PETER FITZSIMONS RECALLS SOME FATHERLY ADVICE – SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Strange, how a chance comment from your Dad at the right time can guide your whole approach to life.
“Look to other, older men,” he said to me once when I was in my late teens and we were picking oranges together on our orchard at Peats Ridge. “See how they live their lives, ask them what they have learnt themselves, and learn from them. Examine what they do, how they do it, and you can embrace or reject it.
On Monday night’s Q&A, Alan Jones found himself caught between Penny Wong and Mia Freedman when the question was asked, ‘Alan, are you a feminist?’ Vision courtesy ABC.
And yes, I know Dad should have said “look to older men and women”, but it was the late 1970s, he was formed in the 1920s, and he didn’t!
Either way, I did exactly as he suggested, starting with him.
Dad was devout, devoted to family life and hardworking. I completely rejected the whole devout thing – even actively campaigning against the absurdity of religion, but don’t get me started – and embraced the second two. As to his calling, a farmer, one of his favourite poems he taught me, was Solitude, by Alexander Pope, beginning:
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
That poem embodied the spirit of the quiet way he lived. Now, while always loving our farm – where the ashes of Mum and Dad are now buried in a quiet spot down from the homestead – I rejected that life too.
I started out wanting to get many miles under my belt, like my hero in Bob Dylan’s song A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – “I’ve stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways” – to see things, do things, find what the world had to offer beyond the farm and the north shore of Sydney where I was schooled. A chance line in Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet – “like the mountain climber who can see the mountain more clearly from the plain” – convinced me I would be able to see my own life better while at a distance from its regular haunts, and so it proved.
Hitch-hiking around Australia in 1982, I met a man in Perth for just one evening whose model I immediately embraced. Arriving at the home of long-lost cousins after crossing the Nullarbor, they took me that night to the home of the one bloke they knew who had a pool, so I could properly wash the last bit of grit off me. And I don’t remember this bloke’s name, only that he had travelled all over the world through his 20s, before returning to marry a fine woman and raise a family.
That’ll do me for a plan, thought I, but next thing I knew I was back in Sydney being coached by Alan Jones. He and I were very close for about six months, until the inevitable falling-out – it happens, with Alan – and I soon could barely bear him, but he knew a lot, was an extremely good coach, and I did indeed learn from him.
Two of his sayings have stuck with me, and guided me ever since: “Do the work” and “Empty your pockets of excuses.”
The notion of “doing the work” was that before any test, physical or mental, and most particularly Test matches, if you’ve done the work, there is no need to be nervous as you will either triumph, or at least have no regrets that you could have done more to get there. As to emptying your pocket of excuses, the Jones notion was that in all fields of human endeavour, there will always be a voice whispering reasons to turn back, to give up, but you must resist. Push on. Empty your pockets of excuses, of all the very good reasons you have for failure, and just get on with it.
Kim Beazley taught Peter FitzSimons to ignore the sniping of critics. Photo: Supplied
After our falling out I found myself playing rugby in Italy, while Jones took the Wallabies on to Grand Slam glory in Great Britain without me – not that I am bitter, much. In the tiny town of Rovigo, just south of Venice, I formed a deep friendship with a local architect by the name of Milto Baratella. Gawd, I loved that man. At 55 years old, he was the first man I ever met who not only could cook like a chef, but did so regularly, hosting riotous dinners that went late into the night. I wanted to live like that, (and to a certain extent have, less the brilliant cooking.) The thing that most impressed me though, was that even at that mature age he’d just taught himself to play the grand piano. I wanted to be doing that at his age! (He died a month ago, I’m 55 now, and in his honour, I booked guitar lessons, at least, the same day he died.)
While on a brief sojourn from Italy to visit the Grand Slam Wallabies in Edinburgh – those bastards had left without me, did I mention? – I spent three minutes with an old bloke at Heathrow, but have thought of him ever since. At 85, his whole face was lit with the joy of life of intellectual endeavour, as he read this book on Coptic history.
“It is wonderful, wonderful, just so fascinating,” he enthused, just before our separate flights were called. Bingo. Learning about Coptic stuff didn’t quite do it for me, true. But as a model of how to live a life at 85 – speaking in italics with the very wonder of something you’ve just learned fresh – I’ve always filed that one away, too, because that is the kind of 85-year-old I’d like to be if I get there.
Going to live and play rugby in France, in the little village of Donzenac, I loved it from the first and could have stayed there forever, but was convinced to move on by a single line in a short story by the great French writer, Guy de Maupassant: “It was not so much four years of experience, as one year of experience, repeated four times over.” Voila! That was me! After those four fabulous years, I returned home.
