A sentimental bloke
In his new memoir, Graeme Blundell recalls a relationship with a father shaped by war
IWAS born in Melbourne on August 7, 1945, the day after a US Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. ‘‘ A large city somewhere in a faraway place called Japan,’’ said my mother, Jean. The bomb was nicknamed Little Boy, she told me some years later when I asked her about it. ‘‘ The world stopped for a while when you were a little boy and no one thought it would ever be the same again.’’
My father, leading aircraftman Jack Blundell, a wireless operator with the RAAF, was still away at war up north.
Just before Christmas, Jean received a telegram saying Jack would be home that day. Then he was at the front door. He was thin and his skin was yellow from the anti- malarial drug he had taken in New Guinea.
Mum told me of an evening a long time ago when my father had just turned 21. It was 1942 and they were sitting on a Carlton park bench, near where my father lived with his family in a small terrace.
‘‘ The Japs look like coming here,’’ he told her in his shy way, his voice quietly modulated. ‘‘ I can’t let other people fight my battles.’’
He was sent to Goodenough Island in Papua New Guinea, one of the D’Entrecasteaux group in Milne Bay, where the conditions were primitive and ticks and fleas carried typhus fever. My father spent nights on reconnaissance, listening to the traffic of radio signals; he dodged air raids, and ran a two- up school. Now, at the end of 1945, my frail father was back. G. N. Raymond, the large shoe company to which he had been apprenticed, had requested his release from the air force, stating he was needed back in his old job as a pattern cutter.
We lived in Bridport Street, South Melbourne, for nearly three years. When my brother Dennis was born we moved into a large Victorian- style house at Clifton Hill. But Jack went to hospital for a fistula operation and was unable to help in the move. He had come back from New Guinea with bowel cancer, we later discovered, and was often sick.
Then we moved to Reservoir at the end of the train line that ran north, where the land was cheap. My mother’s first impressions of the Blundell block were of scotch thistles everywhere, piles of tarpaulined timber and bricks, makeshift housing, sheds and workman’s huts. ‘‘ I sometimes feel we’re living in a refugee camp,’’ she once said.
My father had been building a single- storey weatherboard house on weekends, with the assistance of the War Service Homes Scheme. Once the frame was up, we moved to the grassy, boulder- ridden block, where sheep grazed during the day. You could smell fires at night and the air was wet in the winter. Wind hissed through the aluminium chassis of our caravan. It was hard in the new suburbs after the war. The baker, iceman and milkman managed to deliver to the halferected houses in horse- drawn carts, or sometimes in rickety trucks that were always losing hub caps.
Most Friday nights the parents pushed prams up the muddy road to the picture theatre in Reservoir, several miles through the paddocks, my father singing in his soft tenor: ‘‘ It’s just a little street where old friends meet and treat you in the same old way.’’
Before television arrived on a large scale in Australia, people formed big crowds outside the windows of electrical stores containing the most recently imported sets. We used to drive in Dad’s battered Essex down High Street to William Wonder’s Store in Preston, with Thermoses and corned beef sandwiches, to watch Dragnet and I Love Lucy. Within a year Dad had bought a set.
Dad’s family was a strange mixture of Irish, German and recalcitrant English. There were larcenous butchers, domestic servants from Cork and musical Germans. The family was so full of eccentrics, it was difficult to know why he had chosen a life in shoes. I overheard conversations about softeners and tannage, elastomers and solvents, surfactants and plasticisers, but as we grew up, my father rarely spoke about his work to us.
‘‘ Jack didn’t like talk,’’ my mother said. ‘‘ He wasn’t interested.’’ He was courteous, though. He told Jean that in New Guinea he thought of his mother and how he had never helped her enough. ‘‘ I made up my mind that my children would always wait until their mother came to the table before they started eating,’’ he said.
It had been a hard war for Jack Blundell and he would die because of it. But he loved telling stories about his adventures. He told stories at home in Reservoir. When he told them there was always something more than his soft, resonant voice; more than a gaunt man in a quiet room with his children. There was the bond that had held soldiers together, the shared experience and suffering of war.
Dad described the pervasive resignation of the men, with their thoughts of home. But they tried to give life to the games of cricket and football they played on windswept tracts of cleared land.
