‘100 Hundred Years of Dirt’: a classic Aussie memoir

NEWOne-Hundred-Years-of-Dirt-CoverWhen I picked up journalist Rick Morton’s memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt I had a sense it would be a great read.

This was partly due, I think, to the evocative photograph on the front cover  – a lonesome tin-roofed shack set against the contrasting colours of the deep blue sky and that distinctive red earth – and the title, which suggested this would be a gritty tale embedded deep within the Australian landscape.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Morton, a journalist with The Australian newspaper, has written a fine book which draws comparison in its storytelling to the works of Helen Garner, Clive James and Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net.

I mention Robert Drewe as I just finished reading The Shark Net for the second time, a rare effort on my part.

The Shark Net chronicles Robert Drewe’s childhood and early adult life as cadet reporter in Perth during the time crazed serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was on the loose. It is also an evocative depiction of suburban amid Perth’s sand dune suburbs in the 1950s and 60s.

Rick Morton also chronicles a young journalist-to-be’s life in the making (he is only in his early 30s). But whereas there is an overall lightness to Drewe’s middle-class Perth tale (his father was a Dunlop executive who hosted tennis great Rod Laver in his living room),  Morton presents a modern ‘Heart of Darkness’ that begins near the very bottom of the socio-economic sphere.

First our young hero (to steal from Clive James) has to navigate the brutality of a remote outback station, then the oppressive poverty of a hand-to-mouth existence in a conservative Queensland country town and then later – as a young gay man – battle anxiety and depression amid the neon lights of the Gold Coast.

It’s certainly not light reading, nor its it easy reading at times, but thankfully Morton adds dollops of wry humour, fascinating family anecdotes and insightful academic research to his tale of tragedy and woe.

It’s of course something of a miracle he survived it all, let alone emerged triumphantly as one of the country’s top journalist writing about social issues – though after you read his memoir, you realise how well-qualified Morton is for that particular journalistic beat.

The ‘dirt’ in the title refers to the origins of the Morton family – in remote outback Queensland – who at one time owned five enormous cattle stations near the Birdsville Track in an area known as ‘Channel Country’ that collectively were the size of Belgium.

“It’s that red earth…,” Morton reminisced in a radio interview. “I’ve always been disappointed with regular dirt.”

It is here that we hear about his grandfather, the legendary cattleman George Morton, who ruled the family’s vast pastoral lands with great cruelty and vengeance.  It was his grandfather – Morton informs us – who discovered the bodies of the Paige family who succumbed to this most “vicious” and inhospitable of landscapes when they got lost in Christmas 1963.

It is in this inhospitable terrain, where deadly Brown snakes invade the homestead, kitchen, that tragedy unfolds when Morton’s brother Toby is horribly burnt in a terrible accident.

It’s also where he learns that his father, Rodney, is having an affair with the teenage governess. When his father abandons the family and takes off with the governess, Rick, his mum, his badly burnt brother and two-month old sister ends up in Charlesville in emergency public housing with no money. Later they move to Boonah, south of Brisbane, where the struggle to survive continues.

In many ways the book is a tribute to the stoicism of his mother Deb, who made up for a lack of money with unconditional devotion and love for her children (including her self-destructive son Toby, an ice addict) and who realised her younger son Rick, was cut from a different cloth (she lovingly referred to him as an “alien” to explain his more sensitive and intelligent nature) and potential to make something of his life.

It’s also a meditation on social inequality and its inherent unfairness (the family’s finances were so tight they did not have enough money to take advantage of ‘two for one’ offers in the supermarket) and how hard it is to break out of that cycle, with Morton drawing on his own experience trying to make it in a profession dominated by the private school-educated middle classes.

“There’s this creeping sense, this argument that poor people are morally inferior, which I think is repugnant for a start,” Morton said in the same radio interview – his poignant memoir is a powerfual antidote to that snobbish view.

It’s also about what can emerge from the dirt and grit of a tough upbringing.

