On the other side


There’s nothing like visiting a hospital to make you grateful for your good health. Sure, we grizzle occasionally about the inconveniences of aching bones or a dodgy back or even a persistent sniffle or a stomach bug. Still, they’re small beer, you realise once you walk the antiseptic corridors of a general hospital, and you see the old and frail, the bent and failing, the patients in walking chairs or with tubes in their nose or coming from their body. To see people made feeble by illness is a levelling experience, and no more so than when you realise for many that this is the terminal stage, and it’s never going to get any better than that.

It’s at once both very humbling but also very scary. There but for the grace of God, you think, not knowing whether this might be in your future also. And you leave the hospital gasping in the fresh air, grateful to be healthy, no matter those inconveniences, grateful to be able to walk in the sunshine unaided and to see friends and live life unfettered by ill health. For a while, you remember, and then it slips from your mind.

I think it’s similar when it comes to mental health, though it’s normally not so clear.

I have complained in recent times, and in recent times have felt myself withdrawn and put upon occasionally and enshrouded in gloom I didn’t want to believe in. I battled at it as if caught in a net and tried in characteristic fashion to think my way out of it – as if the spirit could be healed by the intellect. When you’re in the middle of these episodes, it feels quite difficult, but I understand with perspective that these are inconveniences of the spirit. I am waylaid, but I am healthy. Others are not so lucky.

All this comes to mind because a friend of mine is struggling, and I fear for his future. He’s always been prone to these things. He’s as smart as they come and can be totally charming when he’s up and about and occasionally a total boor. He’s sensitive by nature, which I always think of as a gift bestowed upon us, but it’s a gift with inherent risk. It opens up a door in us through which heightened experience and insight may enter, but on the far side of those is the shadow that can be debilitating – doubt and despair and withering disappointment.

My friend is one of those who can be up and buoyant and occasionally manic, but also almost immobilised by melancholy. When he’s like that, I worry that he won’t look after himself as he should. He becomes apathetic and listless. His thoughts are morose and pessimistic.

He’s got health issues now, which require discipline from him, but I doubt he cares enough to make the necessary effort. When I last spoke to him – he’s interstate – he basically shrugged his shoulders, and he had cancelled on something we discussed he needed to do.

I feel some responsibility for him, maybe because I think I know him better than anyone. And because I know I can help.

My issues seem trivial alongside his, and my perspective is shifted.

I realise that while there are things I need to overcome, they don’t threaten my existence – far from it. I realise how resilient I am and remember the storms I have weathered. I know that no matter how bad things appear, there’s a part of me that will remain true and strong. I’m not made for that terminal failure because I have a bedrock of self-discipline mixed in with self-belief and a perverse pig-headedness.

I might indulge in lairy risk from time to time because it’s fun, but there’s something measured at the heart of me. I’ll do the right thing because it’s my nature, and it seems something that others have recognised in me for many years. I’m seen as reliable, steadfast, trustworthy

And strong. I can be strong for me, but I want to be strong for him now also. Right now, all that constitutes is touching base with him regularly and remaining bright and positive. Nothing negative, no judgement, everything encouraging. And it means opening up and engaging with my true self. He needs to know that he’s loved and that life is a gift that needs to be embraced. I’ll be there when he comes around and knows it for himself.

The official version


Referring back to yesterday’s post, back at the time I started on a piece I never finished describing the event of my uncle’s death.

It’s been sitting on my computer’s hard drive all these years, and I thought maybe now is opportune to bring it out of the dark. I wrote it while it was still fresh in me – I have the feeling I actually wrote some of it on the plane, as is described, and that I may have made notes along the way. Here it is. It’s a bit rough around the edges because I abandoned it before giving it a polish, and there are gaps in it for the same reason. And I was not the writer then that I am now, though it surprising how the themes that recure to me haven’t changed: we all have our themes. Read it, or not.

A Death in the Family (2003)

The plane headed to the Sunshine Coast. As we took off, I looked at my fellow travellers. Few were under fifty. Most were grey-haired, retirees heading for the sun, or executives looking for a break. Nearby sat a couple in their sixties, he in suit and tie, his wife dressed up in her Sunday best, reminders of another era when people dressed up to travel. Across the aisle, sat a man about 60 in stylishly casual Lacoste gear. He read the Financial Review, and later, he opened a satchel and made notes: an executive not yet in holiday mood. Besides me, there sat a couple in their fifties, silver-haired and handsome, speaking in low tones and reading their magazines.

And then there was me. I was not off on an escapade to the sun. I knew that. I had felt rushed, cramming my travel arrangements into a few short hours until I was here, on my way. On the plane, I relaxed, my work was done for the moment, but I felt out of sync. I looked around in between reading my own magazine. I could not fail to notice the difference between myself and everyone else that travelled. I was younger by 10 years at least. Unlike the generation of people around me who had dressed for the holiday in a variety of fashionable and conservative clothes, I was in jeans. I wore red shoes. I was different, though. I was not on holiday. I was going to bury someone.

As we travelled through the air, I read. Later I too got out a pad and a pencil and began to make notes. I should have been at work. As we travelled through the air, the meeting I had organised should have been sitting. Like the man across from me, I had yet to divorce my life at home from the place I was heading for. In an hour or so, the plane would land, and a different reality take hold. Now though, high above the land, I was in a kind of limbo, a no mans land. I put my pencil down – I had been doodling. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, thinking about these things and wondering what would come.

Then we landed. We descended, low over the ocean, it seemed, the clouds low and all around us like fog. Then the plane bumped down on the wet tarmac. Outside, the rain fell. What I could see as I waited to alight was distant hills, green and shrouded in mist. Then I walked from the plane and into the terminal. There waiting for me was my father and my aunt. I felt like smiling.

