July 01, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electoral: For The Term Of His Natural Life

Groth. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that surname before.”

“It’s Prussian.”

“Right. Cool.”

“Matthew Finch is a bit generic Anglo.”

“Yeah, there are a few of us scattered around. Sometimes we get each other’s email when someone makes a typo. And I’m always being mistaken for someone else. I’ve got one of those faces as well as one of those names.”

“You ever Google yourself? My brother and I have a podcast. We were looking for names and found a Groth Brothers Chevrolet dealership in California. It thrived for three generations, then the last ones ran it into the ground. But my brother and I stole their name for our podcast: it's called The Fireproof Garage." 

I laugh.

"There was a Simon Groth in nineteenth century Copenhagen. I found him online too. He was an assayer of silver. But you mostly find his mark on cutlery, nothing else. I bought one of his spoons. Anyway…”

I’m just making small talk; Simon Groth really wants to show me this thing he’s invented. He works at Australia’s Institute for the Future of the Book. They resurrect classic Aussie authors on social media. They make hard copies of shared documents with tracked changes. But Simon tells me his new project is in another league entirely.

We meet at the State Library, back of house, and Simon shows me in.

You wouldn’t expect a lab to be carpeted, and these are far from clean-room conditions, but then again this is only a makeshift space, in a forgotten backroom, near Simon’s desk at the Queensland Writers Centre.

“My undergraduate degree was in occupational therapy, but don’t hold that against me,” Simon says as he tinkers with the device. It’s a stand-up capsule about the size of a telephone booth, with white plastic panels. They should fit flush and seamless, like an Apple product, but there are gaps out of which I can see the technological gubbins within.

Simon taps some instructions into a keypad. The capsule’s not responding as he’d wish, so he gets on the floor and slides underneath it. “Being an OT did give me some practical skills though.”

“I’ve worked on academic research, web sites, assistive technology and disability, tended to small mammals, done some professional editing and — finally — I found my place here at the nexus of technology and books.”

The machine bleeps a couple of times and the display runs through a self-diagnostic.

“I got the idea for this thing while we were finishing off Hunted Down.” He puts a screwdriver between his teeth to free his hands and carries on: “Check it out.”

He waggles one foot and I see a pile of books on the desk.

This is Hunted Down: a remix of three classic tales by Marcus Clarke, one of nineteenth-century Australia’s most revered authors. Simon relocates, rewrites, and reimagines Clarke’s writing in a modern print edition filled with inserts, typographical experiments, and classic adverts scoured from the digital archives.

“It must have been great to be an Australian when Clarke was writing, in the 1870s,” says Simon, using the screwdriver on the base of the capsule. “A new nation, wide-eyed, all optimism and vigour. Wanting not just to exist, but to be great. Pass me that finklegruber.”

I don’t know what a finklegruber is, so he has to come out from under the machine and find it himself in the toolbox.

“Trouble is, that young hungry nation already had some pretty dark marks on its conscience. In the hundred and fifty years since Clarke’s time, we’ve been as petty as we’ve been brilliant. But, hey! When he took power off the other bloke last September, the Prime Minister told us all: ‘There’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.'”

I tell Simon of the book I heard about last week: The Truth, by Pauline Hanson, a notoriously outspoken politician. (This was her video response to the Orlando shooting, for example).

In The Truth, Hanson imagines her nightmare Australia of 2050, where “Australia will have a president called Poona Li Hung, a lesbian of Indian and Chinese background. She is part machine – her neuro-circuits having been made by a joint Korean-Indian-Chinese research team.”

Simon smiles.

“Apparently Hanson didn’t write it, though,” I tell him. “When people asked her, she said others did the words and she just put her name to it.”

“Yeah. Why do you think I’ve been working on this thing? I’ve seen the final timeline for Australia. Whoever gets to write it, it’s not pretty.”

“But isn’t the future always unwritten?” I ask.

Simon’s hand makes a skeptical, could-go-either-way waggle.

In any case, he’s finished with the machine.

“Looks like we’re good to go.” He’s beaming.

“Aren’t you supposed to be working on the future of books?”

“This,” he thumps the cabinet confidently, then flinches as it shudders, “is the ultimate narrative device. A machine for going anywhere in time and space.”

“Is this fiction or non-fiction?” I ask him.

“I like to think it’s on the boundary.”

I look around us. “Can it leave the library?”

Simon is annoyed. “Yes, of course it can leave the library. Do you want to try it out?”

I look at him, all gangly and keen. I wish I was braver. “No.”

“Suit yourself.” Simon steps into the capsule and waves. “If this works, I’ll never be late picking up the kids from school again.”

He activates the machine from inside. It thrums ominously and a panel falls from its side. I smell burnt wiring. Simon looks panicked as he adjusts the controls. The light of the capsule, Insect-O-Cutor blue, sears my eyes. There’s a rush of air and the bang of an implosion and when I look up, the machine is gone.

*

I thought I saw Simon occasionally in the months that followed, but I was never quite sure. We’d only met this year, so I’d hardly be high on his list of people to visit back in 2016. Anyway, under the new regime, we had plenty of other things to worry about.

When they declared Simon missing and it hit the papers that his whole family was gone too, I figured he was never coming back. It must have been quite a ride, all four of them jammed up in that rickety capsule. Should’ve made it bigger on the inside.

I went to the auction of the Groth family’s effects and got myself a Danish silver spoon.

Later I had coffee with the people at the Writers Centre. They were gloomy. There had been further budget cuts and Simon's desk had remained empty. I took one of the remaining copies of Hunted Down and thumbed through to Simon’s final story.

 

I thought of the Danish spoon. Hurried back to the house, turned it over in my hands, began searching again: image archives online. I work for the British Library as well as the Queenslanders these days, you can do a lot of digital research with those credentials.

It took a week, evenings and weekends and lunch breaks, but I found him. It was only a painting, so I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like the Simon I remembered, tall and dark and David Byrne-ish. The assayer of silver, with wife, with kids.

“Copenhagen, 1864. You sly devil.” I laughed at the image on the screen of my phone, as I sat by the banks of the Brisbane River.  The Groth family stood gathered for a portrait in a well-furnished lounge.

A couple of sunburned backpackers looked at me weirdly. I hoped Simon had found himself a cushy spot in the European past before the time machine burned out. I knew nothing about Danish history, but that’s what Wikipedia’s for.
 

I swore softly. Groth – that Prussian name. And his Danish was probably terrible.

“Lay low, man,” I whispered across the centuries. “No wonder you just stuck to the spoons.”

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