The kings and queens of mean versus Fred Hollows
The aspect of the Pauline Hanson, Paul Sheehan ideological explosion that most staggers me is the mean-spirited and mindless assault on Aboriginal rights and interests presented as criticism of what they choose to call “the Aboriginal industry”. Every time I see that mean little curling of the lips on Pauline Hanson’s face when she makes some whining, unsubstantiated attack on the interests of our most underprivileged Australians, I want to throw a rock at my television set.
I restrain myself by reminding myself that there are ebbs and flows of public interest and response in these matters, and that it was just a few years ago that hundreds of thousands of Australians were responding in a warm and open-hearted way to the activities of my long-time acquaintance and friend, Fred Hollows in his pursuit of Aboriginal interests. I often say little prayers to Freds’s ghost to haunt these current Kings and Queens of Mean, and I actually believe that, in due course, the Fred Hollows approach to the Aboriginal question will defeat the Hanson-Sheehan approach, among ordinary Australians.
But, nevertheless, the battle is joined on these matters, and I contribute to this argument the following reminiscence of my old sparring partner, Fred, most of which was written at the time of his death, and some of it just recently.
I believe that all public discussion of how other Australians should approach the problems of Aboriginal life might well commence with a discussion of Fred Hollows’ life and work. Remembering Fred throws into bold relief the utter mean-spiritedness of the proposition advanced by Pauline Hanson that you can help resolve the problems of Aboriginal society by withdrawing most of the funds currently going to Aboriginal welfare.
Six years ago, driving back in our truck with a load of books from an auction I heard the voice of Fred Hollows on ABC Radio, addressing the ABC Literary Lunch. He said:
The second author that influenced me was a Brazilian, a Brazilian Christian, a Brazilian Christian Marxist in fact, a strange sort of person, Paolo Freire.I used to go into a left-wing bookshop about once a quarter, and be loaded up with a pile of books by a bloke called Bob Gould. He’s known to every ratbag who has ever been arrested in a political protest in Sydney. Bob used to foist these books on me. I never came out of there spending less than 50 quid, but I got a lot of enlightenment.
And one book he gave me was Paolo Freire’s book, that was originally written in Portuguese, called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And I started reading and I said, “Look, that’s the whole of our theological bumf that I got rid of. You know, I’m out of that scene by a decade or so.”
And he said: “Fred, if you’re working with Aborigines, you’ve got to read that.”
And I said, “No Bob, look, it’s got that terrible sort of theological feel about it that I don’t want to read.”
But anyhow, he made me take it. That night I started reading. It pointed out 15 faults that middle-class intellectuals make when they try to help people of the working class or oppressed people.
And Shirley Smith is sitting there, and she knows that I and the other white middle class intellectuals who helped the Aborigines of Redfern set up that Medical Service, made these mistakes. I was fortunate enough to spend about four hours with Paolo Freire when he came to Sydney … and Paolo Freire has been a seminal influence on my life.
I was flattered and exceedingly moved by this reference. After all, it’s not often, in one lifetime, that Australia’s only secular saint accuses you of forcing him to read a book that subsequently changed his life, particularly when you haven’t spoken to the man for six or seven years and he’s remembering an incident 20 years before.
That week I had just finished reading Fred’s autobiography with considerable interest, pain and pleasure. The interest and pleasure because the book had put a significant acquaintance and sparring partner in his historical context and because it’s such a rattling good memoir of Australasian life in my generation. The pain, of course, came from Fred’s very public dying. Hollows always seemed to me such a boisterous life-affirming sort of a human being and the public battle for life of such a man contains its own intrinsic painful human drama. I was also a bit fascinated and impressed by the way Fred turned his public dying into a campaigning tool for the causes so dear to his heart.
In relation to Fred’s very public dying, a fragment of poetry written a few days before his death in the front line in the Spanish Civil War, by the English left-wing poet John Cornford comes to mind: “We’re all dead men on furlough, Lenin said.”