The world changed today. That’s how I was going to begin this piece. It’s too grandiose, though, too pompous even, too impersonal. Still, it’s true. Each person is a world unto themselves. A unique world like no other. All these millions, billions, of worlds combine to create the great world we are all part of. It changes every day. It is added to, subtracted from, it never remains still. Such is life.

So it is, but for all those infinite changes, it becomes much more to us when one of those small worlds subtracted belongs to us. In the big scheme, it matters little perhaps, in our world though it is great.

Such thoughts flow through me in the days following. We – my father, Aunt, and I – attend to the necessary preparations, from the funeral to the wake. Speeches are written, ministers spoken to, beer and wine bought by the dozen. In between, we have lunch on rainy days at great hotels by the water. One night we meet with more family for a meal at a good restaurant where my father and I clash, as we ever have. In the evenings, we sit in my Aunt’s small courtyard with a cool beer and chat. Throughout it all and in the midst of this unreal time before the funeral, we remember.

There’s no telling what you will remember. Memories are unpredictable, random. Small things are sometimes recalled while great things overlooked. It’s different 

Among the memories recalled, I have my own. I remember once years before, when I was in my early twenties, how he described a pub in Cremorne as a ‘cunt farm’. It had taken me aback at the time and later led to some ribald smiles with a friend. This was his recommendation to us, the place we should go to, coming as it was from the harsh persona he occasionally adopted. There was a smile in his words, despite his crudity; they were not evidence of a crass mind, but rather, I think, an effort to connect with the nephew a generation younger than him, the nephew he loved. And perhaps in his words, there was a desire for the world he imagined I lived in – beer, women, good times. 

As if to counter-balance that memory, I recalled other moments. There is a photo of him asleep on the floor beside his infant son also asleep. He always loved children, and of all the things he wished for in life, they were always uppermost. That explained his love for me initially. I remember how I was the bartender on the night of his 21st birthday party at his parents home. I’m about eight, I think. I felt so chuffed to be given the responsibility and proud as all his long-haired friends were all so good to me, laughing and joking treating me, I thought, like almost an adult. Later my uncle married, and then once more before finally he had the children he dreamed of. 

From there, the story changes, a few years of stable suburban life, a shift from Sydney to Brisbane, and then separation and divorce. Far away in Melbourne, I heard all of this distantly, rarely seeing or speaking to him but for family events. I had known somehow that the divorce had been acrimonious, that, according to some, his ex-wife had turned the children against him. Living with my aunt, he was finally diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, no surprise after years of smoking and drinking. The end had come as it almost always does with cancer, ugly and undignified. 

Though I had my memories, I was at one remove. He was my uncle, not my brother. I had grown up with him distantly in my life rather than as a member of the household. I sat silently then as my father and my aunt spoke of their memories. I listened curiously to what I heard, watching as closely as I listened. This was something I rarely experienced. 

My father is not an ordinary person. I suppose many sons might say the same thing about their own dad with as much certainty. Perhaps that is how we all view our fathers. Still, I believe it to be true.

There has always been something intimidating about my father. I saw it myself but experienced it differently from how other people did. It was not some effect of physical being – he was of average height only, though always accounted as being handsome. It did not come by way of great charm or wit – he could get by but was no more accomplished than most intelligent people. In his presence, there was some hint of that mind that went deep, that intelligence that had allowed him to exploit his fundamental gifts. If anything, his presence was the product of all that and the unerring sense of self that left him with.

Travelling in with him from the airport, I had come to silently articulate the essence of his person: his will. More than any other person I had ever met, he was defined by his sheer will to win, succeed, and persist. It had defined much of my relationship with him. Our conversations over the years peppered with his exhortations of will and intent. As much as anything, I had come to know him by these things and had absorbed many of his lessons – though with a sceptical eye. The man the world saw, the monolith, was built upon this unwavering will. I had lived close to it and known it as a son does, with both love and a sense of rebellion. As he had climbed the corporate ladder year after year, others had received it differently. 

In the car with him and in the days after, while we waited to bury his brother, I had sensed something different in my father. Had that famous will wavered a little? Is that what I had sensed? No, not really – the will remained, it was not so easily dismissed. What I had sensed, though, was doubt. Grief and doubt. The natural grief of a man who has come to bury his baby brother; and doubt, as if for the first time he had questioned his actions, his feelings and attitude to the same brother now departed. 

Doubtless, it was natural, but it was new to me. I don’t think I had ever seen my father doubt anything. I don’t know if he ever considered the possibility – he was different from other fathers, other men. In those days, he seemed morose and quiet, his emotions checked, but barely at times. 

In many ways, he was as he ever was, industrious and active, making sure all the preparations for the funeral went to plan. His eyes had the same intelligence, his movements the same direct expression of his will. It was when he stopped, he changed. In those moments, he appeared weathered. The hard outer shell had been breached, and exposed was the softer stone beneath, unprotected now, raw to the elements, visible to the eye. Somewhere deeper inside him was that hardcore that drove him forward, the essential him, that part of him that would forever lead him on – but for now, it came second.

We piled into separate cars and started the short drive to the funeral parlour. It had been intended that we drive in convoy so that the out of towners amongst us not get lost. The inevitable occurred, though, when the car in front of us got the green light we missed. We sat in the car, and as the light changed back from red to green, we edged forward, unsure of the way and in our collective mind trying to piece together the fragmentary directions we had received. Too late, we realised, just as we passed it, that the turn off we needed was on our left. We drove on, unable to turn around on the motorway until we reached the next exit. Returning to the motorway we turned right and, after a few turns, found ourselves at the funeral parlour. We were late. Outside, a crowd gathered, murmuring to each other and waiting to be called in. My father and my aunt stood amongst them, their eyes to the road. At our arrival, the word was given: we could enter.

