Barry Dickens: ‘Pen and ink drawings at an exhibition’, or ‘Reading for God’, or ‘A love poem for the reading room’.
Years ago when tram conductors were my anaesthesiologists and Melbourne was an ordinary miracle made by Merlin, who lived and worked in Little La Trobe Street deliberately, because it was more mysterious than Camelot, and I walked to work in mesmorous.
I always, at 8.05am right on the dot, passed a shop in Guildford Lane, number eleven to be precise, called Ted’s Nuts. And I can remember vividly in 1966 outside the pong of scrumptious roasting peanuts, the receptionist called Bev answering their antiquated switchboard and saying, ‘Ted’s Nuts. Can I help you?’
I used to work for Southdown Press in La Trobe Street where my overseers admired the teachings of Goebbels, and although I had signed on to become a junior artist all I ever did really was hose out the dunnies and stare helplessly as ‘truths’ got printed and devoured by the public. I asked an old linotype operator once why it was called Truth, and pausing to light himself a Turf filter but singing his olive green cardigan he said, through coffee-coloured teeth, ‘How do you reckon circulation would go if we called it The liar?’
Barry: I used to repair to those human shoulders and thoughtful readers aloud: the late 18th century wooden benches outside the State Library, and rest. I loved whomsoever I saw upon those temperate, autumnal mornings 43 years ago, when the world seemed safe as North Vietnam. The sensation of the Library was family; familiar to me like my father marking a favourite paragraph of whatever he was reading at the time and italicising it in a sharpened HB pencil and reading it back to the family over the rissoles and the sauce. No wonder I became a writer with an infrastructure like that.
Being an ultra-romantic, I began to read people much more than books that the librarians lent me. I seemed to just about live there as I was always dashing in and relaxing in the reading room where I was opiated by vellum end-papers and holy first editions of light.
At Southdown Press one day, an office girl called Jill gave me an old book by Daniel Defoe, whom she said was a mate of her father’s and they all lived together down in Bayswater. ‘You go down Bay Road,’ she said. ‘Would you be so kind,’ she said sweetly to me at work, ‘to have this book valued at the State Library during your lunchbreak?’
Well Jill it didn’t matter to me much that it was teeming with rain, buckets. As usual I ran down the city streets that I knew by heart and I dashed up the incredible marble stairs of the Library that seemed carved by God in a good mood. I spoke to an ancient lady to have the four hundred year old book valued, and she smiled, you know, pityingly at me over her beautiful desk crowned with fresh daffodils and silence, because speaking was verboten in 1966.
‘Ah yes’, she said leaning on her slender wrist with true panache, ‘this first edition of Robinson Crusoe I’m afraid cannot be valued.’
‘Why ever not?’ I said in an undertone in the reading room, crestfallen and remembering Jill at work who always unfailingly smiled at me when I clocked on for work.
‘Well,’ she said sweetly, ‘partly because it happens to be beyond value.’ She gently folded the much crumpled old brown paper lunch bag the book was in and without a single word of any kind, she handed it over to me to go back to work with. It seems like a second ago that it happened in such an intricate or dreamy way, you know.
For years I used to quietly draw tiny little pen and ink illustrations in the reading room, for Penguin Books mostly, and they employed me to do that kind of thing. I used to purchase the almost-invisible steel nibs at Dean’s art supply in Fitzroy and stick the nibs into a small black wooden pen and then get out a packet of matches and carefully set fire to the Library – no, I don’t mean that.
Barry: I pray you forgive me. I used the match to actually burn the surface oil from the tiny nib, so that the black Windsor and Newton drawing ink would cling better to the nib and even last longer.
One day, and the point of the story is, I’d been engaged in the art of drawing for hours, maybe seven hours, craned over my drawing board in the reading room. And a stern lady high up in some sort of tower with a high lustre of mahogany for shushing people in if they dared to move or speak, she audibly shushed me because of all the racket my nib was making on the sketchbook. I never drew there again.
Nowadays the waiters know Helen Garner. The waiters all wear roller skates as they zoom up to your table, headbanger hamburgers instead of peaceful derelicts reading proofs on the lawn. I don’t fit in to the modern way of books, not me, and I know it. I still write NP on my latest pages in lead pencil, meaning ‘new paragraph’. I’m stuck helplessly and hopelessly in Melbourne in 1966, overwhelmed by marble staircases and the stunning silence of the reading room. Thank you.