Monday, September 29, 2008


I think it is time to write about Bob. It's been a few months and like any catastrophe, time is needed to process how we really feel. It's difficult; time also hardens up a story into something solid and unmovable. I want to do the experience of knowing him and seeing him go some kind of justice. This may be an extended post... bear with me.

Recently there has been some comments posted on this blog from people I don't think I've ever met, who learnt of Bob's demise from afar and expressed a kind of sad disbelief to hear that he is gone. This story is really for you and it is only one story - mine. There are so many others.

It has been pretty direct. I live in his house now. I inherited his black cat Ebony. On nights late I see her lurking, panther like and talking to me in that siamese cat manner and i think, "There he is. She is Bob." Mad, I know. I tell myself that. I think, she's just a cat and she misses him too.

He was the strange long haired man I met twenty years ago, playing guitar on the staircase of the old whale chaser. I always loved the way he'd pull out a guitar and subject us to his songs. "Sweet Fortunata" was my favourite. He was so excited about that song, he came over and played it the same day of composition.

He possessed an occasional maniacal intensity, other times he was gentle, always eccentric, always a THINKER and always a bloody Pisces, acutely sensitive and willing to shovel out the shit at the same time.

He worried about me. When I was going through a particularly nasty emotional patch, he sat with me at the State Records Roadshow at the museum and said, "What's going on Sarah? Are you pregnant?" (He knew I wasn't, he was fishing.) He worried about me and I worried about him.

The conversations I will miss. We'd sit in his kitchen, I'd make the tea and off we'd go. History, vague theories on love and lust, Nyungar stories, writers we love, what we are reading right now, feminist/postmodern/gender/music theory, then we'd fall into unabashed gossip. He was THE best for gossip.

Intellectually he was twenty years ahead of the rest of us. His brother told Aussie of a family fight in 1974. It was your classic family fun Christmas day where the fight spills out onto the footpath. It started because Bob told his father that the world would run out of oil in 2040.

A few years ago, christmas day again, he told us that the polar bears would soon start drowning because they would have too far to swim between ice floes. I know how his father felt. We all told him to shut up and let us enjoy our christmas lunch. And hey - the polar bears are drowning as I write this.

He made talking about the weather into an art form. He could sing Yothu Yindi's "Treaty" in language. He was a pain in the arse pit bull terrier at town council meetings. He would patiently explain my flaws whilst smelling like a chookpen, in unwashed clothes. He was always there for me. He could have made a million dollars fixing all the computers he did, but he got fed instead and was happy with that.

When I think back, I used to get so frustrated at all the work he did for other people and not ask to be paid. I used to think that maybe he didn't feel worthy enough to expect it and that he was being used. But now ... the legacy he leaves is one of good deeds.

When he first got sick, he was so full of anger. His teeth were giving him the shits and the government dentist wasn't listening, ripping out teeth or just filling them in and not listening when Bob came back and said that something was still wrong. It is a long ride on a push bike, all up hill to the dentists clinic from here. The saga dragged on and on. So it was cancer under his teeth and I think about that every time I roll up another coffin nail and smoke it.

Secondary arrived six months later and things got serious. People were shocked. Bob worked harder than I've ever seen him work. He built another chook pen, wrote and presented an amazing series of lectures on Nyungar history, chopped down the Mulberry tree that had kept his house dark and damp for years, let the light in. He played in his band "The Hughs" that he nurtured every thursday, kept up his pilgrimage to Cosi's Cafe, worked on getting the fish pictures published. He was running out of time.

He rang me one night and told me he wanted to have the party to end all parties. I dissolved when I hung up the phone. My daughter said, "He's dying isn't he, Mum," and I just nodded because I couldn't say anything.

He turned up at the nursery where I worked, with Aussie and Irish. "Can we have the party at your place?" It was to be a Mexican Festival of the Dead, to laugh in the face of death, with a Freida Khalo theme. I found a self-portrait of Khalo with thorns and a blue bird at her throat. "Yes!" said Bob. In the end though, we decided on Clarissa, a kind of gory patron saint of the festival

Both of us began inviting people. I was moving house and I had a shit head cold, so I couldn't visit him at all for a few weeks. The knowledge that someone you love is going to die soon is easy enough to avoid with black humour and a busy lifestyle, until one encounter happens to be so terrifyingly and acutely REAL, that this knowledge cannot be avoided anymore.

This happened on his verandah, when my cold was gone and we chatted. It was winter solstice, exactly a week before his party. He was in good spirits, not in too much pain and this kind of essential goodness shone out of him. I told a joke, it wasn't even really funny and he threw back his head and laughed and laughed and laughed. The first shock was seeing his completely naked gums. It was like surprising somebody stark naked. I was shocked! But then it was the joy. He was so joyous, it was radiating from him in waves. He was up there with the Dalai Lama and this is not written lightly.

