Early last week I received a rather unusual request from the Australian Financial Review. Charis Perkins, editor of the Life&Leisure section, was compiling a special 'Gifts for Him' Q&A Christmas feature. This would include 'quotes from a range of trendsetters/style gurus about festive gifts'. Would I be interested in taking part? Despite some unease arising from the designation 'trendsetter/style guru', to which awesome status I make no claim whatsoever, nevertheless I readily agreed to participate—for to some degree it is part of the job of an art museum director to exploit any such media opportunity that comes his or her way. The question was, “Tell us about the most special present you have ever received. Who was it from? Why is it so special?” After much rumination overnight I realised that the correct answer was literally staring at me in his quiet way from his spot on the chest of drawers. This is what I wrote:
“Many years ago, probably at around the time I was born or very soon afterwards, a beloved aunt of mine knitted for me in Geelong a very handsome bear. His name is Brownie. She also knitted for Brownie a stylish pair of fire-engine red shorts with knitted suspenders, and a matching short-sleeved cardigan. Brownie has since accompanied me on many adventures, and has lived for various lengthy periods in Melbourne, East Gippsland, Rome, Venice, New York, London, and New Haven, Connecticut. Anne died in the Bairnsdale Base Hospital almost exactly 30 years, but Brownie is still going strong, now happily settled in Canberra. I must say he is a bear of substance, and in times of trouble I do rely upon his good sense and steady nature.”
No sooner had I sent this off by email there was a considerable flurry of excitement at Fairfax, and within thirty minutes Charis Perkins had arranged for one of their photographers to come and photograph Brownie and me at the National Portrait Gallery. Although Brownie disapproves of publicity and was therefore a bit cross with me about all this, still I managed to persuade him to pose. Upon much reflection I concluded that being photographed with my stalwart Brownie for the Life&Leisure 'Gifts for Him' feature in the Australian Financial Review could hardly do any more damage to my credibility than having over the past two years appeared in two completely barmy National Portrait Gallery dance-off videos—one of them 'award-winning'. Further, this may well be the first occasion on which a SES-band Commonwealth public servant (I cannot speak for EL2s) has ever been photographed with his bear—I did wonder if this might even open the floodgates.
What stout strands of childhood memory cement the bond of affection between a man and his bear? In Brownie’s case the factors are several. Aunt Anne was a woman of rare talents and qualities, though her life was overshadowed by its fair share of disappointment. She served in the WRANS during World War II, and was stationed for a time on Rottnest Island. I have an old photograph of her standing on the top of a wheat silo conveying a message by semaphore. Subsequently she trained as a physiotherapist, and after the end of a blighted love affair she sailed to Europe and travelled widely over several years in the early 1950s, including to Norway where she stayed with an old friend of our grandmother’s, a lady whose name has for some strange reason stuck in my mind, Elspeth Garda-Hansen. Anne admired the intricate designs and patterns of Norwegian knitting—which she went on to emulate, indeed perfect. In fact Anne was manually dexterous in everything she did, but the fact that, at the age of nearly 52, Brownie is showing no signs even of fraying at the neck or shoulder attests to the expertise and care with which my aunt knitted him in the first place.
However, I don’t think it’s that rich association only. The fact that there is no spot in my memory where Brownie is not at least a shadowy presence, in other words no discernible point of beginning, means that we go the whole way back, my bear and me. I’m sure Hamish feels the same way about Donkey. Brownie is unequivocally not brown, and yet that is obviously the name I myself chose for him—for which I cannot account. Others might well cast aside such childish things, or, retaining them, sequester them strictly in private. To their credit our late parents never made any attempt to guide us in either direction, and I suppose by that prudent degree of restraint encouraged the child to become parent to the man. So far so good, but from time to time I do worry about what will happen to Brownie after I am gone.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!