The archaeology of childhood, Jack Lasenby

Desert Shorts
Norman Bilbrough
Canterbury University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908812 81 7

The first paragraphs of Norman Bilbrough’s title story catch the moment when the boy-child’s uncritical admiration of the parent turns to youthful embarrassment – so like and yet unlike the female experience. The high moral tone of the young permeates many of these stories. What seems self-inflicted resentment at the mere existence of parents, the old, the past. The unforgiving stare our children turn upon us. Selfish, self-satisfied, unexamined, spoilt brats. And then, through the seemingly simple surface of the stories, we see the raw force of the biological imperative: “Stand out of my light!”

The title, Desert Shorts, the shorts’ description in the story, the cover photograph which made me think this was a war story, sent me back to old copies of The Weekly News for photographs of servicemen in those vast shorts. And the other articles of military dress. Lemon-squeezers, berets, shirts, battledress, and greatcoats that lasted far beyond their original purpose. A 1946 photo shows Charles Upham on his farm in army shirt and battledress trousers. Farmers, wharfies, builders, hydro workers, bushmen were still wearing army gear long after the war. Valentines in Hamilton with their full-page mail order advertisement was the queen of the Army Surplus shops. For years it sold us gear for bush wear.

An unworthy thought occurs to me: is there a lesson in this for the high priests of Monetarism? Why did mass-produced, cheap, government-designed gear outlast the expensive, shoddy clothes of private enterprise? Why did people cling to those desert shorts? Somewhere in a cupboard at home, there’s an old lemon-squeezer with a flattened crown, a bootlace instead of a puggaree – high fashion in
the Ureweras 20 years after the war.

Nothing to do with Norman Bilbrough’s story? Nonsense! A good story sets the mind in the most vigorous motion.

The relationship between the two boys in the title story is of fairly usual distrust, the uneasy alliance of shared adolescence, curiosity at another’s family and its habits. The story gets a new impetus with the entrance of Sally, her enjoyable relationship with her father upsetting the narrator’s conventional distrust of his. A sudden flash, a gap of many years, an adult lifetime – and we’re back with the archaeology of childhood, family, and those imperishable desert shorts. And there is a military point to the story after all. As well as something about the tactics of adolescence.

Norman Bilbrough is an understating writer. So quiet-voiced, it’s easy to overlook the depth of emotion, the quality of statement implied through his seemingly simple construction.

“Australia” is another of those deceptive stories. The boarding school caretaker, Vendrick. His well-observed relationship with the head prefect, the older man patronising and informing the young. (At our District High School in the Forties, it was the mechanic for the school bus fleet who fell into that role.) Youth fascinated by experience. The sexual adventure at the middle of the story suddenly achieves its significance at the end: Vendrick’s flat denial of his identity. Voice emotionless and dry. “’Are you Vendrick?’ I asked. ‘Never heard of him,’ he said.” Was it Vendrick, or just a stereotype of an Australian? The beauty of the story is in its ambiguity.

Another story with an Australian setting is “General Knowledge”. Cheryl restive; Andy in a rut; and Benny, Cheryl’s bit of rough. And her phone call to Andy, making sure he’s there, that he will be there for her to return to. Is there a story in such sparseness? Or is Bilbrough just photographing the circumstances? Is a snapshot sufficient except to its subjects? Should the author put something of himself into the picture? Does the circumstance call for a moral judgement? This story didn’t set my mind going as did “Desert Shorts”, I thought, until I realised this is the intention. The amoral quality of the story, its simple recording, is a judgement in itself.

“Stealing Rinso” is built around petty thieving and the son-father conflict. There’s no attempt to win the reader’s sympathy. Just a swift sketching-in of the young without a cause, the self-indulgent justifying of the skimpy-minded. Inconsequential, even. Almost demanding a dismissive response. And suddenly the story turns over, catches at my breath. A logic appears, and a pattern from the seeming pointlessness. The cleverly-suggested shallowness of the lives reveals depths of feeling as well as experience. It made me gasp with recognition. Why didn’t I recognise it earlier? I’d heard an echo of Maurice Duggan, his Buster O’Leary’s inexplicable love for his father: “and for a moment I was caught in a passion of sympathy for him, something as solid as grief and love, an impossible pairing of devotion and despair. The landscape flooded with sadness.”

I’m always interested in the ordering of short stories, their placing in the collection. Ever since first reading Dubliners, I’ve wondered why Joyce set “The Dead”, that supreme short story, last in the volume. And as soon as I satisfy myself with a reason, it’s too obvious, unsatisfactory, and I have to begin working it out again. The last story in this collection, “Biology”, has a deft, almost terse description of the life of an affair with a girl called Joanna. It occupies a few lines towards the end of the story, the affair paralleling the attraction for a young aunt the protagonist had felt in adolescence. As so often in these stories, I found myself laughing aloud – at the very moments I didn’t expect humour. And suddenly I saw light reflecting back from the last on to the first story in the volume, “Desert Shorts”.

The recurrent ache of both stories is the obsession the protagonist has with his father. In each case a man difficult, unpredictable, bristly as a boar pig. And yet, in the last story, he appears in a lyrical moment with the mother, limned in by moonlight, attenuated pale ghosts of lovers in the scrub. A wonderful image. I’m delighted with the placing of “Biology”. It satisfies me about the protagonist, his father, and the “Desert Shorts” with which the volume begins.

The third volume of Jack Lasenby’s Travellers series, The Shaman and the Droll, has recently appeared from Longacre.

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