“On Father by John Birmingham published in 2019 by Melbourne University Press.
Well known Australian author, John Birmingham, had his world shattered by the lengthy illness, and subsequent death, of his father. In this short book of only 80 small pages, he chronicles his loving relationship with his father, his struggle with his father’s prolonged sickness and the fallout from his death.
Birmingham grapples with his attempt to accept his father’s passing, quoting from a range of writers and philosophers down through the ages as a means of understanding his grief. He also outlines how his period of bereavement negatively impacted his writing for many months.
I bought this little booklet for two reasons. Firstly, I have read and enjoyed a number of his books. Secondly, early last year I lost my own wife after 47 years of marriage. I am really struggling to move forward with my writing as well. This book has helped me to move on with my own grief, rather than move on from my grief.
As Birmingham found out, almost every pleasant memory or experience is tainted with a touch of loss. I found that to be acutely so on a recent driving holiday in New South Wales and Queensland. I saw so many beautiful things and wished so much that my wife could have seen these amazing places and scenes.
I have always been a reader. My earliest memories are of always having a book or two to read. The example was first encouraged by my parents. My father regularly read the local paper called the Murray Pioneer which was published weekly in the nearby town of Renmark, South Australia. As far as I know, this paper is still publishing over 60 years later.
My earliest writing
I can also remember Dad reading the weekly paper simply called The Chronicle. This was primarily aimed at farmers like my father and was full of useful articles for those living on the land. As far as I can determine, this publication ceased in 1954. I think that I read parts of this paper, mainly for the cartoons. Dad also read parts of the weekly paper called The Sunday Mail. I still enjoy reading this paper which is based mainly on South Australian news. Some of my earliest writing was published in the children’s pages of The Sunday Mail.
My mother’s example
My mother also set an example to me regarding reading. Her main interests were in reading various women’s magazines such as the Australian Women’s Weekly. This is still being published, though now it is issued once a month. She also read New Idea, a similar publication aimed at women. As a young writer, I remember the thrill of having some letters published in these periodicals. I was even paid for my letters, a whopping five shillings (50 cents) which was a lot in the 1950s.
In my blood
I guess that writing was in my blood at an early age. Somehow, I was sidetracked into teaching for 35 years, though that brought a great deal of satisfaction.
As a child, I always remember having books in my home. I would always ask for books for Christmas and my birthday. There was always a book prize from the local Sunday School Christmas breakup and I eagerly looked forward to receiving one for good attendance. Any new book was devoured in a matter of hours. I remember reading many Enid Blyton books – Famous Five and Secret Seven among many others. I probably read many of the W.E. Johns’ Bigglesseries which were popular at the time.
The primary (elementary) school I attended was about a ten-minute walk from where I lived on the family farm. Taplan Primary School never had more than about 30 students and I have very pleasant memories of my school days there. A good proportion of the students were also my cousins. This one-teacher school had a library corner with only several hundred books. This was naturally a magnet for me and I read many of the titles in this small library – though I can’t recall being able to borrow the books to take home. I do remember having a small, compact Collins Gem Dictionary which I took to school every day and home again in the afternoon. I would frequently consult this little book, constantly learning new words.
High School Library
I think that it was 1961 when I started at Loxton High School for my secondary education. Here is where I really began to read voraciously. The school had a large room full of books and I was able to borrow them to take home. Many of these books were devoured on my 40-minute bus trip to and from school. It was here that I discovered the delights of fantasy, especially science fiction.
Readers; please leave some comments about your earliest childhood reading influences and habits.
I recently came across a new book about birding which I quickly bought and read through over just a few days. Joe Harkness, a teacher who lives in England, struggled with mental health. This was until he took up birding more seriously. His book, simply called Bird Therapy, describes his journey from illness, including depression, to better health.
It is a wonderful privilege to grow old. I am approaching my 72nd birthday. It will be in two months’ time and I am amazed when I think about all those years. I say that it is a privilege to grow old because it is something denied so many.
