Image for Nick Evers: Gentle, into that good night

Former Liberal Party Minister Nick Evers died following a long illness on 3 August 2013, aged 75. He was a wonderful writer; a prolific chronicler of a rich and varied life. As a tribute to him, we reproduce Gentle, into that good night (published August 30, 2005) and We are family (published August 24, 2005 ), two of a wonderfully-written archive ( All Nick Evers articles for Tasmanian Times, here ) he produced for Tasmanian Times ... Lindsay Tuffin

• Gentle, into that good night

I THINK it is the physical manifestations of growing old that first set the bells ringing.

For example, there is the nose that is so hard to unblock because “Curley” Denholm donged me on it one wet and windy Saturday in the fifties, up on the TCA ground; then I went to the pub after the match, instead of the hospital, and got home very late and somewhat the worse for wear; then Mum saw my face in the morning and went thoroughly bonkers about it, so she and Step rushed me to the Royal where I was told to come back and be admitted the following Sunday; so I wandered around for a week feeling thoroughly miserable and the butt of tasteless jokes about where my face may have been; so back I went the following Sunday to be put in bed and told I would be operated on the next morning; then a couple of interns arrived at my bed of pain on their evening rounds and reminded me that I had played intervarsity football against them in previous years; then, after discussing how much we drank at which pubs in Melbourne the previous year they said they would “do” me that night, having declared it would be good training for them; so in I went to surgery that night, chatting to the nurses and looking forward to a straight nose; then I awoke in the morning feeling horrible with my nose all over my face and no sign of the hard-drinking, big-talking apprentice nose straighteners; then the specialist Dr Hiller turned up, had one gander at me and threw a massive tantrum that had the entire staff hiding under the bed-pans — all of this because, during the interregnum between Curley Denholm and Dr Hiller my nose had set in the broken position but the apprentices had re-broken it in the wrong place and were very nearly sacked and defrocked in the ensuing drama; then Dr Hiller had to do the job himself which meant another visit to the surgery; and finally I came out, breathing through my nose — just — but with a bump on one side and a hunk of bone half way up the right passage that juts out in such a way as to make it very difficult for me to blow my nose hard enough to get the tough bits out without my ears falling off; and they reckon the Royal Hobart Hospital has problems in 2005 — “they” should have tried it nearly five decades ago!

Aside from the nose there are other organs, limbs and sundry bits and pieces that have not stood the test of time without blemish or defect of some kind. Football — along with squash, tennis, running, walking and whatever other exertions I once undertook — also accounts for a couple of wonky knees that irritate me more as each year passes. Then we have the rusty right wrist and the limp left forearm, the ankles that creak in bed, the scars of knee and lip and arm and the hair that is nearly no more. However, I doubt that sport was responsible for a modest decline in hearing capacity, an errant memory of both the physical and convenient varieties, constipation, medicated depression and various other things that have seized up, dropped off, wrinkled over, been ripped out by the medical and dental professions, ceased to function or are otherwise sending signals of more, much more than this to come.

I must come clean

Now, having vented all that spleen, I must come clean — I like growing old. There is a great deal to be said for growing old, especially growing old where I live and doing what I now do. I live in a very sparsely populated corner of Tasmania where I walk and cut wood and fish and grow vegetables and help my wife of some four and half decades in the shrub and flower gardens. It is quiet gentle place within a only a modest fifteen minutes of Swansea and about 75 minutes of Hobart. In short, I can roll along in the ute to Hobart and reach the city in a shorter time than it takes most of the residents of Sydney and Melbourne to get to work.

That is the setting and the outside of living where I live. And nor does the inside grate on the finer senses. One and a half centuries of old stone keeps the cold of winter out as it does with the heat of peak summer. Inside is eating good food and reading good books and writing and enjoying each other and the friends who drop in or stay for a day or so and the daughters and their partners and our grand daughter who join us in summer and at other times.

So growing old where I live is a soft and gentle business. It is also a time — a time after the flurried decades of running fast and feasting on self-importance — to really enjoy and better understand those closest to me. My wife and daughters have had much to endure over my working years and their tolerance and love deserves respect and repayment. The horrible blight of depression very occasionally elbows the medication aside and results in a flare up but it is reasonably under control. Besides, the doctor said it should only last a year or so. It is part of the ageing process, he said. My doctor is a lovely fellow but I thought that was a cruel thing to say to a bloke who thought he was Peter Pan. Or perhaps that was why he said it.

So yes, old age is not so much a time for false teeth in glasses of water or inadvertent farts in department stores. For me it is a time of softer light, a gentle pragmatism and a couple of reds at dinner. A time when love is more measured, more profound and all the more important for being so.

I enjoy some of Dylan Thomas’s poetry but I don’t aspire to

“……….. burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Nor shall I necessarily go gentle into that good night. Rather, I shall see what comes and when and seek, then, to accommodate it as best I can.

