A Common Theme

My big recent discovery is that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother was a full blood Aboriginal. Which means that I am one sixteenth indigenous Australian. I am delighted with this news, and consider it a redeeming honor in a troubled genealogy. More of this later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about father/son stories.

Edmund Gosse gave us: Fathers and Sons (which I have not read)

D H Lawrence gave us: Sons and Lovers (which I have)

George MacDonald gave us a Victorian idealization of a son’s duty to his parents in: At the Back of The North Wind

A A Milne gave us an idyllic demonstration of what a father can do in: Winne-the-Pooh

Strindberg wrote a play called The Father, John Mortimer Q.C., Voyage Round My Father. Sir Roland DeBoys got some of it right as a father and quite a lot of it wrong as told in As You Like It.

And so on.

But it is in Hamlet we find the eternal wisdom on death of fathers.

“… but you must know your father lost a father, That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound, In filial obligation, for some term To do obsequious sorrow…”

And then Claudius (who remains unnamed in the play by the way) goes on for a bit about how grief must end, and, says Claudius, to continue going on grieving  is, among other things, “… To reason most absurd, whose common theme is death of fathers, and who still hath cried, from the first corpse till he that dies today, ‘This must be so'”

I’m sure you knew all that already, but isn’t it distantly reminiscent of that story about the Buddha who when importuned by a grieving mother to restore her son to life, finally agrees to do so, on one condition. Namely; that she can find a house where there has been no death.

And that Hamlet stuff is all very true no doubt, but a bit rich coming from Hamlet’s father’s murderer.His own brother, no less.

My point is that irony often follows death.

My own father died recently and left a situation dripping with irony. Fraught with the stuff, entwined and re-entwined. In my case (one of several) I found him a little late in life, but now I’ve lost him. I wonder what Oscar Wilde would say about that?


The final resting place of my father’s last mortal remains. As a man of the sea it seemed appropriate to blend his ashes with the water. The ceremony was attended by his sister-in-law, two of his nieces, and his second son (that we know about). Others were there in spirit.

For a man who once wrote a melancholic paragraph, beginning, “Nobody came to his funeral…” His remembrance stats were quite impressive, there were at least three occasions where he was remembered fondly. Here is an account of one of them:

Ian’s Memorial

There were last minute changes of venue. There were re-directions, wrong turns taken, some uncertainties, u-turns and confusions.

No, I’m not talking about Ian Johnston’s singular path through life, this was just getting to his funeral. I was in a car with my new found brother, David, an impressive Army Reservist by the way, among other things, and his girlfriend, Judy. Both of them excellent folk and precisely the right people to be with navigating this path to remembrance.

We arrived at car park one, where we met Edouard, my other brother and a full time military man. His lovely fiancee, Lital was there too, and his mother, Lizzie. Of the 4 mothers of Ian’s 5 children, Lizzie was the only one able to attend. NB: the above figures, 5 children by 4 mothers, correct at the time of writing. Penelope, David’s daughter, and my niece, came to see her grandfather off too.

And where was my lovely sister, Georgina?

There was some conference among my brothers and we set off for car park two. Lizzie had brought extra umbrellas, also tissues and aspirin. We set off in convoy. It had been raining for days. And was doing so now, but lightly and intermittently. Initially the seven of us in three cars overshot. We did a u-turn as Georgie caught up to us, but not seeing us, passed us, now going the wrong way. Another U-turn and we collected her and then effecting a third U-turn, joined the other two cars, now we were 8 people. All of us with very different relationships to the man we came to remember, and all of us related to each other in the strangest modes and through the most extraordinary discoveries, none of them via the man in question’s own disclosure or design.

So we parked and the rain stopped, and we followed single-file into the bush along a secluded raised walkway, till we came to a secluded small circle overlooking the harbor with the harbor heads in the distance across the bay.

There were photos.

Then we stood, this unique family group, some of whom had only just met for the first time. David, as the oldest (as far as we know) spoke first. He gave a resume of Ian’s life. There were some details that I had not known, or perhaps not retained – that Ian had military involvement himself, for example. And David said how glad he was to find his father and all of us! And we agreed.

Then David read a brief melancholy passage written by Ian himself, which began, “Nobody came to his funeral …”

Among the many and varied ironies of the general situation is the fact that actually in more than one remembrance he was well attended. There was a wake of sorts in his local pub and our gathering here described and we will think and speak of him again in Melbourne.

Years ago when I met Ian for the first time I wrote an account of it, but I had lost the text. I think Peter had kept it and send it to David and David had made copies and brought them. So I was able to read a few paragraphs describing how we met at Central station in Sydney. What wasn’t in the text, but what I told was how much we drank at that first meeting, viz: 3 beers, a bottle of champagne, 2 large iced cointreau’s each, and then we retired to Annandale, where he was living, where we drank a case of beer. It was the drunkest I have ever been, but the old man appeared stone cold sober (I don’t think he can have been).

I recited the farewell from Cymbeline.

“Fear no more the heat of the Sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers come to dust.”

(I wonder if Wordsworth was thinking of this idea when he wrote in Ode to Immortality … but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home …)?

Georgina spoke next. She spoke of the positive memories she had of Ian, and in the most touching phrase said, “I loved him, although often I didn’t know why.”
Edouard began by saying, “I’ve been hard on him.” – I acknowledged that I had too – and here I say – not without cause! But we remembered him with affection and with love, through all the conflicted feelings.

The rain held off. Until as we left the promontory, it started again. And then we went for a five star dinner. Sending him off with a champagne toast.

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shinning stars to you
Deep peace of the son of peace to you