My acquaintance with Fred commenced in the heady days of the late 1960s, a bit after Fred settled in Australia. As he said at the Literary Lunch, he used to come into my bookshop and buy some books. I’d first become aware of him when he sent a donation of $100 to the Vietnam Action Campaign, the more militant and youthful wing of the antiwar movement, of which I was the secretary. We were pretty broke most of the time, so one tended to notice a professor of medicine capable of such large donations. He also came along and participated in as many of our demonstrations as his hectic doctor’s work schedule allowed.
He made himself known to me one day, when he dropped into the old Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street and, in his authoritative way, asked me what I thought was important in the current literature. After that, every now and again he would bustle in, I would recommend books to him and we’d have fairly boisterous and good-humoured arguments about historical questions and current issues.
We were both men of the left but I was a notorious “Trotskyist” and his background was in the New Zealand Communist Party and, as I remember it at the time, he had a slightly romantic inclination to Maoism, so we had frequent disagreements and lots of comparatively good-humoured arguments.
The striking thing about Hollows was that he had the rare capacity to combine belligerent assertion of his existing ideas with an openness to new ones. He was a knowledgeable, widely read, self-taught sort of bloke, with a raucous Australasian sense of humour, but with all that, he was also a very gentle man. Anyway, he seemed to like my shop and over the next few years I sold him a lot of books.
Over many years as a bookseller I’ve discovered its a bit of a trap for people to ask for your recommendations. My own interests and tastes being a bit esoteric, I’ve often bewildered the odd customer who has asked my advice. I no doubt sold Fred all the basic books about Stalinism, such as Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed.
I distinctly remember selling him Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago when it was published. But it’s funny how things turn out. The book that had the most impact on him was the one I’d forgotten selling him, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire.
Fred was stirred up intellectually in the most creative way by the heady ferment of ideas, characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s. I remember him buying a lot of books by Ivan Illich in my shop, and in typical Hollows style, he later descended on the great guru Illich in his lair at Cuernevaca in Mexico, an encounter that Fred also described in his speech at the ABC Literary Lunch.
An indirect spinoff for me from Fred’s encounter with Illich in the flesh was a phone call I received before official shop opening time in my bookshop in George Street one Sunday morning, from a man who identified himself, as “Illich of South America”. We blearily went down and opened the shop early for the great man, business commenced for the day, and within half an hour or so, Illich was surrounded by several admiring customers, all female, with a couple of whom he eventually wandered off, which people later told us was typical of the great man. Such was Fred Hollows’ indirect international influence.
Central Court, Sydney, a cold Monday morning in July 1973
My most enduring memory of him from those days is of an incident at Central Court in Sydney on the Monday morning after the enormous demonstrations against the Springbock tour 25 years ago. It was possibly the last of those typical chaotic Monday morning Central Court scenes of the Vietnam War protest era, and the daddy of them all.
The capacity of the court was overwhelmed by the appearance of 300 arrested demonstrators competing for court space with the other human dramas of the weekend, like the girls of the night in their dozens represented in those days by well-known Sydney solicitor, Phil Roach, and the weekend’s drunk and disorderlies.
I was in the court list (charged with malicious damage to a fence in the Cricket Ground) near Fred, who was charged with the offence (letting off flares in the Cricket Ground) that he describes so well in his book. The tough, harrassed old Sergeant of Police who was attempting to cope with this Monday morning chaos and process us all through the court system, was a copper with whom I had developed a grudgingly friendly professional relationship over many years, in similar situations, after Vietnam demonstrations.
He displayed a quite extraordinary reverence towards Fred, and shyly said: “That Professor Hollows you were just talking to. He’s a wonderful man. I hated booking him.” It emerged that the old copper was one of Fred’s patients for eye trouble, and that he had an almost superstitous reverence for Fred. Everybody got good professional service for their eyes from Fred, including sergeants of police! When I repeated that story to Fred a few minutes later, he smiled enigmatically, abused me a bit, citing Hippocratic ethics, and just puffed away on his pipe.
