On turning forty

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On Friday, 20 May 2016, the Sydney Writers' Festival is holding a special tribute to Bob Ellis (see below). In May 1982, the prodigious chronicler of Aussie politics, poet, playwright & author secured his place in Australian mythology with his insights on turning forty. Enjoy!

On Turning Forty, May, 1982

Being born as I was on Mother’s Day 1942, a year to the day after the bombing by the Luftwaffe of the House Of Commons, made me old enough in 1945 to note the suicide of Hitler and the bombing of Nagasaki on the same day that my sister Kay was born. We had an air-raid shelter in the backyard of our house in Murwillumbah – a town with horse and sulkies still, and paddle-steamers down the Tweed – in which the 1920s, it seemed, had been held over by popular demand.

My grandparents – born in the 1870s, and married before the invention of the bicycle, deeply religious and convinced for years that the wireless was a trick of Satan – were my first real intimates, and communicated to me the pioneering Dad and Dave world they grew up in — a world that included Captain Thunderbolt, my grandfather’s cousin. Having known them, and knowing as well that I will meet before I die grandchildren who, in the twenty-second century, will arrive as elderly tourists on Mars, I am aware, perhaps more than many, of how many lives and ways of life in a lifetime one touches. Particularly this lifetime. Particularly mine.

I am ten years younger than the Harbour Bridge, ten years younger than the ABC, the same age as Casablanca and Oklahoma and Muhammad Ali, and two days older than Paul McCartney. I fear I do not score as well as any of these in venerability or influence or wealth or physical fitness, but I live in hope that at my going hence my name will be better known than it is now, and my mortgage paid, and my children alive, and the world not yet at an end, and parts of it green and promising still, and speech still free in my native land. I might be wrong, and in the long run I know I am, and know that Australia in due course will be a persecuted province of a gothic and computerised Indonesia. But in the short run I live in hope. Perhaps it’s due to my upbringing.

The world I grew up in – and seems for me the reality from which everything that’s happened since has foolishly diverged – was one of wirelesses and pet cats and aunties and churches. My father began as a coal miner and rose from the pit to become a commercial traveller, then a banana farmer, and then – when the Depression wrecked him and the many jobless old friends who came to live on his farm and eat his bananas – became a commercial traveller again and graduated from selling Bibles door to door to the more leisurely life of Goldenia and Billy Tea and Pick-Me-Up Sauce and Mynor Fruit Juice Cordials and Sydney Flour and Aeroplane Jelly and country grocery stores and drinks on the house in country pubs that are no more. As a boy in Maitland, he sat at Les Darcy’s feet on the Sunday mornings when Les came home to tell the kids how he won his bout the night before.

Bob Ellis in free-ranging and amusingly frank conversation with Bob Carr at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2009

He travelled thirteen million miles between Sydney and Tweed Heads and only last month saw South Australia and became at seventy-nine, he claimed, the oldest man ever to have climbed Ayers Rock. I love him, and do not know him, and share no language we can speak in, save a careful mutual lingering love of the Labor Party and a careful mutual protested fondness for international cricket. Had he not gone away to World War 2, I would have known him better, and hurt him less, in all the thirty years of my growing up. But though he is still alive, it is too late. I’m not sure why.

To come, as I did, to the big city alone at the age of sixteen from a staid and warm-hearted country town was to undergo as fundamental a change of life, I now believe, as a death in the family or the loss of an eye or a foot. It can be survived, but it brings you to a terrible uncertainty of what you are, and where in the great world you should be going. In the city, I ceased to swim, or play tennis, or listen to the wireless, or ride a bike, or visit friends. Those friends I had in the country town I ceased to know. I feared thereafter everyone with whom, when young, I had a close acquaintance — not out of snobbery but simple fear that the language we spoke was different now, and simple fear (that fear of the city slicker) of becoming bored and not knowing what to say.

I, therefore, lost the richness of acquaintance I so long had easily kept — with Aborigines and orphans and gold prospectors and fishermen and grocers and half-wits and postmen and carpenters, and substituted for it transient encounters and tepid acquaintanceships with media people and public servants and high-school teachers as much as in fear of the world and its ways as I. I failed to say thanks to those I owed much, many of them now dead. I shrank in upon myself and the few fanaticisms I had – writing, amateur acting and movie-going – and out of these, with a lot of luck, at long last wove a career.

