by Ali Jane Smith
The orange spine of a Penguin showed through a grotty plastic cover. The title, partly obscured by a piece of masking tape with the call number ‘824.91 G83’ written in biro, turned out to be The Lost Childhood and Other Essays by Graham Greene. The book is well on the way to falling apart, its pages as brown and crisp as scorched toast. I buy it anyway – none of the books here are more than two dollars – and settle down to read just as my pot of tea and sausage roll arrive.
The Foundery Cafe in Wentworth Street, Port Kembla is a social enterprise. It’s supposed to make a money and do good, training people who are out of work to be baristas and waiters and to toast enormous, delicious sandwiches. I am a member of a writers group that meets once a month in Port Kembla, here at The Foundery Cafe, and I’m working for theatre-maker Anne-Louise Rentell on a project that takes Port Kembla as its location. Port Kembla is a ten minute train ride from my place in Wollongong, or you can catch the bus, and go all around the houses. If you drive, there’s the fun of Five Islands Road, straight at one end, loosely curvy at the other, nice and wide to accommodate the trucks coming and going from the Port and the Steelworks.
The Foundery’s walls are lined with bookshelves stacked with books and magazines from the op shop end of the secondhand book market. On other visits to The Foundery I’ve bought a mildewed copy of the Collected Works of Michael Dransfield; a hardback edition of a novel for children called Cherry Time at Bullerby, by Astrid Lindgren (the creator of Pippy Longstocking,); and a pocket guide to Australian Rocks and Minerals. Today’s find is a collection of Graham Greene’s literary and personal essays. The original 1962 cover price was three shillings. The first edition was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1951, the same year Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, appeared. I haven’t read The End of the Affair, though I own a copy. Every time I open it to begin reading, a wave of melancholy puts me off, and I shut it again and look for something more cheerful.
The cover of The Lost Childhood is illustrated with a line drawing by John Ward. It shows an absorbed, serious, sad child reading a book. It fits the mood of Greene’s eponymous essay about childhood reading, and formative books.
Of course, I should be interested to hear that a new novel by Mr E.M. Forster was going to appear in the spring, but I could never compare that mild expectation of civilized pleasure with the missed heartbeat, the appalled glee I felt when I found on the library shelf a novel by Rider Haggard, Percy Westerman, Captain Brereton or Stanley Weyman which I had not read before.
I know the feeling. But, this being Graham Greene, the essay is not a swashbuckling nostalgia piece. The book that turns Green into a writer is not Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, but The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen.
in childhood, all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water, they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excited us so much …
Greene responded deeply, by his own account, to Bowen’s vivid, romantic account of treachery and what Greene saw as the innate human capacity for evil. His novels worked that idea over in the context of the Cold War and the aftermath of Colonialism, in stories located in Great Britain, and also in grim, seamy versions of places as varied as Vietnam, Panama, the Congo, with a consistency that led critics and commentators to use the shorthand term ‘Greeneland’ as a descriptor for the settings of his novels.
On the title page of The Lost Childhood, a purple stamp: ‘WITHDRAWN from the Philippine-British Centre,’ and another stamp noting that the book was a gift from the British Council. My two dollar book was once a piece of soft power. I search for “Phillipine-British Centre” on Google, but there’s nothing. Once I’ve scrolled past the links to The British Council, Google wants to take me to information about English language tests and The British Philippine Outsourcing Council. The Philippine-British Centre was located, according to the purple stamp, in Hidalgo Street, Manila. I go to Google Earth and enter the address, Hidalgo Street, Manila. A city street, buildings a couple of storeys high, advertising hoardings, traffic, people, lots of people.
The big windows of The Foundery Cafe look out onto Wentworth Street. Not many people. Tonitto’s Cakes is directly opposite, selling just about everybody’s idea of traditional cakes – if you like custard tart, you can choose from the wobbly Greek kind, the happily scorched Portuguese kind, or the nutmeg-topped stalwart of railway tea rooms, sitting firm in its silver pie dish. Tonitto’s is a survivor, it’s been here since the days when Wentworth Street was the busy shopping centre of a lively port town. In between the longstanding businesses like Tonitto’s, are a handful of au courant secondhand shops, and the workshops and studios of artists and artisans, who have come for cheaper rents and the lovely old buildings. It’s a funny kind of gentrification going on here. The raw side of being a port town – the side that Tom Waits might glamorise – is here too. But its nice here in the cafe, warm, and hopeful. Not quite Greeneland.
Photo credit: Ali Jane Smith