Elly McDonald

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On Borove Forest, and elsewhere.

When I was a child my sister and I bought my father a large glossy coffee table volume, a history of World War 2 in photographs.

Two images shocked me more than all others. I encountered one of those images again today.

Today my Facebook Newsfeed popped up a Daily Mail article on “Ukraine’s shameful Holocaust of Bullets”, the systemic execution of up to 1.6 million Jews, resulting in around 2000 max graves located so far, with up to 6000 further sites believed yet to be identified.

A French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, made it his mission to uncover the human stories behind massacres that took place at four sites near Rava Ruska (Rawa Ruska), near the Ukraine-Poland border, where about 18000 Jews were murdered, and a further 14000 political prisoners and Romanies. Father Desbois’ grandfather Claudius Desbois was a prisoner of war at Rava Ruska. He’d said little except that outside the camp was worse than inside.

His grandson was moved to investigate. According to Father Desbois, as reported in the Daily Mail,

People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die.

Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.

Thirteen German private trucking companies came to work at Rava Ruska.

The Daily Mail reports that eventually, hundreds of eye witnesses provided testimony to Father Desbois, extending beyond the killing centre Rava Ruska to neighbouring towns like Belzec ten miles away and cities like Lvov (Lviv), 31 miles away.

Looking at the photographs that have survived begs the questions, “Who took these photographs? For what purpose? Why were they retained?”

Some of the photos are now part of the Yad Vashem collection, Yad Vashem being Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When I started to write this piece my intention was to comment closely on specific images. But the images largely speak for themselves, so I’ll keep comments brief.

This is the image that first hooked me today. (It’s not the one that shocked me as a child. Fortunately I never saw it as a child.)

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She’s young. She’s beautiful. She could be any of the young, beautiful women I see every day. She could be myself younger, or any of my friends. All her clothes have been torn off, except for her rather stylish shoes, and fully-clothed adult men are standing over her, cuffing her on the head, ahead of whatever happens next.

I think she’s been knocked down. I think this because in another photo she’s trying to fend off those hostile adult men. Look at their faces.

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This girl could be any girl, any girl in a combat zone, throughout human history. I worked with Bosnian refugees after the Bosnian conflict. I saw photos of women dragged onto the streets, pushed down on the street, raped in Bosnia. Every victim of wartime rape and murder is this girl’s kin.

She’s a hero, but it couldn’t save her. Being young couldn’t save her. Being beautiful did not.

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But the crime is not despoiling the young and beautiful. All victims of war are owed their dignity, in memory, even when dignity was taken from them at death.

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Here is a mother trying to protect her daughter. Her daughter’s clothes are already partly ripped away.

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Here is a group of people, apprehensive, knowing nothing good can happen. Look closely at the woman third from the left. She could be your colleague, couldn’t she? Your sister? Your friend?

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You might ask, are there no images of men being brutalised? Yes, there are. They’re excruciating. And boys being dragged down and beaten, and old men, too. But these images of women spoke to me most strongly, just as all those years ago one of the two images that spoke to me as a child was an image of a French female sexual collaborator being publicly humiliated.

(No, this is not that image. This one has the same emotional tenor.)

French_collaborator_12

(You ask, am I drawing an equivalence between Jewish women raped and murdered in Ukraine and French women whose heads were shaved as punishment for consorting with Germans?

I answer: Not an equivalence. But I do see a relationship, as victims of misogyny fuelled by wartime hatreds.)

These images of women being brutalised speak so powerfully it’s almost overkill (boom boom) to quote the eye witness testimonies:

One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.”

Nikola Kristitch was aged 8 in 1942 when he witnessed a day-long massacre:

“I remembered one of the girls, a young girl. Her panties were around her ankles.

“A German fired at her and her hair caught fire. She screamed and he took an automatic rifle, got into the grave and fired.

“The bullet ricocheted off his knee and he bled everywhere. He bandaged his knee, he was half undressed and then he emptied his round. He even killed Jews who still had their clothes on, he couldn’t wait he was so crazed with rage. He fired at everybody, he was crazy.”

These accounts would be merely pornographic if it were not so crucial to remember.

Father Desbois has established a foundation called Yahad and has worked to ensure a memorial was raised in Rava Ruska and Jewish graves are protected. He says,”Why do we come back to Ukraine? Because one day we will have to go back to Iraq, because one day we will have to go back to the last mass grave in Darfur.

“Tomorrow will be the same story.”

I don’t know if it was seeing those photographs back when I was a child that led 30 years later to me working with post-Bosnia refugees, or that led me to attempt to write a speculative fiction novel on these themes.

The image I will never forget from that book in my youth? This one. It was this one.

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(Content credit to Will Stewart and the MailOnline, 24 August 2015 8:12pm)

 


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Woman of Substances: A journey into addiction and treatment – by Jenny Valentish

Jenny ValentishJenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.

Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.

We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.

Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.

Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.

She writes wonderfully.

I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?

To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.

I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”

There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?

The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).

In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m a alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”

My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”

Good point.

She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”

This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.

She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”

Me neither. Me too.

Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.

There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.

Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.

For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.

Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.

This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.

Woman of Substances


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Avon and Servalan, Paul and Jacqueline – memoirs

Call me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation [with Nicholas Briggs] Audio CD

You’re him, aren’t you? An autobiography by Paul Darrow

From 1978 till 1981 the British sci-fi series Blake’s 7 was broadcast on TV across four seasons, 52 episodes in all. Blake’s 7 was originated by Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks of Doctor Who fame. He intended Blake’s 7 to be a darker alternative to Doctor Who: Doctor Who for adults. Or a darker Star Wars. It ended badly. I mean that. As a 20 year old fan in 1981, I was so distressed by Blake’s 7’s final scenes that I wrote to the newspapers: Shocked of Kings Cross, Sydney (a neighbourhood where most of us were mostly unshockable).

There were two mainstay characters who did not appear in Episode 1, Series 1, and one of these characters was missing – and greatly missed – in that final episode. The other claims the final shot. These characters are the evil galactic Supreme Commander Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and Avon, first introduced as a cold, self-interested, sociopathic hacker, played by Paul Darrow.

Servalan

The absence of Servalan and Avon might explain why, when I watched a repeat of Episode 1, Series 1 when Blake’s 7 was rescreened in the ‘90s, I could not make out why I’d loved this show so much. Avon and Servalan. They were the drawcards. Tarrant was cute and Cally quite compelling, Vila was amusing and the first Travis had a kind of S&M appeal, but really, for me Blake’s 7 was Avon and Servalan. This I understand was true for many of the series’ 10 million or so (at its peak) viewers.

Servalan, especially, was a kind of perverted role model for me. After a miserable love affair, I cut my hair to a short fuzz, to look like hers. Men wanted to touch the possum fur fuzz on my head. I let them. But I knew I was an alter ego – a lost clone – of the Supreme Commander and that if I chose, those men would be laser blast fragments.

servalan blasts Avon

Having recently re-encountered Blake’s 7, I was curious to learn what happened to the actors in their subsequent lives. I found there is a pop cult industry around the series, a business called B7 and a business called Big Finish, with audio adventures voiced by original cast members and Comic Con appearances. There are autobiographical materials, such as Call Me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation (audio CD) and Paul Darrow’s memoir You’re him, aren’t you? – An autobiography.

What did I learn?

I learned that it’s painful to be an actor, that the odds of achieving any kind of success are stacked against acting aspirants, that success once achieved is seldom enough, and seldom sustained, and that the pain of being a has-been and the pain of being a never-was and the pain of finding hollow “success” can be hard to live with.

