Delivered at his Funeral on 5 January 2011, at St John's, Camden
Order of Service – Outside, Inside
I'm the first-born of Tony and Rene Clarke, and so it falls to me ...
Tony was the archetype of Respectable English Working-Class, and a Twenty-Quid Pom.
He was born in the aftermath of World War I, in the then-still-proud naval city of Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. There were 8 people in a small house with 3 small bedrooms and no bathroom as such. Telegrams and telephones were mainstream, radio was arriving as a consumer good, but TV not for some years yet. Aircraft were just becoming capable of bridging oceans and carrying mail, then cargo, and only later passengers. Computers were 30 years in the future and satellites 40, and it would be another half-century before the telephone network was adapted to support email and the Web.
Tony joined a Church Choir. It was an uncharacteristically bold move, particularly at the age of 7.
He was 10-14 during the Great Depression, and the time that his father was out of work made things even harder for the family. So, like his elder brother 2 years earlier, he left school a few days after his 15th birthday, to earn money to help the family. He worked as a grocer, which until World War II was a recognised trade – filleting sides of bacon, cutting down full cheeses, 'breaking bulk' of sugar, salt and biscuits. He went with his father and uncle to watch the local Football team, Pompey. This led to a lifelong interest in what he later learnt to call 'soccer', including visits to watch his son and his grandchildren play the game.
As a young adult, he sang with the Portsmouth Choral Union – one of England's many strong choirs. You may detect a pattern emerging here.
He was 19 when World War II broke out. He volunteered, just a few days after his 20th birthday. That saved him from being conscripted onto HMS Hood (which went down with all but 3 of its crew of 1,415) or the Hampshire Regiment (which was cut to ribbons in several actions during the War).
He was posted to a Petrol Filling Platoon. He was a man of dry humour throughout his life, so I'm disappointed that he missed his opportunity to write a book about the stupid things that happen in war-time. Spike Milligan wrote it instead.
He spent 6 weeks in France, and was then among the many thousands who took a dip at that famous coastal resort, Dunkirk. He wrenched his knee during the trip from Lille to the coast. But he discharged himself from Cardiff Hospital, in order to join his unit on the docks at Bristol and sail to North Africa. To avoid the U-Boats waiting off Cornwall, they steamed up the Irish Sea almost to Iceland. And on Christmas morning, precisely 70 years before the day he died, he was shelled by a German cruiser. 70 years ago today, the convoy hove to off Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Courtesy of Winston Churchill, Tony then had a 3-week visit to Greece including a day's leave to see the Parthenon – overlooking the smoke from the previous night's raid on Piraeus. Just ahead of the invading German forces, his unit was withdrawn from there to Crete, where he spent 4 weeks watching dive-bombers wreak havoc on British vessels in Suda Bay. Again, his unit was withdrawn just before the Germans took over. Eighteen months later, the Germans nearly drove him out of a country for the fourth time, but the line held at El Alamein, in the first major Allied victory of the War.
Fortunately for him, and us, that was the end of the excitement – in November 1942 at the age of not quite 23. He spent almost all of the remaining 3-1/2 years of his Army career, always a Private, in North Africa. To sustain the theme, that included time in the choir of St Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria.
He always seemed rather intolerant of all races apart from the British, and particularly of races from the Middle East and sometimes prettymuch any part of Asia. I'd like to think that resulted from some bad experiences in bazaars in Egypt during the War years. I'm sure he found it a bit confusing to gain a daughter-in-law who's half-Italian by blood, and then a grandson-in-law who's half Chinese by blood. It definitely helped that Brendan could use his own grand piano to accompany Tony's voice, and both play, and have lengthy discussions about, composers like Rachmaninov.
Tony overcame the greyness of post-War Britain by meeting and wooing Irene Whiteman. Tony was a working-class 28-year-old who had limited education, no completed trade and limited job-prospects, and who'd been demobilised late and hence missed out on such half-decent jobs as were available. So how he won a flash young 21-year-old I've never actually understood. Fortunately, it's a skill that runs in the family.
Tony and Rene were married in 1948. It took them very little time to see the benefits of following Tony's elder brother to Australia. They migrated in 1951 under the Assisted Passage Scheme, which involved a payment of Ten Quid. The family of two plus an 18-month-old arrived with, appropriately, about Ten Quid in his pocket.
Kingaroy was a dusty country town. But it did have three choirs to sing in. And, with them both working, they managed to save 300 Quid in two years, to pay for the return journey.
Immigrants who grizzled about how bad it was here, and how good it was back in England, were called 'Whinging Poms'; but Tony and Rene weren't like that. They went back to the UK because Mum was an only child, and neither of her parents had any relations, and both were sickly, and then her mother died, aged only 59. Tony negotiated with the Department of Immigration to get her father out to Australia and was refused. So they paid the fare to go back. And after that the Department relented, but too late. And then, as Tony sailed through the Red Sea for the third of the four times in his life, they received the news that Rene's father had died.
