I was born, as they say, under a wandering star. And the moving around has made it hard to hold on to any artefacts – my mementos, such as they exist, are small, easily carried and rarely added to. But I picked up a new one on a return to the first place I remember – Coogee Beach in Sydney. But how the Baxters ended up there is a story in itself. I’ve actually been moving since before the day I was born.
My mother alluded to my conception on the banks of a crocodile-infested creek somewhere in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Margaret McCue was a small-town girl, from Toowoomba in Queensland. My father Jack Spackman hailed from an even smaller town in New South Wales, a little place called Grenfell.
Mum had big dreams about seeing the world and big ambitions. She left school at 14, at a time when not much was expected of her but to get married and raise children.
It took a lot of grit to break into journalism instead, but that’s what she did. She went down to Sydney and was working on the Daily Mirror when Rupert Murdoch bought it in May 1960.
Mum said his charisma, the day he walked into the newsroom, was dazzling. She never saw it equalled. “He was like a young lion,” she said.
Just five months earlier she’d married my dad, whose own journalism career had begun on the Western Star in Roma.
He was working on the Sydney Telegraph by then as a sub, “back in the old days, when young Kerry wore big boots to work and blue overalls,” Dad said.
“I remember spotting John Pilger as a comer, or is it a goer?
“It was in ’58 and the rowers were out on the Nepean… and this clean-cut schoolkid was earning some change (as much as Frank Packer could afford) to cover the stuff leading up to the Head of the River when the eight big boys’ schools in Sydney display their skills on the oars.
“At age 23 I was the tired old hand who took his well-rounded writings and, after the usual refinements, maybe a slight adjustment or two, sent them winging down the pneumatic tube to the old Telegraph comp room where the lino operators were waiting for their manna.”
And then, for the first but not the last time, they packed in their jobs and went travelling. They wandered around the Territory, at some point camping by the aforementioned croc-infested creek, picked up some opals in Coober Pedy and were heading down to Adelaide when they found out about me.
Hard on the heels of that little bombshell their FE Holden blew a tailshaft and gearbox on the run down the perimeter of the Woomera rocket range and had to be abandoned at Port Augusta.
Jack and Margaret arrived in Adelaide in a cloud of desert dust, disappointment and destitution.
“It was six months of the most abject poverty I’ve ever known, a vehicle that needed big expenditure to get it out of the garage up at Port Augusta, no job, and a pregnant wife,” was how Dad remembered Adelaide.
“We were so broke we used to go to the market and buy a crate of oranges and then stop off for a flagon of rough red. We lived on oranges and plonk for weeks on end.
“It all came out right in the end, as these things do,” Jack said.
“I finished up working for a Rev Bob Wilkinson on a Catholic newspaper called Southern Cross.
“We ran a campaign against strip joints – the star attraction was an old sheila called, wait for it, Gaye Abandon – and we uncovered some Communists lurking in the municipal councils in Adelaide.
“They weren’t my proudest days as a journalist.”
My mother, meanwhile, was having a terrible and terrifying pregnancy. She never stopped worrying about the effects that awful diet may have had on me – referring to it even when I was a patently healthy teenager.
And she suffered dreadfully from morning sickness in the early weeks, so I can imagine how gratefully she accepted an offer from another pregnant woman of a few tablets which might help.
I was about due for arrival when the first stories emerged of the terrible effects of Thalidomide – for all she knew, the same drug she had taken months earlier.
My father said every morning the newspapers would arrive with more pictures of deformed babies on the front page and he’d sneak downstairs and throw them away before my mother woke.
It was futile of course to try and hide the news from a journalist.
Dad had picked up a job in Sydney by then, in time for me to be born at Paddington Hospital, with all limbs present and correct, and for the next four years we were settled in a little place at Coogee.
Mum went back to work while her mother-in-law, my grandma, looked after me. She was working for the ABC when she became pregnant again, a dismissable offence in those days.
At the same time, the ill health which plagued my father throughout his life was threatening to kill him. He had originally gone to Roma in western Queensland because the climate at that time was believed to be therapeutic for asthmatics like him.
Now, in Sydney, he was constantly getting carted off to hospital in the night unable to breathe and the doctors were issuing grave warnings about his prospects.
In such circumstances, with two children under the age of five, my parents’ next move was remarkable. They went travelling again – only this time they went to Hong Kong.
It was a bloody long time before I returned to Coogee, although my first memories are firmly fixed there.
My father used to run on the beach in the mornings and, if he couldn’t sneak past my bedroom without waking me, would take me with him and leave me playing in the rockpools.
I clearly remember those mornings but my first thought, on seeing the place again from the foreshore as I watched the waves crashing over the rocks, was how astonishing it was that I’d made it to adulthood at all.
But once down on the beach I saw the small, shallow pools I remembered, sheltered from the waves.
It was the oddest sensation, to recognise the place so well. I was babbling to the ever-patient current Mr Baxter that I had clambered from this pool over that rock to this one, and there would be little creatures hiding under here…
I couldn’t help looking across the beach, imagining or remembering – I don’t know which – the figure of my father and his trail of footprints disappearing behind him in the wet sand.
That’s when I saw the large, perfect seashell. It’s the sort of shell a child of any age would be delighted to find. I washed the sand out of it and, against all my environmental principles, put it in my pocket.
Now, if I put it to my ear I hear my father whisper: “Nostalgia and its trimmings.”