Jun 012017
 

A major misstep in my childhood was made while wearing my first pair of rugby boots (which were actually a pair of cheap sneakers in my case.) At the age of 7, I’d never even heard of of rugby league, having just moved to the Australian mainland from Tasmania where we didn’t play the game, but my new classmates had been playing it for a year already. At this new school the game was revered like religion, demonstrated by the fact that our coach was a red-faced, constantly screaming (at me anyway) Catholic priest. Father Footy was a much-loved coach by those who adored rugby, but utterly useless to someone like me who wasn’t naturally imbued with the joy of football, and whose family had never explained the game.

On the sidelines of a freezing football field in a New England Tablelands winter, we puny wee athletes prepared ourselves for battle; outsized jerseys were pulled over big noggins and thin necks to cover scrawny & shivering rib cages. Spindly little legs mottled by the harsh cold thrust out of baggy shorts into big black nobbly boots, that were almost as nobbly as the boney little knees knocking together above them. Father Footy too was decked out in full rugby kit and boots, as he led a troop of pint-sized athletes onto a boggy football field on a frosty day, to vie for a ball that seemed as big to me then as a sack of potatoes would be to me now. People who didn’t innately understand God’s Game were apparently unimaginable in the theology of Father Footy, who never even considered that the new boy from interstate might actually need some tuition in the rules. Father Footy blew a piercing blast on his referee’s whistle – FWEET! – my first ever rugby game was underway, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.

In TV shows or movies of those times, Catholic priests were either portrayed as innocuous Mickey Mouse types (like the priest from MASH) or tortured souls (like the young priest in THE EXORCIST) but I’ve never seen the likes of this particular priest portrayed in the media. He was macho, dispensing gleeful knuckle-crushing handshakes and cheerily rough-housing us boys and all the parish loved him – dads, mums and kids alike. Father Footy’s reputation, and the status of Catholic priests in general, was unimpeachable in those bygone days, which is hard to believe in the 21st century when priests have become punchlines to tawdry jokes at best, and the focus of major heartbreaking court cases at worst (including Father Footy himself, decades later) so it’s hard to convey the stature of priests before that fall from grace. Within the Catholic community of an Australian small town in the early 1970s, priests were held in high regard indeed and especially a rugby playing priest. God’s right hand, man’s man, the archangel Gabriel in cleated footy boots; his authority on matters moral, spiritual and physical is hard to overstate.

However, as no instruction had been forthcoming from our so-called ’coach’, and I was already in the midst of a game I knew nothing about, I attempted to dart about the muddy football field in as purposeful a manner as was possible for someone who hadn’t got a clue what his purpose actually was. Spying another sawn-off athlete, likewise dashing and darting, I sidled up to him and, whispering out of the side of my mouth, asked what we were expected to do. Gesturing to a big letter ’H’ at the end of the freezing quagmire, he said that if the ball was ever passed to us we were to carry it between the giant letter H at each end, which he referred to as “goal posts”. This seemed simple enough, but just to be safe I decided to keep my purposeful darting a discreet distance from all the action, rushing forward as if I was ready for something only when the focal point of the game had moved beyond me. This strategy was working quite well, when my purposeful darting accidentally blundered into “the zone” and the ball came my way. Urged on by the other teeny players, and some incomprehensible screamings and urgent flailings from Father Footy, I picked up the huge football and, like a monkey carrying a watermelon, I purposefully darted to the nearest goal posts I could find. Miraculously, no other player came close as I dashed heroically toward my target and the roar of the crowd receded in my ears as I planted the ball triumphantly, and turned around for my accolades.

Howls of protest and angry jigs from my team mates were matched by hooting laughter and finger pointing by the opposing team. Both of these sounds were blown away by a red faced angry blast from the gaping maw of Father Footy, who was passionately upset about some Sacrilege or other. I was transfixed by the foaming spittle at the sides of Father Footy‘s screaming mouth as he made it clear to me that I had scored a point for the other side. This ability to simultaneously evoke contemptuous laughter, disgust and anger was to set the tone of my athletic ’achievements’ for the rest of my life. Eventually, I became inoculated against such humiliation through constant exposure, and would learn that if the world treats you like a clown it’s best to act as though you intended it, but being the object of universal derision was a new experience on that particular day. Overwhelmed by the scope of my own apparent ineptitude, I started to blubber and bawl. This made Father Footy more furious than ever, which caused me to bawl even more, leading to more red-faced yelling, and so on. We were a breeder reactor of humiliation & fury by the time Dad showed up at the end of the game to take me home, and after hearing my blubbering recap on what had happened, he gave the footy priest both barrels from his righteous-indignation parental blunderbuss. Turns out that Dad and Father Footy were schoolmates back in the days of yore, and it appeared that there was no love lost. There was a high volume red faced screaming match in which Father Footy said I was a cry baby (which was true) and Dad challenged Father Footy’s inattentive coaching skills (also very true). This brouhaha unfolded in front of a bunch of other parents who’d just arrived to pick up their own kids, aghast that anyone would ever challenge Father Footy about footy, and on a footy field no less. GASP. Thinking back on it now, this may have been the Ground Zero Moment for my lifelong awkwardness in regards to sports.

In movies (or even the real world) parents may be resented for not supporting their children at ball games, but personally, I dreaded family members showing up, prefering as small an audience as possible for my bumbling ineptitude. If I felt any ill will toward my parents on the subject of sports it was that they made me participate in the compulsory ritual in the first place, rather than give me parental permission to opt out of the ordeal, as other ‘sensitive‘ souls had been allowed to do. Though my parents confided that they too loathed sports in their own schooldays, they nevertheless insisted I participate, invoking the phrase ‘character building’ more than once. There was no way out. Thus, a knock kneed & freckled Sisyphus played rugby on joyless winter weekends, sometimes being driven to nearby towns to undergo his grueling character-trials there. Waist-high to a crowd of adult onlookers high on parental adrenaline rushes, we tiny players scurried by, chasing the ball. As contorted fright-mask faces screamed and bellowed with vicarious passion, I could never grasp what all the frenzy was about. To me, rugby was incomprehensible torture. A pain-in-motion conundrum. It was physical humiliation algebra.

As a full grown adult, I was introduced to the idea that sports were something that people who enjoyed eachother’s company might do together, for fun. This novel concept made me wonder if perhaps I too might have enjoyed sports, if I’d been introduced to them in a spirit of joy rather than drudgery. Why, even now there may be a parallel universe in which a version of me enjoys watching and participating in games (I am obliged to conjure a science fiction scenario even to countenance the possibility of a physically co-ordinated me). However, even in such an alternate reality it’s difficult to imagine having the almost orgasmic connection to sports that most men have. When romantic couplings are heard through neighbouring apartment walls the male participants are probably inaudible, but you’ll definitely hear male climaxing when a ball game is on TV next door, and if it happens to be a championship game, the lowing rumble of male pleasure and pain will moan forth from bars and apartments across the entire town, like a rutting frenzy at the zoo monkey house. I’m grateful to be free from that primal-ritual-ballyhoo, and my Zen-like detachment is due to a Catholic priest; Father Footy. 

Nov 052015
 

I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.

The inbetweener: cartoons

I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).

Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.

In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.

My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?

the inbetweener: brain scans

With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.

The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.

One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign. The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities- the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.

The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.

the inbetweener: desk

When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).

After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).

The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.

the inbetweener: hospital

As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.

I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.

The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.

the inbetweener: Mum's grave

As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.

The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.

The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I finally got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for nearly 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always ever-so faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of all her 7 children, I was was blessed to have had Mum’s loving guidance all the way up to my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.

the inbetweener: family photo
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Feb 222015
 

At around the age of 15, I met a group of older teenagers who’d already finished with high school, shared a house and lived on the dole. I thought they were the height of teen cool because they could do whatever they wanted; woah.

TeenageCamelot_1

I was still obliged to wear my school uniform and kow-tow to ‘the man’ but these young gents were free, living in a largish house near the centre of town that was a meeting point for we other teens to drop in at all times of the day. The lads were anarchic sages and their house a chaotic Valhalla– a marvellously ramshackle and glorious pigsty, financed by the gentlemen tenants’ pooled dole checks. Like ancient Greek philosophers, they lounged about and pondered many things while quaffing ale, spinning tall tales and trading japes while getting stoned, and playing their raucous music at top volume. They were a much-envied teen leisure class. Yet, there was trouble in paradise.. with only sufficient funds to cover rent and food OR drugs, at least one essential ingredient of their Bohemian lifestyle was bound to be lacking each fortnight.

One drug-addled evening, while ruminating upon this conundrum with empty stomachs, the teen wise-men had the epiphany that a solution to their cashflow problems was to steal a sheep. The paddocks around town were chock full of lamb chops just walking about, and the merry men reasoned that this supply of ‘free’ food made it possible to eat AND pay rent AND buy recreational chemicals. Genius! Enthused with this idea, and infused with drugs, they eagerly piled into an old truck like madcap clowns crammed into a clown-car, and off they went to nick a sheep in the dead of night. Chasing a sheep hither and yon through paddocks round and round all night long will deplete the energies of even the most stoned of stoners, and when the poor sheep was finally cornered and stuffed whimpering into the ute, those gentlemen of leisure were stone cold sober.

TeenageCamelot_2

The sheepnappers drove back into town mid-morning, one anxiously sitting in the back of the ute with his parka draped nonchalantly over the sheep to disguise the lads’ still-bleating dinner from curious passers-by. I walked into the scene at this point when, back at their H.Q. in the cold hard light of day, the exhausted and now-sober away-team contemplated the logical conclusion of their midnight black-ops mission– namely, the butchering of the wailing animal. The elephant in the room was actually a sheep, and who exactly was going to kill it? The humans became sheepish at what they’d done, even as the sheep itself became more stridently vocal in its desire to go home, yawping mournfully as one shifty-eyed stoner after another wiped his hands of the responsibility of knifing poor Sheepikins. “Not me! I drove the truck!” “But I caught the sheep!” “Well I won’t do it, I came up with the plan!” and so on.

