What a Piece of Work is Man

RememberWhat a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, lines 303-307

Today marks the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

I have lived more than half my life without him, but there are days when I feel his loss as acutely as I did all those years ago.

My grandfather’s passing is, for me, inextricably linked with Shakespeare, specifically with Hamlet, which I first saw performed the day he died. So much of what the play explores resonates with me, then and now — the grief, the family torn apart, the musings on life and how to live it, or indeed whether to live it at all.

Hamlet’s soliloquies are among Shakespeare’s most famous. More than four centuries after he wrote them they are known the world over, often quoted and occasionally parodied. Keenly observant of the mind’s workings, Shakespeare never allows Hamlet to shy away from confronting his inner demons, and his words provide insights that are surprisingly fresh and relevant today. And yet, when life — or life’s sudden, unexpected end — overlays these monologues with memory, embroiders them with poignant and painful detail, Hamlet’s orations become imbued, for me, with much deeper meaning.

Who was my grandfather, the quintessence of dust I lost more than two decades ago?

He was but a man.

He was of average stature, but with a presence so immense that its absence left a gaping hole. His smile lit up any room, his laughter filled any void.

He was a passionate sailor, a successful businessman, an avid tennis fan, and a hopeful punter.

He valued honesty, loyalty, persistence and discipline.

He believed wholeheartedly in the capacity of a decent cup of tea to solve any problem.

He enjoyed words — reading them, writing them, hearing them. He was a prolific and witty correspondent; his handwriting was simultaneously elegant and bold. He gave me my first dictionary, my first thesaurus. He taught me to appreciate brevity.

Grief TolkeinHe served his country in the Royal Australian Navy as a Petty Officer Writer. He survived the bombing of Darwin, he was present at the Japanese surrender in Toyko Bay. He seldom spoke of the war.

He was handsome, charming and dapper.

He was twice divorced and thrice married. He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, many of them aimed (understandably) by my grandmother and many more, I suspect, directed by himself.

Above all, he was a man of love. His hugs were like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a winter’s day. He was bighearted. He was generous to a fault. He was a blazing sun, full of love and light.

During his life he was not an angel, but I’d like to think that he is one now.

Swallows and Amazons Forever!

SwallowdaleThere were shrieks of excitement at our place last week when we arrived home to discover a flat brown cardboard box on the front doorstep.  Now, my kids have both wised up to the fact that there are really only two things that get delivered to our house with any regularity, and since this carton was not big enough to contain a dozen bottles of wine, they immediately deduced — correctly — that this box contained an equally precious cargo: books.

“SWALLOWDALE!” yelled Marvel Girl, elated.  When given the choice between a sparkly ice-blue Elsa dress and the second installment of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, my darling girl — bless her — picked the book.  For me, her choice speaks volumes (if you will please, please pardon that dreadful pun).

Swallows and Amazons and the series of books that follow it were first published in the 1930s.  They recount the adventures of the Walker and Blackett children during their summer holidays, first in the Lakes District of England and subsequently in other parts of the world.  Much of the action involves sailing — in dinghys named Swallow and Amazon, hence the title — camping, and a great deal of outdoor exploring and imaginative playing.

My parents read these books (yep, all twelve of ’em) to me and my younger brother when we were children.  At that time the stories were already more than half a century old and evoked an obviously bygone era, but they still motivated us to embark on a variety of nautical escapades.  The most memorable of these took place on a particularly windy day at Narrabeen Lakes, when my mother and I were careening so quickly — or maybe even recklessly — through the water in the family’s trusty Mirror dinghy (both of us high on adrenalin and the rush of freedom every sailor knows and loves) that my father, waving his arms in consternation on the sandy lake’s edge, turned as crimson as our tiny boat’s sails, while my brother fell about laughing watching the combined on-shore/off-shore spectacle. Our other adventures took place on a slightly grander scale on my Grandpa’s yachts, first Aphrodite and later Saracen II (who was built for speed had competed in seven Sydney to Hobart races), before increasing age finally forced my sea-faring grandfather to stow away the sailcloth, and we all putted about Pittwater with him on a Halvorsen cruiser called Chloe.

Strangely enough, The Bloke spent half his childhood on the water too.  His father remains a keen sailor and still races his yacht twice a week, despite being well into his seventies.  More significantly, however, The Bloke’s dad also built a Pirate Boat (from scratch, in his garage) for Marvel Girl, Miss Malaprop and their cousins, and even took the time to outfit this marvelous vessel with a mermaid Barbie figurehead and a bespoke Maltese Cross-bearing sail.  Watching his grandkids sailing about, every last one of them bedecked in a life jacket and pirate hat, brings a huge smile to his face — and to that of anyone else watching that little dinghy tack about the shallows with the Jolly Roger flying atop its mast.

I suspect that Marvel Girl’s own piratical capers have contributed enormously to her taking to the Swallows and Amazons series like a certain proverbial duck…that, and the fact that even though this is only her first year of school, she is loving reading.  She is, apparently, the second best reader in her class (a fact that she is nearly as proud of as her mother is).  When she emerged from her latest school assembly clutching a merit award praising her fluent and expressive reading, the spontaneous fist pump and grin of utter triumph she gave when she saw me in the playground more than made up for the fact that I wasn’t there to see her get the certificate.

But an equally big thrill for us both, and for Miss Malaprop, too, is that there are eleven — yes, eleven! — more books in the Swallows and Amazons series for us to read together.  I will enjoy reading my girls the stories of John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the crew of Swallow) and Nancy and Peggy (the Amazon pirates) and their summer holiday

Swallows & Amazonsadventures — even though there is no way I would ever let my own children camp, completely unattended, on a small island in the middle of a lake for over a week.  (More to the point, I suspect any parent remiss enough to do so these days would be reported to the relevant authorities faster than you can say “Child Protection Officer” or “Lord of the Flies“.)

But I am looking forward to re-visting that age of innocence which, although lost, lives on in print.  And I can think of no better way to spend our own summer holidays than revelling in the tales of theirs.

Swallows and Amazons forever!