Joan London’s prose is often reviewed and described in stand-off phrases of awed reverence that, for me, somewhat isolates the reader from the writer, whereas I see her writing as intimate but essentially familiar, more like ‘daily bread’ than the stuff of Holy Communion.
In this book, she tells of the ‘Golden Age’, a 1950s convalescent home for children in Western Australia, especially of Frank and Elsa, both stricken with poliomyelitis, innocently passionate, yet somehow knowing in their love for each other. Maybe it’s a problem of increasing age, much as Margaret Drabble’s Pure Gold Baby acted for me as a sort of handbook to my own life, covering much the same period, providing insight into character underlined by ‘a kind of anthropological dispassion’ (Elizabeth Day, The Observer) and many similar ‘issues’, a word we bandy about rather than ‘problems’. In much the same way The Golden Age serves as a period notebook to a sidetrack of mine over a lifetime, that threat of poliomyelitis hanging in the offing, yet fortunately never making a direct strike on those close to me.
I grew up next door to a doctor with three sons — the younger two became successful medicos, physical men, cricketers and golfers, one serving his country in a war (WWII), as his father had before him in two, patri familias, fathers of children; while their big brother fell victim to polio, filled with impotent rage at his plight, struggled with token jobs, married, eating with a device that served both as knife and fork that intrigued me as a child.
In 1938 all schools closed down and we privileged children for a few months had an excellent live-in lady tutor — strange and somehow ominous — that I remember. Then in 1950, through some uncanny resemblance to the novel’s stricken poet, Sullivan Backhouse, I was made ‘Captain of Boats’ through sheer academic precocity rather than boating prowess, but at the very same time the “Head of the River” regatta on the mighty Torrens Lake was cancelled (though there was one race against our prime rivals that we won). Thirty-years down the track, I ran into “Bow” at a school reunion, one Nigel Sorby Adams, who told me that, after I disappeared for five years to the UK in mid-1950, one by one the crew went down with polio, thankfully all in mild forms — among the rowers only I was left untouched.
Much later, having moved to Adelaide just in time to be burnt out on Ash Wednesday, 1983, my wife and I happened to entertain a small French woman to lunch during Adelaide Writers’ Week, the only woman who ever walked out on Picasso — Francoise Gilot. It was a hot S.A. day in March, but she wore a fur hat and a wool suit, and suffered accordingly. Later the same year, we visited her apartment in Manhattan and there met husband, Joseph Salk, yes, of polio vaccine fame.
That was the time we came home and struck up a lasting friendship with Chrissy Sharp of Sadlers Wells and, later, Wheeler Centre fame and her husband, Michael Lynch, CBE, AM . As it happened, Michael was a victim of that very same 1950 outbreak, but walking stick in hand has defiantly hopped and laughed his way through a brilliant career in Arts Administration, from Sydney Theatre Company to Australia Council, Sydney Opera House, South Bank London, and now the West Kowloon Cultural Centre.
So much for my flirtation with polio — I escaped unscathed but its subtle threat dominated my knowledge of the world outside my family in the first two decades of my life. Joan London’s prose brings back how I was spared its scourge — the disease lurked and all about me were reminders of its doom. Black comedy: in the novel Sullivan Backhouse tells Frank, ‘Can’t pick my nose, can’t scratch my balls or wipe my arse.’
Joan London has a fine touch, pin-pointing the occasion, mood and thought with total control: ‘She looked like a drawing done with a fine lead pencil … everything had changed. His mind was filled with a vision, a distant coastline. A long gleaming horizon. El-sa. Like saying flow-er or wa-ter. He knew this could be nobody else.’ And on goes London — rare stuff, beautiful,au point, hitting nails on the heads.
As you can see, I found The Golden Age a very moving book, making me want to weep for the stricken children, most of all the doomed poet Backhouse.