On the strength of the mention at the Literary Lunch, I subsequently organised four book signings in my Newtown and Leichhardt shops, with Fred and Peter Corris reminiscing and signing books. They were crowded, interesting and successful events. People of all walks of life, political views and social backgrounds were obviously moved deeply and also interested, amused and entertained by Fred.
Very many people turned up at these events who Fred had treated or worked with at some stage in his life. I was greatly struck by the obvious enjoyment Fred got out of individual exchanges with hundreds of people, some of whom he knew and others he didn’t.
Like many others, I became quite fascinated by his apparent ability to defy the cancer, and by the sheer enthusiasm with which he persisted with his projects in the face of the disease. In my age group &emdash; I’m six or seven years younger than Fred &emdash; the battle of anyone that you like or respect against a life-threatening illness is always of absorbing interest.
By the time we held the last book-signing, for the paperback of the book, Fred was noticeably frailer, but he was still pretty vigorous considering the nature of the illness and, like many others I began to hopefully toy with the fantasy that he might even beat the cancer. Anyway, it did not turn out like that and he did die in due course.
The family announced there would be a Requiem Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral, followed a few days later by a burial in Bourke. I went to both events and for me, some aspects of those ceremonies underlined aspects of the shape of the new Australia.
A friend and I turned up at the Cathedral to meet my mother, and we joined the queue on the back steps, along with thousands of other Sydney citizens from all walks of life and with a multitude of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Lots of Aboriginal people. Many Vietnamese and Chinese. A large contingent of striking-looking Eritreans &emdash; in fact what must have been the whole Eritrean community in Sydney. And many many others.
The doors open, we pour in and the Cathedral soon fills up. Standing room only, and quite a few outside. At the front of the Cathedral, the family, close friends, politicians, doctors and others from the category known these days as eminent persons: Paul Keating, Bob Carr, John Fahey, a hard-faced tense-looking John Hewson. Looking around me, at the back of the Cathedral, and looking back at Hewson, I think happily to myself: “Not too many votes for you here, mate!”
The context of the event is pretty interesting. Fred, a non-believer, but with a dissenting Protestant family background and experience, a former student for the Church of Christ ministry, with a knowledge of the Bible and many an intelligent non-believer’s interest in religious questions, is married to Gabi, a younger woman, who is a Catholic and they have five children, a real love match, and they respect each other’s beliefs and opinions. The kids go to Catholic schools, one of the sons to the Cathedral School. It is Gabi’s wish, respected by Fred, that there be a Requiem Mass.
This context is of absorbing interest to me personally. I am, like Fred, a non-believer, but I am of Irish Catholic family background. Losing my religious belief at the age of 16 or 17 was a traumatic and decisive event in my life, although in a paradoxical way I still identify strongly with the Irish Catholic segment of Australian society.
I often jokingly describe myself as an atheist but an Irish Catholic atheist and if the Catholic community had provision for a sub-section of adherents who didn’t believe in God, I would certainly join it. I have a certain affection for the magnificent old Cathedral, compounded of memories of midnight masses attended in childhood, with slightly painful memories of going to confession in the anonymity of the Cathedral to confess terrible juvenile sins of the flesh that I didn’t want to confess on my home turf. I even take a certain perverse pride in the way the Tykes always occupy the high ground, the Cathedral sitting on the highest ground in town.
I am fascinated and kind of proud, for instance, of the way the crazed rednecks in Australian society try to explain the entirely righteous Mabo decision of the High Court on the fact that six of the Judges have a Catholic background, three, according to a meticulous article in the Sydney Morning Herald practising, and three non-practising.
Anyway, the Requiem Mass commences. I have only been inside a Catholic Church four or five times since my late adolescence, always for Requiem Masses &emdash; my father, the Irish hunger striker, Bobby Sands in 1981, other relatives. As on each of those occasions, I’m rather startled by the new Mass in English, and such innovations as the “Kiss of Peace” where you turn round and shake the hand of the person next to you.
The Catholic Church I left in 1955 still had the voluptuous old Latin Mass. I suspect that if I suddenly got religion in old age, I’d be a bit inclined to Tridentine Catholicism and the Latin Mass.