Eventually, it was agreed that one of them had a mate who was a butcher (or worked at the abattoir, I never understood which) and he could do the dastardly deed. This buck-passing breakthrough was celebrated with a fortifying bong-toot or two, as the terrified sheep shat-a-tat its pellets on the kitchen floor. The finer points of lining up the illicit back-alley butchery would take another day or so, and in the meantime all the surrounding households were alerted to the presence of their new neighbour; a wild-eyed sheep constantly bawling for its life from within the wastrels’ garage. Armidale’s finest were alerted, the sheep was rescued from the dinner plate, several twitchy deadbeats were grilled by John Law, the farmer was reunited with his homesick animal, and a few stoner ne’er do wells were charged, but I never knew who, or of precisely what, because their house disbanded.

TeenageCamelot_3

After several months of their acquaintance I finally realised that a group I’d previously seen as The Round Table of Cool was merely a Teen Three Stooges on drugs. Yes, they could do whatever they wanted, but these galloots’ choices of how to use that precious freedom was invariably asinine. Tragically, they were tempted by a plump Sheep Fatale, and so the golden era of Stoned-A-Lot Camelot fell.

Dec 052014
 

Recently, I found a small cardboard box that contains all the artwork, and the super-8 film spool of a movie I made when I was 15-17, for my final high school HSC art exam. This celluloid masterpiece was called SPACE FLiK, and was a parody of Star Wars in the style of Mad magazine (two things I was obsessed with at that age). The same box even contained a journal of my process making this opus, that I submitted to examiners along with the film. It took well over a year of spare-time drawing and very fiddly filming to complete this 7 minute silent epic, and was definitely a case where the end result does not show the amount of time and effort that went into making it.

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As a small child, I’d often dreamed of doing animation for a living, but didn’t think it was even an option. The cartoons on television all had American accents, so I assumed that animation wasn’t produced in Australia. In 1979, I had the choice of leaving high school at the end of that year, as I’d completed the compulsory education requirement, but my parents were both firm believers in the power of education, having been shaped strongly by it themselves, and were insistent on my continuing the final 2 years of high school to keep my options open for further study. I briefly considered studying at film school, but the Australian Film and Television School prospectus convinced me that I was not worthy. The pamphlet I recieved in the mail contained the bios of the previous year’s enrolment of 20 students, the cream of 2,000 applicants, each one of them a prodigy; making award winning super-8 movies at the age of 9, that sort of thing. I needed a new plan.

SpaceFlik_lineup

These days you can easily search for specific things on the internet, and even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for you can make headway by tinkering with a search-engine for a few hours. As a teen, I only had the local library and the phone book, which were only useful if I knew exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t. Then, during school holidays between 1979 and 1980, Dad read out a newspaper advertisement; “Sydney animator will hold an animation workshop over the summer break.” Wha!? I enrolled and met a future co-worker. While we farted around with pencils and paper, he explained that although the voices on TV cartoons were American, many episodes were actually animated in Sydney, at the Hanna-Barbera studio. Better yet, I didn’t have to attend a special school to work there, and could be trained on the job. My jaw hit the floor. Suddenly, a dream job now seemed a possibility, and I had a mission: find out more about this studio and get a job there. I wrote a letter to Hanna-Barbera including my drawing samples, and put it in the mailbox. Even after a few repeat queries, I didn’t get a response, so I got on with life.

In 1980, the year I turned 16, I begun planning the practical art requirement for my final year high school art exam, which was to be at the end of 1981. Because I’d taken 2-unit Art (a ‘double major’ in American terms) I had to do two of these art pieces, and decided to make a short animated film and a series of book illustrations. The illustrations were for the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that we studied in English class, and I did 7 moody pencil illustrations on pastel paper. Thus feeling that I had the highbrow art angle sufficiently staked out, I went lowbrow for my next effort; SPACE FLiK, a super-8 animated movie that used a combo-technique of animation on cells, animation on punched paper and cutout animation, that took NAFF to a whole new level..

SpaceFlik_storyboard

Although I’d often animated flip books, I’d never even attempted to animate on film before. I loved animation, but actually doing some myself seemed about as likely as a ride in a Lamborghini. 1980 was a different time. These days we all carry a tiny movie camera in our pockets, but back then I didn’t know anybody who had a proper movie camera, and even still cameras were relatively uncommon. Our school did own a massive 1970s video camera, and a few of us students tried to do some stop-motion, but the clunky thing had no single-frame shooting capability. If you could squeeze the trigger gently enough, you’d shoot half-second bursts, and make a silly video of your mates seeming to fly around the running track in jerky pixelation, but nothing with finesse. This changed when a good mate of my Dad’s who taught at the nearby Teacher’s College, John Harris, finagled me the extended loan of a proper film camera via his department. Meaning that frame-by-frame animation was something I could finally try.

SpaceFlik_LOGOMy spare time in 1980 was spent planning storyboarding and animating, drawing on bond paper scrounged from school or Dad’s work, and punched with a standard two-hole punch. By the end of that year, I was ready to start filming, and for a boost of inspiration, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came to my hometown cinema at around the same time. I knew that ‘proper’ animation was done on clear plastic cels, but had a hard time finding raw material to make cels with, and used whatever was available. I butchered several shirt boxes for their clear plastic but never had many, and didn’t have the means to xerox my drawings onto the cels anyway, so the animation done on paper was then cut out with scissors, and painstakingly glued onto these naff cels.

After each shot was in the can, the drawings were peeled off the cels and I’d do another scene. Sometimes, I’d just eyeball it and move the sequential cut outs under camera, using one cel with positioning guides drawn on it. I was utterly clueless about photography at this stage in my life, but thankfully David Rose, a photographer from the Teacher’s College, impressed upon me the need to take great care with the technical aspects. He painted a vivid mental picture of me filming for months, only to develop the roll of film and discover that I’d either under or over exposed it. Needless to say that scenario was my nightmare, and was only averted by David showing me tricks to ensure that the exposure in the camera was set correctly (involving holding a grey neutral card under the camera when taking a light reading).

SpaceFlik_inviteSPACE FLiK was shot in a study room at school where I could leave the camera setup undisturbed. Because this was the only camera that I had access to, and was in use by others during term times, I did most of the shooting during weekends and holidays. While my family went on holiday that summer, the end of 1980 into early 1981, I stayed home to shoot my movie, and ‘shooting’ was the theme of the shoot; the radio played the news of John Lennon’s killing while I was filming, then the Pope was shot a few months later and Ronald Reagan a few months after that, around the time I started editing (it was a brutal shoot in more ways than one). Although I’d worked on the film for ever so long, it took so much time to simply animate, shoot, and edit it that there wasn’t time for many reshoots, and the final film is pretty much my first pass.

In that same box of recently-found SPACE FLiK materials, was an invitation I drew for the FILM PREMIERE party, where family, friends, various supporters, and Ross Cochrane, my art teacher, all assembled in August 1981 to finally watch SPACE FLiK. It debuted at a screening in the poshest room of our house, where I’d set up a movie projector and screen (likewise provided by John Harris and David Rose). As we nibbled Mum’s snacks and watched my movie, my supporters were a very appreciative and encouraging audience, but I could see all my mistakes; the timing was off, sometimes too rushed and sometimes too slow. Nearly 2 years after I’d cooked up the idea, it seemed perhaps a little too silly, even to me; I was 15 in early 1980 when I hatched the plan, and 17 when it was finally done in late 1981. The ratio of work done to screen-time was heartbreaking, but it was great to have it finally done at last. Not long after, it was sent off to be judged by the HSC examiners, along with my artsy book illustrations. In the end, I made quite a cock-up of the written part of the HSC art exam (answering BOTH questions in an either/or essay option and neglecting to answer another compulsory question completely) and my final art mark was a disappointment to everyone, not the least being me.

SpaceFlik_baddie

After submitting it to my high school art exam, I entered SPACE FLiK in a young filmmaker’s contest, perhaps with visions of being thought of in the same glowing terms as the filmmakers in the Australian Film and Television School prospectus that I’d read earlier. The gala screening was a fancy shindig at the Sydney Opera House, and though I knew in advance I’d not won any prizes, it was a thrill to attend and hear the keynote speaker Peter Weir, who addressed we young hopefuls. I eagerly looked forward to reading the judges’ thoughts about my film, which all contest applicants received. The thrill diminished substantially upon reading the multi-page assessment of SPACE FLiK, where each of the judges utterly savaged it in one withering page after another. Though it gutted me to read this tome of scorn at age 17, I’d gleefully share some quotes with you now if I could, but I must have tossed the document away in a fit of teen peevishness. But the judges were right; as a personal film, SPACE FLiK was derivative and hopelessly crudely made.

This project from my long-ago adolescence is my closest equivalent to the films my colleagues all made at CalArts or Sheridan, and the only personal animation project I’ve ever done. Finding these mementos of my NAFFimation™ has brought back a flood of memories and quite a few chuckles, and I’m now looking into a way of transferring it from super-8 to digital media so I can watch it again. Perhaps due to its critical savaging, and my own growing awareness of its limitations, I never showed  it to anyone to get a job in animation, although that had been on my mind when I made it. I eventually got my first job at Hanna-Barbera on the strength of my drawn portfolio alone. But making this silly little high school film was invaluable experience nonetheless.

SpaceFlik_TIE

Learning the punishing ratio between workload and screen-time in a cartoon was a useful early lesson for someone who’d soon go on to work in professional animation, because the same principal exists there too. Over the next 30 years in the industry, I’d learn another startling truth; crews work every bit as hard on the films that you hate as they do on those films you love. Family and friends will always be impressed by the filmmakers’ efforts, but everyone else only cares about what’s on screen. It’s a heartbreaking fact that sometimes the hard work simply isn’t captured in the film, for utterly mysterious reasons, unrelated to the talent, brains, passion and work ethic of the filmmakers.

UPDATE: I’ve finally finished the SPACE FLiK restoration. The “Corrector’s Cut” can be seen HERE.

Mar 172014
 

I have recently been wrestling with re-learning how to draw. The loss of my former ability has led me to reflect on what drawing has meant to me in my 30 year career as a cartoonist, and how and why I came to be so interested in drawing in the first place.

