EARLY MEMORIES: A smorgasbord of characters (4)

Academics come in diverse contours. The one I respected for both his intellect and his liberal philosophy was a Russian, a scholar at the Australian National University in Canberra, the national capital. His partner and he socialised with my wife and I, until he suddenly died. In a city full of self-important people, he stood out as one worth knowing.

This was in the 1960s. In the agency in which I was employed was an elderly-looking, grey-haired man. I invited him home for dinner regularly. We discovered that he had 2 Ph.Ds from a European nation, and was a piano player who made up his own tunes. He had family in Sydney; but we did not talk about that. Our conversations were yet rich.

An outstanding character was our medico, also a friend. He too ate with us regularly. A fourth-generation Chinese-Aussie with a wicked sense of humour, he would tell us (in confidence, of course) about all the mishaps which occurred at our hospital. Snooty doctors and matrons were made human by our friend.

How snooty were they? When my daughter was thrown by a horse and injured her neck, the specialist attending her at the hospital refused to talk to me. “You are not my patient” said he. I was the one to pay his bill. As well, many of the matrons (the title seems to have disappeared now) were reportedly not only authoritarian, but also rude.

How things change, but yet remain the same. We now have nurses with university degrees, some of whom talk about “delivering clinical services.” Reminds me of my early years in Australia when I met ‘engineers’ who were actually mechanics (their blackened finger nails so testified). I have also met a senior nurse in a major hospital who refused to bring my wife a glass of water, unless she asked for some pain killer medication. My wife had just been returned to her bed after major surgery – and she would be bed-bound for at least a week.

Status awareness so diminishes the human spirit. The national capital was overflowing with status-identification. Senior or rising public officials (known as public servants – a most misleading description) would not socialise with anyone below their classification. Academics, by and large, did not socialise with public officials. “What are you doing here?” asked a fellow-chairman of a school board, and an academic, when I was at a dinner given by an academic friend of mine. Our family doctor did not invite us to his wedding, although he had, as a bachelor, dined with us for years. His bride, a widow, had been of Sydney’s social elites.

Since retirement, I have met truckloads of fellow retirees. The notable characters amongst these are those ‘feather-dusters’ who strut around the place pretending to be the ‘roosters’ they had once been, or the ‘roosters’ they thought they should have been. Alas, a feather-duster is for ever a feather-duster, a retired nobody! Such is life.