Andrew Neaum


Every morning, without fail, I am at my desk very early. I look at my emails, skim the world's leading newspapers, glance at the weather report, type up my journal, and then get cracking on a pewsheet article or sermon. It is the best time of any day to be creative.


A creative connection

Then Diana slips in, greets me fondly, settles down comfortably and we talk. Often very creatively, for as I say, it is that time of the day.


Last Wednesday morning she told me that she had just heard on the radio that ninety two percent of St John's Gospel, is not to be found in any of the other three Gospels.


This lead us on to a discussion of how the Gospels were written long after the events they record, and of the reliability of memory, and of how much easier it is to remember events than dialogue, and how inevitably the events remembered and recorded are always filtered, interpreted, ordered, tidied up and made sense of.


An interesting enough discussion, but hardly original. Then there came a little moment of inspiration, one of those flashes of creative connection.


In a time and space warp

Sixty long years ago, as a young boy I spent three and a half significant years (roughly the same amount of time as Jesus' Gospel ministry) in a time warp which was also a place warp. One so sharply and clearly defined as never to be at risk of blurring or merging into other times or places in my life.


Three years all but totally isolated from what is ordinary and from the rest of the whole world by two thousand seven hundred kilometres of wild ocean. Happy, care-free, safe, scenically stunning years that have gathered around themselves a mythic quality. Garden of Eden years in my personal narrative. Told, retold, thought, rethought, interpreted, reinterpreted, over and over as the decades of my life have rolled on.


Not entirely dissimilar, we both decided, to three, strange, different, lovely, exhilarating challenging, years spent by the disciples wandering around Galilee with a person unutterably unique, fascinating, charismatic, grace-filled, wise, enigmatic. Surely the best, the very best years of their lives. Unforgettable, treasured, ruminated over, loved, and so gathering around themselves in years to come, a mythic quality. To be told, retold, thought, rethought, interpreted, reinterpreted, over and over as the decades rolled by.


Thousands of kilometres of trackless ocean

Our discussion then moved on to another island twenty six years later. Two and a half years this time, so again not all that different from the time of Jesus' Gospel ministry, and so once more a place and time so sharply and clearly defined as never to be at risk of blurring or merging into other times or places in my life. A period all but totally isolated from what is ordinary, and from the rest of the whole world by thousands of kilometres of trackless ocean. Happy, care-free, safe, scenically stunning years, that have gathered around themselves something of a mythic quality. Golden years in my personal narrative. Told, retold, thought, rethought, interpreted, reinterpreted, over and over as the decades of my life have rolled on.


Significantly though, these tellings and retellings of my time on the island St Helena run alongside someone else's tellings and retellings of time on that very island.


Diana lived there with her family. Longer than I did, five and a half years, one of them overlapping with mine. She has also been back since.


Bold similes and an amazing marriage

My St Helena story, we together decided, might well be likened to St Mark's Gospel, Diana's story, based as it is on a longer period on the island, and a greater closeness to islanders lives, might well be likened to St John's Gospel.


As is the case with all good similes and metaphors, these began to inspire other illuminating ideas, and parallels.


Our personal St Helena stories, built up and developed around dinner table anecdotes, conversations with friend and family reminiscences, like the Gospels, began as developing oral traditions.


Factual accuracies or inaccuracies in our personal oral traditions, might well point to or parallel similar factual accuracy and inaccuracies in the Gospels.


As with the Disciples and their Jesus years, the St Helena years of our lives profoundly affected the two of us. They changed our values, our outlooks our friendships and our relationships. They did so both at the time, and then later down through the years and in all sorts of ways, both large and small.


Those years became for both of us, in a sense, a sort of dream time, as surely did the Jesus time for the disciples. They came to be seen for us as definitive years, as the best years, the most significant years, unforgettable, treasured, ruminated over, and loved. They gathered around themselves a mythic quality, in our thinking, rethinking, telling, retelling, interpreting, reinterpreting over and over again as decades rolled by. They culminated ultimately, after the horrors of bereavement and widowhood, into the grace of an amazing marriage which, in a sense, made the mythic actual once more.


The ultimate authenticity test

At this point in our reflections I recalled that like St Mark with his Jesus dream time, I had actually written up my St Helena dream time in the form of a speech. A speech written and revised several times over the years, but one never ever heard by Diana.


So here then, was the possibility of the ultimate authenticity test. I read my St Helenian speech to Diana.


I looked for her judgement first on my factual accuracy. Was my account grounded in truth and in what actually happened? Then secondly, what of my interpretation of what had happened? Because like St Matthew, St Luke, St Mark and St John, my St Helena account interpreted mere facts, drew conclusions, made a not uncontentious point.


She listened carefully. All was well! No glaring inaccuracies, interpretation sound.


Most likely because, as with the Gospel writers, if you love a place, if you love a time, if you love a person, you don't trash it, sell it short, muck it up. You move heaven and earth to get it exactly right. Errors of fact, slips in style, lapses of memory, of course, perhaps. But essentially true, true, true.


Shepparton unloved and loved

The week before last I was talking about Shepparton to someone who doesn't live here and doesn't like it when they visit it.


We considered disdainfully its weather, its topography, its architecture, its want of natural beauty, its crime statistics and so on. Our criticism and disdain were not untrue, but somehow, to someone like me, who in spite of himself has learned to love the place after a fashion, albeit wryly, it wasn't truth in the sense that the Gospels are true. Nor in the way that mine and Diana's accounts of St Helena are true. Infused as all these are with deep love.


So imagine for a moment someone resident in Europe, who spent a loving and well-loved childhood many years previously in Shepparton.


They dream, do they not, of swimming on hot summer days in the clay-misted eddies of the Goulburn river. Of fishing in a tin boat for Murray Cod, longing to sink their teeth into a soft fillet of one such.


They dream of hearing again the cacophonous, pterodactylic caterwauling of the cockatoos that roost and nest in the eucalypts of the flood plain. Of chasing goannas along the bark-and-broken-branch-littered, sun parched earth, and then up the silvery trunks of our riverine gums.


The names Corio Street, Wyndham Street, Maude Street and Welsford Street, when recalled, fill them with enchantment, flood them with nostalgia and longing.


For them the old post office remains the post office for it was still standing when they left. They dream of orchards in blossom, of sun-warmed, lightly furred peaches and apricots soft to the lips and sweet on the tongue. They would die to take one more a trip to Dookie to stroll up Mount Major......


That's the Gospel truth about Shepparton.