On the trams, there’s ten or fifteen of us there that just read
How do you measure a good reader? Is it the volume consumed, a commitment to the canon? Or perhaps it is simply a strong conviction of one’s tastes and a clear-eyed ability to boil down exactly what you value in beloved books. One of the things that I’ve been trying very hard to do during this project is to start reading for pleasure the way that I did when I was a child and a teenager- to obliterate an entire afternoon with a novel and not think twice about it. To rush off after dinner to whatever nook I had secreted my book, to slip back into that liminal space of complete oneness, a feeling of completeness that comes when you find pleasure in being entirely alone. My parents built a beautiful modernist art gallery of a house that would have found itself more at home on the Bronte coastline than in the red brick suburbia of Oatley (halfway between the southern beaches of the Shire and the endless backyards and main streets of the Western suburbs). And it was in this white walled, breezy home that I made my clearest, most poignant reading memories. There were the cool, polished wooden floorboard where I would stretch out, belly down in the summer holidays as blowflies hummed against the windscreen. There was a little guest bedroom filled with 20th century furniture that had been replaced during the renovation, with a hand-quilted doona cover and eternally pressed sheets. It felt like the room was constantly waiting, and I would escape into its stillness and read with my head against a leg of the four-poster bed.
Jonathan Franzen writes that ‘the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.’ Which brings me to my friend Tom, trams and stealing. Tom plays saxophone in band with a wonderful singer called Alex Cameron. Here, he goes as Roy Molloy, a allusively racist guy in a too-big suit and wraparound sunglasses, forever on the road. With Alex Cameron in painted on wrinkles and gelled hair, the two tour the country and America, using social media to record their 'washed- up' narrative; playing seedy bars, meeting business partners and evoking reckless melancholy. Though glimmers of their routine nod to other Sydney players working similar playbooks (Kirin J. Callinan, Donny Benet), theirs feels unique. Tom's late night, rambling Facebook posts, delivered in a beat style, could be collated into a mini novella. The washed up former Aussie pub rock star, now a bona fide battler, fighting obscurity with every gig.
Tom’s drinking a beer and lights up as we begin to speak. On the recording, I can hear the ice in my whisky and coke clinking; the room is dim even with the lights on.
BH: So what books did you love when you were a child?
TM: Roald Dahl. Killed me, loved it. There’s always a really dark, underlying thing going on, there’s always something dark. Even The Witches, if you think about it, is all these women, killing kids.
BH: The interesting thing about his books is the fact that the adults are always horrible and mean, and have no clue.
TM: A lot of the time the kids die, in his books. There’s not a lot of children’s books that do that.
BH: Do they?
TM: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a lot of those kids are dead, man. That bit when they go to the fucking chocolate river thing, it’s not like in the movie, where they show up at the end of the film somehow, but in the book, that’s the end of them, you don’t hear from them again. It’s not brought up, but those kids are brown bread.
BH: Did you ever try to read grown up books when you were younger?
TM: No, no, it took a lot to get me reading when I was a kid.
BH: Was there a moment when you got drawn in?
TM: Goosebumps books are the ones that really did it. Um, I don’t know why they got me. I guess everyone else was reading them at school. And like, talking about it. So I started reading them as well.
BH: Goosebumps is one of those ones that has, like series of 200, right?
TM: Yeah there’s thousands and they’re all very similar. But ah, R.L. Stein, he’s a cool guy man. He knew how to write. And then there were the Harry Potter books that defined our generation.
BH: What about when you were coming of age, as a teenager or in your early twenties? Were there any books that really affected your ideas of what you wanted to do when you were older? You like Hemingway, right?
TM: Yeah. For Whom the Bell Tolls really caught me. Just cos it’s like, it’s such an action man character, I can’t remember the name of the protagonist. But he’s just a rough and ready dude, you know, out there.
BH: They’re all old school men. Like masculinist, Don Draper types.
TM: Yeah. But the whole book’s told from that character’s introspective. It’s pretty much, you know, he’s falling in love, and he’s thinking about his dad, he’s suddenly afraid to die, and he’s thinking about things that he’s done. I liked the emotion. It made emotion and being introspective, which aren’t really thought of as masculine traits… it’s just this whole book about this masculine man’s inner turmoils. I was a young guy and I didn’t expect it. It took me by surprise and I liked it heaps.