The chapel was modern, though, in truth, I have little experience of these places. It had a high vaulted ceiling, like a modernist church, bland brown brick walls and a pew and benches constructed from a polished honey-coloured wood. Behind the pew, there was the coffin resting on a metal stand.

The crowd filtered in. Feet scuffed the hard floor. The soft murmur reverberated off the brick walls and beneath the high ceiling. We, the family, sat in the first row. And the service began.

It began conventionally, with a man who had never met my uncle standing before us extolling his many virtues. He had been well briefed. I listened, interested but unmoved. They were words unconnected at that moment with the man I had known. They described a life in its bare facts, interspersed with the odd anecdote. Behind him, as he spoke, a video screen displayed slides from my uncle’s life, one after the other. My eyes were drawn to this and stayed there. I heard the words, but the stories I felt were in the photos and memories inspired by them. With a jolt, I saw myself in several of them. In one, I was young, tall and gangly, innocent in another more knowing. Some of the words spoken registered to me then: he had loved his family. Yes, that was true. It was more than conventional words, but the truth. He had loved me, truly, had been proud of me, I had heard, and that struck me. I felt emotion swell in me until I felt I would choke with it. For all I had thought of him, I knew he had been pure in this: he had loved without qualification.

My father stood then to give the eulogy. He stood for a moment without speaking. This was characteristic of him: he was a man who chose his words carefully. It was more than that, though. As I watched, I saw as he tried to marshall his emotions. He looked down at his notes and then up at us. His eyes were wide open. He began to speak.

He spoke of growing up, of how Paul, his brother, had come late into the family. He described Paul as a child – one of the pictures had shown him them, a smiling, good looking boy with dark curly hair. Though my father didn’t mention it my uncle had idolised my father. Coming late into the family he had been a boy still when my father had become a man. He had seen perhaps the charisma and talent in my father that others had spoken off. He grew up wanting to be like my Dad, of using him as the measuring stick he could never reach. He was a different person, soft and gentle, pliant and hopeful.

As my father spoke, he paused a couple of times. Each time it was to compose himself, to stave off the tears that welled in him. Here he stood, eulogising his baby brother, dead before his time. It was when my father came to speak of my uncle’s family that he faltered and then failed. His red-rimmed eyes bled tears. He shook his head, tried to go on, but could not. I’m sorry he muttered and stood down. Silence engulfed the chapel. And as I watched my father, bent under his grief, I felt something break in me.

It is hard to explain exactly what was happening at that moment. I cried for my uncle, but I cried for my father also. I had never seen him like that. Never. Like my uncle, I had always looked up to my father. I admired his strength and control. As a man, I believed in it and tried to emulate it myself. Now, as I watched my father split in two and all inside revealed, I felt as if I was witnessing something fantastic and unknown. And in his breakdown, I felt my own undoing. I cried at his grief. On the one hand, I saw in his tears permission to shed my own; and I cried for him and his sorrow.

The service ended. We stood, and outside the chapel spoke to the visitors like hosts and invited them back to my aunts if they so desired. My tears had dried, but I felt my eyes swollen by them. I was embarrassed, but people were gentle with me and understanding. I was grateful to them.

The mourners piled into the small rear courtyard of my Aunt’s home. Tropical foliage ringed the space, and overhead the sky brooded forebodingly. That was distant though, here and now in that small space the family, the friends, the odd acquaintance gathered all in their best funeral clothes, they talked until the air was full of it, a social babble; occasionally amid it a laugh could be heard: the deed was done. Like most funerals, people who had not seen each other since the last funeral met and exclaimed at the time past. More than once, I was pulled up. Is that really, H? Haven’t you grown? Then with a laugh: the last time I saw you, you were so high, indicating somewhere around my shoulder. I smile and laugh along; for a few moments, I linger agreeably before moving on. I do this throughout the crowd, the unofficial family representative doing the necessary glad-handing. 

My father has recovered, is his familiar self, but even on his best days, this is not his thing. Today with his brother buried, he responds as he meets with the distant family he can remember from his childhood, he recalls shared memories and moments for decades ago, and every so often, he joins in the laughter; occasionally, there is a twinkle in his eye, but there is something still in him. My Aunt is different. She hustles around to make sure everything is ticking over as it should, a drink in her hand. Soon enough, she finds herself recalling old times also. Happily, that leaves me to flit through the crowd filling drinks and sharing their memories. For me, it is easy, but it also a distraction.

As the evening closes in, the crowd thins. Left are about a dozen, family mostly, some of whom have flown up for the occasion. By now, most are seated, a glass of wine in their hand, a gin and tonic, a beer. The conversation is quieter, the reminiscing continues, but now it is mostly about my uncle. I sit watching, silent mostly, listening in to memories I had heard before and others new to me; I have my own memories. Mostly the conversation is fond, though tinged with sadness. Occasionally it becomes more.

It is my father who seems at the centre of this with my Aunt butting in. My fathers’ syntax is familiar to me. I had forgotten, but I remember as he speaks, thinking this is a part of him. This is what I might remember when he is gone. “No, no, no…” he says even if agreeing with you, wresting the conversation back within his control. Looking on, I observe the respect with which he seems to be accorded within the family, and not just for his loss. I think back to the stories I have been told, of how he was the golden-haired boy, even if a bit wild, the prodigy who was always going to go far. It seemed an accepted truth, a destiny foretold and fulfilled, the man in the family who has gone the furthest of anyone.

Then his eyes glisten again. His words come slowly, precisely, but hard as if going by an obstacle. Someone tries to ease his way, but he continues, hastening: this too is familiar. 

