Where do I belong?

Where do I belong? For me this is a fraught question, as it is for many migrants.

When the migrant ship Australis slowly manoeuvred out of Cape Town’s docks in December 1974 and set off for the open sea I stood on the deck and watched as the majestic Table Mountain, under the shadow of which I had been born, receded into the distance. I felt an enormous sense of relief and I vowed never to return. Then the mountain disappeared over the horizon and I felt as if I had escaped from a prison. I couldn’t stand the place, with its racist, authoritarian government and its ultra-conservative, pious Afrikaners, who had as much compassion for people of colour as a predator has for its prey.

I have now lived in Australia for more than sixty percent of my entire life, so this is clearly where I belong, right? The places of my youth have changed beyond recognition, so surely I now no longer belong there. And yet, I am not always sure where I really belong. The place where one has lived as a child and as a young person is indelibly engraved into one’s psyche, regardless of the passage of time. Its tendrils retain a firm hold over the years. And so it is with me.

What is it that binds us forever to the places of our youth? It is the landscapes, the shape of the trees, the native flowers and birds and animals, the smells. It is the accents and the unique local sense of humour of the people. Even after forty years away my heart still soars when I hear Cape Coloured people speak their distinctive Kaapse Afrikaans, or when I hear the clicking sounds of a black person speaking Xhosa or Zulu.

A few years ago I borrowed my brother’s car and drove along the road between Gordon’s Bay and Hangklip, near my home town of Somerset West. The road winds its way between the ocean on one side and steep mountains on the other. As a young man I went there nearly every weekend, having barbecues with friends or girlfriends, snorkelling and sunbaking.

I spotted some wild proteas on the slope of the mountain, near the road. When I stopped and walked up the slope I suddenly smelled the aroma of the fynbos, the local vegetation, and was overpowered by the familiarity of the smells. I can’t even remember having ever registered these smells when I was young. I was so excited that I kept sniffing at the plants. Then I realised if anyone spotted me they would probably think I had escaped from a mental institution.

During the forty plus years that I have lived in Australia I have naturally grown to love the smell and the shape of the gum trees and I adore the sounds of the warbling magpies and currawongs. They have also become a part of my psyche.

When I was working at the Glen Waverley Library five years after I had arrived in Australia, I came across a book called Wild Australia: a view of birds and men, with paintings and drawings by the Australian artist John Olsen. His illustrations struck a strong chord within me and I realised for the first time the extent to which Australia had become “my place”.

At the time I was a complete ignoramus as far as art was concerned and I had never heard of Olsen. I wrote to him that same day and explained how I had struggled to come to terms with Australia’s animal and plant life and landscapes, which differed so much from that which I had grown up with. I told him his art work had captured the essence of Australia’s places and it had made me realise that I really felt at home in my new country.

Olsen responded:John Olsen letter 11.2.80Ironically, when I am traveling in South Africa these days and I see a eucalypt or a callistemon with its red bottlebrush flowers, I immediately long for “home”. Such is the ambivalence of my belonging.

A couple of years ago I caught up with Johan, a university friend, in South Africa. It was the first time I had seen him since I had left my homeland all those decades ago. We had lost touch with each other when I departed, but now we were overjoyed to meet again.

“It’s so good to see you again after all these years, Tiens. I had heard somewhere that you had gone to Australia and I’ve often wondered how you were going there and what you were doing.” Then he added, “So when are you coming home?”

And for a little while there I felt I was ‘home’.

The writer Gillian Slovo, daughter of a South African political refugee, described this ambivalence perfectly in an article in The Bookseller of 31 January 1997:

North London is where I’ve lived most of my life. But there are things about South Africa that feel more like home to me … I have to deal with the fact that, like most exiles, I am at home in two places, and a stranger in both.

My children do not suffer from the same ambivalence as their father. When my son Neil was six years old I took him and a couple of his little mates to the local swimming pool one day. They were all sitting in the back of the car. I overheard one friend asking Neil, “Why does your dad speak so funny?”

“How do you mean?’ asked Neil.

“He doesn’t speak the same as us Aussies.”

“Oh,” Neil replied. “That’s because me dad’s an Afro. And me mum’s a Pom, but me – I’m an Aussie!”


Letter to Laura

My daughter Laura recently realised that, having reached the age of 70, my time on earth is beginning to peter out. “Would you please write me a letter that I can read once you’re gone, Dad?” she asked me recently.

“What sort of letter?”

“Just one I can read on days that I miss you.”