Above all, I am in no hurry.  No hurry at all.

Originally published on Tasmanian Times, here

• We are family

MY FIRST clear memory of my mother— indeed, my first clear memory of anyone or anything — is of walking with her down one of those Launceston streets that runs parallel with Brisbane Street on the northern side of the city.

Perhaps Paterson Street. I would have been about three at the time —  somewhere around late 1940 or early 1941 —  and was probably wearing a dinky little white cotton suit with short pants and blue flowers embroidered on the collar or pocket or both.

This outfit —  at which I shudder whenever I see it in an old photograph — was complete with white socks, possibly also embroidered, sturdy white sandals and a pudding basin haircut. These various items, not including the haircut, had most likely been purchased at Kay Gray, outfitters of babies and small children, located in the Quadrant, off Brisbane Street. Kay Kaiser and “Gray” Newman were friends of Mum. It was a friendship that lasted some decades notwithstanding Mum’s penchant for spending lavishly and paying slowly.

What was special about that particular occasion, and why it is still clear in my mind, was the near collision. We were about to cross in front of a narrow laneway when a cyclist shot out in front of us on to the street, only inches from colliding with us. The cyclist, a messenger of some kind, stopped momentarily, awaiting a gap in the traffic, thus becoming a ready target for a withering burst of invective from Mum that would have done credit to the most strident of bullock-drivers. In the course of this tirade she simultaneously clasped me to her leg with one arm while gesticulating vigorously with the other. The cyclist eventually found his way into the traffic, doubtless with profound relief, while Mum walked me down the street as if nothing had happened. Welcome to the world, Nicholas.

That was Mum. She was intelligent, beautiful, proud, dynamic, loving, caring, competent, entertaining, funny,  fearless and protective. She was also irritating, charming, exasperating, shameless, unpredictable,  mischievous, promiscuous, volatile, outrageous and capable of much else besides. She was not unlike the horses she rode with such skill and flair — spirited, free, cocking a snoot at the po-faced and the pompously proper.

She was as hard to live with as she was to ignore. She was also the quintessential democrat to the extent that her friendships embraced the highest, lowest, richest, poorest, healthiest, sickest,  roughest and most refined from countless towns, states, countries, cultures and backgrounds. She collected people much as others collect paintings, parrots or perfumes. This latter observation is not meant unkindly. She loved her friends and enjoyed them immensely. If they moved on to another city, state or country she maintained the relationship through correspondence in which she was as informative, provocative and affectionate as she was in person. She was also adventurous as evidenced by three trips to China, a 10-day ninety mile hike in the Himalayas and sundry other safaris— all in her late sixties and seventies. She also did a few university subjects during those years.

Withering of the clan

Her maiden name was Cameron, from a branch of a broader Tasmanian clan of that name. Due to a surfeit of daughters and a generally low reproduction rate the family is now barely visible. My maternal grandfather (Clive, or Pa to me) had a son and two daughters — Margaret (Mum), Jeanette (Cub) and Robert (Bob); Pa’s brother (Hughie), my great uncle, had four daughters; and my great aunt (Eva) never married.  Pa and Hughie, and their wives, produced seven children (six girls and a boy) who, between them, in turn produced five children of whom only one carries the name Cameron. Hence the withering of the clan.

My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Minnie Constance (Connie) Collins whose family farmed in the Evandale area. She died before I was out of nappies but all the anecdotal evidence asserts that she was a gentle, highly intelligent and, above all, immensely tolerant woman. This latter quality was doubtless reinforced by having to put up with Pa’s life-long commitment to chasing, and often catching, women. Even in his late eighties, when resident at St. Anne’s Rest Home in Hobart, he happily fell prey to the wiles of a predatory laundress nearly half his age. Only Mum’s acute antennae and subsequent intervention saved the day and a minute inheritance.

Pa and Hughie were educated at Hawthorn College in Melbourne. Both were fine cricketers and Pa also competed with success as a professional runner. On returning to Tasmania, Pa worked for the ANZ bank at Launceston and Ulverstone. He married Connie in 1910 and Mum, Cub and Bob were born in 1912, 1915 and 1916 respectively. Pa and Connie lived first at Kirkdale Cottage at Western Junction but moved to Clairville Cottage on the ancestral property, also at Western Junction, after Mum was born.

Much as he would talk with a certain authority —  at least to his family and friends —  about business and financial matters, Pa was really very innocent in such matters. He read novels and poets and papers rather than balance sheets; he knew much more about sport and public affairs and international events than he did about stock prices or pizzle rot or irrigation; he was talking about conservation of the environment long before it became fashionable; he chased women rather than profits; and his risk-taking was generally instinctive rather than calculated.  It was in this latter context that in the late 1920s he purchased a property at Piangil on the Victorian side of the Murray River, fifty miles or so west of Swan Hill. Piangil remains as it ever was —  a very small, lonely dot on the map —  but Pa saw the property as a significant investment opportunity and enlisted the aid of a local identity to clear and develop the land.