If Tony had been inclined to become a victim, or to become bitter about his luck – or indeed about his wife – this would have been his biggest invitation yet. They'd started a new life in a new country, and things had been going well, at last, at the age of 35. They took 5 years to recover, because they'd spent all of their newly-won money, and were going back to a tired, grey country that would take another 25 years to gradually emerge from its post-War gloom.
After a couple of years, and a second child to brighten life up, Tony again entered into negotiations with the Department of Immigration. On Carole's first birthday, 1 January 1956, the family sailed away again, this time to Bundaberg. He and Rene thereby became something of a rarity – Twenty-Quid Poms.
I recently tripped over this remark in a book of 'Great One-Liners', which seems apt for the time:
"An Australian is just an Englishman who's happy".
But I'm getting ahead of the story. The mid-1950s in Australia would be unrecognisable to the well-to-do consumers of the 1980s onwards. Food was simple, mostly of the stodgy English variety, with little diversity. Take-aways existed, but only as fish-and-chip shops and hamburger shops, although Mediterranean migration was in full flow and delis were emerging. Holidays were occasional and short. Shopping was parsimonious, and presents were constrained.
And yet Tony and Rene steadily worked their way to something almost inconceivable if they'd stayed in the U.K. A decade after arriving, they built their own home. Okay it was more like an eighth of an acre than the quarter-acre block of Australian fable; but it was theirs.
Both quickly achieved quite high standing in the Bundaberg community, with Tony managing the plumbing half of the local hardware store, and Rene rising from usherette and cashier to Deputy Manager of the three local theatres. He took up fishing from riverbanks and breakwaters, and in estuaries.
They both acted in the Amateur Players, Tony taking many roles in musicals, initially in choruses, but quickly moving into baritone supporting roles. He sang in most of the choirs in the town at various times, and conducted the Male Voice Choir for several years. He always saw himself as a career Private, and found it hard to reconcile that with lead-roles, solos, conducting, and introducing soloists at concerts. Those soloists included the world-famous Donald Smith, a local who'd gone from cane-cutting to Covent Garden.
In 1967, Tony's eldest son left school and moved to Sydney, which was then a very long and slow 1,300km away – before even affordable flights, let alone discount airlines. So, at 49, after 12-1/2 good years, with everything nicely in place, in a town with one of the most equable sub-tropical climates in the world (and only very occasional record floods, like the one this week), it was only logical that they would give it all up and move to Sydney.
The reason? It's another theme of this Eulogy: commitment to family. Rene was an only child, with three known relations, all in England. Neither of them wanted one-quarter of their own family to be separated from the rest of it.
Tony never did get back to the same level in the workforce that he achieved in Bundaberg. But he didn't appear to be frustrated by that, nor to regret any of his decisions really, even the not-so-good ones. It took another 5 years before they could get their own house again, at Thornleigh. They lived there for 12-1/2 years.
From 1969 to 1984, Tony spent well over a decade as a First Bass with the Sydney Philharmonia – with little doubt the best choir in the Southern Hemisphere. That included much commuting, many rehearsals and many highlights, including performing before the Queen twice, including at the opening concert of the Sydney Opera House in 1973.
The 1970s and 1980s saw travel, with trips back to the U.K., to visit his family while they were living in Switzerland, and to various Asian cities, Fiji, Norfolk Island and New Zealand.
He was also active in multiple Church choirs during this period. He had, I should say 'has', a Christian commitment, his religion being straightforward, early 20th century traditionialist Anglican – the St James Version, the Old Prayer Book, and music. The only spiritual dilemma I can remember him ever raising with me was his confusion about Mahatma Ghandi being disqualified from heaven.
In 1985, retirement brought them to Ruse, then Kearns, and finally almost a decade at Carrington Village. His time in this area added up to 25 years – the same as Bundaberg and Thornleigh combined. He spent c. 1985-90 another choir that dates to about 1900 – St John's, Camden.
He was a good cook, and he and Rene used to compete to do the Sunday roast. The greens were always hopelessly over-cooked – because they never discovered that the quality of veges had risen enormously between the 1880s in Britain and the 1980s in Australia. But the roast veges and the meat were always perfect. The kitchen in his self-care unit was well-used until he was about 90. The parsimony he applied (and needed to, until the 1970s) meant that he was an artiste with leftovers. His inventiveness extended to a memorable poached-pear dessert, which we only discovered afterwards was actually choko.
He was always a handyman, making and fixing things, for children and later for grandchildren, such as fittings for a spare room for young visitors, a 'mice aquarium', a guinea pig hutch. He was a no-waste re-cycler, creative with used materials, and with a preference for sturdy, no-nonsense plyboard. Fittingly, the closest thing to a fight over his belongings arose in relation to his tool-set. It was a pity that his dexterity had declined by the time he was 80, when Carrington's splendid workshop came within his reach.