My dearest Laura

On the day that you popped out of your mum at the Royal Women’s Hospital here in Melbourne I was so happy to see you that I wept unashamedly. You were one of the ugliest babies that I had ever seen – yellow with jaundice and with a puffy face. Poor little thing, I thought sadly, no-one will ever want to take you out on a date. How wrong I was!

We bathed you in a small plastic bath on the kitchen table. The little bath was too big for you, so I would put my hand under your head and hold your head up to keep you afloat. I would look at you intently in the bath and try my best to imagine you as a schoolgirl and as a young woman, but I just could not. And look at you now!

When you were a little kid you were painfully shy, always clinging on to my leg whenever there was someone around that you didn’t know well. That certainly also changed. You are now one of the most extroverted people I know. But when you were small you were never shy with me. One morning they played Robert Palmer’s song “Simply irresistible” over the radio. “That’s you, Laura. You’re simply irresistible!” I picked you up and danced around the lounge room with you, singing along, while you shrieked with laughter.

We went to England when you were about two years old to visit Granny and Granddad. In those days we did not have much money and we were living on one income, so the overseas airfares for the four of us were a major expense. I suggested to your mum that she stayed on in England with you and your brother for a while longer after I had returned to Melbourne to go back to work. You remained in England for a further two months.

I was getting worried that you might have forgotten me completely by the time you got back to Melbourne. I was quite relieved when I met you at the airport and you put your arms around my neck when I carried you to our van. But as I was putting the bags in the boot, I heard you whispering to your mum, “Is that our Dad?”

Early in the piece I discovered that you had a really mischievous streak. Remember how you tricked me when we went to Warwick Castle in England. You were about six years old and we were walking on the castle wall. You peered through a gap in the wall and said, “Look down there, Dad.”

“No, I’ve got a terrible fear of heights. I can’t look down from here.”

“Just look down there, Dad. I want to show you something.”

Hesitantly I shuffled closer to the wall and peered down.

“Now just imagine you’ve fallen down and you are lying there at the bottom with all your bones broken,” you told me, laughing gleefully.

One of the highlights of my life was when the two of us went on that road trip to Queensland when you were thirteen. Your mum was visiting Granny and Granddad in England and we stayed behind. On an impulse we had decided to go to the Great Barrier Reef. It took us two and a half days to drive to Airlie Beach. You listened to a talking book and to your music CDs and read your books.

On the first day I stopped briefly to have a sandwich at a picnic spot next to the road. “Hurry up, Dad, we’re wasting time,” you nagged me. For a kid you were the best long distance traveller ever, never once asking how far we still had to go.

When we approached Airlie Beach in the late afternoon there was a hold-up in the traffic. In the distance we could see a bus and many cars, as well as the flashing lights of various emergency vehicles. As we approached I warned you, “I think there has been a terrible accident with a bus and there will probably be dead bodies. Close your eyes tightly and don’t look. I’ll tell you when we’ve passed the accident.” You peered eagerly through your window. Thankfully it turned out that the traffic jam was due to the torchbearer carrying the torch for the Olympic Games.

We went by boat to Hook Island and pitched our tent in the backpackers’ camping spot. It was sheer bliss.

Afterwards, we were just about to leave Airlie Beach to return home when you had your first period. I panicked. “Damn it, where is your mum when I really need her?” I groaned. In desperation I went into a pharmacy and asked the lady behind the counter for advice. You were totally unfazed by it all.

We had barely left Airlie Beach when you asked, “Hey, Dad, could we go to Sydney on the way back to Melbourne?” And that is what we did. Our whole road trip took a mere ten days. You never complained once. No wonder you have always been my very favourite travelling companion.

We sent you to a boarding school in Cape Town for six months when you were barely fifteen. I missed you so much that it felt as if my heart had been ripped out. Every week I called you. Your main topic of conversation was about money. “Dad, I’ve run out of cash. Can you send me some more please?”

The next year you went back to Cape Town, this time for the entire year. I’m not sure how I was able to survive it.

On your return to Melbourne you barely scraped through your VCE with very poor marks, despite having studied hard. Laura isn’t academically inclined, I thought to myself, but that’s not the end of the world. I’m sure she’ll find her place in life. But when you began studying nursing you aced everything and eventually went on to get your university degree. You certainly have found your place.

You haven’t lost any of that mischievous streak of yours. We would sit at the dinner table and you would describe in horrendous detail how you had seen a liposuction or a Caesarian operation at your work. I would start gagging on my food and beg you to stop. “Don’t be so precious, Tim,” your mum would admonish me. “You can see Laura is really interested in what she has experienced at the hospital.” But I knew full well that you were doing it on purpose to make me nauseous.

