Every child needs an extraordinary aunt. If Nature fails to provide, one must invent or appoint one. Mine was Aunty Joan. Strictly speaking she was my dad’s cousin, and therefore an Aunt by Appointment. But since she was most notable in my life for her absence, I did sometimes feel I had invented her.
Fifty years after she sailed with us from Australia in 1967, I finally got around to asking what she’d been up to when she left us to pick up her own adventure. And, not unexpectedly, it’s an extraordinary tale.
In 1967 my family left Australia on board the P&O ship SS Chusan, bound for Asia and beyond in what was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. There was my mum and dad, Jack and Margaret Spackman, your four-year-old Girl Reporter and one-year-old sister Alin. There was also Jack’s mum Doris, and his cousin Joan Byrne.
Joan the Bone, as Dad always called her – because she was such a skinny kid, said the man who never packed a lot of spare meat himself – was five years younger and very close to her wild cousin.
As children, they shared a love of books and adventure, learned from the influence of Joan’s grandfather, known to all as Father Byrne, and her mum Aunty May. Dad and his brothers spent most of their summers at the Byrne place in Burrangong, about 55km down the road from their home in Grenfell, New South Wales.
“One Christmas morning Auntie May put a copy of Treasure Island in my hands and that really started something,” Jack said.
“And Father Byrne was the first man in my life who didn’t make the walls shake when he entered the house. Gentle was the word for him and his roast quail.”
Joan said Father Byrne talked and read to them in a way that no other adult did, sparking their interest in the world beyond their tiny, remote corner of it.
In 1967 she was a teacher, working with neglected and delinquent children in the loving care of the state of New South Wales. She was a frequent visitor to our place in Coogee, where plans were laid to strike out for foreign pastures.
“I had promised my grandfather that I would visit England and meet the little brother he had left behind so many years before,” Joan said. But before she got there, like my father, Joan was keen to learn about Asia, that mysterious region to insular Australia’s north where the Vietnam War was heating up.
“The war was coming into our living rooms and we began to realise we personally knew no one from Asia, and certainly no communists. We questioned media and government propaganda on the Vietnam War. So we decided to go and find out for ourselves,” she said.
The idea was to travel around Asia, surviving by selling stories and photographs as they went, before taking the Trans-Siberian railway through China, across Siberia and on to England where Joan would fulfil her promise to Father Byrne.
Regular viewers will know that plans changed dramatically for us when Jack, a chronic asthmatic, fell ill before the Chusan had even left Australian waters. While we sailed on to Hong Kong, Joan left the boat at Singapore to pursue the adventure alone. First stop: India.
“Phrases from primary school like “Lucknow was besieged” and “perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta” pulled me in that direction, as well as stories of Buddhism and Enlightenment,” Joan said.
On the advice of the Singapore agents, no doubt concerned for the perils facing a young Australian woman travelling alone, she sailed first class on a British India ship mainly used by Indian rubber plantation workers.
“As one of the few first class passengers, I sat at the captain’s table where I was treated like a treasure. The chief engineer even gave up his seat for me so that I would not have to sit facing a picture of the queen,” said Joan, a committed republican.
Also on board was a young Indian woman, a lawyer, who with the ship’s first officer helped Joan plan her trip around India, from the art treasures of the south, to Kerala, the first state to actually elect a communist government, then overland to Bangalore.
“I travelled by bus and train, often the only white face around, and stayed at youth hostels, railway station accommodation and cheap Indian hotels. In a national park I saw a tiger in the wild. And it was a proud achievement when I learned to eat Indian food with my hands,” Joan said.
Then it was on to Bombay, where she stayed with an Indian family who would drop her off at an exclusive club for a swim. In 1967, in their own post-Independence country, as Indians they were still denied entry.
In Delhi she stayed with the family of her lawyer friend, visiting the parliament, the temples and the markets. In Lucknow she found the Indian custodian of the old military barracks still longing for the return of the Raj.
She hoped, like the Buddha, to find enlightenment under the Banyan. “In Calcutta I did find Enlightenment at the banyan tree in the Botanical Gardens but it wasn’t quite what I expected,” Joan said.
“The aerial serpent-like roots of the tree quite freaked me out. Across the way was a gum tree, and there I found calmness and tranquillity. I was Australian and that was that.”
Joan said an important lesson she learned from India was to accept help graciously. Another was that extreme wealth could create extreme poverty.
“The main picture of India that remains in my mind is of extremes: Wealth and poverty, beauty and horror, generosity and exploitation. I still don’t understand that people can accept exploitation without protest.”
From India she continued through Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines before pitching up in Hong Kong and landing in the shelter of that very British hostel for ladies of European descent, the Helena May Institute in Garden Road.
The Helena May was founded in 1916 to provide for the physical and moral safety of women who had washed up for whatever reason in the exotic East. It was unkindly referred to by my late father-in-law as Menopause Mansions.
I borrowed The Last of the Mohicans from their library under the auspices of Aunty Joan and never returned it. Alas for the ladies of the Helena May and their book, my guinea pig munched through a good section of it and I think my young sister finished off the job with some crayons.
The Helena May was just down the road from the Botanical Gardens on the 12A bus route between Macdonnell Road and Central and for years your Girl Reporter couldn’t pass it without guiltily ducking under the window to avoid detection, such is the power of a Catholic upbringing, even one as lackadaisical as mine.
Joan was only at the Helena May a week before she joined our barely settled household not far away in Grosvenor House, at the end of Macdonnell Road, where her own stories of adventure and love of reading inspired me, the occasional mishap with American literary classics notwithstanding.
For the next two years, as well as amazing and delighting me, Joan taught English to Chinese kids from all strata of Hong Kong society, including some of its very poorest, before setting off to keep her promise to Father Byrne. But that’s a story for another day. Tune in for the next part of My Extraordinary Aunt, coming soon from Your Girl Reporter.
© Sally Baxter 2017
Journey Interrupted – Your Girl Reporter on what might have prompted my parents Jack and Margaret Spackman to leave Australia in 1967 and spend the next 20 years in Hong Kong.