An humble and a contrite heart…

25 04 2014

Cornelius Wilhelm Jäger.

Cornelius was born in 1850, in Hallgarten, a village in the Rheinland, the third of 11 children of Wilhelm Jäger & Anna Storzl.

I don’t know why my great-great grandparents swapped Germany for the fledgling vineyards of the Hunter Valley.  All I know is that my great-grandmother, Mary Jäger, was born in 1899, the 10th of Cornelius’ children.

‘Grandma Mary’ died when I was 19.  Her hands. gnarled with arthritis, were a constant of my childhood.  It’s only today that I wished I’d asked her, instead of my WWII-vintage grandmothers, to tell me about her ‘wartime experiences’ in those yearly school assignments.

Not only had she lived through all of Australia’s foreign wars; my great-grandmother was a ‘Hun’.

It’s not as if I was asked in a Fawlty-fashion to never mention the war.  Our ‘German-ness’ was erased long before my birth in 1971; so when people criticise ANZAC Day as the epitome of jingoism & warmongering, I think of that wizened old lady, and what life must have been like for a 15-year-old German girl in country NSW when war broke out.  What it was like to be part of an insular migrant community (all of her uncles and aunts married other German immigrants) reviled as Belgian baby killers.  What it was like to think of cousins fighting for the Fatherland.  What it was like to be the enemy.

What a strange pull of forces.

~~~~~

Stanley Richard Portus.

‘Uncle Mickey’ was born on May 4, 1925.  According to his sister – one of the grandmothers whose ‘wartime experiences’ I gathered – her lovely little brother was gobbled up by the air force as a teenager, trained to fly in a few weeks & sent off to fight the Japanese in the skies over the Pacific.

It is with no small shred of shame that I say I was terrified of the man who quivered and quavered when we visited the small house in Mayfield he shared my great-grandmother.  She would make tea on the wood-burning stove, and Mickey’s hands trembled as he held the cup in his hands.

Mickey was the saddest person I have ever known.  His eyes, watery, held no light.  He spoke, in the sense that he would answer when his mother, sister or niece talked directly to him.  Apart from that, Mickey sat at the kitchen table and stared at things that no one else could see.

‘God help anyone who knocks on that door after dark,’ my Mum would say.  ‘He’s got a rifle with a fixed bayonet in his bedroom, and he’d use it, too.  It’s not his fault he’s like that.  He’s got shell-shock.’

This was the 1980s. We still said shell-shock to describe post-traumatic stress disorder.  To the best of my knowledge, it was never treated.  Mickey’s life ended before he turned 20, but he heard the screams of Japanese soldiers burning alive at the end of his flamethrower for another 60 years.

It may be sweet & fitting to die for your country, but to bury your self, or your history in it… that’s hell.

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Our greatest Premier?

21 04 2014

A dear friend compiled this list of Neville Wran’s achievements and poses a worthy question: was he our greatest Premier?

  • founded the University of Western Sydney
  • electrifying the railways to Wollongong and Newcastle
  • saving the north coast forests
  • Aboriginal Land Rights Act
  • working with Blewett on the AIDS response
  • beds to the west, including building Mt Druitt Hospital
  • all the great arts work for the suburbs and regions eg Riverside Theatre, Campbelltown City gallery
  • created the Powerhouse Museum and Wharf Theatre
  • gay law reform
  • Darling Harbour
  • Anti Discrimination Act 1977
  • built the Sydney Football Stadium
  • NSW Film and Television Office
  • democratised the Legislative Council after a titanic constitutional battle with the dinosaurs
  • appointed Michael Kirby as President of the Court of Appeal and Mary Gaudron as Solictor-General and QC (first female in both)
  • appointed the State’s first female Minister
  • created the DPP
  • introduced AVOs
  • introduced Random Breath Testing
  • passed the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act
  • set-up the Land and Environment Court
  • passed the Heritage Act and Coastal Protection Act
  • established the Historic Houses Trust
  • Parramatta Stadium
  • Sydney Entertainment Centre
  • purchased all those ferries that we still have
  • restored Macquarie St and Hyde Park Barracks
  • the Premiers Literary Awards
  • sister-state agreement with Guangdong Province
  • commenced the new wings of the State Library, Australian Museum and Art Gallery of NSW (opened in 1988)
  • development of the old Treasury building as an hotel
  • modernised the coal industry – new coal loaders and rail lines

It’s an impressive body of work which doesn’t rely on, ‘but we passed hundreds of pieces of legislation’ as a measurement of good government.  The Hon. Neville Kenneth Wran AC QC did things.  He invested in the future.  He protected our past.  He acted, where others mouthed the words.  For fuck’s sake – the Shitkansen takes as long to reach Newcastle as it did when the line was electrified.  A great many last week judged a Premier who signed up to an education package that delivered NSW more money as ‘great’ and ‘honourable’, all the while ignoring the fact that he took lifetime medical cover away from people who lose a leg below the knee in the workplace.  As acts of bastardry (not political bastardry, complete bastardry) go, that’s right up there.

Unless all political parties get rid of the cookie cutter hacks who are ‘for’ an electorate (spin me around and call me Susan if there’s a candidate who’s ‘against’ being elected); the venal cyphers who think we are unworthy of the truth while they line their pockets, abuse their influence, reward their mates and generally take the fucking piss; the timid and weak who follow opinion, rather than establish the theme; the empty shirts blathering endlessly to the cameras for next to no return, we will never see the likes of Neville Wran again.  Who am I kidding?  We are getting the public representatives, at all levels and all shades of the spectrum that an exclusive pack of pricks with limited life experience choose for us.  The only time they speak their minds is when the system that suited them fine on the way up screws them on the way down.  Wran had facets of each of these faults, but set against the dreary, small minds in the back seat of too-large white cars, he was a colossus.

