Excuse me for starting on a flat note. On my mind this Christmas is that Australia’s most famous living Christian will spend it in jail. Cardinal George Pell will celebrate the birth of Jesus as a martyr himself – in my opinion – for the faith that was founded by his Christ. Pell is an innocent man who I believe was convicted for the sins of his church, while the mob cried ‘Crucify him!’ At least Pell’s own martyrdom is not (yet) fatal, and we await his resurrection next year at the hands of the High Court. Surely those judges will see the incoherence of the Victorian Court of Appeal majority ruling – which suggests Pell was inside his Cathedral, raping a choir boy, at the very time that his sole accuser was, according to his sworn testimony, outside the Cathedral, in a long procession with his choir. I await the miracle of justice being done at last.
I also await the arrival of my youngest two children from overseas. They’re hurrying home to join their brother for Mum’s traditional turkey dinner on Christmas Eve and Dad’s even more traditional turkey soup on Boxing Day. That word ‘traditional’ reminds me: my friend Claudio Veliz, the author and sociologist, lost his wife Maria Isabel this year. She died peacefully in the night after they’d listened with friends to a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, which ends with Brünnhilde dying on a funeral pyre.
That was so spooky that the word ‘coincidence’ seems too trivial. But I mention Claudio and Maria Isabel because they had a gift for ritualising social events. Dinners at their home, for instance, came with elaborate invitations, two hired staff to serve all the customary courses, a toast, and afterwards, the even more formal letter of thanks for attending. This is in great contrast to my own dinners, which aspire to an ideal inspired by my more peasant-like Dutch ancestry. The table must almost literally groan with food, like the one in that famous The Peasant Wedding painting by fellow Dutchman Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Success for me is seeing Tony Abbott, for instance, so overwhelmed by the plenitude that I must offer him one of my clean shirts.
Oops, I got diverted by the thought of food – something that happens so often that I now must check the strained lower buttons of my shirt each night before going on TV. But back to the ritualisation of social occasions. On that point I am on song with the more sophisticated Claudio. Rituals give weight to occasions, not least by linking them to the past and the future. That’s why I’ve made our Christmases such a ritual, too, but Dutch practicality has also kicked in. We long ago made Christmas Eve the big present-giving event, with carols and a dessert of Salzburger Nockerl. We figured two Christmas dinners wouldn’t just double the fun, but double our chances of having all the children around at least once, come the day when they have in-laws.
And so ends my second-last year as a TV host. It will be a relief not to feel obliged to have an opinion on quite so preposterously much. Which is another reminder: I must confess that one of my last shows paid too high a tribute to someone else who professed to know much, and accomplished more. Clive James was undoubtedly a great talent in some areas – TV criticism and his memoirs, particularly. But many obituarists went further and called him a polymath whose genius also conquered poetry and the art of novel writing. But, to be frank, even his most-praised poems rarely leave this too-solid earth, and the scraps of his novels which I’ve read also sound as if they came from the tappity-tap keyboard of a critic, rather than romancer: ‘For him [his hero in The Silver Castle] there was no picture. The pieces of the puzzle were never together on the table in front of him… They were scattered through time and space, never to be joined even potentially. In view of that cruel fact, he did well, and his story, though sad, should give us cause for hope.’ That is a critic reviewing the life of a character, not bringing it to life. Now I’m freaking that if I ever attempt a novel myself, I won’t be able to transition from reporting to creating.
Work has finally started on my retirement house, of which the biggest room will be a library. I’m so excited, and have bought books enough to last me another 100 years. I’ve even bought the perfect desk. The dealer says it once belonged to an ambassador for the Tsar, which is such a great story that I refuse to check it. But another stroke of luck: a reader, hearing that I revere Joseph Conrad, offered me a 20-volume set of the works of this great French-speaking Polish sailor, who somehow became one of the greatest novelists in a language he didn’t speak until his twenties. I am uncomfortable accepting gifts, but this is such a kind and lovely offer… I must pick up the books in 50 minutes and am torn. How can I repay my benefactor? With signed copies of my own books? Or is that a preposterous and presumptuous recompense for treasures such as Lord Jim?
See, over such details I lose sleep. Hurry on Christmas. Hurry up my children. Time to be surrounded again with loving people who have seen it all and forgive it, provided Dad’s turkey soup is once more on the full table.