Beside an eagle

After the long slog on my bike up Col Homme Morte (‘dead man’s pass’ is what I think it means—not promising) the journey down was like flying with birds. Our traveling companion Lynne is in the grip of extreme Francophilia, so I had added a pinch of salt to her descriptions of how perfectly the valley below would unfold before me. I was wrong.

I earnt this experience the hard way, trying in vain to keep my super-fit friend Len in sight. He eats hills effortlessly, powering away with a calm expression, greeting me cheerfully at the top with no sign of the ragged breathing, burning thighs and pounding heart that afflict us mere mortals. He is a few years younger than me, so I choose to take comfort in that as explaining all. Like the best theories, it suits my needs perfectly.

We rode out of a tiny village called Aurel, and I was puffing hard within a few minutes. Most villages in rural Europe seem to be built on top of a hill, because in centuries past this was the best defence against marauders. But Aurel is only half-way up its hill, so cyclists face a challenge coming and going, whatever direction they choose. I soon ditched any pretence, and asked Len if he could go a little slower. He obliged until we came to the main climb, saying he would meet me at the top.

This particular Col is not very steep, but arduously long, for me at least. If you think five or six kilometres of continuous moderate climbing sounds not too bad, just try it. After fifteen minutes or so, you don’t have enough spare energy to take in the views, let alone to sing, which I love to do when I’m riding out of earshot. Keep looking down at the road, not the hill ahead, don’t think about how far it is now, just try to maintain a sustainable rhythm while you gulp in air. 700 metres from the top, here comes Len, riding back down to escort me up to the board that shows we are at 1,213 metres, the highest point of this trip. Standing by the sign for a photo is a great feeling, drowning out the pain in my legs and the coughing caused by my now-raw throat.

So now the descent. Immediately it was a zone of weightlessness and wonder, speeding down a curving road that showed off new terrain at every corner. At the top this was huge cliffs of grey basalt, with scattered bushes clinging to impossible places. Next came silent pine forests, with small trees creating shady spaces that promised truffles. Then, without warning, the whole valley opened up; rolling green hills and fields, dotted with miniature houses and a few villages, stretching ahead of me for thirty or forty kilometres; maybe three or four kilometres wide. The houses and barns were picked out by the morning sun, honeyed stone, with doors and window shutters mostly in the lovely blue/violet shades that make this Provence. Mountains defined both sides, with the ultra-famous (in cycling circles at least) Mont Ventoux dominating all. Ventoux, off-white at the summit, is the towering, silent central point that Provence pivots around—it seems to be there wherever you go.

Coming into all this at high speed on a near-soundless bike almost unhinged me. I was charging alone into a postcard. Nothing could stop me, and I might take flight any time, soaring, circling with the eagle above me, coasting on thermals, gradually descending until I could hear the tractors and smell the lavender not yet harvested. Yes lavender. In this region they farm the stuff on huge plantations, and on a bike you sometimes move through waves of perfume. The aroma completes the sensory treats that had me feeling this was another world, one I didn’t want to leave. Down in the valley, I looked back, and knew I was outside that zone now. Up there for a glorious ten or fifteen minutes I defied gravity and flew alongside an eagle.

For bike riders, coffee always comes next, and we met our partners at a ridiculously scenic spot in yet another thousand-year-old village. I was a bit out of the conversation, not wanting to let go of what had just happened. More hills, more beautiful gorges were to come, that day and the next, and it was all very enjoyable. One downhill ride was probably more spectacular than Col Homme Morte in some ways. But even now as I write, that unexpected, astonishing time when I flew out of my normal time and space is lifting me up; the frisson of experiencing the really new that will reverberate inside me for sometime yet.

Oak Valley

Sometime late in 1993 I was asked to investigate an issue that had arisen with a remote aboriginal community in South Australia. My job in the Government was Director of Schools, which sounds very important, but with most staffing matters firmly in the grip of the human resources people, and schools funding locked in except for minor projects, I was often a guy in a suit in search of a purpose. I’m pretty sure this particular task came my way because the Director General couldn’t think of who else to give it to.

The story really starts in 1953, when a huge area of the outback was allocated the honour of being a test site for atomic bombs. There were several explosions in the Great Victoria Desert, regarded as so successful that a new more permanent location was needed. The Australian Supply Minister, Howard Beale, stated in 1955 that “England has the know how; we have the open spaces, much technical skill and a great willingness to help the Motherland. Between us we should help to build the defences of the free world, and make historic advances in harnessing the forces of nature.” So Maralinga was chosen, because it was well away from any modern towns or grazing properties. It also happened to be the home of a large community of Tjuratja aboriginal people, who at that time had no land rights, or were even Australian citizens. So they were ordered to move out of the area to a new ‘aboriginal reserve’ at a place called Yalata, near the coast that borders the Great Australian Bight.

A few people ‘went bush’ to avoid being forced out of their homelands, but most left on the back of trucks early in 1956. Yalata was a troubled place from the start, with the traditional leadership structures disrupted, very few local hunting grounds to obtain food, and the challenge of continual, considerable resistance from the European community in nearby Ceduna. With jobs in very short supply, and very poor educational facilities, offending by young people, mainly men and boys, grew steadily. By 1976, when I was working in this field, a boy from Yalata had 44 times the likelihood of being charged with a crime compared to a boy from Adelaide, where I lived.

Around 1985, more than 20 years after the last bomb testing, the leader of the Yalata community, Yami Lester, encouraged anybody who wanted to return to the traditional lands to re-settle in Oak Valley, a traditional site just outside the restricted Maralinga area. This meant travelling several hundred kilometres in cars, trucks and whatever other forms of transport people could find, with no help from the Government, who were against the whole idea. More than 100 people made the journey, and set up in a valley where their people had lived for millennia. Their quality of life improved immediately. One result was that reported offences almost disappeared. With no police, no-one to steal from, and the added support of the re-established aboriginal justice system, young people were returning to hunting, making spears and other implements, weaving and building basic houses.

Within a few years, a small health centre was established, dealing with problems ranging from diabetes in epidemic proportions to skin, eye and ear diseases with young children, many the result of sleeping with dogs for warmth. Alcohol was a problem, but much less so than in Yalata, partly because now it was a very long trip to the nearest bottle shop. A very basic school was set up in the late 1980’s, consisting of a couple of caravans, staffed by two non-aboriginal teachers, usually new graduates looking for adventure.

During 1992/3, Yami Lester began pressing the Education Department for a properly-equipped school in Oak Valley. The schools building people were very wary of the idea, because they knew the remote location would make for very expensive classrooms, but more than that, they couldn’t be sure if the community might move again, leaving a costly white elephant sitting empty in the outback, for which someone would be blamed. But Yami was a very effective advocate, and well-known for the story of how as a boy he and his family were among those who went bush and stayed in the area when the bombs were going off. Many died, and Yami was blinded. Later, a reluctant national Australian Government would cave in and pay millions of dollars in compensation, but even in 1993, a demand from Yami Lester had real clout. So it was decided that the Director of Schools (me) would lead a delegation to Oak Valley to assess the feasibility of building a permanent school.

Oak Valley really is remote, even in Australian terms. It took most of two days to get to a spot roughly mid-way between the South Australian Coast and the Northern Territory border. About six hours travel to the nearest town. I think there were six of us, including a senior aboriginal bureaucrat, a superintendent of schools and a high school principal. An interpreter was needed, as most of the Oak Valley people spoke only their own language (Pitjanjatjara) and a smattering of English.

When we arrived, the person designated to negotiate with us was not available, so the men were invited to go hunting for bush turkey, while the two women in our group talked with the nurse running the community health centre. I’d never been in this country before, and I was surprised by its beauty. We could see the famous red dirt of course, but long grass was everywhere, and many small trees and bushes were bright with colourful flowers. Clouds of green budgerigars swept from tree to tree, and tiny red birds (I think Crimson Chats) flashed around us. We men found ourselves with three well-armed locals, who drove at high speed through what looked like trackless flat country to me, then after about half an hour stopped suddenly and motioned us to keep quiet. They cocked their rifles, and were still and soundless for about five minutes. Then out of the grass came several bush turkeys. Three shots, three turkeys, and the hunting was over.

Later in the day I wandered around the little town with the interpreter, speaking to several locals. I asked if I could see people making spears, and it happened that Jimmy (I can’t recall his other name) was just beginning the crucial stage of straightening out the long thin branches. He had a cone of fine hot coals, and he moved the branches across it, twisting, bending, inspecting by eye, until he had perfectly straight two metre shafts for the spears. Each one took about ten minutes. I got my first lesson in humility for the day when I asked if I could buy one. The interpreter spoke with Jimmy for a while, then said I would have to speak to Jimmy’s agent in Adelaide, who handled all his sales.

Next morning it was down to business. The lead negotiator for the Tjuratja people was called Wayne, and he spoke only in Pitjanjatjara thoughout. We sat in a circle of men in the dirt, with the women close by but off to one side, in a smaller circle. Wayne explained their need for a school in very simple terms. ‘If we want to get compensation from the government, and find new jobs for our young people, we must produce a few well-educated people every year. We will never have proper rights in this country unless that happens.’ That was fair enough in terms of community support for education, so we ticked that box. Then I asked as delicately as I could why they had chosen this particular spot to live. Which of course was code for ‘Are you going to stay here if we build a school?’

Wayne talked for a long time, pausing often for the interpreter. He pointed out specific small hills, told us about a water hole that never dried up, and the ‘ochre trails’ that came all the way from the Northern Territory and Queensland, though Oak Valley and on to Western Australia. These were the aboriginal equivalent of the Silk Road in Asia; trading routes for all types of goods, but especially rare ochres needed for ceremonial body-painting. He finished by saying, ‘We have been exactly here for thousands of years—the only time we ever left was when you white fellas took us to Yalata.’

There was a long silence. I felt stunned and embarrassed by my ignorance, and of the paternalism that we represented that day. Me, a migrant to Australia, been here for less than 40 years, asking people who hadn’t moved for maybe 40,000 years if they were going somewhere else any time soon. Their dignity and clarity of purpose was suddenly overwhelming.

In a perfectly-timed demonstration, just at that moment there was soft excited discussion among the women. Into our group walked a teenage boy and his mother, she in bare feet. He joined the men, and explained that they had just arrived after walking from Yulara, about six hundred kilometers north of Oak Valley. I asked though the interpreter how they survived without water for three weeks, and the boy said ‘There is water in every hole along the track, if you know the way.’ Lost Europeans have died of thirst out there regularly, but people coming to Oak Valley, barring accidents, get home in good shape every time. Never was a government building going to be more certain to be in just the right spot than the school in Oak Valley.

