Next to Gods: A Cleaner’s Story
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
On Getting Old
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
On Going to the Movies
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
I have always had a fondness for the small and perfectly formed. Give me miniature daffodils any day, rather than the giant hybrids that seem inflated beyond what is “natural”. I am also partial to a slim volume. The perfect book is one I can read in a sitting or two. So I was kindly disposed towards this new batch of Four Winds essays when it arrived in the post, three charming little books to be caressed and undressed. Their stylish jackets slip off to reveal their creamy white underwear – so seductive. There’s something “Caxton Press” about them. The author photographs, reproduced on the back covers, are quality portraits. Don Franks, Kevin Ireland and Peter Wells look out with appraising but good-natured expressions. (It seemed to me that they were wondering whether the dear reader was really up to the challenge; “What will you make of this?”)
Each essayist wants nothing more than that you open the darling little book because he is in there waiting to give you an earful. An essay is carte-blanche to give the reader an earful. (As is a review, for that matter.) It helps to be opinionated, lucid and engaging, because the essayist must not only present persuasive opinions, he, in this case, must also convince you that his topic is worth discussing and worthy of publication as a stand-alone volume.
I read Don Franks’s Next to Gods: A Cleaner’s Story first, probably because the topic seemed so unlikely. Have you ever read the author bio to find mention of his “[c]leaning achievements … St Mark’s Church School and Wellington railway station”? Talk about the labours of Hercules! Yes, the essay is about cleaning up after other people, but in the course of his 56 pages Franks tells you quite a lot about himself, his history and his values.
It is rare these days to encounter tales of “us and them”, “the worker versus the bosses”. That is not because our society has evolved into any sort of Utopia, but rather that the socialist notions our parents may or may not have articulated – “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” and so on – seem to us sophisticates to be self-evident, so 20th century. Franks challenges our complacency by pointing out that here is a support industry where it is acknowledged that the work required cannot be done in the time given: “No cleaner in paid employment is provided with enough time to do her or his job.”
When Franks writes about attitude he means survival:
According to almost any cleaning boss, a worker displaying anything other than immediate, blind, humble obedience has an attitude problem, and would, in the best of all possible bosses’ worlds, be taken straight out the back and shot.
And: “All we can expect is a starvation wage and a blast if we make the tiniest mistake.” This is the rhetoric of another age and seems a bit tired. But isn’t this also a labour practice that many of us would assume belonged in a bygone era? Don Franks has a message or two about being a cleaner or a dirtier – “(m)embers of the human race who are not cleaners are dirtiers” – and about acknowledging a shared humanity. It is socialism delivered with wit and an insider’s knowledge.
Kevin Ireland’s essay On Getting Old brings vitality and irreverence to the topic, moving from the personal to the general, as he rages against the dying of the light:
You become a refusenik …. Cussedness and good humour become your best defences, for any pessimistic sentimentalist or resolute sluggard who could possibly regard reduced fares on public transport and concession rates at the barber’s shop, and at the local picture theatre, as fair compensation for failing eyesight, deafness, sore bones, confusion, perished skin, and dribbling and farting in public has to have either given up already or be soft in the head.
Indeed. However, I wanted to argue with Ireland when he launched into tirades against old people’s homes – “those large, walled-off domiciles to which old and infirm people are ‘disappeared’, never to reappear (even for a visit) in the streets where they lived.” “The true, unembarrassed friends of the aged, as they grow ever more feeble,” declares Ireland, “are the euthanasia organisations.”
As a regular visitor to one such “domicile” I am impressed by the compassion of nurses and caregivers and grateful that my elderly parents/parents-in-law have safe comfortable places to live. (That is not to say that I find the visit anything but a dispiriting experience.)
Ireland harks back to the past when “(s)upporting the old was usually deemed to be a family responsibility”. I had the sinking feeling that he was suggesting that I should mount a rescue mission and prepare some corners of the family house for the benefit of my three parents/parents-in-law. Such a move might indeed necessitate a trip to the local chemist for a bottle of something to put me out of my misery. And apart from that, because we are all living so much longer (clearly, a mixed blessing), many houses fit to receive an octogenarian parent are empty five days a week, as their owners struggle to provide for their presumably even lengthier old age.
Writing with his usual verve and colour, Ireland (born 1933) provokes the reader to agree or disagree, though by essay’s end I was feeling somewhat bludgeoned. You could argue with his views but not his credentials. The value of hearing him out is the experience of standing in his shoes. As a bonus you get two marvellous poems – “Walking the Land” and “The Last Laugh”.
Peter Wells, an author fascinated by the source of his creative self, writes about his experiences memorably and with insight. Because the personal is so dominant the path always leads back to Wells himself, which is both a strength and a limitation.
He is a risk-taking writer; his language is lush and similes threaten to go “over the top”:
The bughouse was dense with smells: unwashed feet which still carried with them the juice of just crushed paspallum; the clean smell of children’s bodies salted all over by the tide; the sticky excesses of orangeade, Jaffa and vanilla – and something else, something residually darker, colder, wetter, as if a deep creek flowed under the building and each night, once the building was empty, it flowed out of its bounds and flooded the building, plunging it beneath the sea, where it went, to locate buried treasure – only to re-emerge, miraculously, the following Saturday at 1.30 pm, as belovedly reliable as a parent standing waiting for you at the airport.
You either love a purple patch for its richness and texture, or you don’t. However, the occasional overblown image does not diminish the persuasiveness of the whole essay. Wells knows what he is talking about when it comes to movies; he has adored them since childhood, seen hundreds and even made some. His recall of the telling detail of a former New Zealand is a delight, and his observations are exquisitely exact and whimsical; there’s something beguiling about his blend of memoir and informed analysis. He does not spare himself or his family: “The returned serviceman harvests the lawn while his pansy son swoons in front of a television set with the blinds lowered.” As a commentator on “New Zealandness” Wells has a unique voice and few equals.
After my reading and rereading, the books looked “used”, but in the nicest possible way. I had to risk breaking their backs to hold them open the correct distance from my face, their size and the font presenting some practical problems for this 50-plus reviewer, but the books retained their appeal.
Reflecting on the essay genre, as exemplified by these little books, I decided it was one that demanded a fair measure of open-mindedness in the reader. As with most endeavours, how you approach the reading of the essay will determine what you get out of it. Be prepared for a personal encounter, a personal voice in your ear, subjectivity that may irritate but will make no apology for itself. Go with the flow, dear reader, and whatever you do, don’t put the book down. These are bite-sized monologues that won’t tolerate interruption. They are not weighty, but compared with the flummery that is served up in newspaper columns and magazine articles, they are satisfying.
Each essayist writes ardently about his subject – no passionless people here. There was no question that all three had the standing to hold forth on their chosen topic and had done so with style and flair. Well done, Four Winds Press. I will be looking out for the next trio of essays.
Christine Johnston is a novelist and short story writer.