The scandal of the day is that none of his children has attended the funeral despite calls and coercion. They are young still and in the grip of their mother, generally agreed to be an ‘evil cow’. She claims they don’t want to come. I doubt that, but even so, I think it’s wrong. They should be there. Their mother should insist. 

Though my father does not say it, it was the thought that his brother had been abandoned and betrayed by his family that had broken him. In a way, it had been an act lower than he could comprehend. I think he saw it as the ultimate insult as if my uncle could see and know how lowly he was regarded. What he looked upon bitterly and sorrowfully I was more sanguine and cynical about. It was disgusting that his children were not there, but I believed that they would come to regret it in years to come.

No-one adds anything. No-one can disagree, but nor do they want to speak of it. Then everyone is gone, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, exchanging consoling words and fond memories. In the dark, the cicadas ring loudly. We sit exhausted in the yard, a bottle open before us, and the conversation goes on into the night. Tomorrow we return to our lives, we go on; for now, it is all about my uncle.

As the sun sets


I drove across town yesterday to have lunch with my dad. He’s about an hour’s drive away from me but living in the general area where I grew up. It was a bright, warm day and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to travel all that way to see him – especially as I was so busy with work. But then, I hadn’t seen him since before Covid struck.

I made it to his place and met his dog and was shown around the comfortable home he’d made for himself. We set out for lunch, and I asked if it was okay if he could drive us. I had messages I had to attend to from work because it never goes away.

Originally we were going to have lunch at the Lower Plenty Hotel. I grew up in Lower Plenty and remember the hotel just off the golf course, though apparently it was torn down and something new built in its place. In the end, we went somewhere closer – a cafe in Were St, Montmorency.

A couple of years after mum left dad, and after I left school, she bought a unit in Rattray Road in Monty. I’m not sure now how long we lived there, but there was many a day I would walk down the road to the Were Street shops, and dozens of times I caught a train from the station. (When I was younger, and when my parents were still together, I remember creeping out of the house in the middle of the night and walking to Were st. Together, Peter Woody and I broke into the Reece plumbing store there, just for the fun of it – we took nothing – not knowing that there was a security guard on duty patrolling the premises. We eluded him by the skin of our teeth. I was about 15 then. There was also a cinema in the street early days, and we saw the original Rocky there when it came out.)

Yesterday we sat in the sun and had a light lunch catching up on things. His poodle, Henry, had come along, too.

I mentioned not long ago how disturbing I found my father aging. It seems odd that it’s not something I ever thought about much before, but it comes to mind regularly now. He walks with a cane, has various ailments that need managing, and is not nearly the energetic man he once was. As we were sitting there at one stage, he actually said: “getting old is hard”.

Besides everything else, he spoke of balance issues, which seem to be a common talking point in his group of elderly friends. He made reference at one stage at how he had fallen down and how it was a regular occurrence.

I find it depressing and not a little daunting. As we drove back to his place, I even thought: he drives like an old man now. He still has all his faculties and retains a certain sharpness, but he drives slowly and deliberately.

This is not uncommon in elderly people, as I’m sure we all know. I’ve always thought it was a sign of conservatism and perhaps a certain fear, but I had never thought about it in any depth until yesterday. I would never have believed that my aggressive father would become this, but I wondered if it was because he was now aware of his vulnerability.

When you’re young, you feel strong and certain, or a lot of us do – and never more true than for my father. But he is frail. He has proof of his decline, and clearly, it’s in his mind. The realisation that he will die one day, and sooner than before, is probably in his mind. He’s vulnerable. Anything could happen at any time. Why risk it on the roads? And at least that’s something controllable – so he takes it slow, just to be sure.

This is my speculation – we didn’t discuss it. I left him feeling uneasy, for him, and for me too. If this is his journey, then as his son, I’m probably on the same path. It’s a powerful motivator to remain healthy.

I know that if I ever reach a stage of physical decrepitude or mental incompetence, then I’d rather exit the stage.

A grateful moment


I had the best sort of chance encounter today.

I had a physio appointment this morning. The physiological is located within the main building of a retirement village. I’ve been three times now, and each time it’s been a hive of activity, as well as being vaguely depressing. I guess lively is good, considering the alternative, but I come away each time thinking I never want to end up in such a place.

As I was sitting in the car preparing to leave afterwards, a tap came at my window. There was an old man there. He’d have been over eighty, short – about 5’5″ – and bent over clutching a walking stick. I wound the window down. “If I give you $10,” he said, “will you take me to Centre Road?”

I couldn’t knock him back and, declining his money, told him to hop in.

As we drove, we talked. I asked him polite questions and, like a lot of elderly people, he was pleased to answer at length. It was only a short drive, 7-8 minutes, and I was happy to listen.

In the way of things he told me he’d been at the home for 18 years. He’d moved into a villa unit with his wife, before shifting into main accommodation because of a disagreeable neighbour. I gathered his wife was dead.

He was Jewish he told me and had settled in Ivanhoe after coming to Australia, until all the kids grew up and the neighbourhood changed. He had two sons, one in Melbourne, and the other living in Israel.

I asked him what his home country was. He told me he came here from France in 1949, though he was from Poland originally. He’s survived the Nazis (his word), but it had been very hard. France had been difficult, too. He needed a permit for everything, and he’d been told he should go back to where he’d come from. Instead, he came to Australia.

The main thing for him is that he wanted to get away from Europe. Initially, he was going to go to Canada, but that changed, and he ended up in Sydney before coming to Melbourne. It was the best thing he’d ever done.

And on that, we parted. I pulled up by the side of the road near Bentleigh station, we shook hands, and slowly he unbent himself getting out of the car.

