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Meaning amid wedding chaos

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Champagne glassesDoes 'life imitate art'? Surely it's the other way round. But perhaps I haven't been looking closely enough.

On 2 October this year I was strolling through Melbourne's Treasury Gardens and then past Parliament House and on up Spring Street. It was a luminous, first-day-of-spring kind of late afternoon. The sun, for the first time in months, was warm, the sky vast, blue and high. People in the parks were lounging or dozing or kissing and, in the city streets, straggling along in laughter-filled, ragged groups.

At first, I didn't notice what was really going on. Wandering along in my own particular elegiac daze, I marvelled at what seemed to be a convention of stretch limos.

Usually you see just one or two. But here they were, parked at curbs adjacent to grassy slopes, or in convenient spots near the Parliament steps, gleaming with polish, each with a grey-uniformed, peak-capped driver in respectful alert attendance or flicking a cloth idly across the dustless duco.

Bizarrely, it reminded me for an instant of funerals — the long, hearse-like cars, the uniforms, the waiting — but these were happy funerals and, suddenly, looking across to the lawns and up to the top of the Parliament steps, I saw it all again in different terms.

There were brides everywhere: on slopes of lawn; bathed in spangles of light fragmented through over-arching branches; on the top steps; on the bottom steps, as if just having made a grand entrance down a huge staircase. Dazzling, mostly in flowing white or cream, they posed and smiled and looked down and up and across as a photographer puppeteer pulled his invisible strings.

And milling around uncertainly, their bridesmaids: squeezed into blues and purples and golds, some sashed and hatted, some svelte and curvaceous beneath a precarious tower of hair, others sweating, bulging and secretly vowing to return next week to the gym.

At the edge of each knot of resplendent women stood the groom. Uncomfortable in a suit or a constricting collar or a slightly askew bow tie or colours they'd never worn before and would never wear again if they had any say in it. Many of the grooms looked curiously grumpy. Wasn't this their day of days? What was going wrong here?

Well, one thing that had gone wrong was that a wedding carefully planned to miss the AFL Grand Final by one week had been stymied by the drawn game the previous week. For that reason at least these grooms would never forget their wedding day.

As I walked from one bridal group to the next, threading through casual onlookers and guests and families — fathers of brides strapped into once-a-year suits, desperate for a drink and worrying about the speech; mothers of grooms behind their smiles aghast at what this new force in their boy's world had made him wear — I had a strange sense of familiarity. Where had I come across all this before?

And this was where life began imitating art.

Philip Larkin's wonderful poem, 'The Whitsun Weddings', tells of the poet's train journey to London during which, at station after station, friends and families farewell the Whitsun brides and grooms on their honeymoon. 'At first' he doesn't notice 'what a noise/The weddings made/Each station that we stopped at ...' But as the wedding parties draw his attention, he looks more closely.

Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
...the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard ...;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding

Remembering the poem, I strolled on, buoyed up somehow by this sense of life's resilience, its dogged faith in repeated ceremony, the way it gave itself meaning no matter what kinds of chaos, disappointment or unforeseen blows intervened.

The drawn Grand Final had sent a tremor through a thousand wedding parties; recriminations threatened, tempers shortened; brides wept, in-laws interfered, grooms said the wrong thing then made a mess of their apology; and the Saints lost again.

Like Larkin as the bridal train rolled into London, I was moved and heartened by 'this frail/ coincidence of weddings/ [which] stood ready to be loosed with all the power/That being changed can give'. And 'there swelled/A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain'. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.

Topic tags: brian matthews, weddings, philip larkin, The Whitsun Weddings, AFL Grand Final, Saints, Magpies



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Existing comments

Ah, Eureka Street! Beautiful one day, gorgeous the next! Thank you Brian

DavidB | 12 November 2010  

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