Grenfell is a small, nondescript town of about 2,500 souls in the central plains of country New South Wales. It has few claims to fame but among them are two sons – a poet and a sportsman. My father Jack Spackman was also born there but until I returned for an Easter reunion I had no idea just how far from home his life’s journey had taken him.
When the current Mr Baxter and I set out for Grenfell it was a pilgrimage that was a long time coming. The occasion was a family reunion to celebrate the 50th birthdays of two of my cousins. They had grown up there but I had only a dim recollection of the place from a visit when I was about six years old.
My father, who never stopped regarding himself as a sports journalist, spoke often of Grenfell born cricketer Stan McCabe, who returned the fire of Larwood’s infamous Bodyline strategy with a thundering 187 not out. How’s that, Poms?
But most of all he spoke of Henry Lawson. He would tell us stories of growing up in Grenfell in an accent as broad as the plains of his childhood and always finish with a laugh and Lawson’s line, “You were born on Grenfell goldfield – and you can’t get over that.”
So, when the invitation dropped in my inbox how could we do otherwise but hire a car in Sydney and head west, west and still further west? At Bathurst, where Jack had attended St Stanislaus College on a maths scholarship, we stopped and picked up a map, not knowing which fork in the road to take – the one to Goulburn and Crookwell or the one to Cowra.
I knew the Spackmans had originally settled in Crookwell and Grandma’s granddad Frank Flint had been the first town clerk of Cowra in 1888. But which way Grenfell?
The map advised the Cowra road and it wasn’t until we passed that little town that we saw the first sign to our destination – a mere five hours since we hit the road. Another hour and we finally pulled in at about 6pm.
It’s a small town – there was one other car on Main Street and it was my cousin’s, right outside the Railway Hotel where we were staying. It was a long, dusty way from Brisbane, never mind Hong Kong and San Francisco, where my father ended his days.
Jack had told me that he and his brother Fred had sold flowers from their Aunty Et’s garden to the pubs on Saturday mornings to make extra money for their struggling mother. “We were allowed to take everything except the lillies,” he said. “They were for the church.”
Dad had been just four years old when my grandad Charles Spackman died, leaving her widowed with four small boys in the middle of a Depression.
I barely had time to imagine those two little big-eared boys pitching their wares to the bleary eyed landlady on the doorstep of the Railway when the current Mr Baxter made a rather stunning announcement.
He’d left his glasses and spare contact lenses back in Brisbane. In his bag he did find three contact lenses… not quite enough for the trip, but disaster – sort of – averted. He would have to suffer the ones he was wearing through the entire weekend or go blind, saving his spares for the drive back to Sydney.
“You’re fucked,” I told him.
We headed for the campsite which had been entirely taken over by my relatives and had a good evening catching up with cousins I knew and meeting new ones I didn’t.
My husband told his tale of woe to several of his new relations. Their response was exactly the same as mine. “You’re fucked, mate.” It must be a family thing.
The tour of the town didn’t take long – the little house where my dad and his brothers grew up, the church – very important, of course – and Uncle Geordie and Aunty Et’s place, which I vaguely remembered from when I was six.
And then the cemetery, to pay our respects to my grandfather, who loomed so large for someone we never knew. His resting place was surrounded by others carrying all the familiar surnames from my family history. It was a strange sensation for a footloose girl to stand at last before the graves of her ancestors.
Across the road from the cemetery was a derelict house that had been my grandmother’s first home in Grenfell. Her parents had settled there in around 1918 and her youngest brother was born there. I couldn’t help but notice that the Catholics had lived a long way out of town, and also got buried at the bottom of the hill.
The sensitivities over these things run very deep, across many generations. But we had a party to get to, and no time to ponder.
There were more than 100 of us celebrating with all the gusto you’d expect from a family of mostly Irish extraction when the Editor of the Grenfell Record showed up. He’d heard there was something going on at the campground and was excitedly taking pictures. “I’m going to have social pages,” he said to me, almost crying with glee.
It is a small town.
My ankylosing spondylitis was screaming by now and I couldn’t hide the stiffness but it didn’t bother me as it usually does because these people knew I was under the family curse. My Grandad had it and so did two of his sons.
I lasted as long as I could and then begged my bed – early, at around 9pm – but I was on a mission to keep this thing under control, as I am now to get this written in spite of the Iritis which is making it hard to see and hard to think.
The next morning I woke early and went out into the chill pre-dawn air to walk off the pain, out to the rugby ground where Jack and his brother Fred played rugby league. I don’t have the photographs, but I remember them from the family albums, those two young men in their kit, standing straight and strong – Fred included. He always thought it was a rugby injury that started the AS which left him so bent over that in the end he couldn’t see more than a few feet past his toes.
Like any journey of nostalgia, those images seemed just out of reach. If I thought my father would walk with me that morning I was mistaken. Different lines of the same Lawson poem he used to quote ran instead through my mind:
Said Grenfell to my spirit, “You’ve been writing very free/Of the charms of other places, and you don’t remember me.
I was walking back to the hotel, ready for the long journey home, when the current Mr Baxter pulled up beside me in the car with a bit of startling news. “The first thing you should know,” he said, “is that one-eyed people do drive.”
Two of those three contact lenses were ruined, so long had they been sitting at the bottom of his bag. But the third was okay, so he would have one good eye at least. And we had a six hour drive ahead of us.
I’d been berated by my Aunty Nancy the night before for not learning the skills of driving but it was a bit late to worry about it now. “We might be fucked,” was all I could muster. “Tell ‘em we died game.”
It was a cautious and fraught re-crossing of the Blue Mountains but we got to Sydney and dropped the car at the airport in one piece. There were a few hours to kill so we headed for a harbour view, some seafood and very chilled white wine – the best antidote I know to an overload of nostalgia and fear.
Bum numb, neck stiff, knee aching, lips as dry as a winter wind but oh, it felt good to be alive and in love.
Said Grenfell to my spirit, “You’ve been writing very free
Of the charms of other places, and you don’t remember me.
You have claimed another native place and think it’s Nature’s law,
Since you never paid a visit to a town you never saw:
So you sing of Mudgee Mountains, willowed stream and grassy flat:
But I put a charm upon you and you won’t get over that.”
Said Grenfell to my spirit, “Though you write of breezy peaks,
Golden Gullies, wattle sidings, and the pools in she-oak creeks,
Of the place your kin were born in and the childhood that you knew,
And your father’s distant Norway (though it has some claim on you),
Though you sing of dear old Mudgee and the home on Pipeclay Flat,
You were born on Grenfell goldfield – and you can’t get over that.”
– Henry Lawson
Henry Lawson – from the Australian Poetry Library
Stan McCabe: A glorious batsman remembered for three immortal innings – by Arunabha Sengupta
Bodyline!!! – highlights, or perhaps more properly lowlights, from the Bodyline series