As I had said to him when he thanked me, it was my good deed for the day. I actually got a great deal of satisfaction from meeting him, and being able to help him. It’s moments like this that open your heart and – without knowing exactly why – you come to understand the meaning of being grateful.

Living in parallel


The big news yesterday was the the death of David Cornwall, aka John Le Carre.

He was 89, which is pretty ripe as old age goes, and had been writing up till the end. There’s always a tinge of sadness, nonetheless.

For me, some of the sadness is purely selfish. We might get some posthumous publication out of him, but he aint writing anymore. That’s sad because I reckon he was one of the very best novelists writing in the English language – never mind limiting it to spy novels. He was a gifted observer of human foibles and acute when describing them. As far as prose goes, his is some of the more intelligent you’ll come across.

He’s one of those authors that I feel like I’ve known all my life. You know how books evoke memories, and particular periods in your life, well he was one of those writers I feel as if I’ve lived in parallel to, on the other side of the world.

If I close my eyes, I can see places long lost to me, places where I read his books or spoke of them – and of course, all the memories of those places and periods are there also for me. I cottoned onto Le Carre early, and then there was a big gap before I returned to him about 20 years ago.

I had an Aunt, who was a great reader. For every birthday and Christmas, I could count on getting at least a book from her, beautifully wrapped in gold or silver foil with a ribbon around it. She cultivated my reading, and I was happy to have it cultivated.

She lived in Sydney, and I would stay with her most of the time I visited there, and I actually lived with her in her Watson’s Bay apartment for a while in the eighties (what a vivid memory that is). She had several bookcases full of books, and there was Le Carre.

I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy in hardback while I was there. In the adjoining years, I also read The Spy That Came In From The Cold, and A Murder of Quality.

It was years until I read any of his books after that, though I was an avid watcher of the various TV series and movies made from his books.

I don’t know what brought me back to him. It’d never been a deliberate decision not to read him, more so that he had moved out of my reading orbit. Then he returned.

Over the last 15 years, I reckon I’ve read a dozen of his books, maybe more. There are no duds, though some are better than others. If nothing else, I always enjoy the quality of writing.

Not surprisingly, he was also an astute commentator of current affairs. He was clever and erudite and his politics – no coincidence – were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Like for many of us, the rise of Trump and Brexit was horrifying to him. He wrote well about that, seeing in it something revealing of the human condition – but then all his writing was about that really.

Funny how people die. That’s another one – and my aunt passed on nearly 20 years ago. Times go on. Sad to see him go, but it had to happen.

Professor Deano


At about 8.50 last night a notification came through on my phone saying that Dean Jones had died from a cardiac arrest. I looked at it and thought it can’t be true. Fake news, I told myself, more from hope than expectation. Dean Jones – Deano – was not someone I could imagine being dead.

Of course, it transpired that it was true. Deano was in India to commentate on the IPL when he had a heart attack. One of his fellow commentators, and another ex-Australian cricketer, Brett Lee, attempted to revive him, but without success. Deano was dead.

People die all the time, even famous people. Some are shocking, many seem surprising at the time, but mostly we come to accept within a short space of time. That’s the deal, after all, it comes to an end for everyone one day. It’s the next day, and I’m a long way short of accepting – understanding – that Dean Jones has passed away.

I think that’s the same for many people. In the hour or so after the news was announced it was treated with disbelief and shock. Then the tributes started rolling in from around the world, from ex-teammates and opponents, from colleagues in the commentary box and players he’d coached, as well as from the likes of you and me. Tributes can be formulaic, but every one of these seemed heartfelt as if drawn up from deep inside. And some of the names – Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, and so on – huge names in world cricket. Then to read this morning the reaction from Allan Border, his great mate and former captain, how he loved Deano. This is a big moment.

Sitting on my couch last night, I read the news and reaction as it came through. I sent messages to friends I knew it would resonate with, Donna and VJ. VJ couldn’t believe it – Deano? The cricketer? – Yes. Deano was just 59, and that’s something else that gave pause to us.

I’m a few years younger than Deano was, but I grew up watching him play cricket for Australia through the eighties and into the nineties. The early to mid-eighties was a bleak time in Australian cricket. It marked the changing of the guard from the great names of the seventies – Lillee, Marsh, Chappell – to a bunch of relative unknowns who struggled to make an impression initially. I was there, I watched it, I went to the games, and though there were hard times there were also some great moments, and Deano was in the middle of a few of them. When I look back on Australian cricket in the eighties, there are few names that really stand-out. AB was one, and he was immense. Possibly Steve Waugh, but more into the nineties. But definitely Deano. He was impossible to miss.

There were great onfield moments. He was part of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, which came out of the blue. And there is the epic tale of how he made a double century in India when he was almost delirious. It’s an oft-told story, and none more often than by the man himself. He spent that night in hospital on a drip, and the match ended in only the second-ever tied test.

Deano was a talented cricketer whose international career ended prematurely for reasons never adequately explained – I suspect he probably rubbed up the wrong way with the administration. I think he always thought that too and was aggrieved by it. He was charismatic, but was always forthright and could be abrasive. He was one of those dashing characters popular with fans but less so with administrations. Thought it ended too soon, he had a fine test career and was a revolutionary ODI player, which is how most people remember him, I think.

I have such vivid memories of this myself. He was such a busy, aggressive cricketer, in every facet of the game. I can picture him in his canary yellow Australian outfit, a lean figure stepping down the pitch to loft over the on-side, then haring down the pitch and back again (and he was just as quick in the field). He took the game on at a time when most teams sought to build an innings. He exploded that and was remarkably successful – to the point that I would place him in the top 15 ODI players for Australia.