I learned that Darrow and Pearce are both deeply ambivalent about Blake’s 7, that the 35 years since have seen both struggle with depression and despair, and struggle in other ways. Pearce talks openly, recklessly, about it. Darrow circles around pain and disappointment over and over, looping through themes of ambition and failure, and feelings of anger and envy, till the cumulative effect is of an old actor, deep in his cups, holding forth in a way he hopes is avuncular but in fact comes across as bitter. Not that I’m saying Paul Darrow drinks. I’m talking about how I read his memoir.

Paul Darrow Avon

There are positives. Jacqueline Pearce is painfully open, recounting a tale of talent blighted by mental illness, but her story testifies to resilience and the value of friendships, including a supportive friendship with the late great actor John Hurt. It’s easy to empathise with Pearce’s observations and experiences, and easy to admire her fortitude. Plus, her voice is beautiful, even if her frequent throaty laugh becomes unsettling.

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and his account of his life attests resilience, too, and enterprise. He writes in short pieces, not necessarily linear chronology, and I wish there’d been a sympathetic editor to hand to help him focus on the interesting questions he raises, and to minimise some of the more indulgent sections, such as his synopses of each episode of every Blake’s 7 series, which could be summarised as “The narratives were crap, the production values trash; if you care about Blake’s 7, the more fool you.”

I don’t think he meant to imply Blake’s 7’s production team, or its viewers, are idiots, but he does imply that, at length. Then he contradicts himself and praises the writers, the directors, the stunt crew, thanks the actors for their friendship and thanks Terry Nation for transforming his life. Like I said, conflicted.

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man. He does raise good questions. Given the plots are ludicrous, the stunts unconvincing, special effects rudimentary and the production values shout low budget, what can account for Blake’s 7’s popularity? This was a show shot on video, not film, shot largely within semi-bare stationary sets (Scene: The interior of a space craft), with quarries and occasional sand drifts for location shoots, and characters who wield what look like hair-dryers standing in for laser guns.

And this: why did audiences relate so strongly to the overt sociopaths, to Avon and Servalan? Why did the sparks of an Avon/Servalan pairing cause salivations? Why, cosmos above, would young women like me imagine Servalan a role model and fantasise about Avon?

Servalan Avon.jpg

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and in his autobiography he acknowledges these questions. Then, after a half-hearted stab in response (Avon as “a bit of rough”?), he gloomily gives up, as if it’s all too much. Which it would seem it was.

It must be hard, for Paul Darrow, to start out sharing a house with fellow RADA students John Hurt and Ian McShane, and at the height of one’s fame to be touted as a future James Bond (Timothy Dalton got the Bond gig), then to be relegated to pantomime, touring rep (again), and the continuing audio adventures of a character you played several decades back. A character who logic suggests died.

Darrow writes interestingly about typecasting, and he writes about an actor’s need for an audience, for affirmation. He is savagely funny about how he’ll be remembered. As ever, he’s torn, not sure whether anyone will care at all, or whether there’ll be mangled memories and pop culture fan-hysteric tears, or whether some people might consider his career had value. I’m here to reassure him. Paul, you are loved. How could a reader not love an actor who quotes the review that said “Paul Darrow plays Macbeth like Freddie Mercury giving a farewell concert”, and the review that read “Paul Darrow is an actor worth watching, but not in this play”?

It must be hard, for Jacqueline Pearce, to start out as the RADA ‘girl most likely’, directed by Trevor Nunn, hanging out with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McShane (no mention of Paul Darrow), then be ‘demoted’ in the final series of Blake’s 7, omitted altogether from the final episode, then spend most of the next decades with little or no acting work, instead dependent on Housing Benefits and the kindness of friends, with stints as an artists’ life-drawing nude model in Cornwall, and volunteering in a monkey sanctuary in Africa. Plus stints in psychiatric care. And two bouts with cancer.

Servalan Jacqueline Pearce

Live well, Jacqueline.

My own best answer for why Blake’s 7 was loved is this:

In the late ‘70s, the Western world began to understand its supremacy could not last. Throughout the ‘70s there were petrol politics, revolutions, the Irish Troubles, labour unrest, increasing disparity between North and South, and rich and poor. During Blake’s 7’s run, the USA voted out Jimmy Carter and voted in Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of Britain.

We weren’t too sure about our heroes – was Thatcher a Servalan? – and we weren’t sure who were the villains (the IRA? Revolutionaries in Iran?).

Paul Darrow points out it isn’t clear whether the crew of the space ship Liberator, the crew who were “Blake’s seven”, were in fact heroes or simply terrorists. He asks, if Blake was trying to lead a popular revolution, why was nobody else rising up? Could it be, possibly, that the Evil Empire was not perceived by its citizens as evil? Could it be that Blake, and his crew, with their talents for destruction, remained criminals even on the Liberator, as they had started out criminals?

In times of change and extreme moral ambivalence the foremost task, possibly, becomes survival. Avon and Blake and the Blake’s 7 crew hurtled through a hostile universe, hunted by omnipresent authorities, unsure of their mission, not knowing who to trust. So you trust the strong man. You trust the sociopath, Avon, because Avon has his eyes on the prize: survival. Or you follow the Supreme Commander, Servalan, because Servalan is also a survivor, and her will to power is second to none.

Pearce and Darrow were good at playing survivors.

Don’t be fooled by that soft velvet fuzz. Servalan will kill rather than be killed, and Avon will, always, be the last man standing.

avon and guards

 


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W for War

Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley

The office is divided
by corridors: this side
that side
In the centre a common meeting ground
Reception
With its wall-size red logo
W for War
The foot soldiers tramp
through the common area
primed for hostilities
ready to do damage
and die. Metaphorically.
They know so little.

Grunts – writing exercise 2014

Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.

One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

I wrote him a poem, at his request:

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?

Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘90s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

That, I think, is a truer beginning.

But let’s loop back just a little, again. Let’s set it in context. First, my boss. I’ll call him Mark (not his real name). Mark was a beacon of integrity in a muddy media landscape. He advocated for transparency in media planning and buying deals. Once, I could have explained to you what that means. Now, I don’t really remember how media buying worked, if I ever did at all. Mark spoke at international conferences on media transparency, quality media planning, media futures (the digital age – the media environment that now surrounds us). He was 39, from Newcastle, handsome, married – to Annie (not her real name) – and he had two young children. Unusually for the English, he had perfect teeth, a blinding white smile. He was Mister Clean.

Then, there was me. I was Becky Sharp, as in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Becky. I was on the make, an out-of-towner who’d landed in London as winter fell, in mid-recession, no contacts and no money and who, appalled, clawed and clambered her way out of a lowly hole up several higher rungs towards the glamour of Park Lane. I’d walked out on workplaces where it seemed to me I’d been scorned and mistreated, out-faced people who’d tried to exploit me, slapped down what seemed like an endless array of bored married men, clients and colleagues, who seemed to assume I was cheap meat. Previous to London I’d lived for a decade in Sydney’s Kings Cross, in a lane known as Blood Alley, in honour of a gangster shoot-out in the ‘20s. I swear I had more men proposition me in London workplaces than ever propositioned me on the Golden Mile. Mad Men, indeed.

To get my current job I’d sat out of the workforce for three months, from when I first interviewed – when the managing director stared at me and said, “You really don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?” – till several months later, when the CEO, Mark, hired me. Now I had the title ‘Marketing Director’, a salary nearly two and a half times my starting salary in London five years before, and an office to myself with a window view through green trees towards Hyde Park, where I could watch the Regimental Changing of the Guard. Did I hold it against Mark that the process took so long? Truthfully, I did.

