Category Archives: Mad Memoirs

Pieces about my useless life. Some aspects R-rated.

HAL G.P. COLEBATCH: A Master Craftsman Journalist. Review of my book

HAL G.P. COLEBATCH

A Master Craftsman Journalist

That’s Debatable: 60 Years in Print
by Tony Thomas
Connor Court, 2016, 246 pages, $29.95
___________________________

 

Tony Thomas is either a born journalist or has worked to make himself a consummate master of the craft, or, as I suspect, both. One way or another he has a master’s touch seen too rarely nowadays.

Not only does his investigative work burrow far deeper than that rewriting of press handouts which often passes for journalism today, but like all masters of difficult skills, he makes it look easy. Further, he has a heavy battery of that often overlooked weapon, common sense.

He is, in fact, near the ideal of what a journalist ought to be and, perhaps, more often used to be. What has struck me most about his writing over the years, apart from the knowledge and research behind his work, is his gift for packing an enormous amount of information into the absolute minimum of words, while making the piece witty and entertaining (my mother used to paste some of his best features in a scrapbook). His piece on Biggles, unfortunately not included here, was one of many that could be called a classic of its kind.

Thus his great strengths are a rapier-like flashing wit, a professional’s taut style, and, backing up all his pieces when necessary, assembled heavy legions of facts—a great combination that we see far too rarely today. I cannot recommend the pieces in this book too highly as models for any aspiring journalist.

I first met Tony when I was a cadet reporter on the West Australian, and he, in addition to reporting assignments, was turning out a stream of feature pieces almost it seemed daily, all entertaining, all written with consummate skill. It is a pity that some more of these West Australian pieces, such as an interview with gorilla-like wrestlers and one on the kangaroo-paw souvenirs sold at the airport—both kangaroo-paw flowers and the chopped-off paws of kangaroos made into bottle-openers—have not been included.

He was always ready to share tricks of the trade with us cadets (we never saw the editor, Griff Richards, and probably wouldn’t have recognised him if we had). When I had my first major assignment—interviewing a senior visiting admiral—Tony went through my prepared list of questions with me, rephrasing them so as to encourage the most newsworthy answers (unfortunately, when the time came the admiral was incapably drunk).

Although now a thorn in the side of the Left, and particularly the greenies and eco-nuts, with his savage and unanswerable pieces in Quadrant and Quadrant Online, Tony came from a communist family and was a Young Communist in adolescence. I used to see his mother, still a red-hot red, at the West Australian Writers’ Fellowship, and though we were poles apart politically I respected her seriousness of purpose and her readiness to help young writers.

We were surprised when he left the West Australian to be an economics writer for the Age. The job seemed too dry and uncreative for his talents.

This book is a collection of pieces he has written over many years but of course the most topical are those he has written since his retirement for Quadrant and Quadrant Online. However, the earlier pieces on growing up red and of the Australian communist world of the time are of real historical interest.

He recalls from his Age days attending one lecture by Jim Cairns, who was then the federal Treasurer. With Junie Morosi squatting at his feet, gazing adoringly up at him, the Treasurer seriously proposed abolishing money, which would be replaced with love as the medium of exchange between human beings. The story was never filed because, Tony thought—probably correctly—no one would believe it.

A major theme of seven of the later pieces is the debunking of climate doom-mongers, with their panoply of scare-tactics and bad science. There are four pieces on the mythologising of Aboriginal life and especially the ghastly reality that Aboriginal women have endured. There is a probing investigation into “The Naughty Nation of Nauru” with its kleptocratic leadership, and the squandering of both its phosphate-derived wealth and Australian aid.

Tony’s years as an economics writer may have been valuable in tackling the anti-mining, anti-growth freaks and the bizarre energy-less utopias they prescribe, though it is truly alarming that, fake Nobel Prizes and all, many are taken seriously not merely in the media but in academe. “The Joy of Yurts and Jam-Jar Glassware” is truly Swiftian in its slashing demolition of pseudo-academic Luddite lunacy. As one who loves the Barrier Reef I was pleased to read his article putting its many predicted deaths in their place.

A quite alarming piece is on the feminisation of the military, and the feminist push to have women in front-line combat roles, so they can come home to their children in body-bags. Tony is, of course, able to quote a list of cases where this has already happened. Since women do not, as a rule, have the upper-body strength required for serving heavy guns or lifting wounded in a hurry out of burning tanks and aircraft, with 100 per cent failure-rate on some tests, required standards of strength are being lowered so women can pass. One British officer has described modern unisex infantry training as “aggressive camping”. I don’t think we have reached the point reported from Britain, where recruits are given cards to produce if their delicate nerves are jangled by drill-instructors bawling at them.

Mentioned briefly is the 2016 Australian of the Year, General David Morrison, with his transsexual aide, who seems more interested in promoting “diversity” than combat efficiency in the armed forces (Wikipedia indicates that this “hard-as-nails warrior”, who joined the army several years after Vietnam, may not have heard a shot fired in anger in his entire career). This essay goes with George Orwell’s observation that civilised men can only be civilised as long as rough uncivilised men guard them.

Thomas casts an informed, dispassionate eye on his own youth, growing up in a committed communist household, and the now-available documents of ASIO and the Communist Party (one ASIO agent infiltrated a party branch of just three members). It complements the memoirs of some disillusioned ex-ASIO agents as to the Keystone Cops element, hopefully now left behind, of the early days of the organisation. Yet one also gets the impression, reading this insider’s account, that the Communist Party, despite elements of farce and Carry On bedroom antics, at times had more real power and influence than any except perhaps its natural enemies on the Right gave it credit for.

What might be called the far Right gets a hammering too, with his account of covering police behaviour at a demonstration in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. The collection concludes with a nicely balanced and objective piece on his travels in America and the American conservative showman Glenn Beck.

Hal G.P. Colebatch lives in Perth. His book Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books), shared the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2014.

How I snubbed Bill Gates (sorry Bill!)

 

In early 1986 Microsoft’ co-founder Bill Gates got an appointment to see me at the BRW office at 469 Latrobe St. It was not a successful interview, because I forgot he was coming and went out to lunch. I was habituated to a circuit around the block to stretch my legs after a morning at the computer, with a time-consuming stop at JB Hi-Fi on Elizabeth St to browse the cut-price classical CDs.

I returned to the office to find an indignant Pictures Editor, Tom Brentnall, who had to baby-sit Bill Gates to cover my absence.

