On Saturday October 9 1999, I hired a car in Melbourne and headed for Birregurra where I stayed with friends en route to Ballarat. With the ashes of my father in my bag. The next morning, when I set off, I dictated this into my little tape recorder as I drove.
(That’s my father in the cockpit of his Mk. VC serial no. BR543 ZP-T The two fitters are Andy Anderson and Bill Conant (with foot on wing). Bill painted the ‘Pegasus” and all the other motifs for the squadron.)
Past 10,000 artichokes on the road to Birregurra after a night spent at Sunnybrae with George and Di Biron. This morning I picked a bag full of artichokes to take back to Sydney and a posy of flowers for my mother’s plaque. I’m on my way to Ballarat to place my father’s ashes next to my mother’s – as he requested – after two years. And only now am I beginning to realise the import of this mission. I’ve carried his nasty blue plastic urn with the gold plastic plaque on top that says John Newton all the way from Sydney in a green bag that has gone around the world with me. In the bag were pyjamas that I bought for him just before he died that I took from his flat and that I wear. I wore them last night in the bed at Sunnybrae where I slept with a brown cat.
George is from St Kilda, a Hungarian Jewish boy, his mother owned a strudel shop, his father a fruit and veg.
He now has Sunnybrae, a farm and restaurant outside of Birregurra beyond Geelong. Last night we ate prosciutto duck he’d done just before he went to New York. We had some jamón cured by Angel Cardoso down the road at Lara. Angel is a Gallego, he was an aeronautical engineer with NASA when he arrived here in 1962. He taught himself to make jamón and chorizo and lomo. All these things connect.
Last night I was reading in Kettner’s Book of the Table that ‘chorissa’ was a Jewish beef sausage according to E.S Dallas. It could well be. Many things in Spain are Jewish. All this on the eve of taking my father to Ballarat and putting his ashes in a rose garden next to my mother’s.
As I scribbled down in my journal this morning, it struck me as I looked at the gold plastic plaque with the name John Newton on it, lying beside the pyjamas in the green canvas bag that went with me around the world that his name is my name, and that I bury me when I bury him. My name is buried with him. Buried also with him is his knowledge of the country which I’m speeding through now past a herd of dumb Friesians sitting in the bright green and why its bright green I don’t know because there hasn’t been any real rain around here for four years. I lose – we lose, the world loses – because of course I didn’t sit with him and tape record his memories of Natimuk and Cobar and jackerooing and the Light Horse and the Air Force (he had a Pegasus painted on the side of his Spitfire) and flying against the Germans and the Japanese – I didn’t, I didn’t.
I only have the few things I remember about him. Mostly late things, my early memories of him are very vague. I see that photograph of him down at Double Bay wearing shorts, his back to the camera, his legs crossed, leaning over the sea wall, looking at the VJs, the little dinghies we sailed, talking to Dicky Michaels’ Dad. That was somehow a very symbolic shot of my early memories of my father, because my mother’s strong personality and presence swamped his.
And it wasn’t of course until she died that I saw him, front on, in sharp focus, and then we had to fight our way through to friendship and love. I remember fighting with him as a young man does with his father, over Vietnam, over many things, breaking the glass top table, my temper, my arrogance. But we came through it with the help of my wise second wife and we came to grips with who he was and who I was and who we were together on just such a trip to Ballarat as indeed I’m taking him now, on his last trip to Ballarat, where he’ll remain. As remains.
Oh he’s not here or there for Christ’s sake. It’s just his ashes. I’m taking his ashes. His gold teeth. His charred bones. Quite heavy they are. So we fought our way through to an understanding and a love, a deep love. And he was my friend. My dear friend. My frustrating friend as all friends are. And he saw the birth of our two children and got to know them and I’m so pleased I was able to do that for him towards the end of his life, to give him the grand daughters that he loved and always wanted and never thought he’d get because this stupid son of his was always running around with barefoot hippy glass makers who had children of their own. But the son married a good woman who loved the son and bore girl children which pleased him mightily. Because he was a man who loved women.
It’s green and flat and undulating out here on the road to Ballarat. I just turned left at the sign to Colac, and I know that a Ballarat sign is coming up soon. And then I’m meeting Rob Hutcherson at the Crematorium and a man called Dragi. Rob’s mother Mary might be there but I doubt it, she’s ninety two now and she fell over and spent the last two weeks in hospital. But I’m having lunch with them and then flying back to Sydney.
It’s amazing how things cross fertilise accidentally. I just drove past Meredith Park, where Julie and Sandy Cameron make Meredith cheese, but I was also thinking of George and how his path crossed mine on the way to my father’s last resting place, from Birregurra to Ballarat, and I began to think about how I miss my father and still want to talk to him and ask him questions about all sorts of things.
I’m sure he’d have had some memory of Birregurra, tiny hamlet that it is, of no significance, other than it has, as George put it so eloquently, not been fucked. His friend Lindsay’s old house, the story he wrote for me when I was editing The Fin about the boxing day yabby party, and the old gay guy who used to have the party. Dad would have known something about Birregurra. He would have had something to say about the road from Birregurra to Ballarat, about its flatness, the condition of the country the quality of the greenness, the result of superficial rain – scratch the dirt and it’s dry and dusty – Julie Cameron told me about it in Melbourne a few months ago.
And now I’m driving into Ballarat, the city of my birth, with death on my mind, the death of my father. Through the scrappy outskirts, past White’s Butchery, the Commonwealth Bank, Franklin’s, Combs & Co Hair Design, the Green Parrot Fish & Chips and Hamburger joint. And I have to find the Crematorium. I’m driving through Sebastopol, and I remember the width of the streets of Ballarat, the width of Sturt Street, the width of a big country.
And I remember all the friends and relatives I met with him there, they’re all dead but for Mary Hutcherson. Jim Coghlan, Spot Hurley, Hal Porter, knocked over drunk outside Mary’s house. I remember coming here with Dad and Laura as a little baby on the trip where we finally mended all our bridges, and the weather turned freezing cold overnight and I bought the big blue Gant jacket at Owen Williams that still hangs in the closet upstairs, because we were going to Spain and I didn’t have a heavy jacket. And I have another photograph of my father from behind, walking down Sturt Street, outside Mary’s house, holding Laura’s hand, bending down to talk to the little tiny girl. We went to Sovereign Hill and had a wonderful time.
And now I have to find the Crematorium. Who do I ask? A difficult question at the best of times. I asked at one of the five or six coffee shops in a row on Sturt Street near the corner of Doveton. A man gave me precise but grumpy directions, and when I got there I met Dragi and he separated the ashes and took a little bit of Dad back in another plastic box to Sydney (where they now rest in an urn made by a friend beside my desk).
Rob Hutcherson turned up. We gave all the details. Dragi is going to send a bill – he couldn’t take a credit card. He led us out to Mum’s niche, where the plaque told us she died on May 24th 1976 aged 55 years. And Rob said “gee that’s young.” And I said “well, that’s what she told us.” And Dad will lie there beside her, to her right. I placed the posy I picked with Di Biron on top of the plaque. We stood and looked at it awkwardly for a while, and then we left, and now we’re going for a beer. And I’ve done my duty for his earthly remains, the little bit of a dust that was my Dad.
Later, I organised for this Haiku, I think from Basho, to be engraved on their plaque
The long day
The evening bell.