Mark supported and encouraged me when I bought my perfect apartment. I panicked and thought I should mail the keys back to the mortgage holder at once. Mark didn’t understand that. You have a good job, he said. You earn good money now.

I did have a good job, and I earned danger money – salaries in advertising and media agencies were high in recognition that the business was cut-throat. Time at the top could be brief. ‘Success’ was contingent on bringing in business and servicing that business so outstandingly that clients were retained, despite constant churn. Mark and I were a team focused on bringing in business. His responsibilities were infinitely more complex than mine, and he had more at stake.

… Or something about the poison of gossip, running like mercury through corridors in glamorous West End offices. I’m thinking of the First Emperor, in Ch’in, whose tomb – legend has it – is lethally protected by a moat of mercury.

Black Cat Crossing – writing exercise 2014

Mark was right. I was close to friendless in that workplace. Close to but not totally. Kate, Anna, Tara, Sarah and Robbie were kind. Notice it’s girl allies, mostly. (The male office manager was also decent.) I don’t doubt I was an affront to my male colleagues, and I was Australian. I was bolshie – aggressive and odd. I claimed to know dead rock stars.

Worse, I was 36 and lonely. I’d been so disorientingly lonely in the past few years that I’d done foolish things. Once I got off a bus outside Selfridges to follow a man in a well-cut coat because I fancied his coat, or what I thought it represented. I shadowed him some way up Oxford Street before I lost him in the winter crowds. I wondered just what I would have done if he’d stayed in sight. Would I really have propositioned him, as I’d planned to?

I’d phoned and written to a man I’d flung with in 1992 for several years after he’d moved on. Fortunately that was resolved by 1997. I’d met him at media events, twice, and we were cool. Thank you, Seumas (not his real name).

I’d formed an attachment to a man who liked me back. But this was a man who, when we first got to know each other, over champagne cocktails, told me the best thing that’d ever happened to him was meeting his wife. That man – let’s call him Amiel (not his real name) – might have been, briefly, open to an affair. But I’d told him it would be a very, very bad idea for any married man to get involved with me as I find painful to let go, and I’d make his – this hypothetical man’s – life hell.

I’d spent 10 wretched weeks living at a Cold Comfort Farm in Kent with an alcoholic depressive in conditions so unhygienic I’d had repeat bouts of food poisoning.

I tried a dating agency, and was temporarily imprisoned by a cult leader (now there’s a story!); lonely-hearts columns, and met a man who turned nasty after one date when I was out and couldn’t pick up the phone next time he rang; and going to public functions, where I met a Young Conservative who suffered what looked like anaphylactic shock when he learned I was 10 years older than him. There were others.

I bought a vibrator in a sex shop off Leicester Square and was followed out into a side street by an Irishman who whispered he could give me the “real thing”.

I’d had one-night stands with a few – a very few – men who were what I considered sluts: men who were promiscuous and single, or reckless with their relationships. None of them men I worked with.

I’d formed a crush not long after starting in my current job, on the man who headed the Social Committee. That’s right, the one who wanted to be Dead Michael in Blue Face. My first week, some colleagues had drinks after work and as he’d said good-bye he’d touched my cheek then kissed me. I was touched-starved. That was all it took. His private office was one up from my private office. One afternoon I went to his office, talked shop, and my hand had momentarily touched his knee. He’d looked shocked.

Down the line, I heard the office gossip was that I’d stroked his penis. Apparently that – direct quote – is what he’d told them. I was also told by a director, to my face, that I was having an affair with Mark. Colleagues froze me out of social contact. The one time I went to the pub with workmates at the table where I sat a colleague jutted his jaw at me and challenged, “Mark’s wife is a really nice person.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. “Mark is a really nice person. Of course he has a really nice wife.”

I didn’t get it.

I went to a corporate event – Robbie Williams performing in Hyde Park – and sat behind the actress Felicity Kendall, beside Mark and his family. Mark’s wife got up and walked away, taking the children. Mark followed. I went to the bar. People I’d worked with previously stared at me and sniggered. I still didn’t get it.

I should have got it. I was not blameless. Somewhere after “I’m your only friend in this place” and me buying my apartment, Mark and I became close. I think this is because we were both, essentially, at risk. The agency was working on an extended pitch, a new business pitch that absorbed six months of effort. We had a major client which was merging with other companies to form a megacorporation. Our part of the business up for grabs was valued at, from memory, close on UKP100 million. It mattered. If we could win this business, it would vindicate Mark’s business strategy: quality bespoke planning, over what we in the business called “gorillas with calculators” – media buying leveraged on high volumes.

If we didn’t win this business, Mark was out.

It would be fair I think to say Mark was the target, the mark, and I was collateral damage. Mark had his enemies, certainly. I’d picked up a few of my own, on a petty spite level. The more under threat we felt, the closer we became. But never that close.

There was a very brief period where I felt as if I were romantically in love with Mark and he might have been mildly infatuated with me. But Mark was a man who loved his wife and kids and I wanted to protect him. I was careless in letting my feelings show. I was careless in words I said that could be construed wrongly.

I have a few memories, and I value them:

Mark offering me a CD of classic torch songs he’d got as a freebie from a client. Me declining it. Him nudging the CD off his desk into a bin. “Oh well,” he said.

Me sitting in a stalled train, thinking about Mark, floating away in a golden gauze reverie. The man seated opposite waking me by asking, “What are you thinking?” Me smiling wordlessly and shaking my head.

Meeting Mark on a railway station platform. Walking towards him. Romantic movie style.

Mark detouring on our way back from presenting to a prospective client in Surrey, showing me the Porsche showroom where his dream Boxster awaited. (It’s still waiting.)

Mark stretched out on the leather sofa in our office, his ankles crossed, his hands behind his head. “No one would believe it of me,” he smiled.

You know where this is headed. We didn’t win the business. The gorillas beat us out. That morning, the entire staff waited in the open plan section of the office and watched Mark through the glass of his ‘private’ office as he waited for the phone call. You’ve heard the expression “still as statues”? We were statues. We waited hours. Then the phone rang, Mark picked up the phone, a brief conversation, he put down the receiver. Then he kicked his desk bin, the one where our love songs were trashed, and he kicked it, hard.

Mark exited that day. That week, a new junior employee was moved into my previously private office and I walked out. The managing director, Robbie, and one of Mark’s allies, Tara, came to my apartment to talk me into returning. I lay on my sofa and looked out the window at the green leaves of a tall tree. It couldn’t work.

Robbie “had a word” with corporate senior management to arrange for me to have a more generous severance payment than my contract specified. I think he persuaded them a pay-out would pre-empt legal action on my part. Legal action had not occurred to me. I’m grateful to Robbie for trying to make things better. I spent a large part of the pay-out on designer fashion purchased at the West End boutique where I took a casual job. The rest formed the core of my pension fund, my superannuation, such as it is.

Last week I heard a radio discussion about personal sledges on the fo♣otball field. I sent a text: LOL you think appalling things aren’t said in corporate environments? Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.

The radio team read that twice: Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.

W for War.

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Eulogy by my sister Cathy for our father Angus’s wake – draft

I was with Dad when the surgeon said the cancer is inoperable. Dad smiled and asked, “You don’t think it’s worth looking around for a new car then?”

The next day he went out with Mum and bought a new car for her because he wanted her to be safe when he was no longer here to protect her.