Anyway, the Mass proceeds. Bishop Heaps, who is officiating, gives the first Homily, a very moving tribute to Fred. Bishop Heaps has been one of Fred’s patients and he describes the utter seriousness Fred devoted to every one of his patients. He makes it clear that Fred wasn’t a believer, but that he was, to use Tom Keneally’s phrase in relation to Oscar Schindler, a man of utter secular goodness. At the end of the Homily, the whole congregation claps, another thing that I’ve never seen before, that didn’t happen at Mass in my time.
During Mass about half the congregation are making the responses and the other half are not, indicating the cross-section of people paying their respects to Fred. This is a bit like the Federal Labor Cabinet which, when sworn in by the Governor General, has two halves, the Catholic half who swear on the Bible (Douai Version) and the other half, all of whom, without exception, take affirmations.
Communion comes around and a fair proportion of the congregation, particularly a number of middle-aged Catholic women, pour out to the altar rail, including half a dozen women sitting next to me. Towards the end of Communion a rather elegant young priest, strikingly dressed in very traditional robes, does a sort of roving patrol at the back of the Cathedral with the Host to give Communion to any stragglers, another practice which is totally new to me.
One of Fred’s doctor colleagues delivers a eulogy. Some hymns are sung. One of Fred’s kids speaks movingly, and then Frank Hardy delivers a second, major eulogy.
Hardy excels himself. He underlines, in a dignified way, that both Fred and himself were Marxists and non-believers, though he establishes a nice touch of unity with the congregation by referring to his own start in life as a Catholic altar boy. He talks of Fred’s courage and his projects and his work, and of his fine rebel spirit. He has a bit of a go at the politicians present. He speaks about Fred’s struggle to help the Aboriginal people to organise themselves in the Trachoma Program and the Aboriginal Medical Service. He refers again to Fred’s rebel spirit and sits down. He gets the most uproarious ovation of the whole Requiem Mass, led, in my section of the Cathedral by the half-dozen religious Catholic women who have just been to Communion.
More hymns are sung and the Requiem Mass ends. We file out of the Cathedral, pay our respects to Gabi Hollows at the door of the Cathedral and meet old friends and acquaintances. I emerge from the Cathedral, as it happens, a few paces ahead of Gough Whitlam, who is obviously so moved by the event that he walks over to me, a face he knows, and we start to discuss the extraordinary nature of the event. I make the throwaway remark that the event has gone a long way to re-establishing the proper alliance between the atheists and the Catholics in Australian society. We both laugh at this remark, because of an element of underlying truth in it, and an enterprising freelance photographer standing nearby seizes the moment and snaps us.
The crowd disperses and we go home.
There has been some talk of a wake at the Hollows house at Randwick, and later that evening I get a friend to give me a lift out to the Hollows house towards the end of the wake. I hadn’t felt it appropriate, not being a family member or a particularly close friend, to join the crowd in the last few days of Fred’s life at the house. But the wake is different and I want to find out the details of how to go to Bourke.
The wake is breaking up. The phone is ringing constantly. I get the information. I talk to Gabi for five or 10 minutes and then I have a 10 minute conversation with Pat Fiske, the film-maker, who made the film about Fred’s life, who seems keen to describe to me how Fred dragged her into my shop when she first arrived in Australia 20 years ago. I go home.
Fred’s funeral at Bourke
On the day of the funeral, a friend drives me to Mascot Airport. The deal is that for $250 you get a return ticket to the funeral on a small chartered aircraft. Some mourners are going on bigger aircraft, and it seems that all the spare planes in NSW have been roped in to get mourners to Bourke for Fred’s funeral.
The smaller aircraft take longer, so you start earlier and get back later. Fellow passengers on this small aircraft include Tom Keneally, John Kerr (Fred’s publisher), and all sorts of other interesting people affected in one way or another by Fred’s life.