 

 

 

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Becoming an Australian: a brief summary of an unexpected 14 year odyssey

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How Emu-sing

A few days before I took the pledge and became an Australian citizen, I celebrated my impending ‘Aussie-ness’ in true style by enjoying the spectacle of the AFL Grand Final – Pies v Eagles – in my local pub in country Victoria.

Can there be anything more Aussie then sipping a pot of cold beer, surrounded by dinky-di locals hurling abuse at muscly boofheads on a big screen amid the pungent aroma wafting up from an unwashed carpet?

Perched on a bar stool, holding an ale, there I was offering my limited analysis of the great Australian game (whose rules I still haven’t quite figured out after 14 years of trying), wondering how the hell I ended up here in the first place?

After all, I was the least likely person among my circle of Johannesburg friends to ever contemplate moving Down Under, someone who once famously vowed never to live in the same country as Steve “You’ve dropped the World Cup” Waugh and Shane Whatshisname and all the other Aussies that had, more often than not, thrashed us South Africans on the cricket field and other sporting arenas.

But here I was, a few days out from joining the other 25 million-odd people in this vast and curious land who call themselves ‘Australian’, and feeling rather pleased with myself.

This might have had something to do with the three or four pots of ice-cold beer I’d enjoyed as the game drew to its thrilling climax, creating a warm glow in my belly.

Or perhaps it was the un-expectantly jovial conversation (unexpected, since I’d walked into the pub knowing no one) I’d struck up with Jason, the larrikin bloke sitting next to me at the bar, who it turned out lived on my street and was full of funny tales from his job on the Melbourne docks and his travels with his wife to Nepal and who by the end of the afternoon was slightly rat-arsed and could only make it half way through a story before chuckling to himself, because he’d forgotten the point entirely.

But the feeling was deeper, like maybe, I actually belonged here, that I’d absorbed something of the country’s essence – it’s essential “fair go” good heartiness, it’s fair dinkum spirit and inexplicable cultural oddities and contradictions.

It was as if I’d grown a new layer of  ‘Australian identity’, over my South African roots and the other layers of ‘me’ – my traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing and my adopted Englishness, courtesy of four cherished years living and working in London.

Sydney

As the evening of the citizenship ceremony at Kyneton Town Hall drew nearer, I became gripped by nostalgia for the past 14 years.

My mind danced back to the day I touched down in Sydney in late September 2004 after a long flight, and feeling the muggy heat of a surprisingly humid Spring day as I exited the airport building. From there I was taken to La Perouse, named after the French navigator who landed there before Captain Cook, to enjoy the view across Botany Bay whilst be warned to watch out for snakes.

The bright sun and deep blue waters were a stark change from the grey, Autumn skies of London, where I’d said goodbye to my  friends a day earlier, before hopping into a mini cab in Golders Green in the metropolis’s northern suburbs for the motorway out to Heathrow.

In suburban Sydney, newly unemployed and work visa-less, Australian pop culture got its early hooks into me courtesy of morning re-runs of The Secret Life of Us a show about a group of twenty-something friends living and loving at Melbourne’s St Kilda Beach, narrated by the philosophical observer and writer, Evan (played brilliantly by Samuel Johnson). I took daily jogs beneath the fig trees of Centennial Park only a short walk away, went on weekend excursions to the Central Coast, visited Canberra and attended the Floriade (an annual flower shower) and was introduced to the music of Cold ChiselThe Whitlams and Powderfinger.

Brisbane

Sydney soon departed, as did my relationship, in a cloud of self-induced misery, giving way to the humidity of tropical Brisbane where I secured a job in PR (writing media releases that no one read) and a cherished 457 work visa. I vividly remember feeling both exhilarating and melancholic waking up on Australia Day 2005 in a shared townhouse in Stafford in Brisbane’s Northern Suburbs realising I was completely on my own.

I also won’t ever forget that scorching hot day wandering aimlessly around the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, Southbank, and the city, the Triple J Hottest 100 playing on the radio, (the number 1 song that year was Wish You Well by Bernard Fanning) wondering just what the bloody hell I was doing here.

Rather then become a recluse, being alone jolted me into a new and surprising phase of gregariousness and adventure. Within a few months, with the help of websites like the Gumtree, I soon gathered around me a motley crew of new friends, most of them local Brisbanites, who had returning from London work stints. They were all lovely, warm and welcoming people who made me feel at home, and I’m sad to think that I’ve since lost contact with all of them.

We’d catch up after work in the city or in Fortitude Valley (Brisbane lively inner city party suburb), drink ourselves silly and rock out to the local band playing cover versions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Hunters & Collectors, Paul Kelly and the Rolling Stones at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow or Pig & Whistle.  By that time I’d relocated to a shared apartment in leafy New Farm on the banks of the Brisbane River (my previous flatmate, Sharon, with a propensity for having loud, moaning intercourse with her boyfriend, having kicked me out for a few harmless indiscretions including using her expensive goat hair winter blanket without asking).

I would often stumble home down Sydney Road after a night of drinking, dancing and canoodling in the Valley, crawling into bed as the sun was just starting to come up.

I remember a wonderful Christmas spent as the pseudo-adopted son of my delightful new flatmate Jane’s Gold Coast family in their swimming pooled home, a holiday which included a Formula One-like ride in her father’s super-charged Holden Commodore to pick up a relative in Murwillumbah across the border.

There were new discoveries: the gaudy neon delights of Surfers Paradise only an hour away, the beaches and markets of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast, the rather depressing hippyness of Nimbin, a weekend away to taste the bohemian air of Byron Bay, a holiday at Rainbow Beach below Fraser Island with its bleached white sandy beaches -and a string of short-lived romances.

The party stopped soon after that Rainbox Beach Christmas holiday, when I got “boned” from my job (they finally figured out I actually did very little all day) and ended back in Sydney, working as a journalist for a trade publishing outfit on the North Shore on another 457 visa.

(As a side note I should add that Brisbane was where I sat enthralled watching the epic 2005 Grand Final between Sydney Swans and West Coast, a game which was instrumental in developing a surprising  interest in the sport alongside my established passions of rugby, cricket and the English Premier League.)

Back to Sydney: Coogee Beach and Dural

Coogee Beach

Coogee Beach

In Sydney, I made my first home in an Art Deco flatshare overlooking Coogee Beach and then later, after I met the gorgeous Kiwi who was to be my wife (we were introduced by mutual friends at the bar at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks), to a two-storey apartment in Woolloomooloo that we shared, nestled amid the hipsters, drug addicts and down-and-outs of Kings Cross (as well as Russell Crowe) for two funky years.

With the bustle and hustle of rainbow-flagged Oxford Street only a short walk away Betty’s Soup Kitchen (sadly no longer there) and its homemade damper bread  and cramped Don Don’s with its enormous bowls of Chicken Katzu became favourites as did drinking holes like the Gaslight Inn, Dolphin and Clock Hotel.

I attended my first Mardi Gras parade, ran my first City to Surf run, and took our dogs, two playful silky terriers for morning walks, heading up to the NSW Art Gallery, as trains rattled below, and to the rocky wilds of the Royal Botanical Gardens and sensational views across the harbour.

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Python-esque

When our Woolloomooloo lease ended, inner city Sydney with its buzz, noise and congestion gave way, for a magical six months, to country living as we joined my future wife’s sister and her partner sharing a large house on a couple of acres north of Dural on the rugged and bushy northern outskirts. On the property were half a dozen horses, five dogs, and a couple of Diamond-backed pythons who made a home in the roof above the living room,  feasting on rodents. They could often be seen slithering through vines outside our expansive lounge windows. (It was at this time that I bought my now well-thumbed copy of A Guide to Australian Snakes).

A delightful wedding in historic Clyde, below the snow-capped majestic mountains of Central Otago surrounded by 50 of our closest family and friends (followed by a honeymoon road trip around the New Zealand South Island) gave way to a magical year-long backpacking adventure around the world (read about my BEEG Adventure here) and then a new chapter, Melbourne, when we returned to Australia from our travels in February 2011.

There after I got an online writing job in the city, and soon after, we started a family that has most recently grown to five. It was in Melbourne, that I also landed a cherished role writing for The Australian Financial Review in August 2013 where I recently clocked up five years. Where does the time go?

Return to the country

We spent almost six years in the rather bland Northern Suburbs of Melbourne – Oak Park and then Niddrie – before packing up and heading north on the Calder Freeway for leafy Gisborne with its rolling kangaroo-hopping green hills and country fresh feel.

Which of course brings me right back to the country pub, and the big screen telly, and the Grand Final and the pots of beer in the belly, and the locals laughing and yelling and my new friend forgetting the point of his stories and me feeling rather pleased with myself after my unexpected 14 year odyssey.

So here I am. As Aussie apparently as the next bloke, part of this fabulous, swirling multi-cultural melting pot with an uncle called Bruce (truly), father-in-law who barracks for Collingwood (sadly) and three Australian children, wondering…who the bloody hell I am going to vote for at the next federal election?aussie citizenship

The lucky lives of Judy and Alex Resofsky

Throughout her life Judy Resofsky considered herself lucky.  No doubt, her husband Alex did too.

Judy and Alex arrived in Australia in 1949 when they were in their early twenties, having both survived the horrors or Hungarian ghetto life and the notorious Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland, to which many Hungarian Jews were deported in 1944.

At her funeral last month in Melbourne, Judy and Alex’s daughter Kathy Janovic told mourners the incredible story of how her mother had escaped the gas chambers.

On the day, she and others were to be murdered, the gas chambers had miraculously malfunctioned and she was spared.

Later, when the concentration camps were being evacuated and demolished, as the Russians advanced across Europe, Judy was one of thousands of emaciated Jews sent on a death march from Praust (Pruszcz Gdański) in North Western Poland.

At one stage during this horrendous ordeal, she and other women were resting in a barn when Russian soldiers entered and started to rape the women. Judy jumped out of a window and landed close to a Jewish Russian soldier, who saved her.

This was just another example of her mother’s good luck, her daughter Kathy said in a loving tribute to her warm, kind and generous parents.

One of eight children, born in Nyirbartor, in Eastern Hungary on July 5, 1926 to Adolph and Berta Winkler, and their first born, Judy was the only of her family to survive the mass extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.

Her husband Alex Resofsky, who also recently passed away, was born in the same Hungarian town of Nyirbator two years before Judy in 1924.

The second child of Mor and Berta Resofksy, Alex and his eldest sister Margaret were the only ones in their family to survive the holocaust.

After the family had been rounded up in the Sirna Pusata Ghetto, they were deported to Auschwitz. Alex’s mother and siblings did not survive the selection process and were murdered by the Nazis.

Alex passed through three more concentration camps – including the notorious Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald camp networks – before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

He was part of the Bricha underground movement that helped smuggle Jewish holocaust survivors out of Eastern Europe into what is today Israel.

In 1949 he sailed to Australia with his sister and future wife, Judy.

Here they lived for the next 69 years, making a life for themselves in Melbourne’s flourishing Jewish immigrant garment trade (supplying David jones with mens knitwear) and where they had three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By all accounts – I sadly never met them – Alex and Judy were much-loved and treasured members of Melbourne’s close-knit Jewish community,and were actively involved in the important work of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

A report from the JHC in September 2017 includes a picture of Judy and Alex along with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are 24 people in the photo.

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Alex and Judy with their family, taken in September 2017 (Credit: Jewish Holocaust Centre)

 

The JHC report notes that through the generosity of the Resofsky’s, the centre was able to put its vast and important collection online, and that they did so in loving memory of their parents, Mor and Lenke Resofsky; Jeno and Berta Frisch; Adolf and Berta Winkler and all their siblings.

I only recently came across the incredible survival of the Resofskys while researching a story I was writing for The Australian Financial Review. It was about a shopping mall they owned near Geelong, and which their children recently sold.

It would have been a great privilege to have met Alex and Judy and heard their story of survival against the odds, and about their successful and happy lives in Melbourne.

Deepest sympathies to their family and friends.

 

More fool me: Stephen Fry’s “coke years”

22662908One of the most interesting and surprising things you will learn about Stephen Fry, if you read his third autobiography “More Fool Me” is the extent of his cocaine addiction.