It was his style that made him vivid. He played the game with a swashbuckling, almost pugnacious intent. In a lot of ways, he epitomises how many people came to see Australian cricket, but when he started we were on the slide, and confidence was low. I think his style was important to the team and to the ethos of being an Australian cricketer. In time, we rose to the top again and he was big part of that. The 1989 Ashes probably marks the real turning point, the team captained by his great mate, AB, and he played a big part in its success.

He was a bit of a lair – flash, confident, insolent, he did things his way on-field and off. He ran into authority throughout his career and after, because of that, and I suspect he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he felt he hadn’t been given his due recognition. He could be think-skinned, but I think that’s a fair call, too. He was a better international player than people remember, and he’s the second-highest run-scorer ever for Victoria. He was also a coach and commentator, but while he made it big in the sub-continent he wasn’t given the same respe,ct here. He was not one of the boys.

I followed him on Twitter. He was there as he was in life, vibrant and larger than life, but also very generous. He gave time to everyone, and though he was proud of his achievements, his humour could be self-deprecating. Because I followed him there, he remained very real to me. I could hear his voice in my ears. Just a few days ago there was a tweet of his with a photo showing the commentating team he was part of. It feels strange knowing his days were marked, and that he would never make it back from there.

For cricket lovers of my generation, this is a big moment, and especially if they’re a Victorian like Deano, like me. Deano was a proud Australian and a very vocal Victorian also. He was part of the furniture right from the time he stepped onto the international stage nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve just spent half an hour talking to Donna about this. She knew him personally. They had a relationship of sorts years ago. In reality, he was a lair off the field as well as on it. She’s told me stories over the years that made me smile, and recounted some of them today. I wish I’d known him. It seems hardly conceivable that he’s gone, and I’m very sorry.

Only dreams


Dreams again last night, starting with Rigby. This was a happy series of dreams as Rigby was as spirited and as affectionate in my dream life as he is in real life.

My cousins morphed into these dreams then, as is normal in the dark hours. This was happy too. Though I hardly see my cousins, I’m fond of all of them. They’re good people.

Finally, my step-sister made an appearance. In the dream it was happy. We always got on so well. I used to think that she loved me and mum more than she did her husband. For many years we had a special bond – that’s how people used to describe it. In the early days, when she was still a teen, she had a crush on me. I don’t think she ever lost that completely, though life moved on. We had similar tastes and outlooks, and a similar level of confidence and ambition. Each of us was curious. She was smart and sometimes sweet and sometimes tough. I had much more in common with her than I did my own natural born sister.

We lost each other when mum died. In the great disruption and acrimony that came after that, we found ourselves in opposition. Somehow, superficially at least, I think she came to blame me a little for the situation, though all I did was defend mum’s last wishes. When finally the dust settled on that my life was completely different. Not only had I lost my beloved mum, but all the family that joined with us when she married a second time was also lost, too, including my stepsister. I went from being in a large and loving family group to just me and my sister.

You move on, you accept it, but it’s been a source of sorrow whenever my mind happens across her. I could care less about the others, but I loved her – and when I need her most, she was gone.

There was a late-night call from her a few years later, missed on my end because it was past midnight. I figured she’d had maybe one too many chardy’s and called from remembrance and remorse. She followed up with a message though, wishing me well, ending it with an x. I had no doubt that she remained fond of me in her heart. She still follows me on Facebook.

It was last year, I think, that I reached out to her. Wasn’t it time, I suggested, that we became friends again? Hadn’t enough water gone under the bridge by now? She lives in Noosa, divorced with her kids. She didn’t respond.

And so I dream of her again, and though it was a delight to share her company in my sleep, I woke feeling sad because of what it meant.

Last week I wrote of a friend I’ve had a fraught relationship with in recent years. I’d dreamt of him. After I wrote, I sent him a message. In the course of that, I told him I loved him. I wanted him to do well, be well. He began to cry. We committed to our friendship again, and I suggested we set ourselves an exotic adventure together in the next couple of years.

I was glad I reached out. It doesn’t come easy to us blokes being that open, but it has its own reward.

I wish I could do the same for my stepsister, but I’ve tried that to no avail. She has her own life, she doesn’t need me pestering her. She’s made her decision. Sad, but that’s life. I still have my dreams, I guess.

Out of the past


Lying in bed this morning before 7, I saw a flash of light coming from the living room. It took me a moment to realise it was my iPad lighting up as it received a notification.

I got up about 20 minutes later and, checking my phone, found I’d received a Facebook friend request. I didn’t recognise the name at first, and I thought it was probably one of those random invitations you’ll receive every so often. Then it dawned on me that the person had the same name as someone I knew back at high school, thirty years ago. I clicked on the profile and studied it for evidence.

It didn’t give away much. The only school listed on his profile was not the private school we shared – but then I remembered that he left after about year 9. The school he listed was in much as the same area. There were no photos of his younger self, but I thought I could recognise the boy I knew in the smiling face on the screen.

I remembered him as a big kid with a mop of blonde hair. In his photos, he was burly and had the same open face, though probably looking a few years older than me (I can pass for 40). In all the years since I’ve barely thought of him, but in some strange way I recently had a random recollection of a moment we shared together – sitting on a bus heading to ice skating in Ringwood, ELO and the Sweet playing on the radio, and him showing me the yachting magazine he was looking at. He was into sailing.

I didn’t immediately accept his invitation. I thought about it first. All this time and I wondered what we’d have to say, and if it was still relevant that we know each other. And it set off a train of thought, much as trivial incidents like this often do.

