In 1981, I went on a long trip with my father, John Newton, to visit the sites of his dreaming. None of these was more important to both of us than our visit to Natimuk, where he was born and grew up.
Natimuk was one of the first words I’d heard as a small boy (another, because I grew up in then cosmopolitan Kings Cross, was gorgonzola). Natimuk was a magic place, where the Lockwoods and the Sidholzs lived, where my grandfather, named John like me and my father, lived, and owned a pub and had a horse yard and went to King Island for the pheasant season, and whose photograph, long of mustache and strangely sad of eye (and big of nose like my father but not like me) was always taken with a gun in his hand and dead birds at his feet.
One incident from that trip in 1982 stands out more than any other. We stayed at a hotel at Horsham, and drove in to Natimuk early one morning. As we walked around, Dad pointed out to me where he’d climbed a fence to pinch fruit; the remnants of the horse yards behind the hotel; where he’d swum in the lake; where various friends and relatives had lived; and finally we arrived at a house where his music teacher had lived. It looked occupied.
Dad decided to knock on the door. It was opened by this bright eyed old lady who looked up at my father – then about 68, he’d last learnt piano at the age of 12 – and said “Little Johnny Newton, how lovely to see you.” Then she put on her face a mock frown and added “I hope you’ve kept up your practice.”
This marvellous woman and her sister – they must have been in their nineties – then invited us in and we had tea and little yellow cakes with pink icing. I can’t remember their names, other than they were German, as many names in Natimuk were.
After he left Dookie, my father worked on a property belonging to the Wood family, Borak, on the Murray, Til Til at Balranald and later managed Wuttagoona, near Cobar in NSW. When war threatened, he joined the 2nd Cavalry division of the Lighthorse, but soon realised there’d be no cavalry in that war. So he joined the air force.
On finishing his training, he was assigned to a Spitfire squadron, 457, and painted a Pegasus on the side of his aircraft to signify his leap from the saddle to the cockpit. Luckily for me, he missed the Battle of Britain by catching mumps on the way (he was in the same hospital ward in Iceland as Evelyn Waugh, similarly afflicted), but saw action over Europe before being posted back to Darwin.
Recently, I found a book called Darwin Spitfires (details below). I remember picking it up and it fell open on a photograph of my father, sharing a beer with his squadron detail from which is at the top of this post. Now, Dad very rarely spoke of his time as a Spitfire pilot, at least not with his family. I’m sure on Anzac Day with his old mates, like Don Maclean and Clive ‘Killer’ Caldwell, they flew again, shooting Zeroes from the skies. This book was a revelation. It outlined, in heart stopping detail, some of my father’s activities. Let me run briefly through one such.
‘Flight Lieutenant John ‘Snapper’ Newton followed Watson into the attack, holding position on his right (‘snapper’ was the RAF reporting term for German fighters, and was thus a satirical reference, an in-joke within the squadron). Newton found the dive very steep and was thus doing 350 knots IAS by the time he opened fire at the leader of the left hand vee [formation of Japanese bombers], also firing a difficult high-deflection shot. At such a closing speed, he only had time for a two-second burst, and did not see any strikes. Ceasing fire at 70 metres, he pulled hard, flashed over the top of the bombers, then rolled over and dived underneath them once he was clear.’
I read recently that it is a tragedy of life that we only get to know our parents in their decline. This was my father at the peak of his powers. That one sentence, ‘flashed over the top of the bombers’ conveys such an atmosphere of bravado, I am in awe of the man I read about here, and elsewhere. There are other encounters in the book, some very hairy indeed. And I never knew he was called Snapper.
It was while he was on leave in Sydney from Darwin that he met my mother, Gloria Larsen, a journalist and confirmed city slicker. They married, I arrived, we lived in Kings Cross and then Double Bay, and Dad had to sublimate his longing for the bush by taking a job selling tractors (mainly for Brown & Dureau) and travelling around the countryside talking to farmers. I went with him on many of these trips, and even as a small boy I noticed that he changed as soon as we crossed the Great Divide. He talked more and his smiles grew more frequent and wider. When my mother’s Danish-born father died, he took over the family business, Australian Leathergoods, and ran that happily until he retired and sold it in 1993. My mother died in 1976, but he never re-married.
As Elsie Lange, a Natimuk resident and contemporary of my father with whom I kept up a correspondence until her death pointed out in one of her letters, Dad was terribly excited and proud when Brigette Muir, a local, climbed Mt Everest. His thoughts were often of Natimuk towards the end of his life, and he desperately wanted to go back for the last Back to Natimuk celebrations (I was to drive him) but he was just not well enough to travel.
His final years were plagued by emphysema, and for the last five years, every breath had been a struggle. Death truly was a release for him from the burden of breathing.
After his death, I cleaned out his flat. One day, I saw something hanging on the back door that I had never noticed before. A tea towel of a bush scene with the legend “Greetings from Natimuk.” He would have seen that every day.
Darwin Spitfires by Anthony Cooper published by NewSouth