Many not so lucky came to the big city and shrivelled away to nothing. It is not just learning with pain to dance to a different drum. It is trying to learn with pain to become a different being. Friendships bloom and wither so fast – and love affairs and alternative careers and hobbies – that you lose all sense of who you are and what you are worth. You become a salespitch for the person you would like to be instead of an extension of the child you were, and the interests that grew like leaves on a tree of that child you were, when you gathered mushrooms on green hills and rode bikes with friends to the waterfall or the beach or the foot of the mountain. The city took away from you all sense of that predestiny you needed merely to make decisions, ordinary decisions, like where to go tonight. The city made you afraid.

The young Bob Ellis of the ABC, pictured in Sydney in August 1971. (Photo: Geoff Bull, AFR)

Turning forty is like going to that big city. In youth it went without saying that you were never going to die. At forty you know you must, and soon — in the next thousand weeks or less, or a little more. You begin to ask yourself on the point of sleep at night if you’ve still got time "in the rest of your life" to read The Lord of the Rings, as I have not, or Don Quixote, or War and Peace, or travel the Trans-Siberian Railway, or hunt the Loch Ness monster, or write a book of children’s songs to last down centuries unseen. You count the minutes wasted waiting for the young, who do not understand. You begin to know that every trip you take to each new place, even Surfers Paradise, may be your last, and you try to drink up every minute there is, like, a hypochondriac taking every pill in the bottle. If the weather goes against you, or the traffic noise in your room, or the hotel staff, it hurts. That hurt can seem like pompous self-importance in the old, but to the old, since time’s run out, every detail matters, and so the chef is abused, and the tip withheld, and the word flashes round the kitchen, or the tourist bus: ‘Oh, God, here comes another one’.

As a child, I remember, in the dark, on the point of sleep, trying to imagine "forever". It was green hills and green hills, and running and running over the hills, and there always being more green hills. Forty is like the green hills suddenly stopping, and falling down and down into the dark. Whatever happened to good old forever? We wuz robbed, you cry as you fall on, down and down.

I am glad to have grown up a Seventh Day Adventist and to have, under its arches, grown so sick of the end of the world that now, when everyone else believes in it daily and nightly, I cannot share their idiot fears and enjoy each day as it comes as a gift of time and the great river that unites us all. I know if I died tomorrow, I would have done some things I wanted and not postponed at least the attempt to do some others and – save for how in the memory of my little son, I wouldn’t last as a concept as long as I would like — I could go gently down the great dark corridor towards the Being of Light with some of my address to the jury in good shape.

I don’t know where it will end – or if it will – and I would not be surprised if we all end up in some dreary astral university common-room writing further symphonies and dictating into moving tumblers love letters to those who cannot or will not hear. But I would not be surprised as well if the worm, and the carbon cycle, is all there is, and certain rituals of posterity on microfilm and crematorium walls on a planet soon to plunge into a flaring sun. Being half-way down the road or more to where it will all be known, I can, with warring sorrows in my blood and equanimity in my nostrils, look back and forward to youth and age with moderate, decent familial thanks, and remorse, and love, and awful despair, and an inch or two of hope.

Published in Penthouse Magazine – May, 1982. 

Bob Ellis: 10 May 1942 – 3 April 2016.

Editor's note: A tribute to Bob will be held at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. The details are as follows:

An Evening Without Bob Ellis

Friday 20 May 6:00 PM to 7:30pm.
Pier 2/3, Main Stage, Pier 2/3, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
FREE! No bookings.

Some time ago, Bob conceived Anthology Theatre, in which excerpts from the work of a writer and others are read by actors and linked by songs and a narrative. These shows have been performed in the last few years at Gleebooks, the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, the Playhouse in Barraba, the Ray Hughes Gallery and the Bellingen Writers’ Festival. This special tribute to Bob Ellis, put together by Anne Brooksbank, follows the same form.

Performed by Simon Burke, Bill Charlton, Terence Clarke, Andrew Sharp, Kate Reid, Monroe Reimers.

Directed by Terence Clark.

Further details are available here.

There will be limited seating. Please arrive early.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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