Most days, I try to have as little to do with people as possible. That’s … not misanthropy, by the way – I am, generally-speaking, well-disposed towards people – but there are voices and visions in my head which are interesting. They simply happen, and if I listen attentively, I can turn them into stories. The problem with people is they talk over the top of my imagination.
People used to think I was some sort of extreme extrovert, because I was gregarious. The /Irish Gift of the Gab/ seems to be a real thing, and applicable to me, at least. An American would call me /Irish Australian/. Americans frequently claim to be Irish, especially in Boston, where I lived for fifteen years; the Irish themselves have no idea why they do it. Among other things – and surely everybody knows this? – Boston is more London than Dublin. Boston is largely populated with serious people, who are a bit tetchy and reserved. It is a bit like a /New/ England, isn’t it? Though to be fair, the English are hilariously funny, while the Bostonians are – well, quite nice, and once they’ve you for two or three years, they’ll even start to say hello to you.
But I do know a few of these alleged Irish Bostonians, and I felt a strange kinship to them because they, like me, tell stories. My plumber in Cambridge was Boston Irish – a hilarious lunatic called Brad whom I still think about him to this day. So much to be around. But you know, he was a natural storyteller, and that’s not all that common across the United States.
I happen to have spent many, many unfortunate months in the mid-West – a regretable aspect to marrying an American (about which nobody warns you) – and, why mince words? /Some people don’t tell stories/. You turn up at my wife’s family for Thanksgiving, and you’re expected to make polite small talk with a brothers-in-law, and … well, the collective unease is oppressive. There’s no levity, just a lot of utensils scraping plates. It’s all unnecessarily serious. You couldn’t break the ice without one of those ships, you know the ones – the pointy ones they take on expeditions to the Antarctic. I mean, even a voyage to the South Pole which, you know, goes terribly, terribly wrong – and you wind up having to eat all the huskys – would be more joyful than one of those mid-Western Thanksgivings.
Because my people, for all our faults, descend from Irish rapscallions. There are a lot of convicts converging down on from all sides of the family tree. And – quite likely – some aboriginals. So, no surprise then, that when I was growing up, whenever my family got together, we told stories. Funny stories, things that happened, punctuated by arguments about what /really/ happened. It was lively stuff.
When I had children, you know what I did? I sang songs. /A lot of songs/. And – I danced around the house with them, and made up ridiculous stories. Now, /my/ children sing songs – they’re absurdly good singers, and somehow managed to get themselves into the Australian Girls Choir. There are almost daily performances in my house. I live inside a sort of spontaneous musical theatre. But chiefly, one of the subtle differences about my method of parenting, is the manner in which I tell them stories.
It’s a large part of my life. It’s why I’m so damned persuasive, because – people listen to you, when you make them laugh. You start off disagreeing with me, but –
Did I ever tell you the time I was almost eaten by a shark? I was four years old, and it happened for two reasons; one, was the nineteen seventies, and two, my parents were idiots, and – yes, of course you are, Dad, because how else can you explain me almost being eaten by a shark?
It happened on a beach north of Cairns, up near Port Douglas. No it was south of Port Douglas – don’t listen to my father, he’s not all there. It was the winter of 1978 – July in the Southern Hemisphere, and I’d just turned four. The adults were drinking and fishing, and the sun had just set. The beach in the dark and nobody was paying much attention to me, because – did I mention it was the seventies? Frankly, I’m surprised /I/ wasn’t drunk at the time. Did I tell you the first time I was drunk, I was four? There’d been a party a few months earlier, and some friend of my parents – some /responsible adult/ – put vodka in a fruit cordial bottle in the fridge. And because this happened in Australia in the nineteen seventies, a drunk four year old was, like, the funniest thing any adult had ever seen, and not, say, a cause for alarm.
Now, let me paint the secene. It was a dark and moonlit night, lit only by a bonfire. The men had beards and the ladies had afros. Everyone was fishing and nobody was catching anybody, apart from myself. Yes, to quieten me down, my father gave me a plastic reel, and showed me how to put bait on the hook. I tossed it out past the breakers and went and sat on the sand, off to the side and … half-an-hour later, the line started to move parallel across the beach. Obviously, I started yelling excitedly, so my father came over and helped me reel it in.