I am so very proud of you Laura, for what you have achieved and for the kind of person that you have turned out to be – one who respects and cares about your patients and about other people generally. You have brought me so much joy over the years. I will miss your cheeky smile enormously when I’m gone.

You will be reading this letter when I’m no longer here. You know me well enough to know that I would not want you to wallow in misery because I have departed from this life. You have your own life to get on with and other people who love you and who care for you greatly. You owe it to them to be positive and happy and to look to the future, instead of backwards over your shoulder at what has been.

Thank you for everything, dearest Laura. I was so blessed to have you in my life.



Laura Jan 2017 - Fraser Island 01-1

Laura (January 2017)


This is a transcript of a speech I gave at my mother-in-law’s funeral.

Audrey and Ella

Audrey Mountjoy (2014)

The first time I spoke to my mother-in-law, Audrey Mountjoy, I had fallen out of bed during the night and had been woken by my housemate early in the morning. I was told that Gill’s mum, Mrs Mountjoy, was on the phone from England. I had a severe hangover from our engagement party the previous evening. Gill was traveling somewhere in Afghanistan with a girlfriend at the time, so it was incumbent on me to celebrate our engagement on behalf of both of us. Her mum had phoned me about the wedding arrangements. I fought off the nausea, attempted speaking with an English accent and did my best not to slur my words.

It had been news to Gill’s parents when she had rung them out of the blue four months earlier to say that she was getting married to a divorced South African fellow. They had never heard of me. If this unexpected news had caused them some misgivings, they never showed any inkling of it. Years later I was told that a family friend had asked my father-in-law, Alan, what this Tim person from Africa looked like, to which he had replied, drily, “As far as we can tell from his photograph the face behind his beard is that of a white man.”

From such an uncertain beginning I was welcomed into the family with great warmth and I quickly grew to view them as my very own family.

When I look back over the years that I had known Audrey, the thing that stands out in my mind is the many laughs that we have had. We were in Luxembourg, having a meal at a restaurant for Gill’s thirtieth birthday, when Audrey had asked the waiter in her soft, southern English voice what the soup of the day was. “Rat soup,” he replied in a thick German accent.

Audrey was horrified. “Rat soup?” she asked.

“Red soup! Red soup!” he exclaimed, pronouncing it in a way that it sounded like ‘rat soup’. Eventually we realised that he was talking about tomato soup.

When Audrey was 86 years old, having lost her husband some years earlier, Gill and her sister Jennifer persuaded her to move from England to Melbourne. At that stage she was beginning to show some signs of dementia. She went to live in an aged care facility in Doncaster, which she usually referred to as “the hotel where I live.”

She loved her sherry, wine and whisky, and the family had to develop various strategies to keep her alcohol intake in check. With the onset of dementia she could become quite impatient when there was a delay in a drink being offered. We were at Jennifer’s house once where she was sitting at the dining table waiting for the meal to be served.

“Nobody’s offered me any wine,” she complained to our son Neil, who was sitting next to her.

“You tell them, Granny,” he whispered to her. “Ask ‘Where’s my bloody wine?’”

“WHERE’S MY BLOODY WINE?” Audrey shouted in a loud voice, to everyone’s stunned surprise.

Once in a while she would complain about being old and say to me, “I just want to go up there now,” pointing towards the heavens.

“Don’t say that, Audrey. Do you know there is no alcohol allowed up there. No wine, no sherry, nothing.”

“Really?” she asked me, looking shocked.

Or I would say “No, don’t go up there yet, Audrey. I’m going down there, so we’ll never see each other if you do that.”

I take credit for extending her stay on this earth through persuasive arguments such as these.

Audrey loved music. I have wonderful memories of driving her from Doncaster to our house on Sundays, listening to the Classic FM radio station. She was particularly fond of piano music. She was at our house one day when I decided to play a trick on her. I played the Rolling Stones’ CD “Exile on Main Street” at high volume. To our amazement she got up and danced vigorously by herself. “I really like this music,” she told me. “Who are those musicians?”

Neil was very fond of his Granny. He went with me to visit her and we walked around the block near her ‘hotel’ so that she could look at the gardens. She would admire the well-kept gardens and make scathing comments about the ones that had been neglected. In one garden there was a climbing rose with some beautiful roses high up in the rosebush. Neil stood on his toes, picked one of the roses and put it in her lapel.

She became uneasy. “You shouldn’t have done that, Neil. What would I say if somebody asks me where I got the rose from?”

“Just tell them the truth, Granny. Tell them your grandson gave it to you.”

