of Wisdom: Young Writers, Old Stories, Timeless Encounters
Martin Hughes and Beth Hall, Editors
Book Review by J. Conrad
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Affirm Press,
Sadly, in America we fear growing old, as evidenced by a multi-billion dollar plastic
surgery industry. Worse, we seem to push aside the aged as uninteresting, perhaps even unwise in a society that worships technology.
Rarely do we look into the eyes of the elderly in search of all the people they have been, preferring, it seems, to see them
only as old.
of Wisdom: Young Writers, Old Stories, Timeless Encounters is composed of profiles of seventeen Australians. Each profile is accompanied by beautiful black
and white photographs of the subject, each photograph itself worthy of its own story.
Housewife we meet ninety-one-year-old Marjorie Bligh, married three times, divorced once and widowed twice, who long ago
set about to become the best housewife in the land. From writer Danielle Wood we learn that “Although Marjorie’s
duties as a housewife have circled around the needs and comfort of three husbands, I have little sense that her activities
were ever controlled or even directed by those husbands. She was always driven by her own exacting standards and I have no
sense that, since the moment she first married, Marj has been anything but her own fiercely independent mistress. She may
have delightedly taken on a new name each time she got spliced, but I doubt that she has ever been anyone but her formidable
Others who have known Marjorie have said that
she had the drive and energy to become the first female Prime Minister of Australia or that she could’ve discovered
a cure for cancer. Wood drives home the point: “Inherent in these comments is the idea that it is a waste to spend her
extraordinary energy and drive in the domestic sphere, on baking cakes, making dresses, starching tablecloths and removing
stains. Underpinning those backhanded compliments is the idea that energy and drive and intelligence must be spent in the
public sphere, not the private, in order to be well spent. And I think feminism
is still a long way from resolving, or even thoroughly addressing, this entrenched devaluation of the domestic.”
Near the end of her interview with Wood, Marj
grows tired of answering questions about her past and says, “I don’t want to think about yesterday. I want to
think about today, and what I’m going to do tomorrow,” prompting Wood to share with the reader a passage from
Marj’s autobiography: “I think anyone can point out the exact moment when a man or a woman begins to grow old.
It is the moment when, upon self-examination, they find that their thoughts and reflections in solitude turn more to the past
than to the future. If a person’s mind is filled with memories and reminiscences instead of anticipation, then they
are growing old.”
In The Private Dick,
Katherine Allan introduces the reader to her grandfather, Kevin Willows, who once used a pair of mechanical dancing feet to
convince the residents of his retirement home of his ability to channel spirits through the fillings in his teeth. Katherine
tells us Kevin listens to the soundtrack of My Fair Lady, changes light bulbs for
the short and infirm, and is more inclined toward milkshakes than whisky.
His sister Nell recalls that as a boy he was
a “little wretch,” once riding his bike down the street of a boy she had a crush on shouting, “Nell Willows
has pimples and blackheads!”
Kevin wanted to join the air force but was
too young; still, he spent afternoons at the Newcastle Aerodrome and ate two raw carrots every day for two years in an attempt
to improve his vision. “It was what the air crews did,” he says. “Doesn’t do a thing, turns out.”
After the Depression, Kevin, who professes
to having a sweet tooth, worked in turn for Nestlé, Arnott’s and Lewis’ Cakes. An attempt to sell fruit door-to-door
from the back of a horse drawn cart failed when the horse, named Pears, ate all the produce ─ “Pears ate our pears!”
Kevin says with a laugh.
Ever the imp, Kevin recently replaced a neighbor’s
security light with a red bulb, claiming he had no “ordinary globe.” The neighbor, a widow, was fearful that two
other neighbors, both gentlemen living alone, would think she was a loose woman.
In The Writer we
meet William Donkin, who grew up in London’s East End during World War II. Bill began writing when he was approaching
retirement, although still largely illiterate. Although much of his work is unpublished, Bill believes that for something
to have been written is more important than publication, because “to write is an act which shapes a moment, a feeling
or a voice which, up until then, had been just that ─ a moment, a feeling or a voice. Once written, an instance becomes
a record, bearing its own reality, its own version of the truth with its own story to tell.”
As a lad in the East End Bill became very
adept and folding paper airplanes. “If you flew it on the perfect day,” Bill says, “it flew right over the
rooftops, then you spent the next six months trying to make one as good.”
After the war, Bill married but found London
a gray and sad place to raise a family, so he moved to Australia, where he sold encyclopedias, life insurance, televisions
and cars. He and his wife Mary alternated in the roles of breadwinner and stay-at-home parent. Bill loved every minute of
Bill’s love affair with language didn’t
begin until later in life, when one of his sons brought home an electric typewriter. He admits that it is easier not to write
than it is to write. Still, as Bill nears eighty years, he is compelled to write as a way to connect with the world around
him. He believes writing is not created only by privilege or education, and its worth cannot be judged by publication alone.
To Bill, the compulsion to write is “like the urge to fold a paper airplane again and again, with the hope that one
day it will be perfect, and it’ll take off, over the rooftops, off into the great wide blue.”
Amongst the other intriguing people in Lines of Wisdom are Magda Friedmann, a beautician who smuggled her family out of communist Hungary after the war
to get on with the business of living and laughing in Australia; Silvio Massola, who each time his life got untracked, just
got on with the job; Peter Rossler, a child survivor of the Holocaust and an eternal optimist whose response to evil is a
generosity of heart; Arthur John “Buddy” Robson who, through his frustration of illiteracy and the onslaught of
Alzheimer’s, determined to capture his own story in words; and Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri. Born in the bush and raised
by missionaries, Ambrose forged his own path in life, guided alone by good sense.
Each of their stories is true ─ no fictional
characters or celebrities here, all of them elderly ─ inspirational, eye-opening, sometimes irreverent, but always entertaining.
More importantly, Lines of Wisdom leads the reader to look into the faces of the
elderly differently, with a desire to see what or who they once were. Indeed, if one is fortunate to achieve old age, they,
too, will one day have stories to tell.
Kudos to Affirm
Press for bringing these people’s lives to print, and kudos to the young writers who cared enough, were curious
enough, to look into the lives of these seventeen very intriguing people and write about them.