His humour came out in many ways. He made frequent, lame jokes and mediocre puns, and, unfortunately for his daughter-in-law and son-in-law, he passed that down in his genes. For many years he made up rhymes and limericks for personalised greeting-cards, or just for fun. A sherry or a glass of red helped his creativity. A bit of smelly cheese was good too.
He and Rene were very close, and at a rough estimate were apart for about 20 days of the more than 20,000 days of their marriage. Rene's passing in 2004, celebrated in this Church just over 6 years ago, was a great trial for him. He was 6-1/2 years older, and had never contemplated the possibility that she would go first.
He leant increasingly heavily on his children and on his grandchildren. Carole progressively provided him with more and more support, and he enjoyed a lot of visits from Kasia and Russell, travelling from Canberra, and especially Owen and Lachlan, coming across from Ambarvale. Only a few years ago, his son-in-law, Peter, was able to give him one last fishing expedition, where he reeled in a fish, okay, a small fish, sitting on his scooter on a wharf beside the Shoalhaven.
This phase of his life belongs more to his grandchildren than his children, so here are their voices:
I remember phone conversations about life and death that I'd have liked to bottle. They were simultaneously sincere and self-deprecating, witty, poignant.
He said to me "I know I never stop talking. I'll be knocking on the coffin-lid, saying 'oh, just one more thing!'".
His sense of humour obviously helped him live for so long, the way he was able to accept everything and be resilient by making some kind of joke.
After talking for 10 minutes about his ailments, he said to me "Your fingers must be sore. From playing all that violin music for this poor old sod".
He would wander the neighbourhood on his scooter, looking for prey to talk to. "Always keep it to 10 minutes", he'd say, but I wonder how strict those 10 minutes were. He'd apologise for talking your ears off, but do it all the same.
When we were younger, he wasn't hugely engaged. There was distance. Probably a lot to do with being English, and of his generation. Nanna dying meant that he had to work more at relationships, particularly with us grandchildren.
I'll remember the relaxed formality of his generation, the gentlemanly movements and awareness, the 'charm of the elderly', or at least the current elderly, of that generation.
And I'll remember him basting and carving ham at Christmas – I know that's why he chose to die on Christmas Day: to ensure he was remembered over food and family time.
And finally: When it was time to say goodbye, he always said "Cheerio then".
One of his major challenges during the last decade was his knee, which progressively collapsed inwards and made him increasingly dependent on his scooter, and decreasingly mobile within his unit. In 2007, Carole, his physio daughter-in-law, Linda, and his nursing lecturer grand-daughter, Kasia, coaxed him into having a leg-brace fitted. A letter to England resulted in not only a contribution from the Royal Service Corps Benevolent Fund, but also a UK War Service Pension – because the damage had been done by the injury he suffered on the way to Dunkirk, 70 years earlier.
He continued his bridge, and his bowls. In a manner typical of his resilience, when he could no longer bend low enough to release the bowl, he took to using a claw, which sustained his participation for several years. The strength of his bones was never in doubt, with three falls in the last few years resulting only in bruises on his body, not even to his ego. Each fall represented a nice opportunity to be noticed by people, and to have chats.
He'd been very healthy all the way into his 70s, with only a peptic ulcer causing any major issues. But naturally he suffered an accumulation of health problems in his last 20 years, with knees and shoulders worsening, challenges with his teeth, his sight dimmed by a melanoma on his retina, circulation problems leading to a quad-bypass at 79 (which delivered great value), an enlarged prostate, then a gall bladder removal and a twisted bowel leading to a stoma at 89 (an 8-hour op and a 4-week convalescence!), and finally a squamous cell carcinoma. Perhaps the cancer was a hazard of pipe-smoking from 1940 to 1980, or of a pale English skin that spent over 60 years in the sun – 4-1/2 years in North Africa, 15 years in Queensland and 42 years in NSW.
It's not easy to summarise a span of 4 days short of 91 years. Key aspects were his resilience, his humour, his commitment to Rene and to his family, and the commitment returned to him by all of them.
And finally we come back to music. His last solo performance of church music was at 81, and his last solo and duet (his favourite, from 'The Pearl Fishers') were part of a Christmas Party performance a few days before his 86th birthday. More important to him though was his 80 years in choirs. His last public choral performance was a couple of years ago, at 88. And that's not counting him singing briefly, during his last week, to both the nurses and his great-grandson Troy.
His final years were made much brighter by his time with Macarthur Singers (1990-2010), which is why it was so important that we ask them to contribute to this event. They've done that partly by means of two pieces* from a recording of their performance of his own abridged version of 'Elijah'. He'd badgered them into rehearsing and performing it in 2009. A remarkably large ensemble, gathered at a few days' notice, is going to contribute another item right now.
And, as he would say, "Cheerio, then".
Mozart's 'Ave Verum' – K.618
* The recorded pieces were:
This is a page within Roger Clarke's Family Web-Site
Contact: Roger Clarke
Created: 3 January 2011; Last Amended: 7 January 2011