There was no need to summarise the meeting. They knew I had to speak to my bosses, and that government processes are never rapid or smooth. We shook hands all round, then sat down to a feast of bush turkey. It was delicious; even if I was slightly worried that we shouldn’t be indulging, because only aboriginal people are allowed to hunt this protected species. The things bureaucrats angst about.

Naturally my report recommended that the permanent school should be built as soon as possible. I’m sorry to say that it took nine years before the following item appeared in the newspaper.

Posted 4 May 2003, 11:37am
‘A school that was once dubbed the worst in Australia has been rebuilt and officially opened today.
The new $2 million school is at the Oak Valley Aboriginal community, on South Australia’s Maralinga lands.
For more than a decade, teachers described it as a Third World facility, a couple of caravans with no air-conditioning in the middle of the Great Victorian Desert, where temperatures range from zero to 50 degrees.
There was no running water – the only amenity, a long drop toilet.
Today, South Australian Premier Mike Rann travelled 1,000 kilometres north-west of Adelaide to officially open the $2 million school, with a childcare centre, flexible classroom spaces and new administration buildings – all air conditioned and with amenities.
Mr Rann says it brings to an end the appalling conditions experienced by up to 60 staff and children’

I know some of the reasons for this dreadful delay that cost a generation of children a basic education. About three weeks after I returned I lost my job, a delayed payback from a newly elected government led by a Premier I had crossed swords with in a past career. That was one advocate gone. The Minister of Education lost her job as well of course, just when she had become a fierce backer for accelerating the project. The new government had a lot to do, and this former priority went on to the back-burner while a swathe of funding cuts were implemented.

Even now I have to accept that this would never have been tolerated anywhere but in a remote aboriginal-administered township. Some hearts, including mine, were more or less in the right place, but that’s never enough to defeat inequality. I think it’s true that none of us are born racists, but by about the age of five most of us are developing the selective perceptions that allow us turn away from citizens who don’t look or sound like us. The road back, to the undoing of those blind spots, seems to take more than lifetimes.

All that jazz

Last Saturday we went to the Helpmann Academy jazz student awards night. I’ve been to quite a few over the years. Actually, I helped establish the awards more than 20 years ago, when I was the first Director of the Academy. How it has grown. The prizes now total more than $15,000, compared to my first cup-rattling efforts, which raised less than $2,000. And the event has developed from when students, their families and friends and a few jazz buffs came to a hall for a performance, into a social event that the glitterati can’t afford to miss. A four-course meal and wines at the Hilton, entertained by a superb 8-piece graduate student ensemble lead by an outstanding musical couple from New York, the Hot Sardines. A couple of hundred people paying $150 a head—for Adelaide, this is hitting the big time.

The skill of the graduating students lit me up as always. I love watching live music in many forms, and especially jazz. The star 21 and 22 year-olds can bring me to tears with their sincerity and sheer joy of playing well. I was particularly struck by the young woman on the bass, who was nailing it with flair and passion, claiming the rightful place of an instrument that so often gets lost in a band. These musicians are on the cusp of professional standards in their chosen instrument (or voice), but we all know that very few of them will break through to earning a good living from jazz. For that you need really out-of-the-ordinary skills, ridiculous amounts of luck and a single-minded drive to put music before all else. So my joy at their performances is tempered with the sadness of knowing that because we can’t find a way in our societies to value our best artists equally with our lawyers, scientists and business entrepreneurs, nearly all of these talented youngsters will never be professional musicians. But thank heavens they keep coming and keep striving; they will have some great adventures along the way, and our lives are enriched.

Jazz has been in my life from my first memories, because of my Dad. He was a good pianist, mainly in jazz forms but also trying his hand at the classics. A family legend was that Mum and Dad had to sell his Bechstein grand piano when she was expecting me, because they needed the space in their small house in Scotland. As a teenager he had dreamed of playing in a jazz big band, and he managed to get one gig when the piano player in a Glasgow outfit got sick. To his horror, he realised almost instantly they began rehearsing that he was nowhere near good enough to fit in smoothly, and he didn’t even ask if he could play with them again.

The connections he had made had one great result however. In August 1938 Fats Waller came to Glasgow, for one night only. Dad got the job of being Fat’s minder for a whole day of rehearsals. Most of the songs we were listening to on records 20 years later, he heard live that day: ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’(Dad’s favourite), “The Joint Is Jumping’, ‘Your Feets Too Big’ and my favourite, ‘Two Sleepy People’. He had to stand near the piano while Fats played, and keep his gin glass topped up. A whole bottle of Gordons was consumed, but Dad didn’t find out till much later what the frequent trips to the toilet were about. Fats snorted many lines, was full of gin, and yet kept on playing and singing, in my Dad’s words, ‘like an angel’. Again, Dad’s self-esteem as a pianist took a big hit. For the rest of his life he wrestled with the deceptive intricacies of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, but drunk or sober, he just knew he never came close to the casual artistry of Fats Waller. I thought Dad sounded great, but there was no way into his damaged psyche on this topic.

This didn’t stop our house being filled with music in my youth. When I was just a toddler, I can remember Django Reinhardt music playing. Mum and Dad had been to Paris several times after the war, mainly to go to the best jazz clubs. The biggest thing in town in 1950 was Django and Stephane Grappelli in ‘Quintette du Hot Club de France’ and they saw them as often as they could.

On my first day in Australia, July 31st 1954 (coincidentally the same day my partner Charmaine was born), our family stayed at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in Melbourne. As we came into the lobby, a group of people came by, surrounding a black woman who was laughing loudly. Dad grabbed me by the sleeve, and said quietly ‘Look at her and don’t forget this moment—you’re looking at the greatest jazz singer in the world.’ It was Ella Fitzgerald.

We always had the latest ‘Radiogram’, after about 1955 complete with a ‘Stereophonic six-disc record player’ for our ‘Hi-Fidelity Long Playing Records’—and my older brother’s 78’s and 45’s blasting out rock and roll from Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and other immortals. Mum and Dad always bought jazz and classical, so my musical memories are filled with Sibelius, Bartok, Chopin and Schubert, along with Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald. I remember running home from school—at least three kilometres—because Dad had told us he would bring the latest Dave Brubeck album home that day. The whole family sat down to listen that evening, hearing ‘Take Five’ for the first time. My first record purchase was The Platters’ ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, costing me several weeks’ pocket money. I got Dad’s approval because it had been a big hit since his teenage years, covered by many famous artists. After spending seven shillings and sixpence to buy it, I played it endlessly, until the family said enough.

With a household like that, it is a great sadness to me that none of us three boys learnt an instrument. It takes close oversight by parents to get children through the mind-numbing repetition involved, and they just weren’t interested. Dad’s parents had wanted him to play the violin, and never got enthusiastic about his preference for the piano, so he had done it on his own. Maybe that was why he didn’t make an effort with us, maybe it was being too busy, or maybe it was yet another casualty of his alcoholism. Whatever the reason, all my life I have loved watching a good pianist, but it is always tinged with regret that I never gave it a good try.

I only ever had one job in the arts world, establishing and running the Helpmann Academy for a few years. When I took it on, I was advised to show no preferences, or even above-average acquaintance with any art form. Trying to bring together teachers from all the visual and performing arts meant meetings of people who had little regard for each other and suspected the worst intentions in any co-locations or joint subjects. So I had to turn off my office radio, and show equal amounts of admiration for jewellery, jazz and dancing; for classical music, acting and ceramics; for textiles and photography. This turned out to be no hardship, because I found joy in all of them. However, with music so central to my happiness, I was delighted to find that my office was adjacent to the rehearsal spaces for the jazz students. When they were final-year students, it was like being in a night-club all day long.

In 1994, my Dad was in a nursing home, dementia having long finished off whatever comfort he had enjoyed from playing a piano. One day that year I sat still in the Helpmann Academy office for an hour or more, as a gifted student—I never saw who—worked to get ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ right on the piano. I was trying to write a report, but I had to give up and just drown in the beauty of the piece and the memories it carried. That young musician would never have known how much his playing meant to the middle-aged man in the room next door.

The shotgun

I was 14, it was early summer, so it must have been November/December 1960. I was intellectually precocious, reading everything available, and debating literature and politics with my father as often as I could. While my English and history teachers seemed to be impressed with my articulate take on weighty matters, such as what sort of president JFK would be, most of my friends made it clear I should concentrate on sport, shooting rabbits, cars and the remote possibility of sex. If there were other restless minds in my classes at a country high school, I never found them, so home and school were separate countries for me.

I had a well-established competitive relationship with my father. Since I was little I had vied for his attention by being clever. At 14, I was I commenting airily on whether Lolita was Nabokov’s best book, or if Rupert Max Stuart, an aboriginal man sentenced to death for murder of a girl, was actually guilty. And every time, I tried not to be crushed by his responses; patronising me when he was sober, and loudly cutting me down if he was drunk.

Like most kids addicted to a parent’s approval, I couldn’t opt out; I just kept trying and kept getting hurt. If I knew something he didn’t, he said it was trivia. If I beat him at billiards occasionally, it was because he was drunk, and/or my winning shots were complete flukes. If I got a good grade in school, it was because the standards were so much lower than when he studied. It makes little sense now, but I kept dreaming of showing him I was just as smart as him; a bad lesson for life, and one that took me decades to un-learn. One of his friends took me aside one day, and warned me I would never beat Dad in an argument, drunk or sober. He said I should ‘be my own man’, but I didn’t listen.

Looking back, I can see now that I was important to him. While he always made sure that he came out on top, I think he enjoyed time with me; was proud of me but had no way to show that. When my mother was close to death, she told me he had loved sparring with me about all sorts of ideas. We shared the joy of looking at all sides of an issue, sometimes having a great laugh together about some silly pronouncement in the newspapers. No topics were out of bounds—religion, politics, economics, sex–I was making sage remarks about topics on which I didn’t really have a clue, and I felt like a real grown-up. Those joyous moments were the classic intermittent reinforcement that kept Pavlov’s dogs coming back for more, sometimes long after any chance of getting food or praise.

Alcohol was a constant in our household. I guess there were some days when Dad managed to have a good time without it, but I can’t recall them now. It was a tiresome business at best, and deeply unpleasant and lonely at worst. He was never physically abusive, but every other drunken behaviour made our house a place to avoid after he had a few drinks. With Mum often in tears and my brothers keeping well out of the way, it was often me, the faithful puppy looking for love, who became his company when a drinking mate wasn’t available. My role as the family social worker was emerging, and I didn’t shrink from that. Any time spent close to Dad was better than the alternatives, even if many episodes left me feeling flat and defeated. Or much worse.