He told me and my brother how he would run for the trenches halfway through his tea and look up to see perfect formations of Japanese planes surrounded by bursting shells. ‘‘ Above me there were dogfights to the death,’’ he said.
The soldiers sat in their camouflaged tent at night, five men ranging in age from 20 to 35, every one of them with a marked difference in character. ‘‘ When a man lives cut off from the rest of the world, he finds he wants to talk, and try to explain what he is thinking. The best of a man comes out up there; he realises he just didn’t appreciate what the good things in life meant to him: like a good home, his family and the love of a woman. One of the good things of a war is that it softens a man’s heart and tends to make him more understanding.’’
When I think of Jack now, he always seems to wear faint lines on his face that are barely visible, like a 40- year- old wearing a 20- year- old’s skin. He was always tired, but tried hard to be affable. He hated arguments.
I have no doubt that he came back from the war with a vision of a better future, but he seemed caught between his natural decency and a war’s understanding of the inevitability of life’s cruelties. When he appears in my mind, I can only see the outlines of a distant man overwhelmed by a collapsing body. ‘‘ I can’t go to work today,’’ he sometimes told my mother, and he would spend the day silently in bed.
The one thing that his health never stood in the way of was cricket. I wanted to be spoken about the way people talked of my father when it came to cricket, for he was a quiet man people respected. He was a fluid and wristy batsman, and played district cricket before the war and then sub- district cricket for Port Melbourne, Balwyn and Ivanhoe with considerable success.
Cricket was the family’s obsession. ‘‘ That’s all the family ever talks about,’’ Mum often said.
My mother remembers my dad coming home on hot Saturday nights after the match, when he was very sick, and sitting outside our weatherboard house on a long wooden ramp that led up to the kitchen from the back yard. The cancer was killing him but no batsman in the Preston and Northcote Churches Competition, where he ended his playing career, would ever make as many runs again. ‘‘ Why do you do it?’’ she asked him. ‘‘ Because I love it,’’ he replied.
His illness quietly and insidiously took him away from us. He died towards the end of 1962. The hard time for my mother began the night she came home from the Royal Melbourne Hospital with baby Kathryn. My new little sister.
Soon after she returned from the hospital, Jack collapsed in the bath. Dad was taken to the same hospital Mum had just left.
That afternoon we went to the hospital to see him as he was recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer. All we knew was that Dad was seriously ill. When we reached his ward, my mother was shocked to see all his tubes had been taken away. The nurse told us he was in a coma and the end was very near.
‘‘ It was so quiet in the hospital except for the wind that seemed to be howling around the passages,’’ my mother remembered.
Outside the small room where my comatose father breathed harshly, hanging on to life, was a small line of wooden chairs as close together as stacked plates. I sat there, or looked in at my mother who sat next to Jack, saying nothing. Occasionally I cuddled Kathryn while she slept in my arms. I had never understood the notion of a person’s world collapsing in an instant. But all at once, that was how I felt, as if the walls, the ceiling and the floor began to suck in towards my mother and me, rushing the air out of the narrow hospital passageway and us with it.
At times I closed my eyes and tried to remember my father with other people, and moments that should have been as vivid as Kodak snapshots. But nothing came. Eventually all I could think of was my father singing How Much is that Doggie in the Window? because I loved the sounds he made of the dog barking.
We were sent home from the hospital later in the evening to get some rest. The next morning Dennis, who was 15, nine- year- old Margaret and I sat with Mum around the dining table, and Mr Stelling, the new Baptist minister, came to tell us Jack had died.
‘‘ After Jack went we had to get on with our lives,’’ my mother said. We all took turns caring for Kathy, changing nappies, feeding, bathing and just being around her. It was hard.
Jack Blundell was always neatly attired in a crisp white shirt, the middle button of his suit done up, his trousers still creased from Mum’s ironing. He often brought home beautifully coloured paper, harlequin design that was used to wrap the fine shoes he created. And I still remember the pencils he gave me in wooden boxes surrounded by fragile white tissue paper. Edited extract from The Naked Truth: A Life in Parts by Graeme Blundell ( Hachette Australia, $ 35). Blundell will appear at this month’s Brisbane Writers Festival.
After the war: A family outing; Graeme Blundell,
main picture; and with his dad, Jack, inset