I was born in 1928, but at no time in my life since then have I ever expected to be still alive in the equivalent decade, nearly 100 years later. Indeed, it is only in recent years that I have begun to think of 1928 as a long time ago, although there have been significant markers from time to time, attesting to the fact that I was becoming long-lived. For example, although I was only eight at the time of he 1936 Olympics in Berlin, nevertheless, the image of Jesse Owens winning the sprints and humiliating Hitler by doing so has always been a very lively thing in my mind.
I was just an insignificant little kid in an insignificant litter country, not quite yet reached two million in population, the youngest of six kids in the insignificant family of a village carpenter.
And yet, in that, for us, enchanting global event, we produced our own tiny rebuff to the world’s would-be dictator in the form of the man who won the 1500 metres race, Jack Lovelock, who left all competitors gasping for air behind him, Americans, Europeans, even the Germans with their vain-glorious dreams of conquest, trailing in the wake of this slight figure who overnight became hero to at least our two million, indelibly printed into the fabric of our lives forever.
It is probably the event that started me off with my lifelong obsession with sport, something I have never been able to outgrow, even though in my later years the very mention of sports drew upon me disapproving looks from my friends, as if I was in some way unhinged and deficient in intelligence. Gunder Haegg? Arne Andersson? Who the hell are you talking about? Herb Elliott? Peter Snell? Champions from our small corner of the world who both beat everyone, broke all the records, and retired undefeated? For .god’s sake, would you give it up man, with the sports!
And yet, when it came down to it, the arena of sports was not a bad one in which to learn important life lessons: about the inevitability of sometimes losing, the need to swallow defeat gracefully and accept triumph modestly, useful stuff to know, learned from an older brother over the dining room table transformed into a venue for ping-pong, lessons easily transferable to the broader field of relationships beyond the family, and work, as the decades flowed by in their inexorable way.
I left not only my family home, but my home country at the age of 22, keen to take a look at the wider world. I am not sure I ever expected to stay away for ever, but that is how it has turned out. I associate countries and regions with lessons learned. Australia, vast and empty, and yet for all their free and easy assumptions, a place that seemed to be riven with racism against the indigenous, and the non-Caucasian world; India, crammed to bursting with people, people living on the pavements, on the railway stations, in their countless impoverished villages under pieces of cardboard, tin and cloth, for me enough exposure already to the grinding cruelty of intense global poverty; Britain, distastefully divided between classes, marked off by signs such as accent and dress, as well as by money, power and/or the lack of these things; and finally Canada, where, by a series of what I can only describe as accidents, I have ended up, another country where a few occupy an immense land, much of it useless for habitation, but a country that has emerged with slow deliberation from national infancy to responsible citizenship in the world, as a place moderately welcoming to outsiders, in spite of being preoccupied with trying to maintain its independent essence from the huge neighbour state that, following the world war, emerged as the greatest power on earth. Or as the Americans themselves so often describe it, “as the greatest government, the wealthiest nation, the most advanced society that has ever existed on the face of this Earth.”
Or, to put it another way, as I have so often described it myself “as a wonderful country in a gloriously beautiful landscape, occupied by a shitty society marked by a pervading inequality and injustice, in spite of their historical drive for openness and virtue in all things.”
Well, wot the hell. So much for these New Year musings. As the cockroach Archie urged on Mehitabel the cat, “toujours gai, toujours gai.”