By Steven CarrollFiction HarperCollins
'And is nostalgia not so much a longing for a place or a time, as a longing for youth itself?'
Forever Young is set against the tumultuous period of change and uncertainty that was Australia in 1977. Whitlam is about to lose the federal election, and things will never be the same again. the times they are a'changing. Radicals have become conservatives, idealism is giving way to realism, relationships are falling apart, and Michael is finally coming to accept that he will never be a rock and roll musician.
A subtle and graceful exploration of the passage of time and our yearning for the seeming simplicities of the past, Forever Young is a powerfully moving work – clear, beautiful, affecting – by one of our greatest authors.
Although the fifth in Steven Carroll’s Glenroy series, Forever Young exists perfectly as a standalone volume that marks the passage of time with affecting poignancy and grace. It is 1977, the Labor government is poised for defeat and the 'mountain' that is Gough Whitlam, an overarching symbol for restlessness and change, is about to be deposed. Forever Young operates on multiple perspectives, including Michael, who, with cool pragmatism, gives up his music and his girlfriend, to pursue a tentative writing career overseas; his mother, Rita, who takes a day off work to go to the beach and with this single action, reconfigures her life; and Peter, Michael’s old friend and a Fraser ministerial adviser, who realises too late how his actions have affected others. Carroll handles the overlapping narratives so deftly that his characters’ crossed paths never seem contrived. His prose is evocative, limpid and elegant. Forever Young is steeped in nostalgia even as it looks towards an exciting but uncertain future.
1. To Put Away Childish Things
A spring wind lifts the blossoms from the trees and throws them into the sky. It is violent and comes without warning. White flowers are blasted from their branches and a cool wind carries them in flock-like formation over the park, the playing fields and the government buildings hidden among the trees. Out there the city traffic is building into peak hour, taxis are busy, birds surf the gusts of wind, and office workers, public servants and nurses from the nearby hospital look to the sky, their umbrellas ready, though everyone knows their umbrellas will be useless in this wind and if this sky comes bucketing down. The pace on the footpaths is urgent. Get where you're going and get there fast. Dead leaves left over from winter, scraps of paper and lives are tossed into the air and scattered.
The flowers are carried far from the perch of their branches and a mile away a young woman at the university, her afternoon tutorial over, pauses in the street and removes a white blossom from her hair, releasing it back into the sky, like a bird from a net; the same blossom that only moments before sat securely on a branch in a tree in the park opposite Michael's flat – the same park, currently in uproar, that Michael has been gazing upon these last few minutes.
Overcoated people scuttle past. Cars, trams and trains make a dash for home. Out there, he imagines, Mandy will have finished her tutorial. Soon, her car will pull up in the street at the front of the flat and she will be at his door. And when she is gone, and he has told her what he has resolved to say (that at some point in the last year they had become a habit), he will sit in his lounge room alone and contemplate what he has done. But not for long. For it is not his way. He will linger on it for a few moments, then find something to do.
And towards evening, with his amplifier and guitar in the back of his car, he will drive to a flat suburb north of the city, where the land has always been cheap and which the factory owners have always favoured – the flat lands of the flat suburbs, the likes of which nurtured him and made him, with their battered milk bars, scrappy streets and vast, beer-barn hotels that bear such grand names as the International, the Arcadia and the Excelsior – where he will play for the last time with this band that, too, became a habit that has to be broken. It is a day of farewells. He didn't plan it this way, but it will happen this way. And there is a cold resolve in him that he recognises from childhood, reviving briefly the child he once was, who learnt or simply acquired a way of doing difficult things, such as saying goodbye to the idea of a happy family and realising that one day his parents would part and that it was better to say his goodbye before the blow fell, without too much thought. For the wise child who held his hand and guided him through difficult times is never far away.
The last gig, the last waltz, the end of something or other, should feel sad, or at least feel like one of those goodbye moments, for something will finish tonight, and the part of him that lived for music and imagined that he always would will have to move on. The old will make way for the new and fade into silence like the last dying bars of a chorus, then bow out. And so, he should feel something. But he doesn't. He will remember the goodbye to the band, the handshakes and the laughs, but he will not remember which one of those indistinguishable, grandly named beer barns he completed his last song in (or even remember what the song was).
There is only a sort of acknowledgement, a cold resolve that this inevitable day, and this inevitable night, had to come. And when he switches his amp off for the last time will he hear the sound of his youth shutting down with the click of the switch?
He turns from the view, from the park in uproar, and eyes his guitar. He has just cleaned the strings and polished it. And it shines: the body, neck, head and tuning keys. It sparkles and shines with all the promise that he doesn't believe in any more. But he remembers the days when he did. And to look at this guitar is to be touched once again by the promise that came with it. And it will always be like that. Years from now, whenever he passes a music shop and sees one in the window, he will pause and they will both nod to each other: the guitar and Michael, Michael and the guitar. I gave you once my promise, when you were young and such promises mattered. And though you have moved on I remain forever here, calling from the music-shop windows of your memory, with the same promise, fresh as the days in which you still believed.
For this, Michael knows, is no ordinary guitar. This is no cheap copy to be bought and sold or carelessly lost one careless day with neither regret nor concern. No, this is the guitar, more than all the others (at least, to Michael), that was the very sight and sound of its times. For this is a Rickenbacker. I am the jingle, I am the jangle, I am the effortless song that told you anybody could do this — that was my promise, and you believed me once. And he had. There it is, resting on a stand in Michael's lounge room. Polished and ready to play for the last time. Michael had waited all his life to buy a Rickenbacker. But, in the end, he waited too long.
One day, in his teenage years, he was walking along a street in the city. It was a Saturday morning — blue sky, bright sun, spring or autumn, he's not sure. It was still mid-morning, the street was Saturday-morning busy, and he had come here because the street contained a music shop. Guitars, mostly. But not cheap ones. Not copies. No, here you found the types of guitars that you might only ever have seen in magazines or music shows on the television, strung over the shoulders of smiling bands making the music that was everywhere. The new music, the music that always made you feel as though anybody could do this. Or if not anybody, then you could do this. And so he'd come to this shop just to gaze upon whatever expensive, glittering treasures it might contain. He had stopped short at the window filled with guitars to take in the spectacle, dazzled by it, eyes roving all over the display – and, suddenly, there it was. Like stumbling on the Mona Lisa in a cluttered window of sea-scapes and still lives. On view. Open to the world, but indifferent to the eyes of the world. The Mona Lisa in a city side street. A Mona Lisa whose eyes did not follow you but gazed into the distance, one who suffered to be gazed upon and looked ahead. There it was. A Rickenbacker. Its colours – deep reds, oranges and yellows (which the brochure he'd seen called ‘sunburst’) – gleaming in the music-shop window like a newly completed painting, sparkling in that spring or autumn morning, fresh and still wet.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist