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The horror! The horror!
Mistah Beckett he vanished

The truth is never pure and rarely simple, as Joseph Conrad knew and the Sydney Morning Herald’s right wing celebrity journalist should have remembered. Copyright violations by GAVIN GATENBY.

Like some character from a Joseph Conrad novel, Paul Sheehan, clad in motley ideological rags, is forever aimlessly wandering The Heart of Darkness in search of saviours. He is drawn relentlessly upriver, by some dark unfathomable longing, to search for iconoclasts and autodidacts working alone and unaided, against the intrigues and narrow-minded meanness of officialdom; lone white men with Vision, isolated among the barbarians; men who have found the simple answers to the big questions.

One such visionary was (or maybe still is) Russell Beckett, vanished inventor of Unique Water, the magic H2O with added magnesium bicarbonate that might (if you believe the yarn) cure or prevent many diseases and make humans live forever, as randy and fecund as rabbits. Upriver, Beckett and Sheehan came together unavoidably, like two ships becalmed near each other.

So let us, like Conrad’s protagonist, Charlie Marlowe, sail upriver with the ignorant and bloodthirsty pilgrims in search of Beckett – to the Inner Station, the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of experience.

Along the way we discover that, as with Conrad’s lost ivory trader, Mr Kurtz, almost everyone speaks reverently of Beckett. Nameless “wealthy and conspicuous families” are in awe of his Mind. Some testify that he cured their ancient dogs and cats. Respected journalists – wracked by a range of obscure and hitherto incurable conditions – are made whole by the magic water and fall under Beckett’s spell. His ideas are taken up by the Shelley family, noted purveyors of Bert’s carbonated waters, who agree to blend the concoction for public consumption.

And finally, we approach the Inner Station, round the last bend and spy Paul Sheehan, on the riverbank ahead; Beckett’s disciple – enthusiastic, fabulous. He assures us that the simple natives, lurking in the shadows, will not harm us and rattles off a “bonanza of free publicity” – his own words – for a product with extravagant and untested medicinal claims. The savages hereabouts are in awe of Beckett’s magic powers. Only the scientists, grey functionaries all, mutter, “the methods are not sound”.

No sooner have we found the elusive Beckett than we discover Unspeakable Things. (They must have been unspeakable because Sheehan, privy to these dark secrets, spoke not of them until after Beckett vanished with the daughter of one of the owners of Bert’s Soft Drinks, and things got rather edgy). From the primal gloom of a Canberra court emerges details of the death of Beckett’s wife, Robyn, who had alleged Beckett was trying to kill her, slowly and painfully with a substance that could not be traced.

Of course, as Sheehan points out, no finding was made against Beckett by the coroner’s court, but the celebrity journalist’s belated revelation comes as if, at the end of one of his perorations full of burning noble sentiments about the water’s power to alleviate human suffering, there had been found a postscriptum, written in a shaky and indeterminate hand: “Exterminate all the brutes!

And there is more: scientific researchers, product distributors and various women have been abandoned, and the Shelley family left high and out of pocket on the riverbank. “On the whole, the trade will suffer”, the distributors can be heard muttering.

But we must depart now, taking Beckett aboard and abandoning Sheehan, to be swallowed back into the immense matted jungle (presenting him first with his lost copy of Towser’s An Inquiry into Some Points of Journalism and a precious handful of rifle cartridges). The man is an insoluble problem. It is inconceivable how he has succeeded in getting so far – how he has managed to remain – why he does not instantly disappear. Do not condemn his early enthusiasm for Beckett, though. He had not meditated over it. It came to him and he accepted it with a sort of eager fatalism.

As we convey the dying Beckett legend downstream, to the wider reaches of the river, into the light, it slips away (the horror! the horror!) into the shadows of the Great Unknown – or maybe Canada’s Iroquois territory.

What can Russell Beckett have been thinking? What can Paul Sheehan have been thinking? How can any of us drab mortals comprehend? The point is, they are gifted creatures, and that of all their gifts the one that stands out pre-eminently, that carries with it a sense of real presence, is their ability to talk, and write, their words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

• Apologies to Joseph Conrad (who went upriver before).

16 March 2005

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