We talk a lot on the three hour flight. There is a stop-over in Dubbo, where we seem to leave settled agricultural land, and start flying over endless Australian scrub. Finally Bourke on the Darling looms on the horizon (in the form of a straggling river surrounded by cultivated land in this sea of Australian scrub), and we land.
Bourke Airport is a sight to behold. There are about 20 aircraft, large and small, crammed on this tiny airstrip, and the locals are absolutely blown away. There has never ever been so much air traffic in Bourke before. The locals, even the most conservative, are flattered and impressed by this, and members of the Aboriginal community, who seem to be the physical majority in the town, are visibly deeply moved.
Fred’s body has just arrived on one of the larger aircraft. The first thing that strikes me, with tremendous force, are the flags. Fred’s coffin is covered by five flags: the Aboriginal flag, the Vietnamese flag, the Nepalese flag, the Australian flag and the Eritrean flag. (I had to ask a couple of people before I managed to identify the Eritrean and Nepalese flags.) This spectacular statement by Fred’s family of internationalism and opposition to dopey insularity moves me to the very core of my being.
A bit like Fred himself, I’m a bit of a fright from the point of view of the Pauline Hansons and the Paul Sheehans of this world. Since childhood, I’ve been a sucker for internationalism, and ideological currents that are international, first of all the Catholic Church, then very briefly Stalinism, then for most of my life world Trotskyism and the world workers’ movement.
Views like the Catholic view that we are all brothers and sisters under God, and the labour movement and socialist slogan, “The unity of labour is the hope of the world,” resonate through my life, as they did through Fred’s, and the prospect of Fred being buried according to the ancient rites of the Catholic Church in the heart of Australasia in gritty Bourke, his coffin draped in those flags symbolising international proletarian unity, makes me smile a bit, but also moves me by the devastating political and cultural statement involved.
Obviously Fred and Gabi have carefully worked out between them what was required for the funeral.
At the airport we are all organised into buses behind the hearse, and the cortege slowly moves through the town. Blimey, I think, Bourke is one very black town. A majority of the townspeople, almost all of whom seemed to have turned out to line the route, respectfully and tearfully, are brown or black, and, incidentally, strikingly young.
The cortege stops briefly for a couple of speeches outside the premises of the Bourke Aboriginal Medical Service, where Fred did much of his medical work, and a lot of his organising in the process of developing the Medical Service. The cortege then drives 30 miles along dusty roads beside the Darling River for a memorial meeting and lunch on a clay pan on Kinchila Station, on the flood plain of the Darling that Fred particularly liked, where he and Gabi and the kids used to camp during their many trips to Bourke.
We pile out of the buses, and have lunch. The main course is kangaroo curry, Johnny cakes and damper. I was a bit startled by the kangaroo, but it turned out to be quite tasty, a bit on the tough side, and a bit gamey, but it grows on you. We circulate, renewing old acquaintances, and I spend a fair bit of time talking to Frank Hardy, who I know a bit from the political past.
I sympathise a bit with Frank about how certain people are going after him alleging plagiarism in some of his works, which sets him off on a long and intricate discussion of the origins of several of the stories in his books, and he seems to have a certain uneasiness now, that some of the wonderful urban gossip that he had put into his books, had been planted on him deliberately and might not have been entirely accurate.
It was often hard (even for me) to have a conversation with Hardy, because he tended to take the floor very, very forcefully, and on this occasion, I just shut up and listen, because what he is talking about is intrinsically very interesting, even if it is refracted through his tendency to focus the stories around himself.
I’ve had an off-and-on slight acquaintanceship with Hardy for over 30 years, and some of the stories about his personal idiosincracies, his tendency to bite you, or in my case, take books on credit and never pay, are true, in my experience. Nevertheless, they are not the full story about Hardy. The other side of the story is his immense creative energy, the very streak of gentle parasitism in the man, is in fact one of the features common to many creative writers all through history, a feature they develop in the desperate battle of life to get enough time and resources to engage in their creative work.
Despite his idiosincracies, I have immense respect for the creative boundaries of Hardy’s life work, Power Without Glory about the origins of the Australian labor movement, and The Dead Are Many, the definitive novel about Stalinism in Australia, and The Unlucky Australians, the decisive book about Aboriginal affairs that captured the popular imagination at a critical moment in the 1970s, and all his other work, despite their defects, make an immense contribution to the literature of Australia, helping to define Australia for Hardy’s, Fred’s and my place and time. In retrospect, I was very lucky to have this interesting discussion, because Hardy himself died soon after.
When Hardy himself died, like Manning Clark when he died, all the rats came out of their burrows to try to put the boot in. None of that putting the boot in after death impresses me greatly in either case. I’m familiar with some of the defects and contradictions in both men’s life’s work, but anyone with half a brain and any sense at all of Australian cultural history and identity will value the great and particular contributions of both men, which vastly outweighed any human weaknesses and any anomalies in their work.
Anyway, back to the flood plain. The kangaroo is all consumed, and the memorial meeting commences. This is a kind of conference of the Fred Hollows party, clan, and faction in Australian society. Alternately, indigenous Australians, Eritreans etc, speak, along with various doctors, nurses and others from middle-class white Australia, who Fred ruthlessly, if necessary, roped in at various times into his humanitarian work.
I know some of the speakers a bit, but most are new to me. Fred’s chosen and major sphere of activity in the Aboriginal Health Service and the Trachoma Program, are things that I completely support but that I have never had very intimate connection with.
Naomi Myers I know slightly: the tough, battle-scarred and confident leading figure in the Redfern Aboriginal Health Service. She speaks in a most moving way about Fred’s contribution and all the creative brawls she has had with him. I can well imagine!
A number of the white medical professionals describe how Fred had dragged them, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the world of Aboriginal health, and the world of eye treatment for Third World countries like Vietnam, Eritrea and Nepal, and a recurring theme is how Fred had changed their lives and made them more meaningful.
People from the Eritrean, Vietnamese and Nepalese communities speak about Fred’s wonderful work in relation to their countries medical problems. A series of Aboriginal speakers, often assertive Aboriginal women of all ages, speak about the history of how they, and Fred together, with the medical professionals he had roped in, got the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Trachoma Program going.
Jack Waterford, now the editor of the Canberra Times, speaks. I know Waterford a bit. When he was a slightly loopy and cynical first-year university student, he and a couple of other young blokes, descended on me for no apparent reason, in the Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street Sydney, trying to foist on me a thing they had set up called the Flat Earth Society, an elaborate practical joke on the world.
I remember thinking at the time what pretentious adolescent pricks they were, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since them, and Jack is now the very well established and effective boss of the Canberra Times. Waterford gives an extraordinarily interesting, emotional and detailed description of how Fred changed his life also, by bustling past Waterford’s public persona of cynicism, and rubbing his nose in the reality of Aboriginal life, thereby involving Waterford in his projects for the Aboriginal people.
Waterford, who is now clearly a seasoned and experienced man of affairs, reiterates, in a very deliberate way, the theme that runs through all the speakers at this Hollows memorial party conference on the Bourke flood plain, of keeping up and maintaining all the major works to which Fred had given such energy and flair. Writing in the Canberra Times later that week, Waterford said:
Each of those who spoke believed they had a special personal relationship with Fred. There was a message. Fred changed lives, and, mostly, for the better. He changed mine. By example or insult, he changed a lot of people in Aboriginal affairs, and later, in wider programs for public health about the world. There were doctors whom he got interested in public health issues, students and others whom he enthused and to whom he showed a world quite different from their middle-class existences; politicians and bureaucrats with whom he clashed and from whom he cajoled help. He did not just change ideas. He was interested in action, but not just for action’s sake or being “just another lot of bloody medical missionaries”. The action he pushed was designed to get lasting change, mobilising people to use their existing skills and to adopt skills and resources coming from outside that could create self-sustaining change. Just as significantly, he gave people to believe that they themselves could change things. In the areas in which he worked there were any number of reasons or ready excuses for claiming things would be impossible and not worth trying. He tried and, often enough, succeeded.