He had an amazing capacity to manage setbacks with humour and I think he learned it from when he was very young growing up in Mt Gambier during the Great Depression and World War 2. His parents Angus and Edie were born in the 1890s and already parents when World War 1 began. Dad’s sister, Ila, was one of thousands of children who caught polio around 1917 and she suffered the effects for the rest of her life. His cousin Des also grew up cared for by Dad’s family but by the time Angus was born Des was leaving home. Dad’s father owned a shop called The Spot for Menswear and it’s there that Dad began his career in retail, learning from his own father the skills he needed to be a manager and later director at Myer. I think the first photographs he took were of his house and family and the shop.

You will all recall Dad out and about with his camera. Photography was his special past-time that got him out into nature, the sunshine and the inevitable conversations with all the extraordinary people he met. Soon after he received the bad news, he decided to prepare a slide show for today. I helped with the technology and he chose the images. This proved complicated because he has 45,000 photos on his computer. Not long after we started work on the slide show his computer completely froze. I took it to Matt at Apptech who said he’d never seen that happen before but Dad’s computer was completely full. We had to delete some obsolete files. This was tricky because Dad doesn’t see any of his things as redundant.

Dad wanted the slide show to reflect his great love of Mum and family. He wanted images of all his friends: those who have already passed and those here today. We found images of him at school, including a special one of the football team showing him and Hugh Edwards who would later be brothers-in-law. There are his dear friends from uni who I’ve known and loved all my life. There are the amazing people from the community at Point Lonsdale who have shown so much love and support for the family.

Dad was so worried about Mum left alone but just seeing all the kindness that has been extended towards Elizabeth relieved him. Thank you to all of you who have dropped off food and equipment, who have chatted on the beach, phoned, and given your attention to our family in the last few months. That solidarity is much appreciated.

I sidetracked there a bit, so back to the slide show.

There are the tennis players, the Point Lonsdale Raqueteers, who awarded him legend status just in the nick of time, as seen in the photo on today’s flyer. You will see the Optimists from the Optimists’ Club, who have lunched together once a month for years, and his mates from Probus. Mum and Dad were very proud foundation members of the Combined Probus. There are old friends from interstate.

However, we didn’t fit every one Dad cares about into the slide show because I wanted images of Dad. Now, he is happy to take photos of everyone else, but there are not so many images of him. Most of the ones he chose were taken by Mum when they travelled together. One of my favourites is of Dad dressed up as Father Christmas with his sister Ila and his Auntie Maude, both of whom he looked after as they aged. It was a huge responsibility for him to drive through Melbourne on Christmas Day dressed this way because children in cars everywhere spotted him and waved. He waved back to them all.

Last year, I researched the connections between memories and photographs for an artwork project for my post-graduate studies in art at Deakin. I based my work on a photograph of the Point Lonsdale front beach by Dad. You will have seen his images of random families on the front beach that he took originally to decorate the guest rooms at the Point Lonsdale Motel, which Mum and he ran during the 1990s. Later, he couldn’t throw them away, so they hung in their house at Cheshunt Street. We discussed what his photographs actually recorded. He told me that he recalled he heard Louis Armstrong singing A Wonderful World as he pressed the shutter button. When you look at Dad’s images they all show his love for people and nature and for being alive.

Angus loved music and played it constantly. If he could hang out with Bing, Louis, Frank, Dean and Sammy he was happy. He decided to make a soundtrack for the party, to start after these speeches. He wants to dedicate all these love songs to Mum. Like Dad, I find great consolation in the stardust of a song.

He also chose the songs for this serious part of the proceedings. Amazing Grace is for Mum because Dad is grateful to her for all the grace she has shown him over the years. He wanted the Dennis Walter version but we couldn’t find the single to buy so Elly tracked down Dennis’s brother. Fred said it wasn’t available as a single but he sent Dad a homemade disk just for today. Dad chose St Louis Blues because he loved the joyous jazz funeral processions he saw in New Orleans.

He chose Jimmy Durante because there couldn’t be anyone more lovable to sing about love and Dad decided that love was the most important part of his life.

Stardust captures the bitter-sweetness he feels at leaving behind his loved ones. You might be surprised that he chose When Irish Eyes are Smiling when his ancestry is so Scottish, but Elly sent a sample of his spit to be DNA tested and it turned out he was nearly 50% Irish, down the female lines of course. This amused him no end, as his favourite son-in-law is an O’Keefe. He gave Peter his green polo shirt to wear today and chose the song, an Irish song, to celebrate the news.

Isa Lei is a Fijian farewell song. Last year, for his 85th birthday Dad took us all to Fiji. Mum and Dad took Elly and me there for our first trip overseas as teenagers. It is a special place for our family and we had the most marvellous times there. I have video of Dad’s birthday dinner aboard a sunset cruise, being serenaded by waiters. Then we all got up and danced the night away.

Looking back at my childhood, I am grateful I had loving parents but even more so that I had parents who loved each other. I remember sometimes sneaking out of bed to the top of the stairs because I could hear music playing and seeing Mum and Dad dance together alone in their own bubble of love. The last song Dad chose is Save the Last Dance for Me.

Adam Lindsey Gordon, one of Australia’s great poets, incidentally also lived in Mt Gambier. He wrote a poem that sums up how I see my Dad. It’s known as Froth and Bubble – a good name for a racehorse.

Life is mainly froth and bubble

But two things stand as stone

Kindness in another’s trouble

And courage in your own.

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Angus in his own words

angus-mcdonaldI have a strong sense of history. You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old, my grandfather would be 175, and my father would be 125 and my mother 125. Even my sister would be 104. There is frightening evidence of longevity. All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.

I’m not lying. My great grandfather was born in Scotland in Glencoe in 1802. My grandfather was born in Adelaide in 1842. My father was born in Yando in 1890. I don’t have to invent stories, they fell in my lap. I have been privy to hand-me-down stories dating back before Ned Kelly. I’ve selected a few from the distant past and some from my own personal experiences. There’s a bit of a mixture of humour and pathos, such is life; and hopefully some insights into human nature. I’m reaching an age where recollections are almost more important than new experiences and frankly I’ve already decided that I will ignore Facebook and a good deal of the goodies of the IT revolution. In fact some of the behaviour, such as the lack of eye contact because people have their focus trained on iPads and iPhones etc, and the pathetic use of mobiles just to fill in time, makes me quite angry on occasions.

Well, times have certainly changed. I imagine the percentage of regular church-goers has dropped from 80%-plus when I was born to maybe 2% now in Australia. My dad told me that when he was a kid they were let out of Sunday School well before the adults came out of church and he and his brothers had taken all the horses out of their shafts, turned the jinkers and the buggies around and re-harnessed the horses on the other side of the fences. The kids were hoping this would see them banned from Sunday School but all it did was result in a thorough belting from their father.

Dad saw World War 1 coming and from 1911 he was in the volunteer Light Horse. He was also in the town band so he became their army bugler. He told me they had a visiting colonel from England came to inspect them, a very self-important gentleman. During a field exercise the colonel called on Dad to “Sound the assembly!”

“I don’t know it, sir,” Dad said. The colonel was unimpressed.

“If you whistle it I’ll play it,” said Dad.

“Good God!” said the colonel. “Well at least the man’s got some brains!”

