Third Age

July 2012

  • Shirley Stott Despoja

Friends I have never met

I talk quite a lot about my friend Esther and often catch myself saying, “I wish you could meet her.” Strange, because I never met her myself. Not in the flesh. She was my wonderful friend via email. I couldn’t have enjoyed the friendship more if we had met every week.  We talked about everything – ideas, books, gardens, cats, families.  We chose not to meet in person because of our mutual deafness.  Without making a meal of it, we both feared that it would interrupt the flow of ideas and, yes, the idea each had of the other. But I can recall her face better than the faces of people I meet every week. Her imagined voice is in my head.

Dr Esther Roe died last month at the age of 93, with her wonderful family – three daughters (all GPs as Esther had been) and a son, and many grand and great grandchildren near her. One of her daughters wrote to me a day or so afterwards, saying that she missed her already. “I would like to talk to her about it all.” At age 80 she was the oldest person to have cochlear implant surgery. But hearing was a continual strain. Esther and I often talked by email about how we miss “the little things.” I think one of my sighs was about not hearing the throwaway remarks of the butcher. Esther, after the cochlear implant, said how she was thrilled to hear a checkout person mumble “Have a good day.” 

Esther had interesting stories about her early medical career. Her daughters recall her telling them about the “diphtheria bell” that hospital staff would ring to summon doctors when a child was choking to death. They are right in thinking this story a good reminder of the importance of immunisation when parents are in doubt. Most Third Agers can remember the ordeals of childhood in our day: mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, measles – I think I had the lot within four years. Then came immunisation. And now the almost unbelievable reaction against it. My mum would have said she’d like to shake some sense into them. 

 Esther’s and my emails took the place of the letters we might have written each other. I know people worry that much will be lost of the past with the demise of chatty letters. But I suspect we are more spontaneous and free using a keyboard than pen and paper. Alas, there is the trap. Esther intended to send me my emails to keep. She switched computers a few years ago and lost the lot. I have many of hers to me, thank goodness. 

The idea of friends I have never met brings up Facebook. How odd it is that I know not only what “friends” who are comparative strangers had for dinner at home, but what it looked like on the plate.  There are many things about Facebook that are boring, “too much information”, and wise sayings that make one squirm. But I can see its value in lessening isolation for new mothers, for example, in sharing worries big and small. The isolation of the “sacred” family home which has made life a misery for many children and adults is further diminished by Facebook. And a good thing too. I like to think of someone picking up the early signals of situations that are not quite right and offering to talk in a helpful way. The downside of Facebook is well known. There is this other possibility for good.

And then there is this brilliant facility Facebook offers. A few months ago some “friend” gave me gratuitous advice about how to deal with deafness. From the depths of his ignorance he told me to laugh at it. So in the name of Beethoven and my dear friend Esther I clicked a little box…. Phuttt! …and he was gone. Never to darken my life again.

So satisfying. I recommend it when “friends” prove to be absolute dills.

Patrick White’s centenary has brought belated recognition to a colleague of my younger days, Hugh Clunies Ross. White’s biographer David Marr has gone to some trouble to confirm that Hugh was the photographer sent by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1956 to do portraits of White at the time of the publication of The Tree of Man. Marr says that Hugh “took a series of extraordinarily fine photographs of White which are still being used and never attributed to him”, but often attributed to famous freelancer Axel Poignant.

David Marr wanted to correct the attribution once and for all in time for his lecture at the National Portrait Gallery last month about the pictures and portraits of White. 

Writing to me at the end of May, Marr said: “Trolling through the internet a few minutes ago, I found you mentioning a Hugh Ross as the photographer when you found yourself on a rather terrifying assignment to interview Edith Sitwell in 1963.” (Hands of a Poet, August 2011: Hugh Ross took beautiful pictures of Edith Sitwell’s hands and huge rings, because the elderly poet declined a more conventional portrait.

Alas, this remarkable picture was also wrongly attributed, when Elizabeth Salter’s biography of Sitwell was published in 1967. 

David Marr, with the help of Ross’s former colleagues, has uncovered the unquiet life of a highly talented man: born in 1915, Sandhurst-educated, a Rat of Tobruk, newspaper photographer, and lyrical portraitist. 

Hugh Ross returned to England where he was born after retiring from The Advertiser in 1980, but he came back to Adelaide before his death in 1993. So far as David Marr has found, there has never been a retrospective of his work.

A wistful footnote: Marr has found in the National Library these lines in a letter Patrick White wrote to his New York publisher, Ben Huebsch, on May 1, 1957: “…the name of the photographer is Hugh Clunies Ross, and I hope as much credit as possible will be given to him, for he is a very modest young man.”




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