‘Vertiginous’ – what a fine word – a word to add to the lexicon, or was it ‘verdigris’? One means to induce dizziness, the other the poisonous green rust found on brass and copper. Why didn’t I earmark the page since the word was to be the starting point of my reflection back over this excellent novel from English writer Gerard Woodward. But I suppose I didn’t know that then. The word stuck in my memory, but then as happens with age one’s mind addles. No matter, they both could be to do with where the author’s heroine of sorts, Tory, ‘serves out time’- in an underground London comfort station, a toilet where the one of the above confused words is used in description several times. It all bought to mind another place filled with the vertiginous verdigris of my youth.
Set during the years of last century’s second great conflict, and the immediate post war period, as so often happens to me on reading a novel these days, ‘Nourishment’ induced some of my own post war memories to return from a hazy half-forgotten past. It was the toilet imagery that caused me to recall another underground collection of vestibules – an excellent v word too – far away from the blitzified streets of Tory’s world.
The immense struggle between nations of the 1940s had only nibbled at the edges of Australia’s own home front, in the form of some Japanese bombing of the north. For my island, the sighting of a few submarines and a solitary spotter plane was all. But Woodward’s novel refreshed some of my earliest memories of my own post war world – one that contained another sulphuriously pungent orifice under a street in my Tasmanian coastal town of birth. Aligned was a recollection of a sootily sinister (to me) character who paraded on that street, and a few of the thoroughfare’s other childhood attractions.
I’d only been down into the bowels of that below street fetid ablutions room a few times when really, really desperate. Such were the stories told of the happenings in there, and the foul stink that emanated up from the place, it really petrified me. I preferred to ‘hang on’ as my home was only a few blocks away up a hill, but on a couple of occasions I didn’t make it. I fell short. When I did succumb to urgent bodily callings I became so vertiginous from the odure of that hole in the road that I rushed through my business and rushed out.
It did, to my infantile mind, seem to be home to at least one denizen whose features appeared to be entirely subterranean. He was always around that loo, and I encountered him frequently on my trail home from my school further up the street. He never touched me, and I cannot recall him ever uttering a word to me. Yet he gave me the heebie geebies – he was the stuff of nightmares. He was scrawny and he walked with a pronounced limp. He seemed very old to me then, but looking back, may only have been thirty or forty. His oily hair was in the short back and sides style still in evidence for some at the time. His plaid shirt, voluminous trousers and tight fitting suit jacket were covered in a greasy sheen, as seemed to be his skin. My most vivid recollection of him is of his teeth. They looked tinged with verdigris, and were in rodent formation with thick yellow detritus where they hit the gum. They were, plainly put, vile – and so was he. He was almost as foul a creation as one of the author’s in the form of the woeful, woebegone ex-POW afflicted on Tory as her husband.
This street of bad dreams, conversely, had its attractions. In close proximity to the underground latrines was a lolly shop. With our current obsession with a germ free existence it beggars the mind the thought of a journey into that sweet shop from having done one’s ones and twos, of clutching in unwashed fingers a penny to purchase from the temptations offered there, then popping with the same fingers into one’s mouth one’s purchase for delightful mastication. It is lucky that any of my generation made it through. Enclosing the confectioners on all sides was the town’s cavernous picture theatre. On a Saturday afternoon it was the place to be; filled with fitful lads, cuddling couples and a fug of cigarette smoke. Ushers paraded up and down with torchlight directed at perceived inappropriateness, and missiles purchased from the candy stall would be hurtling trough the smog. There were shops such as RR Rex and Sons, ships’ chandlers, and Genders, nut and bolts merchandisers, along the street where my father seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time searching out just the right bits for a current project, me in tow. At the roadway’s bottom corner was the Club Hotel, still an icon of the district, from whence happily inebriated drinkers hoppily emerged as we left our afternoons of cowboy serials and B-grade horror. To me all this didn’t seem too different to Tory’s 1950s environs.
This book was a cheapie from a big bin of remaindered tomes in Shiploads, a Hobartian discount store. It was largely full, it seemed, of Scandinavian translations that had not sold in the wake of ‘The Millennium Trilogy’ and ‘Wallander’, but this book was a much different affair judging by its back cover blurb and glowing accolades from UK printed media. As it turned out, it is a black hued gem!
Woodward’s imagining starts out in the bleakest of ways with Tory, and her mum, on a quest for meat. The product of this sets the tone for often bizarre events to follow. Later came an affair with her rich wartime boss, resulting in an addition to the family awaiting his ‘father’s’ return from incarceration in Germany. It is a novel of the power of letters and the power of pornography at a time when the latter wasn’t overloading the ether. It is an account of the damage fathers can inflict on their progeny. Donald, like my imagining of the loo-loiterer, is a truly odious being; self absorbed, a rat with an eye to the main chance. Like in the case of so many others, the war created a monster. He was a constant hindrance to Tory’s efforts to keep the family together in parlous times, as well as to keeping a handle on her own sanity.
Mount Street in Burnie probably had only a little of the austerity of Tory’s starveacre high streets, but compared to contemporary consumer overkill, the same blandness seemed to dominate. But the novel itself is anything but bland. Peopled by characters ranging from the poignant (son Tom particularly), to the downright odd, there is even a hint of a lesbian relationship for Tory with antipodean Grace. Mum also has her own secrets. Despite its often raw subject matter, which occasionally borders on the absurd, Woodward’s prose sparkles in its deftness for carrying a sustained tone of grimness – and if that reads as oxymoronic, it is a further testament to the writer’s craft.
My underground toilet is long gone, as are the movie house, the lolly shop and the other mentioned businesses. The Club Hotel still stands augustly on its corner, but now houses a pizza franchise. My home locale has a bit of struggle town about it, but it survives and its folk are, like many in Woodward’s book, resilient and adaptable. There are still too many ‘Torys’ there trying to keep it all together, often standing between booze/drug addicted fathers and their children - so nothing much changes. What Tory shows at the end of her journey is what it can take to render change in one’s own circumstances, but she was a woman of resolve. For many there is no way out.
An interview with Gerard Woodward = http://bookgroup.info/041205/interview.php?id=70