I imagined having a conversation with him and explaining my life in the time since we last saw each other. I could tell him of adventures and the things I’d strived to achieve and there was plenty of colour and movement, but I felt at that moment that I came up short. I could see that he was married with children and I struggled in my mind to explain why I wasn’t as well.

I got myself ready for work with this thought in the back of my mind. I showered and put my suit on and prepared myself for another day in the office wondering, as I have many times before, what it’s all about? To all of this, there are no clearly defined answers. There may not be answers at all. We each go our own way, in while there’s often intent there is also much that is fluke and chance. With almost every choice we make, there’s an opportunity cost. Sometimes it only becomes evident long after the fact.

Before I walked out the door, I accepted his invitation. I was curious, naturally, and I have a general attitude that it’s better to do something than nothing. But courtesy played a big part, also – it would be churlish to refuse the invitation. I think I knew from the start I would click accept, but it didn’t take long for me to think twice about it.

It became clear that in the years since we knew each other that we’d diverged in other ways besides our families. We’d both been good private schoolboys, and though I was rebellious, I think it sat better with me than it did him. I didn’t like being told what to do and think, and chafed against the structure and regulation – yet I was also a curious child who enjoyed learning, and was sporadically good at it.

I don’t think he was as curious, nor as generally interested as I was (nor as rebellious). I think he had his eyes on other things for which a private school education was unnecessary. He was always more knockabout and, I suspect the technical school he ended up attending was a much better fit for him.

Most of the differences between us seemed unimportant except in the sense that we might not have much to share in common besides memories. What cruelled me though was to see some of the things he’d posted and shared in his news feed, up to and including from the notorious Fraser Anning.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m liberal and progressive. I believe in a fair go for everyone. I don’t discriminate by any measure. It’s not that I’m a great bleeding heart, it just seems to me stupid and unnecessary. I tend to think bigotry reveals much more about the bigot than the victim of it.

I tend to be disparaging of those who have such a mindset, which I see as weak. It frustrates me no end the simple-minded mentality that leads people into unconsidered thought and action – much easier to be handed an opinion than form one of your own. Most of those ‘opinions’ are broad and unsophisticated, the product of insecurity and fear.

It’s an infection that has spread throughout the community and which is fanned by corrupt governments worldwide who have no interest in ethics or truth. It’s all about power, and by any means. In the era of fake news and viral social media and a sloppy, often uncritical media, the bulwark against ignorance is knowledge and education, integrity and critical thinking (a skillset much in decline).

Reading his comments, it’s easy to see in him one of the quiet Australians Morrison lauds. And in his eyes, I’m probably an elite, but certainly an inner-city, latte-sipping leftie. Such is the world we live in.

It pained me to read much of what he posted – in the end, I snoozed him – but I didn’t want to judge him by that. We fall into traps of stereotyping people. We tar them with a broad brush. Certainly, I do.

I’m aware of it, but the shorthand is simpler when you generalise. It’s easier too when the stereotypes are others, not your own. It’s more complicated when faced with someone you know.

I haven’t seen this guy since we were both about 14. I don’t know him, clearly. And clearly, life has taken us in different directions. I looked at the smiling face in the profile, though. I remembered the generous, kindly kid he was. And though I disagree with what I see, I must acknowledge an inconvenient truth I’m fully aware of – that many of those I profess to despise are actually warm-hearted, otherwise decent people. It’s the paradox that’s hard to resolve when you view only along pure, ideological lines.

There’s little nuance in social media, and I shouldn’t judge too soon, if at all. I don’t want to be one of those people, particularly when I profess the desire to give everyone a fair go.

I don’t know what happens now. Perhaps I’ll tentatively reach out to him. Perhaps he’ll reach out to me.

The marvellous Clive James


Very sad, though not surprised, to hear of the death of Clive James overnight. I thought he was marvellous.

It was a scruffy package, but what an incisive mind he had, matched with a wonderful way with words. He was a great communicator. Engaging as a personality, he had that rare ability to make high art and concepts approachable to the guy in the street. It was as if he shared with us his distinctive view of things, allowing us to share in the wonder he felt.

He was a great mind, but he was just as good with the everyday muck that is our media, seeing the absurdity in it and presenting back to us in such a way that we could all see it too. He was such a genial, affable character, the sort you can directly relate to because he wore his flaws so openly, and took such open visceral pleasure in popular culture, and the things that were common to us. I’d have loved to have met him*. I couldn’t imagine better company for a night out on the town – erudite, witty, intelligent and earthy.

For me, and probably for many thousands of others, I felt a connection to him merely by his presence through so many years of my life. He was always there, on TV, a beaming, bright presence sitting back in a lounge chair with a laugh in his voice as he colourfully highlighted some absurdity. And if he wasn’t there on TV, he was in the media commenting on this or that. Then there were his books. I started off with his Unreliable Memoirs many years ago, but I loved his essays also, which I think greatly underrated. Then there’s his Cultural Amnesia, both highly learned and entertaining, a great read. Even his poetry, some of which is sublime.

As an Australian, there’s another layer of connection. Though he lived in London throughout his adult life, there was something ineffably Australian about him – the irreverence perhaps, the larrikin tilting at windmills. He remained a proud Aussie throughout his life, and I was proud to have him as one of ours.

For me, there’s one final link – he’s the generation of my father. My dad had his 79th birthday a couple of weeks ago (I had lunch with him last week), a year younger than James. The world that James recalls in his memoirs is the world of my father (and mother, too). It’s a generation slowly thinning and, regardless of the disdain epitomised by the insult ‘hey, boomer’, there are many great members of it – and it’s a world slipping away. James would have a comment on that, though I suspect he would shrug his shoulders, accepting that’s the way of things and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

I’m sorry I’ll never see his jovial dial on TV anymore, or his amused voice. I’ll miss him as a character and icon, another one gone, and sad that nothing more will flow from that grand mind of his to share in.