~~~~~~~~~~

Enough vitriol, time for a personal reflection on ‘Nifty’, the dapper QC, the brilliant Balmain Boy who never forgot his roots as he rose, inexorably, to what passes for high society in Sydney.

I was awestruck when I met him almost a decade ago.  He had agreed to head a mine safety review my-then boss, Kerry Hickey, commissioned after NSW lost three miners on one of the single darkest days I hope to ever know.

He came into the office for a preliminary meeting. He extended his hand, one of an old man.  The rest – the intellect, the commitment to the cause of ensuring people could do a day’s work and return home to their families, the ‘dash’… it was all still there.  The grin, still blinding, even though the teeth were discoloured by age.

‘I’m Neville’.

The Hon. Neville Wran AC QC defied the truism about the charismatic, that they have the ability to make you feel like you’re the only person in the room.  Neville made you feel like you were an old mate in a room of good friends.

‘I’m sorry, but I have to call you Premier.  ’78 was my first political memory.  You’ll always be Premier to me’.

Again, the grin and chuckle.  ‘You’re too young to remember ’78!’

If you could muster indignation with Neville Wran, that’s what I felt.

‘I was seven! ‘Wran’s Our Man’ was our mantra’.

He chuckled again, and then his face changed.  The eyes ceased crinkling in good humour.

‘We’ve got a lot to do’.

Kerry, Neville, Genevieve, Siobhan and I stood in silence in the middle of the office at GMT.  Kerry had been hit hard by the accidents; the dead were his constituents.  People outside mining communities rarely understand the shockwaves these godawful events send through anyone with a tie to the industry.

There’s a wall outside the CFMEU’s Cessnock office inscribed with the name of every miner killed since the northern coalfields were founded in 1801.  More than 1,800 men and boys – almost four times the Australian lives claimed during Vietnam and a quarter of those who died during the entire Gallipoli campaign.  I have seen the damage first-hand: widows, wheelchairs.  A childhood walking home from primary school and looking for Dad’s bicycle in the garage.

As they say, you never start an inquiry without knowing the outcome.  We were about to wage war, and Neville was our Ajax – powerful, intuitive and intelligent.

The government adopted all of the Wran Mine Safety Review recommendations.  Sadly, two more names will be added to the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall over the coming weeks, and the CFMEU is calling for another review.  If one is conducted, all workers who give evidence (and the government) will be poorer for not having Neville Wran’s expertise and empathy to guide the process.

I know this is a small remembrance of a very public life, a sketch of one of the end notes of a full working life – and that everyone has a Neville yarn.  I’m grateful that of all of them, I’m able to tell this one.