One afternoon I was talking to Mum in the kitchen when Dad burst in through the back door. He was staggering drunk, red-faced, and yelling at the dogs to get out of his way. I remember wondering how he had driven home on busy roads. Mum started crying—I’m not sure why now—and he said something like ‘For God’s sake don’t start, you have no idea, no idea at all.’ Yes it was roughly those words—I can hear his Scottish accent now, so lovely, but for me so tinged with these memories. He banged some beer bottles down on the table, and stormed out of the room. Mum hid her head in her hands and cried harder.

I stood in the doorway, not sure how to help Mum, and worried about Dad’s look of desperation. The thought that he might try to harm himself hit me, and I stepped into the hall to follow him. At that moment, a loud bang stopped my heart. I must have been wide-eyed with fear, and I couldn’t breathe. For a couple of seconds I couldn’t even move. Then I hurried to his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. The door to my older brother’s room, where we kept two guns, was closed. Again, for a few seconds I was frozen, couldn’t go in. Then I heard him crying and swearing and thought things were OK, so I opened the door he had just terrified me by slamming.

Dad was sitting on the bed, with the shotgun open, trying to put a shell in one of the barrels. Because he was drunk and upset, he couldn’t get it done. I moved over quickly, and pulled the gun out of his hands. He fell back crying, telling me life hurt too much, that I couldn’t possibly know how badly, and that I should leave him alone. I took the shotgun, the shells, and the 22 rifle out of the room, took them apart and hid the pieces in the linen cupboard. When I came back he was still sobbing on the bed, and I suggested he come to his own room and have a rest. He came meekly, me leading him by the hand, and fell on to his bed. I stayed for a couple of minutes, until he seemed to be going to sleep.

And that was it. I was late for swimming training, so I told Mum Dad was asleep now, and I had to go. She thanked me, and said she would be OK. Tea would be on the table at 6 o’clock. I ran all the way to the swimming pool, and I am quite sure I didn’t think about what had just happened. Weird, but true. I swam as the coach ordered, chatted with friends, carried on as usual. Then I ran home across the paddocks to get my tea. My brothers and Mum were just sitting down. Mum said ‘Dad’s still sleeping, so let’s go ahead.’ I didn’t mention anything about the shotgun, and nobody seemed to know. Actually I’m not sure Mum ever knew; certainly I never told her.

The next afternoon, Mum had gone somewhere with friends, and all three of us boys wanted to go out, leaving Dad at home. I got him alone, and he said quietly ‘Don’t worry, I won’t shoot myself.’ We glanced at each other, and looked away. I think that was the only conversation I ever had about this with any member of my family.

So, what the hell was my psyche doing with this? I’d been beyond terror, I had coped well in extremis, and then said and done nothing. I think this event, and the many difficult times of minding my Dad when he was drunk, did mark me in major ways, not all bad. I became a useful leader in a crisis, someone who appeared almost unnaturally calm, whatever might be happening with my pounding heart, trembling legs or tight chest. This could be valuable at difficult moments, even though it could make me unable to be loving to people around me when that was most needed. That coldness was, I think, part of my misplaced conviction that I was on my own in the world. In stressful situations in later years I believed I could not depend on support—if it happened great, but best to assume nothing.

The incident with the shotgun can trigger reactions in me these many decades later. Something will remind me, and my emotions well up before I can clamp on a bland mask. I may feel drained and quiet for a couple days, as if it had really happened again. This sort of stuff just sits there, shaping us in subtle ways, and if we are lucky we get some understanding and acceptance that we are OK.

Last year, with some strong encouragement, I had a discussion with my 14-year-old self about that day. It went like this:

‘OK, you’re a very frightened 14 year old boy. But your Dad is safe—he didn’t kill himself. And your bravery is the main reason for that, so I am very proud of you. You deserve a medal, and if I could I would hug you big time. You are just as brave as any soldier. Your dad will live for another 30 years, and became a loving Grandpa, and it’s because of you. So you can go on growing up without being scared that stuff will happen again.’

It helped a lot.

A little piece of mental health reform

Part one

I sat looking at the Minister of Health, and I could hear what he was saying, but it seemed so wrong; such a bad ending to a huge effort to make things work better for people affected by mental illness. ‘Sorry David, but we have no choice—we need a circuit breaker for a situation that’s got out of control. You are being dismissed today. You will be suspended on full pay while we consider if there is alternate employment for you in the public sector.’ My part in the change process was closing, at least for a few years, and there was no way left for me to cling to the wreckage of a good and necessary plan.

Four years earlier, in 1988, I had moved out of my childrens’ welfare job to become Director Mental Health Planning for South Australia. The drive towards better services in the community had stalled, and the incumbent was being asked to move on. She actually dug in—locked her office door and refused to give back the key. As so often, big bureaucracies are paralysed in the face of the unusual, and she got away with it for a couple of weeks while we all waited. A year or so later, she and I were to become good friends, partly because I had come to appreciate the obstacle course on which she had stumbled and fallen.

Prima facie, the logic of reform was simple. Most patients were now ex-patients, but the hospital resources, mainly staff, had not followed them. The move out of institutional care had begun twenty years before, as the availability of new drugs combined with new policies of ‘least possible restraint’ began to create new options. In Adelaide, the patients had morphed mainly into ‘psychiatric hostel residents’, moving to suburbs with plentiful supplies of large old private homes that were converted into boarding houses. I came to realise that many of these were cheerless, crowded places ruled by untrained owners who treated their paying clients like unruly children. Each week-day, residents could take the special bus back to the mental hospital they came from, to attend a day program for a few hours, and see their psychiatrist as required.

As a first step in the 1960’s, this had seemed like a revolution. By the time I came on the scene, more than 1000 people who had been inpatients were living out of institutional care. But in 1988, almost everyone involved agreed that these people and many others with severe mental illness had a right to much better community-based options, and we knew this would involve extensive support being available to people wherever they wanted to live. The zeitgeist across the Western World was for more and better ‘de-institutionalisation’, and in South Australia we were determined, as always, to claim our place as reformers delivering ‘world class health care’. I was to find that was a pretty vacuous phrase when it came to describing in detail what funders, practitioners, and individuals and families affected by mental illness actually wanted to happen.

I began my job, as senior bureaucrats so often do, by touring the country looking at progress across Australia. My predecessor, and the CEOs of both our mental hospitals, had done world tours, so I can at least say my junkets were modest affairs. I read widely and corresponded with leading figures in this movement internationally. My conclusion was that we were about in the middle of the reformist pack; well ahead, for example, of most states in the USA, but a long way behind some European countries and two states in Australia—New South Wales and Victoria. In at least some inner metropolitan areas of Sydney and Melbourne, resources were being moved out of mental hospitals into community support teams, and significant new funding was being added to speed up the process.

Everywhere this change was being attempted, the forces of resistance made themselves obvious. ‘Mental patients on the streets’ and similar headlines ratchetted up public fears, which in turn made politicians nervous. The various unions representing everybody from cleaners to doctors to social workers, nurses and administrative staff all said they were in support, as long as none of their members had to be re-located—which of course they did. In South Australia, the government, specifically the Treasury, wanted to close wards in mental hospitals to save money, not to spend it on new services if they could help it. And psychiatrists as a group were determined to control the whole game, always saying ‘Of course we all have the welfare of patients at heart’, while going slow on most efforts to achieve the real change needed to deliver on that welfare.

One psychiatrist, who was also CEO of one of the mental hospitals, was proud of what he saw as ‘One of the best hospitals in the world, and certainly the best in Australia’. His major pre-occupation seemed to be obtaining the term ‘Royal’ in front of the hospital’s name. He had the coat of arms approved by the English College of Heralds on display in the board room, and said it was only a matter of a few months before this honour would be granted by Her Majesty. So when I said that his hospital was staffed for about 1000 patients, but had no more than 200 on most days, and that this could not be allowed to continue, he saw the beginning of the end of his proudest achievements. No matter that he had to agree that 750 or more staff attending to 200 patients looked like a major misuse of public resources. Putting his hospital’s ‘world’s best practice’ at risk was not something he could even think about.

His solution was to propose a ‘beehive’ model, where most of the staff, and certainly all of the 70 or so medical staff, would continue to be based in the hospital, but buzz out to the suburbs visiting community clinics, where their patients would be waiting. All the interstate and international reformers I was talking to said it was crucial to base the staff in the communities where the people with mental illness actually lived. This was not just about being more available; it was also a necessary disruption of the narrowly medical views of mental illness that life in a medically-run institution will inevitably lead to. The ‘bee-hive’ model was likely to be more of the same with a bigger car-fleet. I said that, more or less, and we locked horns from then on.

We—my little team and all the affected ‘stakeholders’–stayed stuck in fruitless debate during 1989 and 1990, writing ever-more detailed descriptions of a future system, while working parties, task forces, steering groups and reviews proliferated. Health bureaucracies can spend amazing amounts of time, and prodigious sums of money, while doing very little to deliver better health services to actual people. My bureaucratic bosses were reluctant to generate a brawl with the unions, especially the medicos, and I could see that the leaders of psychiatry were not too worried about the risks to their status quo. My job had seemed like a great opportunity to help achieve important change, but by now I was feeling rather impotent most days. Two years of no real progress was beginning to make me wonder if I was part of the problem.

One day I was invited by the unofficial patriarch of psychiatry in South Australia, a professor at Adelaide University, to come and ‘have a good chat’. We sat in his office, and he asked me to explain what I had in mind for the future of mental health care. By then, I could do that without notes for as long as required. He listened for 10 minutes or so, apparently with rapt attention, then said ‘How interesting’. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he jumped up and said ‘Come and meet a few of my colleagues’. We walked along a corridor, and came to a door which he opened and ushered me through quickly. We were on the stage of a large lecture hall, and serried rows of doctors and nurses, perhaps 100 of them, were waiting for their special guest, me, to speak at their ‘grand round’ for the week. The professor said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce David Meldrum, who has some interesting plans for our future. I’ll leave him to explain them to you.’ Then he sat in the front row, and smiled up at me innocently. He had given me no warning, and he knew it. It was a blood-freezing moment.

