My father Jack Spackman grew up in abject poverty, a widow’s son, in the tiny town of Grenfell, way out past the Blue Mountains in rural New South Wales, Australia. He was the second of four boys born to Charles Spackman – known to all as Jim – and Doris Fogarty.
Jim died in 1937, just months after the birth of their youngest son Bob. The eldest, Alf, was four years old. Doris and her sons survived through the kindness of relatives but the extent of the debt was mostly hidden from the family history Jack told, coming up in oblique ways that were never truly explained or understood by your young Girl Reporter.
For example, Jack loathed lamb – couldn’t stomach the smell of it cooking and wouldn’t have it in the house. To this day, it’s a meat I associate with restaurants and other people’s tables, not my own.
It was only later that I realised how much lamb – or, more likely, mutton – they probably ate in that little house in Grenfell. It was a meat that was in ready supply from sheep farming relatives like Uncle Bill Byrne, who probably never realised his contributing role in later making his young nephew sick of our national dish.
Bill’s daughter Joan said a sheep was killed each week, cut up in the meat house and kept in an ice chest.
“It was chops and eggs for breakfast, often cold meat and salad or sandwiches for lunch and different cuts and cooking styles for dinner each day of the week,” she said. But if the menu was unvarying, Jack never lost his love of farm life.
Dad said the highlights of his boyhood were the summers he and his brothers spent at Bill and May’s place at Burrangong, around 55 km south of Grenfell. Doris and her sister May were closest in age and their children shared most of their school holidays.
Jack spoke of Bill many times over the years, told tall tales about being on the road with him as a boy in an old covered wagon, “with just a couple of horses, a pack of cowering dogs and 6,000 or so sheep munching their way through grit and gravel on a road to nowhere much,” he said.
“He told me how to manage a dog, when to beat him a bit and when to tie him up without water, so that he’ll do exactly as he’s told when the whistle’s for him. How the dogs knew when he was whistling them and not the others was always a mystery to me.”
The nearest town was Young, about 8km away, which today is home to only around 7,000 people. It was on a trip to the bright lights of Young that Aunty May won big on the poker machines. It meant she and Bill could visit their nephew in Hong Kong.
When Jack took them to the Miramar Hotel in Nathan Road on Kowloon side, he had one important question to ask his uncle: “Are sheep really as stupid as some people would have us believe?”
‘No more stupid than any other animal,’ Bill said.
“Consider it survival instinct. Sheep can live anywhere that man can. And better at it. I’ve sat with sheep, huddled up lambing, working with those dogs to keep them settled down, to just stand there and let the snow fall on them.
“That’s when those dogs have to move around on tiptoe because you sure don’t want the sheep running about, getting hurt.
“And I’ve worked a flock across a desert, lifting them up when they fall, giving the sick ones a ride in the wagon, more lambs arriving, and they’ve only just made it to the water. Some don’t even make it, but most do.
“The point is, sheep are found in every climate on the globe. That gives them a certain standing in the animal order. As for being stupid, it’s hardly stupid to go about your life quietly looking for something to eat.
“That’s all they have to do and they’ll go along doing that nicely until you get one or two silly buggers who want to get out in front and start running, for whatever reason. Then the mob thinks it has to follow. Sheep are not stupid – they’re just like people.”
Jack spent his days at Burrangong feeding hens, gathering eggs, cutting wood or gathering light sticks to start the fire in the fuel stove or open fire. The kids also collected coal dropped by passing steam trains, penned the calves at night for a good supply of milk the next morning and separated the milk and the cream to make butter.
“There was so much territory to explore, so many things to do,” Jack said.
“All kinds of animals, crops, orchards, gum trees to chop down, horses to ride, rabbits to chase, crayfish to ensnare in the dam beside Grandma Byrne’s, trains to be waved and shouted at from the railway gates…”
It was a world away from our flat in Macdonnell Road, Hong Kong and probably explains why so many of my childhood memories consist of being dragged around the rural New Territories, falling into rice paddies and skirting my way cautiously around water buffalo.
Dad loved nothing better than hanging around farming folk, and the minute he heard a copy boy on the newspaper or one of Aunty Joan’s students hailed from a little village in the New Territories, he would be angling for an invitation.
Once, when I was working for him on Computer-Asia – the magazine he started after failing to find gainful employ thanks to his prominent role in the China Mail industrial dispute – the subject in the office turned to soccer.
I cringed when it became clear that Jack was going to share the story of the first game of football he ever played, in the yard at Burrangong. I’d heard it before of course, once in the company of some school friends, and they had reacted not with amusement but disgust.
“Uncle Bill had carefully extracted a pig’s bladder and cleaned it up – sort of – and then, as we watched in awe, he blew it up into a near perfectly round football. We kicked that old pig’s bag around in the dust until the sun went down,” Jack said.
Stories like those only highlighted the chasm which seemed to exist between our family and the ones we rubbed shoulders with in Hong Kong, a gulf which regularly opened up in class at Kennedy Road Junior School when that hoary old time-filler of “What I did on the weekend” reared its head on a Monday morning.
I soon learned that our regular excursions by noisy, crowded minibus to the New Territories where I often ended up sitting at the back of a hut with the other children helping to assemble plastic flowers were… unusual. Heck, my classmates and even the teacher didn’t seem to know what a minibus was.
The family photo albums which travelled with us to Hong Kong depicted a life closer to the one lived by the families we visited in those villages in the New Territories, which is probably why we spent so much time there in my childhood.
Jack spoke directly to me only once about the hardship his mother faced. It was the second time I saw him cry. The first was over a jar of Vegemite she sent to him from Australia which smashed on the journey.
This time it was late at night, when I was old enough to share a few rough reds with the old man, and he got talking about my Grandma and the life she’d spent cleaning for other people, mostly priests.
“Sometimes, to get a bit of extra money, she’d take in some ironing,” he said. “And every time she did, some do-gooding neighbour would do the right thing and tell the authorities and she’d lose her pension.”
He wept. Then raised his glass to Christian charity and took a noisy slurp. “Ah well. It was back to bread and dripping for us.”
And mutton, I expect. Enough to turn a man’s stomach at the very thought of it.
© Sally Baxter 2017
Bill’s daughter Joan Byrne and my grandmother travelled with us when we left Australia for Hong Kong in 1967. You can read more of their adventures here: