Thursday, August 17, 2006

See you, Jim

Yesterday while in the middle of a mammoth clean-up, I came across an invitation to the farewell lunch in Sydney that his mates at The Australian were having for its former literary editor James Hall ('Jim in person but never in print') on the occasion of his retirement.

This invitation was two years old, but something had made me keep it -- possibly the lovely little drawing of a small dog alone on a stage, watching the curtain come down. I assumed this was a reference to the haunting and quite brilliant essay Jim wrote a few years ago while on holidays in Italy, about a stray dog that had adopted him and was following him around. Looking at the invitation, I recalled the essay clearly, and wondered whether he'd gone travelling again since he retired.

So it was quite a shock, a few hours later, to open The Australian and see that he had died of a heart attack in the middle of a tennis match. He was only 71. I wrote book reviews for him for several years and he was, like most other literary editors I've known, a pleasure to work for and with: thoughtful about his commissions, open to suggestion, tolerant of my occasional errors and screw-ups and apologetic about his own.

The obituary yesterday mentioned that at the very moment his heart attacked him, he was in the process of hitting a, if not the, winning stroke in the tennis match. I hope this wasn't poetic license; it does seem like a good way to go. And I hope he meets up with that Italian hound again, somewhere in the life to come.


Ron said...

Is James' essay available online anywhere, Kerryn?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this posting Kerryn (and I have the same query as Ron). I was at the farewell dinner here in Sydney, and it was a terrific send-off. A beautifully organised meal at a Double Bay, a full cast of writers, journos, and reviewers - and you know you're loved when your former staff write you poetry! Sad, in restrospect, to think he had so little time left. Coy Lurker

KLG said...

Coy, if I'd known how little time he had left, I probably would have flown to Sydney for the dinner, and did in fact give it serious thought in any case. I have tried to do a search for the Italian story but I can't remember the title. I might email Murray Waldren, who might know. Lots of mights there, I know.

KLG said...

Alas, unless Google is less efficient than I thought, it's not online -- but I did, one subscription to the Oz's online archive service later, find it. It's shorter, simpler and sweeter than I remember, but still packing a huge punch with that haunting, spooky, instant bond between man and dog. Titled 'Ciao, Blackie', it was published in The Australian on Saturday August 16th 2003, one day short of two years before Jim's death. I was wrong about writing from Italy; he wrote the piece after he had come home, as he says at the end:

"Back home, as I go to work each day, I have the insane feeling I shall turn the corner of our street and meet him bounding toward me. There are tears in my eyes as I write this. Perhaps I might see him on the Sorrento webcamera as it sweeps the town. I don't know whether I could stand it. But it would be nice to see this lovely creature once more."

Anonymous said...

Nice. As a currently dogless dog-person I'm a sucker for writing about dogs. (There's a lovely essay, by the way, by the screenwriter of Chinatown - whose name I forget - about writing this movie on Catalina Island with his dog by his side). Your quote also reminds me of a very bedraggled mutt my partner and I kept seeing by the sea in Naples, which we decided was the "dog of despair". I'm sorry I missed JH's piece first time round - will try to get it. Thanks! Coy

Ron said...

Kerryn, I searched Google too before making my comment and was disappointed not to find any clues.

Thanks for the information on the link to the Oz.

Susan Wyndham said...

Here is Jim's dog story. I hope to be in Sorrento next month, so will look out for Blackie...

For anyone in Sydney, there's a memorial today at 3pm at Eastern Suburbs Crematorium, followed by a wake at the Bellevue pub in Hargrave Street, Paddington. He was a wonderful editor and friend, a real gentleman.

Ciao Blackie
James Hall
In Italy, James Hall meets a devoted new friend who melts his heart.

