by PATRICK LENTON
When my grandma died, there was no huge family rush to claim her belongings. She’d been a semi-recluse for most of her life, and her tiny apartment was a musk-scented den of wildly expired packets of nuts and secret cartons of cigarettes. My mum worked for days helping to clear it out, and later reported to me the literal piles of notebooks that took up the cupboards and sat thick and dusty in shoeboxes under the beds. I’m not sure where most of them went, perhaps to my uncle’s place, probably into the bin with stacks of Women’s Weeklys and newspapers from the eighties – but I managed to get my hands on one of the notebooks, intrigued by what my eccentric grandma spent her time writing. I’m glad I did, as it’s one of my favourite things in the world.
I’m a list maker and a note scrawler – I can’t organise my life until I’ve seen it laid out in front of me on paper. I can’t make an important decision until I’ve ruled up some columns and done an exhaustive pro and con list. I always assumed I got that part of my personality from my mother’s side of the family, a dynasty defined by highly organised Virgo matriarchs – yet in reality none of them are particularly defined by note taking, and instead use an almost instinctual ability to remember the number of guests coming to dinner, and how many tiny forks were needed. The artistic side of my family is also my mother’s side, with painters and sculptors and celebrity dog trainers who live to over a hundred years old. Yet, it was my grandma on my dad’s side who I discovered had written more than I had ever, or probably will ever write – because each of those hundreds of notebooks was packed with tiny, old-timey writing. Pages and pages of meticulously noted text, often using both sides of the page in what I can only imagine is post-war thriftiness. And what was it that Shirley spent each day, alone in her tiny flat writing? Was it the great Australian novel? A memoir of her long life? Disturbingly erotic poems? No, it was facts.
Shirley the First (titled to distinguish her from my grandfather’s second wife, Shirley the Second) spent most of her day watching television or listening to the radio, occasionally making herself a modest meal and smoking a cigarette, despite claiming to have quit many years earlier. And while she watched or listened, she wrote down things that interested her. As I flip through her notebook, I find a page of interesting men’s names from AFL, a page of golf scores, some facts about working dogs on Australian farms, and some words and their definitions from a crossword puzzle. There’s no real organisation to anything, just reams and reams of facts and figures about whatever passed her fancy. It’s at once impressive for the scope and breadth and diligence of this suburban scholastic pursuit, and breath-taking for how incredibly useless it all was. What point did it all have? What goal did she possess?
Shirley was in many ways impressively selfish, especially for a generation of women who were often defined by their service role to a family as mother or as a wife. Selfish is perhaps a bad word – she was self-contained and self-oriented. It was her choice to live alone and her choice to turn her life into a series of small repeated comforts. It was also her choice to devote her time and energy to compiling an impressive written document of minutiae and trivia that, for all she knew, would be read by nobody. Perhaps the pursuit of knowledge was a goal in itself for her, or perhaps she honestly expected to use it all for some kind of arcane project, but it doesn’t matter really. That notebook is an inspiration for me, a sign post, a touch-point for me as a writer. When I sit down day after day writing ludicrous tales of absurdity for potentially an audience of nobody, when I devote my life to the impressively selfish act of becoming a novelist, a job that benefits nobody and nothing – I look at this notebook of facts and nonsense as a how-to guide, and I keep writing.