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My Extraordinary Aunt

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My Extraordinary Aunt: London and a promise kept


The continuing adventures of my honorary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne, my father’s cousin, who left Australia with us in 1967. The plan was to travel across Asia and Europe and on to England but Dad’s ill health forced us to leave the trip and head to Hong Kong, where we stayed put for the next 20 years. Joan kept going. We last caught up with her in Switzerland, weeping by the banks of Lake Geneva for a world still divided after the horrors of World War II.

Joan had travelled across Asia and Europe through India, Hong Kong, Japan, Siberia, Poland, East and West Germany, Switzerland and France savouring all the food, culture, art, language, history and experience she could cram in.

But there were miles to go and promises to keep. Continue reading

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My Extraordinary Aunt: Visions of Moscow 1969


The Bolshoi theatre serving whole meals in the foyer at interval… the Arts Theatre, home of Stanislavski, where I saw a play in Russian… the woman sitting next to me trying to translate it for me… the mechanical perfection of the circus… crowds lined up at Lenin’s tomb in Red Square… convoys of tanks moving at midnight to Red Square from different directions, rehearsing for the October revolution celebrations… the greyness and uniformity of the residential  buildings outside the central area… dancing with Georgian dancers in a nightclub after a show… catching up with Australian travellers in kangaroo skin coats and being glad to hear that accent again… the telephone ringing in the hotel bedroom… and nobody there… a reminder that it was probably bugged….

These are my Aunty Joan Byrne’s impressions of Moscow in November 1969 when she arrived after seven days on the Trans-Siberian railway. She’d had plenty of time on the journey to ponder the realities of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: The Adventure continues…


A couple of years’ back Your Girl Reporter was at a family reunion – we hold them often, but not often enough. We’re a good bunch, by and large, and I missed them growing up. I feel like I am a missing piece of the puzzle, slotting comfortably into place, whenever I attend.

The occasion was my uncle Mick Fogarty’s 80th birthday. Mick is my grandmother’s youngest brother and we gathered to celebrate, on a dry and dusty afternoon, somewhere in New South Wales.

Mick’s daughter Suzanne had done her work well and we were surrounded by displays of pictures, telling the stories of each of the many branches of the Fogarty family tree, of which the Spackmans are but a twig, as any Fogarty will tell you.

I was looking at a picture of my dad and his cousins, sitting around a table made of packing cases in the backyard of their place in Grenfell. I didn’t notice the small, older woman at my shoulder until she spoke. “That was my birthday,” she said. “We had raspberry cordial.” And with that she walked away. “Who was that?” I asked my cousin. “That’s Joan Byrne.”

The last time I had seen my extraordinary aunt was in 1969 at Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal. She sailed for Japan that day in the Russian ship Baikal on the next stage of her long journey to London. Continue reading

Dad’s childhood spent clinging to the sheep’s back


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. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: College days in 1960s Hong Kong


When the school year started in September 1967 my honorary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne took up her post at Hong Kong’s Wellington College in Caine Road and I began my undistinguished academic career at Kennedy Road Junior School.

It was a steep learning curve for us both.

Wellington College was a private English language school for middle class Chinese. The college was owned by a millionaire who spoke no English and owned four such establishments, according to Joan who was engaged to teach English and ‘oral,’ which I don’t believe had the same connotations in 1960s Hong Kong as it does today.

Salary was by negotiation and there was no sick pay. In fact, not only was there no sick pay, teachers who had to take a day off were required to find and pay for their own replacement. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: In the shadow of Lion Rock


There’s a mountain in Kowloon called the Lion Rock which has come to embody the spirit of Hong Kong. It’s a spirit that had yet to rise in February 1967, when my family disembarked from the SS Chusan at Ocean Terminal and settled into a small room at the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui. But its first stirrings were only a few months away.

Education was not compulsory in Hong Kong in 1967 and children from poor families either went without or crammed their learning in between working and caring for their siblings.

It was perfectly legal for women and children to work a maximum of 60 hours each week with permitted overtime of 100 hours per year. Prosecutions of firms violating this maximum were not uncommon but there was a simple way round it: Take home piece work! Fun for all the family! Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: Taking the long way to London


Joan “The Bone” Byrne, Hong Kong 1967. Picture by Jack Spackman.

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. Continue reading

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