People flew and drove from all over to say hello and goodbye at the Mexican Festival of the Dead. We decorated the whole house with flowers, skulls, armloads of bracken and candles. We found a wheel chair for Bob and decked it out with plastic roses.
SilverBeat and the Freedom Police, his old bands, were revived and cranked out the favourites on the verandah. The Nyungar elders arrived. We burnt the Mulberry tree in a massive bonfire out in the paddock. It rained all night and it didn't matter.

Bob's son Aedan was there, helping out. He'd just finished his exams, otherwise Bob would have held the party on the Solstice. Bob was happy, there were a few surprises for him in the way of dedicated compositions and long lost friends showing up. He held pride of place, sitting in the flowered wheel chair with a disco light spinning on the floor behind him. Women draped themselves around his feet. (No really, they did.)

Bob died at Hospice four days later, age 56. No one except perhaps for himself expected it to happen so soon. He crashed on Monday and went into a kind of coma. The party was the last time we ever talked together. I wasn't really sad, until the day after he was put into the ground. I was joyous, like some of that joy in him had permeated my shell. The last few days spent with him at Hospice were so exhausting and beautiful. It felt the same as being at the birth of a child. When I entered the outside world again - I knew that everything had changed and nothing would ever be the same.

Yes Tim, Aunty Avril spoke in language at Bob's funeral. She talked about how much he had done for the Nyungars. His coffin was draped in the Aboriginal flag and when he was lowered, Glenda and Vern folded it and gave it to Aedan. On the way there, I saw six red tailed black cockatoos fly over the sheoak hill, a rare sight in these parts. They flared that brilliant red against their black feathers and the pale blue winter sky.


  1. This post should carry a warning. It's embarrassing being caught crying at work.

  2. Beautiful Sarah, The Hughs do miss their mentor. By the way, who's that guy playing bass in the photo, he's a spunk.

  3. Sorry Colin that sounded terse and not intended. I was sneaking on the uni computers and got kicked out on the word "him"! Yes, he was the mentor of the Hughs hey? And that spunky guy? Well, I can tell you all about him...!

  4. Bob and the song of the Magpie

    I heard him singing

    I heard the koolbardi magpie singing several mornings ago.
    I heard it when it was still dark at about 3am.
    I heard it above the wind and its tune was melodic, beautiful.
    It sings, say old Noongar yarns, it sings for its moyer or nephew the goanna the karda or old yurrn the bobtail who it knows still sleeps in the warmth of its burrow in the earth.
    It sings to tell its nephew that spring and the warmth of summer is approaching and that sometime soon it should think to move into the shades of the trees that surround it.

    I know now that the koolbardi sings for such people as my friend Bob.
    Is there life after death?
    Well the magpie singing in the knowledge of spring seems to think so.
    Bob would have known that yarn, as he knew many of the Noongar yarns of the lower southwest.
    It seem strange that he has passed.
    I dare not believe it.
    I sat with him at the Charlie Gardener Hospice recently and whilst the cancer in his jaw had made it difficult for him to speak and eat he was his usual joy-filled self. His warmth was contagious, it was easy to feel relaxed and inspired in his company. His passion was for the Noongar of the lower south west.
    There is a statue dedicated to Mokare on Albany's main street, but you know a similar one should stand nearby dedicated to Bob...
    His work with the southcoast Noongar was often a thankless and unrecognised task.
    Of course he never did the work he did for recognition, he was just moved by the wonders that such knowledge brought him.
    Bob and I frequently met at his favourite cafe in Albany where we discussed all matter of facts and details and insights into the Noongar language and our concerns and specifically his for his Noongar community.
    I say HIS Noongar community because that's the way he felt about them and I am sure they felt about him.
    He was a Noongar wadjalla... Yep, in the Noongar sense he was moort - family - and you know, in the old Noongar sense one's ngorp blood mattered not, all that mattered was one's relationship, one's reciprocity.
    Bob was always giving and his Noongar moort knew this, we all knew this.
    He was a colbung...I have read where the word 'colbung' means friend.
    In the language I know from the Noongar east we say maadarn or ngoonden, friend or brother, or ngoodjar brother-in-law, something similar to the name of that white-tailed black cockatoo the playful 'ngoolyark' whose origins link it to the porongorups the place of Noongar's borongaar, totem place of the older brother - a highly significant and sacred Noongar place near Albany.
    Bob was a special being the kind of which I don't know if we will see again.
    I only hope someone said something at his graveside, showed a Noongar concern for his passage to his spiritual home and to the Noongar that would be there to meet him.
    Now, if that magpie, that koolbardi's song is anything to go by, then spring is coming, even when in our deepest burrow, in our darkness, we are all given to the possibility of hearing its song.
    Bob we shall meet again.

    I wrote the above on my blog...I did not know you had written your piece but thank you for telling your story. And, of course the Noongar were there, of course they'd be there to treat his spirit with the respect it deserved.

    Thank you Sarah...

  5. Thanks Tim, Beautiful writing from you