Strewth! A magnificent memoir of home truths

“What do you call a fart in the bathtub?”
It was a question I asked award-winning columnist of The Australian, author, snake lover and bagpipes player, James Jeffrey (Photo above The Australian), a decade or so ago.
The answer, of course, is “Gorp,” the sound of a fart in the bath. James liked it and we have been exchanging bon mots ever since. He did mention that the excellent actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, said his surname sounded like “a fart in the bath,” but it has too many syllables. James replied: “May Gorp be with you,” and we have used it and many variations ever since.
But this is not a piece about Gorps. It’s a belated review of James’s magnificent memoir, My Family and Other Animus, which was published four months ago. Better late than never. It’s a book mainly about a family of animated spirits, especially his mother, Eszter, a feisty Hungarian dedicated to smoking and several marriages. In his preface, James mentions a list of suggestions that will make for a better life and a happy family. My favourite and his: Make sure the kids see the love flow between their parents.
His family arrived in Australia on a ship from England in 1976, when James was four, with his mother and his siblings and his British father, Ian, heading for a coal-mining job in a country town a few hours up the road from Sydney. His mum found the town so boring, she waged a successful campaign to move the family back to the Big Smoke and the Sutherland Shire.
Four years later, the Big Fight, as it became known, erupted between his Mum and Dad, and his father’s mother and sister, visiting on Australia Day, which led to screaming, and the barricading of James and his sister, Olivia, in a bedroom. The Siege ensued, and eventually, when his father went off to work, the removalists arrived and the family left him behind. James writes: “… this was the moment in which my old world ended and a new, chaotic one rose in its place … life would take on a seismic instability so filled with madness and strain and vendetta and daftness and acts of love both beautiful and misguided that, decades later, I rarely go a week without thinking about it all.”
The split led to the Family Court and two years after the Big Fight, the divorce and custody arrangements were settled in 1983. James, who was eleven at the time, told the Family Court: “Yes, I love them both the same. But I’d rather live with Dad.” James and Olivia stayed with their Dad. (His mother had moved in with her third partner, Janos.)

But life goes on, and James tells tales of the birth of his first child, Daisy, who was born in a Sydney hospital in 2002, in a “labour-and-caesearean marathon.” His wife, Bel, had come back earlier from Moscow where James was working, and he arrived in time to be at the birth: “Daisy’s first act was to part her legs and pee on the doctor, confirming in quick succession that she was a girl, and that she was our girl.” He had the photo developed and scanned by a 2002 computer that downloaded line by line. The result prompted a colleague to email from Moscow: “It looks like a scene from Alien.” Three and a half years later, Leo was born, with James whispering: “He’s a boy,” to Bel, adding (he regrets to say): “He’s got a really big schlong.”
James Jeffrey loves his family, but journalism is also in his blood. Aside from his much-read and much-loved daily Strewth! column in The Australian, where I first “Gorped” with James, he writes the parliamentary Sketch, inherited from the late, great Matt Price, whose pieces in the Oz were priceless for their humour and insight. James also captures the joy and mayhem of Federal parliament in his Sketch, occasionally saying outrageous things about outrageous politicians.
He’s also not afraid to take on readers who abuse him via email or tweets, bravely stating: “All I ask is that they try to be original with their abuse.” And there are two things that make him ponder the value of the online comments section below his columns and vignettes and short Strewth! tales: “And this passes for journalism?” and “And your point is?” His response is razor-sharp: “I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis – all of this is important. But they’re not the only reason readers turn up. So, for those of you poised to ask me what my point is – apart from vive la difference – it’s a straightforward one: this article passes for journalism.”

