This week I attended the posthumous launching of a book by an Australian newspaperman, who I didn’t know, except by reputation. It began with an invitation which led, as these things do, to wholly unexpected events. A friend came by and we waited at a rendezvous for gentleman who might have been eighty to join us, pooling transportation to ease the parking problem, but creating, by the by, a conveyance with such an assortment of unlikely characters that we must have resembled a clown car.
John Howard had come to launch Frank Devine’s collection of essays about the joys of growing old among those one loved, an unlikely last subject for a journalist who had spent his career covering politics. The former Prime Minister gave a speech which kept the audience laughing, talking largely about his old friend Frank Devine; about the times they had spent together at a newspaper; and of the patter Frank had kept up when Howard visited him just a few days before he died in a hospice, alive until the last. “He was the same old Frank”. I looked around the room — at the rheumy old men, the distinguished faces — and wondered what memories had gathered them together? Offices, honors and badges were perhaps the least durable of things. For most of us, the only ones who will come to the funeral will be our friends. At this last both Frank’s book and John Howard’s speech dealt with the small things. Perhaps the only lasting substance of our lives.
John Buchan once observed that “the immortal thing was the broken human heart”; that thing which remains when all the unimportant worldly things have been burned away by time. Devine’s book was about things like that — the secret thrill he felt on afternoons when, after “foraging at different ends of the mall” he met his wife again in the central court and of the quickening he felt even after many years of marriage. The wonderous thing about true love is when we discover not only the joy it brings, but how it can improbably always get better. A former journalist standing beside me said that for some reason he felt he was hearing something “almost newsworthy”. And in a way it was, but in another news universe perhaps, not the one of reality TV shows and tabloid stories.