Or perhaps you’d wonder how he managed to snort so much marching powder up his snoz, given how crooked it is.

As you read through the book, which traces some of his most successful and creative years in the late 1980s and early 1990s – working with Hugh Laurie on Jeeves & Wooster, starring in Blackadder,  hosting royal variety shows and writing the novel The Hippopotamus and countless essays, reviews and speeches – you realise that cocaine is Fry’s special friend.

On page 69 of my soft-back edition, Fry lists all the places he has snorted cocaine during his 15 years of addiction. They include Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, The House of Lords,  The House of Commons, Fortnum & Masons and of course, the BBC Television Centre in London.

Fry is forever heading off to the exclusive, members-only Groucho Club in Soho in London’s West End (often on foot as he lived nearby) to meet up with his dealer “Jethro” for a cocaine top-up. He is incredibly candid about some of the stupid and embarrassing stuff he has done whilst consuming or after partaking of the drug.

In one episode, he gets involved in a competition to snort a massive line of coke on a table in a restaurant. He gets to the end and promptly vomits furiously. In other episode, having drunk too much and snorted too much he lurches out the window of the Groucho Club and spews down onto the pavement outside.

It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from Fry, one of England’s great literary and artistic treasures – more the behaviour of a bad boy rock ‘n roll star. But as you read you realise that Fry is quite the contradiction – a mix of erudite, literary brilliance mixed with too much alcohol, aforementioned cocaine and a fondness for wearing leather and riding motorbikes.

In one amusing episode set in the Groucho Club, Fry bumps into an angry, swearing Manchurian who turns up to be Oasis’s Liam Gallagher,  in another he befriends Damon Albarn from Blur at the Club bar, whom he finds most charming.  He seems to know, bump into or meet every single interesting person living in England at the time.

Fry writes about his cocaine use,  with both embarrassment – part of a habit of his of forever apologising for being rich and successful – and with an undercurrent (I am sorry to say) of boastfulness.

And while he professes that the details of his cocaine habit should not be seen as an encouragement to others, when you throw in all the celebrity parties, dinners, film premiers in Leicester Square, hobnobbing with the rich and famous amid all the endless line snorting (and prodigious sums of money spend on it) its hard to see his habit as anything other than part and parcel of being rich, famous and successful. Which no doubt it was back then, and still, I assume is for many in the “it” crowd.

The fascinating thing about this memoir, as with The Fry Chronicles (a lesser work which I reviewed on this blog covering his university years) is the warts-and-all account of a period of his life that despite his wild behaviour, was incredibly creative, productive and successful. Might he have achieved more if sober more often?

More Fool Me book has a strange, uneveness to it – the first part being rambling memoir that spends too much time recapping what happened in the previous book, while the second half is merely a republishing of his diary during a hectic few months when he was finishing his novel, The Hippopotamus – it really gives the reader an over-the-shoulder view of what it was like to be Stephen Fry as he soared towards becoming an English icon.

Indeed his status as a true English national treasure is sealed by a scene in the book where Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana casually pop in for tea at Fry’s country home one autumn evening.

In his customary self-effacing manner, Fry does not believe the visit will actually happen, until the royal carriage is on its way.

Then its a mad scramble to prepare tea, cakes, toast and crumpets, followed by a cozy afternoon chat with the royals which only ends when Lady Di explain that she has to get home to watch the latest episode of her favourite soap opera.

Its in scenes like this and throughout the book that Fry comes across as warm, funny, sincere and  kind – a cuddly bear of a man also capable of ingesting large amounts of coke and alcohol whilst still being able to write a word-perfect article for a major newspaper the following day.

Most impressively, he can look at himself in the mirror and be honest about what he sees.

But among all the excitement of the West End life he led then, there is also a profound sense of loneliness as he returns, home, alone – often drunk.

In that respect, it is reassuring to know that he has found a life partner – his husband Elliott – especially with the latest news that he is battling prostate cancer.

Thankfully too – as he reminds readers often in the book – he no longer has a cocaine habit.