“What a good idea,” she said, relieved.

At age ninety Audrey’s dementia worsened and she often became confused. We were driving through Eltham when she pointed at a side road going up a hill. “Alan and I used to live up that road,” she told me matter of factly.

“No, you never lived in Australia with Alan. You lived with him in England, remember?”

“Oh yes, we lived up there,” she said firmly. “What are the names of those people in whose house we lived up that road?”

“I’m not sure, Audrey.”

“Well, it’s a pity your memory is so bad, Tim!”

Audrey often surprised me with the things she came up with. At the dinner table she asked our daughter Laura about her future plans. “I might move in with my boyfriend later this year,” Laura said.

Audrey was taken aback. “But are you allowed to do that, Laura?” she asked.

Laura laughed. “Oh yes, Granny, all the young people do that these days.”

Audrey was quiet for a minute. Then she said, wistfully, “I wish I could have done that when I was young.”

The last thing that she ever said to us was when she had suddenly started laughing and Gill had asked her what it was that she had found so funny. “I’m just laughing because you are both potty.”

“Luckily you’re not potty, Audrey,” I replied.

“No,” she agreed, “I’m not potty.”

She was a terrific mother-in-law, but she was much more than that to me. She was also my very dear friend. Having passed on at the age of 91 she has left a sizable hole in our lives.

Thanks for all the fun times, Audrey Mountjoy. May you rest in peace.


Laura meets the judge

When our daughter Laura was fourteen years old she spent the first half of the year at the St Cyprians Boarding School in the leafy suburb of Gardens in Cape Town. She enjoyed the experience so much that she badgered us to send her back there for the duration of the following year. Laura generally gets her own way and it was no different on this occasion.

My wife and I travelled to South Africa in June of that year, accompanied by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. We spent some time in the Kruger National Park before driving south to Cape Town, where we lingered for a few days.

When the other family members travelled on to England I remained behind with Laura. The two of us went to stay with my brother Charel and sister-in-law Marlien, who live near Hermanus, a picturesque coastal village on the east coast 120 kilometers from Cape Town.

At that stage Laura had not met any of my relatives in South Africa, apart from Charel and Marlien and their children, so I decided to take her to meet my uncle André Botha, a retired judge, and his wife Mara, who lived in a house named Langbaai in Hermanus. Their living room overlooked Walker Bay and during the whale watching season one could see the whales frolicking in the ocean from their porch.

My mum, known by the family as Sus—an abbreviation for the Afrikaans term for “sister”—was the eldest of five children. My uncle André was the youngest of her four brothers and was one of my favourites. In common with his other siblings he was highly intelligent. He was also a soft-spoken and gentle person, unlike one of his brothers who would be quite moody and aggressive at times, and another who was, in my view, just plain nasty.

We arrived at Langbaai on a lovely, crisp winter’s morning in time for morning coffee. André and Mara made a big fuss over their young Australian niece, whom they were meeting for the first time. Mara had baked a scrumptious cake, which we enjoyed with our coffee while we did the normal catching up and gossiping that families do when they had not seen each other for a while. It was all very pleasant.

Since I had last seen André he had developed a serious eye condition that was impairing his vision and rendered everything he looked at a vague blur.

“Could you please do me a favour and describe to me what Laura looks like?” he asked Mara.

“Well,” she replied, looking Laura up and down, “she has dark brown hair and brown eyes, and she definitely has Sus’ nose. You can clearly see that she that she is related to the Bothas.”

We chatted for a while longer before Laura and I got ready to depart. My uncle André looked in Laura’s direction and asked her, “Would you mind very much coming really close to me so that I can try and see for myself what you look like?”

“Yep, that’s fine,” she said and walked towards him.

My uncle stretched out his hands, cupped her face and gently drew her very close to himself, peering at her intently.

“Oh, yes,” he mused, “she definitely has the Bothas’ features.”

Then he turned towards Mara and said to her in a slightly accusing tone of voice, “But when you described her you didn’t tell me that Laura is so beautiful!”

Laura and I said our farewells and reversed out of the driveway to head back to my brother’s house. As we were taking off, Laura said dreamily, “I really like your uncle André, Dad. He is such a nice man.”

10,000 steps

Now that I am at the stage of my life where I can faintly discern the skeleton figure holding a scythe in the distance, I have started thinking about where I would like my ashes to be laid to rest. My daughter told me she was going to keep them in an urn in her house. I can’t think of anywhere worse to end up than being cooped up in an urn on a shelf, gathering dust, so I had to start thinking of more palatable alternatives that I could foist onto my family.

