Josephine Rowe on Paul Jennings
When I was eleven, I decided to telephone Paul Jennings. It was 1995 and he had just been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to children’s literature, although I was unaware of such accolades at the time.
Like millions of other eleven-year-olds, in Australia and around the world, I was ruthlessly devouring his short story collections—Unbelievable! Unmentionable! Unbearable!—and had probably just read something particularly hilarious or heartbreaking that had prompted me to scour the first volume of the White Pages.
There were only three listings for P. Jennings, which meant that at the very worst, there would only be two awkward wrong numbers before I got through to the real P. Jennings. Then I could tell him… what?
I realised I didn’t know what to say to Paul Jennings. It also occurred to me that a phone call from a stranger, however well-intentioned, might seem a little odd. Eventually I closed the phonebook and put it back in the cupboard.
Fifteen years later, I remember this with a sort of nostalgic cringe as I ride the early train to Paul’s Warrnambool home. There is still a fingernail of moon in the sky when we pull out of Footscray station, but bright winter light creeps steadily into the carriage as I reread old favourites; a boy feeding lemons to a fox fur; the busker whose face is forever tilted to the sky. I try to remember the questions that the eleven-year-old me would have wanted to ask.
Fiona, Paul’s PA, collects me from the station in her husband’s truck, and we head out to Paul’s fifty-two acre property; a long narrow strip of land that runs uphill from road to sea, which he has been working to revegetate over the past several years, enlisting the help of friends and neighbours in planting indigenous trees and shrubs, and which birds, wallabies and one koala have seen fit to reclaim as home.
Perched at the top of the hill, the house is constructed of recycled timbers that still hint at their former lives as shipping jetties and railway lines, the large windows making picture boxes of the landscape. Paul—a warm, softly spoken man in his sixties—greets me in the kitchen, where we speak for the next hour and a half about dreams, Carl Jung, the importance of snails and what it means to be a storyteller.