LOVE AMONG THE RUINS

When is enough, enough?

A few news stories these past weeks and a swag of emails debating the rights of an ageing building have aroused a strange synergy, for me, with the on-going euthanasia debate, narrowly defeated yet again, this time in Tasmania.

In the 1990s I wrote passionately for our politicans to support euthanasia in a letter in a national newspaper and was amazed at the responses I received far and wide, even overseas, from people who agreed.

My father had just died, at the time.

There is a black humour joke that goes something like this:

A man goes to his doctor and the doctor  says, Do you want the good news or the bad news, first?  The patient says whichever comes first. Well, says the doctor, you have terminal cancer but the good news is, you also have Alzheimer’s, so you will forget about both after I’ve told you.

That was the fate of my father, and I can assure you it was not a happy, nor a forgetful, ending for those of us who loved him. I still ache with the remorse that someone who had led such a kind, generous and distinguished life had to leave the world in such undignified and unkind circumstances.  The long years of being a handsome pipe smoker had come at a terrible price. The doctors had pushed my mother to buy time, what turned out to be less than four months, with disfiguring and pointless mouth and jaw surgery to avoid ‘the stench of rotting cancer’, yet his nurses were still lighting candles in his room to cut the stench in his last days when we visited the confused stranger we still called, ‘Dad’. My mother had a brave and positive few more years, but when alone churned herself inside out that it was she who had somehow let him down, no matter how we reassured her. She died within weeks of a  terminal diagnosis of a body that was riddled with cancer and we then learned just how brave and ‘never again’ determined she had been, long hiding her symptoms from us, so that she could at least spare us the heartache and die ‘her way’, and with dignity.

Just before the most recent vote, on the Tasmanian bill for legalizing euthanasia, I thought a poignant story on the TV news, did a good job of answering the question, when is enough, enough?

A gracious and obviously intelligent lady, suffering from Motor Neuron Disease http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/motor_neuron_diseases/detail_motor_neuron_diseases.htm    was straightforward and unemotional in her argument for her desire for assisted suicide to be legalised.

She was aware that MND can be an unforgiving disease and had already lost the use of one arm. She argued that when the disease progresses to her other arm she will lose her independence, and it is her choice not to end her days being dependent on someone else and suffering the indignity of not being able to attend to her own intimate body functions. She argued that unless there is a form of legal assisted suicide while she is of sound mind and body to make the decision, it will be too late, and deprive her of her right to die with dignity.

And fair enough, say I. Just as she has been in command of her life up to now, she should be able to continue to be in command when she has a terminal and incurable illness.

Contrast this story with another reported about the same time, of the woman who contracted a rare bacterial infection and against all odds, survived, but had her arms and legs amputated as part of that survival. She is rejoicing that she is alive and, unlike the MND lady, is up to the challenge that the loss of all her arms and legs for the rest of her life has presented. However, she is young and she has a loving young family. She has everything in her life to live for, particularly seeing her children thrive into aduthood. Her story might be different if this happened to her when she was 75.

Neither of these stories changed my stance on supporting euthanasia, but curiously a little parish pump squabble did… through a swag of emails about saving a local heritage building.

Many in my local community want to treasure this first public building in Brighton built in 1869. However, despite the structure being ‘local heritage’ listed, and a Strategic Plan for our city that contains a myriad of motherhood references to protecting and celebrating heritage, the  City of Holdfast Bay Council wants to strip the Original Brighton Town Hall’s community land status and sell it, with an adjacent parcel of land, to a developer. Outrageously, the Council suggests to the community that the historic Town Hall building will be better cared for, when in a private developer’s hands.

One councillor, in particular, seems to be obsessed with his need to ensure this building is sold off the Council’s ledger. If you study his voting record on any culture or heritage issues in his six years on Council it clearly demonstrates his bias against cultural history and prejudice for money over substance.  In the above mentioned swag of emails, he bullies, displays his ignorance, and spreads half-truths with little sense of fair play in his attempts to control any informed debate on this issue. He is only a ward councillor elected in another part of the city, not where the threatened building stands, yet he has appointed himself the ‘Walter Mitty’ mouthpiece of the Council and its Administration, without portfolio.

Disappointingly, it has been left to a  passionate member of our local community to seek State Heritage listing for this building, as a means to further protect it, with the Council again not matching its actions to the lip service words it uses in its Strategic Planning documents.

Despite a community public meeting voting unanimously in support of keeping this community land, and despite petitions supporting protection of the building, the Council ignores the community voice… because it can.

This is what happens when the wrong people stand for election to Councils, and when people lose sight of who they are meant to serve. This is what happens when people who are incapable of seeing any reflection except their own are given a taste of ‘power’.

If this lack of compassion, intelligence and empathy is so evident in our parish pump politics that it can eradicate in one ignorant action, unique local history that has stood the test of time through 144 years of previous Councils, it sends a strong message to err on the side of caution in future.

I can just imagine if someone in high level Government,  with the personality type akin to these sorts of councillors, had control of legalised euthanasia it wouldn’t take long for the terrifying prospects of sales of body parts to the highest bidder, and the local nursing homes would have to ‘knock off’ those residents who had outlived their usefulness, to make room for those prepared to pay more, and so on.

Yes, I’ve changed my mind on euthanasia and now think politics should stay away from legalising euthanasia. We should err on the side of caution and euthanasia should continue to be a moral issue between people and their God.