My lapse was so egregious that it featured in ex-Editor Jeff Penberthy’s 25th anniversary essay on BRW’s history (Issue of August 24, 2006). He wrote:

When Bill Gates walked into the old BRW offices on Little Collins Street in Melbourne [actually we’d moved by then to Latrobe St. TT], there was no-one on hand to greet him. The young Microsoft founder had called to see senior writer Tony Thomas – but Thomas was a busy man. He was out to lunch, and he deserved it. Among the first owners of a personal computer in Australia [Eh? I don’t think so! TT], Thomas was writing a sponsored page that answered questions for the few PC users, but the magazine was ahead of its time.

In almost a year there had only ever been one genuine question come in from a reader. Week after week, Thomas wrestled to pose intriguing questions to himself, typically sourcing them from the reaches of Adelaide or Brisbane, and you could bank on his answers. Incredibly, then, some nark had written in to say he had checked the electoral rolls, and there was no person named Samson living in Willagee, which happened to be Tony Thomas’s old Perth home suburb.

Such is the price of exigencies. God knows what Bill Gates thought of us – Bill probably told Him when they talked that night. Tom Brentnall sat the geek from California down and gave him our latest issue to read while he rustled up a photographer…

Gates was in early 1986 just a 31yo in the geeky personal computer world. Microsoft was then just a private company on the verge of floating on the stockmarket. (The offering raised a modest $US61m from the public).

It took me quite some research even to establish when Gates visit to BRW happened. It was when Gates was doing overseas PR for the float.

Most IBM-style personal computers were still running the clunky MS-DOS operating system. Windows 1.0 involving mouse-pointing and clicking at the screen, was only a few months old. Bill Gates was not then famous, nor a model employer (he used to memorise staff licence plates so he could check who left the carpark early). But anyway, I now apologise to him over my inadvertent snub.

Microsoft, with its 118,000 workers, is now valued at $US400b, while Gates personal wealth is $US75b. BRW in contrast ceased as a printed magazine in 2013 after 32 years. Then on March 4, 2016, the on-line vestige of the magazine also disappeared. It was never the same – perhaps better – after my retirement in 2001.

11 March 2016 #

Reflections on a Youth Carnival by a primary-school Stalinist

This article appears in the April, 2014 issue of Quadrant.

By Tony Thomas

Did Mr A.T. Jelly, probably of Nedlands, Perth, play some small role in 1952 in ameliorating Cold War tensions and bringing about a more peaceful world?
He was walking along the Stirling Highway footpath near the then State Saw Mills, and I, as an 11-year-old, blocked his way . I presented him with a petition for a Five Power Peace Pact between the US, UK, France, the Soviet Union and China. I explained why it was a good idea, and he became about my tenth signatory that morning.
I was a keen collector of signatures, so keen that I won the prize from the Eureka Youth League and/or its parent the Communist Party of Australia. The big prize! I became the sole delegate from Perth’s Junior Eureka Youth League (JEYL) to Sydney’s Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship.

At this distance it is safe to make a confession. I did forge 10-15% of my signature tally, enough to knock my sister, 12, out of the short-list for the prize. My parents, inspecting my petition sheets, immediately queried the authenticity of “Mr Jelly”. Mr Jelly’s signature was authentic. I was righteously indignant. Even today I notice two Jelly families in Perth’s White Pages, possibly Mr A.T. Jelly’s descendants.
At 11, I was already a petition veteran. At ten I had taken the World Peace Council’s petition to ban the atom bomb to Nedlands State School and got a lot of kids to sign before school – they were flattered to be asked. By playtime, to my disgruntlement, the kids virtually queued to scratch their names off my petition sheet. At a lunchtime interview, the doubtless horrified headmaster at this conservative school, Mr Thorpe, instructed me to cease and desist from signature collecting among his flock.
Joseph Stalin was my ultimate boss as the mainspring of the Five Power Peace Pact petition. Some press man interviewed him in February 1951. Comrade Stalin highlighted the need for the pact, which had been languishing as a topic since Foreign Minister Vyshinsky broached it in the UN a year earlier. (Vyshinsky had presided over the pre-war Zinoviev-Kamenev trial, remarking judicially, “Shoot these rabid dogs… Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses!”).
Insensitively, the General Assembly had voted against Vyshinsky’s peace pact, opting instead for an American protocol for ‘peace through deeds’.
After the Stalin interview, instructions about the petition speedily went out via Alexsander Fadeyev, of the Soviet Writers Union, and Ilya Ehrenburg, the writer, who were Stalin’s conduits to the Peace Council. What do you know, by December there were 600 million signatures, including Mr Jelly’s.
The predecessor petition against the atom bomb (then a US hegemony) had not done nearly as well, gathering only 500 million signatures, including the vestigial tally from my Nedlands State School peer group. Most of the signatures were from Soviet bloc citizens, where declining to sign involved a career setback.

We JEYL members in Perth, aged to about 15, wore the white shirts and red scarfs that were a la mode for Communist youth globally. Our troop mother was a nice but humourless young woman called Dot Calvert.
One morning about eight of us boarded a Stirling Highway bus for the beach, and half-way there Dot instructed us brightly, “Let’s sing the peace song!” We immediately piped up, “For peace, world peace! United for peace! For peace, world peace! U-u-NIGHT-ed for PEACE!” We then launched into the many verses between choruses, such as “Everywhere the youth are singing freedom’s song…We are the youth! And the world acclaims our song of truth!”
How co-passengers on the bus viewed this performance, I do not know. I think Dot imagined that our peaceful enthusiasm would inspire them to join the Communist Party.
Our main JEYL assignment was fielding a soccer team in the Saturday juniors. We played for two seasons, winning no games but memorably drawing one, at one-all. I was goalie. Our ability to field an 11-boy team, given JEYL’s miniscule numbers, was zero. Normally we fielded between 7 and 9 players, and the opposing team would assign us a couple of their spare players to make a better game of it. Those seconded players seldom put their heart into the game.
There was a Jewish team called the Maccabeans, probably boosted by recent arrivals from Yugoslavia, Hungary and the Ukraine. The Maccabeans, if you will excuse my anti-semitism, were bastards. They wouldn’t donate their spare players to our team, and they spent their hour banging goals past me into my net. Our or my worst score was 35-nil.
I’m a bit annoyed that our Eureka Youth League sponsors were so busy creating a better world that they never gave a thought to putting down our mortally-ailing little team.
Or perhaps they were just too busy cramming for EYL study courses. I turned up the curriculum for Victorian EYL studies, July 1951 – maybe they used the same one in Perth. Lesson 6 was ‘Historical Materialism’ . The poor EYL sods not only had to ingest Stalin’s work, “On origin and role of ideas” but do further reading including Zhdanov’s views on “Marxism and Linguistics” and even Boris Hessen’s tract on “Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia.” Zhdanov died in 1948, and in 1953 Stalin used the death as the fulcrum of his planned “Doctors’ Plot Trial” to deport 2 million Jews to extinction beyond the Urals. Boris Hessen was tried and shot (on the same day) in Moscow in 1936 so his work shouldn’t actually have been on the Victorian EYL curriculum in 1951, although Hessen was rehabilitated posthumously in 1956.

