A couple of years ago, after my uncle passed away I inherited Dad’s side of the family’s books. These were the pre-Bond, post-Biggles boys’ own that my father and my uncle (who was ten years older than Dad) received. There were books given to my late grandmother, dated 1908. Imagine – 1908! Dad’s second cousin’s communion book, my grandfather’s tomes from the 1930s including the eerily prescient ‘Must Australia Fight?’. All are there, all silent reminders of eras past, when there was no TV, no Internet; when Bradman was king and the King was alive.
One book that came into my keeping is one which I found extremely hard to read: ‘Sandakan, A Conspiracy of Silence’, by Lynette Ramsay Silver, published in 1998. My uncle bought the book – but didn’t finish it before he died. It sat there, a simple piece of paper for a bookmark as a testament to an unfinished story, looking at me; and I, at it.
I had heard of Sandakan – but not as much as Kokoda, or Changi, or the Thai-Burma Railway. What I had heard, and read very briefly chilled me. I did not know if I could read the book. Would it be disrespectful to finish the book? Would the book reveal to me why my uncle perhaps did not finish turning its pages? But – would my uncle want me to complete what he had started? Would he approve of me learning what he had learned?
So I did. I read from where he had left that scrap of envelope, that sentinel, and I finished it. I read each page, and with each page I mourned those soldiers, and I mourned my uncle, for whom I have the utmost and deepest respect. I read what he had not, and, at times, I cried. Once I had finished the book, I went back to the start and retraced his steps, knowing what I did, fearful for what I knew was to come. I arrived, finally, where he had left, and I had started, and I felt in some way a little closer to my uncle.
I hope he understood.
I really hope he understood.
Some of my uncle’s books remain (as yet) unread; carefully, tenderly placed away. The long, fluid writing ‘To Fred, from John, X Mas, 1935′ stand a testimony to so much more than just someone giving someone else in my extended family a Christmas present.
And so my books stay. My near-countless tomes by and about President Obama; David Day’s series of Australian leaders; the amazing Gideon Haigh and Peter Lalor; of Manifest Destiny – and of Gettysburg. They too stay. Matt Price, Robert Hughes, Roland Perry. Emma Quayle and her look at the AFL Draft; the interviews with those incredible men I dreamed of being – the ABC cricket commentators! A dozen and another dozen seasons of the ABC Cricket Book, where Waughs were once teenagers, and Victorians were under-represented in the Test team (not much changes…).
Chifley, Curtin, Menzies. Casey. Kennedys. Lincoln. Custer. Band of Brothers. Canadian, New Zealand, Melbourne histories – a hodge podge of interest and unbridled delight of learning. And more Curtin, next to another Monash, next to another Menzies.
…and somewhere, too, is Biggles. My Biggles’, and my uncle’s Biggles’.
I’m sure my uncle would understand.