This they did but, as recorded in the family’s oral history, “……….the whole bloody lot blew away in a wind storm within a few weeks of completion.” There were shades of Richard Mahoney in Pa but he was more resilient than Richard Mahoney and could see the comedy in his follies, albeit with a year or so of hindsight! Richard Mahoney was bowed down by outrageous fortune; Pa was ever the optimist who, with boundless confidence, bounced back to the next personal or financial frolic which, in the nature of things,  either just failed or nearly succeeded.

So Pa returned home to the family as the storm clouds started to develop in Europe. During World War II, after Connie’s death in 1941, Pa purchased a property at Quamby Brook, near Deloraine, some fifty kilometres west of Launceston. The property, “Gala”, was nestled in under Quamby Bluff, part of the Western Tiers which represent the northern escarpment of the Tasmanian high country known as the Central Plateau. The area is characterised by sharp winters with a few severe frosts, warm-to-hot summers, at least in Tasmanian terms, and a good rainfall. The soil is good black loam and, taken together with the climate, allows for just about any form of cool temperate farming. Pa opted for wool sheep, some fat lambs, a few beef cattle and cropping.

Eccentric intrusiveness

Mum and I moved to Gala with Pa along with my uncle, Bob, whose lot it would be to do the farming while Pa, by now in his sixties, milked the two cows, made the butter, grew the vegetables, tended the fruit trees, read, sang and continued to chase women. The farming of Gala was reasonably successful but this was possibly due more to Bob’s diligence and farming skills than to Pa’s involvement which, by this time, was mostly one of benign detachment along with some occasional eccentric intrusiveness. The property was sold in the late 1950s when Bob married Patricia (“Paddy”) Griffin, who came from a successful and respected farming family in the Elizabeth Town area, north of Deloraine. Pa then spent some years in Melbourne, where Cub was living with her husband Wally, before returning to Tasmania to live in St. Anne’s rest home — where Mum kept an eye on him — and we saw a good deal of him over the years prior to his death in 1974.

Prior to his marriage to Paddy and my departure from the state in 1960, Bob was more like a brother than an uncle —  we worked well together during the many working holidays which I spent on Gala through my teenage years; we shared a lot of sporting interests together; and he was a good companion in the bush, whether shooting rabbits or rounding up stock.

Of Pa’s many eccentricities perhaps the most intrusive was his singing. From his youth he was convinced that he was a fine singer, of the operatic variety, and to this day recollection of his rendition of I’ll Walk Beside You—  usually rendered within touching distance —  induces a shudder throughout my entire body and a few moments of instinctive, compulsive deafness. For all his humour, generosity of spirit, enthusiasm for the Essendon football team, his obsession with bedding women,  his keen and very informed interest in a wide range of public affairs, the breadth of his reading and many other things, one stood out above all else —  his singing and the fact that, bless his soul, he couldn’t sing a single note.

If he started to hum a tune Bob would leave the room. If he broke into song Mum would scream “Daddy, stop that caterwauling.” He stated on countless occasions that Madame Bernstein, from whom he took singing lessons in his middle years, asserted that his voice could lift the roof off the Albert Hall. The family never doubted that claim but were quick to observe that this had nothing to do with the quality of his singing, or vocalising as he liked to call it. Loud yes; tuneful never. Even into his late eighties, by which time he was still pursuing women with undiminished enthusiasm, his passion for vocalising remained equally ardent. On one occasion, Mum recognised his singing while shopping in central Hobart and took off in search of him. She tracked the noise to the old AMP building on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street where she found him serenading the receptionist. Much to his displeasure, Mum bundled him out and sent him back to St. Annes.

With the exception of Airdrie who married much later than her siblings, Hughie’s daughters married and left home in rapid succession after the war. Hughie himself spent minimal time on farming matters which were left to Arthur Holmes, a delightful and competent man who worked on the property for most of his life. Having a property that almost encircled Launceston airport, Hughie was able to make a more than comfortable living by selling parcels of land to the Department of Civil Aviation whenever expansion was required, which was frequently. His land was the department’s only option and he prospered accordingly. Anecdotal evidence and observation suggests that a significant portion of this good fortune found its way into the City Football Club of which Hughie was chairman for some decades.