I find it somewhat distressing when I hear of so many who don’t reach their 70s, or 60s or even 50s. It is also so sad when people of much younger years die before even reaching middle age. While it is tragic when illness takes a young life, it is equally tragic when it is caused by an accident. This year there have been so many deaths in Australia as a result of car accidents, for example.
One of the interesting aspects of ageing that I didn’t expect concerns my mental state. For more than a decade I have observed that I don’t mentally feel my age at all. This attitude changes periodically when I try to do some hard physical work such as gardening. Then I really do feel my age! And the resulting aches and pains are constant reminders that I need to take physical activity in smaller doses.
Another interesting aspect of my personal ageing is my appearance. It seems that I have always been blessed with a youthful appearance. Over recent decades, various people have estimated my age to be ten or more years younger than my actual age. That’s a nice thing to tell me. Only yesterday while chatting with my eight-year-old granddaughter, she said that I do not look like I am nearly 72. Bless her little heart.
Teaching young children
I think that having a younger mental attitude comes from spending 35 of those years teaching young children, mostly those in the 6 to 10-year-old bracket. Now in retirement, I have regular contact with my grandchildren – ages 8 and nearly 11 – and this also helps to keep me mentally young.
I am writing this while I am staying with my son and his family. Over the last two Sunday afternoons, I have also had the privilege of taking my grandchildren to a nearby playground for a few hours. They have ridden their bikes while I drove my car; it’s too far for me to walk. Interacting with them as they play and invent games and challenges on the playground equipment is so stimulating to both the children and me.
Even when we don’t go anywhere, we often spend time in their backyard. They have an old, gnarled mulberry tree which they invent adventures while climbing. They both have very fertile imaginations. They also play other games, especially while on their much-used trampoline. Watching them play, and interacting with them during their playtimes is deeply satisfying to me. Once again I realise that these privileges afforded to grandparents is a delight denied so many people. I especially feel for those who may be estranged from ever spending time with grandchildren. Or those with no prospect of having grandchildren.
Challenges of ageing
However, old age does have its many challenges. All those aches and pains, regular doctor and specialist appointments, far too many tablets to take and a general slowing down in physical activities are the downside. I prefer to look at the many delights and privileges of growing old.
I would love to hear from my readers in the comments section about your delights and challenges of ageing.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
I took a chance on this popular book and I am so pleased that I did.
Once you get through the first few pages, it is obvious that Eleanor is not completely fine. From a very protected and regimented routine, she learns to accept changes to her life, many of them imposed upon her. This adversely affects her with extreme challenges to every aspect of her rather sheltered life.
Eleanor’s social life is largely non-existent. Her only social contacts are at work in the accounts department of a large graphic design company. She keeps very much to herself and rarely has contact with anyone on weekends, except while shopping. Her solitary weekends are spent alone with two large bottles of vodka to numb the pain of her self imposed social isolation, as well as the memories of a painful childhood.
When she has problems with her work computer she meets the company IT specialist Raymond. He is her complete opposite. She finds his eating habits repulsive, his dress sense totally lacking and his general lifestyle choices unfathomable. In a random act of care, they join forces to help elderly Sammy during a medical episode. From that point on their relationship blossoms into a close friendship.
Eleanor becomes infatuated with a musician who becomes the catalyst for her to undertake a complete makeover in her appearance. When a carefully planned encounter with the “man of her dreams” goes terribly wrong, Eleanor’s world crumbles to ruins around her. She tries to erase the pain through excessive drinking of vodka until Raymond comes to her rescue. At his insistence, she seeks medical help.
Through many sessions with a compassionate and understanding psychologist Maria Temple, Eleanor slowly confronts her horrific childhood memories. The focus of these sessions eventually helps Eleanor to distance herself from her cruel and obsessive “Mummy”.
Her extremely quirky nature reminded me so many times of Don Tillman (The Rosie Project). I very much enjoyed this novel and the twist at the end caught me by surprise.