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Back when I was very little, when my active interest in drawing began, there was no ’creative’ person in my family, apart from my Mother who played piano, and certainly nobody that drew. However, my Father enjoyed cartoons, whether in magazines or animated films, and I remember being endlessly fascinated at a very young age by the idle doodles on his desk blotter; silly faces and the like. His younger brothers, my uncles, could be relied upon as a source of cartoon books, comics, Mad magazine, and so forth, and in general, I grew up in an environment appreciative of cartoons. As I got older, I certainly never had to fight anyone to pursue drawing as a career. While many of my colleagues had to battle their families, I’m lucky that my own encouraged my interests.

Drawing became a big part of my life since as far back as 7 or 8 years old. I drew before then, of course, as all children do. I had drawing battles with many of my classmates in 1st and 2nd class, and at that age everyone drew, at least to some degree. But the beginning of my serious interest in drawing dates from the time when most kids were turning away from it, around the age of 8. Children become self conscious at that age and reject anything identified as childish. I too remember self-importantly announcing to my mother that I was too old to lick the excess cake batter from her cooking bowl, much to the great delight of my Father, who licked it clean with great relish (though it is unclear which gave him more glee; the tasty morsel or the crestfallen expression of an 8 year old realising he’d given away the crown jewels?)

I became more intrigued by drawing rather than less, and maybe the solo-escapism of drawing became part of its appeal. When I had turned 7, my family moved to a new town, and I felt disconnected, and again when we moved abroad 3 years later. If this had not happened, would I have clung so determinedly to drawing? This interesting thought was first pointed out to me by my childhood friend Peter Lawlor when we were both adults. As a child, I deeply regretted the family move, but if Peter is right, I may have gotten something wonderful, in addition to his friendship, in return for the brief period of childhood alienation.

After the age of 8, when most classmates lost interest in drawing, the one exception was a boy called Warwick Cook. While I staked out the lowbrow, cartoon end of the drawing spectrum, Warwick was a fully fledged watercolour painter, doing beautiful landscapes of the rugged bush around our town. In my memory, these were very sophisticated paintings for a boy of 9 or 10 and I admired Warwick’s ability a great deal. He really was a remarkable boy; good at sports, a good student and one of those likeable people who can mingle easily with everyone, perhaps because of his easy facility with many different facets of life. Rather than grabbing obsessively onto drawing with both hands as I did, (sometimes to the detriment of other things) it was merely one of many things that he enjoyed.

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Warwick made a great impression on me, but I only have memories of him from 2nd-4th class, because I went abroad in 5th class and he’d moved to a new town later on, when I returned. From mutual friends, I’d hear of Warwick’s exploits during high school, and expected great things from him. Sure enough, many years later, when I began working in animation, Warwick went to study painting at art school in London, and he seemed well on his way. Tragically, he was struck by a tube train in a ghastly accident, when he slipped from a wet and crowded underground railway platform one rainy New Years Eve. I had not seen him for 10 years by then, but keenly felt his loss just the same. Warwick will always stay with me as one of my early inspirations at the dawn of my interest in drawing.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that adult attention can have on a kid, especially when not from family members. When I was 8 years old my parents held a party at our house, and I was introduced to Anne Gunner, a student of Dad’s who herself was an educator; an art teacher. On hearing that I liked to draw, she asked to see my drawings and made an ego-gratifying song-and-dance about whatever crude scribblings I showed her (perhaps even some of those here). I remember that she immediately talked to me as one artist to another. Was this a semi-theatrical show for the benefit of amused adults nearby? Possibly, but the important thing is that her unsolicited attention was like water sprinkled on a flower, and I responded to it. She told me that as an aspiring artist I must absolutely make a portfolio. I had no idea what this was, but earnestly understood it to be of paramount importance.

1972_portfolio

So, hilariously, at the age of 8, I gathered together all my drawings and compiled a crude ‘portfolio’, using left-over wallpaper from the renovation of the ’good room’ of our house for the cover. Not clear on what the purpose of such a thing must be, in practice it became a sort of scrapbook; half my own drawings and half whatever interested me at the time, and I carried that thing everywhere. Many of my childhood drawings, including those here, survive to this day mainly because I kept them in that binder, although it was a close thing; a few years later, when my drawings began to markedly improve, I almost threw out these early scribblings in a fit of tween self-consciousness, but I am so glad now that I did not.

A few weeks after meeting Anne Gunner, there was a surprise parcel for me at the front door, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas. She’d sent a huge box of art supplies; crayons, brushes, poster paints, plasticine, and other goodies that lasted me for years, as well as some Walter T. Foster art-instruction books that I still have to this day. I have no idea where Anne Gunner is now, though I’ve tried searching for her on the web several times, but if I ever did get her contact info, I would like to thank her for taking an interest in a 8-year-old boy and following up with a thoughtful gift that changed his life in a very real way.

Drawing; thinking about it, and consciously trying to get ’better’ by understanding how other people did it, became my focus. I’d always loved animation and attempts to draw famous cartoon characters were there right from the very beginning. Though these scribbles are of Disney characters, the cartoons that played most often on TV were by Warner Bros. and they made me laugh hardest and got most of my attention. It wasn’t only that cartoons were funny, but that mere drawings could move and seem alive was magic to me at that age (and hand-drawn animation has that effect on me even now). I wanted to be able to do that too. There’s something about plucking an idea out of my own mind, shaping it, and making it graphically ’real’ on a piece of paper so that it appears to have a life of its own, that endlessly fascinated me, both then and now, and it’s equally intriguing if someone else does it.

The ability for human beings to do marvelous things in sports, the arts or the sciences; the various ways in which the human mind and body dance together, exerts a fascination over all of us, each to their own preference. But the ability to draw, to capture a personal slice of the world, or a quirky phantasm of the mind, is the particular area of human achievement that intrigues me. Over time, drawing became not only a fascination, but also my chosen means of expression. Where someone else may strum a guitar, kick a ball, or dance to vent their pent up emotions, drawing became my go-to means of expressing the inexpressible.

Why were the drawings in magazines and TV cartoons were so good; ’How come I can’t draw like that?’ Seeing this crude page of bird drawings (an attempt to draw the Warner Brothers’ Chicken Hawk so obsessed with Foghorn Leghorn) brings back a memory of a frustrating day trying to draw beaks; ’How do they make the beaks look so good in cartoons?’ I’m not sure why the inability to do something ’well’ led to the abandonment of certain pursuits (mathematics, sport, getting the girls to like me) whereas, my inability to draw was an obstacle to overcome. I lost interest in many things that I was not good at (that list was long indeed) but drawing held my attention despite the frustration of constant failure. I drew no better than the next child, but stayed with it. Why is that? I have thought about it often, but ultimately, I do not know whether it was circumstantial that I would fall in love with drawing, or inevitable, but love it I do.

People who don’t draw sometimes ask me ’When did you start drawing?’ I answer ’When did you stop?’ because every child draws and I just never stopped. I believe that the amount of time a child spends drawing, and more importantly enjoying drawing, is the key to artistic ability, rather than innate talent, which is a factor too, but not as often as you’d expect. Whether a child enjoys drawing enough to stay with it is not tied to their ability, in the beginning anyway. Looking at drawings by a group of 4 and 5 year olds, it is hard to predict which of the kids will become artists in future, and which will become accountants. At around age 8 or 9, the difference in artistic ability becomes more obvious, but by then, many children have already abandoned drawing. Those who enjoy it, despite the frustration, will keep drawing, and the extra time spent scribbling makes a difference that you can see.

For me, drawing was an interest, an escape, and it even played a part in healing me at times. Being alone, drawing in my room, or figuring out how others did the drawings that amused me in magazines and books, is a constant memory of my childhood. I have a vivid memory of a magazine article about the animation director Chuck Jones I read at around the age of 9. I’d already noticed that his name on the cartoon credits meant something hilarious was about to happen, so this article didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it was full of pictures from the cartoons themselves, and this was more precious to me than gold. In an age when every home was not connected to the internet or a digital printer, we didn’t have access to images whenever we wanted, so an article about cartoons complete with pictures I could cut out and keep was a treasure. Reverently, I glued them into my ’portfolio’.

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Children are very concerned with ’growing up’ and so abandoning drawing can be a self conscious attempt to leave ’childish’ things behind. When we learn to read, we move from picture books, then to picture books with some words, then to story books with spot illustrations, and finally to books that are all text with no pictures at all. Thus, we are culturally conditioned to associate pictures with immaturity. Even my career as a cartoonist is rooted firmly in children’s media; animation is occasionally done for adults, but not very often, so if you want to draw as I do for a living you must make your peace with your role as babysitter.  Even though you could make the case that running around chasing a ball is childish too, the fact that adults stay focused on sports means that children stay with it too, but we have ingrained in us that pictures are for kids.

The fact that our education system doesn’t place much importance on visual skills beyond kindergarten is another reason that many children give up drawing. At a similar age, we are being awarded prizes for academic and athletic achievement, so improvement in those areas (and overcoming the frustrations of your limitations) is rewarded. In my experience that was not the case with drawing, where the rewards were all purely personal.

On the other hand, drawing skill not being rewarded, or even acknowledged by ’the system’ was a large part of its appeal to me as a child. Making pictures was the only thing that gave me pleasure that wasn’t contingent on the opinions of team members, class mates, parents or teachers. After about the age of 10, none of my other classmates drew, so it wasn’t a question of competing or being compared to anyone else. Drawing was something that I could do on my own, free from any judgements or comparisons with others.

In adulthood, when I discovered the camaraderie of the art community on the internet, I wished there’d been such a fantastic resource when I was a child. In a small country town, to have had access to a community of like-minded people around the globe would have been marvelous, it seemed to me. But I’ve come to realize that being left to my own devices was probably just what my frail ego needed. By the time I was about 13, my younger brother Rob too took an interest in drawing. It shames me now to remember that at the time, I found this a source of insecurity rather than joy, as I do now. At that age, I’d finally found a persona and identified myself as ’the kid who drew’ and feared sharing the title, as ridiculous as that now sounds. Thankfully, my shrill note of insecurity passed, Rob continued to draw, and in fact he later went to art school. I’m happy to say that he paints to this day, and we often swap notes about the creative process.