Women he chased

Hughie’s other diversion was, inevitably, women whom he chased and caught with no less enthusiasm than his brother. Hughie did not have Pa’s warmth, diverse interests and sense of fun but he was immeasurably more astute in business matters, more measured and understated in his style, more pragmatic and much less given to displays of affection, joy or sorrow.  Hughie’s wife Eileen, sister Eva and daughter Airdrie completed the post-war quartet of family residents at Clairville but Hughie saw a great deal more of the City Football Club than he did of his family. Indeed, he not only ate all of his meals on a tray in his own sitting room but all those meals were exactly the same, every day. That is, there was variety between breakfast, lunch and dinner but each of those meals was the same — same breakfast, same lunch, same dinner. I cannot recall the precise menus but I do know that sago loomed large for lunch or dinner. Perhaps both!

Eva has not figured prominently in these recollections but there is not a lot to say about her. She didn’t do much of anything apart from looking very patrician and walking around with an air that suggested an unpleasant odour under her nose. This may have been, in part at least, because she and Eileen disliked each other intensely. Eva had her favourites, notably Ailsa,  the eldest daughter of Hughie and Eileen, and was also fond of Mum. She was an occasional guest at our homes in Hobart, passed on a few antique pieces to Mum and was understandably dismissive of a callow youth like me — an attitude that did not put me in a deep state of melancholy. Eva and I were on different planets in my high school and university days. I was appropriately dutiful and polite — and mostly absent.

I suppose this brief profile of my more recent maternal ancestors suggests that they lived lives of indolence, arrogance and eccentricity and in large measure that was the way it was for quite a few of the landed gentry between the wars. I am reminded of the alleged wisdom, especially in relation to farming families, that the cycle starts with development through hard work and astute decision-making leading to prosperity followed by consolidation followed by decline through waste, indolence and pursuit of personal and unproductive folly followed by the start of a new cycle. My great grandfather, Robert Cameron, is said to have perched himself on the gatepost at Clairville, swinging a golf club and declaring loudly to passers-by that “……this is the way to make a living.” That is probably apocryphal but certainly not entirely inconsistent with much of the evidence. Interestingly, all the children of Pa and Hughie went on to lead active and productive lives. The party —  a sort of sub-antipodean version of an extended Gatsby frolic over a couple of generations —  was over.

On the paternal side there is much less to be said because I never really knew my father, the first of Mum’s three husbands. Indeed, Mum could rightly claim to have had four marriages and three husbands because she and my father eloped and married at a registry office without informing the family. Cub told me in recent years that she was the first to be informed of the marriage when, some weeks later, she was walking through Launceston with Mum who blithely said “Oh, by the way, Ralph and I were married the other day.” This was not quite the way that people behaved in the 1930s and so the family felt duty bound to set the matter right by also having a formal church wedding with all the attendant paraphernalia.

My father, Ralph Heathcote Evers,  was in fact born in Tasmania in 1908. He was the son of Harold Evers who was one of that quite large band of British administrators who worked for commercial enterprises in the “colonies”, in which capacity he served as Secretary of the Beaconsfield Gold Mining company in Tasmania through most of the years between Federation and the outbreak of World War I. Ralph was one of three children born to Harold and Rhoda Evers. His brother Gilbert was a Royal Air Force pilot who was killed in the Battle of Britain while his sister Dorothea never married. My paternal grandmother was, from all accounts and one rather harrowing meeting,  a strong and manipulative woman for whom Dorothea was a dutiful nurse and slave for more than half a century.

World at war

Ralph returned to Tasmania in the 1930s and, after marrying Mum in 1936, they moved to Yolla where he took up a job as a herd tester with the Agricultural Department. I was born in 1937 at the Spencer Hospital at Wynyard and another two years later the world was at war. The day war was declared Ralph enlisted and spent much of that conflict in the Western Desert. When he returned to Tasmania he found that he had been supplanted in Mum’s affections by he who was about to become Step. I was the only child of Mum’s marriages.

Initially, the divorce and departure of Ralph was somewhat traumatic not least because it was attended by considerable ill-feeling, mostly involving Step’s apparent insecurity over the matter. However, the dramas soon settled down and we were all left to adjust to new relationships and circumstances.

Over the next thirty years until 1974 — the year in which Ralph,  Step and Pa all died —  I saw very little of Ralph. This was partly because for much of that time I was out of the state or out of the country and partly because we simply drifted apart. Initially, Ralph was very diligent in keeping in touch by way of generous birthday and Christmas presents, as well as occasional exchanges of letters and a few meetings but, as time passed and I was out of the state with my own family, the link withered away to nothing. He was a handsome, intelligent, articulate and very courteous man.  He was not ambitious —  his principal jobs were at modest levels at an agricultural research station and, his last, at an aluminium plant in northern Tasmania —  but for all that I think he was content with his lot which, apart from his work, comprised his garden, his beer and the wife with whom he shared the last couple of decades of his life. Ralph married twice after being divorced by Mum, the second of those two further marriages being the longest and that which lasted until he died.

I suppose that one of the consequences of having been part of a motley lot is that there haven’t been a lot of dull moments!

Originally published here

All Nick Evers articles for Tasmanian Times, here