From Redback (1986)

Karl Leon Forelock, native of Partington, Manchester (the wettest spot in Europe) comes to Australia in the early 1960s after graduating with a double-starred first in the Moral Decencies from Malapert College, Cambridge. (His creator, Howard Jacobson, was also a Mancunian Cambridge graduate who came to Australia in the 1960s.) Leon’s job is to teach Australians how to live, and this includes writing for the CIA-funded Black Sail. He is soon living in a ménage a trois with a pair of synchronised swimmers. He also catches up with his father, who ran away to Australia with his lover Trilby a decade before. They have made a fortune running a chain of upmarket fashion boutiques and are now living in Vaucluse:

‘Let me show you something,’ he said, leading me up marble steps to the highest point of what Trilby called the property, a tiny turreted folly which Trilby called her belvedere. ‘Look around you. See all those boats in the marinas, see all those fine houses and gardens, see those tennis courts, those swimming pools, those Roman verandas, those garages big enough to hold five cars – how many do you think are owned by Europeans who came here so recently they are still struggling with the language?’

…‘I suppose lots,’ I said.

‘You suppose right. Lots. And do you know what happens to a suburb like this when Boris Rubaschkin or Galina Vishnevskaya comes to sing at the Sydney Town Hall?’

I was astonished that my father had heard of such people let alone was capable of pronouncing their names. Then I remembered the opera-scarf he had worn, even for breakfast, during his last days in Partington. It was the opera scarf that had finally turned Hester and Nesta against him.

‘Well I suppose it empties,’ I guessed.

‘It empties for the night of the concert. But what does it do for a fortnight afterwards?’

He had me there. But I gave it a go. ‘It sings Russian songs?’

My father still had hold of my wrist and he tightened his grip on it. ‘It throbs, Leon. Living in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney for a month after a recital of songs from the old country is like living inside a giant cello. There are some streets in which you can feel the pavement vibrating with the emotion beneath you. This is a sentimental country. Everybody is a long way from home. There are pools winners here, Leon, lottery winners, refugees, runaways, people who have come thirteen thousand miles bent double in the boot of a motor car with their fortunes hidden in protective wrappings in their small intestine. They have risked everything to get here. This is the fulfilment of their dreams’ – I could tell he was speaking from the heart – ‘and still they cry. Sometimes I’ve stood on this very spot, here, where you and I are standing now, and I’ve heard the sobs of grown men and women from as far away as Perth and Adelaide. The whole country shakes nightly; but in Vaucluse, after a recital of folk-songs in the Sydney Town Hall, feeling is so strong it registers on a seismograph.’

I stood by his side and listened with him to the night. I tried to hear beyond the merely haphazard noises of the harbour, the clinking of the boats, the lapping of the water, the irritable coughing of the mermaids. And at last, even though there hadn’t been a recital from a Russian baritone for months, I made out the low moaning threnody of fourteen million souls in exile.

‘So don’t ask me,’ my father concluded, ‘if I’m homesick.’

–Howard Jacobson, English, b. 1942

Sydney Town Hall Organ (City of Sydney Archives)

Sydney Town Hall Organ (City of Sydney Archives)


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