At times, it seemed a disadvantage that my interest in drawing grew in isolation, because I had no one to speak with about my interests. Yet, it was really an amazing advantage, because I had many years to develop my own voice, free of comparisons with others. Eventually, my lifelong interest in drawing led me to do it for a living rather than solely to amuse myself, as I did as a child. By the time I was compared to others, and as a pro-cartoonist it is a fact of life, I’d already built a solid relationship with drawing. Even though I was constantly challenged, and worked daily in the presence of masters whose abilities far overshadow my own, it didn’t change the fact that I love drawing. But if I’d been subjected to the ego acid-bath of this process earlier, my frail adolescent ego may not have survived the competition, and I might have tossed drawing aside, as I did so many other worthy pursuits.

As a pro-cartoonist I was surrounded by other people who drew, and drew astonishingly well. Like it or not, I had to accept that I was no longer ‘special’. But in exchange for this reality-check, I became part of a creative collaboration, which is wonderfully rewarding in another way. I grew to take pleasure in the prowess of others, and seeing those phantoms plucked from other people’s minds and then made ‘real’, via their drawings gave me daily delight. Sometimes, it is hard for a pro to summon up that spirit of pure joy that drawing gave as a child, because the drawings are now tied to budgets and schedules, and generally bogged down in other mundane things, yes, even including the judgements of others that I was blissfully spared as a kid. But I think that my best work as a pro came on those days when I could somehow find that childish, playful joy, and pour it into a picture. That spirit sustains me now that I’m learning to draw again these many years later.

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It is difficult for me to imagine my life over the past 30 years without drawing, which ultimately led me out of my home town, took me around around the world, allowed me to see (and sketch!) many foreign lands, and connects me to so many of my friends today. Animation is at times a topsy-turvy business, and I’ve been at it long enough to have seen the great breathing cycle of the industry expand and contract several times already. It can be nerve wracking, but it’s never felt like the wrong choice. I’ve loved living a life led by drawing, and I sincerely hope to get back at it one day; as a south-paw now that my trusty right hand is kaput.

But what about that alternate-universe version of me pointed out by my childhood friend, Peter? An other James Baker whose Dad did not accept a job in another state, and who may not have been briefly thrown on his own inner resources, and might never have discovered the lifelong joys of drawing? Well, what did HE do for a career for the past 30 years, I wonder?

Jan 072014
 

It’s difficult to preserve memory when your older-self’s revised view constantly overwrites the original impression. How do you file a loving memory of someone you no-longer like? Or childhood memories of wonder, but of things now uncool? Do you owe it to your earlier-self to keep that first impression alive?

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One such moment, is a memory of awe and fascination from a lazy summer day in my home town; Boxing Day 1977. The day before, we’d opened presents under our Christmas tree, which was a eucalypt decorated with ornaments and lights (snaffling an Australian-themed Christmas tree was Dad’s own personal tradition). Then we’d had a sunny Christmas lunch outside, under a crabapple tree humming with cicadas. Now Christmas was over, the salvageable wrapping paper was already put away by Mum, and it would be another year before we’d see sweat-soaked Santas in the Australian summer sun, Dad would be complaining about rampant Christmas commercialism again, and the cycle would begin anew.

Hakuna Matata.

My pal Stephen and I sat in my family kitchen thinking of what to do now that Christmas was behind us and we’d “rounded the horn” of the Summer Holidays. As I picked holiday fruitcake out of my braces, Stephen read a movie synopsis from the newspaper about a farmhand from outer-space. I was not like the sophisticated, eyeball-rolling 13 year-olds of today, yet even to me “Luke Skywalker” was the dumbest name I’d ever heard, but a movie with my mates was the best idea I’d heard on that particular Boxing Day, so off we went to watch a new film called STAR WARS.

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In 1977, there weren’t world-wide simultaneous movie releases, and film-prints just crawled from cinema to cinema around the planet, taking 7 months for a mid-year American release to reach my home town. Amazingly, I knew nothing about the cinema sensation of the year, when Stephen and I entered a packed theatre to watch it. First, there was a documentary (an Australian content-quota meant countless naff documentaries) and that night it was about auto-racing and was extra boring, but thankfully the screen went dark when a blown fuse threw the theatre into chaos. We threw lollies at our pal John in the dark, and he lobbed them back at us, while everyone played the fool, rolled Jaffas down the aisle, and called out silly names. After what seemed forever, the power was restored, the audience settled down, the documentary was shelved, and the feature-attraction finally began.

A NEW HOPE
Immediately, I sat up and took notice because Star Wars was way more spectacular than anything I’d ever seen. Without messing about with credits, we were dropped into a budget-blowing opening sequence of battling spaceships, gun fights and robots. I was used to waiting an hour to see anything half as spectacular as the opening shot of this movie. True, Bond films started with action, and that same year, SPY WHO LOVED ME opened with a stuntman skiing off a cliff under a UNION JACK parachute. But first, I’d had to watch Roger Moore’s smirking eyebrow-dance, his alpine snog-sesh, then a cheesy rear-projected ski chase I’d seen before. Star Wars on the other hand, had an opening sequence unlike anything I’d seen, plus aliens and robots, and had the show-stoppingest, climactic action sequence of the year (with Roger Moore’s wrinkly chest nowhere to be seen.)

Seeing Star Wars for the first time at the age of 13 put me in the demographic sweet-spot it was made for, but I remember how much I did not understand in 1977. For example, the movie starts on two robots, then white-armoured troopers arrive, who I thought were robots too. They were led by (I thought) another black-clad robot, using robot-strength to lift a goodie off the deck and bust his neck. I don’t remember when I learned who was a robot and who was human (from a novelisation, I expect) but I watched the movie that first time none the wiser. Unspectacular details also blew my mind in 1977: Aunt Beru serving Luke’s space-lunch with BLUE MILK (Bantha milk perhaps?) WOW. And when Luke slouches off for his teenage-sulk, he stares at a view of not one but two setting suns. WOAH. (I did teen-sulks that year too, but only had the view of Dad’s compost heap at the bottom of our vegetable garden to pose wistfully with.)

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I was floored by Star Wars at 13 years old, but I didn’t see it again before finishing its 1977 run, and in the pre-video age I couldn’t see it whenever I wanted. Thus, for many years, the power of this movie was that it existed largely in my mind, and my life as a day-dreaming fan was under way. I ordered the “Art of Star Wars” book (which eventually fell apart from re-reading) and though I’d already decided on a career in animation, I considered being a movie concept-designer, and drew spaceships and robots in addition to the cartoons I’d drawn for years.

I was too young for 1960s “Beatlemania” (only becoming aware of The Beatles many years after they’d disbanded and John already looked like the Unabomber) but was at ground-zero for its 1970s equivalent; the Star Wars phenomenon. I doubt that a movie will ever have that impact again, simply because the scale of its success was not anticipated. The media-blitz IS anticipated now, and in fact planned for whether we want it or not, and is an attempt to artificially recreate the run-away explosion of interest in (and subsequent consumer purchasing of) Star Wars. Thanks to the media frenzy, there were interviews, behind-the-scenes articles, cultural-theorisings, novelisations, and comics and magazines like never before, and of course, unprecedented merchandising. (That alone left me uninterested. Though I carry the NERD gene, it’s a mutation that leaves me immune to toys).

While awaiting the Star Wars sequel, I sought out director George Lucas’ influences, with mixed results. After wading through LORD OF THE RINGS, a book thicker than our telephone directory, I was outraged to realise by the last chapters that the insufferable band of bloody hobbits, wretched wizards and mincing elves had essentially just decided to do something, and got nowhere near blasted Mordor by the end of the first book. (Structurally the equivalent of Luke Skywalker getting to Mos Eisley; The End.) I hurled the book against the wall in frustration, and never knew what happened next till Peter Jackson ‘read’ the trilogy for me.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
When the Star Wars sequel came out a few Christmases later I was 16 years old and a textbook example of a teenage nerd. Reader of comics? CHECK. Animation Aficionado? OF COURSE. Lousy at sports? GUILTY. Lover of sci-fi movies? MAIS OUI. Obsessed with Star Wars? DOUBLE CHECK. Terminally celibate? CHECK and MATE! (Minus the mating part). I’d often imagined what Mr Lucas might do with his next Star Wars film (snort) but EMPIRE STRIKES BACK surpassed all my expectations, and delivered perhaps THE surprise twist of my cinema going life (“His father?! Wha!!”)

SW_duel

By 1980, I was old enough to baby-sit my siblings and urged Mum & Dad to see the sequel, assuring them it was a masterpiece. While they wasted their date-night seeing MY obsession, we boys teased my 5 year old sister Victoria that she could not be Princess Leia in our Star Wars game (“Aw! I don’t wanna be an Ugnaught!”) Later, the kids were in bed and Mum & Dad retuned. Far from being awestruck, they appeared to give substantially less than even one shit about the movie. When pressed, Mum said, “Well… It’s a bit… LURID, isn’t it, dear.” I was aghast at this tepid reaction, and more so after checking a dictionary;

LURID- Adj: very vivid in color, especially so as to create an unpleasantly harsh or unnatural effect.

What the?! My parents grew up on the serials that inspired Star Wars, but interestingly, the 1970s redo of their childhoods did nothing for them.

Around this time, I learned of a Sydney animation studio and set my sights on getting a job there, gravitating back to my first love of drawing cartoons, but my brain still marinated in a brine of Star Wars, and the obsession strangely broadened my horizons. I read about director George Lucas’ film-maker heroes; about Kurosawa, about John Ford (and others) and when I moved to Sydney to start work, I was finally able to track down their films at art-house and repertory theatres, and learned a lot about cinema history and filmic language. This exciting period is the closest thing I had to film school.

