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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published on my FALLOUT blog, October 2013.