One Saturday back in 1996, my ten-year-old self was lying on the floor of the lounge room doing not very much, when a burst of uproarious maternal laughter broke the silence. Curious, I turned and saw that the source of my mother’s evident amusement was a purple-spined book called Get a Grip.
‘What’s so funny?’ I asked, sidling over.
‘Oh,’ said my mother, seemingly a little startled that I’d taken an interest, ‘nothing. You wouldn’t be interested.’
Assuming her goal was to convince me to go away quickly and leave her in peace, this statement was a massive tactical error. As keen readers of this blog may recall, I was – and, to a certain extent, remain – a contrary specimen, and whereas dogged exhortations from both my parents to read this book or try that movie had always roundly failed, this simple statement as to my probable disinterest kindled in me a fierce determination, as was always the case, to prove myself the opposite of expectations. Thus, instead of wandering away and resuming my aimless floor-loitering, I instead requested a glance at the book in question – specifically, of the section which had caused my mother to laugh out loud. It was a column (the book itself being a collection of columns) called Nuevo Foodo, which listed various foods or food-related terms and gave each one a humorous and misleading definition: junket, for instance, was down as “an overseas restaurant review.”
My mother, curse her eyes, had been right – I didn’t understand most of the jokes, and though I feigned both comprehension and laughter, her expression as I handed back the book suggested that she saw right through my cunning façade, with added eyebrow-waggling inferring that, while she was pleasantly surprised with my effort at comprehension, I could now hover off and let her get on with what was (to adults, damn them!) a very amusing book indeed.
Well! I was not so easily thwarted. Though I did, on that particular occasion, leave my maternal unit alone, my next act was to borrow the book as soon as my mother had finished it. I felt that I’d been challenged, somehow – not by the material itself, which wouldn’t ordinarily have caught my youthful attention, but by the suddenly plausible (and therefore worrying) notion that it was possible for adults to know things about me which I didn’t know myself. This was not something I wanted to be true, and so I resolved to disprove it. But though I hadn’t really understood the Neuvo Foodo piece, I had nonetheless experienced the tantalising goosebumps of near-comprehension: an almost physical certainty that even though I didn’t quite understand now, I would – or could – soon, and furthermore, that when I did, the knowledge would prove important. It felt as though the book itself somehow contained the whole adult world – a foreign realm towards which I was inexorably voyaging without so much as a map – and if I could glean even a fraction of sense from Get a Grip, then it would prove a worthwhile and profitable endeavour.
That’s a lot of significance to place on any book at the age of ten, let alone a collection of humorous newspaper columns with an emphasis on political and social commentary, but despite this tremendous pressure, the book itself not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. Though there were still some jokes I didn’t quite get, or references I didn’t understand, it turned out that Neuvo Foodo was, for my purposes, the most difficult piece in the whole book. Being already acquainted with political satire in the form of John Clarke’s The Games, I took to the rest of the content like a duck to water. It would be wrong to say that Kaz Cooke’s writing was the first real interest I shared with my mother, but it fast became one of the most significant ones, in which category it remains to this day. We’d quote various pieces to one another, such that certain phrases entered our family lexicon through dint of overuse; on car trips, I’d sometimes read particular favourites aloud, to our mutual amusement.
Though I didn’t quite get to the point of following Cooke’s work as it was published week by week in the papers, when her second collection of columns, Get Another Grip, was released in 1998, my mother was first in line for a copy. Once again, we both read the book and laughed ourselves silly: I was twelve by then, a genuine high school student, and I’d started to find that some of the jokes which had eluded me even a year ago, or which had never seemed quite as meaningful in the scheme of things, were increasingly interpretable and prescient. By 2001, when the final collection of columns was released, I was a fully-fledged left-wing teenager with a vehement interest in the political misdemeanours of the Howard government: her writing had never been more relevant. This time, it was me and not my mother who fronted up to the book counter in David Jones to ask if they had a copy. Given that the latest title was Living With Crazy Buttocks, this took no small amount of courage on my behalf, but though I felt embarrassed at asking for such a ridiculous-sounding volume in public, the look on the saleswoman’s face at my unflinching, snigger-free delivery of the word buttocks gave me such a heady rush of adrenaline that I was almost giddy. I had used an amusing anatomical term in front of a prim-faced employee of a major retail corporation for the very first time and emerged victorious! After that, actually purchasing the book felt like an afterthought, but one I was no less eager to sink my teeth in once I’d settled down.
Kaz Cooke is witty, irreverent and fiercely intelligent. She takes aim at the fashion industry and body image. She jeers at homophobes, at big business, at racism and bigotry. She defends Aboriginal land rights, gets angry at the government, argues in favour of feminism and women’s rights and laughs at the ridiculousness of modern life, and all in a way which is, both to me now and to my fledgeling self, hilarious, informative and deeply spot-on. I bought and read her fiction novel, The Crocodile Club, and loved it. I collected all her little books, beginning with the Little Book of Stress (a response to the unctuous Little Book of Calm) and kept them in a special shelf by the bedside. When given a copy of her non-fiction book for teenage girls, Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty, as a birthday present, I read it cover to cover. In every important respect, her work informed the person I grew up to be – not just because I loved her humour and agreed with her politics, but because the combination of those things, along with the fact that I’d been reading her since the age of ten, meant that, no matter how depressed or ugly or unnatural or out of place I felt during my teenage years, I always had a touchstone of common sense, kindness and laughter to which I could return.
This week, for the first time in a couple of years, I’ve reread all her columns from cover to cover, and laughed all over again. Though my copies of her little books, Real Gorgeous and The Crocodile Club have sadly been lost in successive moves, Get a Grip, Get Another Grip and Living With Crazy Buttocks have accompanied me all the way to Scotland. They still speak to me, just as they always did, and coming to the end of the third and final compilation, I still felt sad that there wasn’t another one waiting. But who knows? Perhaps there will be, one day.
Thanks, Kaz. You helped me grow up – and more, to have fun doing it.