*P.S. When I was in London a few years ago I imagined I would bump into Clive James and he would invite me back to his place where he’d have fascinating conversations over a bottle of red – that’s how much he meant to me. I knew by then that he would never return to Australia, which seemed desperately sad because he could no longer travel. Unfortunately, that encounter never happened, and never will now.

P.P.S. Not that many will know him necessarily, but another member of the fraternity coming out of English universities of the sixties died not long after James: Jonathan Miller. He had many successes, but I’ll always remember him for a fascinating series called The Body in Question. He was mates with Dudley and Moore as well if I remember right.

The times as they were


I don’t know what connects these, but in my mind, these two small things from yesterday appear linked.

I got a call in the morning from a friend who loves up near Byron Bay. He was in town and wanted to catch up for a beer later. We met at an earthy, excellent bar in Moorabbin called Grape and Grain, where we started on some boutique beers sitting on a couch in the corner.

Even before he shifted up there, he looked the part of an alternative, backwoods type. Tall and thin, with dark wavy hair that in the years since has grown longer and greyer, and a thick, greying beard that makes him look like a prophet from the Old Testament. He’s a good man, a good soul, sensitive and honest and passionate, even if a little absent-minded occasionally, a man too gentle in some ways, too idealistic and out of step with the striving, pragmatic world around us.

We talked about all the usual things, about politics and the deplorable state of world affairs, about his family and life up north and about what’s happening to me. Surprisingly, there was little about sport, but shared memories of times we would go out together on the prowl, surprised to find they were 20-25 years ago.

I recalled a night I nearly got in a fight with a guy at the Prince of Wales because he kept dancing into me. I was in a mood over a woman and happy to express myself verbally, at least. It was unlike me – I’ve always been pretty controlled – and there was another guy with us – what was his name? Stuey, that’s right – who convinced me otherwise. We recalled going to the Corner Hotel to watch Weddings, Parties, Anything and pinging coins at the stage, a bit of a ritual, and seeing Hunters and Collectors at the Palais.

One of our haunts back then was the Provincial Hotel in Brunswick street, where we made an unlikely pair trying to hook a date. Now and then, we’d get in conversation with a couple of girls, whereupon my mate would start talking about politics or the environment while I rolled my eyes at him: time and place, mate, and this aint it. That was him, though, committed in every fibre.

Once we dated a couple we met there – or somewhere – and ended up one night watching Shakespeare in the Park at the Botanical gardens – The Taming of the Shrew, I think. We spread a blanket and had a basket of wine and cheese and what not. I remember looking at the woman with my mate thinking, ‘he’s in’. But he wasn’t interested. He always wanted a relationship but wanted it to be right.

Eventually, he met someone, and they married and had beautiful twins, now grown up (they’re at uni in Melbourne now, and he was here to visit them). His wife turned out very different from him, and they divorced, and he remarried a lovely woman. He’s been up there about 18 years now and has found his groove.

So we were talking about the old days, happily recalling things we’d forgotten. He asked how I’d been going and offered the standard compliment about how well I’d done to survive. I told him how things had changed for me since and suggested that maybe I’d become a harder man since.

He responded straight off to that in a manner foreign to his usual way. “You always had something hard in you,” he said as if it was fact.

I was surprised at how emphatic he was. It made me wonder. Now, there are probably few people in the world who think better of me than my mate, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative judgment. It made me consider our relationship in a different light though, and particularly those memories. I was the organised, decisive one. I had a stronger personality. I was just a mate, though, and suddenly I’m wondering if he saw me as fierce. You just are, then you realise that others see you differently from how you see yourself.

It’s all perspective, and it’s all relative. Compared to him, I probably was hard, and maybe that informed his opinion, but it was not something I was conscious of being. Driving home later, it lingered in my mind as things like that do. But then he had followed up his comment by saying he actually thought I’d mellowed since.

Then last night I had the news on. One news report showed a medical expert talking about something. I glanced at her and thought she looked familiar. Then I saw her name and yep, I remembered her.

You forget a lot of things. Not altogether, maybe, but because they’re not essential or particularly vivid, they slip back into the part of the memory not easily accessed. ROM instead of RAM, for the geeks out there.

I had sex with this woman maybe 22 years ago. She was from Sydney visiting, and we used to have these long, fascinating conversations full of wordplay. That was something I was able to do then (and have little patience for now) that many women of a particular type would find alluring.

We had dinner and a bottle of wine at Pellegrini’s in the middle of winter before we crossed the road to where she was staying, the Windsor Hotel. She took her clothes off there and I remember her body – tall and slightly awkward, pale skin and full breasts and distinctly unshaven. And the other thing I remember was how disappointingly drab the room was for such a grand and famous hotel.

Here she was again, twenty-two years later, looking not much different and an expert so well esteemed that she was being quoted on TV.

Maybe that’s what my mate meant. I had dozens of episodes like this. Fleeting encounters, flirtatious at the edges but basically sexual in nature. It was mutual, but it was easy for me because I could compartmentalise so well. I reckon I had 10-12 years like this and I’d probably have this type of experience 6-8 times every year, maybe more, in between having more considered relationships.

What can I say? I enjoyed it. Mostly.

My friend was always and remains an idealist, through and through. We connected on that level because we had similar interests and beliefs. I was an idealist, too, as I am now, but I wasn’t as innocent as him, and where he wore it on his sleeve at all times, I would pack it away when it wasn’t relevant.

Either way, I was always direct. Truth be told, I enjoyed the grit of reality and that burgeoning sense of self in earthly desires. I had a mind, but I had a body too.