After what may have been five long seconds, I went for it, thanking them all for taking the time to come to listen. I talked about the basics, which I knew most of the younger doctors would at least be curious to understand, although most of them were going to leave the public system as soon as they could in any case. I stuck to a few real examples of individuals and families affected by mental illness who were doing it tough without community supports, and tried to stay away from statistics. After about 15 minutes, I noticed that the professor’s face had turned to stone, and I knew I was making progress. The questions came thick and fast, the most insightful ones mainly from nurses. As so often, it was more about ‘What’s in it for me?’ than ‘Will this deliver better services?’ After 30 minutes, people started leaving, so I wrapped up quickly with an invitation to talk more any time. The professor walked off, leaving me to find my own way out.

The next week, I was asked to come to lunch with four professors of psychiatry including my tormentor from Adelaide University. All went well with social chit-chat until their spokesperson said ‘We have been discussing this reform process David, and we want to offer you our full support, as long as you agree to work closely with us as your sounding board. Some of the suggestions you’ve made, like leadership by health professionals other than psychiatrists just aren’t going to fly, unfortunately, but in general we think you’re on the right track.’ I made some vague commitments, and it ended awkwardly. But they hadn’t finished yet. My ‘mole’ in the professors club told me they spoke after the lunch, and decided ‘We will let it run for now, keep an eye on David, and if we think it has to be stopped, we will make sure that happens.’ They would get me later on, but they would fail to turn back the historical tide.

This was early 1991, and a few months later the Government announced a ‘World class mental health plan’ for South Australia. We would largely close one mental hospital, and relocate the remaining patients to the other. There were more than enough beds for this to work. About 350 staff positions would be freed up for transfer to community teams around the state. 80 hectares of the hospital’s land would be sold off for housing estates, creating the capital for more community clinics and regional hospital mental health beds. Given Adelaide’s compact footprint, there were no real issues about access for families and patients, particularly since we were opening mental health wards in four general hospitals at the same time. The idea had to be kept under tight wraps until it had been thoroughly kicked around with my bureaucratic colleagues, and Treasury officials, and of course the Minister of Health. I spent time with a communications consultant who made me identify everyone who might have the ability to publicly support or criticise the plan, and it was my job to work my way through that list, talking to all of them, making sure they had a chance to be briefed in confidence just before it was made public.

The strategy was very successful, and for a short time we even had the newspapers on side. This was always going to be fragile, because it’s mainly conflict and fear that excites reporters, not social justice and better use of public money. The professors struck again, getting an audience with the Minister of Health. They were discomfited to be ushered in to find me sitting beside him, but ploughed on with a denunciation of the whole process, ending with the ‘shroud waving’ (‘Inevitably some patients will give up the struggle Minister’) that some doctors do so well. The Minister promised to thoroughly review the whole plan, then bade them goodbye. As soon as the door was closed he turned to me and said “David, was that the shrill cacophony of professional self-interest, or the clarion voice of the end user?’ I said I thought the former, and he said ‘I thought as much’ and asked me to press on with the plan. There was to be no review. With this guy in charge, I was in for a period of real progress.

Next the really scary bit. Death threats, aimed specifically at me, began. For a time I had an unmarked car, a silent phone number, and cop cars regularly cruising past our house. One incident began as a bomb threat, causing the evacuation of health headquarters. A phone caller told the terrified telephonist that the bomb would go off soon, and that it was aimed to ‘Get Meldrum’. An awful moment was coming out of the door on to the street and a colleague saying ‘Keep away from me David. I don’t want to get shot, it’s you they’re after.’ Walking across Hindmarsh Square in the open made me light-headed with fear. A colleague, one the good-guy psychiatrists, asked me who the threat was to, and when I said ‘It’s me’, his eyes widened and he stood beside me with his hand on my arm. Very brave. I rang my wife and told her to go to her mother’s place. She wouldn’t take me seriously, and I had to be more forceful than I wanted, which scared her enormously.

I thought the hospital staff were probably where the threats were originating, so I started going there in person, to talk with anyone who wanted more information. In the first ward I visited I was ‘sent to Coventry’ with all staff turning their backs on me. In another staff room I found a dartboard with my face on it, heavily punctured. To break this cycle, I upped the ante, and moved into the hospital. It was pretty ugly for a week or two, but gradually the word got around that I really did want to hear from everybody first-hand, and the oafish behaviour stopped. I often wandered the grounds, chatting with gardeners, patients, kitchen staff and health professionals, who all wanted to know what their future options would be.

At about this time, the hospital CEO came to see me in the rat-hole office they had found for me. He was agitated and hesitant at first, then blurted out, ‘I think I’ve been wrong David. What you’re proposing makes sense, and I am going to support you, at least till I can secure a job elsewhere.’ It was clearly agony for him to do this, but I didn’t take much notice of that. I thanked him profusely, and talked non-stop about what was going to happen next. I was feeling triumphant; my nemesis had seen the light, and I was going to have a great success. He left quietly after only 15 minutes or so, and I couldn’t get on the phone quickly enough to tell my bosses that all was well. It shames me now to remember what I found out months later. At the time he came to see me, his son had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he was being driven close to his own breakdown by his son’s rapid decline into un-remitting psychosis that would lead to a locked ward for years to come. Pride comes with a set of blinkers that stopped me from a chance to help a good man in great distress.

Part two

The two hospitals and several community clinics had been completely independent for many years. Now a new state-wide organisation was formed, the South Australian Mental Health Services (SAMHS), which included hospitals and all the new community teams we were going to establish. I was much involved in that of course, so it was a bit uncomfortable applying for the CEO job that I had designed. Was I being impartial in proposing a new and powerful role? Mostly yes, but I did think about what a great career move this would be for me. My defence is that I didn’t expect to win it, because I knew there would be keen competition from across the nation. But I did win. With invaluable help from an ‘executive search’ consultant, I slightly re-invented myself (beard trim, new tie and belt, new shoes and a plan to win over each member of the panel) and I aced the interview. Since my current job would no longer be needed, after only a week or so of giddy pleasure while I negotiated a salary and conditions, I became the first CEO of SAMHS. I had a great salary, a new and rather luxurious car for work and personal use, and a much-coveted Motorola Microtac mobile phone, the best boy’s toy around in 1992.

And then it was down to the real work of closing a large hospital, moving about 170 patients to new accommodation, and finding new work or severance packages for hundreds of staff. For a couple of months there was a honeymoon period, where everybody could be involved in the planning if they wanted to be. But as the first ward closure grew near, a couple of the unions began to demand delays until they secured better pay-outs for their members. The Opposition in Parliament began to side with anybody who wanted the hospital left open, and they found no shortage of disgruntled staff who told them what they wanted to hear. My main concern, given that an election was not too far away, was that the Opposition might dig in and say they would scrap the whole process if they got into power. And it was so easy to frighten the public with the spectre of dangerous ‘mental patients’ roaming the suburbs, homeless, unsupervised, and unable to control themselves. In those days, public servants like me were strongly discouraged from talking directly to the Opposition, so it was difficult to build trust with them. I did break the rules and make a few useful contacts, but not to the level where favours could be called in when needed.

The biggest of many problems was the flight of doctors. At the start of 1992, there were about 70 full and part-time medical staff, with 33 in the training program for psychiatrists. By June there were less than half both of those numbers, and by November, a quarter. A dozen or so medicos were not going to be re-located, as they ran the older persons inpatient and day programs, for people with severe dementia. Those wards are still there, doing incredibly difficult work for few of the rewards enjoyed by other health professionals, especially psychiatrists. For the 18-65 year-old inpatients, the availability of medical staff, which had previously been in almost ludicrous over-supply, had now reached the point where it was touch and go maintaining good practice. I think we had about a dozen full time medical staff by the end of that year. As one doctor said, it was ‘tight, but do-able’. The medical officers union disagreed stridently, and found it easy to get the media interested. For me, the second half of 1992 seemed an endless round of negotiations with doctors and press interviews which almost never had a good result.

The best parts were the inputs from the fledgling consumer and carer groups, who were enthusiastic backers of the new community services. There were many bleak days when their voices were the only unmistakeably positive sign that the direction was right. I made friends there that I have today. I think that is largely because I regarded the end users as the true owners of the resources we were re-directing, and I told them so. Another bright light was those brave individuals who risked ostracism from their various professional tribes by publically supporting the pending changes. I know one who was physically threatened; told to find work somewhere else if he valued his safety. I had to find him a job in head office, but he suffered from PTSD for some years as a result of this thuggery. Others stuck it out, joining the planning groups and workshops that gave anyone a voice if they wanted it. The ‘Metropolitan and country areas mental health plan, 1993-1996’ was their plan, not mine, and it outlasted me to become a reality.

Nationally, the federal government was finally playing a useful role, after decades of pretending that mental health was nothing to do with them. The First National Mental Health Plan, which I helped to write, became the first of five five-year plans so far; documents that have been the backbone of mental health policy in all states and territories since 1992. I mention this because the South Australian reform process was completely in line with the first plan, which helped me to win many an argument.

By about September 1992, I knew my days in the top job were numbered, despite being ‘on time and on-budget’. Industrial action was accelerating, and the sugar-rush of positivity that each new service opening brought seemed to last only a few days before the next rounds of antagonism and new demands. This was no surprise—six of my interstate counterparts had been sacked or resigned under pressure in the previous 12 months. This was high risk work. But knowing that clarified my mind and paradoxically calmed my nerves. I decided to go for broke while I could, making every day one of irreversible change for the better. When wards were emptied, and the patients re-housed in other hospitals or new residential facilities in the suburbs, I had the old buildings bulldozed immediately. I froze filling of staff vacancies in the hospital, while accelerating appointments in the new community services. And I checked in as frequently as possible with the Minister and his staff, to be as sure as I could that they had my back.

That September, there was a double blow. The Minister of Health resigned suddenly, because of his wife’s poor health. His replacement knew nothing about mental health and seemed to care even less. I couldn’t even get a meeting with him, which was unnerving. In the same month, the long-serving Chairman of the Health Department, my bureaucratic boss, retired. These two had been steadfast true believers and wise advisors to me for the last three years, but from then on, I was on my own in the corridors of power. With a Labour government, and every union in the health sector declaring their lack of confidence in me, each complaint to the Minister became harder to deal with. Although the transfer of patients was nearly completed, and new services were opening in the community every week, I sensed that it was mainly inertia keeping the process going; inertia that would be swept aside if the political and industrial cost increased.

The Leader of the Opposition was having a field day. One day in November he came to the hospital and demanded to meet with all the staff. I rang my boss, but he refused to come to the phone, relaying a message via his staff for me to ‘Deal with it as best you can’. So I met with the man who the next year would become the Premier of South Australia, and told him he could not come into the hospital, although I was happy to meet with him any time in his office. His chief of staff spoke to me quietly while we waited for the official car. ‘We have long memories you know David; a bit of cooperation right now would be in your best interests’.

