Jill Bamforth reviews John Jenkins

23 March 2009

mrmenziescoverGrowing Up with Mr Menzies by John Jenkins
John Leonard Press, 2008

John Jenkins' narrative verse, Growing Up with Mr Menzies, begins with an imagined visit by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, to the Elwood home of the infant Felix Hayes. Like a Wise Man at a nativity, Menzies bears a gift, a 'considerably handsome' pocket watch, which he dangles over Felix's cot. The baby responds firstly with smiles and dribbles, but then shows interest in the new object. This interest is deserved, as the watch symbolises the events and ideas which will inform and haunt Felix's later life.

With this initial dream or fantasy, Jenkins introduces a world of strange possibilities and serious questions. Menzies' watch in the cot suggests the long and inextricable link between baby Felix and the public figures and historical events of the time. Equally significant in this image, and to the work, is Felix's consciousness of time itself. The lowered watch provides him with his first awareness of the present, of 'now'. This new consciousness of time is echoed by the ticking watch, which sounds out a wailing, repeated 'now-wah now-wah now-wah'.

The connection between the worlds of Menzies and Felix is represented by interweaving poems about the events of their lives, and by envisioning meetings between them. But whilst Menzies appears at regular intervals as a fixed star on Felix's life horizon, it is Felix's life which dominates the story. By reversing the conventions of historical writing, Menzies appears, not only as a statesman, but as a real character in Felix's life. By foregrounding Felix in this way, Jenkins focusses attention on the stories of individual, less-celebrated lives.

The life of Felix in the Menzies era is evoked through lyrical and specific descriptions of places, people and events in his early life. These include the new suburbs of the Menzies era, particularly the haunts of boyhood, such as the Surrey Dive, the Old Haughton Brick Works, and the Box Hill Baths. Jenkins further provides specific elements of time and place with poems entirely composed of many near-forgotten slang phrases such as 'they've got me euchred son', 'more fun than a hatful of arseholes', and 'we need some more spondulicks'.

The poems which recall the language and place of Felix's boyhood do more than provide local or period colour. They also illustrate Jenkins' on-going discussion about the nature of memory, our consciousness of time, and the difficulty of representing human experience in language. Jenkins uses original and startling language to outline the problems of representation, as though the profundity of the matter demands the most arresting illustration. In one image, Jenkins likens human consciousness to holding a snow dome with a replica of oneself standing inside the floating snow. Time, in this comparison, estranges us from our experiences, which then exist only in 'invented, quoted or remembered traces', never as an actual rendering of 'now'.

Perhaps for this reason, the poems describing Felix's boyhood provide moments of intense physical and emotional recollection, as if to create a kind of fixity to the 'empty frame' of the present, or to expand consciousness of the moment by recording vivid sense impressions. Jenkins' awareness of sound and language is a recurrent theme in these biographical poems. Describing a tram ride in the voice of the young Felix, he writes:

People got on and off, and it stopped and started.
The voices were all mixed up in the sounds, and some words
stood out or fell back down-

Later, the adolescent Felix, at the Box Hill Baths, notes, 'This rippled, watery voice is many leaps and yells and echoes/Looping into textures of an incidental accidental music'. The language of Macbeth, on first acquaintance, is described as:

-reaching down in to a well of black
Electricity, full of deep echoes
And magic, painted with lightning against
A crag-

The sense of being both inside and outside experiences is reinforced by Jenkins' use of narrative perspective. The poems about Felix are written from both first and second person viewpoints, providing different angles on his thoughts and life experiences. Menzies, though he is a complex character seen in a number of different lights, is mostly represented by a more distant, third person perspective.

This distance is a feature of Menzies'relationship with Felix. He takes a kindly interest in him, but remains aloof from his daily life: the stench from the flooded canal near Felix's birthplace is described as the responsibility of 'a state's man – not a statesman'. This remoteness, and his unwillingness to intervene in state affairs is seen as a major flaw, with terrible consequences. As a result of Arthur Rylah's 'crackdown' on delinquency, Felix's sister is committed to Winlaton, a remand centre for girls. The conditions are terrible: '120 lives in corners, on mattresses/in 'recreation' rooms, broken dolls in broom/cupboards'. Even the music is described as 'seeping like gas from the wireless'. Menzies, imagined in this poem as a 'double-breasted shade', is seen as indirectly responsible for this awful place.

Even more damning is Menzies' excitement about an atomic research station, 'Chifley's scheme, in the Australian desert'. This scheme, confided with pleasure and anticipation to Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, over dinner at a Canberra restaurant, has a particular irony. The reason is that Menzies is earlier described as having suffered nightmares in London's Savoy Hotel, where he dreamed of the atomic destruction of England's historic sites. Despite the vividness of this dream about England, the damage of the Maralinga research project seems beyond his imaginative powers.

Felix's adolescence is also shadowed by the exclusions and paranoia of the age. In one poem, Menzies gives him a glimpse of the ASIO file titles, where he sees 'Academics; Abo Stirrers; Artists; Balts; Bolsheviks; CPA'. Although Felix is not yet registered in the files, this omission seems only a matter of time. Menzies says: 'Don't worry,/you will generate a fat dossier, given time'. It is clear that the practice of surveillance and suspicion will be a lingering one.

At the end of the narrative, Felix's life is darkened by events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and wars in Korea and Vietnam. Given this bleak world environment, it seems that the early promise of prosperity, symbolised by the 'considerably handsome' pocket watch of the opening poems, has given Felix false hopes. It may be that his name is an irony, and that his future life on 'a vanilla atoll' will be a precarious or restricted one, as the phrase suggests. Yet this is not the whole of the story, as readers of this complex, layered and original work will discover.

Jill Bamforth is Head of English at the British International School of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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