Sorry, I’m rambling. Anyway, I was soon Sydney-bound on the Trans-Continental Train. I can’t remember much about the Youth Carnival, except that I had a starring role in a big campfire evening where I sang Walter Scott’s song about “Bonny Dundee”, except I precociously substituted rhymes about NATO and its UK Labor supporter Clement Attlee. This went down a treat among the evening’s sausage eaters and keg-dwellers.
I still recall the atmosphere of excitement and self-importance. Much to my surprise, I found a newsreel about the carnival (http://tinyurl.com/l7ahuad)
and I’ve transcribed the commentary below. The background music was the march from Tchaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony, perhaps a musical pun on Russian influence on the Carnival. The newsreel opens with a Russian-language sign:
“Russian for ‘Peace & Friendship’ – one of many signs at Fairfield’s Hollywood Park where the Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship opens. The Carnival itself has been give little publicity but Cinesound presents these pictures, [shot of crowds, families, kids] because the Australian public should know what is going on in their midst. Suppression too often breeds strength.
[People march past under flags bearing the Carnival symbol, a dove plus a boomerang which seem slightly sinister/fascist in black-and-white footage].
Ten thousand people attended the opening day. Noticeable among flags missing from the carnival was that of the United Nations, of which Russia is also a member.
The Federal Government and the Australian Labor Party have both described the carnival as Communist inspired. [State delegations go past, and nice-looking female teenagers and young women are singing but not audible]. The procession of youth, the flags, the banners and marching songs are strangely reminiscent of the Nuremburg rallies of the late unlamented Hitler Youth. [Broad-chested young men march in T-shirt uniforms]. Not so many flags, not so many people, but the first German rallies were small too. To a man (sic) sitting in the centre, it is often difficult to tell the far Left from the far Right.
We seem to have gone all European suddenly don’t we? For this is hardly an Australian scene…
Yes Madam, [matronly woman applauds enthusiastically] it is impressive but it is the start of what?
‘Peace’, and marching in the procession are Chinese. [The Chinese, all locals, are in androgynous Confucian or Tai Chi sort of costumes, eschewing any militancy]. We seem to recall that Red China today is at war with the world in Korea…that Australian youth is dying there to restore peace.
Communist Waterside Workers leader Healy marches – a rather mature youth. [With a large tummy, too].
Perhaps the greatest job these people [Greeks and New Zealanders sweep past] could do would be to convince Russia that the whole world wants peace with a passionate longing. [A big truck float goes past, massively decorated with flowers forming the dove/boomerang symbol]. Frankly we can’t see how the cause of World Peace can be aided by a semi-theatrical parade in a picnic ground 15 miles from Sydney. We wonder too how many of those marching today and those who watch, really know what is going on – these children for instance. [Yay! A truckload of cheering, waving kids. Is that cute kid leaning out, me? Well, maybe!]
Let’s not fool ourselves. There is war in the world today and it was started not by the democracies. Maybe the Youth Carnival could start right there, if the authorities would let them. [Women in hats, a toddler wildly waves a flag in each hand]. Because if this were a democratic procession it could not happen in Moscow’s Red Square!”
And you thought ABC News was subjective?
An ASIO plant was in a cinema when the newsreel was originally shown. As described by historian Dr Phillip Deery, the field officer reported,
“The commentary itself was so biased and unfair that it drew groans from the audience…The audience consisted, not of Carnival supporters, but of suburban housekeepers in town for shopping and members of the public and their girlfriends sheltering from the rain [‘members of the public’ must have all male, unless the agent also spotted some lesbians] …the obvious injustice of the commentary provoked a sympathetic reaction.”

Dr Deery, of Victoria University of Technology, in his excellent study of the Carnival, lavishly appropriated below by myself, complains that most historians of the post-war peace movement have ignored or downplayed it (http://tinyurl.com/n5kc7tc) The most detailed work has been by the ‘unremittingly hostile’ historians, including (Quadrant stalwart) Hal Colebatch of Perth, who treat it as a Communist stunt and ignore its broader community participation, Deery says.
He notes that the Carnival was the first outside Eastern Europe and was the child of the August 1951 3rd World Youth Festival in East Berlin (two years before the East Berlin uprising by less-conformist types). The 1951 show was attended by 26,000, compared with 10,000 at Sydney. Among those at Berlin were 135 Australians including Frank Hardy.
One delegate was 24 year old Frank Townsend, a lab assistant and former Student Council president at Melbourne Technical College. Although a political cleanskin in ASIO’s view, he became full-time organiser of the Sydney carnival in early 1952, keen to repay hospitalities involved in his Berlin trip. He envisioned that the carnival would, in the words of a pamphlet, “light a torch which will shine in a world where the people’s are kept too much apart from each other. This torch can light up the road to the happy, sane and peaceful Australian (sic) that we all hope and strive for.”
Getting 10,000 attendees was a good effort considering the hostile State apparatus. Attendees ran the gamut of refusals by 25 councils of halls, stadiums, parks, ovals and even beaches. The planned venue, the Harold Park trotting stadium, was withdrawn a bare fortnight before start-day. The hastily-arranged and privately-run Hollywood Park venue in outer Sydney was banned by Fairfield Council on the eve of the opening, and the council was only thwarted by a last-minute injunction. The State then banned private bus services to the park and in a Dunkirk-like miracle, the EYL organised private cars, trucks and lorries to shuttle the thousands back and forth.
Deery discovered that ASIO, in “Operation Handshake”, had two men and a woman in the Carnival headquarters and (probably) used agents to intimidate anyone offering Carnival services.
A Hobart ASIO man, J.J. Webberley, was flown to Sydney specifically to monitor Tasmanian attendees by trailing cars and identifying people in photographs. He even trailed himself into Taronga Zoo and Paddington Town Hall dances. He reported, “While at Sydney I was able to obtain the names and addresses of a large number of Tasmanians who have communist interests and will report on them accordingly on the following form.”
The Menzies government couldn’t ban the Carnival per se as the Liberals had just lost the referendum to ban the Communist Party and its ilk. But scores of Russian, Chinese, Czechs, Malayans and Americans were denied visas and had to stay home. Only New Zealanders got in. The ‘international’ flavour was from local ethnic groups.

