Today we’ll be talking about death, grief and hypochondria (mine). So if any of those topics catch you at a bad moment, look away.
We lost two good friends last week and, to misquote Pink Floyd, we’re feeling uncomfortably numb.
Many FOMM readers would have either personally known or known of the renowned Australian folk-singer, John Thompson. John had been battling cancer for several years until his death last Wednesday, aged 56.
Mr Thompson packed a lot of achievements into five and a bit decades, including a career as a criminal barrister and later, as a folk-singer/comedian. He also worked in professional theatre as the Songman in the touring play, War Horse. In his last decade, John become known to the wider community for his services as a civil celebrant at weddings and funerals.
But what he was best known for was a splendid, wide-ranging tenor voice and a brilliant ear for harmony. He had spectacular skills as a presenter and comedian.
A Maleny musician friend reminded me of the time John handed him a postcard on which was written: “Folk music – it’s not as bad as it sounds”. That is a good example of the wit John could display on any given day but no more so than when performing as a duo with Martin Pearson. The last time I saw them regaling a crowd was at the National Folk Festival in 2019.
Though not officially on the festival bill, John was invited to participate in Pearson’s daily ‘brunch’. The hour of what seemed to be unscripted comedy was endearingly funny as the two old friends kept trying to have the last word.
We all knew how unwell he’d been and how much worse it would get. But John took every opportunity to wring music and love out of the situation. His was arguably the most publicly documented case of terminal bowel cancer. He would post detailed summaries of his treatment and reactions to it on Facebook. Hundreds of friends and friends of friends left messages of love and support. Late in the day, he posted a selfie from his last stay in hospital while doctors were adjusting his pain medication.
Before then, musician Steve Cook posted a message, ‘Thinking about my friend John’, which a few people construed to mean John had already passed. At one point John popped up among the ‘RIP’ comments with, “Me too”.
Maleny people would remember John from the numerous times we featured the band Cloudstreet at our home. John, his partner Nicole Murray and later band member Emma Nixon never failed to entertain and amuse.
John and Nicole stayed with us when they were recording Dance up the Sun at Pix Vane-Mason’s studio in Conondale. Laurel (aka She Who Edits, etc), asked John if there was anything he didn’t eat.
“Elephants,” said John.
Though we were from different generations, I valued John as a friend, mentor and musician. He was the first person to give me practical tips to warm up the body and the voice before performing. Everyone wanted a piece of John, but I was always happy just for him to know we were there.
Hard as this was, last Friday we got completely unexpected news of a dear friend who died suddenly. Rob (Oss) Simcocks was a Stanthorpe district identity, known for his work with the rural fire brigade, the local pipe band and a long association with the bluegrass group, The Bald Rock Mountain Boys. In his last few years, Oss formed a new band, Too Much Fun and they were all of that and more. Long-time friend Mr Shiraz described Oss on Facebook as a ‘ bush polymath’ because of a string of interests and achievements including building his own home in the bush, working on landcare projects, gardening, viticulture, pottery, blacksmithing and making large iron sculptures.
He learned some piano when he was young and was taught bagpipes in high school at Scots College, Warwick. He also taught himself to play many instruments including banjo, mandolin, guitar, clarinet and spoons. He often found a way to turn various household items into music. His wife Teri tells me he once even ‘played’ an electric fan.
Oss was an artist. He painted, created found object sculptures, exhibited his works and in recent years wrote songs, poetry and short stories. He was an irrepressible gardener and almost always sent visitors home with a plant.
Curiously, these two sad events happened in the same week I received a communique from a local council in Scotland. I had inquired as to the state and status of our family burial ‘lair’.
In Scotland, the tradition is that a family owns a burial plot in perpetuity and it is passed on to the eldest son.
My father’s parents and his two younger sisters are interred in this lair. Dad’s parents died in the mid-1930s of bowel cancer and his young sisters died earlier still of scarlet fever. The plot, marked by an 86 year old sandstone tablet, is in the old part of a cemetery in a small coastal village. The Angus Council referred me to a local stonemason who quoted $800 to clean the headstone and re-letter it. Grandad Wilson was himself a stonemason, so there is some irony there.
There is some hide-bound Scottish tradition in play here that puts the onus on the eldest son (me) to do something about it.
These are four people I never knew and Dad’s ashes have since 1991 resided in a crematorium wall in Hastings, New Zealand. What I will more likely do is spend the money refurbishing Mum’s plaque, next to Dad. Mum died of cancer in 1966, so the lettering has faded.
But, as I wrestle with this, and feelings of grief over my friends Oss (met him in 1978) and the honourable Mr Thompson (early 1990s), there is a more pressing matter.
I did say at the outset I would write about hypochondria. It is 90% certain that sporadic palpitations which come upon me for no rhyme or reason, are likely to be psychosomatic (Ed: though no less serious).
Nevertheless, the GP has checked me out (normal) but because this happened once before (also normal), he referred me to a specialist.
Apparently I have to wear something akin to a bra for 24 hours. The chart will then go to a cardiac specialist who will review the result and report back.
At times like these one should drag out a Cloudstreet CD and play life-affirming songs like Thousands or More, Time is a Tempest or John’s quirky song, the Homeless Beaver. This three-minute parody of the sea shanty Drunken Sailor, necessitated a three or four minute droll introduction about Idaho Fish and Game employee Elmo Heter and his efforts to re-home a colony of 76 beavers. (They ended up putting them in self-opening cages and parachuting them into their new location). True story.
Meanwhile, I’m using my ‘idle’ palpitations as an excuse to avoid mowing, gardening, housework lifting or anything more strenuous than sitting here reflecting on mortality.
Yours and mine.
A private family funeral was held for John Thompson earlier today. It was live streamed and can be viewed via this link at a later stage.
A public memorial will be held in April.