The last speaker is Paul Torzillo, Fred’s doctor, who I know a bit because he’s also my doctor. Torzillo, a good looking man in his forties, an Australian of migrant Italian background, is a registrar at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, down the road from my shop in Newtown, where several of my close friends work as nurses, and he has his practice in the medical centre nearby.
Torzillo, also like Fred, a man of the left, has been intensely involved, despite his apparent youth, in Aboriginal health for the whole period of Fred’s activity, and he obviously feels Fred’s passing very badly, both personally because they were friends and also because of the obvious gap Fred’s departure leaves in work on Aboriginal health.
Torzillo speaks at length of Fred’s professionalism in his medical practice, and one can sense the seriousness with which he takes this, and the pride in which he commemorates Fred’s Hipocratic professionalism. He stresses the enormous gap left by Fred, but also that the work must go on, and he exhorts all present to continue the work, despite difficulties. The conference on the flood plain ends, we get back into the buses and we drive to Bourke Cemetery for the final interment.
The Bourke Cemetery is in a rather pleasant setting with a fair number of trees. We assemble at the graveside, under two glorious coolibahs. The same spectacularly robed youngish priest who I had noticed in St Mary’s Cathedral, who I’ve now discovered is the redoubtable Father Frank Brennan, conducts the ceremony.
He gives a homily with very little religious content, stressing Fred’s secular goodness. Frank Hardy speaks and recites Lawson’s wonderful poem, The Union Buries its Dead, about a member of the Australian Workers Union drowned in Bourke in the 1890s, who had no possessions except his union ticket, and who no one in the town knew, but who they buried with appropriate honours anyway on the strength of his union ticket.
Then there are several Aboriginal speakers, in Aboriginal languages. The first speaks in the language of the people around Bourke. Then the Barkindji speaker is asked to come forward. He’s not there apparently, but then suddenly three truckloads of Barkindji people arrive, and their representative makes his homily in Barkindji.
Roughly translated, he says:
This is our good doctor; he fixed up many eyes; he’s finished now; we are all sad for our friend; he lies resting in the earth of our country; he has left us gone, but his spirit is still with us.
(I sell a book in my shop called Lament for the Barkindji, a fine book about the many attempts to exterminate the Barkindji people, written by an angry and enraged white person 20 years ago. In the book the author laments the passing of the Barkindji people, but happily that well-intentioned lament has turned out to be a bit premature. The mixed-blood descendents of the Barkindji have obviously well and truly revived around Wilcannia in the past 20 years, and are busily inquiring into and reviving the language and culture, and these three truckloads of the Barkindji mob with their representative paying a tribute to Fred in the Barkindji lingo, is a wonderful example of this kind of Aboriginal cultural revival that’s taking place all over Australia. Incidentally, a thing that mightily impressed me in Bourke was the extraordinary variety of battered, usually ancient, but usable and effective cars and trucks driven by the various Aboriginal mobs that had come from all over Western NSW, Queensland and South Australia, to Fred’s funeral.)
At the very end of the proceedings Father Flynn, a Catholic priest who was, like Fred, an eye doctor, and Fred’s predecessor, and then associate in work on eyes for the Aboriginal people, bustled in to make the final homily. Father Flynn, over 80, is an upright, how to say it, rather Tridentine Catholic priest of the old school, but nevertheless a man who respected and loved Fred deeply.
Father Flynn is obviously not particularly pleased at Father Brennan’s failure to introduce a sufficiently religious note into the proceedings, and Father Flynn heavily stresses that Fred’s life and work clearly showed the power of God working through Fred. I’m kind of impressed at the ideological and religious struggles still going on as we inter Fred. That kind of real struggle between conscientious people about matters of importance is the stuff of Father Flynn’s, Fred’s and all our lives, and a fine note to go out on!
Finally, the coffin is draped with a screenprinted blanket made by women from Engonnia, a rainbow serpent next to a Aboriginal figure with bright, shining eyes. (Engonnia is the place where Fred had first begun trachoma treatment 20 years before.) The coffin, with the flags of international solidarity, and the rainbow serpent blanket, is then lowered into the grave, and those present throw handfuls of earth into the grave, in the ritual way. Fred’s kids, and the many Aboriginal kids present, through their tears, rather get into the swing of throwing the earth into the grave.