RETURN OF THE JEDI
Christmas of 1983, I was working at Hanna Barbera when RETURN OF THE JEDI arrived in Sydney theatres. I was excited to see how the Star Wars saga wrapped up, and after the previous instalment, my expectations were unbelievably high. Perhaps inevitably, the film itself was anticlimactic. Maybe it was that the Star Wars series was finally (I thought) over? Or was it the failings of the film itself; the unblinking Space Teddy Bears and so on? Perhaps it was because I’d recently been through a lot (Mum died around the previous Christmas). Or simply that I was too old, at the age of 19, and could now see the movie ‘strings and wires’?

SW_jedi

I work within an industry that makes stories for children, and my colleagues and I were called to this life as an extension of our own childhood awe at similar films. In fact, many friends are working on those exact film-series that they loved as children, including Star Wars. “The circle is now complete” (as a certain trouble-maker once said). We Pro-nerds started as child-fans but now make the mind-candy. That must be cool, right? Well, yes and no. We love the process but are now part of the artifice, and no longer feel the magic of these things. Sometimes we must work hard at keeping our pro-present from twisting the feelings of our fan-past.

After a few more years working in Sydney studios in the mid-1980s- a time when it honestly felt that the animation industry was dwindling, and would be dead within 10 years- I travelled while pondering my plan-B career options. I worked for various studios, first in Asia, then in Europe, then the USA, arriving in the very city where the Star Wars movies were made in time for an animation renaissance that revitalised the industry. Before long, I actually worked for George Lucas’ company itself, while he made the first of the Star Wars prequels. I was 35 and despite myself, excited to see what Mr Lucas would do with Star Wars next..

REVENGE OF THE PHANTOM CLONES
..until I saw the movie, that is. While it is very true that STAR WARS changed my life, the PHANTOM MENACE changed it back again, which is perhaps for the best. They are, after all, only movies. A fact that Mr Lucas himself may have forgotten. In 1970s interviews after his Star Wars success, Mr Lucas cited a fun blend of movie serials, comics, and pulp magazines as its foundation. The Joseph Campbell theorising came later, initially offered by others, and George may have gotten drunk on it. When you see yourself as the modern myth-maker laureate, instead of a modern maker of pulp-serials, it’s not surprising that you might forget the essential ingredient of FUN.

Imagine the 1977 Star Wars without Han Solo. Instead, Luke & Obi-Wan are helped by another pontificating Jedi-dude in his spaceship. Structurally, the story would be the same, and I would’ve still loved that version at the age of 13 because, well, I was 13. However, without Han Solo taking the piss out of The Force and the rest of it, anyone older would’ve only had a whiny kid or a pair of ponderous old gits to connect with. To a general audience, Star Wars would’ve been insufferable without Han Solo (and to some extent, The Princess) as the ‘way in’ to the Jedi malarkey. This is essentially what we have in the Star Wars prequels; they are very dour (Yoda used to be a cheeky trickster, remember?) and the only character not bound to Jedi mumbo jumbo is a CGI Rasta duck/rabbit. 13 year olds love it (I would’ve too at that age) but without a likable adult foil the prequels are a ponderous tale about a cult of bearded virgins taking themselves very seriously, and well, if I’d wanted to see that I’d just buy a ticket to Comic Con.

THE NERD APOCALYPSE
Many original-trilogy Star Wars fans have theories about the prequels, and Mr Lucas’ missteps that led him there, and I’m no different. But perhaps the more interesting thing to think about is that WE too lost our perspective? The Phantom Menace is the best value for money ever spent on a movie ticket, because people are still talking about it. What other movie of 1999, or other year for that matter, has given that return on an $8 investment? I myself have participated in many fun geek-out discussions about it, but worry that ‘hating movies’ is the new ‘loving movies’. Fan-love is strong, but has a bitter taste when it curdles, and in the crazy hyperbole of The Internet, many fans even claimed that George Lucas had raped their childhoods.

It was as if the Beatles reformed, but as a polka band, much to the horror of their old fans, who were aghast when the Re-Beatles’ POLKA album found new fans and went triple platinum anyway. The fact that Lucas himself directed the prequels made the anger more intense, and rabid Star Wars fans forgot that these were movies, not holy scriptures, and were supposed to be FUN. Fans complaining that Mr Lucas ruined their childhoods, should relax. If what we fondly remember is a moment in time, and what it meant to us back then, then we still have it.

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I saw Star Wars once in 1977 and not again until 1983, and never had a scene-for-scene memory of it, the way some fans do. Yet I had the film indelibly stored inside me anyway, as a collection of memories, feelings and impressions. This, along with photos from magazines, novelisations and comics, became my own personal “Special Edition”, existing only in my head. But if you fetishise the object itself, you are at the mercy of the Nerd/Media complex; that relationship between fans and the companies that own the intellectual properties. When a nerd cherishes an adolescent moment of wonder, the company does too if it centres on a THING that can be sold (and resold) to the nerd.
Q: But what happens if the company (even the original filmmaker) messes with the fetishised object, changing the context of things?
A: Lo, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that will echo all down the numerous vales of the Internet.

In an old interview with Mr Lucas, he talked of the movie serials he loved as a child, and how surprised he was to later discover that they were actually shoddily made, when he saw them again at film school. For this disconnect to happen, not constantly re-watching the original was a key element in its growth into something else in his mind. As a pro-nerd himself, Mr Lucas processed his disappointment by making something that captured the MEMORY of his beloved serials, but was better made, and STAR WARS was born. For my generation Star Wars was new, and made a huge impression, but my parents saw Star Wars for the slick rehash that it was. Now that I’m middle-aged myself, and neck-deep in rehash after redo, homage after rip-off, ad infinitum, of things I grew up on, I finally understand why Mum & Dad were unimpressed when they saw Empire Strikes Back in 1980. (Verily, I forgive you now, Mum & Dad.)

Keep your cherished childhood impressions free of bitterness by remembering that it’s not only the object (film, book, record or whatever) that you love, but also how old you were, who you were with, the entire place and time itself and your relationship to it. This can never be recreated when simply re-watching that same movie, over and over, but happily, is always part of your internal world, and thus not at the mercy of corporate “re-imaginings” or director’s “re-edits”. Just as Mr Lucas found inspiration for Star Wars in a moment of disappointment with serials from his childhood, hopefully LOADS of material is gestating in the minds of disappointed fans who saw the Star Wars prequels, maybe even a couple that are truly original creations. Cherishing a moment of wonder but then fetishising the film that inspired it is a dead end, but using that feeling to inspire the creation of something new, keeps the flame alive.

If my 13 year old self knew that the two Nerd-Gods of my adolescent world; Walt Disney and George Lucas, would one day be in bed together, my 13 year old brain would be aquiver in febrile anticipation. Now, having been an eager Storm-trooper for both their companies, I’m not so sure. Creatively, it could go either way; bring STAR WARS back to life? Or flog the dead horse into glue? But the fact that Lucasfilm was an Indie film studio, hugely successful yes, but working outside of Hollywood as an independent, means that I was saddened by the Lucas/Disney marriage and to see Lucasfilm consumed.

Hakuna Matata

There are strange moments in Star Wars, viewed now as an adult. If it was intended for children, Luke finding his Aunt and Uncle cooked into beef jerky by Imperial troopers (the only time they ever hit what they aimed at) is a very unsettling image. It was for me, anyway. On the other hand, if it was for grown ups, then Princess Leia’s emotional life is hard to read; she sees her planet and everyone she loved, destroyed, and the next that we see her, she cooly sasses Luke Skywalker for being too short. Smart-arse sociopath? Or still stoned after her visit from the Pusher-Droidâ„¢ with the syringe? Her forgetting of Chewie’s Victory Medal (which I was peeved about at 13) could be anti-Wookie racism, but maybe we should give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk it ALL up to her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.. (Verily, I forgive you now, Princess). Seen today, the disco hair in Star Wars roots it firmly in the era of Donna Summer and the special effects that floored a generation no longer seem so special. In fact, how long before Disney reboots the series altogether? Probably as soon as they have episodes 7, 8, and 9 in the can. I hope they tread carefully, lest they start the unholy rehash-backlash Nerd-Apocalypse II. (I might just sit that one out.)

It’s difficult to make sense of a lifetime of impressions of such an iconic and over-watched movie. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the very first time with the wide-eyed awe of a child, and also with the eyes of an adult who’s seen it umpteen times and aware of its limitations. This constant layering of memory- not just of this movie but of everything in our experience- means that, inevitably, we are ALL Lucas-like in our heads; constantly tinkering with the edits of our lives. So how to sum it all up? Maybe the trick to memory is to hold on to multiple versions simultaneously; the current view AND the younger view… By all means have a REVISED edition, and as many alternate versions as you like, but unlike Mr Lucas, don’t make the mistake of ever taking that original CLASSIC version out of circulation.

———

SW_walk

I have kept alight within me many memories of childhood wonder, trying to hold onto them lightly lest they break, or worse, become twisted. In one of them, it is always Boxing Day 1977 and I am just walking out of the Capitol Theatre with my friends Stephen and John, into an Australian summer evening. Like many people, I’m agog at what I just saw up on that movie-screen, but maybe a little more agog than most. With the perspective of time (and a little self-knowledge) I see why that particular 13 year old kid identifies with the story of a dweeb from a small town in the middle of nowhere and his quest for adventure. Of course I was primed to love this movie of fantasy and escapism, and was on the hook from the first frame till the last, and always will be.

Luke Skywalker whined about not going to Toshi Station to pickup those tasty power-converters, and meanwhile, a few galaxies away, 13 year old me whines that I’ll never fly a spaceship, meet a robot or make friends with a giant alien ape. Walking home, I mention to Stephen what a bummer it is that real life is never going to live up to that movie. I say good night, go inside my house, and sit on the couch. A career in animation is a few years away, adventures around the world are further away, and working for George Lucas himself is even further away and, as my mind joyfully races through the galaxies, I stare at the tinfoil STAR over the shedding Christmas tree…

SW_couch

Oct 262013
 
The mighty CHOOK hunter!

