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Sydney Writers Festival speech

7 June 2008 2,030 views One Comment

As the marvelous Margaret Fink, Anne Deveson, and Robyn Williams know better than most, my stunningly beautiful wife, Lyndal Moor, and myself are contributing co-editors of GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY.

As if we didn’t feel old enough already, recently at Parliament House, premier Morris Iemma launched the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Seniors’ Week!

Sydney Writers Festival 2008 - Ross 1Yet one of the advantages of being seniors is that we can say what we like – which is precisely what Lyndal and I and all other contributors have done in this book.

Of course truth goes both ways. Apart from the fact that, as each year rolls by, I seem increasingly to resemble an old dog – half deaf and a quarter blind ,, the state of my physique is not improved, as a comedian friend remarked, by me eating like a man with two arseholes.

Not surprisingly, other bits of the body, to which I will not refer, are sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, giving up the ghost.

Then there is what appears to be emotional and mental deterioration. Recently I said to my friend and fellow contributor, Gerard Henderson, “I think I’m becoming more neurotic. To which Gerard replied, “That’s scarcely possible!

It will not come as any revelation to those who know me like Anne and Margaret, that GIVE is not my middle name. One day in Brisbane, after I presented an acquaintance who’d just had a baby, with a less than expensive gift, I inexplicably broke into tears.

Sydney Writers Festival 2008 - Ross 2A mate explained the situation thus. “You were, he said, Overwhelmed by your own sensitivity.

Last month Lyndal reminded me of a scathing review of my work written by one of mine many enemies from Queensland. This devastating attack concluded, “Ross Fitzgerald is one of Australia’s most prolific, yet least read, authors.

The sad fact is that, in many ways, Lyndal agreed.

Yet at this Writers Week function this afternoon, we hold a shy hope that GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY might buck the trend and be both well-received and actually widely read.

For Lyndal and I, it has been a joy to edit this book of 35 essays, whose contributors range in age from the 84 year old Erskineville-based communist, Hal Alexander, to the comic actor Gerry Connolly and Diane Young of the Federation Press , both of whom have just nudged the big Five O.

Sydney Writers Festival 2008 - CrowdContributors to the book, the initials of which spell GOD (i.e. G. O. D.), include committed Christians like Brisbane-based writer Phil Brown and the chairperson of the New South Wales State Parole Authority, Ian Pike, as well as less certain believers, including noted film producer Jim McElroy, through to unambiguous atheists like myself and Lyndal, and Margaret Fink who will speak to us later.

All of GOD’s writers, in their different ways, demonstrate that being fifty and over is anything but easy and that, to paraphrase the American playwright Lillian Hellmann, old (er) age is not for wimps.

Intriguingly, a number of contributors confide that, slowly or suddenly, they woke up one morning and the realization dawned that they were growing older, if not old. Yet when push comes to shove, all contributors to the book, including Anne & Margaret & Robyn, manifestly value life itself and their part within it, while most, if not all, believe that in some ways (many of them unpredictable) life can get even better.

Yet despite some signs of physical decline, most contributors to GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY reveal the presence in their lives of hope, trust, commitment, persistence, good humour, and, perhaps above all, the resilient capacity to cop whatever life dishes out in the twilight, or at least the second half (or final quarter), of their lives.

But don’t be mistaken, physical and mental signs are there indeed; in my own case often in spades. Part of my current angst concerns time and its passing, something I try to control by always carrying a diary.

In it, I write a daily “shopping list , people to meet, places to go, things to write, to do and buy. Indeed each year I go through at least two diaries, sometimes three. When, as happened once in London, I actually lost my diary, I was, to use that peculiar phrase, “beside myself”, and had to try and remember, as it happened quite unsuccessfully, all the entries for the rest of that year.

So growing old is not something I’m dealing with all that well. One of the many suggestions made by self-appointed experts about how to cope with ageing is to deliberately not remember crucial dates. In my case this is impossible. How can I forget my birthday, Christmas Day; or my wife Lyndal’s which is September 11 (what most of the world now calls 9/11), or even our wedding anniversary which is November 5 – Guy Fawkes Day?

Balanced against this is my chronic inability to remember names. A promising suggestion from Barry Humphries is to associate each person’s name with some other thing or object. Recently, on a board on which I serve, I was introduced to a new member called Yiah. As her name sounded like ‘ear’, I decided to associate her name thus. Unfortunately the next time we met I asked “And what do you think about this matter, Chin?”,

The best advice I’ve been given to cope with all of this mental and physical deterioration, and indeed with most other life problems as well, comes from my policeman friend from the Gold Coast, Detective-Sergeant David Isherwood, known as ‘Davo’, who simply says, “Mate. What else can you do but cop it.” All of this is aided by reminding myself of an Old Russian proverb I made up: “All that trembles, does not fall.”

Another Queensland friend maintains that the cleverest and most brilliant idea that I have ever come up with is that, shortly before I eat a meal at home, I turn my cardigan or jumper inside out. This means that whatever food drops down on me, including all the dribbles and stains, will not show up when I later put it back on the right way up. The only problem is that while this procedure works wonders at home, it is difficult to achieve when Lyndal and I are eating out!

