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Ageing with help and grace

23 August 2009 2,081 views No Comment

Although my mother was an atheist and my father a lapsed Catholic, as a child at home living in the petite bourgeois Melbourne suburb of East Brighton, before our main meal, which during the week we called “tea and which started at exactly 5pm, we always said “grace.

These days, over 60 years later, I still think saying grace is a good idea. This is in part because there is a lot to be said for gratitude , about being alive for starters and for being able to eat a nourishing meal, in safety, for seconds.

Thirty years ago, my friend, “Broken Hill Jack Harris asked me if I knew the definition of a fortunate man? In those gender specific days, Broken Hill Jack’s answer was, “A man (now it should be a person) who thinks he’s fortunate. In lateish 2009, it strikes me that there’s a great deal of truth in that definition.

These days, when I’m asked how I am, I usually reply, “A lot better than the alternatives! Given a past chequered with uncontrolled alcoholism and other drug abuse abuse, until I managed to stop drinking and using other drugs at 25, I am extremely lucky to still be alive, let alone to be approaching my 65th birthday, which if I survive will occur this coming Christmas Day. The fact that I’ve been sober for nearly 40 years, with nothing in my blood but blood, means that I’ve been on the planet for almost 40 years longer than I would have been, if I hadn’t stopped drinking and taking all those tablets.

I’m also grateful (indeed amazed) that I’ve been married to the one person for 35 years. This is especially the case given the fact that, when I was drinking, living with me for 35 minutes, let alone 35 weeks, or 35 years was something remarkable indeed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that all is on the up with my own good self and with my wife and partner, Lyndal Moor, the ex Australian model of the year and star of early TV shows like ‘Skippy’, ‘Spy Force’ and ‘Long Arm’. The truth is that Lyndal and I are showing distinct signs of wear and tear, which require all sorts of help from medical, social, and other supportive agencies.

Indeed, if myself and Lyndal, who turns 65 in September, didn’t feel old enough already, the New South Wales premier, at Parliament House, launched GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Seniors’ Week!

Yet one of the advantages of ageing and especially 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 our 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 this morning, 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 of the Sydney Institute, “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 that GIVE is not my middle name. One evening at Brisbane’s peculiarly named Mater Mothers Hospital (as you would know, ‘mater’ means ‘mother’) after I presented a female acquaintance who’d just had a baby, with a less than expensive gift, I inexplicably broke into tears.

A mate explained the situation thus. “You were, he said, Overwhelmed by your own sensitivity.

Last night, before I flew down to Melbourne, 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 morning’s function, I hold a shy hope that GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY and UNDER THE INFLUENCE: A HISTORY OF ALCOHOL IN AUSTRALIA which is published tomorrow by ABC Books, might buck the trend and be both well received and actually widely read.

With regard to GROWING OLD (DIS)GRACEFULLY, it was a joy to edit this book of 35 essays on retirement and ageing, whose contributors range from the 84-year-old communist, Hal Alexander, to the comic actor Gerry Connolly and the founder of The Federation Press, Diane Young, both of whom have just nudged the big Five O.

Contributors to the book, the initials of which Lyndal pointed out spell GOD (i.e. G. O. D) include committed Christians like the Brisbane-based poet and novelist, Phil Brown, and the chairperson of the New South Wales Parole Board, Ian Pike, as well as less certain believers, including noted film producer Jim McElroy, through to unambiguous atheists like myself and Lyndal and the marvelous Margaret Fink.

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.

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 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(er) 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 Lyndal’s which is September 11 (what most of the world now calls 9/11), or even our wedding anniversary which appropriately enough, given our loving but volatile relationship, is November 5 – Guy Fawkes Day?

Then there is my chronic inability to remember names. A promising suggestion from my friend Barry Humphries is to associate each person’s name with some other thing or object. Recently, on a board on which I serve in Sydney, 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 mental and physical deterioration, and 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.” This quote begins BUZY IN THE FOG: FURTHER ADVENTURES OF GRAFTON EVEREST, the third of my Grafton Everest novels – all of which bombed in Australia, but which sold brilliantly in South Africa and the United Kingdom in Corgi Bantam’s “Black Swan series. This fiction got its name after I asked a Jungian therapist who I was seeing in London: “How do you think I’m doing? Dr Costello truthfully replied: “I think you’re buzy in the fog, Ross.