Entering journalism exposed me to some of the greats. Spending five days with Gough Whitlam in Perth in 1993, it stunned me that everywhere we went, everything we did, this old man was seeing oak trees that he’d planted as seeds, a couple of decades earlier. That university, his mob had opened. That prison, they’d shut down. That railway, they’d funded. The wondrous park overlooking Perth they’d poured resources into. And no, of course I haven’t remotely emulated that. No one in Australian history can match Gough on that, but it was inspirational nevertheless.
I learnt even more things, particularly of a practical nature, from the newly installed Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, when I started writing his biography three years later.
“How,” I asked Kim, “do you get through the day, when every time you pick up a paper, there can be as many as five attack-dog pieces in it, about you?”
“Easy,” he said, “I don’t read it.”
Genius! I have done that since. It played to another of my favourite lines I heard somewhere, “I kept reading that smoking causes cancer, so … I’ve stopped reading.”
Snakes-eyes and legs eleven! Double-bingo! To this day, when I come across attack-dog pieces about how the Australian Republican Movement could be so much better if I wasn’t chairman, or how terrible one of my books is, I just don’t read on. I suppose I could go through every paragraph and dwell on the unfairness for days on end, write angry letters and all the rest, but why bother? Personally, I am not in the bicker business, and would rather just get on with things, unburdened by carrying round bags of bile. (That said, one line from a narky review in The Times of London of about how appalling my Ned Kelly book was, did leap out at me, before I managed to hit the kill switch. “This,” the mighty Times opined, “is how an historian would write, if he was on Ecstasy.” I am contemplating putting that on the cover of my next book, on Burke and Wills.)
Rarely have I felt like I’m in the presence of greatness, but Sir Edmund Hillary was an exception. Interviewing him in 1997 in his Auckland home, I was struck by the part of his story where, still 300 metres from the summit, they come face-to-face with a seemingly insurmountable cliff-face. He and Tenzing Norgay had every reason to turn back. They didn’t.
Instead of focusing on the goal, of getting to the top of Everest – which now seemed crushingly unattainable – Sir Edmund told me he focused every fibre of his being on getting his left foot into one crag and, that accomplished, doubled up to focus on getting his right foot into a small cleft. And so on. I know, I know, twee and trite, perhaps, but thus was Everest conquered and I have used it ever since – put your energy into what can be done and keep moving.
A few years later, Lisa and I started obsessing about a particular house we wanted to buy, finally concluding that if we stood on tippy-toes, hocked the kids and grandma, we would still be a bit shy. I went to see the one-time Wallaby, and now hugely successful businessman, Jim Miller.
“I don’t understand how business works,” I told him, “but isn’t there something you business blokes do with debentures/bonds/derivatives/mumbo/jumbo, whereby you can squeeze extra money out of your given assets?”
“Son,” he told me, giving me the best advice on real estate I’ve ever heard. “There’ll be other houses. Don’t obsess over one.”
Bingo! Six weeks later we found the dinkum home of our dreams, at a much more affordable price, and I want to be carried out of it in a box.
But, no time soon!
A few years ago, as I have recently recounted, my wise mate Dave the Dentist and I had a seminal conversation.
“Look at Kenny,” he said, “he should be your model.”
Kenny is a tall mate of ours, in his late 60s, who, when we play touch football, runs like a giraffe bitten by a swarm of bees, leaving men up to 30 years his junior in his wake – and those men include me. He doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and if I had to put the sheep station on one bloke I know living to 100 and having an active and engaged life all the way there, it would be Kenny.
And the second thing Dave said was pertinent to how I could be like Kenny.
“All of us in our 40s, 50s and 60s,” he said, “have a very clear choice. Move or die.”
His point was that nature’s revenge on the truly sedentary who live lives that our bodies were simply not designed for – sitting around, doing three-fifths of f–k-all most days, and four-fifths of f–k-all on Sundays – is to make all the muscles we don’t use, wither and die. Sometimes, of course, it’s the heart muscle. Other times it’s the basic muscles that guide our movement.
Whatever. I’ve stopped the grog – helped by the notion my son Jake taught me, “when you’re drinking, you’re just borrowing fun from tomorrow,” – stopped the snacks, stopped the sugar, got my arse moving and dropped nearly a third of my body-weight, from 152 kgs, down to 106 kgs.
I’m gunna be like Kenny!
And you can be sure I frequently express the general principle of this thesis to my two sons and daughter.
Just like Dad did.
Peter FitzSimons is managed by The Fordham Company.