A few days later, the combined unions asked for a meeting of all staff in the hospital, except those essential to patient safety. I agreed as long as I could speak to them, and I again refused to allow the Leader of the Opposition to attend. He was not a legitimate player in an industrial dispute.

I was asked to stay outside until my turn to speak. I could hear people yelling and singing union songs about solidarity, as one union leader after another warmed them up. I walked on to the stage to loud booing from about 500 staff, noticing that my legs felt wobbly and my chest tight. The cat-calling continued for a raucous minute or so, until one very loud voice in the front row called out ‘Come on, he’s got guts coming in here, let’s at least let him his say his piece and go’. From then on it went well, because there were good answers to every question raised, and the heat in the room gradually faded. I thanked them for the opportunity to speak and left a quiet room.

But it was all too late. The flashpoint came early in December, when a doctor was stabbed to death in the hospital, by a patient she had been seeing for several years. It was awful, and we were all in a state of shock. The unions, especially the doctors association, decided this was the last straw, although her death had nothing at all to do with the closure of the hospital. I was warned by colleagues not to walk around the hospital re-assuring staff, because it was somehow my fault, and feelings were running high. A day later my bureaucratic boss called me and suggested a retired psychiatrist, who I knew disagreed with the whole process, should become my ‘co-CEO’ immediately. I said no, and to no-one’s surprise I was called to the Minister’s office the next day. Finally, I got to meet him, and his first and last words to me were that I was sacked. I could go back to my office, farewell my colleagues, and leave that day. I had been in the CEO’s job for 11 months. I found out the next day that the four professors of psychiatry had an audience with the Minister the night before, and persuaded him to be bold in this dark hour. It took a while, but they got me.

Because I fully expected this outcome, it didn’t hurt much. I was more concerned about my planning team, who were likely to find their colleagues turning on them next. I kept in touch with each of them, and the Human Resources boss in head office helped to make sure they were all OK. I was sad, but proud of doing a difficult job as well as I could. I had known what I was signing on for, and I had been well paid. It was a privilege to be really useful to thousands of people affected by mental illness. The hospital closure would be completed in the next three months by my successor, who talked to me frequently, although he didn’t mention this to anyone else. I knew I could re-build a career somewhere that mattered to me, so the important thing was the chance to see a modern mental health service being born. All the conflict, time-wasting politics, report-writing, setbacks and scary moments seemed pretty insignificant compared to that. They still do.

A few seconds left

13th August 1993. I guess many people would have chosen not to fly in a small plane on Friday the 13th. My wife and my secretary (yes, it was that long ago) had both expressed concerns about the date. I remember flying into Bali, on a subsequent Friday the 13th, and the cabin erupted in cheering as the plane touched down. The conversations during the trip had been peppered with speculation about the risk we were taking, and the captain had even got into the act in ways that were meant to reassure, but just fanned the flames of anxiety among the doubtful.

But in 1993 I was just excited to be going to one of the furthest Education Department schools from Adelaide, at Cook, which is near the Western Australian border, on the railway line. My job, Director of Schools, sounds much more influential than it actually was, but it got me the gig of officially opening the sports day at Cook. For reasons I can’t recall, it was regarded as an important event, so four Superintendents of Schools came along as well. We gathered at Whyalla airport, where Graham the pilot, who was also a Superintendent, was fuelling the Piper single-engine plane we were flying to Cook, via Tarcoola, and then back on the same day. From Whyalla to Tarcoola the flight was uneventful, except that we could see a front of dark clouds coming from the west. Graham told us he would re-assess the weather when we were ready to leave Tarcoola.

My job in Tarcoola was to welcome the new principal and speak to the school assembly. It all went swimmingly—I confess I loved speaking at these events, being the honoured guest and so on. Back at the plane, Graham was getting a weather update on the radio, and announced that it would be OK, if a bit bumpy. The Tarcoola principal asked for our flight plan, and I was a bit uneasy when Graham said ‘Well, do you guys want to go south first and see some whales off Ceduna?’ It seemed a bit too unplanned for flying in the outback, so I pulled rank and said we mustn’t be late for the Cook sports day. As we climbed into the plane, the principal asked again if we had a flight plan, and Graham turned to us in our seats and said ‘You quite sure you don’t want to see the whales?’ There was silence—one or two of us did want to do just that, but they could see I was uncomfortable. So Graham leaned out of the Piper and called out, ‘Straight to Cook—tell them we’ll be there by lunchtime.’

Within about half an hour, the cloudbank hit us. Graham tried to get above it, but it was too big, so he went down to about 1500 metres. It was raining heavily there, but visibility was adequate. I was reading a book and glancing at the weather occasionally, but not at all concerned—until I heard a perceptible hiccup in the engine. It stuttered for about two seconds, then ran smoothly again. I tried to get back to reading, but I noticed that Graham and his fellow superintendent and amateur pilot were huddled in conversation in the front seats. The weather was also getting worse, and I couldn’t see much at all. After about ten minutes of uneventful flying, I was sitting back for a nap when the noisy drone of the engine just stopped. One cough, then nothing. The only sound was whistling wind.

For perhaps ten seconds—it may have been more or less—time wobbles in these situations–there was silence in the cabin. Then Graham yelled loudly ‘We’re fucked’ and a moment later the plane went into a near vertical dive. I found out later that the hiccup I heard was the main tank running out of fuel, and the automatic change-over to the reserve tanks. Graham and his offsider realised immediately that we would never get as far as Cook, and were discussing where to attempt an emergency landing, when the engine died. Graham was thinking about where to glide in when he glanced at the airspeed. It was decreasing rapidly, and was racing down through 80 knots. He hadn’t reckoned on a 100 knot head wind at this altitude. He knew that the Piper would spiral out of control and drop from the sky if it flew below 77 knots. For a second, he thought it was all over, hence his panicked yell, but he decided it was worth trying a deep dive to get up speed. That saved our lives.

But I knew none of that. I watched mesmerised as the Nullarbor Plain came onto view, coming closer so fast I thought I had seconds to live. There was almost no sound except the wind. My mind churned in ways that seem strange now—I was apologising to my wife and family for being so stupid, I was telling myself this is a ridiculous way to die, asking myself if it would hurt much. My thoughts hurtled through my mind so fast and so intrusively, that I can’t recall if there was anyone else speaking. How long for? I’m not sure. Maybe 20 seconds.

I was so clear that this would all end in a moment, and it was a huge surprise when the plane lurched painfully out of the dive into a flat trajectory. My guess is we were no more than 200 metres above the ground. Suddenly we were gliding quietly above scrubby desert. My mood switched to euphoric—I wasn’t going to die! I was grinning, and I think I laughed out loud. Graham asked us to get braced for a rough landing, and all I could think was, ‘Who cares if I get hurt, I’m going home tonight.’

When the plane hit the ground—‘touched down’ doesn’t do the experience justice—I became the only casualty. I was gripping the underneath of my seat so hard that the impact pulled ligaments in my elbow. It wasn’t too serious, and no-one else had any physical injuries. Which is amazing, because the 20 or 30 seconds we took to come to a halt were a wildly noisy, bouncing, swerving time. Small trees crashed against the wings and the undercarriage. It seemed as if the plane was completely out of control, and I fully expected it to flip over. But my relief at being alive persisted, and I remember thinking ‘What’s the worst that could happen—so what if I break a leg or something? There’s no fuel left so we won’t go up in flames.’

Silence again. The first to speak was one of the superintendents, Sheila. Her words, to become legendary, were ‘But I haven’t brought any clean knickers.’ I followed that up with a terrible joke about some of our colleagues thinking that five less senior bureaucrats might not be all that bad. I plead temporary insanity for that one, which I hope was quickly forgotten. We stumbled out of the plane, with shaky legs, and stood in the soft rain, surrounded by ankle-deep mud. Graham beckoned to me to come with him, and we walked back along the landing path. He said he wanted to check something that was worrying him, and didn’t want the others to get more unsettled. About 300 metres along a branch-strewn mess, with two deep wheel-ruts in the mud, we came to a spot where he said quietly, ‘That was a bit close.’ A few centimetres from one rut was a rock about the size of a basketball. He saw it just after we hit, but too late to do anything, and knew it was more than enough to have caused a very nasty ending.

He told me about the dive, and how close we had been to a death-spiral. I know he was heavily criticised at the later Board of Inquiry, but all I can say is that I’m writing this because of his quick thinking under extreme conditions. The cause was a mistake made when Graham was fuelling at Whyalla. For the first and last time in his life, he let someone else tell him when the tanks were ready. His colleague, an experienced pilot, had never fuelled a Piper, and got it wrong. The tanks were only two-thirds full. Without the bad weather, and the very strong head-winds, we might just have made it to Cook. I should add, if we had gone whale-watching, we could have run out of fuel over the Great Australian Bight, so my uncharacteristic unease about last-minute changes of plan was never so well timed.

Now we had to work out how to get out of there. We were about 50 kilometres from Cook and the only landmark visible was the railway, about a kilometre north of us. Graham got on the radio, and got no answer for several minutes. We were at the extreme range of South Australian Air Rescue—about 1100 kilometres we found out later. Eventually a crackly distant voice was found, and Graham explained our situation. As he finished he gave our position as 50 kilometres west of Cook, and we yelled, ‘No Graham, east, we’re east of Cook.’ Lucky we were listening. There being no helicopter in range, and no way to land another plane, we were told to ‘wait for the railway people to come’. We had no idea what that meant, but about an hour later a WWII-era car on train wheels appeared in the distance. We thought we would have to walk through the mud to the line, but no, it rose, came off the line, and drove across to us on large car tyres. We got in with the few things we had, on what was meant to be a day trip; went back to the railway, and the car magically switched over to train wheels.

The arrival in Cook was a bit chaotic. It had been reported that we needed urgent medical treatment, so the town ambulance was waiting. (‘No need to be crook, when you’re in Cook’ was the hilarious sign on the door) The sports day ceremony had been delayed while they waited to see if I was fit to play my role. And we were all being spoilt city slickers, talking about the important engagements we had in Adelaide that night—in my case my monthly poker game, but I didn’t admit that. Actually the guys thought it was the best excuse I had ever come up with. “My plane crashed’ is hard to top. But became obvious that we were going to have to stay the night. Clean knickers were obtained, beds were found, and the sports day went on; a bit late, but huge fun, even for us. Most of us were feeling powerful emotions that paradoxically made us very flat, taking over from excited relief. We all had to phone people close to us, who became instantly upset when they found out what had happened. Nothing had been on the radio or TV news—which seemed a tad unfair to us—so people were blindsided by our calls.