My initial idea was to have my ashes scattered in our garden. Then I recalled disposing of my father-in-law’s ashes in their lovely rose garden in the village of Marlow in England, only to find some years later that the new owners of the house had converted the rose garden into a boring lawn. In any case, the thought of ending up in a garden eventually owned by total strangers does not appeal.

Having considered the matter further, I decided my ashes should be taken out to sea and scattered at the Devil’s Cauldron in the ocean at Hermanus, a small coastal village in South Africa where I had spent many happy holidays with my family as a child. The Devil’s Cauldron is a group of small rocks jutting out of the sea. Through all the twists and turns in my life over the years, this was a constant familiar sight to me since early childhood. One of the first things that I do whenever I visit Hermanus is to stand on the cliff and gaze at the Devil’s Cauldron.

099 Hermanus 5 - The Devil's Boiling Pot

The Devil’s Cauldron, Hermanus

A while ago I met up with my old aunt, Mara, who lives in Hermanus. She is a born again Christian who is well aware of the fact that I am an infidel. When I told her of my wish to have my ashes scattered at the Devil’s Cauldron, Mara looked me straight in the eye and declared, “Yes, that would be right!”

But recently I changed my mind again when I came to realise what bureaucratic and logistical hurdles and expense I would burden my family with if I insisted on the Devil’s Cauldron as my final abode. I was still trying to resolve the matter of my ashes in my mind when I met my friend Alan the Wandering Philosopher earlier this week on my daily walk along the Diamond Creek.


My obsession with walking 10,000 steps per day started fourteen years ago, when I was working at Moreland City Council in Melbourne. Our CEO had decided to encourage the members of the corporate management team to adopt a healthier lifestyle by walking 10,000 steps each day. He gave us each a step counter to wear on our belts so we could monitor our number of daily steps. At that time my job was all consuming. I spent most of my time sitting in meetings or in front of a computer at my desk. Due to work pressures I normally worked through my lunch hour and rarely ventured outside.

The first three days I wore the step counter I barely made it to 2,000 steps each day. Horrified by this result I started going for walks at lunchtimes and after dinner. I also began to park my car at the far end of the car park at the supermarket, instead of as close to the entrance as possible. Over a year or so I gradually changed my habits and increased my number of steps until I averaged 10,000 steps per day.

My wife calls me obsessive and I am not denying she has a point. “I’m just popping outside for a few minutes,” I would say after dinner.

She would roll her eyes and ask, “Still a few steps short of the 10,000 for the day then, are you?”

To which I would reply something like, “Yep, I still have another 327 steps to go. I’ll be back soon.”

When she remarks on my obsessive bent I tell her, in my own defence: “At least my obsessions are healthy ones. I could have been obsessed with chasing other women, or with getting drunk, so don’t complain.”

As part of my daily routine I walk along the Diamond Creek footpath every day. There is a spot just past the crest of an incline, before a long sweep in the path towards the west, where the local Council has done some repair works to the footpath. There is a cross-lying strain-relief groove across the path and the colour of the path changes there to a lighter shade of grey, where a section of the path has been replaced. It is exactly 4,800 steps from the car park to this point. It is here that I turn around each day after carefully stepping over the groove, in the knowledge I would make up the rest of my daily 10,000 steps by going to the supermarket and through normal other daily activity.

Alan the Wandering Philosopher, whom I often run into on my morning walk, knows all about my obsession. He texted me recently:

“I was walking along the creek path this morning. When I reached the exact spot at the path where you always turn around on your walk I couldn’t help wondering whether obsession might not be nine tenths of the law.”

“Closer to 99% in my case”, I texted back.

Earlier this week I ran into him again along the creek path and we walked together. When we got to the spot where I always turn back, he joked, “Make sure you step right across the groove before you turn back, eh.”

Suddenly a light bulb flashed inside my head.

“You know what? I think I’m going to ask my family to scatter my ashes right here after I’ve carked it.”

To which he replied: “Good idea! Just make sure they know to scatter them on the far side of the groove.”

The marvels of modern medicine

In 1983, while working in Port Moresby at the National Library Service of Papua New Guinea, I contracted a terrible ear infection. In time the pain almost drove me insane. Blood, pus and black goo leaked from my ear all day and night. I had to sleep with my head on an old towel and I lost my hearing completely in the infected ear.

Over the next two months I tried two types of ear drops, went to see the doctor five times, underwent an ear syringing, completed five full courses of four different antibiotics and had three injections, with absolutely no effect.