Another Queensland friend maintains that the most brilliant idea that I have ever come up with in my entire life 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!

One of the many reasons that Lyndal and I have been married for 35 years is that she’s a woman who isn’t the slightest bit interested in illness. I remember years ago saying, “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. To any reviewing request, my motto is ‘Never, never say No; Never refuse.” It is rather like my tendency , no matter how provoked – not to respond to criticism, a position to which I almost invariably adhere.

As Sigmund Freud rightly said, the secret to a good life is “love and work. 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!”

But, even for retirees, it is still easy to be misunderstood. My maverick friend Bob Katter, the Independent federal member for the vast north Queensland seat of Kennedy, which is actually bigger than Belgium, tells the story of his father Bob Katter Snr, who was actually a member of the ALP until the Great Labor Split in 1957.

Katter was driving a battered old Ute, windows down, through the boon-docks outside of Charters Towers. As he was hurling down an unmade road, an Aboriginal woman called out “PIG. To which Katter Snr put his head out the window and called out “BITCH. A second or two later, he ran slap bang into a wild boar!

Recently I was made a Professorial Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, in North Sydney. A journalist asked, “Are you a Catholic?

“Put it this way, I said. “And this is a true story. A friend of mine went hitchhiking in Ireland. The bloke who picked him up asked, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant? When my friend responded, “I’m an atheist”, the driver said. “No. Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist? The journalist looked like she’d been hit in the face by a wet fish! “Forget it, I said, “Let it go through to the wicketkeeper.

After we had lived in Brisbane for over a quarter of a century, four 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.” Then she said: “I don’t want to die in Brisbane. One would have to have a heart of steel not to accede to that.

As I wanted (and still want) to stay with Lyndal, the decision was crystal clear. A fait accompli! So now we are living in the wilds of Redfern, in a terrace house called “Greystoke” which was the name of the ancestral home of Lord Greystoke – Tarzan of the Apes. The peculiar thing is that while our house was built in 1898, Edgar Rice Burroughs did not publish the first Tarzan novel until 1912.

As it happens, when walking through Redfern with my dog Maddie, I almost always carrying what my teetotal, Collingwood football playing, father Bill (‘Long Tom’) Fitzgerald used to call an umberella!

Dad also used to say, “I’m looking forwards to seeing you, which to me makes perfect linguistic sense. By the way, Maddie, our feisty West Highland White terrier, is a groaker. For those who don’t know, to groak (GROAK) means to look at someone else’s food with imploring eyes. And did you know that Westies were bred from Cairns terriers?

As it happens, when drunk (which was frequent) a number of Scottish lairds hunting foxes shot their similarly colored dogs instead. So, believe it or not, that’s why they bred the Westies white.

One of the many positives of living in Redfern is that our sprawling suburb is close to the airport and only a 20-minute walk into the city. Despite Lyndal’s strong objection, I especially enjoy having my hair cut 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 say, quite deliberately, “I think we need off just a little bit more!” Lyndal maintains 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 Bourke 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.’

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 and 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, 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.

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.’

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 today.

Modern-day panty liners, at least the absorbent Libra brand, are highly recommended reading for women, and for men, who have moved, or are moving, beyond the big Five O.

For your interest our co-edited book, GROWING OLD (DIS) GRACEFULLY, is available for sale from ABC Books and from your local bookstore.

But before I finish, let me say that, apart from Barry Humphries and Jerry Lewis, my favourite twentieth century comedian was the American with the big cigar, George Burns, who recounted that on his 100th anniversary he got a standing ovation , just for standing!

Thank you very much for having me.

Opening address to the Local Government Professional Aged & Disability Services Seminar, Melbourne, Friday 28 August, 2009.

Well-known writer and broadcaster, and regular columnist for The Australian newspaper and The Spectator Australia, Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and part-time professorial fellow at The Australian Catholic University.

Ross Fitzgerald and his wife, 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, David Lord, Peter Kogoy, Susan Kurosawa, Anne Deveson, Robyn Williams, Phil Brown, Ian McFadyen, Anne & Gerard Henderson, and Heather & Peter Beattie.

Ross Fitzgerald’s coauthored book UNDER THE INFLUENCE: A HISTORY OF ALCOHOL IN AUSTRALIA is published by ABC Books.