“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”
Thomas Henry Huxley
Have you ever seen Sydney from a 727 at night? It glimmers so beautifully, it’s harbour immense and magnificent. As we approached the airport, the red roofs were catching the first rays of the morning sun. I could see Bondi through my window way off to the right,the curling waves on a distant break, threads of a necklace of world class beaches, And the city, fast asleep, ringed by national parks, just about to wake.My island home was waiting for me.
My eyes too were full of sand from my midnight run. Hearing the captain say ‘belt up now we’ll be landing in ten’. I pressed my seat, straightened up folded my tray and stashed my cup. I was touching Down Under again at last. Carrying the bags from under my eyes, I was jet lagged but home and hosed.
That watershed in my life behind me, I was on my way back to the dry and dusty Liverpool Plains . Home again, home again, jiggedy jig. Back to slay the fatted pig.
I would spend several months with my parents at their behest in my sun-drenched, boyhood town catching up with them ‘neath starry skies. In their tree-bowered, cricket chirruping life there the windows and screen doors stood open on those long summer days. This part of the world shaped itself exactly as it was when I left– the curvatures, the tree lines, the precise angles and proportions. However when I had left, seldom was heard a discouraging word. Now the nation was still bitterly divided over the actions of the Governor-General. By the royal powers invested in him, he had given Prime Minister Whitlam the Order of the Boot. Gough had been holding the reins but the gee gee was the jockey.
Zelman Cowen was appointed as the new G. G. in 1977 to end the considerable uncertainty. As head of state he had to grapple profoundly with the issues of division, consensus, communication, and to stabilise the country, what he regarded as healing. As the Queen’s man, he took to sitting with aboriginal elders, serving as a vigorous inspector of ships and driver of tanks as the military’s commander in chief. He saw the role of the governor general as being to interpret all that is good in the nation to itself, and to that end he travelled and spoke extensively.
Despite the realization that the big fella was quite not the same son who they had bid farewell to five years earlier-I had filled out and was much more savvy, a self-assured man of the world-my doting mother was overjoyed at having her blue-eyed boy back with her. ‘Well look at you’, said Mum, hugging me, ‘I can’t believe it. Are my eyes deceiving me. I have to pinch myself. Are you really here.’
‘Yes, Mum it really is. It’s not a hologram you’re looking at.’
The feelings were mutual. In my absence she had lived for my much awaited loving and informative letters. My father’s disability had left him with a lot of pain and I acted as his legs , helping maintain the grounds of their home and the chicken-run. His property investments had left them extremely well off, without financial concern. My name was on the long list of teachers awaiting employment with the NSW Department of Education. In the meantime I prepared myself to attend Sydney University, enrolled in a science course. I worked my way indefatigably through the text books and assignments. I would overcome my inferiority complex regarding knowledge of the laws of nature. I wanted to be able to pass on a balanced knowledge of the world to my children.
Flying by the seat of my pants, I threw myself into the deep end because of my lack of preparation in the physical sciences
Nevertheless this was a pool into which the mature aged were being welcomed to enter and I didn’t want to miss out. I would upgrade my intellect and make a splash professionally.
The Whitlam Government had abolished fees at university and I seized the opportunity to sinew my intellectual prowess. The courses would be quite rigorous, putting strain on students. I would be beating my brain alongside many who had a head start. They were young and crash hot, quite at home in the laboratory. The practical side would not be my bag . Not that I minded. The more knowledge man acquires, the narrower the field of any one specialist, the more there is to learn about less and less. What kind of view of the universe do you get when you are the greatest living expert on one tiny fragment of it’s nature? For me this was the day of the expanding man. I was more interested in making my name as a new Renaissance man, gunning for that holistic holy grail of knowledge, the single theory of everything , than lab ‘practice’. As it was, I would complete undergraduate courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics, physiology and the history and philosophy of science. Enormous strides for me, equipping me with the ability to ask questions about anything. After this hiatus I looked forward to my return to teaching in public schools, ahead of the curve, a magisterial man of varied learning, a perspicacious polymath who would be well placed to connect the various strands. Things looked very promising indeed. I had nothing to hit but the heights.
On our Selection.
My next aim was to be well placed with respect to where I lived in Sydney with it’s agreeable Mediterranean climate, a happy medium between hot and cold. Initially I stayed some months with my cousin in an old mansion in East Balmain. Balmain is a well known peninsular suburb close to the centre of Sydney’s CBD. The mansion, said to have been built by a ship’s captain retiring to safe anchorage, was sub-divided into a number of flats and bed sitters. This arrangement didn’t crimp the kindred landlubbers within from creating a communal atmosphere which helped me acclimatise after my time in London. The wind was right. You could smell the harbour through the windows. Balmain’s geographical position, its maritime associations and its working class make-up lent the residents of this piece of land a strong sense of identity, a proletarian one, long before it was a cute place to meet for drinks. Renowned for its great number of public houses, one of these was home to the birth of the Australian Labour Party.