It was a mullet. I wanted to cut him up and cook it straight away, but it was apparently too small, so the fish ended up in a red bucket half-filled with water. I sat there with a torch (you might call it a flashlight), watching it for about an hour, because – well, I was four-years-old.
I can still see that fish vividly; its length was a little more than the bucket’s diameter. Then, after a little while, somebody had an idea – a very /bad/ idea, actually, which means the odds of its originator being four-year-old me or my thirty-five year old father, are roughly fifty-fifty. And that idea, of course, was to put the fish I’d caught back on a line, as bait.
Can you see where this is going?
My father lodged the fishing hook of my reel into the mullet’s flesh, and tossed it back into the ocean. And you know something? I remember now that I was fiercely opposed to the idea, so the idea was my father’s. I’d wanted to keep the fish as a pet, but my father was insistent. /Catch big fish, and we can all eat!/
I also remember that he was fairly insistent that I hold onto the reel tightly. He would not be happy if I lost the reel. So, he went back over to the bonfire, and I sat there, alone on the sand, some thirty feet from them bonfire, clutching my fishing reel as if my life depended on it. Because – in a way, it sort of felt like it did. Losing a fishing line would, it seemed to me, would be an unpardonable offense. So, I did what seemed most sensible; I took off my little jacket and tied that reel tightly to my upppet bicep.
What happened next? Well, precisely ten seconds after I secured the reel to my body, I was launched forward across the sand, in the direction of the water.
You know – whenever I tell this story, what usually happens is that my mother pipes up at this juncture to point out that if she hadn’t looked over in that moment, I’d have been dragged out to sea. And then, everybody, for some reason, has a good laugh – everybody apart from myself, I suppose. I merely reflect on something I’ve known since I was four-years-old: that the babyboomers are, in fact, the luckiest idiots in human history. In fact, for some reason – since I was approximately four years old – I have assumed nobody who is older than me has any commonsense whatsoever. Young people? They inspire me. Children? They leave me in awe. But old people? They’re the reason safety labels exist.
So, I was skimming across the sand towards the dark foaming waters of the Pacific Ocean, and then – /oof!/ – an adult body landed on top of me. My mother, making a decent effort to save my life. Now there were /two/ people being forcibly dragged towards the water. Then – /ow!/ – my father leaped onto the pile, so make that /three/ and … well, let me save myself some time; it would take four adults to untangle me from the fishing reel. I was saved from drowning and, quite likely, being eaten by sharks. Well, to be fair, the shark I’d caught was a Shovelnose Shark, which, amusingly, is always described in reference books as /totally harmless to humans/. And perhaps that’s true? Individually, Shovelnose Sharks are fairly harmless. But you put a bunch of them together in one location, in one voting bloc, and something like Florida happens, and the next thing you know, the Nazis are back.
Anyway, the events of this story occurred in 1978. It’s one of those peculiarly vivid and formative memories. You know, I have two daughters, but one, Hattie, is seven and extraordinarily like me in temperament, so … I’m cautious around her. I go to great lengths not to do anything stupid around her. She’s already wary. Look, any seven-year-old girl can look at the world and see it’s
These days, the world population is divided between people who think the
If you’d asked me, say, in 1984, when I was ten, what I thought of the babyboomers, I’d have looked you at you levelly and told you there is something wrong with them.
In any case, he was half right. What ate my mullet was large, but it wasn’t a fish.
As I mentioned, drinking was a factor in this story. It
I’ve got a pack of in-laws over there who /do not know when I’m joking/.
Ninety percent of what you typically say is not serious.
They are an austere people. Puritanical, incurious, as ostentatiously committed to Jesus as they are inattentive to his teaching. When they get together, they do not tell jokes or stories; they judge people.
and something I didn’t particularly believe in until I moved to Boston.
, much like my daughters. In
Oddly, my siblings are neither whimsical or inclined to tell stories; I’m the only /raconteur/.
There’s a lot of Irish going on on my mother’s side of the family.
I’m sorry if I mentioned this before, but there was a time, years ago, when someone accused me of being more interested in working than socializing with them. I felt a bit blameless in that instance; sometimes one’s work can be more interesting than, you know, attending a barbeque.
misanthropic people are usually naive and sheltered.