Somehow the organisers created a panoply of sporting, dance, musical, art and literary events, many with handsome prizes of 200-250 pounds. Us kids were offered prizes for plasticine models, drawings and costumes.
Literary sponsors included Gavin Casey, Eleanor Dark, Dame Mary Gilmore, Eric Lambert, Alan Marshall, John Morrison, Walter Murdoch and Katherine Susannah Pritchard. Colin Simpson signed on but then signed himself out.
Cultural groups were transported to factories to do their stuff. On a single morning, seven groups got to seven sites, each group with chairman, a presenter, and sound equipment. Knowing what a hassle sound gear is even today, I feel respect for those organisers of 1952.

ASIO’s list of participating bodies in the Carnival runs to six pages, including the Atlas Greek Club, the NSW Ballroom Dancing Academy, the Melbourne Camera Club, and Geelong Choristers.
Individuals generously housed out-of-towners, including a Mrs Edwards of Fitzroy Street, Killara, who offered to billet two same-sex delegates in her spare room. She probably got the 2 pounds per person subsidy for costs.
As suggested by the Pathe newsreel, the wireless and the SMH, Tele and Sun ran a news blackout on the carnival. Deery says that the carnival’s EYL news-sheet Challenge had daily print runs of tens of thousands and issue No 10 involved 500,000 copies.
Deery then broadens his canvass to ask why Menzies, fresh from his referendum defeat, went all-out to disrupt the Carnival. Apart from obvious reasons such as the Korean war outbreak and the supposedly-imminent World War 111, Menzies viewed the Carnival as part of a Soviet phony ‘peace offensive’ via the World Peace Council. As External Affairs had advised him, “Like shady night club proprietors the Communist promoters are no sooner put out of business by exposure in one place, than they are busy organising a fresh venture under entirely new management.”
Deery puts the case that the Carnival none-the-less involved a genuine effort by young activists to connect with other youth through culture, sport and a bit of non-sectarian politics. “And it was, in the words of the woman who conceived the carnival, ‘an attempt to break through to a whole new section of the working class movement, we were trying something new and it was terribly exciting…we hoped it would be a new start.’ ”
I was chatting on the phone to Joe Lane in Adelaide about his archival research on SA Aborigines (http://firstsourcesguide.com). He mentioned that he too had attended the Youth Carnival, at an even younger age, 9, than myself. He also thought he spotted himself on the kids’ truck. Cue scepticism. Joe’s parents named him after Joseph Vissarionovich, about which he’s a bit embarrassed today. “At least I’m not called Joe Thomas,” I said. #

Despite his unusual childhood, Tony Thomas has grown up to be a model citizen.

How I missed that story

Our contributor wasn’t always the serious, sober scribe Quadrant readers know and respect. Once, long ago, there was a young reporter with rather more on his mind than covering long and windy speeches

I had an Oedipus Rex moment in 1963. If you recall the play, Oedipus goes looking for the man who killed his father and married his mother. On discovering the man is himself, he is so horrified he stabs out his eyes. (Incidentally, Oedipus killed his father in a prehistoric fit of road rage, involving chariots at an intersection).

I was an earnest but wayward reporter, aged 23, on The West Australian. My editor Griff Richards was troubled. A very illustrious gent called General Sir John Hackett had visited Perth. He was the son of an even grander Winthrop Hackett, who co-founded, edited and later owned The West Australian itself. Griff’s problem was that he had picked up rumors that he, Griff, had seriously and deliberately snubbed General Hackett. I assume Griff had heard some elliptical references to the matter at the Weld Club in Barrack Street.

Griff had misplaced a lot of faith in me, and hence assigned me to get to the bottom of these rumors. They involved something about a magnificent speech Sir John Hackett had made where he had used his coat as a prop and declaimed about the sleeves. That didn’t sound very poetic but I got the drift. Rather thrilled to have been given this unusual detective-like assignment, I began my investigations.

To put all this in context, I intend to inflict some excessive detail about the Hacketts.

Winthrop Hackett (below), at times in league with Premier John Forrest, virtually ran WA for the decades straddling 1900. With his immense wealth and influence, he created most of Perth’s institutions, including the free-of-fees and female-friendly WA University, the State Library and Museum, Kings Park, the Zoo, even Karrakatta Cemetery. Under his regime, The West was a ‘paper of record’ – it used to report verbatim the entire Sunday sermons of Bishop Riley at St George’s Cathedral, for example.

For all that, Winthrop must have had a certain gleam in his eye. At the age of 57, the bachelor magnate married in 1905 the 18-year-old Deborah Vernon Brockman, from WA’s pioneer landed gentry. At one stage she ran a tantalum mine in the deserts of the Northern Territory. The tantalum became a crucial input to Britain’s development of radar in World War II.

How and why Winthrop decided so late in life to wed a teenager is unclear (he did have a lifelong and probably innocent friendship with a chap named Leeper).

He wrote a fortnight before the marriage: “The place is so dull, and life so monotonous that I absolutely must have a new experience. Hence this determination. It seems to me as good a reason as most men have for marrying. What do you think? This is in the strictest sense a ‘marriage de convenience’ ” [Pardon his French].

After marriage, he wrote querulously: “Did you find that marriage took at least a couple of hours out of your working day? It is my experience.” This is very close to my favorite joke: When a tradie got married, he told a mate, “It’s great, but long hours.”

Winthrop even tried to run Deb’s life from beyond the grave, putting a clause in his will that her inheritance would cease if she re-married. Deb not only re-married, twice, but became rich anyway, despite foregoing vast Hackett wealth.

Deb (left), sincerely or not, described her marriage as ‘blissfully happy’. She was one hell of a snob too. She had to shift her bric a brac from Adelaide to Toorak, when she embarking on her third marriage. The job took 12 pantechnicons. At the time, it was the largest family consignment ever to go by road in Australia.

She was also loathe to relinquish her title-by-marriage of “Lady”, which she had enjoyed since her teen years. Her second husband, Frank Moulden, was plain “Mr” but Deb continued to call herself “Lady Hackett”. One cheeky social reporter wrote that Lady Hackett and Mr Frank Moulden “were sharing a room at the Menzies Hotel”. Mercifully, Frank got a knighthood later, so she could call herself Lady Moulden. Her third husband lacked a title so thereafter she called herself “Dr” Buller-Murphy, trading on an honorary doctorate she got from UWA. This used to be considered pretentious, but now a lot of Honorary Doctors adopt the title.

The Hacketts’ only son amid four daughters is the subject of my story and discomfiture.

Sir John, like his mother and father, had an astounding career. He joined the British Army after a not-so-good start in art and in the classics at Oxford. In every campaign, he did acts of heroism, accumulating war wounds and war medals at an equal rate. In Syria he was wounded and won the Military Cross. In North Africa he was in a tank blown up during an attack and he was seriously burnt climbing out of it. He won a DSO.

