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Maureen's Gift



OK John, tonight I leave the computer ready to write upon, just in case I have a bout of inspiration. I have cricket to watch, from the Gabba, 20/20, which reminds me of that perfect vision, hindsight.


My sister Maureen died a little more than a year ago, and her funeral occurred in early January. She had been ill for about two years, a terrible illness. It started out as nothing more than some hip and back pain which she sought help for, rubbed a lot of Voltaren on herself, and eventually the pain was so great that she saw a doctor who diagnosed the need for an operation: steel rods to be inserted in her spine.


Well, she was sort of recovering from this tremendous ordeal when they gave her a scan, as her recovery was not exactly on target. The scan revealed she had cancer in her bones, and that her hip was in danger of fracturing, so another operation was done to manage that problem, then the chemo and the whole damn disaster... the agony of dying over a long period, almost two years, the debilitation, the pain, the indignity. All the terrible indignities which are heaped upon a person when she is least able to deal with them.


During the period of Maureen’s decline, we often spoke on the ‘phone. Clearly it was difficult for her even to talk. Sometimes I felt guilty just for calling her when the effort to respond was so great, and other times I just felt guilty for being alive and well, while her prospects were so poor, only months if she was “lucky”. Lucky for what? Lucky to survive more months of the pain, the illness, the ravages of the treatment, and lucky to endure extended indignities, such as not being able to raise herself to sit in her bed, or turn over.


One question Maureen often asked me during this period was “Why?” and sometimes it came in another form, “How did this come about?”, and finally, the one that everyone asks, “Why me?” I found it extremely difficult to respond to these questions, but because she seemed to really want an explanation I tried to explain that we live in a world full of toxins and that cities are toxic environments, and that hairdressing salons are full of chemicals, which are supposed to be safe, but who knows what effect they may have upon the cells in our bodies. I didn’t take this too far, as I’m even afraid of the amount of instant coffee I consume, and I have chosen to live in an out-of-the-way place far removed from the anxiety of city traffic, well removed from the lethal mixture which is called “air” in cities like Melbourne, monoxide, heavy metals, particulate matter. Who can list all the particles which are dangerous in the air we breathe? However, my answers didn’t really help, nor hurt, because the question was one that she really didn’t want to know the answer to.


Anyhow, I really didn’t start writing this email to you today John to describe the ins and outs of Maureen’s illness, especially after you have just so recently dealt with the experience of Jack’s slow decline, his anger, his impatience, and the heavy burden it placed upon your Mother, Alma, in his last few years of his life.


Why I am writing now John, is because I have just been playing one of the latest CDs you’ve sent me, the Romero Family of Flamenco Artists, and that takes me way back to the dim distant past when Maureen and I were teenagers, in our comfortable suburban home at 276 Hawthorn Rd., South Caulfield. In those days we had a fairly close relationship which drifted as we progressed through our adult years. I must say we had a profound effect upon each other, especially in matters of musical discoveries. It was Maureen who introduced me to Flamenco. At the time I was also playing piano, not so very well, and just becoming interested in learning guitar. Not being content with learning to play such an instrument I launched out into building my own guitar, actually, two of them. The first one, I hesitate to admit to this, I constructed out of Blue Laminex. You may find this astonishing and ridiculous, and it was both, but remember, these were the heady days of Rock and Roll, Bill Haley and Elvis, Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes. So I guess the blue laminex guitar had something to do with Blue Suede Shoes. It didn’t look too good and it sounded much worse. So I then progressed into making my second guitar, which, although it was still “steel strung” was more like a folk guitar. I bought the necks for these guitars from an early version of the Maton factory which I had passed on the way home in my Marcellin College school days in Canterbury. This second guitar looked a little bit better than the first, was not made of blue laminex, and sounded like any other cheap six-string guitars such as were available in those days. Then I bought a “Teach Yourself” book and started to teach myself chords and soon learned a few minimal skills on that guitar, which was later broken over my head by my younger brother, also named John, who was angry with me for something I may have done, but which I have entirely forgotten. It was a tribute to the toughness of my skull that my head was not broken and the guitar chose to give way instead. I soon replaced that guitar with a good quality Swedish “classical” model which was a nice guitar with a rich tone. I later sold that guitar to my brother John when I was about to make my first film and needed money to buy the film stock. And it was about that time Maureen met the people at the Reata Coffee Shop in High St., Malvern, just near the Malvern Town Hall, across the road from Mum and Dad's hairdressing shop where Maureen was an apprenticed hairdresser.


The great thing about this connection was that the people at the Reata, Tom and Veronica Lazar, had decided to have musicians from all parts, because there were folk singers such as Paul Marks, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Brian Mooney, Trevor Lucas, as well as two chaps who played Flamenco guitar, Brian Brophy and Bill Dessailly. Maureen got to know all these people when she was about sixteen.


Then she started to get excited about Flamenco music and wanted to learn to dance to this music, so she started taking lessons with Antonio Rodriguez, a lovely chap, I think from Latin America, who taught dance, including Flamenco. Well Maureen went helter-skelter for Flamenco, and very soon brought home her first Flamenco record, a 12” LP of Sabicas and we started to learn the Farruca from that LP. Have you heard of him John? He may have been a mentor of both Paco Pena and Paco de Lucia  when they were just starting out. Paco Pena pays tribute to him on an early LP called “The Art of Flamenco Guitar”. And Paco de Lucia’s version of “La Zarzamora” is a very close copy of Sabicas’ stunning piece.