Speaking of Lyndal, one of the many reasons that we have been married for 33 years is that she is a woman who isn’t the slightest bit interested in illness. I remember years ago saying to her in a self-indulgent way, “I don’t feel very well. To which she replied, “Darling, the pyramids were built by people who didn’t feel very well.

These days, one of life’s pleasures is to agree to review whatever books I am sent, no matter what their scope or subject. Thus to any reviewing request, my motto is ‘Never, never say No; Never refuse.” It is rather like my tendency never to respond to criticism, a position to which I almost universally adhere.

Accepting a random spread of books enables me to read about new and recondite things, to confront different and unusual ideas. It is so important to try and keep learning, and constantly to explore with curiosity and enthusiasm. Each day, I try to follow Sigmund Freud’s dictum, that the secret to a good life is “love and work. ” So every day I try to contribute, to achieve and be productive. As my friend ‘Antique Harry’ said, ” If you aim for the stars, you won’t shoot yourself in the foot!”

After we had lived in Brisbane for over a quarter of a century, two years ago Lyndal said, “Darling, I want you to know that I am going back to Sydney. I’d like you to come with me”, she said, “But I want you to know that I’m going.”

As I wanted (and still want) to stay with Lyndal, the decision was crystal clear. A fait accompli. QED! So here we are, living in Redfern, in a terrace house called “Greystoke” which was the name of the ancestral home of Lord Greystoke – Tarzan of the Apes.

One of the many positives of living in Redfern is that it is close to the airport and only a 25-minute walk into the city. Another pleasure is going to Peter the Greek’s Seafood Café in Bourke Street which sells the best fish and chips in Sydney. And, despite my wife’s constant objections, I especially enjoy regularly having my hair cut next door to Peters by Theo the Greek barber, who not only deals with hair on the head, but with recalcitrant hairs in the nose and ears as well.

Theo is famous/infamous for his VERY SHORT haircuts. What I really like is when Theo puts down his scissors and says, “Will that do? I pause for a moment and then almost always say, quite deliberately, “I think we need off just a little bit more!” Lyndal thinks that no one else has ever said this to Theo. In any case, it certainly produces in my barber what one might best describe as a frisson.

Outside Theo’s barbershop, there is a large sign facing the street saying ‘Gents Hairdressing. Specialising in All Styles.’ I like that. In some ways it describes the way I operate in my mid-sixties. Never limit any opportunities or possibilities. Be open and eager for experience. Avoid sloth and self-pity. And above all, be comforted by the fact that, no matter what happens, within a month or two my hair grows back to ‘normal.’

As I mentioned, I think Lyndal’s revelations about coping with life in her 60s, after having been a well-known Australian model and actor, is one of the funniest contributions to the book.
I haven’t the time to detail Lyndal’s many suggestions for life improvement, including the multifaceted possibilities potentially available should there ever be travelling Botox clinicians & salespersons knocking door to door.

But did you know the vast educational opportunities provided in the first decade of the 21st century by women’s panty liners?

“For Everyday Freshness, Lyndal uses ‘Libra Absorbent Liners’. As she reveals in her essay, “Becoming Invisible, a bonus for the over 50s and over 60s with time on their hands, is that inside each Libra Liner is a short page of “interesting facts.
For example, one morning recently Lyndal learnt that: ‘Mosquitoes have teeth and are attracted to people who have recently eaten bananas’;

‘American Airlines saved $40,000 dollars in 1987 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in First Class’;

“Sigmund Freud had a morbid fear of ferns.’

‘Cats can hear ultrasound.’

‘Sugar was added to chewing gum in 1869 by a dentist, William Semple.’

‘Liquorice can raise your blood pressure.’

and

‘When the Eiffel Tower was built in 1884, Parisians referred to it as “the tragic lamp post’

So here’s a tip to take home this afternoon for yourselves, your partners, and for all your friends.

To add considerably to one’s general knowledge, modern-day panty liners, at least the absorbent Libra brand, are highly recommended reading for women, and for men, and for their male and female friends and associates, who have moved, or are moving, beyond the big Five O.

So there it is. GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY.

Now it’s over to Anne and Margaret and Robyn who will each speak for about 10 minutes, to allow plenty of time for questions.

As you can see, multiple copies of the book are now on sale.

Well-known writer and broadcaster, and regular columnist for The Australian newspaper, Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Author of 29 books, he is currently completing ‘A NATION UNDER THE INFLUENCE: a history of alcohol in Australia’. Ross Fitzgerald and the ex Australian model of the Year 1970, Lyndal Moor, are contributing co-editors of ‘GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY: 35 Australians reflect on life over 50’, published by ABC Books. Price $35.00. As well as Ross and Lyndal, contributors include Wayne Swan, Margaret Fink, Gerry Connolly, Susan Kurosawa, Anne Deveson, Robyn Williams, and Anne & Gerard Henderson.

One Comment »

  • Daphne said:

    Interesting to know.