In 1944 he raised and commanded a parachute brigade, getting wounded again in Italy. Then he led the brigade into the airdrop on Arnhem, the celebrated Dutch ‘bridge too far’ which became an Allied disaster. He was severely wounded in the stomach and a German doctor was going to give him a mercy-killing injection, but a second doctor stepped in and saved his life surgically.

Hackett escaped with the Dutch resistance during a hospital transfer, after adorning himself with extra-bloody bandages. He won a second DSO for Arnhem.

After the war he rose to top ranks, including Palestine in 1947 and running the Northern Ireland campaign in 1961, both rather messy fields of conflict. His job from 1965 was as commander of the British Army of the Rhine and NATO’s Northern Army Group but he was too abrasive politically to win the ultimate top job, chief of the defence staff.

After the army he became Principal of King’s College London, where he liked to join student marches for improved study grants, to the horror of other dons.

After his years on the front line of the nuclear Cold War, he wrote in 1978 a fictional and best-selling scenario of World War III based on a Soviet invasion of West Germany seven years into the future (1985).

This big man came to Perth in 1963, a year or two before the zenith of his military career. This year was the 50th anniversary of the first courses of the WA University and the uni senate marked the occasion by conferring honorary doctorates on 15 alumni and bigshots, some with only tenuous WA connections.

As a further preliminary to my Oedipus moment, I will now describe my love life as at late 1963.

A young woman, “Libby”, and I were magnificently in love and eager to neck in secluded places. This was long before typical young couples could hope for privacy in flats. My home was too inconvenient for trysts. Libby was still living with her mother, who made a point of never leaving us alone in her house, ie., she was not stupid. At one point I tried a double-cross. I announced to Libby’s mother that Libby and I would spend the evening at the pictures. Mother then felt it safe to organize a social outing of her own. At the last minute I announced that our movie was off and Libby and I would just have to entertain ourselves at home somehow. Mother showed such suppressed fury that Libby pulled the carpet from under me by discovering there was another movie she badly wanted to see.

The degree-conferring night found me seething with hormones and fuming at the tedium of the ceremony. I had expected it would be all over by 9pm or so and that Libby and I could rendezvous and head down to the Crawley lover’s lane in my car. But the uni felt that each conferee would want equal time and plaudits. Think 15 x 10 minutes, plus extras.

The chancellor, Sir Alex Reid, was in his peacock robes, along with all the senators and profs. Each nominee got a speech about his accomplishments and was then presented with his doctorate.

None of the speeches so far were at all interesting, and of the 15, there were still three or four to go. The best to date was Fred Schonell, author of the famous Schonell Speller, lists of words which we as primary schoolers had chanted and spelled day after day, resulting in pretty good spelling ability, compared to today’s slack brats. Some recipients seemed to have no connection at all with UWA or Perth, such as Sir Charles Blackburn, chancellor of Sydney Uni, who by the time he retired the following year, had himself conferred 31,194 degrees (true). Another was Freddie Alexander, a historian who had managed to bulk out his 50th anniversary history of the UWA to nearly 1000 pages. I had reported some other historian remarking bitchily that a 1000-year history of Oxford University had been a much smaller volume. I hadn’t given Fred any right of reply, and Fred carpeted me over it, with justice.

I decided cut and run to Libby. Anyway, by the time the official ceremony finished, there would be little time to write the story, phone it through and still meet deadlines. Late night stories had to be particularly thrilling to justify the reworking of pages.

Libby and I managed to steam up my car windows and I thought no more about honorary doctors of laws and letters…

Until my editor asked me to discover what those rumors were about concerning our ‘snub’ to Sir John Hackett.

I began by checking our library files – nothing there.

I asked around, using my meagre list of Perth bigshots. Nothing much.

Finally, a uni contact said someone had told him something about a speech by Sir John. Maybe even at UWA.

An administrator confirmed, to my growing dismay, that the speech was at the Honorary Degree ceremony. “But wasn’t all that just formal stuff?” I asked imploringly.

“No, I was there. It was terribly moving. You know how his father had also got an honorary degree? Sir John must have been wearing his own father’s gown with all the academic stripes and trimmings, and he took it off and addressed it as though it was his father, still alive. We were all moved to tears, just about.”

Well, that’s cleared THAT up. All I needed to do now was break the news to my editor, Griff Richards. I’d just say…what would I say?

I could think of two precedents for breaking of bad news similar to this. As a boy I had once been caught by my stepfather, Vic, doing target practice with our chooks, using small stones. Reluctant to discipline me himself (although when I was about six he gave me a sudden slap on the bare bottom when he caught me urinating in the bathroom basin), Vic directed me to report my crime to Mum and take condign punishment at her hands. I began by remarking to Mum on the smallness of the chook pen and the chooks’ need for more exercise. Mum abstractedly agreed. In a few subtle steps I came to mention that I had even encouraged them to run around by tossing a few things at them. Mum abstractedly agreed…

The other occasion was when the local grocer-store owner caught me red-handed shoplifting a Cherry Ripe bar. Again, unwilling to discipline me and lose the family account, he told me to report my crime to my mother. I trudged home, to find a serious Communist Party seminar in progress on the back lawn. Was this the right time for a general strike? How should we educate the masses (sometimes pronounced ‘them asses’) about the US war bases in the Indian Ocean?

As kids do (or used to do), I hung around Mum’s skirts waiting for a break in the conversation. “Mum, I’ve got something I need to tell you,” I whined. Mum was not interested. She was focused on the mood of the masses and the split with Tito of Yugoslavia. “Mum? Mum?” “Get out and leave us alone, we’re busy!”. I went off to play, with a fairly clear conscience.

I couldn’t visualize any comparable solutions for my present dilemma. Remarkably I decided to go the hang-out road, as Richard Nixon once put it, concerning full disclosure.

Griff, by the standards of many modern-day editors, lived a remote existence in a paneled office off the reporters’ hall. As I saw it, his senior people went in to report and came out to instruct. I never could reconcile this persona with the
Griff who was suspended from UWA over allegedly lewd material he published in the student newspaper Sruss Sruss. So “lewd” that the Student Guild had to literally burn the undistributed copies. (“Sruss Sruss” was onomatopoeia involving the rustle of female underwear).

I entered Griff’s sanctum, apprehensively noting the subdued lighting and the important-looking desk.

“Mr Richards, Hackett made a big speech at the uni ceremony and I was there but it was getting really late. I’d been working long shifts and I was pretty tired and left a bit early and missed it.”

Griff dismissed me from the office. He was not the emotional sort and I didn’t know how annoyed he was.