An acquaintance at the University of Papua New Guinea, who had heard about my ongoing problem with the ear infection, rang me and told me that a certain Dr Ghosh, an Indian ear, nose and throat specialist, was in town on a temporary training attachment at the Port Moresby General Hospital. I promptly went to see my doctor and asked him for a referral to see this Dr Ghosh.

On a steaming hot day in March, nearing the end of the wet season, I walked into Dr Ghosh’s office, introduced myself, and told him, “I’m getting really depressed about this ear infection, Doctor. The damn thing appears to be incurable and the pain is driving me around the bend.”

Dr Ghosh raised both his hands as if to fend off my words. “Depressed? Depressed? My dear fellow, there is no need to get depressed. This is the Twentieth Century, after all. We can now cure almost any infection!” I nodded and kept my disbelief to myself.

The doctor proceeded to peer into my ear. “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly, after a minute, “no wonder the antibiotics have had no effect. What we have here is a fungal infection, not a bacterial one. Oh, no, no, there are no bacteria in that ear. Only fungus.” He then proceeded to tell me with great merriment how he had recently cured a young fellow’s nose problem by advising him to get married! It was with difficulty that I managed to hide my lagging confidence in the good doctor.

He wrote out a prescription for anti-fungal drops, which he handed to me. He noticed that I was looking a tad sceptical. “Oh,” he said, brimful of confidence, “you use those drops and within three weeks’ time you will say to yourself, ‘My goodness, Dr Ghosh has cured me!’”

Having no alternative but to hope desperately for a miracle cure, I thanked him and set off to the chemist to get the anti-fungal drops. As I was leaving his office he shouted after me, “Depressed? Oh, no, my dear fellow, no need to get depressed! This is the Twentieth Century, after all!”

The prescription I collected from the chemist was for Tinaderm drops. I carefully read the instructions on the label, which stated that Tinaderm would cure things like tinea, foot rot and crotch itch. There was no mention of using them in one’s ear.

I had little choice but to trust Dr Ghosh, so I gritted my teeth and put a few drops into my ear, repeating the process the next morning and the next evening. After two days I woke up in the morning and discovered to my amazement that my ear infection had vanished completely.

“Oh, the marvels of modern medicine,” I mused to myself. “No, no, there was no need to get depressed.”

The Jewish violinist

I was introduced to Ron by Audrey, my mother-in-law, at the aged care facility in Doncaster where she was living at the time. He was a psychologist who regularly visited the oldies to entertain them by performing with his violin. When Audrey discovered that Ron had grown up in South Africa like her son-in-law, she insisted on introducing us.

On meeting each other, Ron and I did the usual two-step that former South Africans in Australia do when they first meet. We skirted around in conversation until we had each established what kind of South African the other person was—cultural background, racist or anti-racist, economic or political migrant and suchlike. I learnt that Ron was Jewish and that, like me, he had no tolerance for racism. Once it had been clarified that we were both generally on the same page we compared experiences of growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era with its legalised racism.

Ron told me that he had regularly played the violin in an orchestra in the early 1980s to earn some cash as a nineteen year old university student in Durban. On one occasion the orchestra had been engaged to perform in the town hall of a small town just outside Durban. The orchestra’s performance was paid for by the town Council and entry was free of charge to the public.

Ron had travelled to the venue by train. As the audience began arriving Ron noticed that the venue staff on duty were refusing entry to a family of coloured (mixed race) people that had come along to hear the orchestra performing. Ron walked to the entrance and asked a staff member why some people had been refused entry. He was told that the hall was a “Whites Only” venue and that the law forbade the races to mix at performance venues.

Ron was horrified. He immediately approached the conductor of the orchestra, a man of Afrikaner background in his fifties, and told him what he had witnessed. “This is outrageous” Ron declared. “We should cancel the performance.”

The conductor frowned and replied that it was the law of the land. “We are not here to dabble in politics, Ron. We are here merely to perform as an orchestra and that is what we are getting paid for.”

Ron took his violin out of its case to get ready for the performance, then hesitated and put it back. He went up to the conductor again. “Whether it is the law of the land or not, I really don’t think we should allow anyone coming to our performance to be humiliated like that. This is just disgusting and I feel very strongly that we should all just pack up and leave now.”

The conductor became visibly annoyed. “Listen to me, Ron,” he said, “just forget about the politics and get ready to do what you are getting paid for—to play the violin.” Ron returned to his seat, took his violin out again with shaking hands, but then put it back.

He went to confront the conductor once more and said, “I cannot in full conscience play in this hall after what has happened. Does it really take a Jew to tell a Christian how to behave like a Christian, sir?” Then he grabbed his violin case and angrily hurried off into the night.

