An extract from:

Where Art is not just a bloke's name

by Yahoo Serious

 

Art smart-arse, Marcel Duchamp, reckoned: 'Art is what one decides it shall be'. In Newcastle Australia, Art was a bloke's name.
During my 16th and 17th year, I worked at my father's tyre service in a little town just outside of Newcastle with my grandfather Arthur (or, as the world knew him, 'Art') and his dog.

Suddenly, Art saw those eyes fixed on him. "What are you looking at me like that for?"
"I was wonderin' when you're goin' to get me teeth capped?"
"I can't pay for that!"
"How 'bout braces?"
"I'm a pensioner. I can't afford to send you to a dentist."
"You're a mean old bugger."
"You can't talk to me like that!"
"I just did, Pa."
"Be reasonable," said Art. "Dogs don't need capped teeth and braces."
"So how do you expect me to get a boyfriend?"
As often happened, the dog's top lip had rolled back revealing her outrageous buck teeth, the catalyst for another 'conversation' in which my grandfather was adlibbing both for himself and for Pepsi, his feisty wirehaired terrier. Animals talk in my movies because Art's surreal performances, all those years ago, gave them voice.

My father's father saw creating humour as a prerequisite for living. Art was passionate about comedy but hated mean-spirited jokes. He reckoned 3-guys-in-a-bar style jokes were socially divisive, creatively impoverished and always 'anti' something. Anti-women, anti-men, racist, sexist, bigoted; you know the drill. When Dad and I weren't fitting tyres, Grandfather Art told me his life story in gripping daily installments: memories of being left fatherless as a 9-year-old, when his train driver dad died a hero saving passengers from an exploding engine on the railway to Maitland; of his first job in 1907 as a Hunter Street dog walloper, the profession where fast-footed boys discouraged dogs from pissing against the bolts of cloth on display in store fronts; of his "first time" in a raucous French whorehouse; of the near-fatal attack of the giggles he and his mate had when a sniper shot his mate in the bum as they were crawling for their lives through the snow, mud and carnage of no-man's land on The Somme; of raising six kids, a small business and a sense of humour through The Depression.

My mother's dad, Wally, was a Hunter Valley coalminer who studied Keynesian economics and Shakespeare at night. I interviewed him for my first documentary, "Coaltown" - the turbulent history of coalmining in Newcastle. As our family tradition required, Pop had been a staunch protester for worker's rights. He related graphic accounts of his part in the Rothbury riots on the Hunter Valley coalfields in 1929, but was quick to point out that riots don't always go as planned. In one instance, a group of victimised miners thought they had trapped the "evil, scab-loving" Minister of Mines, Reggie Weaver, in his car and were determined to tip it over into a gully. "Well," said Pop, "if you're going to tip a car over, you've got to lift it from one side. The miners were so angry they surrounded the car and all lifted at once, thus succeeding in just carrying the Minister around. They eventually lost interest, put him down, and went to riot elsewhere. The strangest part of it," recalled Pop, "was that the chap in the car wasn't even Reggie Weaver."

Pop was 84 when I met him at Heathrow Airport, the first time he'd set foot on English soil since 1921. Qantas had kindly insisted, against his heated protestation, that he be transported from the plane in a wheelchair. We rented a 'wreck' and embarked on a pilgrimage to his home town, the tiny semi-industrial village of Hadfield, tucked in the rolling meadows of the north of England.

Pop was a pensioner. I was an 'arse-out-of-my-pants' travel bum. So, during the drive up, we stayed at half-star Bed and Breakfast hovels which, as Groucho Marx would say, 'were so cold and small that when you opened the door the light came on'. On our first morning, I went for a 6 am run in an attempt to get fit after a year of hedonistic nocturnal existence in London. About half a mile out, I turned, and was shocked to discover my determined yet breathless Pop jogging a short distance behind me. My mother would flip if she thought I'd let her octogenarian dad go running. But it was clear that he wouldn't respond well to any suggestion of him turning back. So I feigned exhaustion, and we returned to the B & B together, where I surreptitiously knocked off a few quick push-ups and headed to the shower. When I returned, Wally was on the floor doing push-ups! "Fifteen, sixteen...how many did you do, son?"