The Board of Enquiry put a stop to Graham’s flying for a few months while the wheels of bureaucracy ground slowly. The Piper was stuck in the mud for weeks until a low-loader crossed the desert to take it back to Whyalla, where it needed extensive repairs. At the enquiry it was decided that Graham would be given a last chance, which was a great relief to me. As he was leaving the hearing, the chairman took him aside and said ‘Graham, I put this one down as FBL. Fucking bad luck.’ True, but what I remember best is the extremely good luck and skilful flying that saved my life.

Up in flames

On April 27th, 2001, our house in Torrens Park burnt down. Charmaine and I and our house-guest got out unhurt, but almost all our possessions were lost.

I’d come back from a plane trip to rural South Australia that evening, so we had a late, cheerful meal with our friend, who was catching a plane back to the US in the morning. She had just done some washing, and it was too damp to pack, so we set up the clothes airer in front of the gas heater. At about 10, she was still packing and re-packing (always a puzzle to me this re-packing– I just fold it, flatten it and sit on the case to close it—easy) so we said goodnight and went to bed. Charmaine was soon asleep, but I read on until just before 11. I could hear J (I won’t use her name) moving around in her room above as I started to nod off.

Sometime later, maybe only a few minutes, a distant but piercing electronic sound slowly registered with me. The oven? A phone? Charmaine woke and said ‘Something’s beeping’. I got up groggily to check it out, and as I turned into the hallway I saw a bright glow coming under the door to the living area. It still didn’t compute—I can’t recall what I was thinking—but I opened the door to look straight into hell. Half the lounge room was already on fire, and J was standing on the stairs screaming. Her damp clothes were disappearing in the flames. She had shifted the airer closer to the fire to get them to dry faster so she could finish packing.

In the next few seconds I realised the fire was likely to act like a bomb if the gas pipe to the heater melted. I yelled to Charmaine to get up and out as fast as she could. We stood in the front door, looking around for what we could grab, but decided we had to get away right then. We ran out of the house with nothing, and up the driveway. We turned to look as the lounge room windows glowed brighter, then, after maybe a minute, there was a huge explosion and the fire raced upstairs as far as the upper-storey roof in seconds. Charmaine and I stood in silence, her holding down her only garment, a t-shirt, while our guest cried and talked non-stop in her shock and guilt.

Very soon the fire reached the cars parked in our driveway. Charmaine had recently bought a beautiful old Mercedes 280, immaculate, and the first car she had ever owned that had really excited her. We said she didn’t drive to places; she proceeded. Now we watched as the bonnet paint blistered and blackened, then the windscreen cracked open, letting the flames in to begin consuming the whole interior. Somehow it was our horrified focus for a while. The rest of the house was on fire, but we stared in disbelief as the Mercedes disintegrated.

From somewhere neighbours, an ambulance and the fire brigade had surrounded us within about five minutes. Kind people gave Charmaine more clothes and the paramedics concentrated on calming our by-now hysterical guest. They also tried to get Charmaine to rest inside the ambulance, and she had to refuse adamantly before they would let her be. The firefighters said they didn’t need an emergency call; one of them had seen the flames from the station about two kilometres away and knew they had to hurry.

This gets personal. I withdrew into an unreachable place, as I sometimes do in a major crisis. Eyes glued to the fire, I heard little of what was being said to me, and with the paramedics so engaged I stopped thinking about how Charmaine and J were doing. I know more about this behaviour of mine nowadays; my retreating from any surface emotion under extreme pressure. Its roots are in some nasty stuff when I was a boy. It’s a two-edged sword—I can be a calm rock to people wanting leadership when the shit hits the fan, but fail the people I love when they need me most. I think I have moved on, but that night, its grip on me was unbreakable. After maybe 15 cold, lonely minutes, I began to feel I had to reach out to someone, and I chose to ring my daughter. I should say that we had been almost completely estranged for several years, with occasional awkward visits our only contact. I can’t remember the phone conversation, but she said she would come over straight away. Within what seemed minutes she was there, holding me tightly. She was the bridge from my frozen shock back to the present, so I could turn my attention again to Charmaine and our guest.

I found J was being taken home by our friend Jenny, where she stayed for a few days. We stood and watched the blaze wordlessly, until we agreed we had to focus on what to do now. Charmaine rang her friend Lynne and she came to collect us soon after. The fire was nearly under control, the Mercedes was a blackened ruin, and most of the house was gone. All this in less than an hour since we heard the smoke alarm. We had a bed for the night, and kept Len and Lynne up for a couple of hours, talking non-stop until the adrenaline ran out and we collapsed into sleep.

Next day we went back, and our new reality kicked in. To enter where the front door had been, we had to get around the grotesque skeleton of the Mercedes. All our clothes, books, CDs, paintings, and furniture were damaged beyond repair or completely gone. All that remained of the billiard table was some blackened wood and the brass of the pockets. Nearly all of Charmaine’s photos, kids’ paintings and academic records were ash. Most sobering were the two bedrooms of Charmaine’s girls, Liv and Kate. They spent every alternate week with us, and were staying with their dad the night before. Their rooms upstairs were destroyed, and it was obvious they would have had great difficulty escaping, with the stairs on fire, and no easy way out over the roof. That may just be the best bit of luck they, and we, will ever have.

We picked over the few things that looked salvageable, and put them in suitcases that later stank so badly they had to be dumped. Everything we owned now fitted into the back seat and boot of a loan-car I had. This wasn’t my first time; when I left my marriage a couple of years before, I had just a boot-full of belongings. But for Charmaine it was much, much harder. She had saved so many belongings from the stages of her life, as a girl, a young nurse, an academic and a mother. Almost everything was gone.

We had only been in this house for nine months, and the previous owner dropped in while we were sifting the debris. He checked that we were alright, then wandered around the scene looking increasingly grim. He was an engineer, and he and his wife had put decades of effort into extending, renovating and equipping that house. Everything about the place worked so well, and it was mainly down to him. He hadn’t really wanted to leave, but there was some imperative I can’t recall. The house had been his pride and joy for more than 30 years, and now it was a blackened, stinking ruin. In my bewildered state, I felt his loss as keenly as my own.

The next few days drifted by in a hazy, not quite real way. We both went back to work; we found a house to rent short-term with the help of the insurers; both Kate and I had birthday parties. We told our story again and again, and the shock began to loosen its grip. We took our house-guest to the airport, stopping for a quiet beach walk where we made sure she knew we held no grudges. But a week later, I was walking along a busy street to a meeting I was going to chair, and without warning, I felt overwhelmed. I stood against a building, breathing hard, and I knew I couldn’t do my job. I rang my off-sider and told him I just couldn’t manage today. He said ‘Mate, It’s about time. Don’t come in till you’re ready’. That one liner was was the only PTSD counselling I sought or received, and it helped me enormously.

Another friend sent me a message a few days later. It was a quote from an ancient Chinese text –‘Now that my house has burnt down, I can see the moon rising.’ And it was mainly true. We were off on our next adventure, thinking about where to live, buying lots of essential items like wine, paintings and CDs, and pulling together as a team after this joint, shocking experience. That was our ‘moon rising’. Another was a new closeness with my daughter. We spoke often after the fire, and that continues: an enduring joy for me and an unexpected bonus from that night.

Losing so many possessions can be cleansing—most of it turns out to be unimportant. A few really special, personal things can leave wounds, and you may not know what they are till it happens, but you do heal gradually. I still miss that house though. Charmaine and I bought it together not long after we found each other. We snuggled in there in a sort of dream state, like adolescents discovering a new life. Someone bought the shell, and re-built it over the next couple of years. We went to the open inspection, and it was lovely, but not the place we had lived in.

I thought of writing this a couple of weeks ago. I walked into a city office, and on one whole wall was a 1970’s wallpaper picture of a forest in autumn. It was exactly the one that faced you when you came in the front door of that house. 17 years on, I reacted immediately, then stopped and composed myself—I had a meeting to go to. Memories and the emotions that go with them are indelible, but life goes on.

Lost in Yogya

A couple of years ago I decided my spasmodic attempts at learning Indonesian would never give me the fluency I needed to hold up my end of even simple conversations. I had attended several short courses over fifteen years, and even completed a one-year unit in a high school with 17-year olds as my fellow students. But, as anyone who has tried knows, if you don’t practice regularly, especially with native speakers, that smooth flow just never comes. With a dictionary to hand, and enough time, I could write several pages in formal, stilted Indonesian. In real-time discussion, the first word I didn’t recognise would throw me; render me stumbling, asking people to speak slower and repeat themselves. Despite all those classes, and knowing hundreds of words, I was looking and sounding not a lot more adept at the language than a tourist with a phrasebook. Charmaine and I had decided to live in Bali for a year; it was time to attempt a breakthrough. I enrolled in a three-week intensive, live-in course in Yogyakarta.

I’m always happy to return to Yogya. It was my real introduction to Asia nearly 25 years ago, and I recall the love-at-first-sight experience of my first ride through the city in a ‘becak’, a two-seater powered by a man on a bike. The purposeful, noisy chaos of crowded streets, the smells of the roadside ‘warungs’ , the tsunami of men on old Dutch bicycles with the contents of a small shop on their shoulders, the graceful elegance of women of all ages, the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. It all pushed me headlong into a state of happy wonder that still works for me.

Of course 25 years of boom and bust, of the ousting of Suharto and the subsequent ‘reformasi’ era, of the digital age, and of mass tourism, have changed Yogya. There is a very visible middle class now. Younger people flock to restaurants, nightclubs and fitness centres, buzzing from one very 2018 activity to another on motor bikes and in increasing numbers of cars. If anything, they are more likely to be on their smartphone or computer than their Australian counterparts, and their facebook/instagram/snapchat/twitter engagement is prodigious. But even in the centre of the city, about 75% of the population seem to be going about their work and personal lives in much the same way that I saw in 1994. OK, most have motor bikes and the Dutch clunkers have almost disappeared, being ridden only by a few much older men and people with no money–of whom there are still many.