But it so happened that he checked the time sheets and for one reason or another (perhaps I had done a day shift and then done a play review as well that evening), I did appear to have been over-worked. Very nicely, Griff gave me the benefit of the doubt and rounded on the chief of staff, Viv Goldsmith, for slave-driving his young reporter. Viv and I had never got on, but his hands were tied by the time sheets and he had to eat crow. I’m sure he liked me even less after that.

Tony Thomas is a regular contributor to Quadrant Online

Expletive Not Deleted: Tangling with Old-Style Queensland Coppers

TONY THOMAS

Expletive not deleted

Obscenities have become common in the pages of The Age, a paper whose naked partisanship and post-adolescent groupthink have brought it to the grave’s edge. Our correspondent explains how he started the rot

In July, 1978, I happened to be in Brisbane, reporting an economics conference for The Age. The Friday session was dull and the Saturday program looked no better. On the Saturday morning I suspected my Brisbane trip was a waste of time.

From my hotel room, however, I noticed in a side street something more interesting than economics academics bolstering their research citations. The side street was head to tail with police buses, and the buses were packed with Queensland police. What’s all this about?

I went outside and followed people to nearby King George Square. There a women’s rights rally was warming up. About 100 women were active in the square, watched by an audience of 100-200. The surprising thing was the extent of the police presence – I estimated well over 300 of them, outnumbering the meeting itself. The other police in the buses were in reserve.

I recalled how Brisbane for more than a year had been embroiled in controversy over the right to march in the street. Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had banned street protest marches in Brisbane, although he did not ban peaceful meetings in St George’s Square. “Protest groups need not bother applying for permits to stage marches – because they won’t be granted,” he said. He steamrollered the legislation through the State Parliament in less than one day.

Subsequently, more than 1,700 people were arrested for demonstrating or marching (or being in the wrong place at the wrong time). It was nothing unusual for 1000 police to be mustered for a day to maintain vigilance against a prospective march or protest. Further south, in Sydney and Melbourne, political marches continued to be a normal aspect of city life, usually with the good-humored cooperation of traffic and other police.

So here was in Brisbane, in the eye of the cyclone. No, scrub that metaphor — the eye of a cyclone is calm. I was, well, in Brisbane, which was then an alien land where a Premier and his police commissioner ran the show. (The commissioner, Sir Terry Lewis, was later gaoled, but I’m getting ahead of my story).

The meeting in the square was not a ‘march’, and technically it was not breaking any Queensland law. To entertain the onlookers, some of the women activists were staging a street-theatre. Six women each adopted the role of a female virtue and stood in a rubbish bin reciting some doggerel or song.

One of the women, playing “Prudence”, recited a ditty that included the word “f***”. Brisbane police were so shocked that they barged into the group and hauled Prudence out of her rubbish bin and carted her across to a paddy wagon parked half a block away. In this way they showed their sensitivity to coarse language.

The arrest of Prudence inspired her sisterhood to have another go. They sang a song that also included the word “f***”, and the police again waded in for the arrests. As I described it for The Age…

Big men barging through the crowd…Amplifier wires cut. Women dragged out, wriggling, fighting and screaming. Friends pulling at police. Friends also being arrested. Neat uniformed women police using their judo grips. Fear, pain, indignity.

I followed one arrested girl to the paddy wagon. The policeman had her right arm in some sort of lock as he marched her away, and he kept the lock on while queueing for the charge sheet and photograph.

“He’s twisting my arm! He’s hurting me!” she kept crying, while he kept repeating, “What’s your name? What’s your name?”

She gave what my notes record as a ‘real scream of pain’…

The women speakers were in high dudgeon about the arrests over the word “f***”. One speaker said the police had called her a whore and a slut. Another said she had been called a black bitch; she wasn’t black but it made her ashamed to be white, she said stoutly. Another young woman took the mike and made what I considered to be the speech of the day:

“One of my friends was just arrested, maybe because she looked a bit butch. But if she’s in jail, that’s where I want to be.” She paused, amid cheers. “They should do something about their f***ing system.”

They came in and got her. But the atmosphere became humorous. She walked off grinning, with just a police hand on her arm, and at the paddy wagon a policeman said, “You got your wish” and she laughed. When they photographed her, she raised her fist…

What I didn’t say in my Age piece, was that shortly after, a big high-ranking policeman approached me and threatened to arrest me for ‘obstructing police’. I was amazed. I was standing 30 metres down the street from the paddy wagon, and the nearest police person was 20 metres or so distant. I was not communicating with anyone, just watching on a near deserted bit of street, listening and taking notes. I wondered, if I were to be arrested, what tall tales would the police witness tell the magistrate to justify my conviction. Nonetheless, it was not my job to get arrested, rightly or wrongly, so I moved out of view of the paddy wagon and back to the meeting.

I finished my article with,

“There’s nothing funny about Mr Bjelke-Petersen and the police force he uses. Democracy in Queensland is less safe than the average citizen down South would imagine.”

There was plenty more back-story to my Saturday in Brisbane than what I wrote for The Age. Here goes:

The police kept arresting the women on one charge or another, till only a rump of players and audience was left. This rump then decided to walk to the city watch-house and give some moral support to their sisters within it.

I was still smarting from the way the police had tried to frame me. I couldn’t help identifying with the women, rather than with the police, or neither. (I suspect that in reporting civil disobedience, reporters sometimes implicitly identify with the police, hob-nobbing with the police spokesperson and hurrying along to any press conference the police call during the day. Other times they identify with protesters, as when they write breathless copy like “Hundreds of thousands of angry protestors made a sea of color as they flooded down Bourke Street. Mothers wheeling prams shook their fists exultantly in support of (the politically-correct cause of the day).”

My case was unusual. I was in the capital city of a democratic but corrupt state government. This government was undemocratically suppressing dissent by arresting citizens for no good reason, and threatening to arrest a completely law-abiding reporter who was not obeying the unwritten rules about how to report events in Brisbane.

I figured that the best way to witness any police violence or misbehavior was to be as close to the demonstrators as possible. When they sat down on the grass outside the watch-house, I sat down with them, chatting and taking notes. They were singing songs of solidarity with the women inside the walls. Eventually the drama petered out.

I went back to the hotel and composed and filed my story for Monday’s Age, leaving out how the police had threatened me. It was a difficult article to write, partly because I had no access to research (this was long before Google), partly because I was trying to be objective and indignant at the same time, and particularly because The Age was definitely not prone to printing the word “F***” except as, perhaps, f–k.*

Yet “f***” was central to the whole story. So I wrote it in full.

Next day in Brisbane I got a call from the night editor, Peter Cole-Adams. He wanted to print the story but had already received a call from a senior Brisbane police executive (I think a deputy to the Commissioner or the media liaison person) warning that anything I wrote should be viewed by The Age with suspicion because the author Tony Thomas had himself been taking part in the demonstration he was writing about. And the police had photos to prove it.