Wow, what a revelation that LP was for me! What a buzz! The appearance of this LP coincided with my first hearing of Segovia on John Cargher’s programme of classical music, and the piece which first caught my attention then was Recuerdas de La Alhambra”, which you would only expect, huh? Immediately I wanted to play like Segovia and Sabicas, as well as play piano like Barrenboim and Wilhelm Kempff, and perform folk songs like Pete Seeger and Paul Marks and all the others, even Joan Baez, although I was very well aware that my vocal range was not quite up to Joan’s.


So all this leads me to why I am writing about Maureen to you John, although you never met her, as far as I can recall. Last year about this time was the time of her funeral. I had previously been asked by her daughter, Camilla, whether I would read something at the funeral on behalf of Camilla and her older sister Gita. I had said I would, but as the days approached for the service in St. James Catholic Church in Gardenvale, things started to go awry. I had not only agreed to read on behalf of my nieces, although I had told Camilla I thought they should do it, it would be better for them to do it, but I had also wrestled with my own desire to say something on behalf of Maureen, to celebrate her life as she had been so many years ago, when she was just a teenager about to become a young woman, which would not have been known to many who knew her only over the last few years. Then the bloody Monsignor got in the way. Camilla rang me to tell me that they didn’t want me to do the reading after all as the Monsignor thought it would muck up his plans for the ceremony. Like, let's have sixty minutes of prayer and hymns and religious shit, and no time for any eulogy? Can you believe that?


Well, John, you know me. I threw a wobbly. I am so anti-religious, and so anti “formality”, and after all we’d had a rather pleasant funeral service for Mum, just nine months previously, when atheists like me were able to say a few words, and the religious nuts could have their prayers and hymns, and that arrangement worked very well, divided about fifty-fifty between Atheists and Cretins, I suppose I must mean Chretiens!


So I was forced to do something I never thought I would have to do, and which I can hardly believe I had the temerity to do... I told Camilla to tell the fucking Monsignor that either I would not come to my sister’s funeral service, or else I would come, and then walk out, if I was denied the right to have a few minutes to say something which would celebrate Maureen’s life.


I definitely didn’t want to upset Camilla as she is really a great kid, but I had to do this. I was compelled by unknown forces. Maybe the forces of Darkness. Who knows?


On this occasion the Dark Forces won the day against the Forces of Light. Satan had a small victory over the Angels and Saints, and even over God. The Great Cosmic Jester snuck me in, through the back door, as it were, and I made it in by the very thin skin of my teeth.


I was given a small window of opportunity to speak for two or three minutes. This is roughly what I said. I told them about those days in South Caulfield, a house which was alive with music, and about Maureen finding the musicians at the Reata, and befriending them, and being befriended by them, and her desire to learn Flamenco. I told them how she went to Antonio’s dancing studio to learn her Flamenco dancing, and how she became very good at it, bought herself a Flamenco dress, the heavy-heeled shoes, the castanets, and how she used to practice at home on a “sounding-board” which was built for her by my brother John, something she could put out on the living-room floor to make the right sound, although there was carpet under that board. I told them how the house rang with our music, our folk songs, our classical music, with Segovia and Sabicas, Beethoven and Chopin, Elvis and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, but most of all, how our house on Hawthorn Rd. rang out with the huge volume put out by Maureen’s shoes dancing to Sabicas.


Then Antonio invited Maureen to dance at a cafe in town, in Russell Street. She asked me if I would accompany her. In those days we often went to musical events together, eg., Gilbert and Sullivan in Botanical Gardens, etc. So we went to town that night on the number 64 tram, and she took her flamenco gear, dress, shoes, castanets. We arrived at this basement cafe. A type of dingy coffee lounge, with a few tables and chairs, no space for dancing. Antonio was there with Brian Brophy and Bill Dessailly, and maybe half a dozen others. A couple of sturdy tables were thrown together and my sister Maureen, seventeen years of age, danced the Farruca to Brian’s and Bill’s playing. She danced with flair. She danced with passion. She danced with grace. She was radiant, not only in the natural beauty of her young womanhood, but also because of the confidence and joy that she could do this, and do it really well.


I described all this to the many people who packed the church in Gardenvale. I told them that on that evening I was extremely proud to be her brother. You’ll be pleased to know John that many people came up to me afterwards and complimented me on what I had said, and how much it meant to them, especially some of her old friends with whom she had studied hairdressing before she went to Mum and Dad’s shop. They were impressed that I had described Maureen as they had known her, it brought back a lot of memories for them, and they were really glad that I had stood up and done it.


So John, when I listen to the Romero Family, or the feisty Rocio Jurado’s "Columbianas por Rumbas" from the CD “Dos Mundos Cantan which you gave me a few years ago... or Paco Pena, Paco de Lucia, or Montoya or anyone.... even the Gypsy Kings, it doesn’t matter.... they all bring back those very early days when Maureen and I were just kids really, she was sixteen going seventeen, I was eighteen going nineteen, and very soon I’d be leaving home like a fledgling taking its first solo flight from the nest.


It takes me back to those wonderful days when I started to discover some of the extraordinary music in the world which was introduced to me by so many different people, people with different personalities, different tastes, different ethnic backgrounds... who all gave me a little gift or two, some of the music which has made my life very special.


Music, without which, I think life would not be much worth living! And of all those gifts, one of the most profound was Maureen’s gift of Flamenco music... a gift of a part of herself.




January 2009