To the man who gave me the book that changed my life, thank you
When I was 14, I decided I was done with books. Completely and forever. It was a big change of heart. My childhood was a passionate love affair with books. In bed, we were magical together. Give me a torch and an unfinished story, and my eyelids were insatiable, staying open for hours after official closing time. Decades later, they’re still warped, but luckily not as much as my mother’s shopping bag handles after our bi-weekly visit to the children’s library.
So what happened? Why this change of mind? I wish I could tell you it was something innocent, like the TV we had back then, our first. Or pop music. Or drugs. But I can not. The truth, dear reader, is even sadder. It was my school.
I’m sure they didn’t mean to slam the covers on my young literary life. It shouldn’t have been easy to be at an all-boys high school in suburban London, desperately anxious about their academic grades. Urging us students to go further. Often to pick up the blackboard rag they had just thrown at us. Or the airborne ashtray. Or, you guessed it, the slam-dunk book.
Ashamed for a child of the 60s, I confused the medium with the message and decided that I was walking away from the books. Mentally first, through my own private strike action. Perfecting a facial expression of deep, appreciative concentration, which allows me to have unlimited books open on my desk without reading a word.
The time I changed my mind…
When I turned 16, the school and I parted ways with mutual relief. And because skull bruises often make it difficult to fully appreciate the literary canon, I let that slip away too.
Unliterary London was a wonderful place at the time. For a happy few months, I reveled in cutting-edge music and art and bell bottoms. I got a job at a sandwich shop in Soho that reheated their roast beef sandwiches in something really cutting-edge called a microwave.
Then my parents announced, perhaps because they were worried about my exposure to radioactivity, that we were moving on as a family. In Australia, like ten pound poms. The great adventure of this came at exactly the right time. Weakening an insistent feeling, I began to realize that there was something missing in my life.
In Sydney, the universe gave me clues. One afternoon in Pitt Street, on my way home from my non-bookstore sales assistant job, thinking that my shoulder-length hair was not giving me the fulfillment I was hoping for, I received a blow from punched in the face by a local right-wing activist called The Skull. As I dropped to the sidewalk, I saw something in his pocket. A pocket book. Most likely Mein Kampf, but still a book. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t take the hint.
It took several months before this happened. At that time, I was working as a general beggar in a garment factory. A place where skilled artisans worked hard and fast, with no time to chat or observe the culture. The clothes they put together, one of the managers told me, were designed to make the wearer look good, regardless of what was going on underneath. I was pretty sure for her that it wouldn’t have included my growing internal void of increasingly hard to deny literary loss, so I didn’t use my downsizing.
Then one day, something so unexpected and incongruous happened, that I probably wouldn’t have believed it if I had seen it in a movie, or even read it under the covers.
During the tea break, one of the cutters, a guy who looked like a 17 year old like he was quite old, say late thirties, came up to me and changed my life.
I don’t know his name, which I always regretted. But I never forgot it. I can still see him at his cutting machine, surrounded by piles of expertly sculpted pieces of clothing. And I can still see him walking towards me, a cup of tea in one hand, holding in the other something you didn’t often see in a noisy, hot garment factory in Sydney in 1970. A book.
And if that wasn’t improbable enough, a literary novel. horse’s mouth by Joyce Cary. A great unknown literary novel, which I quickly discovered, on a painter but also on the whole process of creation. Exactly the right book to get me out of the abyss.
“Here,” he said. “I just finished this on the train to work. Thought you might like to try.
We didn’t know each other. I was a shy kid impressed by him and the other workers. I stammered out a few thanks. That day was the only time we exchanged more than two words.
“It’s your turn now,” he said.
How could he have known how much I needed this book, or how much I knew I needed it? Could he have sensed that I was a reading refugee from a brutal high school with a concussion on the program? Did he know that I had lost my way?
All I know is that I found my way back on the bus ride home that night, in the opening pages of Joyce Cary’s incandescent prose. I left the factory the following week and went to get some books.
Without them, and without you, dear colleague, I would not be an author. In the sad absence of your name and address, I have often conjured up stories about you. Were you a frustrated writer, painter or sculptor yourself? Or were you simply the most important of literary figures, a reader?
I would never know. I don’t even know if you’re still here to read this, which is why I should have written you this message a long time ago. I have often thought of it, but here it is at last, in the medium with which you have blessed me.
You showed me how minds change, and how kindness and insight do so much better than airborne missiles. And you showed me how good books are for changing mentalities too. But only inside our hearts and heads, without bouncing off them.
Morris Gleitzman is one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors whose latest book Still is out now.
He is a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, whose theme this year is Change My Mind. The event runs from May 16-22.