Best address in the world

This afternoon, setting the alarm on my mobile phone for my pre-concert nap, I noticed a message which I had previously missed.

It was from E, at 7 am. E is a morning person and she knows I am not, so it was merciful of her not to ring. Unfortunately, it meant the message was too late.

“Chris funeral today 345 [school].”

Chris was a colleague of ours when we taught at [the school]. He was in his thirties I suppose when I taught with him in the English department and I doubt if he reached 60. As Nx, whom I later rang to pass on the news, said, “He never looked after himself,” and it is true he didn’t. The time when I dropped off or picked up some exam papers to be marked at his house and he came down the corridor to the front door stabilizing himself with a trailing hand against the wall still sticks in my mind as one of the first times I saw someone in a non-party or non-taxi-driving context truly the worse for alcohol. Ultimately, that cost him his job, quite unfairly, and he went on to teach elsewhere, including a while in Instanbul, where he met a good woman who dried him out (well, relatively speaking) and married him. Then, tragically, she died.

I last saw Chris at EN’s funeral, and he looked terrible. He was off the drink by then, and I don’t even know if that was what had really destroyed his health, though it can’t have helped.

If Chris had been an Australian, he might have been a larrikin. He was an Englishman, so perhaps he was a scallywag, and he had the air of a remittance-man, without necessarily the remittances. He was too smart and lively to make a respectable teacher, but in many ways he seemed still to be a teenager at heart and he definitely had a rapport with his classes. He had a wicked sense of fun, though he could also be pretty abrasive at times, even after he married. By the time I saw him last year, most of the fun had run out of him, pretty unsurprisingly.

But I often think of him and especially one occasion, when, sitting back in the sun with a drink and a fag and beaming in his characteristic way (he had been to a party on a yacht on the harbour with Susannah York) he pronounced: “Sydney! Best address in the world!”

I don’t think that’s jingoism or whatever it might be called if, as Chris had, you have chosen to live somewhere rather than simply grown up there.

I rang back E on the way to the concert. She hadn’t gone to the funeral because, having meant to see Chris when news was sent around that he was dying soon, she felt bad about just turning up for the funeral. I mentioned that I could only talk briefly as I was on the way to hear Mozart’s Requiem. I said I would say a humanist prayer for Chris. Chris was raised a Catholic.

In summer, when the Botanic Gardens are open until 8pm, I try to allow time to walk through them on my way to the Opera House. There was time today. I’ve noticed recently that there have been a few plantings of memorial trees in the gardens. Just close to the gate at Man o’war Steps, with a more than usually-protective screen around it, is a Wollemi Pine, planted, so the label says, in memory of Kerry Packer.

I enjoyed the concert, and I did think of Chris during it. There was no interval, and we were all over just after 9.30. I left, as is my habit, via the steps and up to the Tarpeian Way, passing the Spiegeltent on the way. At the top of the steps is a wonderful and quintessential Sydney view: the Opera House and the bridge. A Manly and an inner-harbour ferry were setting out, glowing with light. The air was warm and the post-concert crowd streaming out below me. Maybe it really is the best address in the world, at least at moments like this. It didn’t feel fair that Chris wasn’t around to enjoy it any more.

The quasi-plaque in front of Kerry Packer’s tree had the usual rubbish that a rich man’s legacy and “philanthropy” can buy – never mind that his philanthropy was strictly at his own election, and pretty much to the exclusion of the compulsory altruism exacted from the rest of us by the payment of taxes. It ended up with some tag like “love and respect.” I don’t share those sentiments.

I was still thinking of Chris. He wasn’t always very kind to me, and I was probably pretty objectionable to him from time to time. We were both younger when we had anything much to do with each other, though his abrasiveness had not smoothed out entirely on later encounters. But if, as Google professes, we seek to do no harm, he came a lot closer to that than Kerry Packer.

One Response to “Best address in the world”

  1. Neil Says:

    Marcel, this post is just wonderful.

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