Long-legged and lean as a dipstick, he had clearly been living on fresh air and diesel fumes. We were a party of 10 in Italy, holidaying in a splendid rented villa on a mountain top overlooking the Bay of Naples one way and the Bay of Salerno the other. Our nearest village was a 15-minute tramp downhill, our nearest town, Sorrento, about 10km away down the hair-raising
hairpins of Italy's Amalfi coast.
The first morning, Margaret, my wife's friend, and I, early risers,
decided to walk down to the village, getting on the way some elementary lessons in traffic-dodging, Italian-style.
Enter Blackie, as Margaret immediately named him: a totally black, collarless young mongrel with labradoran connections, a fine pair of plum-sized balls and a face that spoke of a sweet nature. Long-legged and lean as a dipstick, he had clearly been living on fresh air and diesel fumes and bore signs of rugged encounters of a close kind --
hardened smears of white paint on his port side.
Fatally, I said hello since he was clearly in no one's charge. He must
have liked the smell of me and sensed a sentimental sucker -- he
cautiously tolerated a pat and then followed us. I think that morning he was just testing us. He dropped away as we walked back to the villa. But there he was next morning, apparently waiting for us.
This time he joined us for coffee, sitting calmly by my chair and
showing no interest in a piece of doughnut: a dog with taste as well as appetite. After a village saunter he followed us back to the villa and thinking he deserved some water at least we let him come through the gate. The water went down well and a scrap of prosciutto even more so.
We eventually showed him the gate but since he was thin enough to pass through its bars, there was little point. The next day he walked right in with us and thereafter pretty much made himself at home, as you do
when you are watered and fed and given the run of the place.
This included poolside grass which I think he had never experienced
before, judging by his dry, cement-hardened pads. All the time we knew
him he never barked at car, human or beast. But now, rolling on the cool grass, he emitted a distinct grunt of satisfaction and came as close as a dog can to smiling.
By this time he had the status of house pet. He slept outside my room
and was liked by everyone, partly because he never imposed himself on
anyone or abused our hospitality. It was simply a matter of him being
near me. Whenever I moved, he got up and moved with me.
The night we gave a party he roamed around the tables amiably until John, our unofficial housemaster -- a popular figure in the village probably because he wore a T-shirt with NYPD across his chest -- chose to display his country-born ear-splitting skills with a whip. The next sound we heard was his wife screaming -- Blackie had surprised her when
she suddenly found him cowering under the kitchen sink. Obviously he'd known some hard-going on the lonesome road where getting kicked out, shouted at and shooed off were everyday expectations.
The holiday of course was over all too soon and we faced having to say
goodbye to him. Black dog might be the phrase for depression but this
animal had raised even the hardest hearts in our party. Eventually I
tricked him into a feed outside the gate and then dived into our car and drove off, fighting back
the tears.
That weekend my wife, Sandra, and I went down to Sorrento to stay at a smart cliff-top hotel on the edge of town. Lying on our sunbeds we wondered where Blackie might be now -- making new friends, we hoped. The next morning we came out of the hotel for a stroll in the town. Loping across the road, in his accomplished, traffic-dodging way, was Blackie.
He galumphed up to us -- to me, speechless in astonishment and despair.
Could it really be him? Yes, there was his identifying white paint and
anyway I could see it in his eyes.
How the hell had he done it, got himself down the mountain, 10km or so, and found the hotel I was staying at? It had to be a fluke, surely? Had he walked down or got a lift somehow? How could he have followed my trail when I was in a car? Had he guessed that's where I would go? Had he picked up my trail in the town? Was this a regular trip on his schedule?
Whatever, I found him again at my side, pushing his wet nose against my hand. "Nice dog," passers-by said. "Is he yours?" I found a water fountain on the main street but he wasn't interested. Never did a dog ask for anything more than companionship. He was breaking my heart but I
had to lose him. Eventually, playing secret agent, dashing into shops and doorways, I deceived him and got back to the hotel.
That night we headed into town for dinner. After a few minutes, Sandra
murmured: "He's here." Sure enough, that wet nose brushed my hand. Oh, hell, Blackie what are we going to do with you?
Eventually we entered some public gardens. Blackie trotted in, too,
only to be loudly chased out by the keepers. It was like losing a child as he retreated quickly and obediently as ever. Fearing having to upset ourselves and him again, we found another way out of the gardens. That was the last we saw of our dear friend.
Back home, as I go to work each day, I have the insane feeling I shall turn the corner of our street and meet him bounding toward me. There are tears in my eyes as I write this. Perhaps I might see him on the Sorrento webcamera as it sweeps the town. I don't know whether I could stand it. But it would be nice to see this lovely creature once more.
Ciao-wow, Blackie.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Susan, thank you -- I didn't publish it in its entirety as a separate post because I was sure there would be copyright issues, and I fear the same applies to comments. I'm assuming you would know about this, but I might check with the Oz.

Susan Wyndham said...

Yes, please check. I may have been too quick in my enthusiasm to share his lovely piece of writing. I hope it can be excused in the spirit of a tribute.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Susan. This piece is lovely - partly because it's told so humbly. I had a lump in my throat by the end. Coy

Ampersand Duck said...

That is a beautiful thing to share. I hope no-one dares to make trouble over it, because it is a wonderful tribute to someone I have never even thought of and now wish I'd met -- both the story and the post. Thanks.