Retirement is no holiday

February 10, 2014
currawong huts4

It’s my 20th year to heaven (apologies to Dylan Thomas). And I’m wondering why our family, so different from John Howard’s in every way, has returned to the same holiday spot for two decades. For the former prime minister, the favoured summer destination was Hawks Nest, and some saw in his fidelity to that pleasant NSW coastal town a certain lack of imagination. For us it’s been Currawong, a string of nine fibro cottages and a ramshackle farm house on Pittwater 40 km north of the Sydney CBD.

I’ve always described Currawong by what it lacked: no roads or cars, no shops, surf, or television, no inside toilet in the one-bedroom shacks, and until mobile phones, no communication with the world except via the pay phone in the weather-beaten box near the manager’s house. You reach Currawong by a wooden ferry called Myra. It leaves Palm Beach wharf, in the shadow of multi-million dollar houses, and chugs over the picturesque expanse of Pittwater to deposit you at your destination 20 minutes later. Somewhere on the journey, maybe as you look out to Lion Island, the trials and tribulations of city life slough off, and you disembark at Currawong jetty revived.

This time we came with three boxes of food, a packed Esky, and a Cooler Bag stuffed with fresh fish plus two suitcases with clothes, sheets and towels. Yes, it’s a hassle. But we came also with our novels, a poetry anthology, and a Kindle. The whole point of Currawong, the reason we love its simplicity, its lack of distraction, its seclusion (and the freedom of renting not owning) is because it allows us the ultimate luxury: to read by daylight.

Is there anything more glorious? Even more than sex in the afternoon, reading by daylight, hour after hour, strikes me as the most delicious sin. To read a book when the sun is up, when you’re fully awake, alive to meaning and subtlety is so pleasurable that each year I promise myself I’ll start doing it back home. Reading at night is a different experience altogether. When the workday’s over, the chores are done, the TV turned off, and you climb into bed to read, one paragraph is like a Mogadon, two paragraphs like two Mogadons. Or else, if you’re like me, and devoted to your book group, you sneak out of the connubial bed at midnight determined to finish the novel on time, and find, in the morning, it’s all a bit of a blur.

My sons feel the same way about Currawong. When they first came here, aged five and two, Currawong spelt freedom. For a week each year they were able to recreate the kind of childhoods their parents had enjoyed in the baby boomer suburbs of the 1960s. They joined with the tribe of kids from the other cottages, ran around unsupervised all day, unfazed by the stray wallaby, goanna and bush turkey; later they jumped off the jetty, swam in the calm waters, and played spotlight on the lawns. There was tennis on the ramshackle court, and table tennis in the little shed. The only time they were still was to play chess or cards with us at night. That’s when we put down our books. As sentimental about the place as we are, the boys each came for a few nights this 20th year, rousing themselves for an occasional run and swim but mostly they read (and wrote).

You’d think reading by daylight is one of the pleasures of a post-work life. It’s been more than a year since I gave up a proper job yet I still feel guilty if I indulge in a novel when the sun is high in the sky. I shouldn’t have to wait till Currawong but I still do. I think it’s these transition years, the early 60s, that pose a conundrum. There’s both a desire and obligation to be useful and productive, to contribute, to be busy. Many people this age are still working hard; others would like or need to. The pension age will be 67 by 2023. It’s less Protestant work ethic, more Jewish guilt that’s behind this reluctance of mine to stretch out along the window seat and read by daylight when other things must be done. My 85-year-old mother feels the same way. “That’s ridiculous,” I told her.

In NSW, Currawong is tainted by corruption; another bead on the chain of scandals hanging around the neck of the former state Labor government. Since 1949 Currawong’s been owned by the NSW Labour Council (later Unions NSW) as a cheap holiday retreat for workers (no longer cheap). For the past decade or more Unions NSW has tried to sell this gorgeous strip of harbour land to resort developers. We regulars have felt dread each time we boarded Myra for home, thinking it would be the last trip. But the latest land deal ended up before the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

And here’s the upshot: Currawong is now owned by a conservative Coalition state government. It’s managed by the Pittwater Council. For us, this outcome is bizarrely wonderful. Really, you wouldn’t read about it. Nothing is changing, at least not in the near future. If “progress” ever comes to blight Currawong, by then I hope I’ll be old enough to have mastered the art of reading by daylight in my own home stretched out on the window seat.

Your thoughts on retirement, indulgence, and/or the regular holiday retreat? Please Comment.

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