My paternal grandfather lives on as a cheery, little hardworking gnome of a man in my memory, yet my favourite photo of him, snapped by a street photographer well before my own Dad was even born, shows an impossibly roguish little bugger in his prime, an antipodean George Raft wearing his hat cocked at a rakish angle with his hands casually in the pocket of his natty 3-piece suit. He could have been a pint-sized gangster cooly crossing the street on his way to a tommy-gun shoot out, but what he really was, was a professional jockey during the the Great Depression, and he cut a dashing figure in what must have been otherwise austere times.

dapper_devil

Sometimes, there’s a photo that shows you the other life that an ancestor once had long before you’d even been thought of, and you realise that far from being a foregone conclusion your own life may never have happened at all if that person had done things differently. This is just such a photo, where I for the first time (at the age of 12) saw my Pop as a young whip of a man who could have been a hundred things other than my own beloved grandfather. Thankfully, the very same photo also explains why I am here at all, for how could my Grandma not be dazzled by such a dangerously dashing and dapper little devil.

Years later, by the time of my own adulthood, Pop was almost as wide as he was tall, which wasn’t very. Being a jockey, he only ever came up as far as my own adult chin even on his tall days, and his middle had spread in his old age despite his restless energy. In my memories of Pop there’s a bustling, happy relentlessness; even if he’s sitting in a chair he’s always busy at some task or other. Yes, he could sit on the verandah and ruminate about this and that, as others in the Baker clan are wont to do, but he’d be just as happy with a chainsaw or axe in hand, whipping a little patch of wayward nature into submission. I saw him prune some well-sized and handsome trees into mere nubs over the years for no other reason, that I could see, than industriousness for its own sake. He was as much a force of diminutive and cheerful energy as a nest full of ants.

When not busily bustling about the place, Pop would sit in a big red plush chair in front of a huge TV set watching the horse races while simultaneously listening to other races on the radio. When he finally got a colour telly Pop had the habit of jamming the colour controls all the way up, so that any sporting event became almost abstracted swatches of primary colour. The raucous combination of duelling TV and radio soundtracks, and clashing moving colours was enough to induce seizures in a more delicate soul but that’s the way Pop liked it. If I tried to surreptitiously adjust the colour back down to something approximating the real world when he stepped away to the lav, he would promptly jam the controls back into the fruit salad range when he returned. He didn’t buy a colour telly until late in his life and to get his money’s worth, by gum, he wanted as much colour as he could possibly get out of the flamin’ thing.

Sadly, I inherited none of my grandfather’s horsemanship. In fact, in my whole life I have sat on a horse only twice. The only thing I can say in my own defence is this; twice is exactly two times more than I’d ever seen my Pop on horseback, so there was zero opportunity for his influence. Although his house was full of horse racing paraphernalia, and his framed old photo-finish victories decorated the walls and he was sure to keep up with the current races themselves, once he retired he never got on horses again, not that I saw anyway.

He was a constantly cheery and impish presence and it is hard to pin down my earliest memory of my Pop, but perhaps it is from the Christmas when I was 4 years old. We had travelled up to the mainland from Tasmania, where we lived back in the days when my immediate family consisted of only four of us; Dad, Mum, myself and a recently-born Jo, proudly on display for all the Baker mainlanders to see. Pop and Grandma’s clan went on to have a veritable army of grandchildren when my then-young aunts and uncles got to breeding, but back then it was only three; myself and Jo from down south and, not much older than Jo, our cousin Anthony from right there in town. The two wee ones were definitely the stars of that particular tour, leaving me free to explore.

I remember being endlessly fascinated by the property where my Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles lived. Sheds full of implements and contraptions from the olden days, a barn with old farm equipment and the remains of of paddocks as yet not built on. It was a fantastic place for a little boy to ramble about, and back then there was even a rusted and weed-infested old car body to play in (though I know not why, as neither Pop nor Grandma ever drove a car) and the buildings were rife with quirky nooks and crannies, like you’d not find in a ’normal’ house unblessed by bush carpentry.

Pop’s house was built sometime in the 1800s, before his own father (who was long-dead before I was born) bought it to be a place for Pop and he to train horses, just outside the town. In a continuation of that bush tradition whereby the acquisition of a new tool just meant walloping a new nail in the wall to hang it on, and you thumped and banged things together yourself, they expanded the place, and in his youth my own Dad helped improve the house by his own hand even further. Eventually though, their land was swallowed up by the expansion of the town and the rise in council rates prompted them to sell off most of it. When the land was resold and broken up into suburban lots, Grandma and Pop had the most ancient and ramshackle house on the South Hill neighbourhood of my hometown, with only a nearby street named ’Baker Place’ to mark all that they once had.

Needless to say I was fascinated by this place at the age of 4, but more than that, I was drawn to Pop himself;  his chipper energy, his jokey way of talking, and turns-of-phrase from an earlier time. So, while everyone else was inside the house nattering, drinking tea, and paying homage to the latest grandchildren in the kitchen, Pop busied himself about the yard, working in the shed or getting something from the stables, and through it all being dogged by 4-year-old me, as diminutively relentless as himself in my own way; a never-ceasing chatterbox.  In truth, I probably wore him out with my endless questions about this and queries about that, not to mention getting under-foot. I seem to remember his always-jovial banter starting to crack a little when he was eager to just get on with his work, which was bound to be physical.

Decades later, on a trip home to Australia when I stayed with Pop, he proclaimed his simple philosophy that it wasn’t really ’work’ if you sat on your arse to do it. This was cheerfully offered up to his chair-bound animator grandson without even a hint of scorn (well, maybe just a little). Even without jetlag I can sleep quite late, but with it, Pop is likely to have done a day’s industry; pruning trees, mowing the lawn and riding his bicycle to the town TAB and back, before I’d even even gotten out of bed. “Ooh, here he is, ’the Sultan’ is risen!” he chirped with a mock curtsy, as I ambled into the kitchen, sometime after noon. Thus needled, I offered to chop him some wood to prove my mettle, and the axe swung erratically this way and that with much huffing and puffing for such a mediocre pile of wood chips, that I had to laugh, accompanied by gales of leprechaun giggles from old Pop.

chooks

But anyway, I was telling you of a littler, 4 year old me, pestering a much-younger Pop at his work many years earlier: While following him about the place, I had expressed to Pop a 4 year old’s fascination with the chickens to be seen wandering at their leisure and pecking throughout the yard. With a tour de force of misdirection and psychology that would’ve done Tom Sawyer proud, Pop saw a way to lose his tiny escort, and cooked up a deal between he and I, whereby it was promised that if I could only catch one of his chickens, I’d be welcome to take it home with me to Tasmania. Well, this enticing offer did not have to be made twice, for what 4 year old boy can resist the allure of his very own personal chicken? And so, I was off. Pop must have cheerfully congratulated himself for the genius of his ruse, as I was so engrossed in chook-chasing that he had ample time to finish all his errands unmolested any further by me. Pop went into the house for a cup of tea and wait for my 4 year old’s batteries to inevitably run down, long before any of his chooks were nabbed by my little stumpy-legged self.

Pulling someone’s leg is a national pastime in Australia, but what separates a good piss-take from the more common but subpar article is not just the quality of wit itself but a show of genuine affection and a commiserating sense that we are all united in our ridiculousness. Pop was the sort of bloke who could disagree with your philosophy but with such a twinkle of his eye that you’d laugh at yourself and him too. Being led to a good-natured chuckle at one’s own expense is a true gift, and the reason Pop could do it so well was his keen sense of his own foibles. For example, Pop loved to tell with, a gleeful giggle, how wrong he was about Phar Lap, who Pop once rode on that later-famous horse’s first win. It was to be the first win of many, at any distance, and Phar Lap became the most celebrated horse in the nation, bar none. So, when Pop had said Phar Lap “wouldn’t stay”, a more hilariously inaccurate prediction by a young jockey was never made. Which brings me back to how Pop famously also misjudged me as a 4 year old boy. Because far from losing interest in his chooks, I went after them like a tiny heat-seeking missile.

Here’s the thing I learned on that long-ago day; don’t chase the flock, chase the chook. You don’t go after the brown one and then change your mind mid-stream and chase the black one, willy nilly. What an expert chook-chaser does is focus. It took me much trial and error to figure that out, but I give you the hard-won advice now for free; just badger one particular chook till it snaps.

Eventually, I target-locked my sights on a splendid white chook and made it my business to make her life a misery. She gave me a merry tour of the yard; round and round, to and fro, into and out of the sheds and barns, and I fell on my face more than once. But I became that chicken’s own personal Ring Wraith, committed to pursuing her into the next world if needs be. She dashed this way and that, as I harried her around the place. We all know very well that there is nothing so relentless as a 4 year old boy with an obsession, so without an ice cream cone to distract me with, that chook was done for. As soon as she realised this for herself, she stopped her mad dash, and froze, cringing before me, the way a chook will do when its mental circuitry has popped a fuse, for if a chook has a weakest link, it would have to be its brain.

When I finally triumphantly picked up that plump, white, brain-frozen bird, she was almost as big as tiny, 4 year old me. I felt quite the mighty hunter as, proudly, I strode into the kitchen where all the Baker clan were enjoying themselves, smoking, drinking their tea and eating their biscuits. I announced to Pop that I’d caught my chook and was looking forward to taking her home to Tasmania with me, much to the great hilarity of everyone present. Pop too burst out laughing, admitting that he’d never thought in a million years that I would actually catch one of those chickens and had not thought so far ahead as what to do if I did. But now his cunning Tom Sawyer shtick had come home to roost and I wanted my chook.

A splendid white CHOOK

Eventually, it was made clear to me that Pop had been joking. I was devastated, as only a little boy can be. Some attempt was made to explain the logistical impossibility of transporting a terrified chicken across 3 states in our tiny and already over-stuffed Toyota Corolla. I cannot now remember if there was any consolation prize but my guess is that, at the very least, there was a plate of biccies set aside for the thwarted and pouty big game hunter. In subsequent years, Pop himself told this story many times with great hilarity, and genuine surprise and admiration that I relentlessly bagged that chook at the age of 4 and, in the end, Pop’s undeniable pleasure at how I called his bluff and proved him so wrong was all the consolation prize I really needed.