 

 

 

 

The other Kevin: childhood tennis memories from the apartheid era

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Kevin Anderson celebrates reaching the US Open final

When Kevin Anderson surprised everyone and made it all the way to the US Open final – where he was naturally summarily thrashed by Rafael Nadal – it reminded me of a sporting moment, surely deeply etched in the memories of many fellow South Africans (where ever they may live) when Kevin Curren beat both Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe to reach the 1985 Wimbledon final during the dark days of apartheid.

Like Anderson, Curren was playing the tournament of his life, sending down aces at will and demolishing everyone on his path to the final. Such was his form that he beat Connors and McEnroe in straight sets.

But unlike Anderson, who no one really gave a snowball’s chance of beating the great Spaniard Nadal, Curren was expected to prove to experienced for the raw talent that was Boris “Boom Boom” Becker, a 17-year-old, unseeded, copper top German who had stunned the tennis world by just making the final.

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Kevin Curran in the 1985 final

I remember sitting in our lounge in our Germiston family home in the old Transvaal surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins watching and hoping the gangly Curren would do the isolated nation proud by winning the biggest title in tennis.

Sadly it was not to  be: Becker, riding on a wave of teenage punk energy, powered his way to a four set win over a shell-shocked Curren, who couldn’t bring his A game to hallowed centre court of Wimbledon.

I can still see my 12-year-old self sitting on the brown and gold patterned sofas my parents held on to for ages, hoping that mild-tempered Kevin Curren could fight his way back against tennis new wunderkind.  (There is a photo somewhere of all the family, uncles and cousins crammed into the lounge watching the final in what became a Sunday afternoon ritual in the 1980s).

I am not sure if I even realised it at the time that Curren had become an American citizen but to us, he was a South African hero.

Having young kids and been stuck in a different timezone meant I never watched any of this year’s US Open – apart from some highlight packages – but I was still excited to hear that Anderson, who bears some similarities to Curren with his skinny, long-boned physique and a killer serve – had made it all the way to a Grand Slam final. (The last player to get even close was the super talented, but poorly tempered Wayne Ferreira who made the semi-finals of the Australian Open twice).

By contrast I was addicted to the television screen during the two weeks of Wimbledon every July, and more so that year as Curren surged on.

It was one of the few global sporting events where South Africans could still compete against the best in the world. By contrast cricket and rugby union, my two other passions, were strictly domestic affairs, peppered by the ‘rebel tours’ as we remained banished until the early 1990s.

Wimbledon was also was also one of the few international events we got live on our TVs for some reason (there was no Olympics or World Cup coverage). The commentary was provided every year by tennis greats Bob Hewitt (who was much later shockingly convicted of rape) and his doubles partner Frew McMillan (I think).

I remember in the cold July afternoons taking breaks from school studies to watch just one game, just one more point in the tennis and ending up staying in the living room for hours. In the end it was 5pm and I’d watched the whole match and done no school work at all.

Thinking back in the hazy past, watching Kevin Curran play in the 1985 Wimbledon final is among a host of sporting moments I remember vividly from my apartheid-era childhood.

The others were of course Gerrie Coetzee knocking out Michael Dokes to become world heavyweight boxing champion (“We have a new, heavyweight champion of the world” I can still remember the TV announcer calling out), listening on the radio when tiny Zola Budd got horribly entangled with Mary Decker in the 3000 metre race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (where she ran barefoot as a hastily ordained Brit and finished 7th), my beloved Transvaal rugby team losing numerous Currie Cup finals and numerous cricket memories, not least of which was the great, late Clive Rice yorking successive Australian batsman in a 1980s Kim Hughes rebel series and in the early 1990s Jonty Rhodes managing to hit 7 off the last bowl in a domestic Day-Night game between Transvaal and Natal, when Richard Snell bowled a chest high no ball.

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Gerrie Coetzee knocking out Michael Dokes

Surprisingly though, despite the heartbreak of Kevin Curran’s defeat, I became a huge fan of Boris Becker and can equally remember the three successive finals he played against the great Swedish maestro Stefan Edberg, one of tennis’s great rivalries – with Edberg winning two of them in 1988 and 1990 and Becker triumphing in 1989.