The warungs are still crowded from lunchtime till about 10 at night—much later where the shift-workers gather—and the food seems much the same. A good feed is still only about $2-$3. For most people, a visit to McDonalds or Starbucks is a once-weekly treat at most, and the tourist-priced places are out of the question. The streets where the shops all sell one thing still thrive. Want a part for a motor bike? One street has about 20 places in a row that do nothing else but sell and fit these. Some are so specialist they only sell mudguards, or headlights. Want a mobile phone (‘ponsel’)? I counted 47 shops in a side street opposite the Sheraton, most selling exactly the same phones. The goods may have changed over the years, but the retail model endures, even in the shadow of a flashy new hotel that charges foreigners $200–$300 a night.

Because my classes ran from 10 AM to 4PM, I had plenty of time for early morning and afternoon bike rides. I rented a basic, battered mountain bike and rode all over Yogya whenever I had the chance, regardless of the weather. I even love riding in warm rain, partly because it usually comes after a period of intense, draining humidity. Alongside roaring gutters and in fresher air, as long as I can see in front of me, I am a happy adolescent getting thoroughly soaked. There were frequent offers to come under a verandah (masuk! masuk!), and sometimes I accepted; not to keep dry, but to have a conversation. This was my chance to try out such insightful remarks as, ‘Gosh it’s wet today’, or ‘What suburb is this?’ My favourite is ‘I’m lost—how to I get to etc, etc?’ (‘Saya tersesat—apa arah ke etc etc?’) This usually brought out a crowd of people with differing opinions, gathering around to debate hotly the best route for me. I would say ‘Slowly please, I can speak Indonesian a bit, but not very well’. The camaraderie that developed between us all in these situations charmed me beyond measure, and revved me up perfectly for my next language class.

On my second day, I was well lost about 10 kilometres to the West of Yogya, and getting worried about the failing light. The weak yellow orb thrown by my headlight was not going to be much help in the dark. I stopped at a mini-market in a small town, and asked a rapidly growing crowd for directions to get back to my lodgings, which I knew were next to a large green mosque. To my shame, I didn’t have the name of the suburb or even the college’s phone number on me.

After much furrowing of brows, and no progress, a man was marched in and announced as an English teacher who would help me. His English was no better than my Indonesian, but after a while I got the gist of it. He was saying that all the mosques in this area were large and green, and there were many of them. After an awkward moment’s quiet, much hilarity broke out when I laughed and said I felt pretty stupid. Then he had an inspired thought. ‘Berapa banyak jembatan sejak Pak berangkat rumahnya?’ (How many bridges have you crossed since you left your home?) I knew it was two, and he immediately announced I needed the Sidoarum mosque. ‘One kilometer after the second bridge Pak’. We all parted as cheerfully as if we had been to a party together, and he was exactly right. I got home just after dark, to a worried landlady, safe and happy. I told her I had been lost (tersesat). Each day when I came home, she would ask ‘Tersesat lagi Pak? (Lost again Sir?) She never got used to the idea that I enjoyed these uncharted adventures so much.

The language classes were not what I expected. I had hoped for a small group, but I arrived at a time when few students came looking for tuition in Yogya. I was the only one at this small college. So, each day, five days a week, I had five hours of one-on-one in Indonesian, which was very hard work for me. The teachers took shifts, rotating the effort of improving my fluency between three young women, who I came to like hugely. Ranging from their early 20’s to early 30’s, and all very well educated, they were tough task-masters but increasingly lovely company as we got to know each other better.

Their lives as single, professional Moslem women were fascinating to me. They were each managing with some difficulty to negotiate their aspirations with friends, colleagues, their families, communities and religion, in an era where cross-currents of modernism and neo-con Islam can seem both mandatory and contradictory. One teacher, Ganggas, confided in me that her best hope was to get a PhD scholarship in America or Australia, so she could find out how she wanted to live. To her, at 28, Yogya was a net that was closing in on her from every direction, and she wanted out.

On my last day in the course, the college boss gave them all paid time to show me around some Yogya sights I didn’t know. By now we were easy company, even though we were all a bit disappointed in my progress in the language. I’m just not the fast learner I was decades ago. Words and grammar concepts had to be learnt and re-learnt several times before they sank in, and there seemed to be an endless flood of new things to remember. Looking back at my notes, in two years I’ve forgotten more than half of the vocabulary we covered. Anyway, on our last day together we laughed and chatted together with no let-up for me, as they refused to use a word of English. I muddled through, and so I guess some progress had been made. We parted with a handshake—no contact other than that being proper with a man—and posed together for photos. I did feel lonely when they left together.

After I got home, I emailed Ganggas, and asked her to give me online feedback on my daily diary attempts in Indonesian. I told her I would pay, which she initially refused. I pressed, and she agreed. For $100 a month, she gave me detailed written feedback (in Indonesian) every day for the next three months. I think that was the most effective period of learning for me. A generous, very smart and capable person; I think she will go far. Writing this reminds me: I must email her to find out if she has found her way out of Yogya yet. For me, Ganggas and her colleagues are just one lovely memory of Yogya. For Ganggas, Yogya is the small town we all need to leave sometime, to live a life we can’t even imagine in detail, but we know we have to try out.

With the course over, I moved to a hotel where I had hot water, a choice of meals and staff who reluctantly indulged my efforts in Indonesian, even though their English was fluent. The next morning I went for a long bike ride to the north of the city, through quiet villages, before returning to the Saturday lunch-time traffic jams in the centre. I guessed I was somewhere near my hotel, but I couldn’t find it. Three policemen at attention,apparently guarding a bridge, seemed a likely bet, so I approached the first. He deserted his post immediately, and gestured vaguely in several directions before admitting he had not heard of my hotel. The others joined us for a lively dialogue, and they began calling colleagues on their two-way radios. All to no avail. I thanked them, and they resumed their positions, legs apart, hands behind their backs, implacable expressions back in place. Just then, a man pulled up beside me on a ‘rubbish bicycle’, one with a bin on the front. He was middle aged, toothless and burnt black by the sun. He said,’Mau Hotel Puri Artha? (‘You want the Hotel Puri Artha?) I said yes, and he pointed around the corner. It was about 100 metres away. Being lost in Yogya was the best of times.

Smelly shoes

Last year, living in Bali, I wore the same pair of black sandals almost every day. I must have walked and ridden hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres on them, and they only got smelly once. It was after a day when I rode my bike through a flood up to my knees—wonderful adolescent fun—and the sandals took a day to dry. But they had developed a bad smell, so I put them out in the sun for three more days and the problem went away. I assumed that I had to keep them reasonably dry in future, and returned them to daily use, with no further issues.

Back in Adelaide, in a hot summer, I reverted to habit and decided I couldn’t get by with just one pair. Funny that—in Bali it never occurred to me that wearing almost the same clothes every day fell short of some internalised dress standard that I have back home. No need to keep up with the Jones? Free to be different? Anyway, I digress. I rationalised that the current ones were looking a bit worse for wear, and went to a stockist that sold the same brand. They had them in several colours, for $200, which seemed a large amount to me, so I decided it would have to be my Christmas present. I selected the brown ones, and left the shop a happy man.

After two days use, the odour began. In a few more days it went from something I only noticed if I actually sniffed them up close, to Charmaine insisting I left them outside at all times. It really was that bad. The whole house reeked of these rotten, damp intruders, and it got so bad that even when I was walking in the open air I could smell them. I imagined people giving me a wide berth in the supermarket, and wearing them while driving was out of the question. I should add at this point that I have never had a problem with foot odour to my knowledge, and certainly not according to Charmaine, who has a nose a bloodhound would envy. I mean, this is a woman who won’t come near me if I’m wearing clothes that I left in the washing machine for a few hours. Had I suffered from incurably smelly feet, I’m not sure our relationship would have got past first base.

Because I had not gotten them wet a la Bali, I decided it must be a problem with this particular pair of sandals, and set off to seek a refund or an exchange. With the smelly offenders in a plastic bag, I waited while the woman behind the counter, the owner I found out later, gave excellent, gracious service to several customers ahead of me. Sales were brisk, and her demeanour gave me hope. But as her gaze turned to me and my bag, her lips and eyes narrowed, and a steely ‘How can I help you sir?’ didn’t fool me a bit. She was going to fight off this attempted return as quickly and painlessly as possible. It was war from that moment. The dialogue went something like this:

Me: ‘Hi, I bought these last week, and I have the receipt here. Unfortunately, they have a bad smell, and I can’t see any reason why. I have only worn them a few times.’
Her: ‘I’m very surprised to hear that. We have sold hundreds of these over the years, and no-one has complained about a smell from them. Actually, they are one of our best sellers.’
Me: ‘Well, these ones really pong. It’s bad. Here, have a smell yourself.’ (I open the bag and she recoils from the counter with raised hands as if in serious danger)
Her: (after recovering her implacable poise) ‘Certain people do have a reaction to some shoes—do you often have this problem? Foot odour is not an uncommon issue.’
Me: (now my lips and eyes were getting narrow) ‘No I don’t, and I never have had. I have a dozen or more other pairs of shoes and I don’t recall anything more than a slight smell if maybe I wore my socks for a second day.’(she flinched visibly at the very thought)
Her: ‘Look sir, as I said this has never happened before, so I can only conclude you must have a problem.’
Me: (getting a bit agitated) ‘Look, these cost me $200, I have worn them a few times, and they are unusable—I want to exchange them or get a refund.’
Her: ‘That’s not going to be possible sir, but I could ask the manufacturers if they have any suggestions for dealing with your problem.’
Me: (perhaps, I admit, a little louder—this is so unlike me) ‘I don’t have a problem. You have a problem with an unsatisfactory product; and yes, talk to the manufacturers who I’m sure would want to replace these. I’m happy to talk to them myself if you prefer.’
Her: ‘Give them to me sir, I will make enquiries about this and get back to you.’ (takes bag nervously, as if it contained several rattlesnakes, handing it quickly to her junior assistant)

Two weeks later, the call came, and I returned to the shop. In the meantime I had contacted the makers, and they had been just as unhelpful, when they eventually returned my calls and emails. So the shop owner was my only hope. She was ready, armed with forceful cheer that boded ill.

Her: ‘Well sir, the manufacturers can’t find anything wrong with these shoes. Are you perhaps taking any medication that could be causing this reaction?’

I was silent for a while, thinking this had just dipped into the surreal. Did she mean medication that might cause the smell, or that might cause me to imagine the smell, or that made me grumpy and unreasonable? Admirably restrained, I said no, so she switched to a different tack.

Her: “The manufacturers have a suggestion. You should wipe off the shoes in warm water, trying not to soak them too much. Then put them in a plastic bag, and leave them in the freezer overnight.’