It was the ‘photos to prove it’ that spooked night-editor Peter. He hadn’t seen them, and if they were produced after the article appeared, and incriminated me, The Age’s reputation would suffer. So he asked me, “Were you taking part or doing anything the police could photograph and embarrass us? Think carefully because if you mislead us about this, your employment is at stake.”

I gulped. What photos? No, there could be nothing incriminating. I had just done my job. But being media-savvy, I knew that photos can often lie. Maybe they had a photo of me about to pick my nose, and it looked as though I was giving the finger to the police? I had to take that risk. No, I said, there was nothing I did that constituted taking part in the demo. “Well,” Peter said, ”you’d better be right, and by the way, we’re going to print the word “F***” where you’ve written it.”

Actually, The Age had printed the word “f***” once before, but it must have been in another highly-exceptional instance.

I wondered for years about the police photos of me. By a coincidence, our chief political reporter, Michelle Grattan, one day remarked to me that she had some photos I would be interested in. She had been handed them by the Queensland police media person. They were of good professional quality, blown up to about A4 size, and showed me sitting on the lawn outside the watch-house, in company with the protestors. It had been taken when I was interviewing them and waiting for any police violence or provocation to occur. I was not displaying any activist tendencies.

Among the readership of my feature was my own father, Pete, who excerpted it in his own 60-page political booklet on the street-march ban, titled “No! No! to Joh!” Pending a trip to the State Library to look up The Age original, I’ve been drawing on Pete’s booklet now myself, creating a son-father-son loop.

Regarding Sir Joh, I was quite surprised to find my experience was not uncommon. Wiki has a section on Joh and the media: “Journalists covering industrial disputes and picketing, were afraid of arrest. Some journalists experienced police harassment.”

Joh’s classic quotes include:

“The greatest thing that could happen to the state and nation is when we get rid of all the media… then we could live in peace and tranquility and no one would know anything.”

Perhaps he was joking.

Commissioner Sir Terry Lewis eventually got his come-uppance but Joh didn’t.

Lewis in August, 1991, was convicted on 15 counts of corruption.

The jury found that Lewis had accepted bribes totalling more than $600,000 to protect brothels, SP bookmakers, illegal casinos and operators of illegal gambling machines. Judge Tony Healy gave him the maximum 14 years and Lewis was released, minus knighthood, in 2002 after serving ten years.

During Joh’s 1991 trial for perjury (he was acquitted), his former police Special Branch bodyguard, Sergeant Bob Carter, claimed that in 1986 he (Carter) had been given two packages of cash totalling $210,000 in Joh’s office from a property developer.

Joh died in 2005 at 94.

Editor’s note: The Age’s former reservations about printing the “f word” in full remain in effect at Quadrant Online, where slippery slopes are recognised as such. The Age, once a serious newspaper, now uses its website to promote a columnist’s line of “F*** Abbott” T-shirts. Peter-Cole Adams and the real journalists who once occupied its Spencer Street desks must wonder what parallel universe they are witnessing.

Tony Thomas apologises for so many “f***s” in this article. His collected essays can be found here.

The big sleep: the end of our old dog Percy

The big sleep

by Tony Thomas

August 16, 2012

Although we’d agreed, my spouse had to keep up the pressure. I dialed the surgery: “Our Maltese, Percy, can you put him down today please?”

“Judith [name changed] is free at 4.15.”

Percy was near-deaf, near-blind, and arthritic. That day a line had been crossed: two carpet puddles and one carpet poo.

I took Percy and Kara (our daughter’s resident spaniel) for another walk along the creek. Percy, strangely shedding his years, scampered down the embankment and even scrambled up again.

With Percy sitting on the car’s back seat – he was used to trips to the vet to be clipped – I surreptitiously put a green towel and a chaff-bag in the boot.

During what seemed a long wait in the back surgery, I didn’t fuss over Percy (hypocritical). But I did dwell on how our enraptured kids first brought him home as a powderpuff puppy. They made him his first bed inside my bike helmet.

Judith put Percy on a blanket on the table. I felt less guilty as he turned to me with milky eyes and discolored little teeth.

Judith shaved his right front shin with clippers as I stroked him. He didn’t flinch as she inserted a catheter and squeezed in some fluid. Within seconds his four legs folded. He was now a white heap asleep, but alive, on the blue blanket. Judith squeezed in another fluid, and listened through a stethoscope. “He’s gone now,” she said. “Fifteen years, we had him,” I said, adding: “Er, how do I pay you?” “Don’t worry, I’ll post the bill.”

Percy hung like a slack sausage out of the towel. “Take the blanket,” she said. “Don’t you want it back?” “No, that’s fine.” I exited with my parcel by the rear door.

I put the parcel on our side garden, then went in to collect Kara to give Percy a final sniff, for “closure”. Kara always runs to me to get her chin and ears rubbed. This time, she was on the decking and ran inside, away from me. I went inside, she ran out. She showed real fear. My wife had to capture her via an ambush behind the dog-door. Kara took a sniff at Percy but then showed more interest in the blanket (smells of other dogs, I’d guess).

My all-knowing tennis mates had said, “Three feet deep or rats dig ‘em up.” Percy nose-dived awkwardly out of his blanket into the hole. I quickly back-filled, planted an azalea and watered it in. My wife added two rose blooms.

Now there are no more carpet puddles – imagine if Kara had been the secret culprit! But Kara avoids us (I don’t blame her) and lies in her basket looking nowhere through half-shut eyes. As her comforters, I’ve added two socks and a pair of used underpants to the basket.

Already my wife and I have separate, secret plans for a puppy.

Taken from the Wild, and Returned to the Wild. Part 11

Return to the Wild: Part II

by Tony Thomas

January 9, 2013

There was a tragic episode in my hospital stay. At primary school we all liked our classmate Annie, who was short and cute. She was a bundle of good humor and impish charm.

I heard from a visitor that Annie was in hospital too. I didn’t really know her and a decade had elapsed. But my gregarious self decided to pay her a visit.

When I came into her room, she was not the lively kid I remembered. Her parents and other family members were there too. They were surprised at my arrival, in my dressing gown, but we all made small talk around the bedside. I asked Annie, “What are your plans when you get out of here?”

“I’ll be doing physiotherapy.”

“What’s up with you?”

“I was playing tennis and got a big headache. They’ve put me here to check up on it.”

I’m a great talker but eventually I intuited, from meaningful glances, that I had outworn my welcome.

Next day a sister dropped by my bed and said, “By the way, don’t visit Annie again. She just wants her family.”

Oh well, fair enough, I thought.