——-

Though descended from a few flavours of whitey, I’m more Irish than anything else. The theme of my ancestry is that everyone married an Irish girl; the German (Pop’s Dad) married an Irish girl, the Scotsman married an Irish girl, the Englishman married an Irish girl and so indeed did the Irishman. Moody Irish souls given to dark thinking roost in both branches of my family-tree, and I feel within myself the potential for destruction in the unchecked morose spirit. But my Pop, Irish on his mother’s side, represents the other Irish stereotype; the cheerful, twinkly eyed, laugh-in-the-face-of-your-problems kind. Or perhaps it was the jolly German in him responsible for these qualities I so fondly remember? In the end, it’s most accurate to say that dear Pop himself was this irrepressible spirit, and I was lucky to have his early example.

It’s said that “a well-balanced Australian has a chip on each shoulder” but my Pop was as well-balanced a man as I’ve ever known, Australian or otherwise, yet had no chips at all, that I could see, even though the hard circumstance of his life could easily have put them there. As with any of his other chores, he industriously brushed them aside and got on with living his life with a playful sense of humour, which is the best survival mechanism there is. (And the more serious your situation, the more healing humour actually becomes, I have found).

So, I am both blessed and grateful, that the tiny, dapper devil of that long-ago street photograph, instead of doing other things, married yet another Irish girl and, unlike the parent who abandoned him in his own childhood, stayed around to enrich the lives of the children he had with her, and the lives of all his many grandchildren, of which I am one.
my grandfather’s hands
Jack Baker
1911-2000

Oct 012013
 

As a child, going to the cinema was special. Seeing even a crummy movie back then was somehow way more fun than seeing an absolutely amazing movie is for me today. Of course, my childhood was in the pre-video era, when perhaps the anticipation of a movie and the fond memories of it afterward were greater than they are now, even though the movies themselves were less spectacular by far. Having no video, I could not replay the movies I liked whenever I wanted. I saw them only once and then they were gone, continuing only in my mind where they often grew over time into something much more fascinating than the movie that inspired them.

These days, we guzzle at the media-trough, day-in day-out, and forget those leaner times. Compared with the children of today I was media malnourished; we didn’t have an X-Box, 100 TV channels or a library of streaming video to choose from at home. There were only two TV channels in my home town, and one of those didn’t broadcast till after lunch, when you’d get hours of boring cricket, and even that would be in black and white. (Australia didn’t get colour TV till about 1975 and my family not till years after that).

So, for colour movie entertainment, there were really only two ways to go. My very earliest memories of movie-going are of the Drive-In, in a car packed with crying younger siblings. Or, for a more refined viewing experience, there was the Cinema, where on special occasions, Dad would take me on a lad’s night out. In my home town, the movie palace was the old 1920s CAPITOL THEATRE, where my Dad watched films when he was growing up, and I experienced a lot of my own great movie memories too, including seeing my first JAMES BOND film. My vivid memories of cinema-going start with a viewing of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER with my Dad at the age of 7. I had not seen anything like it.

DAF_poster

I remember we walked the few blocks to the “THE PICTURES” one summer evening, probably in early 1972. Dad bought our Maltesers, Jaffas and Fantales, we took our seats and when the house lights went down, we watched the cartoon. I get my love of cartoons, which ultimately led me to working in animation myself, from my Dad. My Mum never “got” cartoons. (I am reminded of the time Dad and I laughed so hard at a BUGS BUNNY cartoon on the Telly, that Mum stomped out of the kitchen, mixing bowl still in hand, to see what the hilarity was about. After alternately staring blank-faced at the cartoon, and watching us kack ourselves with laughter, she sighed in resignation to this mystery and went away none the wiser.) Anyway, it saddens me that nowadays cinemas show commercials instead of cartoons, but they were still dependably shown at the cinema when I was little, to our great enjoyment. With any luck the cartoon that day would have been by WARNER BROTHERS (maybe even the beloved Bunny) then after some brief COMING SOON info, the movie itself finally began. I leaned forward to watch…

CRASH! A judo guy is hurled through a window. BASH! A man in dark glasses is choked and gruffly interrogated by a mystery man. Wait, now there’s a pretty lady in a bikini. We finally meet the mystery man; an intense-looking bloke with cranky eyebrows in a polyester safari suit, who inexplicably strangles the friendly bikini lady with her own bikini top. (!?) In the next scene, eyebrows-man is confronted by the bloke he seeks; a smug-looking man flanked by henchmen, their guns understandably leveled at violent eyebrow-man, who suddenly steams fiercely about the place, stabbing the henchmen; THUNK! THUNK! Then, in a scene I remember most vividly, he tosses smug-man into a vat of molten mud. (Wow.) And all of this before the opening titles, which featured a diamond encrusted cat and silhouettes of cavorting and bejeweled naked ladies.

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That was a lot to process for someone more used to DOCTOR DOLITTLE (seen on a previous boys’ movie night). Amazingly to me at the time, I soon discovered that the cranky guy with the eyebrows, who single-handedly provoked this non-stop sequence of unexplained violence, was the “goodie” of this movie; James Bond. He was a “real” person but capable of unloading just as much cartoon violence as Bugs Bunny and, unlike the rabbit, when he despatched his foes in cartoonishly outrageous ways, they bled and stayed very dead. This was a new idea.

I’m not even sure if Dad himself knew what was in store for us when he bought our tickets. Had he ever seen a Bond movie before? Perhaps not. I seem to remember him squirming uncomfortably in his seat as James Bond did his all baddie-murdering and lady-strangling. This must have been a racier evening than Dad had planned for his 7 year old son, who was transfixed in goggle-eyed amazement nevertheless. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, but unlike DOCTOR DOLITTLE, which has almost evaporated from my memory completely, I sat at the very edge of my seat engrossed in finding out what this naughty Bond fellow got up to next. It was some grownup code that needed deciphering, especially the scenes with pretty ladies that had, to my 7 year old brain, a weird undefinable something extra that I could not fathom..

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A much later viewing in my adulthood identified this mystery element as a cheesy, nudge-nudge-wink-wink 1970s kitsch-eroticism, only one notch up the bogus-innuendo scale from Benny Hill. In the early 2000s, myself and my friend ROBERT had decided to watch all the Bond movies in order over several days, with the easy review-ability of LAZER DISC. We both had dim, fond memories of seeing a few of these films in our childhoods, and watching them ALL seemed a grand idea. However, like an all-you-can-eat challenge at the neighborhood Hof Brau, that once-grand idea soon fills you with regret and nausea when you are at half way, and will ultimately break you completely. Fond memories or not, we simply could not chew our way through all the pap. (For the record, Roger Moore was the greasy plate of macaroni and beef that sent us scuttling to the lavatory).

Seeing these Bond movies again was a revelation. Some were cheesy-but-good, one or two were actually good-good, but the vast majority were just plain silly. As for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, it was revealed to be the most lackluster of Sean Connery’s Bond movies by far. He was beyond his sleek, 1960s, dangerous-panther phase, and had not yet reached his later, 1980s, silver-fox phase. It was those awkward in-between years; his 1970s, bored, toupee-and-girdle phase. The film had little of the danger I had remembered, and was actually tame compared to what children watch today, almost AUSTIN POWERS.DAF_BondGun

I rather preferred the deadliness of the film I had carried around in my head since childhood, and perhaps that’s the secret to the Bond Franchise’s success? Maybe this film series lives so vividly because we’ve EACH selected our favourite dishes from the Bond buffet table– the best baddie, best helicopter chase, most vivacious babe, snazziest theme song, most bruising brawl, scariest henchman, most exciting car chase, greatest gizmo and the best Bond-actor– and assembled in our minds a custom-made, mega-meta-movie platter all along? We each remember an absolutely awesome Bond movie that perhaps never really existed.

In fact, this may be the case with many of the films that I love, especially those that impressed me as a child. The versions of those films that I hold in my mind were merely inspired by the actual films, and what I love was only ever in my imagination. After all, foods, wines and whiskeys often gain more flavour by being allowed to age undisturbed in a cellar, and perhaps this true of film as well. Is the human mind the oak-barrel aging room of media? If so, perhaps our relationship to film has fundamentally changed in the post-video age, when we can instantly call up any scene from any movie that we wish on YouTube or streaming video. Easy access to the originals doesn’t allow for the distortions and amplifications of memory.

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So rather than overwrite that old memory of being enthralled by DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER at the age of 7, with the unimpeachable evidence that the film is actually pretty shoddy, with a puffy lead actor who barely performs above a yawn, I prefer to keep the thrilling memory of the movie experience I’ve had in my head all those years: Me at the age of 7, with my Dad on a boys night out to see a great movie! Vividly-remembered scenes of James Bond brawling in a swimming pool with not one but TWO kung fu bikini girls, WOW! And that deadly fight in a lift, COOL! What about that stunt with a car going though a skinny alleyway? YEAH! And what’s going on with those two very creepy assassin guys? Hey Dad, maybe we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because Mum wouldn’t “get it”, don’t you think?

It’s the stuff that a cuddly childhood memory is made of.

Sep 132013
 

When I was in grade two of Catholic primary school, we started to take catechism classes where such profound notions as ‘Souls’ and ‘Immortality’ were being bandied about, not to mention the biggies; ‘Heaven’, ‘Hell’ and ‘God’. Both in the classroom and out in the playground, there was much discussion about these concepts and the ground rules that went with them. This was all a part of the build-up to our First Holy Communion.

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An old war-hammer dressed in a veil known as Sister MT (who was old enough to have taught my Dad as a child, in a bygone age) was the person chosen to lead this little group of wide-eyed 8 year olds into the spirit realm. Her prime qualifications for this delicate mission were that she was a nun and breathing. Apart from those two admirable qualities I could not imagine a person less qualified to introduce the subtle and complex world of the afterlife and its mysteries to such an impressionable group of young minds. In today’s lingo we might say that she lacked ‘people skills’ or ’emotional intelligence’.

It was taken as a given that Heaven existed and was a place that we all wanted to go to, and Sister MT explained that requirement Number One was a soul, no one was getting past the guards into this exclusive paradise without one of those. Thankfully though, we each got kitted out with a soul at birth by the grace of God and not only that, thanks to our parents we were also Baptized which was requirement Number Two. So far so good. But apparently the Baptism wasn’t really sealed until ratified with a new pledge made of our own free will, which brought us to step Number Three; preparations for our First Holy Communion, and where we were on that particular day.