The next few days Ron was racked by anxiety. He was convinced that he would be sacked from the orchestra because of his behaviour and with that his only source of income would be lost.

The next rehearsal was due a few days later. Ron was in two minds about attending, but he reluctantly decided to turn up and to have the matter over and done with. He anxiously wondered at what stage the issue would be raised and whether he would be held to account in front of the other members of the orchestra, or privately.

On arriving at the rehearsal neither the conductor nor any of the others made any reference to what had transpired. Once the rehearsal had finished Ron got up to leave, bracing himself for the conductor to call him aside. But the fellow simply picked up his things, said “Bye” with a slightly awkward smile in Ron’s direction and with a wave of his hand left the building.

Afterwards, the episode was never once mentioned by anyone, just as if it had never happened.


Papua New Guinean sojourn

In 1980 my wife and I went to Papua New Guinea on a three year contract to work for the National Library Service in Port Moresby. My job was to train Papua New Guinean staff so that they could take over positions held at the time by expatriates.

On my first day at work the Deputy National Librarian asked Ben Gar, a Papua New Guinean staff member from West New Britain, to show me where I could buy a take-away for lunch. Ben drove me to a little caravan that sold food and drinks. We each bought a hot dog and a bottle of Coke. Ben asked the seller for a bottle opener, but she said that someone had stolen it, so Ben gripped the top of my Coke bottle between his molars and prized the top off.

There was no television service in the country at the time, but there were two cinemas in town, one of which was a drive-in. The drive-in was the only public place where one could sit outside in the tropical evening in a folding chair, safe from the ‘rascals’ (young thugs) who ruled the streets after dark. Often people would take along a picnic dinner to eat there, or occasionally bring along a birthday cake with candles.

The first time we went to the cinema we saw “Saturday Night Fever”. During a scene where a young man fell to his death from a bridge, the Papua New Guinean policeman who was sitting next to me had an uncontrollable fit of laughter whilst grabbing me by the shoulder and shaking me.

I distinctly remember a double feature that we saw which was typical of the type of fare that the cinema dished up. The first film was an Israeli production called “Parachute dog”. The dog and his military master jumped out of an aeroplane behind the enemy lines in separate parachutes. The dog wobbled in the parachute. It was patently obvious that it was made from some solid substance, probably wood. In a later scene its master was ambushed and shot dead, only to reappear later in the film as though that incident had never happened. It was hilarious. The second film was “American disco”, about an Italian teenager whose entire dream was focused on going to America to become a DJ in an American disco. How could a viewer avoid being swept along in the excitement of someone chasing such an exotic dream?

Having fully explored the cultural offerings of the cinemas and having become bored of the menus at the only two restaurants in town, we started socialising in the evenings, playing bridge and backgammon and the like. At work the males of our motley crew of expatriates tried to outdo each other with colourful shirts on Fridays, the day on which the Papua New Guinean staff usually wore their traditional lap laps. My piece de resistance was a splotchy red batik shirt that I had bought in Cairns, but the competition petered out once an American colleague, Fraiser, came in to work sporting a shirt that he had bought in Hawaii whilst on holiday. The design comprised a combination of yachts and red lobsters. The rest of us lost heart for the Friday dress-ups after that.

The National Library staff played a series of cricket matches against the staff and students of the Library Diploma Course at the Administrative College. Our games started at 4.30 pm on Fridays and were invariably of quite brief duration, as it was very rare for a player on either side to get to double figures. We would hurry through the overs as the storm clouds gathered every afternoon in the rainy season, exploding in a deafening thunderstorm at around 6 pm.

Our best player was Rosa Memafu, a tall lady from the Gulf province, whose fast bowling was feared by all the players of the College team.



Rosa Memafu (second from right) lets fly with a fast ball

Few of us wore shoes to work and none of us wore ties, as it was just too hot and humid to wear such items. The pair of black shoes that I took along from Australia soon turned green with rot in my cupboard, while large cockroaches chewed holes in the leather. I went about my business in a pair of cheap rubber thongs. However, I had a pair of leather thongs in my office to wear on special occasions, such as to meetings with the Director of Education or with the Minister for Education.

During my time in Papua New Guinea I wore a tie on one occasion only, and that was for the Queen’s visit. I also wore my leather thongs. The National Librarian, Sir John Yocklunn, was responsible for arranging the visit by the Queen and Prince Philip and he had arranged good seats for us for the event.