I was thinking; for a problem that has never been raised before, there seems to be a good deal of information about how to deal with it. What company knows exactly how to deal with a product fault that has never been reported? OK, maybe they are into risk management at a new level—being ready for anything. Of course I didn’t believe that, but what could I do that might change the result here—answer—not much. I was going to have to live with a $200 pair of sandals that required this elaborate procedure at frequent intervals to be usable. So I swallowed my colourful retorts and decided to end it there. I said ‘I’m happy to try anything. If I’m definitely not going to get a refund, I haven’t got much choice.’

She handed them back to me in the same plastic bag (had they ever actually left the shop?), holding it at arm’s length to minimise the risk of infection, and we parted politely with mutual cool disrespect. Then I did the only two things I could. I washed and froze the shoes (it works for a day or two then the problem returns) and I told everyone I met not to buy their shoes at that shop. I’m not feeling much like a good consumer warrior coming out of this, but you do what you can at the time.

As I sat down to write this, six months later, I realised there was one line of attack I didn’t pursue—checking out other people’s comments on the internet. So I’ve had a look today, and read dozens of reviews. About 80% of the buyers are giving these sandals five stars. But of the remainder, the most common complaint is that they can develop a horrible odour, especially if they get wet. Somebody even echoed my descriptions, bemoaning the ‘house-clearing power of these sandals when they smell’. So, am I going to collect these reviews and send them to the shoe shop? No, she will just dig in deeper. It’s time to for me to move on. I will just do one more thing: I will name the sandals. They are ECCO Yucatan sandals. They cost $200. 80% of people love them. If you buy them, and they don’t smell, I will envy you.

Corny Point

Over our evening meal, Dad told us one of his workmates had said we were all welcome to spend our Christmas holidays in his friend’s old house at Corny Point. I think it was 1958, and the year before we had been on Kangaroo Island, one of the almost mythical memories of my boyhood. I caught my first fish there, on a green string line, followed improbably by a small shark. It still rankles that my school friends said I was bull-shitting with that story, when I thought I’d been the star of ‘what I did in the holidays’ morning talks. Not for the last time, my tendency to exaggerate had cost me an authentic opportunity for glory.

Dad said Corny Point was going to be even better, with a great ocean beach, lots of fish to catch, and swimming and snorkelling opportunities galore. All of us were going; even my older brother Hamish, who at 16 was starting to rebel against most involvement with the family. He only agreed to come when Dad allowed him to buy a spear-gun. We bought fishing reels, lines, hooks and sinkers, our first ‘Esky’ for keeping Dad’s Coopers Ale and Mum’s Seppelts Dry Sherry cold, and set about packing our brand-new Holden Station Wagon (with the bigger, faster 179 motor for the aficionados) to the hilt. That car had the full plastic seat-covers so popular at the time, which were excruciatingly uncomfortable in the heatwave conditions. ‘To keep the seats like new for when you come to sell the car.’ was the refrain. Of course the next owners kept them on too, so generations of drivers and passengers endured sweaty legs and backs, while they slipped around on the bench seats at every corner.

The trip took nearly four hours, without air-conditioning, and we had to stop several times to get cool drinks and Icy Poles. The radio was a slight distraction, but Mum and Dad preferred the ABC so it was all news, earnest discussions and classical music rather than the rock and roll that Hamish kept asking for. He was deeply into Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the soon-to-be dead Buddy Holly, and spent most of his money on the 45 EPs that brought new music within budget reach of teenagers. Singers such as those cut no ice with the ABC in those days—Triple J was 30 years away.

The last hour was on a very rough, corrugated dirt road, the car throwing up clouds of dust across the yellow-beige barley fields. Huge flocks of galahs rose from the ground when we came near. Predictably, when an occasional car came the other way, we got their dust through every loose seal and vent; it got into our mouths, our eyes and of course all our gear packed in the rear. With the temperature hovering near 40c, five tired and very grumpy people eventually pulled up beside the Corny Point General Store, with its one hand operated petrol pump. The older man who came out to serve us wore thick wool trousers held up by braces, and big leather boots. We three boys, in t-shirts, shorts and thongs, couldn’t understand anyone being that stupid in this heat.

After getting detailed directions from him, we found our spot. It was love at first sight for all of us. The house had been empty for a decade or more, the family having moved a few hundred metres to a new place with such wonders as electricity, running water and an inside toilet. Built in stages between 1850 and 1880, the walls and floors of the old house consisted of huge limestone blocks, cut from the ground around it, with doors and window frames rough-hewn from trees nearby. I’m not sure how they did the original roof, but by the 1870’s corrugated iron was coming from England and Europe, used as ballast in the magnificent sailing clippers that then loaded wheat and barley for the return trip. In the kitchen, a handmade table with benches sat beside a woodstove that became the focal point of many happy nights to come. From the front doorstep, just across a barley paddock, the sea beckoned.

As we began unpacking, an old Chevrolet (1938, I think) approached from the direction of the new house. The car was so dirty and dusty it was almost perfectly camouflaged on its home ground. The door creaked open and out got the owner of the property, Jack Barclay. Again, the thick pants and braces, a khaki shirt, but this time topped with a weathered wide-brimmed hat. We found out later that Jack was 78, and had been born in the house we were going to use. After saying hello, he invited Dad, just Dad, to come back to his place for a cold beer. Dad getting drunk with Jack became a several-times-weekly occurrence. None of us liked this, because Dad would return in an unhelpful and sometimes surly state. He would be dropped off by Jack from his car, which he was driving almost dead-drunk, but on his own land and so within the law, if not common sense. One day he misjudged the approach and stopped by running into a stone shed outside our gate. When we went to investigate, Jack was asleep at the wheel.

But we boys, if not so much Mum, were in paradise. We found the ‘drop toilet’—a hole in the ground about three metres deep, in which we could see red-back spider webs. Great for speeding up the process and so daring. It became a little too exciting when one of us—I think it was Hamish- sat down and closed the door, to find a brown snake curled up behind it. He did the only thing he could, waiting in fear until it slowly disappeared under the door and back to the paddocks.

We explored the adjoining workshop, which was completely equipped up to pre-WW11 standards, with no electricity. Millstone sharpeners, adzes, a forge, bellows, and endless small tools like augers and hand-saws. We happily sharpened knives, lit the forge and made steel glow red, and bored holes in pieces of wood. In our enthusiasm, we didn’t put things back where we found them, and Jack came over a couple of days later to fit a big padlock to the workshop. It would be twenty years or more before I properly understood his point of view.

On day two, we went as directed to West Beach (or Berry Bay on some maps) to look for ‘Pearl’s pool’. Pearl was Jack’s wife, still at home at that time, but with early signs of the dementia that would see her in a nursing home within a year or two. ‘Pearl’s pool’ was so named because Pearl used to go swimming there, in the nude, with all farm hands under strict instructions to keep away from the beach. We parked the car, and walked up through sand hills, emerging to a view that has stopped me in my tracks ever since. I feel a rush of nostalgia as I write this, hearing the crash of the waves, and seeing the huge sweep of the bay and the ocean. It was and still remains one of those places and moments when you are blissfully insignificant in the face of endless beauty. Below us, surrounded but completely protected from a tremendous surf, Pearl’s pool twinkled, emerald green laced with white water from waves splashing high from the rocks.

The pool was about 50 metres by 30, and a couple of metres deep in the centre. We soon found that by daring to sit on the seaward rocks, we could be lifted bodily by the spray of a big wave; thrown into the air and into the pool. It was dangerous of course; slip, and the rocks were very sharp on the legs and back, as our more tentative guests found out over the years. In the pool, schools of mainly small fished cruised around us, and abalone beckoned from the underside of the rocks. We learnt how to remove them with a sharp knife, and how to tenderise them before cooking. The meat is delicious, and the cleaned shells are great ornaments. I re-experienced those days last week when I found a small abalone shell by a local beach. Actually it was the moment that decided me to write this.

At one side of the pool, there was a rock platform where we could throw a line into the surf. It was a dicey spot, with the biggest waves swirling around our ankles. It takes nerve to watch a three-metre or more monster wave loom up to crash against the reef just five metres in front of you, hoping this one won’t be a freak that knocks you off the rocks. But the fishing was so good we couldn’t resist. Sometimes we needed more bait, and the limpets on the rocks exposed between waves were perfect. That was a wild scamper, but every risky escapade resulted in a big meal of fish for all of us that night.

To add to the appeal, Hamish found a place nearby where he could go skin-diving for bigger fish, with his new and ultra-cool spear-gun. I think he only ever got one –it was a kingfish—but he was happily occupied trying for hours. During all this, Mum lay on the beach, reading heavy stuff like Patrick White and Vladimir Nabokov, occasionally going for a lazy swim in the pool. I never saw her happier.

Nearer the house, the sea was calm and shallow. At low tide we could walk out to the weed line—about 500 metres. As the tide rose, fish and sting-rays came with it, along with squid and crabs. With a torch and a net, more sweet seafood evening meals were guaranteed whenever we felt the urge. Later on, we had various boats to access or own, opening up the whiting grounds just off-shore. King George Whiting is a South Australian speciality, currently selling for $70 a kilo or more in fish-shops. Off Corny Point, we regularly caught specimens 55cm or longer, which give up thick fillets of intense flavour needing only a splash of lemon after a couple of minutes in a frypan or on the barbeque.

For the next ten or so years, we spent at least one family holiday a year in that house at Corny Point. We added surfing for a couple of years, until the regular shark sightings put the wind up all of us. South-West Australia is just about the capital of white pointers in the world, and one sight of a shadow near you on a surfboard in these waters is enough. But Pearl’s Pool, the spearfishing, the whiting, the long beach walks, and the other equally lovely beaches and swimming opportunities within a short drive have been more than enough to keep me coming back ever since. Not nearly so often these days, partly because the farm-house has succumbed almost completely to wind and rain. The toilet has dropped in on itself, the top of the underground tank, where Dad found he could keep beer and white wine cool, has collapsed, and last time I was there, a King Brown snake, at least two metres long and appallingly lethal if it got the chance, was by the kitchen door. I took it as a sign to leave quietly and for ever.

Pearl, Jack, and my Mum and Dad are all long gone, while we three boys are all over 70 now. I’ve helped to introduce new generations of people in my life to Corny Point. Now we rent shacks near the beach, where my children and grand-children make their own memories. I think my new life-partner loves it as much as I do, and I’m sure we will go there again sometime soon. For me, the weight of the years since those boyish, careless adventures can trigger a few sad moments, but every visit lays down more than enough new magic to dispel them.