Many people at this point in their spiritual development may wrestle with the exclusivity; what about the un-baptised? the Hindu? the Moslem? Or even what about the Atheists? My mind didn’t stretch that far at the age of 8 partly because I didn’t realize that anyone other than Catholics even existed. I had never met one (that I was aware of anyway). No, the big hurdle for me in this whole HEAVEN caper was, what happens to my dog JOCK?

I remember right there in class counting off all the people I cared about the most, my family, my friend Stephen.. and everyone except my dog Jock were covered by the rules we had learned so far. I was pretty sure that nobody had ever baptized Jock, after all, we had only picked him up at the pound not so long ago, and if they hadn’t baptized him there how was he going to get in to Heaven? Jock may or may not have been my number one favourite person on planet Earth at that time (please don’t force me to pick) but let’s say that if I had to choose 10 people to rescue from the fires of hell then Jock would have DEFINITELY been on the list, and I couldn’t imagine Heaven being heavenly without him.

So, I wanted to find out what I needed to do to get my dog Jock baptized, so I could then get him his communion and he could get to heaven too. I put up my hand and when she stopped to acknowledge me, I asked Sister MT that question. Unfortunately for me, it was not an empathetic, spiritual guru I was talking to that day, it was the angry drill sergeant from ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

The specifics of her actual response escape me now, just as the moment of a bomb detonation later becomes hazy to those who stood at ground zero.. but it was fiery and contemptuous, laced with an undertone of ridicule and an aftertaste of acid. Sister MT made it quite clear that Jock, nor any other dog neither, didn’t have a soul and that as a consequence of this design by The Maker, Jock was denied entry to Heaven.

To say I was ‘stunned’ doesn’t describe it. I was devastated and then crushed, turned inside-out, then peeled like a banana and then after all that yeah, I was stunned… It was a pretty big existential crisis that’s for sure, certainly the first time that some crumminess in my own life was indicative of a system-wide, stacked-deck throughout the entire universe.

I know, I know… I didn’t even think of all the other stuff, like if heaven is full of Sister MT type people do you really want to spend eternity there? That thought did occur to me much later on, but at this point in my life I was operating under the assumption that Heaven was marvelous, we were all going and my dog Jock, who I loved, wasn’t allowed in. To any devout atheists out there, I understand that this Catholic-stuff is hard to grasp but to understand my state of mind back then you need to think of this scenario:

‘Yeah, we are all going to this awesome party, wanna come? No, your best friend isn’t invited. In fact don’t even ask about him, Ok? just asking about him makes us think that you aren’t cool enough to come too and we should invite someone cooler. And by the way, anyone NOT at the party is going to be incinerated… coming?’

Anyway, I no longer remember what exactly happened immediately after this devastating spiritual mauling. I may have tearfully rushed home after that class was done with. Or, I may have stayed in school like a zombie for the rest of the day till all my classes were over… that part I am now unsure of. The sequence of the memories I have left flows like this:

1. I’m at school learning about souls.
2. I am skull-raped by a nun (see above).
3. Next, I am tearfully trudging home like some tiny existential philosopher poet, with the weight of a cruel, twisted universe on his narrow shoulders, each step heavier than the last.

The next well-remembered scene in this tragic screenplay is that I am at home, sitting on our back step, clutching my dog Jock to my sobbing bosom with both arms, bawling and blubbering and rocking him to and fro, as if to shield him from the inky oblivion that was his sole birthright. The only English words that Jock understood apart from his name were ‘sit’ and ‘shake’ but he knew enough body-language to see that something pretty heinous was afoot, and he sat there patiently letting me wail myself into a frenzy, occasionally licking some of the blubber-snot off of my face, and doing what he could to comfort me, wagging his tail and so on.

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The scene is touchingly funny to me now, sitting here, writing this and remembering it all from the vantage point of an adult well over 40 years later, and especially from the further distance of being at the atheist-end of the agnostic-spectrum (which is to say that I don’t really know what I believe any more). But I still remember the emotions from that moment, the despair and hopelessness, the anger at the cruel injustice of it all. I was wracked with anguish on that day. Whatever the nun might say, Jock was very much a person to me and I held him to me tightly. So this is how my mother must have seen me from the kitchen window.

She came outside and sat next to me on the back step and tried to get to the bottom of what was going on. Through wrenching, full-body sobs and gasping intakes of air, I tried to explain to her the cruel sham that was going down; The incompetence of the universe, the twisted coldness of it all, I didn’t want to go to heaven if Jock wasn’t going to go too, and the Sister said he couldn’t, and why didn’t God make him with a soul and.. and.. all that stuff… There just wasn’t any way around this problem.

Consider my Mum’s predicament here; she would have been deeply peeved that I had been so callously treated, but she probably didn’t want to openly contradict the nun who had reduced me to tears by saying that my beloved dog would not enter Heaven. Besides which, Mum may have even agreed with Sister MT’s No Pets policy, who can say? At the same time, she was a compassionate person and not too busy to see that a child’s problems are sometimes the very biggest issues of all, such as on that particular day, when the big question was this; do we live in a Just Universe, or not? The little person that I was back then was having his universe cracked open on the back of this very question.

Mum knew that sometimes saying nothing, but just being there with a hug and some simple reassuring sounds, was all that it took to cheer someone up. But if they moved beyond misery to despair and the situation called for something insightful to be said, she was equal to that task too. She reassured me that Jock would indeed be going to Heaven. To which I wailed that the Sister explained the rules and it just wasn’t going to happen. Mum said that the Sister was explaining the rules for HUMAN Heaven, Jock is going to DOG HEAVEN. My blubbering stopped.

Dog Heaven? (Says I). Why yes, it’s right next door to Human Heaven, (Mum says) and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we can visit them, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the dogs can visit us! (Sundays, everyone has the day off).

All in a trice, the burden was lifted and the universe was a benevolent place once again. We would BOTH go to heaven, one each, side by side! My mind raced with the possibilities.. Why, here at our house, didn’t Jock sleep outside, under the tank-stand while I slept inside the house in my bed? Yet we played together just fine didn’t we? (not to mention the fact that he snuck in my window each night and ACTUALLY slept on my bed, when no one was looking). I felt that a similar arrangement could be possibly figured out in Heaven. Wonderful!

Did my Mum cook up ‘Dog Heaven’ and its universe-changing, philosophical, get-out-of-jail-free card on the spot? Or did we together workshop the concept and all its rules, perhaps over the next few days of excited mother-son conversation? I don’t remember, but thinking about it now, it seems likely. Memory is a slippery thing. I only know that in the memory that comes down to me across the years, the metaphysical idea that made me once again happy to live in the universe was hatched right then and there on our back step by my Mum.

This is a bittersweet and happy/sad memory for me. Two of the beings that gave me the most comfort in my childhood are intertwined in this memory, and there are so many layers and threads to it; my feelings from the time and my feelings towards their memory now, based on the fact that these two were both taken away from me, many years before I was done with either of them.. though not before they each gave me so much.

Oct 312011
 

The older I get the longer a haircut takes, despite having fewer and fewer actual hairs on my head to cut. A similar principal is in effect at a grand-master chess match: fewer game-pieces on the chessboard means longer deliberations between moves.


Despite receding hair, getting a haircut now causes me no anxiety whatsoever. Ironically, I most worried about my hair when I had plenty to spare. As a small boy, I saw the world through an unruly mop, but even attempts by my mother to merely WASH my hair caused me to howl with as much tonsil-quavering gusto as being dragged to the dentist.


The drama of childhood dental appointments is easy to understand –my yowling correlated precisely with the actions of a bloke jamming a drill in the nerve-endings of my teeth– but it isn’t immediately clear why anyone grooming my hair caused such dread. Of course, in the 1970s, even grown-men loathed the barbershop but that was mere fashion. My hair-angst went much deeper than that, and was not connected to aesthetics at all. Like some tiny SAMSON, I saw grooming of my hair as an attack on my very self.


No matter how “good” the haircut, even if done professionally at the barbershop a few blocks from our house, I hated it anyway. Mum’s desire to save an inevitable public fracas, not to mention personal expense, meant that the haircuts were more likely to be done at home, by her. There were already 4 of us boys when I was 7 years old, so trimming our hair must have been an unending and utter misery for poor Mum. However, there came a savior: THE HAIR MAGICIAN.


In the 1970s, the K-TEL corporation solved the problems of common folk with little doo-hickeys, whatsits and thingamajigs. A particular point of interest was that each product had been “seen on TV” though only in the commercial that pointed out that fact. One such advertisement promised that a product called THE K-TEL HAIR MAGICIAN would deliver a haircut by merely combing your hair. Why, after a few strokes of this gadget (which looked like a long-handled comb) you’d be the very picture of style! (Such as it was in 1973). All this, without having to pay for a haircut! Mum must have thought all her prayers were answered at last.


I remember sitting out in the back yard on a kitchen chair as Mum swooped in with her newly-bought miracle gizmo. Predictably, as she combed it through my hair, I howled like a banshee, though this time with good reason; a haircut from the HAIR MAGICIAN hurt like holy hell. The K-TEL wizards had cunningly installed razor blade cartridges between the teeth of this comb to do the cutting. In theory. In reality, a few strokes from this new-fangled comb left hair entangled in the fangle, cutting capacity was lost and subsequent styling was achieved by hair being not so much cut as TUGGED out by the roots.


Sadly, a wave of the Hair Magician’s wand did NOT magically transform me into the smiling BRADY BUNCH kid of the TV commercials. Instead, I was transformed into something resembling a mangy dog who’d had chewing-gum cut from its fur with toenail-clippers. In terms of an identifiable fashion style, it could be compared to the punk look, but about 5 years too soon to be either identifiable or appreciated.


The only consolation was that it was relatively easy to blend in, even with such a hair disaster atop my head. Not just because the 1970s was the time when everyone’s hair went wild but also because mine wasn’t the only Mum to fall under the evil spell of THE HAIR MAGICIAN.