I’VE OFTEN WONDERED WHERE my rebellious old-codger streak comes from. And I recently found a clue. I was searching through the memoirs of my dearly departed mother, and came across her musings about a top geezer to whom I’m related. From her journal I quickly grasped the fact that my Great Uncle Roger had faced a dilemma:
He wanted to read as many books as he could before the town library got eaten!
Roger, you see, was the last curator of the little library in Borroloola – a remote outback town in Australia. He’d run away from home in Brisbane in the 1920’s, and had made a wilderness retreat out of an overturned water tank.
During his years of self-exile in the outback, Roger had married an Aboriginal lady called Maggie. When she passed away he married her sister, Biddy. Then, sometime in the late 1950s, a strong wind knocked over just about every building in the town – and what the winds didn’t destroy, termites started to devour.
And so, under the light of a kerosene lantern, Roger (with his evening cocktail of methylated spirits) frantically absorbed the works of Shakespeare, and as many other eminent writers as he could, before the termites made it to the literature section.
Roger, you see, was one of three colourful hermits who inhabited Borroloola when David Attenborough visited the town on a filming trip in the late 60s. As I recall, one of the hermits repelled most would-be visitors with a shotgun. But not Great Uncle Roger. He was an avuncular, weather-beaten bloke with a bushy white beard – which Attenborough described as being of ‘patriarchal proportions’. Roger was later described by one reporter as ‘a gentleman in hiding’.
His diet included crows, turtles, brolgas [a large grey crane] and hawks he had caught. He wore a strange peaked hat, not unlike a French legionnaire’s cap, but made to his own design from pandanus fibres. The arms of his shirts had been cut off at the shoulders, his trousers trimmed just below the knee.
Someone opined that, had Roger walked, unvarnished, onto the stage in a production of Treasure Island as Ben Gunn, one would have thought that the make-up crew had gone over the top.
As Roger had busied himself with reading the great works before the termites burst through from the Australian History section, he stored away in his memory the great writers’ fine words, as if they were precious stones. The Bard’s works sated him somewhat, but he also developed a taste for the poets, Omar Kayyam and the Bible.
“Don’t you ever find the loneliness overpowering?” Roger was once asked?
“How can I be lonely,” he had softly replied “… with God, and old Omar, and the Immortal Bill.”
As I observed at the outset, I suspected that a study of the Great Uncle I never knew might yield some clues as to my middle-age propensity to go vagabond whenever I can on a snarly old Harley.
Like Roger, these last few years have aroused in me a passion for words and great writing. I relish the chance to trade sonnets with other ageing reprobates, and a decent live recording of Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill can – with apologies to Jagger – make a grown man cry.
The termites are nibbling away at the borders. In my case, the bugs consume not books, but available time. And I need to clear away some clutter.
But the one habit of Roger’s that this old geezer won’t be emulating is the nightcap of methylated spirits!
ROB HARLEY IS ONE OF NEW ZEALAND’S TOP DOCUMENTARY MAKERS, AN AUTHOR, AND A HIGHLY INSPIRATIONAL SPEAKER. HE’S A WORLD RENOWNED STORY-TELLER, A SOMETIMES HARLEY-DAVIDSON RIDER AND A GREAT KIWI BLOKE.