My dad Angus and two of his brothers were in World War 1. As farm lads they were all excellent horsemen and deadly shots with a gun and they were in the 4th Light Horse. Uncle Les saw more of the fighting, in Lebanon, Egypt and France. He was gassed in France and although he survived, it certainly shortened his life. He died in 1952. I also knew he had been hospitalised, wounded, for five months. I had always assumed it was a bullet but when I searched his records it was a surprise to discover he had been kicked in the groin while shoe-ing a mule! It may have saved his life by keeping him out of the front line for half a year. Uncle Jack told me a story of a soldier mate of his who woke up one morning in a dead funk and sweat and told him he knew he was going to die that day. He had never been anything but brave in all kinds of situations but this day he was petrified. My uncle went to their commanding officer and explained the situation, and he said, “I’ll send you two behind the lines to get ammunition and this will take him out of harm’s way, a mile away”. Jack said they took a wagon, each riding one of the horses. At the gate Jack dismounted and presented their authority to proceed. When he returned his mate was lying on the ground with a bullet between the eyes from a sniper who had infiltrated the lines.

At the end of the War they were reallocated horses and rode as Lighthorsemen in the Victory Parade in Paris down the Champs-Elysées. In the polishing and preparation for the event one of the men discovered he had been issued a sword which was bent; although it would come out of its scabbard OK it was extremely difficult to put it back. It was too late to get a replacement but nobody liked their sergeant-major, who was an arrogant bully, so the lads all agreed they should replace the damaged sword with his – a simple swap. Imagine the scene on the big day. The sergeant-major is out on his own in full view of the crowds. The detachment is at the trot and he gives the order as they approach the saluting base: “Withdraw swords! Present swords!”, and – after they pass the President of France – “Replace swords!”

The sergeant-major rode for the rest of the journey unsuccessfully trying to get his sword back in the scabbard. After the march he singled out our boys and said “If this bloody war wasn’t over I’d have you all shot!”

Les went on to ride at the London Victory Parade and got his just deserts when his horse slipped on the wet cobblestones and they slid into the crowd outside Buckingham Palace. One selfie he’s glad he didn’t get.

Back to farming for two of them.

I had twin aunts, Fanny and Florence, who married farmers in the Yando district on the River Lodden. The eldest brother was Jim or James. He had to earn a living off a tiny farm, 200 acres. He left school at 14 and somehow got himself to Tasmania and worked in the 1890s on the newly-discovered Mount Lyall Mine near Queenstown. The work conditions were so dangerous and appalling that he joined the union. Some years later he was running the whole movement in Tasmania and in 1915 entered parliament as a Labor MP. With his lack of education it is amazing that he became Minister for Education, then Mining and then Attorney General. Dad went to his funeral in 1947. It was a State funeral and still holds the record for the number of mourners.

Dad became a retailer, which he had been in Camperdown when the War started. He worked in London Stores (in Melbourne) then Hamilton and then Mt Gambier, eventually setting up his own highly successful men’s wear business, known as The Spot for Men’s Wear. He became a town councillor for 30 years, an alderman, president of the South-East and Western Districts Football Association, The Adam Lindsay Gordon Literary Society, a Rotarian from 1928 to 1977, president of the town band, and he opened branch stores in Naracoorte and Millicent despite the headwinds of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

I was born into the depths of the Great Depression in 1931. Nobody saw me coming and pretty soon nobody will know I’ve been here. 1931 was quite a dramatic year. The New York stockmarket had already imploded and the unemployment rate was over 30%. Adolf Hitler was gearing up to seize power from a democratic government which had become feeble. Josef Stalin had harnessed the false hope of Communism and killed 10 million of his own people. Tojo had control of Japan and invaded China’s province Manchuria, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to launch the New Deal in America, Chiang Kai-shek ruled China but Mao Zedong was taking advantage of that Japanese invasion to carve out a power base for a successful revolution, Mussolini was planning military aggression against France and Abyssinia, and in Spain, the monarchy was removed and replaced by a republic while General Francisco Franco watched, shocked, and waited his moment.

My father saw the inevitability of World War 2, and so when I woke up on my birthday in 1938 he had given me a .22 rifle and bullets as a present: “You’d better learn to shoot, son. It could save your life.” I was 7 years old and I did kill lots of hares and rabbits and won cadet shooting competitions. Luckily I missed World War 2, Korea and Vietnam.

During World War 2 my father was appointed chairman of the government fund-raising for the War for the south-east of South Australia and chief Air Raid Warden for Mt Gambier and District. In this capacity he had a brush with American allies. The USA had taken over and expanded our airfield and had a squadron of Aerocobras stationed there along with other installations. They had compulsorily acquired five or six local garages for storage and supply depots and on one night at about midnight Dad received a call from an Air Raid Warden to say that one of these depots had a major light over the forecourt, in contravention of the blackout, and the officer in charge refused to put it out. He got out of bed very angry, probably just sufficient whiskey to prompt direct action, and he arrived outside the offending building and confronted the officer in charge. There was the light, 60 or 70 feet above the ground, and the Yank said, “We’ve come here to protect you, Aussie. If you want the light out, you put it out”.

“Right!” said Angus. “Can I have that sentry’s rifle?”

“Sure, Aussie, sure.”

Dad cocked the rifle and took aim and blew the globe to smithereens.

The Yank looked on and said, “You know, Aussie, I think we are going to win this war between us.”

I turned 12 in 1943 and I distinctly remember the day I became convinced we would win World War 2. The news in that year was bleak. Hitler was at the gates of Moscow, Rommel’s panzas had reached El Alamein and Tobruk was under siege. In the Pacific, the Japanese were everywhere. But on that day a flight of 20 or so Aerocobras came to my home town. They hedge-hopped at phenomenal speed over the paddocks, even up and down our main street, less than 20 feet above the ground. And then they would hit the thrusters and let out an ear-piercing whine and hurtle vertically up into the clouds. We had become accustomed to Avro Anson trainers flying at 110 mph and these dare-devils thundered across our skies at 400 mph and, like the Yank from the story of the shot lamp, I said to Dad, “We’re going to win this war!”

The great turning point came in that year with the Battle of the Coral Sea, on Australia’s doorstep; the break-out from El Alamein across the North African desert; the Russian victory at the gates of Moscow, St Petersburg and Stalingrad; and the beginning of the thousand bomber raids over Germany. I recall a cartoon in The Argus: “At the going down of the son (S.O.N.) and in the mourning (M.O.U.R.N.I.N.G.) we will remember THEM – Hitler-Germany Mussolini-Italy Tojo-Japan THE AXIS!”

I had some really great bosses during my working life but I think the best was Basil Glowrey, who was managing director of Myer in South Australia when I was there. He joined Myer after the War but only after he recovered from being a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. He came back from Burma weighing 5 stone but when I knew him he was again a robust 14 stone. Glowrey was shot down over Sumatra. He was patrolling solo in a Wirraway and got sighted by three Zeros – not a fair fight. They took him to Changi in Singapore and like many others he was transferred to the Burma Railway. He was in the same camp as Weary Dunlop and witnessed some appalling scenes. If you haven’t seen Bridge Over The River Kwai you really should.

One of our Myer directors, Geoff Errington, was another ex-serviceman. He had been a bomber pilot in New Guinea and told me when they were stationed in Milne Bay a crew with a fully-loaded bomb-load took off on a mission from the short air-strip beside the heavily forested hills. It failed to climb fast enough and blew apart when it hit the hillside. The crew were all their close mates and they went up and surveyed the scene. No one was alive and there was a flying boot with a severed foot in it and helmets and jackets mixed with human flesh. Supplies were so short they salvaged everything they could and reused them when required. This became a practice and reusing dead men’s gear out of their lockers was usual.

Geoff told me he and some of these pilots from New Guinea came back to Australia and were stationed at Laverton and Point Cook as instructors. One day they were sitting in the bar and a trainer aircraft took off. It stalled and crashed back to earth and burst into flames. Geoff raced to the phone and contacted the control tower. “Who was the pilot and who was the instructor?” he asked.

