked, full of beer cans and chip packets, as I try to work out how the local kids got in.
I stroll. I don’t want to leave. Eventually I’ll have to return to Australia, and it’ll be like I was never here. Like the dead. Gone. The sun is still trying to lighten west Edinburgh, and beyond, but the cloud, mist and rain persist. Above the one grave someone’s maintained. A six inch picket fence and white gravel, a few camelia sprigs, a heart. But I don’t read the inscription. Regret it now, weeks later. As I teach my Year eights about poetry, and fail to mention I saw it one morning in Dalry Cemetery.
Delboy graffiti, across a set of proud steps that used to led mourners from church to grave. More rubbish, the sounds of buses starting up, the capital coming alive.
I stumble across Thomas Campbell, asleep in God since 1891. Poet Author of ‘The Pleasures of Hope’. Reminding me that every word I write, you read, will go, just as surely as the broken stones. No matter how clever, how thoughtful, publicised, reviewed, distributed, discussed in book groups – gone, thank god!
A whole row of headstones, obelisks, pushed over. I can see this boy now: fifteen, Edinburgh-angry, kicking one after another, and the dead barely complaining.
Another plaque, set in the wall, although this one’s left blank. Maybe ready for me, you, the déjà vu of the little Australian with his camera, wandering, as the first rays of light emerge, revealing blue sky. Always blue, as it’s been since all of this began. Poet. Surgeon. Charity volunteer. Recycling, like jumpers on a rack, worn and re-worn beyond anything useful.
So I leave the cemetery. Through the big iron gates. The sign telling me 9.00 – 4.00 only, although no one’s heeded that, ever. It’s hard to go. Like the dead, leaving their rooms, their mirrors and paintings covered, so they won’t know what they’re missing.