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Wednesday 19 September 2012

Typing Off Into The Sunset

My second-to-last daily newspaper column served, as I mentioned on this blog at the time of its publication, as one last chance to use it to write about my love of typewriters. However, my last column, which appeared in The Canberra Times last Friday, also managed to squeeze in a passing reference to a typewriter, albeit an electric one. Jasper Lindell emailed me to say, very kindly. "I may well have bought the CT for the last time today, and it was only for your last column; and you did mention typewriters ... really, the last Robert Messenger column had to have the word  'typewriter'  in it somewhere, didn't it?"  This is the last column, which can be seen online here:
I discovered Harry Bernstein on his 101st birthday*, on May 30 last year, just four days before he died. I hope me finding him wasn't his kiss of death. After all, I do appear to have that knack. I fear I've delivered the fatal Judas touch to four of the past six newspapers I've worked on (although only one of them was still using my services at the time of its demise). That covers a period of 33 years. But when the ''now defunct'' rate on my CV of previous positions reaches the devilish figure of 66.6 per cent, one naturally begins to believe one has had something to do with it. Hopefully this newspaper won't be the fifth, and the percentage won't rise to 83.3.
Regardless of The Canberra Times's chances of surviving this ''Curse of Messenger'', I, of course, shall kick on. And as for my own life beyond newspapers, Harry Bernstein remains an inspiration. After almost 80 years of harbouring unfulfilled ambitions to be an author, Bernstein started writing a book at the age of 93. The Invisible Wall was rejected by a number of New York publishers and sat for a year in the unsolicited manuscript pile at Random House in Britain, before editor Kate Elton read it and declared it ''unputdownable'' At 96 Bernstein was not alone a published author but a commercial and critical success. The Invisible Wall was described byThe New York Times as a ''painfully eloquent memoir'' written in ''spare, weighty prose'' and with ''understated poignancy''. Critics compared Bernstein to D.H. Lawrence and Frank McCourt.
Bernstein was on a belated roll. Sitting at his IBM typewriter in his small Brick Township, New Jersey, apartment (see image above), he produced The Dream (published in 2008), The Golden Willow: The Story of a Lifetime of Love (2009) and What Happened to Rose. The last book in this quartet is due out this year.
The Invisible Wall exorcised Bernstein's demon, his father, Yankel. Like my own father, Yankel was a master tailor. But unlike Wallace Messenger, Yankel Bernstein was a brutal drunk, one who filled the Bernstein household in the mill town of Stockport in the north of England with a great deal of fear and loathing. My dad went as quiet as a mouse after a few beers, although at other times I thought of him as quite dictatorial. Not that that ever did me any harm. In Bernstein's case, he buried the memories of his childhood until, after 67 years of marriage, his wife Ruby died in 2002. Bereft of his life's anchor, Bernstein went looking for something else to cling on to. ''And so I found myself thinking about my past, and the people I knew and the place I grew up,'' Bernstein told the The Star-Ledger of Newark when The Invisible Wall came out. ''I was looking for a home.''
Harry and Ruby
I seem to have followed Bernstein's life path in some ways. I, too, had at first wanted to be an architect, before settling, while still very young, on dreams of being a writer. But my family never felt the need to escape to a new life (the Bernsteins moved to Chicago in 1922). And, not wanting to purge my past, I never really left home. I've lived in Auckland, Sydney, Cork, Dublin, London, Fremantle, Townsville and, for the past 15 years, in Canberra, without once forgetting where I came from. It has meant withstanding some slings and arrows, leading me to once declaring it the bane of my life, and being briefly barred from returning home by the town's leading burghers. But I never once let go.
For one thing, my mother lived in that town, until she died at 93. The Canberra Times ensured I could be there, at her bedside, before she passed away.
If I am to emulate Bernstein, I will have to at least match my mother's longevity. But it would have been hard to find a cleaner-living, purer-minded soul than she. She would get tipsy on the smell of sherry, just as she would start hiccupping on the smell of tomato soup, or seasick on the smell of a harbour. It was just the way she was, solid and reliable, as predictable as Canberra's false spring.
RM with OL32, Auckland, 1971
Her chest would swell, too, each time she clipped out from a newspaper and pasted into a scrapbook (with, as ever, her homemade glue) an article I had written at the start of my career. Which is why I am still able to read those yellowing pieces of newsprint from all of 47 years ago. They include the first column I ever wrote, which appeared in The Australian on February 22, 1971. Naturally, it mentioned Greymouth, and a man I had run against when I was 12, when a dream of Olympic Games glory was but new. This man went on to win the Boston Marathon. And I've gone on to win my own last race, chipping from this stone of life one last time, to get a column written before deadline.

* I "discovered" Harry Bernstein while doing research for my On This Day in Typewriter History series. The series resumes tomorrow, after a break of one year. Tomorrow's part will look at the first daisywheel typewriter, of 1883.


Bill M said...

Very wonderful article. thank you for a look into your early life. Maybe one day we will be able to read one of your books. I hope you write at least one.

Richard P said...

Well done, Robert! -- moving and elegant.

Harry Bernstein is a real inspiration.

You must tell us sometime why you got banned from your hometown.

Ted said...

Mr. Messenger has written I think 2 books at least - of which one has just arrived in my mail this week! (:

L Casey said...

Fantastic article and post. Harry is quite an inspiration to us writers...hell, you can eventually make it.

Of course, my favorite part of the post was the picture of you, looking quite the throwback to the 70's with your long hair and porn-star mustache. Haha, awesome.

Thanks for sharing a bit more of your life with us, Robert. I always get a little giddy when I see you have posted something new.

Cameron said...

Excellent post, very touching story. I just put Harry Bernstein's works on my book list.

Thanks for sharing a bit more about yourself and your past. You're a fascinating character in your own right!

Rob Bowker said...

Catching up. You know, I was born in Stockport! The local football team are called the Hatters because hat making was big business there. A mile or two towards the Peak District brought you to Simpson's Sausage works at High Lane. No more sausages - but I just, this very day, bought a Hermes 3000 from the present occupier - a tile shop.