MY father was born on a Monday and died on a Friday. Monday to Friday. A week. A lifetime. In the 89 years between the beginning and the end, he experienced the best of times and some of the toughest times, too
He was born on 26 January 1925. Australia Day. His family at the time was immensely wealthy. His grandfather, Major Philip Charley, was one of the founders of BHP. At that time, he owned a seventh of the company, a personal share that amounts to around $28 billion in today’s terms.
Throughout his childhood, Dad was surrounded by the trappings of extraordinary privilege: one of the grandest houses in Australia, a place they called Charley Castle, with a Rolls Royce in the driveway, a private zoo, the whole of Mount Tomah as a personal playground, and a horse stud where ‘Breaker Morant’ worked, before his fateful one-way journey to the Boer War.
Dad spoke of dinner parties attended by the Duke of Windsor amongst other notable foreign visitors, and of his grandfather’s gracious love of entertaining.
But almost as quickly as the fortune was gathered, it was lost - and by his teens, my father watched as Charley Castle was sold, as the family’s wealth drained away; the aftermath of the great depression and a string of bad investments plunged dad, his father and mother and sisters Joan, Mary and Anne into a humble new life.
Though some amongst us might be embittered by such a monstrous financial loss, my dad never, ever complained about what must have surely been a crushing trauma at the time.
In fact, I’ve never heard dad complain ever about what was lost. I’ve never ever heard him wish things were different. I’ve never seen him express envy. Dad’s lack of bitterness about the past or about what could have been - if only - will always remain with me as one of his most admirable qualities.
If times were tough after the family billions were lost, they were to get much tougher for Dad. In world war two, he enlisted for service in the air force. But a mental breakdown landed him in Callan Park psychiatric hospital instead.
His descriptions of his time there remind me of scenes from the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: multiple electro shock therapy sessions and a foiled escape attempt, severe bashings at the hands of so-called ‘male nurses’ while he was kept naked in a padded cell with no windows and little light.
Again, he never complained about this moment his life and has always spoken openly about those difficult times, joking occasionally that he was still slightly mad - as evidenced by his firm belief that there were fairies at the bottom of the garden. He was sure of it. He’s seen them himself, he told us. Even in his 80s, he was certain they were there.
My father loved to laugh. He loved his family, his friends, his music, pretty women, long lunches, chocolate, cats, cold beer and a good TV soap opera. In fact, in this uncertain world there was one immutable law: at 4.30pm every week day, Dad would be sitting in front of the television watching The Bold and the Beautiful. He was riveted by it.
But more than that - more than anything - he loved his wife, my beautiful mother, Marie, who returned that love unconditionally… standing by a sometimes flawed man right to the end. The stuff of Hollywood movies, an epic love affair unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Even the start of that romance smacks of the silver screen. My mum, at age 20, was flying tiger moth aircraft for the thrill of it and encountered dad in the aircraft hanger one evening when his jazz band had assembled there for a gig. The suave clarinet player and the super glamorous aviatrix.
Soon, the chase was on – literally - with dad falling face first into the mud while running after mum to ask her for a date. They married three months later and four children were born: Philip, Stephen, Gina and me.
For much of their early marriage, mum and dad lived in country Queensland and NSW where dad ran radio stations – 4ZR Roma and 2QN Deniliquin.
He’d been drawn to radio through his irrepressible love of music. As most of you would know, he was crazy about jazz. All through his life, he played in bands. Some of my first memories are of laughter and music coming from the lounge room as dad held jam sessions late into the night.
And right up there with his love of music was his love of a joke. Usually, one of those one-liners that make people groan around the lunch table. Where he found them all is a mystery - a new one virtually every day - but it’s his favourite that he told over and over, a joke he said that was passed down from his beloved father, Sir Philip Charley or ‘Poopey’, as he was better known.
There’s a fair likelihood that everyone here has already heard it – several times – but I thought I’d tell it one last time:
A man is devastated to learn that his two pet monkeys are dead. He loved them so much, he wanted to have them around forever so he took their bodies to a taxidermist and asked for them to be stuffed.
‘Would you like them mounted?’ the taxidermist asked. He answered: ‘no, just holding hands will be fine’.
Inevitably, Dad would follow the punch line with a laugh bigger than anyone else’s in the room.
In 1970, dad moved with mum to Papua New Guinea where they lived for the next nine years. Again, dad worked in radio – forming friendships there that became some of the most significant of his life.
His adventures - from the highlands of Goroka to the steamy jungles of Madang, Rabaul and Port Moresby - were cherished, magical times, often recalled with his PNG mates over a bottle or two at dangerously long lunches in Chinese restaurants where conversation would descend into a strange, slurred, hybrid pidgin English.
I doubt that by the end of those lunches anyone could ever clearly recall what had been discussed over fried rice and sweet and sour pork. But details like that didn’t really matter. What mattered was the mateship and dad’s bonds with his friends were amongst the strongest any man could wish for.
For his more than 60 years’ work in radio and for his teachings throughout the Pacific and at AFTRS and Macleay College, dad was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2002.
And in my work in commercial television as well as at the ABC and SBS I’ve met many young graduates who were in Dad’s classes and who remember him as a kind, patient teacher (who would occasionally entertain his students with a curious story about two monkeys and a taxidermist).
Eventually, of course, illness caught up with dad. He handled gruelling treatments with courage and, typically, he infused the bad times with sense of the ridiculous.
When he was prescribed the steroid Prednisone, he was so delighted with the results that that he wrote a song about it set to the tune of the 1937 hit ‘Hooray for Hollywood’.
He called his version ‘Hooray for Prednisone’ and he sang it to anyone who’d listen.
With lyrics including lines like:“When I first read it, I thought it was Cortisone…” and “I’m full of ZING! So let’s all sing…” it was blindingly obvious that ‘Hooray for Prednisone’ wasn’t going to make the Top 40.
But Dad didn’t care about that. In fact, he was so proud of what he’d written that he sent the song to the manufacturers of Prednisone.
And they wrote a letter back expressing astonishment and thanking dad for his most unusual message. All the other letters we get are complaints, they told him.
But dad was not a complainer. When we could tell he was in pain, he insisted he wasn’t. And every time I asked how he was going, he always answered “I’m terrific, Pete. Extra good.”
Terrific. Even the day before he died.
Dad’s Monday to Friday, his week, his life slipped away at dawn last week just as the birds were beginning to sing. I’d been with him the day before and when I left his room, the sun was setting and the sky was blazing red – the colour of Dublin Bay roses - with a brilliant rainbow streaking through it as if inviting dad to another place.
A place, perhaps, where those fairies are gathered. A place filled with music and laughter.
He will be remembered by many as a man larger than life, an enthusiast, dignified, resilient, quick to praise, generous of spirit, and accepting of his lot – for better or worse – right to the very end.
Peter Charley is executive producer of the SBS current affairs program, Dateline