And at the local parish pump…we’ve had enough! We need to examine more carefully the calibre of people that  we want to represent our community voice when elections come around again.

For thought-provoking readings on these themes, I highly recommend:

Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings

Love among the ruins    by Evelyn Waugh

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Jan Smith

A home among the gum trees

This week, along with a group of 40 Holdfast Bay residents, I travelled up to the German village, Hahndorf,  in the Adelaide hills, specifically to visit The Cedars, the family home of two of Australia’s more well-known artists—Sir Hans Heysen, and his daughter Nora.

Surprisingly, it was the first visit to The Cedars for at least two-thirds of this group of people who have travelled the world and interstate on sight-seeing holidays throughout the years.

We had  an enthralling visit to The Cedars and left me wondering …Why are we always so reluctant to explore and celebrate what is in our own back yards? Why had people never bothered to explore this fascinating site, which is a popular Adelaide destination for our international tourists, but not it  seems (if our group is any indication) with Adelaide locals?

Most South Australians know that Hans Heysen was a famous artist and painted gum trees, but know little else about him. Less still is known about his daughter Nora who was the first woman to win the  prestigious Archibald Prize, and the first woman to be appointed as a war artist.

It highlights a sad fact of life, people get forgotten when they die, unless there is someone actively marketing the legacy they leave behind.

Sir Hans came to Australia as a seven year old with his family in 1884.

He grew up in  and around Norwood and then as a young man he was encouraged by four Adelaide businessmen who appreciated his talent and supported Heysen financially to undertake a study tour in Europe. In return Heysen promised to send them all the work he produced during his years overseas.

He returned to Adelaide, married, and started an art school.

Heysen’s first interstate solo exhibition, held in Melbourne, was opened by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin! This brought his work to the attention of prominent buyers, including Nellie Melba.

He purchased the Cedars in 1912, on the back of a second art exhibition in Melbourne. He lived on the Hahndorf Property for the rest of his life, raising a big family and significantly leaving us with a picture of rural life and of the men and animals toiling in the fields around the town of Hahndorf  in the Adelaide Hills, in addition to his wonderful landscapes, still-lifes and other activities in the art world. He also became a ‘greenie’ conservationist before his time, buying up surrounding land parcels only because he wanted to save the gum trees and habitat corridors for birds and animals. The original 40 acres he bought in 1912 expanded to 150 acres in 1938, and remains that size today.

Visitors are welcome to walk the grounds and follow Heysen’s footsteps to 11 of his favoured painting locations, with interpretive signs that match his paintings to the real life gum trees on the property.

Sir Hans was well travelled and well-connected and despite being in this country since the age of seven, he was subjected to the local prejudices of being of German  origin during wartime. He had financial success in Melbourne and overseas, yet he chose to still remain in Adelaide as his home. He was famous for his landscapes and his still-lifes – including one he famously refused to  Russian ballerina, Anna Pavolva, when she saw it, because it had been specifically painted for his wife, Sallie. (Pavlova subsequently famously refused a replacement painting he did for her, because it wasn’t the one she wanted!)  You can see the painting Pavlova wanted still hanging in the house today and it is exquisite, almost giving the effect of three dimensional flowers, when viewed in the light Heysen intended for it. However, when his daughter Nora began having success with her still life painting, Heysen graciously stopped doing them, because he thought his daughter’s technique was better.

Today, the home and studio are pretty much as the artist  left them, when he died at the age of 90 in 1968. In the home, you immediately feel that this has been a happy, warm and welcoming home, even before the guide tells you the stories of a happy marriage and visits by Dame Nellie Melba, Pavlova, Vivian Leigh, Lionel Lindsay and Harold Cazneaux, among others. A bedroom with its double bed and wooden cradle and a formal dining room complete with raised stage and piano give insight to a simpler, but somehow more genteel, yet sophisticated, time of life that has probably been lost for today’s generations and beyond.

The formal sitting room with its beautiful Bay window looking out to the familiar Heysen landscape against a backdrop of bookshelves laden with the books of Hans and Sallie Heysen and family photos are further proof of a life well loved, and lived.

A short distance from the house is the Heysen studio, famously photographed by Harold Cazneaux. You enter this building, again, just as Sir Hans left it, and he is everywhere – his art supplies, his travels, his quirks, his personality—you don’t need interpretive museum signage to explain this man. The windows in this studio are specially treated to ensure the right levels of light for the artist through imported glass that Heysen shipped from Europe in barrels of molasses, so that the glass did not break.

Our host for our visit was Glenelg resident, Peter Heysen, the eldest son of the eldest son of Sir Hans. It is largely his love for his grandfather, and his desire to pay tribute to the achievements of Sir Hans and his wonderfully talented aunt, Nora Heysen, that has ensured this family estate has been preserved after their deaths as a tourism landmark.

It has been a struggle that is increasingly difficult to maintain  as a family enterprise in modern times and generational change.

Peter Heysen is now attempting to create public ownership through a Foundation to ensure the long-term future of this property for the enjoyment of art and history lovers. Let’s hope that this is a hugely successful venture and that our children’s children will still be able to experience this wonderful era of Adelaide’s art and culture in times gone by and the Heysen legacy will live on.

In the meantime, if you have not been there…now is the time to visit!
Details about getting to The Cedars are on this link www.hansheysen.com.au .

Jan Smith