Wally hadn't been back "home" since he left for Australia with Sarah Bond, a vivacious psychiatric nurse, later my grandmother, who had grown up an orphan in what she called "the drab, miserable Dickensian world of turn-of-the-century Newcastle, England". When he was discharged from Chester army barracks after the Great War, Pop had had a gutfull of years of pointless slaughter, poncy officers and a near-fatal lungful of the Kaiser's mustard gas on the Western Front.

As a 10-year-old, his future had been shattered by the English class system, which, when his civil engineer father died, had not only closed the door on his dream of going to Oxford but guaranteed that he, his sisters and mother would live in poverty. "Only fools and crawlers worship royalty," he'd say in his thick Yorkshire accent as we sat on his sun-drenched verandah in Australia. He was proud of his Australian passport, proud of being an immigrant. "We're all immigrants here, son. But the smartest are the Aborigines, because they had the brains to make the big move down under 50,000 years ago."

Like my grandfathers, my films are sons of eccentricity. Whether it's an E=mc2 rock 'n' rolling, surfboard-riding Einstein from Tasmania or an anti-gun, garbage-can-wearing, Shakespeare-reciting Ned Kelly in Hollywood; the characters spring from the streets of Newcastle Australia where being eccentric is the norm. (Norm who? I'd wonder.) As Art's dog used to advise: "All things in moderation, especially moderation".

Australia at its best is a nation that proudly celebrates those who dare to think differently. Common sense confirms the physics equation that nothing is the result of doing nothing. Change gave us civilisation, democracy and chocolate. Designing a new Australian flag is something I'd been thinking about since the seventies. In 1991, I filmed a scene in "Reckless Kelly" where Ned cuts the foreign Union Jack from our flag and patriotically replaces it with the kangaroo symbol. Arguing passionately for an 'all-Australian' flag and an Australian citizen as our Head of State, instead of the absurd embarrassment of an English Queen, has everything to do with the patriotic, egalitarian values that Hunter Valley people have always expressed.

Every Sunday without fail mum and dad would take us and our grandparents on a Hunter Valley barbecue in winter, or to the beach in summer. Munching salad sandwiches on Caves Beach or Redhead or Newcastle or Nobbys or Port Stephens, we'd be worshipping at the one true church of Australia - the beach. A place where rich or poor, all people were equal. Baptised by Pacific breakers and anointed in zinc cream or frying in coconut oil, we'd lie prostrate on golden sands before the Sun God. A Newcastle lad's rite of passage to manhood was upon a surfboard. We were the sons of beaches. These were our rituals. The churches were empty, but the beaches were packed.

Mum's dad, Wally, still had the mental agility of a 21-year-old when, at eighty-nine, he looked up at me from his bed in Wallsend Hospital, and chuckled: 'Well, it looks like they've got me this time, eh son?' As we hugged for the last time, I could feel the strength of character that had driven him to do those push-ups in the north of England 5 years before. He was now fighting tenaciously to hold on to life. We were both saying good-bye. Pop's face would never again light up with: 'What do you think the purpose of life is today, son?'

The last time I saw my dad's dad, Arthur, he was of course, with his dog. Eighty-year-old Art was lying peacefully on his sunbed amidst his idyllic garden in Scholey Street, Mayfield. He'd just come back from a comedy matinee at the Civic Theatre where he'd laughed so much that it brought on a heart attack after he'd arrived home. He literally died laughing. For a short time, it was just the three of us together again. Art, the dog and me. As the sun set, the dog with the crooked teeth looked up to my grandfather, the funniest man Newcastle had ever produced, but everything was quiet. The dog, for once, had no voice.

 

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The above is an extract from Where Art Is Not Just A Bloke's Name, from the book Novocastrian Tales. All proceeds from the sale of Novacastrian Tales go to the construction of the Aboriginal Accommodation Centre at John Hunter Hospital.