She died a few weeks later from her brain tumor. I kicked myself for having spoiled that evening with her family…

I was now in love with a small dark nurse, Vicky, who had a squeaky voice. Her other charms more than compensated. How angry I would get when my sister imitated her as Donald Duck!

All our meetings depended on when she was rostered to Ward 2B. One late evening other nurses, vicariously excited by our romantic goings-on, told me that Vicky was rostered on the same floor, on 2D among the women patients.

I decided to wander over. I didn’t really have a plan.

Just as I got to 2D a sister accosted me: “What are you doing here?”

“Isn’t this the bank?” I replied.

These days, with banks consisting of a box in the wall, my query might be answered with, “Yes, around the corner to the right”. But in those days, a “bank” was a substantial building you went into between 10am and 4pm. I just happened to blurt out my “bank” bit, not wanting to dob in Vicky.

“Stay right there,” said sister, and phoned for reinforcements.

I elaborated on the bank story to what was now two concerned sisters.

They escorted me back to bed and departed, conferring in low tones.

“They’ve gone to get matron,” said one of my nurses. “They think you’ve gone crazy.”

People do go crazy in hospitals. I might indeed have become a touch hyper, excited by the gallantry of my conduct. Well let’s do the crazy thing, I thought. When no-one was nearby, I hopped out of bed and dived under it, concealed by the overhangs.

A bustle outside, and the two sisters arrived, plus Matron.

I could see their six white shoes. I got a fit of the giggles and the bed twitched. Matron stooped and peered in at me.

She barely paused. Patient gone crazy. Follow-up required.

A nurse put me back into bed. As she tucked me up, she hissed: “Matron has gone to get the Registrar. He’ll send you off to Heathcote (a mental hospital across the Swan River). Stop this fooling around or you’ll be in big trouble!”

It was a shock like a smack in the face. How would I convince the Registrar that I was sane? Acting crazy is easy, but acting ‘sane’? What do ‘sane’ people say, what do they do? If they talk a lot or don’t say a lot, would it suggest sanity or insanity?

My ‘look sane’ solution was to haul out my chess set. I started playing a scripted game from my chess book, Alekhine vs Nimzowitsch 1930. (I had overlooked that many great chess players, like Bobby Fischer, were stir-crazy).

When Registrar arrived, I was deep in chessly analysis.

“I’m told you’ve been acting strangely.”

“I suppose so, but there could well be rational explanations.”

“Like what?”

“Well I’d rather not say, just take my word for it. There was a lady involved.”

Registrar glanced at my chess board. “That rook’s in trouble,” he said.

As they left the ward, he was speaking sharply to the Matron. Probably: “You mean you interrupted my work on next year’s budget cuts, to check out this insanity case?”

I assume that Matron rounded on the sisters, with similar irritation. Sisters probably gave nurses a hard time that night.

I finished the chess exercise and went to sleep…

From somewhere I acquired a do-it-yourself stereo amplifier kit, but only managed to achieve a rat’s-nest effect with my bedside soldering iron. A near-stranger, husband of a remote cousin, took it off me and brought it back a week later looking kosher with all the wiring as disciplined as a traffic grid. I had also acquired for some reason a used 3-disk 12in stereo opera set, Il Trovatore (1959) with Mario del Monaco, he of the clarion voice. I plugged in my stereo earphones and lowered the stylus onto the turntable. At that time stereo music was a novelty and stereo over earphones even more so a novelty.

I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was like the vault of the sky with each star beaming at me an instrument, a voice, a delight. The chorus – especially that anvil number – wrapped around my brain like the milky way. I lay back on my pillow, as ravished as St Teresa of Avila. Half way through the platter, a non-musical voice intruded into my first opera experience. It was Bill in the bed alongside: “Tony, you’re stuff’s on fire!” I opened my eyes: brown smoke was curling from the amplifier. I flung off the earphones and switched off the power. The transformer had shorted. No more heavenly music for me, I grieved. But my cousin’s husband re-emerged and swapped in a new, non-faulty transformer. A half-century later I am still hooked on opera. But what if my first random choices had been, say, Richard Strauss’s Elektra or some pot-boiler by Massenet? Was it just a fluke that my first pick, Trovatore, was the most tuneful of all operas, or is there a divinity that shapes our ends?…

One evening we were assembled for a meeting, modestly attired in our dressing gowns. We came with a wide variety of health defects and a skewing towards the lower tiers of the social spectrum. For modesty’s sake, we were sex-segregated – male invalids seated left, females to the right. The Registrar and a small troupe of his assistants came in and one began taking notes on a clipboard. The minutes were read from the previous annual meeting, 1961. Not many of us were at the previous meeting, because we were either cured or deceased. Regardless, the “minutes” (whatever that meant) were “adopted” and the Treasurer’s report approved – we owned some trivial bank account somewhere. The bigshots raced through the rest of the agenda and came to general business. Questions? A lady, whom I viewed then as old, began rabbitting on about how her son never visited because her daughter-in-law was an evil influence. The bigshots managed to shut her up and closed the meeting. They filed out briskly, and we patients shuffled back to our wards, none-the-wiser.

What was it all about? Looking back, I speculate that some years earlier than 1962, there had been a scandal of neglect or worse, and the health minister demanded a mechanism by which inmates could ventilate their concerns, a “patients’ association” or some such. The formal charade of an annual meeting resulted, and the hospital bigshots could include the all-clear from the meeting in their annual report to the minister. For all I know, those annual meetings continue to this day, and the aforementioned bank balance has by now swelled to $80.23 or similar…

After three months I was all a-twitter because my sentence in the hospital was up. But when I inquired about my departure day, they told me, “Not yet.” (The Russian word ‘nyet’ gets the flavor even better).

It was three more months until I finally got the OK to exit.

I was gladness from tip to toe. I packed up my bedside possessions, and Mum collected me in my A40.

We arrived back in Willagee; there was the pine forest stretching across the valley, my home, my sleepout, freedom.

It was what my ego wanted, but my id had other ideas. I came down with my first migraine-style headache. Even now, at 72, I’ve never had another.

Mum rang the hospital, they send a cab to get me, and back I went into Ward 2B, with people getting my meals, taking my temperature, and feeding me pills.

I stayed in 2B another week, and they released me again back into the wild. No migraine this time.

Mum had been driving my car for six months, ignoring the vibrations from the front end. That first day, I drove it to a garage, cursing Mum as the steering wheel danced in my hands. The foreman said he’d do a four-wheel balance. He took off the right front wheel, and saw the entire problem: that tyre was misaligned. But he insisted I pay for the whole four-wheel balancing job. Back in the wild, one must be wary of predators.

I sort-of hated my hospital stay. But looking back, that youngster had some fun and maybe learnt a few things in Ward 2B.