We like them to maintain our flickering faith that there is order in the world. We want to open a newspaper and feel part of a society that knows what it is and tracks where it’s going. That we’re travelling shoulder to shoulder with people of influence. That it will move us, make us stop in our tracks and say: Hmmm. Interesting!
More often than not we don’t get what we hope for. Some days it’s all rants and rage, a lot of tired points of view, standing in judgement – mean and partisan, triumphal, self-congratulatory. Look at me. Look at me.
But there are the good days when newspapers draw you back and give you a longer view. It’s then you realise that, more than anything, what you hope for are stories that connect you to something bigger and better than yourself.
A fortnight ago I had one of those days. It was Saturday and the Bass Coast Post had run two stories on ageing: Linda Gordon’s account of the last months of her mother’s life (Maria's story) and Bob Middleton’s thoughts on the ticking clock and our fragility and strength as we stare down the relentless passage of time (Time is getting on).
Linda Gordon describes her mother’s shrinking awareness of others. She charts a process of reduction that turns Linda herself into “a kindly presence in her [mother’s] gloaming world” and ends with “the last reduction to the bed, the dosage and the breath.” And all the while, in the face of this remorseless, unbidden denial is the infinite tenderness that flows from daughter to mother. Not duty, not principle. It just is.
Heart starter stuff for a Saturday morning.
Then there was the Age. Malcolm Fraser had died the previous day and the Age had published an eight-page special. Plenty of opinions here. He wasn’t much of an economist, it appears. An original and independent thinker, says someone else. Humanitarian, outsider, a man of compassion. Brutal visionary, shy idealist. “There was a complete lack of coherence in his policies,” opined one sour Liberal. “The best that could be said of his government was that it was above average.”
Loved by the Left, hated by many in his own party. On the front page was a photo of the statesman I’d come to admire and trust, all dignity. And on the back page, the photo of him resting in bed immediately after the 1980 election. A photo that, at the time, had reduced me to walking spittle, so great was my loathing of this smug, smirking, arrogant man, this ... this … Liberal! All this anger arising from a constitutional crisis of which I understood little and arguments about the economy of which I understood less.
The co-author of Fraser’s memoir, Margaret Simons, tells us that he always said he had remained the same and it was just the times that changed. She believes this is largely true, that he kept to his core principles until his dying day: respect for the individual, a commitment to individual liberty under the law; and the principle that the strong should defend the weak.
When they were working together this octogenarian would ring her early in the morning. “‘Margaret,’ he would say, ‘I’m very worried about China.’ And then he would be at it, giving his thoughts in great screeds of connected prose ...”
And I stood stolid, in judgement of this man for three decades?
Then, on the back page of Spectrum, you read Last Rites, Leunig’s extraordinary poem for Jake Bilardi, and the floor drops away beneath you. The flabby formulas on which you rest your case for understanding the world are blown away and you hang suspended in the bright clear air between paradox and human possibility.
There’s a lot to be said for a good newspaper.
UPON FINDING A DEAD BIRD
ON THE FOOTPATH
LAST RITES (For Jake Bilardi)
Tiny lovely baby bird
You have fallen from the tree
With your song of love unheard
Yet I hear you sing to me
And I know the pathway cold
And I feel the way you fell
With your joy and pain untold
Into heaven, out of hell
And I see into your heart
As you fly into the sun
As your wings are torn apart
Tiny baby lovely one