The family of one of my son’s school friends live in the house where Dr Evatt lived when he was State Member of the electorate. To cater for the spiritual life of the working poor, many of whom were seamen, a Salvation Navy temple was erected. This prompted me to wonder if there is anywhere a Salvation Air Force. Would that get one to heaven that much quicker?
When the word reached the residents of the mansion that their days of living in such congeniality were numbered, I was already scouting the area for the quarters I had in mind. The mansion had changed hands and the new ones were particularly talented. One of the highest earning rhythm guitarists in the world, Malcolm Young, driving force in the high voltage rock band AC/DC had snapped up ‘Cockroach Towers’ for his home. His wife told me later that she understood it to be ‘Cockroach Castle’. As for which is the more dignified, I’m not sure , but she and Malcolm renamed it ‘Oncaparinga’. Of the residents just a few would stay to take up front row seats for one of the biggest acts in the rock world. It was a long way to the top of the sideboard if they wanted to rock and roll. Some would move on to carry on their dirty deeds elsewhere. Many would take the highway to hell. As for the humans I would take the 445 bus from the beginning of Darling Street to the other end in Rozelle, Balmain’s adjoining suburb.
Whilst house-hunting, I had been staking out the sizeable but yet dilapidated weatherboard house for some time. I paced around outside it trying not to look conspicuous. With it’s pleasing northerly aspect, it said home to me. With paint peeling, it’s windowpanes broken, it was boarded up with tin sheets. Owned by the state government department of main roads they had left it empty for several years. They bought it as one of the first of many they planned to buy in anticipation of building an expressway leading west out of the city. Public protests had led to this scheme, cutting a vast swathe through heritage townscapes, being shelved and finally abandoned. After unobtrusively removing the tin sheets, lo and behold I discovered a hole in the floor in one room. As the house is raised from the ground, this would have allowed me easier initial access for inspection. Not that I was going to be choosy. This was the fertile ground I was seeking on which to dig in and put down roots. The ideal place to get underway a new chapter in my life. The house was solid and well built if not well appointed, with several grates for open crackling fires. It had an extra large plot overrun with weeds at the side where another house had stood. The roads authority had pulled that one down. Subsequently they used the space to dump excess soil from elsewhere. The plot had thickened.
The house had last been occupied by an Aboriginal family whose breadwinner had worked for the authority. As if coming full circle I was unwittingly following in the footsteps of the early settlers coming from England who occupied the land of the indigenous people after they had been cleared. This family would have been re-housed but I’m sure they would have preferred to stay put any day.
It’s elevated situation allows air to move under the floorboards, making it cooler. The high ceilings have the same effect. I set about the task of cleaning up and getting things shipshape and Bristol fashion. The house in those early days reminds me of that occupied by Brad Pitt’s character Tyler in ‘The Fight Club’. The pervading effect of brightness, spaciousness and freedom far outweighed the aesthetic shortcomings of the walls. With time these were overcome with lots of swabbing, painting and handiwork.I gave them a good going over. I relied heavily on two tools: WD-40 and duct tape. If it didn’t move and should have, I used the WD-40. If it shouldn’t have moved and did, I used the duct tape. I discovered that like ‘The Force’ it has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.
With a tack tack here and a tack tack there and a hand around a hammer, with a mop mop here and a mop mop there, I gave the house some glamour. It was important to impress upon the neighbours that I was no fly-by-night, here today, tomorrow on my way, but a positive newcomer to the area.
I became a familiar face at Brown’s Hardware. I went there and said: ‘I want some nails.’
Mr Brown asked, ‘How long do you want them?’
‘I want to keep them. I’m here to stay.’
Before long I would be able to greet most of those who lived in the vicinity and be in good standing amongst them. My home became an open house for the neighbourhood kids to play at. Their parents helped me with repairs.
“Hey,’I said to a group of them gathered, ‘if any of you knows how to fix some broken hinges, my door’s always open.’
Most importantly, I would be able to approach the road department in due course-not too soon of course- to negotiate an affordable rent. I would eventually for once in my life be able to say, ‘this is mine, you can’t take it.’
The long dilatory approval for Leonor’s entry had me hot to trot chomping at the bit. Quando, quando, quando? The moments had gone glacially slow. Suddenly the red-letter day arrived.Her visa approval came through. Luck be a lady. Yipee! The bluebirds would be mating. She was at last coming to Sydney and our nest had to be secure. With her visa under her belt, the coast was clear.
All at once the heavens were filled with the most stirring sounds proclaiming her approach. It started with the uplifting rhapsody of the lark ascending. Leonor had taken to the blue and was soaring high on her pinions, silver winging her way to the City of Angels to catch the long flight across the Pacific. At last I heard the revving crescendo of the jet engine suggesting a full-throttle journey into the unknown.
A song of joy to the Doors’ “LA Woman”, I took it up as one to my own, to this fancier’s Latin American woman. I laid out the runway lights and prayed she would feel at home.