Tim and a colleague with bilums (string bags), dressed up for the Queen’s visit

It was a spectacular affair. We watched from the sports pavilion, sitting within a stone’s throw from the Queen and Prince, while many different indigenous groups were dressed up in their traditional finery in honour of the royal visit.


The Queen and Prince Philip wave to the Highlanders

The condition of the dogs in Port Moresby was a constant source of distress to me. The vast majority of dogs were underfed or were fed a poor diet consisting mostly of leftover rice or stale pieces of bread. A lot of the dogs had lost most of their hair and were covered in sores.

When I eventually returned to Australia I had to stop overnight in Sydney. A few of the passengers from my Air Niugini flight shared a small bus which transported us from the airport to the city hotels. An Australian missionary who had been in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years introduced himself to me. When our bus stopped at a red traffic light we noticed a big Alsatian dog sitting on the rear seat in the car next to us. We stared at its glossy fur in wonder. The missionary took the words out of my mouth. “Just look at that,” he said, pointing at the dog. “That dog looks good enough to eat!”

The next day when I arrived at Melbourne’s airport I looked around forlornly for a bright, colourful lap lap or bilum bag, but I found myself afloat in a sea of drab clothing.

The bad parent

I know full well how good parents behave. They are consistent in their dealings with their children, set clear parameters for the children’s behaviour and always take appropriate disciplinary action when their children step over the line of acceptable behaviour.

I have few illusions about my own performance as a parent. I admit that I was a hopeless parent and that I just did not have the right personality to be anything but mediocre in a parenting role.

In our household, as our children were growing up, there was a lot of inconsistency in how we dealt with them as parents and far too little discipline. Gill, my wife, who was intent on setting and enforcing the rules of appropriate behaviour, was constantly frustrated at what she viewed, with good reason, as my unsupportive if not downright undermining actions.

My problem is that I am a hopeless softie who lacks the toughness required to be a good parent. I would say, for instance, “If you do that again I’ll ground you tomorrow,” but the next day I would feel so sorry for the child that I would not enforce the threatened punishment. This probably stems from my own upbringing by loving but super-strict parents who never gave me any leeway when I was growing up. I knew the right thing to do as a parent, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

My daughter Laura could twist me around her little finger ever since she was quite small. When she was at primary school I would take her with me to the Greensborough Shopping Centre, where she would tell me out of the blue, for instance, that she had run out of jeans and needed a new pair.

“Are you sure?” I would ask. “I thought you had a few pairs of jeans.”

“No,” Laura would tell me firmly. “They’re all very old and daggy and I need a new pair. The other girls will laugh at me if I keep going around in those old jeans that are faded and full of holes.”

I would then buy her a new pair of jeans of her choice, not the cheap Target ones that her mum would have insisted on. As soon as we’d get home and Gill found out about the new jeans she would be outraged and tell me, “Why do you allow yourself to be sucked in by that child? I bought her a new pair of jeans just last week! You spoil her silly and then I always end up looking like the bad cop.”

Laura is a lovable child, but she would never listen to a thing that I told her. Her first car was an old Hyundai which you couldn’t lock or unlock remotely with the key. When she first had her P-plates she rang me one night at 2 a.m. to ask me to bring her spare car key from home, as she was in the city and had locked her keys in her car. Grumbling to myself, I did as she had asked.

“Don’t ever lock your car door by pushing in the locking button on the door,” I advised her when I got to the city. “Always lock your car door with the key. That way you can’t lock your keys in your car.”

Barely a week had gone by when she rang me mid-afternoon from Diamond Creek’s main road, about two kilometres from our house. She had locked her keys in her car again. When I got there, I said to her, “Why don’t you ever listen to me, Laura? I’ve told you that you must always lock your car door with the key.”

Quite matter-of-factly she replied, “When have I ever listened to a thing you’ve told me, Dad?”

I saw a program on television the other night in which they were discussing parenthood. “A parent should never try to be friends with their children,” an expert pronounced. “That is not the parent’s role. The parent is there to set boundaries and to teach the child appropriate behaviour, not to be the child’s friend.”

I thought about this and realised that I had never really cut the mustard as a parent. The day after I told Laura what the fellow on the television had said. “I have to apologise to you,” I told her. “I’ve been a really bad father when you grew up – erratic and inconsistent. And I never disciplined you like a good father should.”

Laura was silent for a little while. Then she smiled that cheeky smile of hers that always melts my heart and said, “That fellow on the television was talking rubbish. You were the best dad that anyone could ever hope for. I used to get away with everything. It was a great way to grow up! And I haven’t turned out too bad, have I?”