A Golden Age

Australian poet and author writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.    

Though you should never live in the past, one must, with reverence and humility, acknowledge and give thanks for what has led to the present. To the past we owe—everything. And from that past comes our society and culture, tragic and bruised, undoubtedly, but trailing clouds of glory too. Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality arose from wanderings in the Lake District, close to mountain water, flowers and ruins. Now, on the evening news, there are all too frequent intimations of mortality. We have become knights of the sorrowful countenance.

People refer to golden ages as if they existed in a time before our own. These ages draw to them nostalgia for apparent greatness, achievements seemingly denied in the present. Yet I have lived through several golden ages which, now, are all too real to me. I did not appreciate them as such when younger.

For one thing, and most importantly, I have lived as a free citizen in a free country for my whole life, a freedom brought about by the sacrifices of previous generations. It probably takes a long time for people who have always had freedom to appreciate that fact. The Aboriginal people of Australia were given the same legal rights and status as other citizens only recently and, naturally enough, they have a different attitude to the freedom question. For a writer, having the freedom to express oneself as one wishes is  precious. That freedom does not mean saying anything that comes to mind, since true freedom should always come with the knowledge that you live and work in a social context. Not everything needs to said, or written. As Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac’s work, fairly or not—it wasn’t writing, but typing.

In a civilised country, its institutions working to enhance the economy, cultural life effervescing, one should pause often and think hard about what has brought the moment of pleasure as you listen to the concert or visit the gallery. For the truth is that all golden ages were built from blood over a slew of time. Art especially never came easily into the world, and the struggle to create it was not golden for many, if not most. Goethe once said he could recall only a few days of true happiness in his life, and one knows the miserable endings of a Schubert or a Keats.

Remembrance of things past is essential to keep fresh in the mind the meaning of present glories which we are sometimes in danger of taking for granted. April 25 is Australia’s great commemorative day—Anzac Day—when we pause to remember the dead. Before the Last Post sounds a stanza from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ is spoken:   

                                  They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
                                  Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
                                  At the going down of the sun and in the morning
                                  We will remember them.

On a personal level, I am very much aware of the modern age of dental care which is now available to some, recently having had root canal work on a bad tooth with no discomfort. To me it is a kind of miracle. But some things linger beyond temporary physical satisfactions. My three years (1969–1971) at Armidale Teachers College in the northern part of New South Wales show that fate can sometimes luck out to unexpected advantage.

In beautiful grounds, the college filled with a group of paintings collected by Howard Hinton which are now housed in the nearby New England Regional Art Museum, one was made to encounter intellectual disciplines across the spectrum. And you worked hard. But how pleasurable was the experience of growing more knowledgeable, with the life of the mind being put continuously before you. The library was always getting in new material; it was a model of what a contemporary library should be. And, for someone interested in writing and music, as I was, there was an outstanding teaching staff, and the opportunity to take part in performances of such works as Carmina Burana and West Side Story—Latin and Lenny, not so very far apart in intent. I was also given the opportunity to edit the College literary magazine Anthology. We climbed to the bottom of Wollomombi Falls; tutorials sometimes took place outside in the sun beneath the poplars; long walks about town set different light and sound working in the Sydney city boy.   

Here was  an institution that overcame its frailties, its politics and academic competitiveness, to enhance the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. All this creative superstructure was swept away by one of those governmental purges that regularly need to reinvent the wheel. Leaving well enough alone didn’t enter in the equation.

Those who can do, and those who can’t preach endlessly to the masses who they think are listening to them. They’re not. They’re getting on with getting things done. In contrast to the superfluity of commentary about now, one has the memory of that time where natural rhythms—autumn in Armidale was spectacular—backgrounded personal growth. How turned to the proper order of things seem those years, unlike my first years at work when I had to complete a university degree at evening after teaching during the day.

Now the imperturbable guest is calling more often than he was used to do, and many of the people whom I respect and whose memory I honour are gone. But I remember those times, when the world was young, and there was something humane and profound working beneath the New England skies, in the college on the hill.

A golden age there was then.

                  ATC motto, adapted from Seneca, Epistles   NON SCHOLAE SED VITAE

      1939–1945 Nearly 600 members of the College enlisted in the armed services — 68 killed

                                              In Memoriam   RUTH McDONALD