I’ll end on a nice bit of trivia.

In writing this blog, I came across an interview with Kevin Curren on The Guardian website, where it transpires that he went to a Bruce Springsteen concert in London the night before the final, so confident was he of winning!

“You may laugh but it was unbelievable,” said Curren, who said he was not much of a concert goer, but that Springsteen was “the man right then.”

Perhaps a better night’s sleep and my childhood sporting memories would have been a lot more rosier.

City to country: Musings on moving house

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this blog. The main reason is that we moved house (packing up is a bitch).

We’ve relocated from the bland northern suburbs of Melbourne to the pretty country town of Gisborne in the Macedon Ranges, between Sunbury and Woodend (for those who know them) and on the way to the gold rush towns of Castlemaine, Bendigo and Ballarat.

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So we have made the proverbial “tree change” swapping the conveniences, but also the congestion of suburbia, for the quieter life and fresh air of the pastoral countryside.

Gisborne, it’s quiet, pretty, country town of about 12,000 people, with lovely tree-line streets, nestled in a green valley – an hour’s commute from the centre of Melbourne.

According to Wikipedia, it is named after Henry Fyshe Gisborne the first Commissioner of the district and began life as a merino sheep grazing station. There is still plenty of farming about: sheep, cows, alpacas and horses, olive groves and vineyards.

Probably the most famous thing nearby is Hanging Rock – for those of you who have read the book ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock‘ (the mysterious novel by Joan Lindsay) or seen the spooky movie, directed by Peter Weir (Witness).

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Hanging Rock in Woodend

Unfortunately we don’t have the funds yet for a grand country estate or even a rural block – we’re renting on a subdivided block – but we’re surrounded by tall trees and mountains and on a clear night the pitch black sky is peppered with an astonishing display of flickering stars.

Also, a two-minute drive in the car and you’re winding your way through a sweeping vista of valleys and green and gold mountains: it’s food for the city-wearied spirit.

On my daily train ride into work the farms and fields fly by and beyond them the undulating hillsides, stone cottages, grand Victorian homesteads, before we re-enter the sprawling ‘McMansions’ of suburbia.

It is good to be “disconnected”.

The last time we moved house was four years ago – swapping one Melbourne suburb for another.

Goodbye to stuff

Over that time we naturally accumulated a lot more things, but as we packed up our house, it did strike me – as we deposited hundreds of CDs, DVDs and books at our local charity shops – how technology had embedded itself even further into our lives.

Armed with a Netflix account, a Kindle and an iPod and/or Smartphone, who needs to hold onto these things?

Just about anything you want to watch or listen to these days can be found, streamed or stored on a device or online. I can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD (I think it was a season of Nurse Jackie or Inspector Morse) or a CD from a shop.

I still like buying actual books (there’s something nice and tactile about holding a book in your hands) but it’s hard to beat the almost instant delivery to your Kindle and the cheaper prices.

I should also remark that over the four years we lived in our Niddrie suburban house, our two local video stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy – closed down (I blogged about this in: In memorium: the suburban video store).

In the end, we only kept a small selection of books, CD and DVDs mostly for sentimental reasons or because we will use or watch them again. Also, to ensure we had something to put on our bookshelf – its still aesthetically pleasing and homely to have a lounge filled with books.

The other physical thing we have less now of is printed out photographs.

I spent a nostalgic Sunday afternoon going through my old photo albums, pulling out only a selection of photos dating back to my early childhood and encompassing my Bar Mitzvah, numerous overseas trips, four years of London life, my year in Brisbane and six years in Sydney. It was a nostalgic and sentimental afternoon: many faces I had long forgotten, or have lost touch with.

In the end a huge stack of bulky photo albums was reduced to a shoe box of photos and a small stack of CDs.

Everything else, especially the record of the last decade or so of my life, is stored on the computer in endless digital files

More recently, I took the prudent step of backing everything up in the digital “Cloud”.

The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

Michael_hess_lawyer

Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

Philomena-Lee

Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.