The funeral concludes, we all get into the buses, and make our farewells as the organisational nightmare of getting us all back home proceeds at Bourke airport. Gabi and her children, who I’ve been watching a bit at different times, are obviously terribly shattered by Fred’s leaving, but they are coping reasonably well and putting a brave face on it, and they intend to drive back to Sydney, camping at the various points where they used to camp as a family on the many trips backwards and forwards to Bourke over the years. They are an amazing group, the Hollows family, and I privately hope that this trip back to Sydney is not too cruel for them.
The rest of us pile into planes or other vehicles, and gradually Bourke Airport is deserted again. We land back at Mascot at 11pm, after much further discussion and renewal of acquaintances on the plane. I discover, much to my surprise, that Barry Egan, the one-time secretary of the Shop Assistants Union, and an old enemy-friend-sparring-partner in ALP politics, is the Hollows family’s next-door neighbour at Randwick. Egan and I discuss the forthcoming federal elections, which we both agree Labor has a reasonable chance of winning because of the Hewson GST. We turned out to be right.
Conclusions from Hollows’ life and work in relation to the current arguments about Aboriginal welfare, and the so-called Aboriginal Industry
The first thing you have to say is that Fred wasn’t your caricature liberal bleeding-heart on these matters. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, and he worked very hard to ensure proper accountability in all the medical activities for Aboriginal people he was involved in. He stressed constantly the ideas he got from Paolo Freire, the core of which was that the indigenous people had to have practical rights of self-determination. Quite clearly he would have fought like a man possessed against the sinister proposition from Pauline Hanson to get rid of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which would obviously involve the closing down of the Aboriginal Medical Service that he had fought so hard to build.
He had no illusions about the problems of constructing indigenous institutions, but he would have fought vigorously for their preservation. In Fred’s spirit, we should take up the struggle for the defence of Aboriginal interests against these narrow-minded, bigoted people. An appropriate concluding note on these matters might be to reprint the following section from the book, Memories of Fred, edited by Pat Fiske and Michael Johnson, in 1995:
This story is told against herself by Pat Ashover, an acquaintance of Fred and a nursing sister.
“Ah, but yes,” I chipped in, “I was in Alice when the Whitlam government came to power, it seemed that overnight all welfare funding was directed towards the blacks. There were some very needy white people as well.” I had seen some very sad cases while working at Alice Springs’ Hospital and they were by no means exclusively black. My point was that while the Aborigines deserved a much better deal then they had ever had, the Northern Territory had a large white population with grave social problems too. I was warming to my subject. Had I paid more attention to those around me I may have been aware of the storm clouds gathering. I carried on regardless, recounting a story (or was it a rumour?) regarding a medical relief flight that was dispatched to pick up a white woman in the final stages of a difficult and dangerous labour. The plane was supposedly diverted to evacuate an Aborigine with a broken finger. How true this was I don’t know. I threw this at Fred seeking a response. I got one. In Fredspeak!”You fucking white nursing sisters &emdash; you are all so fucking one-eyed.” I was floored! He continued in the same vein, “Why don’t you take your fucking capitalist ideas somewhere else?” A restraining “Fred, please” from Gabi did nothing to defuse the situation. It seemed to further fuel Fred. The tirade continued. Dick sat in stunned silence. I wished the floor would have opened. Eventually, after what seemed a lifetime, Fred calmed down.
“Anyone like more coffee?” chirped Isabel. This was just the diversion I needed &emdash; with a beaded brow and trembling hand, I made a dive for the coffee pot.
The next day I rang my sister to thank her for dinner. Naturally Fred’s outburst was discussed. “Don’t worry about that,” I was told, “If Fred doesn’t agree with you, he’ll let you know in no uncertain terms. At least you know where you stand.”
I couldn’t argue with that!
April 9, 1999