At one time Grosvenor House, our block of flats at the end of Macdonnell Road in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, was home to BBC correspondent Tony Lawrence, who died on 24 September 2013, and Dick Hughes, the legendary Australian journalist who covered the Asia beat for half a century.
Status was easily measured in Hong Kong by how high you sat on Victoria Peak. Glorious colonial mansions still decorate its chilly, fog-wreathed summit, homes of civil service elites and the taipans of business.
The Spackmans settled in the decidedly middle-class Mid-Levels, not far from Government House, the Botanical Gardens and the army barracks which cut a swathe of forbidden green down to the streets of Central below.
Dad said when we decided to stay in Hong Kong, he walked the length of Macdonnell Road looking for a flat and nearly every building had ‘for rent’ signs hanging from multiple windows.
He would tell that story whenever the latest housing crisis hit the Hong Kong headlines over the next 20 years, which was often.
It was hard to believe there was a time when homes were going begging, but of course it was 1967 and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was in full swing, although it had not yet reached Hong Kong.
Ramshackle squatter huts covered every inch of Hong Kong’s other available hillsides, getting rebuilt almost as fast as they were washed away, but the Mid-Levels was out of reach for those residents.
With the Lawrences above us at Grosvenor House and Dick Hughes and his wife Ann below, we were in distinguished company.
When he called me from California back in 2001 to tell me Tony’s wife Irmgard had died, Jack didn’t expect me to remember the Lawrences at all. He was astonished and delighted that I remembered Irmgard well.
“She used to give us stollen and those spicy German biscuits,” I told him. Along with the rest of the kids in the block, I often went knocking on Irmgard’s door, as a reliable and generous source of snacks.
It wasn’t all one way, I assured him. I once made her a papier mache vase which she was good enough to accept with some warmth, much more than the wonky thing warranted.
Jack said Irmgard Lawrence was one of his favourite people but he had no idea she was one of mine too. One good story deserves another and he told me the last time he saw her was in 1986 at a lunch to mark the publication of Tony’s book China: The Long March.
“She was wearing some elaborate necklace with all these loops of big shiny beads. Magnificent looking thing it was, until it broke right in the middle of a particularly boring speech,” Jack said.
“Suddenly these beads were bouncing all over the floor making a hell of a racket. Then a waiter turned up and slipped on a bead and then another, and then another. He was flailing around the place like Charlie Chaplin on roller skates.
“Well, poor Irmgard was dreadfully embarrassed. A couple of us made a great show of getting down on the floor and picking up the beads and bringing them back to her so she could collect them in a napkin.
“It took a while but by the time we’d finished she was laughing about it. I think she realised she’d given the lunch the lift it needed.”
Our downstairs neighbour, Dick Hughes, had moved out of Grosvenor House by the time Dad and I bumped into him one day in Central, somewhere between the Hilton Hotel and the old Foreign Correspondents Club in Sutherland House.
“Your Grace!” Jack said loudly and dropped to his knees in the middle of the pavement as Hughes waved and mumbled a blessing over his bowed head and my father slobbered ostentatiously over the ring on the old journalist’s outstretched other hand.
I had a rather lackadaisical Catholic upbringing but I knew enough to be both scandalised and delighted at the scene and also to never, ever mention it to my grandmother.
Dad later told me the colourful ecclesiastical references had their origins in the early days of the trade union movement, which adopted the language of the Church when workers’ meetings were more frowned upon than today.
The branch was the ‘chapel,’ its leader ‘Father’. “The bosses couldn’t stop them going to Prayers, so that’s what they called their meetings. It all sort of followed from there,” my father said.
Uncle Dick, it seemed, had been devilishly inspired to take the code to a whole new level, dispensing: “A Benediction, my son, for the usual Indulgence,” at the drop of a napkin.
When Dad got to his feet he and Hughes proceeded to demolish another cherished belief by discussing my recent gift from good old Santa. It seemed the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in my sack had been Uncle Dick’s idea.
But no matter, there are worse ways to discover the truth about Santa, or the Old Fraud as Dad would later refer to him, once freed from his parental obligations.
I next saw Dick on Australian television, when he was featured on This is Your Life. I sat down, with my grandmother as it happened, to see a familiar face from home and was also surprised and delighted to see Dad among the guests paying tribute to him.
I stood up in some awe of the man who once lived downstairs. My grandmother was less enthused. There were only a few moments of Catholic mockery, but they were quite enough for her.
I might not have appreciated it at the time, but I am proud to have known the likes of the Lawrences and the Hughes, and proud to have called them neighbours, once upon a time.