Speaking of journalism and journalists, Jeffrey has a chapter on one of the best, the late Mark Colvin of the ABC (photo above Mark and James, The Australian), described by James as a “broadcaster, writer, Twitter friend, outstanding human being and , in a twist of fate I still pinch myself over, dear friend.” Colvin would often comment on a piece or a single line or two and once he caught James “completely off guard” with a line about the last of his Home Truth columns in The Australian: “I hope Bel is suitably appreciative of what between the lines is one of the great love-letters of all time.”
Mark was dying of cancer and spent a lot of time in hospital, but, as often happens, James thought he had time to visit him the following day when he got the saddest of news from his mutual friend, the ABC’s Leigh Sales, and was whisked away to the office of another friend, Labor MP Terri Butler, where he went “wild with grief.” Despite his distress, he managed to write a poignant tribute to his dear friend for The Australian’s next edition. Here’s a brief excerpt – the piece began in Bunnings where the pair used to meet and chat: “Our conversations sometimes wandered the world or history, sometimes stayed very local. Sometimes we dug deep, sometimes skated happily across the surface. Then eventually, we’d say goodbye – and suddenly I’d realise I was still in Bunnings.”
The tribute continues: “He was brave, he was stoic. Injustice and hypocrisy made him angry … He was one of the finest people I’ve ever known, and becoming his friend has been one of the great joys of my life. He left one last tweet to be sent out once he was gone: ‘It’s all been bloody marvellous’.”
That chapter, and the ones piecing together the columns about the dementia and death of James’s father and his mother are worth the price of admission to this brilliant book. If you’re a sentimental old journo like me, you might shed a few tears, but that’s good for the soul.
Dementia. Not a good word. Not a good way to die. James finally confronted his father on a nostalgic trip to Lightning Ridge. In the car on the way back to the mining town, he talked to his Dad about the “d-word,” which prompted him to get out of the car and start walking along the road toward Lightning Ridge. “Come on Dad, we have to talk about what’s happening to you,” called James. His Dad’s reply: “Do you think I’m not aware?” The last sentence of that chapter is full of sorrow: “The sky was immense, but the world beneath it was suddenly smaller.”
The next column on his father begins with this ominous sentence: “It was a Sunday when Dad first forgot my name.” The descent into full-blown dementia was swift, and he asked his son: “What line of work are you in?” Within days, his Dad was moved into the dementia ward of a nursing home. James muses in the last paragraph what the future holds for his father: “He still has the company of his phantoms. Bit by bit, they grow more assertive as the flesh-and-blood people in his life slip out of focus, flicker and fade. Then one day, I’ll go out into that garden and sit among the flowers with a man who looks like my father.”
I teared up after reading that. The next paragraph is James’s turn: “That was the hardest column I had yet written. When I finished typing it, I stared at the last seven words for a very long time. As it turned out, we didn’t have long at all and I was soon writing the most bittersweet of follow-ups.” The next column on his Dad is certainly bittersweet and worth reading, but I’ll leave it to you.
Let’s end this review on a slightly less lugubrious last chapter: “Apres mum le deluge.” After selling her house on Gumtree, the online classified site, James’s Mum decided to move house again a few months later. It was only three minutes from Coles and she told James she was happy. Then she had a heart attack in the morning and a second one later that afternoon, and was flown by helicopter to Newcastle for surgery in a larger hospital 380 kilometres to the south. The entire family gathered around her as she spent 18 days battling as her life ebbed away. Finally the respirator was switched off, and she was gone.
The funeral was a celebration of his Mum’s life with a little ghetto-blaster in the back of the hearse taking the coffin to the cemetery switching from a “sad, yearning voice and a keening violin” to Fur Elise, “a trusty bit of Beethoven Mum had always loved playing on her piano.” Near the end, the celebrant asked the family and friends: “If anyone would like to share a memory of Eszter, please do.” Cue the thunderclap. So loud it felt like it had pounded the mourners’ eardrums deep into their skulls.
“Once we were confident no one had been hit by lightning, we all laughed. In that carnival of grief, it was even more than a moment of release – it was almost magical. More than anything, we understood that there couldn’t have been a more Mum way to say goodbye. Well, either that or a shower of cigarettes.”
James, Thank Gorp for such a wonderful read.
My Family and Other Animus, James Jeffrey, Melbourne University Press, 185 pages.
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