BH: Are there any books you’ve read recently that have moved you?
TM: Um, I don’t know. Cause I’m working on the trams, I go through quite a lot. They give me these night shifts and I work like 9pm to 5am, and I just get hours and hours of reading time. There’s no one out there then and so I just read. You can knock over your shift so easily, and it’s all just thinking time. If you want to do some self-reflection… it can get fucked up though, you know, sitting out there in the dark.
That’s why I read while I’m out there, man. Or I look on my phone or whatever. The last book that really got me was, I read The True Story of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey.
BH: I’ve never read anything by Peter Carey.
TM: Same. An ex of mine tried to force me to read Amnesia, and I just flat out refused, cause I put him in the same category as Tim Winton. I just put him into the same basket as him, you know what I mean. I was just like, nah man that’s gay.
BH: I tend to have a bias against Australian writers.
TM: See lately I’ve just been on this huge tear. I’ve read most of Peter Carey’s stuff. Picked up Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I’m reading at the moment. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful book.
BH: I don’t even know who wrote it.
TM: It was Joan Lindsay. But I haven’t seen the movie.
BH: The movie’s very spooky. The aesthetic is like half gothic horror movie, but set in the Australian outback, it’s really cool.
TM: The book’s just lovely. Really poetic. But the last book that got me emotional was The True Story of the Kelly Gang. It’s Ned Kelly, but I don’t know, it’s just told… well I don’t want to give you the same answer as For Whom the Bell Tolls- you’re going to pick up on a theme.
BH: I get that sense already.
TM: It’s the history of the Kelly Gang, but it’s told in a very, very personal way.
BH: I get the sense that you like to read masculinist books where there’s something else going on.
TM: I guess that’s true. It’s just nice to, to see characters like that be affected by something.
BH: Is he a hero figure, or is he a martyr?
TM: It’s a completely unreliable story, but he’s affected emotionally by everything that he does, and things that happen to him, same as any guy. I guess you watch so many movies that are all about these jocky dudes and you don’t really catch that side of it, you know? It’s not really encouraged in society to talk about, or think about it. The way emotions affect you.
Masculinity for our generation is, not just the Australian male- the Australian twenty-five year old, going around king hitting kids; that’s something that twenty-five year old males have started going around doing for some fucking reason. A group of guys turn twenty-five and decide they have to hit a guy who’s not looking. It’s a strange stage in our country, and it’s because this idea of masculinity is like drinking and footy and get a fuckin job, you know.
BH: It’s interesting, you’re someone who, well, you worked in a field that you studied in for a while, and then you were maybe in a place, where… you felt like you’d sold out. Was there ever a book you read, or something that got you thinking that that’s not what you want to be doing for the next decade? Or was it just like a slow burn?
TM: I don’t know, I feel like it happened pretty naturally. Um, I found myself back at university to complete my studies, and I’d been working as a town planner and planned to use that to pay off this debt that I had, I had a whole bunch of debt. I was working full time for a while, but I was also spending a lot of cash. So I really needed to earn some cash while I was finishing this fucking thesis. And um, so I got on the dole, and just started doing removal work, delivering pizza, just earning money any way I could. And I’d been sitting in an office for fucking ages. And then yeah, for some reason just the change in employment and the change in attitude…
I’d always worked jobs like that, and I’d sort of forgotten working in an office, working jobs like that, it was kind of nice to get back to that. Making money in a way that I can fuckin’ stand. Got a little bit of self respect connected to it, you know.
BH: Working in an office can kill your soul. Well, it can, depending on what you are doing.
TM: You should come and work on the tram. Although they’re gonna get rid of us soon.
BH: The trams are ending?
TM: Yeah. A job like that, it won’t last.
BH: Do you have a bunch of books that you always recommend to people?
TM: Yeah. Another book that really got me was A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews. A really great book, written in the ‘80s in the US.
Yeah I went through a Hemingway phase. He’s kinda a cheesy author for a guy.
BH: I don’t know...
TM: In that he’s a little clichéd
BH: Cliché always has a good reason behind it. So tell me about your reading habits. You read on the tram? Do you read during the week, or just on the weekends?
TM: I read on the tram and I read on the bus. I don’t really read on my own time. I mean, sometimes I’ll sit at home and read, like, once a fortnight. I’d need to have a serious day off to read. I get guilty if I read at home.
BH: Really? Do you feel like you’re wasting time?
TM: Pretty much, yeah.
BH: That’s terrible Tom!
TM: But there are like, some dishes to be done, or like, I gotta take the bins out, I should call someone and go do something…
So for that reason, I mean, I’ve always read but generally it’s an incidental thing, in terms of how it goes as a habit. I’m pretty indiscriminate with what I read, you know.
BH: It’s kind of amazing that your job gives you the opportunity to read and feel zero guilt. You’re on another man’s time.
TM: I’m getting paid to go out there. And I’m doing my job. I’m out there, present, I’m ready to go help people out or whatever.
But as I said, because I’m getting through so much at the moment, I’m reading books that I otherwise wouldn’t. You know, Evelyn Waugh always put me off for some reason, because I thought he was so fucking catty. But it’s the funniest shit you’ll ever read. Like you laugh out loud a lot of times when you’re reading it. Like I said, I read a couple of pages of A Handful of Dust a couple of years ago, and I was like, what is this? Like this is gay. Who is this fucken' arsehole, you know? But because I was kinda trapped out on the trams, you know, I ran out of stuff to read, I picked one of his books off the bookshelf. And it’s laugh out loud. It’s pretty rare for a book to get you to actually laugh out loud, especially when you’re sitting in a public place, but, like, their funny, they’re really funny. They’re really good, and cutting, and very unfair to the characters, and like I said, it was something I wouldn’t have read otherwise.
BH: That’s cool.
TM: You got a pile of books in the break room. And on the trams. And there’s ten or fifteen of us there that just read. And all these guys are like, failed rugby league players and ex-cons and stuff. It’s a good bunch.
I’ve read a lot of biographies. This guy brought in a whole pile of biographies.
BH: Sporting biographies?
TM: None of the sporting ones. I didn’t want to touch the sporting ones, read about Michael Klim. Or fucking Kieran Perkins, or whatever. Two swimmers. But um, what did I read? Samuel Golwynn’s biography, I found really interesting. He’s the Jewish guy who took over America, Hollywood. Goldwyn- Meyer? Daniel Niven, who’s an actor from the ‘50s, he’s hilarious, it was an autobiography.
BH: Do you ever take recommendation from other people about what to read? Or do you like to seek things out yourself?
TM: Yeah, if I’m a mate’s house, I’ll generally try to come away with a book or something. Most of my library probably isn’t mine.
BH: A library of stolen books.
TM: Yeah. I told you man, I’m ruthless.
BH: Are there people’s names in these books?
TM: Yeah. There aren’t names in books though, what’s wrong with you?
BH: I write my name in all my books. I leant a book to someone at work today, and I wrote my name and my phone number in it.
TM: That shit is sad, man.
BH: You know what, at least then, even if they don’t return it, every time they open it up and see my name, they’ll feel guilty. And that’s awesome.
TM: That’s sad man.
BH: No it’s not! I don’t care.
I actually hate lending people books, I hate it. But sometimes the desire for someone to experience a book is too great, so you give it away anyway.
TM: Man, just take my approach and steal all your books. You wanna borrow a book? Go ahead.
But if someone said to me; ‘read this book,’ you know, ‘Catchcry of the Walruses,’ that name would be gone by the time I walked out the door. I would never read that book. And there are certain people who if they told me to read a book, I would not read it, consciously. Like, for up to ten years.
BH: So you have people whose opinions you trust?
TM: Yeah, most people.
BH: Have you ever been forced to read a book by someone close to you? And has their effort paid off? I forced Jesse to read one of my favourite books (A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan), and he said he didn’t like it, but he read it in like, a day.
TM: Al Cameron does it to me all the time. He gives me a book. I try to return it to him. Rory Gough forced me to read a bit of Arthur C. Clarke. He wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, it was based on a book he wrote. Rory got me to read Rendezvous with Rama. A great book, man. Fucking cracker of a sci-fi book.
This was five years ago, but it just set me off on this huge sci-fi stint that lasted a long time. And I read some great sci-fi, and you know, that was a really good period of reading for me.
Reading on Trams, with Roy Molloy
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey
Picnic At Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews
A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
Bring on the Empty Horses, Daniel Niven,