It was one of his best mates. The boys in the bar followed tradition and went to his locker and each took a piece of clothing or boots and retired to the bar to have a farewell drink to their mate. Suddenly the door burst open and this guy waved his hands and shouted, “Put it all back! Put it all back!”

Their mate had been thrown clear and he knew exactly what they were doing, saying goodbye to him.

“Not yet,” he said.

He had resilience, like the old Jewish lady crossing the road. An aggressive motorist flashed by and knocked her flying. As she began to get up he stopped and leaned out the window and shouted, “Watch out!”

She shouted back, “Whatsa matter? You coming back??”

Friday 14th August we celebrated the end of WW2 Victory in the Pacific. It’s worth thinking about what life would be like today had we lost!

When my family – my wife Elizabeth and our daughters – lived in Adelaide we were adopted by the American ex-pat community, most of whom were engaged in oil search Delphin Santos as they found and developed the SA Moonie oil field. They were extremely active in the Australian-American Association and Liz and I were each year guests on that table, a huge square in the middle of the ballroom. We were the only Australians with several dozen Americans, mostly engineers and their wives. One year I was seated next to a guy from Oklahoma named Tom Manuel. His company actually sold the drilling equipment to Delhi and he was the US consul for South Australia. Tom was a man of few words and although I knew him quite well we really didn’t converse very much at the table. All of a sudden at midnight the double doors were thrown open and an American brass band from the visiting aircraft carrier came striding in playing Colonel Boogie and other Yankee tunes and precision marching up and down the aisles between the tables. It was really very exciting but Tom turned to me and said, “Don’t these Yanks give you the shits!”

Back in 1967 the term ‘marketing’ came into widespread use and I was lecturing at the South Australian Institute of Technology and flew to Sydney to the first conference of the Institute of Marketing. The key speaker was Professor Britt from California. Part of his lecture was to define ‘marketing’. In doing so he told us this:

“I was flying out to Australia to address this conference and our flight followed the Tropic of Cancer across the Pacific to Japan and then on to Singapore and Sydney. The crossing of the Pacific became very hairy when we hit a typhoon. Before that however I was chatting with my neighbour in the next seat who was a bishop, he told me, and who was wearing his bishop’s vest and clerical collar. He enquired what I did and I explained I was a professor of marketing. He pressed to find out what this was all about, and so I explained there are those such as salesmen and sales managers whose job it is to sell but marketing embraced much more, such as advertising and broader policy issues including product innovation, and then on top of that there was in the company hierarchy the term ‘management’ – people who oversaw the whole structure and process of general management.

“About this time we hit turbulence and the plane began to thump and bump and shake unbelievably. Passengers started screaming and crying and several were injured. A young lady broke free from her seat-belt and raced up the aisle. She spotted my companion the bishop and grabbed onto him and pleaded ‘Father Father save us!’

“He turned to her and said, ‘I’m sorry, my dear. I’m not in Management. I’m only in Marketing.’”

Here’s another aeroplane story.

At an exciting time in the history of Myer I was appointed team leader of a selected group of eight directors and senior representatives tasked with reorganising the company nationally. This did not include Target but it embraced McWhirters in Queensland, Western Stores and later Grace Brothers in NSW, Myer Melbourne and Southern Stores in Victoria, Myer South Australia, and Bairds and Boans in Western Australia. At that time I seemed to be on an aircraft five days a week and wouldn’t you know the economy had a nasty downturn and all directors and others used to First Class travel were sent a Board instruction not to travel First Class to help the company economise. Which we all did. Several weeks later I ran into our chairman Ken Myer in the departure lounge bound for Perth. When the seatbelt signs came off a hostess came to me and said, “Mr Myer is sitting five rows back and would like you to join him”.

I walked up the aisle and found Ken sitting by the window with a spare seat beside him.

“Gee,” I said. “You were lucky to get an empty seat on such a full flight!”

“Oh,” Ken said. “As chairman of the Board I carefully oversaw the wording of that edict about travelling economy class. You will notice it does not prescribe how many seats you can have. I always buy two.“

“I’ve got long legs,” he said.

I’ve always been keen on tennis but no champion. In 1958 I married Liz and moved to Melbourne from my dad’s retail business to become personal assistant to John Young, one of the pioneer Australian management consultants.   Must have boasted to him of my tennis powess when I found he was president of Kooyong Tennis Club and Lawn Tennis Australia Victoria hosting Davis Cups. He asked if Liz and I would come down to his Portsea house for a barbecue and tennis day and of course we accepted. On arrival he said there were four couples and suggested the men play a set before lunch, now!

The others were twice my age but I quickly found they were no pushovers. John Young was partnering me and I said, “I’m getting sick of this old guy down there on the backhand court, keeps returning my serve with ease and he’s giving me the shits!”

“Okay,” John said. “I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce you. That’s Harry Hopman!”

In Adelaide our neighbour was a close friend of Lew Hoad and he came over and stayed with them and I saw a lot of him. By then he was almost out of top tennis and was coaching in Spain. One day he showed me his problem from thumping his foot down as he served – his right foot and ankle was cold and solid like pottery. He had to have shoes made to fit and yet that week he played exhibition tennis with Rosewall, Sedgeman and John Newcombe.

Incidentally John Bromwich retired down here where we live in Victoria and used to play a little with his wife Zelda and two beautiful blond daughters. John had severe arthritis and could scarcely move about the court and died many years ago.

Later I had a chance meeting on a plane with Peter McNamara, who with Paul McNamee won the Australian Open men’s doubles and two Wimbledon men’s doubles. His knee was cactus and he had the management of the Pro Shop and brand new stadium in East Melbourne. He was trying to stir up interest in business for the courts and I formed a group to play there each week because Peter offered to play with us. We did this weekly for about five years and sometimes Paul McNamee showed up too. One day Peter was partnering me and said I would do a lot better if I watched the ball. I told him I was helping to partner him but I was too old to be coached!

On another day I asked him if he preferred me or McNamee as a partner. He said, “Well, McNamee is boring, because he’s so predictable. You? You’re not!”

He told us that when he and Paul McNamee won their first Wimbledon doubles at a very young age, they were totally nervous the night before the final and decided to go to the club house, have a lemonade and sneak to bed. When they came into the bar there was their idol Lew Hoad propped up on a stool. McNamee pulled his shirt and said “Don’t go near him, people will think we’re trying to get some tips”. But Hoad had seen them and beckoned them over to him. Sheepishly, they approached and Paul couldn’t help himself. He blurted out, “Lew, what are we going to do?”

Lew looked at them both and said “It’s all in your serve”.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked.

“Just throw it up and hit it like shit,”

And that’s just what they did.

Champions don’t need coaches.

 


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The alternative history

This is the alternative history, the eulogy for my father I will not deliver. Some of the details may be incorrect. The chronology might be out. It’s as I remember it.

It’s Adelaide, summer 1972/73.

Our house is built into a hillside, and my parents are terracing the back garden, building rock retaining walls to prevent earthslides. My mother is beautiful, in her red singlet and denim bell-bottom jeans, with her auburn shag hair-do. My father is funky, his terry-towel flares broadly striped white, yellow and blue. A black kiss curl falls across his forehead.

angus-w-bonI have the camera and I am taking my first photos ever, my parents, and our family dogs, the standard poodles Bon and Mouse. The sun shines and I am so happy with my portrait of my father. I am 11.

