One day I will be eighty. After that it’s all downhill. I said that as a joke to an old man who stops and talks most days. I got talking to him when I walked out of my driveway a little carelessly and he almost ran into me with his motorised mobility scooter.
“Where are you going, on this fine day?” he said with a smile and a nod of apology.
“Down to the village to get some bread.”
“Will you come with me? No not I.”
I looked at him most directly. “Are you a fan of A. A. Milne?”
“Well anyone my age who learned to read will be a fan of A. A. Milne. What about you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m a great fan.” And I recited the first verse:
I met a Man as I went walking:
We got talking`,
Man and I.
“Where are you going to, Man?” I said
(I said to the Man as he went by).
“Down to the village, to get some bread.
Will you come with me?” “No, not I.”
I asked him in for a cup of coffee and he looked at his scooter and his withered legs and shook his head.
“That’s not a good enough excuse,” I said. “I’ll bring it outside and we can enjoy it next to my dramatic stand of twelve beans growing on the wall.”
That is how it started. Over the next few weeks we talked about growing up and car accidents and books and travel. Then one day he invited me to his place. I had mentioned a book. I think it might have been How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. Actually, as I write this now, I know it was How Green Was My Valley.
“Have you been to Wales?” he asked. “It is really quite beautiful. I’ve got and album full of photographs of Wales. You should come and see them.”
So I went to see his album of beautiful photographs of Wales. His bookshelves were stacked with a huge range of titles, of subjects. Some were old and some fairly recent. He was a man of great experience and a huge range of stories. Then one day he said something that worried me. He told me had been crippled with polio when he was young and that he had never been more than five miles outside Ballarat except when he had to go to the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.
“But,” I said, “You told me you had been an aeronautical engineer. You told me all about building the R100 airship before the war.”
He shook his head and turning in his chair he handed me a book. Slide Rule by Nevil Shute.
“Have you read this?”
“No I haven’t. I’ve read a few of Nevil Shute’s books. But not that one,”
“Well take it home and read it.”
So I took it home and read it. It was fascinating. I knew Shute had written some great books including A Town Like Alice and On The Beach but this wasn’t a novel it was almost an autobiography.
I went back the next day and returned the book.
I think I was annoyed with him. He had deceived me with his talking about the British Airship experiment and I wondered if everything else had been a deception.
“Did you enjoy the book?” he asked.
“Yes it was interesting,” and I turned to go.
“Don’t leave just yet. I have a question to ask. It is very important. Please sit down.”
I sat down, but I wasn’t at ease.
“Tell me John, where you really in the Army?”
“Yes,” I said, annoyed. “I’ll show you my Commission signed by the Governor General if you don’t believe me.”
“Oh I believe you. I think I would like to have been in the Army or something like that. But I have had a good and successful life.”
“So if you never were, actually, an aeronautical engineer, what were you.”
“I am an editor for a publishing company. I edit novels and children’s books and scientific papers and almost anything that is written on a piece of paper. Look at my book shelves John. Some of those I edited. Most of them I didn’t. Go over there and pull out anyone you like. Don’t think about it just the first one you see.”
I pulled out a book without looking. It was To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite.
“Have you read it?” he asked.
“No, but I’ve seen the movie. Is this where you got all your ideas about teaching? I thought you were a teacher.”
“Well not all of my ideas. I haven’t had the same experience of teaching that you have had. But I did learn a lot from it – and from talking with you.”
“So you haven’t done any of those things we have talked about!”
“Look at me John. I cannot walk. I cannot do much at all with my body. Many people with Polio were able to do some things but to use a very modern phrase, we are all on a continuum and I’m up the bad end. I have used books all my life to grab hold of a huge range of experiences. If you went there, to my bookshelves and pulled out any one of those books and took it away so that I had never read it, I would be diminished. People who never read books, and there are many, are limited by their own being and by the experiences that they are limited to. I have experienced everything you can see on those shelves. Le Carre made me a spy and Steinbeck gave me America. Irwin Shaw dragged me through the war in Europe and turned me into a Jew. I could go on and on and on but I can see by the change in the look on your face that you understand. Heinrich Böll and Graham Green, Isabel Allende and Tolstoy, Hugh Thomas and Carlos Franqui; these are just a few, but through them I lived through some of Hitler’s war, some of England’s dealings with Africa, life in Chile, Russia, the Spanish Civil War and Cuba.
I have had a great and varied life. My books are my life. And I haven’t finished yet. I’m over eighty John, and I’m not ready to go downhill yet.”
I stood up and said goodnight. We had spoken for hours and I was no longer cross. I was no longer annoyed. But I did want to go back later and borrow some of his books.