My mother read very few books. In fact, I don’t recall her ever reading any at all, though I suppose she did. I do remember that after a few drinks, she would recite, in a florid style, poems by Robert Service – a Canadian who specialised in lengthy ballads of life on the wild frontier:
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
My father read virtually nothing but cricket and Australian football reports in the papers. He never bothered with the news itself – with the result that when he was called up for military service in 1939 he was astonished to learn that the country was going to war. His first question to the recruitment board was a request that they identify the enemy.
However, in the 1950’s, when we lived in Toongabbie, an outer suburb of Sydney, he was addicted to cheap and very short paperback westerns – a genre that seems to have disappeared. I remember that his favourites were No Guns Nelson and The Gay Bandit of the Border. The ‘gay bandit’ of the title was not gay in the modern sense of the word, but a jolly likable chap who outwitted the law as he roamed the border between Texas and Mexico.
When my father died my sister and I found two books in a small bedside cabinet, along with a certificate showing that he had changed his name, in 1942, from ‘Swift’ to ‘Beresford’. The books were well thumbed and numerous sentences were underlined in pencil. One was How to Win Friends and Influence People and the other How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. He was not a notable endorsement for either book. He had no friends that I recall, though he occasionally mentioned a couple from his youth – and he never stopped worrying and started living. His depression only increased over the years.
In my first or second year of high school an optimistic English teacher introduced the class to Joseph Conrad. Gaspar Ruiz and Almayer’s Folly quickly revealed to me that there must be a world of great stories and great writers that had, not surprisingly, escaped my notice.