At some point during the wall-building project, my father hurts his back. Or maybe it’s his neck. Doctors can’t figure out where the problem is. For sure, he has back pain. He also has tingling sensations in his fingers. Over time, he loses sensation in his left hand, then there’s loss of sensation rising up his left arm. He considers consulting a chiropractor but decides against. He doesn’t want to focus attention on his back problem because he’s just been handed a major promotion and the family is preparing to move to head office, interstate, in Melbourne.

He’s thrilled with the promotion but the move is problematic. My mother, a senior lecturer in Sociology at a young university, has been offered tenure. For her, that would mean permanent employment till retirement and the likelihood of achieving professorial status, like her father. Moving to Melbourne, with its more traditional, established universities, might present difficulties in terms of her next career position. After all, although it isn’t yet essential to have a PhD to secure academic employment, my mother hasn’t yet completed her MA.

scan

There’s a further problem: the Melbourne school my sister and I have won junior scholarships to attend can’t accept us till the new school year commencing February 1974.

It’s agreed my father will relocate to Melbourne and live temporarily in a hotel while my mother stays with the children in Adelaide to organise the sale of our family home, the move to Melbourne, and to complete her MA.

This is not entirely satisfactory. My father sends us photos of him dining out with female family friends: a friend estranged from her husband; an old friend newly divorced. My mother picks up the scissors and bisects those photos, cutting out the smiling women.

The sequence is confused in my memory but my grandmother dies. She and my grandfather, my mother’s parents, were travelling in their homeland, England, on academic sabbatical. Nanna is ill, but, a bit like Angus, she doesn’t want to draw attention to that. In fact, she does not want anyone to guess. I should have guessed. The previous summer, when we holidayed as a family on Rottnest Island, she told me in the kitchen about her friend Alice. Alice, I now know, was actually her cousin, and they were best friends. Alice died very young from breast cancer. My grandmother also had breast cancer young, at 41, but a family friend, a surgeon, ensured she had the most radical extensive surgery possible, removing the diseased breast, lymph glands and much of her ribcage muscle, leaving her with scarring from her neck across her chest and past her shoulder. This was at the time believed to be her best insurance against recurrence.

1953 (written 1983)

with grace, head held high

she carries herself serenely

(King Charles walked and talked

half an hour after…)

unassailably regal as those who have learned

to ignore homemade bombs peasants

pitch in their faces

she carries herself

no support

she knows

she knows

she believes them, and believing

will never trust again

moving?

as if on castors, slightly stiff but

caring?

unbowed. Steadfast, her face composed

grey-eyed

she must know

dry-eyed

Anyway. Nanna told me that Alice hadn’t wanted to distress her family, so she’d continued taking care of her husband and her children, preparing meals and cleaning, without telling anyone she was ill. And then she died.

Telling (written 1985)

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

is talking to herself.

‘I had a friend called Alice,’

she intones, low voiced.

‘My friend called Alice baked bread;

she baked bread, ever day,

She was ill, and never told anyone

(I never told anyone

this, but she never did.)

Then she died, and nobody worried

no one had worried, she never

told anyone – so,

nobody ever did.’

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

keeps talking, telling herself. She says

she had a friend called Alice – she

says this baking bread, her daily bread –

and I know she never did.

When Nanna – Gladys, also known as Judy – first had breast cancer, it caused chaos in her family. Her husband, my grandfather, was bipolar, and did not cope well. Her daughter was travelling in France. Her son… well, I can’t speak for her son. The emotional fall-out from Gladys’s illness was so painful that I can understand why she wouldn’t make it known when, 21 years later, she realised she was ill again. The consequence this time was that by the time her daughter-in-law’s father – another surgeon – had arranged for her to be put on a plane from Heathrow and flown back to Perth as a medical patient, she was no longer conscious. My mother flew to Perth and sat by her bedside. Her mother couldn’t recognise her.

“Have you met my daughter Elizabeth?” my grandmother asked my mother. “She’s so beautiful. She’s so talented.”

My mother sat by the bed and wept.

The funeral was silent. Either no one had had emotional space to plan a commemoration, or, perhaps, my grandfather’s non-conformist Protestant religious background influenced his choice to have no service, no speaking. My mother would like to think this might have been intentional, a Quaker funeral. But my grandfather’s family were Methodists. Methodists do funerals with sound.

At the point when the coffin slid away, my mother let out a shriek and collapsed. No one came back to the family home for the post-funeral niceties.

Back in Adelaide, a close friend, a psychiatrist (we’re so lucky in our circle of specialists), gave my mother Valium. It helped, but not enough.

In Perth, my grandfather went grandiosely mad. In Adelaide, my mother struggled, and fell. Heavy rains came in winter and the earthwall behind our house turned into a mudslide. The back section of the house was flooded. The carpets were ruined and my mother’s MA paper was irretrievably damaged. She abandoned the project.

In Melbourne, my father was experiencing increasing back pain and mobility problems. Of course, he couldn’t let his employer know: his new job had senior responsibilities. His back seized up completely and he couldn’t walk. He dragged himself through the hotel lobby and from the sidewalk, he hailed a taxi. He asked the cabbie to drive him to the hospital Emergency Department, all of about 500m away. He couldn’t bend to get into the cab.

The taxi driver glared. “You’re not going to die on me, are you?”

In A&E – Accident & Emergency, or A for Angus, E for Elizabeth – Angus stood for hours. Being the person he is, was, convivial and caring, he talked to people near him in the queue. People came and went but it was never his turn. Eventually, after I think about 4 hours, a nurse asked him what he was doing there still. He explained he was waiting. She told him she’d assumed he was accompanying another patient. The hospital sent him ‘home’.

When my mother, my sister and I arrived in Melbourne for a visit we phoned up to his room from his hotel lobby. There was no response. His key was in, and the concierge had not seen him go out. When his hotel room door was opened, my father was found to be unconscious. He’d taken painkillers, more painkillers for more pain. Effectively, he’d OD’d.

My father was moved into hospital where doctors experimented on him to determine the nature of the pain. One doctor tried bending his numbed arm back. Dad screamed. The doctor was impressed. He waved a colleague over.

“Here,” he said. “Check this out!” Then he bent back Dad’s arm again and my father screamed in agony, again.

Eventually it was decided my father’s pain was caused by a ruptured disk at C2/C3 in the spinal column – the upper neck. Probably displaced playing tennis years before, now disintegrating. Fragments were micrometres from the spinal cord. The fragments had to be removed surgically. Any error at all and my father would be a quadriplegic. That’s what they told my mother.

My mother has variously said she was told by doctors my father had a 50% chance of being quadriplegic, or a 99% chance. I don’t know what she was told. I know she was extraordinarily stressed, not just because she loved him but because she still had the option of retaining her job in Adelaide. As a widow, or wife to a quadriplegic, tenure as a senior academic with guaranteed fixed salary super would be the smart option. But she didn’t know what was happening and she didn’t know what to do.

Truthfully, hospital staff did not tell my mother much, because she lived in Adelaide and he lived in Melbourne and it was assumed they were legally separated. When my father went into surgery, my mother was not advised. Instead, an old university friend of my father’s (this time, a lawyer) phoned her quite angry, demanding why she wasn’t in Melbourne to be with him.

Because no one had told her.

My father was in intensive care for 11 days. Next to him, a young man with head wounds who’d come off his motorbike screamed for 48 hours until he died. Another man died and wife, unawares, came in to visit. When she saw the empty bed she shrieked.

When my mother arrived, Dad had been moved to a different bed. There was pool of blood under the bed where he had been. Or am I confused? Was that the other woman, the one whose husband died?

