by Andrew Clark
A child of famous parents is accustomed to people saying things like: “You must have had a really different-unusual-extraordinary-intense-intellectual-stimulating upbringing.” Partly to fob off, partly to be contrary, my stock response has been: “Well, they were my parents so it seemed pretty normal to me.” But this riposte has been a tad disingenuous.
From early on I knew our family was different. The level and range of conversation, eclectic quality of the visitors, and encouragement of ideas, marked us as separate in 50’s Australia - the era of “unleavened bread,” as my father once referred to it. Our home was different, too. It was a modern house that had a family that in some ways lived in an earlier era, and in others transcended time - in the sense of period.
But our family was also very Australian. There was no sense of national alienation. Unlike some academic families during the 50’s, we did not behave like a transplanted offshoot of the Bloomsbury Group or the Cliveden set. Cricket, football (the AFL variety), golf, quoits, table tennis, shooting, fishing, playing cards – all featured strongly. So, too, did working in the large family garden – chopping wood, mowing the lawn, cutting the edges, or, even more unpopular, collecting stones.
But to capture the atmosphere at home during that time it is first necessary to go outside it. We grew up in post-war Canberra – an unusual environment. Until about 1960 the population of Canberra remained stable at about 35,000 people. It was spread-out, bushy, and, judged by today’s standards, pretty quiet. But it wasn’t a bush town. In that small city was Parliament House, the federal public service, the Australian National University and Canberra University College – where my father taught – the diplomatic corps, Mt Stromlo Observatrory, a couple of major CSIRO operations, Duntroon Military College, Fairbairn RAAF base and HMAS Harman, and one of the best independent newspapers in Australia, The Canberra Times.
Throwing the remarkable people who populated these various institutions together gave Canberra intellectual vitality and independence. Some of those disparate elements, seasoned by foreign heavyweights, temporarily merged at home. My parents were generous, creative entertainers. I recall playing marbles with R.H. (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism) Tawney, and being at the same dinner table as another famous UK historian, Asa Briggs, and listening as Dad had coffee and conversation with Isiah Berlin. Dinner guests included Paul Haseluck, Rear Admiral Alan McNicoll, Alec Hope and Geoffrey Fairbairn, and author Judah Waten. The great poet, grazier, and life force, David Campbell, who was a close friend of my father, was often around. Then there were people in the history department who Dad was extremely close to, like Don Baker.
My mother, Dymphna Clark, gave our house its unique tone. She combined a remarkable standard of scholarship and inquiry, with astonishing domestic energy. Way ahead of her time, Mum was a recycler. Scraps from the kitchen became feed for the chooks, or compost in the garden. Orange peel was boiled up and sugared to become orange sweets, Mum made her own ginger beer, all our eggs came from our chook house, the vegetables from the garden, and many of the fish were caught on the far South Coast.
Life was not always harmonious. My mother worked extremely hard, with six children, a lot of entertaining, and working with Dad on his history, and on teaching German and doing translation work. There were six children, with a span of 18 years, so for about 23 years my mother had babies or young children to look after. My father was lively, playing cricket and football with us, working in the garden, often fishing with fruiends. But he was not a strong man, and suffered from ailments, and in the last 20 years of his life, was debilitated by a weak heart.
But there was a vitality at home that was rare. There was also enormous pride in each other’s achievements. There was Dad’s writing and teaching, Mum’s translation work and increasing involvement in environmental and indigenous issues, my sister, Katerina’s, remarkable academic career, and the other children’s achievements. Conversation was fast, informed, and often witty. It could be sarcastic at times, but never cutting, and I never once heard a derogatory comment about anyone based on race, religion, financial status, political affiliation, or social position. Ours was a uniquely non-catty household.
There was a fairly regular pattern. In his earlier years Dad would go off to the University to teach. Later, he would write from about 8 a.m. until lunch, and then go to the university. Later still, he would write in the morning and afternoon, then read, walk, chat, work in the garden, or often go out with Mum in the evenings. Mum would complete her domestic duties with extraordinary dispatch, then do some translation work, teaching, writing or other activity.
There are strong memories of home, many of them priceless and good.