My father John remained the epitome of the phrase life long learner, John delighted in learning new things... sometimes the hard way no doubt... but he valued education in its many forms and saw infinite value in being curious, in gaining new understanding, and in sharing knowledge with others.
A disrupted troubled childhood and an abruptly terminated schooling experience mid way through Form 2 led to a somewhat misspent youth that had him working on many low end jobs, Each experience added to what became a vast body of knowledge, skills and understanding.
He worked as a projectionist for Hoyts in Melbourne during the 40s, drove Pict Peas delivery trucks and spent time as a wedding photographer in the 50s and studied at night school in order to better his 7th grade education. At 32 years of age, he was the oldest student at Teachers College in his year.
John loved a wide variety of music and was always looking to fill in gaps in his knowledge. He loved to discuss structure, instrumentation and melodic elements in classical music with my wife Anne, and our childhood was peppered with classical music first on the stereogram and later on the Yamaha hifi system.
Perhaps the "Switched On Bach" phase that was Bach played on a moog synthesiser may not have been the finest moment in classical music history... but hey it was the 70s...
John and Rob were regular patrons at the Melbourne Recital Centre and Hamer Hall for all manner of performances, John had a preference for the ACO rather than the MSO but would attend anything of interest to him. Few can top my surprise 50th birthday where John, Rob and Anne conspired to have the band The Blue Grassy Knoll perform live to my favourite Buster Keaton film The General.
John's days working for Hoyts on Swanston St established a life long love of film and always an interest in what was happening in the bio box... back in the days when film was still reel to reel and not digital. As children we were taught to look for the "pineapple ring" that would signal to the projectionist the upcoming need to change reels.
His splicing skills developed during the days working at "the flicks" were transferrable when in, the pre-stereo recording days, John painstakingly spliced a mono track of Under Milkwood into a stereo format so the Play for Voices alternated out of the left and right speakers. This was at the time when John was also instrumental in developing nascent teleconferencing capacity when working for the Council of Adult Education in the 70s.
World films, action, sci- fi, Aussie productions (Sorry, John, I still think Red Dog was a shocker of a film) silent films... it didn't matter, so many genres were of interest to John.
I shared John's love of science fiction, a broad church of styles and themes we pretty much liked them all, but definitely had our favourites Very early Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein are in our collections along with the more well known classics. Only a fortnight before his death, we were reminiscing on the qualities of Ann McCaffrey's The Ship that Sang and the influence it may have had on Kubrick's 2001 A Space Oydessy.
As a family we went to the theatre. It was considered essential for our learning and understanding. We attended local productions at the 1812 theatre in Upper FTG and Ringwood HS musical productions in which Faye aka "Ma Gerrard" to the students was involved.
Professional shows featured with some regularity. I remember being seriously narked at being declared too young to see Hair but a few years later went to Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palais. I can still feel the overload of senses and elation your first full blown professional production can give... Topol in his prime as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof...? Of course. Man of La Mancha for sure.
Live performance experiences continued across the years... Classic theatre, Burlesque at 45 Downstairs, Spanish Baroque music at the MRC, Lord of the Rings and Star Trek with the MSO... we shared these experiences with John and Rob ~ mostly at his expense. Shakespeare in the Bot Gardens was an event the wider family attended each December for quite a few years. Three generations enjoying the Bard's fine work. Porn star Annie Sprinkle did a show at the 1996 Comedy Festival. John thought it was so good, he rang us all and then bought tickets for the next available night. The same with the Demon Drummers of Japan... and indeed the Taiko drummers were exceptional. He felt we all needed to have the experience.
We grew up on a diet of The Goons. Yes, it seemed that every Sunday lunch we listened to Blue Hills "by Gwen Meredith" followed by an episode of The Goons. Throw in compulsory viewing of the Aunty Jack Show, the Goodies, Blazing Saddles and other Mel Brooks films etc... it all explains my own slightly warped sense of humour.
John rode motor bikes in his youth and even raced sidecars for a while. The Indian and the BSA that once hung around the family home should have been stored and then restored. But alas, some gems are not recognised at the time. Both Geoff and I ride and if John had been a little more nimble I am sure he would have swung his leg over the Harley ~ even if only as a pillion passenger.
A love of camping was deeply ingrained in John. Gail and Geoff shared some of this earlier. After a brief dalliance with semi serious bushwalking, John and Rob founded the Bush Bludgers ~ the Downhill Walkers... which was quickly shortened to The Bludgers as even downhill walking got in the way of backgammon or cards. The times shared at Fireman’s Bend in the Kulkyne Forest and other spots along the Murray remain strong in my memory.
I remain fortunate to have taken long service leave which meant I could drop by for a chat and to pass the time in companionable silence between wide ranging discussions nearly every day in the 3 months before his death. We would watch episodes of The Chaser (British and Australian versions) testing our general knowledge and handle on trivia... always learning something new. Of course the eps were recorded on the DVR - John always delighting in fast fwd through the ads.
He and I discussed impending death. He was matter of fact. "its obvious that my time is limited" he said to me. Now China... you are not to come back. Its a waste of money. "Hmm... I said, you don't get a vote. You won't be there."
It become known as "the lecture" as he tried the same line of argument on Anne.
In his last weeks John loved having his two sons visit together at St Vincent's, so whenever we could Geoff and I organised to be there together sending each other simple texts to confirm departure and predicted time of arrival. As they say when death is staring directly at you, family is what is important. John was so lucky to have Robyn in his life on so many levels but none moreso than the 24 hour care she provided in the last weeks of his life. As I said, come the end, family matters.
Well seems he got his wish as due to the complex requirements of the getting a Z class working visa, Anne and I can't be there. We are unable to leave Beijing until the single entry visa is converted into a multiple entry visa ~ a process that takes some 30 days. We left on July 21 knowing this might well be the case but hoped there would be a solution that could be worked out at the Beijing end, but no.
A few days before he went into hospital John and I sat at Brady St and spoke about process of looking back on one's life. The highlights in some detail and the low lights... Well, we agreed the not so glorious moments should stay where they were. Each a learning experience that whilst not to be ignored, need not be dragged out for close inspection. As Tom Waits says, "We all develop ways about ourselves that aren't quite right."
When Anne spent two hours with John on Monday night, he so enjoyed listening to the conversation between Anne and Rob, signalling when he wanted to join into the conversation about Sam D'Astiari, Pauline Hanson, Shorten and Turnbull... but struggled to get the words out between laboured breaths.
Many of you may have already seen the selfie below that was taken 12 hours before John slipped away. Though fighting for every breath, he insisted on been given his glasses and rallied enough energy to smile. It must have been so tiring. "Enjoy China" he said. "I won't see you tomorrow. I won't be here."
And he was right. Selfishly I want to believe he hung on until the day of our departure for a new life in Beijing to maximise the opportunities to spend some more minutes with Anne and myself. But in reality, the struggle became too much, the rapid three week decline from the 2016 Brady St Xmas in July that, for once, we actually held in July, to his death on July 21 was rapid. I don't blame him for having decided he had done enough.
I will miss him. and in ways I am yet to fathom. As the tears stream down my face as I write this, I know he made the world a better place.
For those who gave up your busy days to come to this wake, thank you for coming along and for the support you offer Robyn in doing so. Wakes are for the dead but also for the living. Drink, eat and if you wish, sing in celebration of a life well lived and a man who loved people and of course, learning until his dying day.
hyphen31 (Don Collins) has been playing with technology since the days of the Apple+. On the web well before www, he continues to savour the richness of the webiverse in small bytes. He finally leapt from the couch and created this own domain & website forsaking all earlier incarnations...