Angus – that’s my dad – came home from hospital to our new house in Melbourne. He was heavily drugged up and sat on the downstairs sofa, huddled in woollen blankets, completely spaced out, listening to Nana Mouskouri with a dazed faint smile. He believed Nana Mouskouri – the Greek soprano singer – was an angel. He believed Nana Mouskouri was the voice of God.

Somewhere in there our cat died. In amongst all the other things she had to organize in our truncated preparations for the Melbourne move, my mother had overlooked cat flu injections when our cat was put into a cattery for a few days. Annabella, the black cat, the witch’s cat, the stray kitten we’d adopted, the first pet my sister and I can recall, contracted cat flu. We couldn’t clear the phlegm out of her mouth. We couldn’t help her eat or drink. In the end, she died a soft empty husk in front of the heater, in the downstairs living room, with Dad sitting on the sofa staring, wrapped in his woollen blankets, and my mother, my sister and me in a crescent around her, watching her softly cough up her life, anguished.

Eight weeks later when my father went in for his medical check, the specialist told him he was recovering well and could return to work soon.

My father looked at him. “I’ve been back at work for a month,” he said.

Almost as if all was well. But it wasn’t.

My father was 41 then. He lived till age 85, and died two days ago. He played tennis right up till 10 weeks before his death. He died in my arms.

I must take care not to make myself sound like a hero here. It’s not about me. It’s about family. My mother and my sister and my wonderful brother-in-law Peter, a psychiatrist (and, being a psychiatrist, also a medical doctor), were present too. There was a 48-hour lead-up to my father’s death and we were all vitally involved throughout.

I suppose I could say there was a 3-month lead-up. Dad was diagnosed on 24 November, the day after my sister’s birthday. As a family we’d gone to a ‘destination’ restaurant, a place where I’d wanted to eat for some years, to celebrate my sister’s birthday. Dad didn’t have much appetite, which is not unusual, and no appetite at all for wine, which is out of character. We’d barely got into the car to drive home than he threw up out the car window.

I ran across the road to a milkbar (that’s Australian for a small convenience store in a country town) to buy some bottled water and beg some paper towels. I mentioned my father was throwing up in the car. Another woman shopping laughed. I guess she thought he’d had too much to drink.

But Angus had barely sipped alcohol and medical test results showed he had pancreatic cancer. He also had a blocked bile duct, and his liver was failing. Surgery for the blocked bile duct was successful. His colour returned from canary yellow to something approaching normal, for a terminally ill man aged 85.

I thought we’d lose him before Christmas. My mother had hopes he might last till April, May, but my father put his energies into making sure all the family finances, legal documents, and practical arrangements were in hand within the shortest time-frame. He had that wrapped up within about a month and then we had a window of about two months where he was ‘well’ to most intents – functioning, cheerful, calm, good company.

It was an Indian Summer and a precious gift.

The last 48 hours were tough. On the Friday morning, there was blood in his stools, and that alarmed him. His mood, which until then had been quite upbeat, became depressed. He’d experienced increasing fatigue but now, he was suddenly listless. The visiting community nurse in conjunction with his GP advised us to drive him to hospital, straight to Emergency.

But the Emergency Ward is for emergency treatment. My father had an Advanced Care Plan that instructed no further treatment once death was imminent. Death was imminent. A very kind, very young doctor named Martin advised us to take Dad home. Martin was impeccable: sensitive, tactful, and honouring my father’s wishes. We couldn’t drive Dad home ourselves, but two paramedics – may I call them angels? – delivered him back to us at about 8pm.

Angus, my dad, had a bad night. He was in bad shape in the morning. Peter and Cathy had stayed at my parents’ place overnight; I arrived within minutes of Peter phoning me, breakfast half-eaten. The palliative doctor visited and explained his pancreatic tumour was also in his liver and that the bile duct that had been blocked was now infected. His belly was distended, taut, with bile and blood. From now, he was in the care of morphine and his family.

After the doctor left, Cathy and my mother, Elizabeth, took care of everything outside the one-metre perimeter I claimed as mine, its epicentre my dad’s head. They spent time sitting with him, stroking him, talking to him. Peter sat on a chair by the bed, by his feet. Peter held his hand, touched him, provided morphine at appropriate periods as agreed with the palliative care doctor. I sat on the bed behind Dad’s head and cradled him and held his hand and petted him, as I held and petted my dog as my dog was dying. (This comparison is not trivial.)

Dad wasn’t very coherent. He could hear, and when the doctor was present and asked about pain, he could say, “Excruciating”. “Ten out of ten” (repeated). “Yes” (to more morphine).

After the doctor left he interspersed “Jesus”, “Jesus Christ” and a few “Fucks” with “Elizabeth” (many times), “Lizzie”, “Where’s Cathy?” (when Cathy was out of the room), “Where’s Peter?” when Peter was briefly elsewhere). Cathy tells me he said “Little Pelly”. I didn’t pick that up.

He said “Family”. He said “Love”. My sister told him, “We love you too”. He said something that sounded to my mother like “optimist”. He repeated that, as if trying to make us understand. My mother and I think he was trying to say “Optimists’ Club”, to remind me I’d promised to deliver his scheduled presentation at the April meeting of my parents’ local Optimists’ Club on his behalf. I don’t know what Dad originally intended as the subject for his April talk, but we’d agreed I’d read from some memoir sketches he’d written last year.

There were stretches of time when Cathy and Elizabeth were taking care of things outside the sickroom and Peter and I were alone with Dad. During those times, I told Peter I didn’t know how people coped with loved ones dying before the ready availability of morphine. I said I knew there were herbal medications but I couldn’t believe they were strong enough. Morphine was not enough to dull Dad’s pain.

I thought of a friend’s death, a neighbour who had been much Dad’s age. Dad told me when ‘Judy’ (Julius) was dying, he lay quietly, surrounded by family, watching the seconds hand on the wall clock.

I said I imagined it was not uncommon for relatives to place a pillow over their dying loved one’s face. Peter replied that depending on how long it took, that was painful too. I said even so it would be relatively brief.

I said I was a fan of morphine. I said if I had a daughter (which isn’t going to happen, because I’m 55), I’d name her Morphia.

There was a period where every time Dad exhaled, black bile gushed from his mouth. My mother had found a plastic medical sick bag which was less cumbersome that the steel basins we’d been using to catch vomited bile till then. So much black bile was gushing from him I was frightened it would splash back and soil his face. He already had dried bile in his nostrils and facial stubble from his vomiting overnight. He’d complained his teeth hurt so it wasn’t easy to clean that dried bile off, but I tried, using a damp face cloth.

I hate black bile. One thing only I appreciate in bile: so much was coming up, so much coming out, that his belly, distended over the previous few days, was visibly reducing. He was swollen and distended by bile and bleeding in his stomach. I didn’t want that shit inside him when he’s buried.

The last hour or so he was relatively calm, at times making happy baby noises.

Then his breathing became irregular. Then it stopped. Then restarted. Then stopped.

I tried to read his pulse, place my little finger under his nostrils to check for breath. There was nothing. I said, “I think he’s gone.” Peter checked. Angus was gone.

Not long after Angus breathed his last the palliative nurse arrived and was brilliant. My sister was brilliant. My mother was too.

I can’t help but feel in our family we suffered when my father was so ill in 1973 and a perfect storm of linked events made the suffering much worse. No one’s fault. It was how it was.

This time, a lifetime later (Angus doubled his life span), we did better. The circumstances were better. We wanted to make it better.

My father died at home, as he wanted – well, perhaps less bile and less pain – and his family were with him.

We did good.