Morning is Rocky’s favorite time. I wonder whether it is mine? They have changed me, no doubt, these mornings with Rocky. I rarely contemplate a morning with no sunrise, a dawn without me. My first thought when I wake up, Rocky there beside the bed in the darkness, his white -patched chest and white beard dancing a hopeful shimmer, is about the temperature and the strength of the wind. Rain or no doesn’t matter. What matters is the strength of the wind and whether the temperature is icy. Winter is coming. In summer, what mattered most was wind direction and strength, for a strong north wind, brought drought afflicted mornings, when the wind swirled the sand over Rocky and around my legs, the sand like hot pin pricks and the sun unrelenting,  Not till recently did any of this matter to me.  I had lived for decades a mainly weather-less life. I suppose, in more recent times, an air-conditioned life. I considered myself to be an inward looking person when I was young but I nevertheless lived a life focused outwards, in a very particular fashion, shaped by the exigencies of a reporter’s life. There were times when I wondered why there was nothing I wanted to do less than get on a plane to cover a story somewhere, often in a place about which I knew little and about which, in all likelihood, I would learn nothing by having been there.

Are mornings with Rocky my best time? I am new to such mornings and this is new, writing like this of our time together. With no great prospect of being paid or even being widely read.  I must say it feels like freedom. The evidence suggests that Rocky has no real objections to me writing about him, though he can become impatient when I sit too long in silence, ignoring his entreaties to try and throw the tennis ball  past him, down the passageway, as he dances around in alert anticipation, like a hyper-active goal keeper. Writing these mornings, memorialises them and transforms them into instant memories. The past lives as I write, things long forgotten come back unannounced and unanticipated, and in such profusion, waiting impatiently to be acknowledged, that I do wonder whether some of them are fantasies or at the very least, embroidered memories made gentle by nostalgia and the need to portray myself in an attractive light.  If there are untruths, I hope that they are inconsequential and not too contrived.

Are these mornings the best of times? There are mornings when Rocky and I can feel each other’s joy in being together. I am, at such times, thankful for him. I am lost in his grace and touched by his wonder at things–seaweed and sand and screeching gulls and garbage and every dog and every human being who crosses his path. Dogs are curious, I have come to believe, with the sort of curiosity that can make every moment a fresh experience.  Every morning, Rocky behaves as if anything is possible, even that I might decide–though I hardly ever have– to forgo our morning together. For Rocky, every morning is newly minted. He lies prone on his back. He sits beside me when I check the Google weather maps, whimpering, shaking. He runs backwards and forwards to the small cabinet in the kitchen where I keep his lead. If the first signs of morning light appear before we get going, Rocky looks devastated, sure that our morning together won’t now happen. When I take the lead from the cabinet, he cannot sit still with excitement.

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This morning, late Autumn calm after four days of winter winds and late dark dawns, the sky is again dotted with pink- tinged wispy clouds, the horizon a mellow-soft red, the air cold but still with the promise of late Autumn warmth, even all this and the unfolding sunrise, could not hold out Dick Pratt and Robert Manne  from accompanying us, Rocky and me, something that I did not wish for and had I been able to do so, I would have asked them to go away. They walked with us, though I am pretty sure they had never met and even had they done so, I doubt that they would have had much to say to each other. The connection between them was of my making.

Rocky seemed to know they were there because he tried to keep them at bay.  He watched intently the  four black swans glide across the water, beyond his reach, though he is a swift and confident swimmer, glide in a straight line, one behind the other, their curved necks symmetrical, co-0rdinated, like synchronised swimmers, beaks pointed at the same angle, down towards the water. He looked back at me every now and then, an invitation to join him in his swans’ moment. He ran back from the water’s edge and trotted along beside me, looking up at me, his mouth open and eager, ears flopping, his white- patched chest swinging from side to side. All to no avail.

I had gone to Pratt’s funeral service at the Kew Synagogue and had stood outside with hundreds of other people watching the service on big screens.  There were some people, men and women inside the synagogue with reserved seats. I have no idea how these seats were allocated. Three former prime ministers had reserved seats and so too did several Carlton footballers which was not surprising,  for former prime ministers and footballers– though not so much former players– no doubt consider such treatment their due. But Ian `Molly’ Meldrum and other assorted celebrities were also favored with reserved seats and I wondered, as I stood watching Sam Lipski speak on the big screen, what Dick Pratt had thought of the multitude of courtiers who attended him, even in his dying. I thought that wealth and power make it near enough to impossible to know who you are, for they make it impossible to know those who attend you.

Sam’s eulogy was one of the finest I have heard, heartfelt but not sentimental, suffused with the affection of a long friendship. There was recognition that Pratt was a man with flaws, often hard to live with and work with –and to be friends with, which is true I think of every real friendship. What struck me most was Sam’s humility which  is what I most remember about him in those years when I looked to Sam for guidance and advice.  As Sam spoke, Bono Weiner came to me, Bono, who lived a life so extraordinary that I fear my writing about him here will diminish him.

 In pre-war Lodz, Poland’s largest industrial city, Bono Weiner was a leader of the Tzukunft, the youth movement of the Jewish Labor Bund.  He was a leader of the resistance in the Lodz Ghetto, in charge of  maintaining the short wave radio that brought news from the outside world to the sealed world of the ghetto. He was eventually taken on one of the cattle train transports of Jews to Auschwitz.  After the war, Bono went back to Lodz, determined to re-build the Bund. For months, he planned its resurrection, even organising a summer camp for Tsukunftistn, all of them Holocaust survivors. They were young men and women who had lost their mothers and fathers and in most cases, their brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. Bono’s goal was to make Tzukunft and the Bund  live again, for its followers could not be brought back to life. It was an impossible task.

Even as his friends left for the displaced persons’ camps in Austria and Germany, Bono stayed in Lodz. I think he could not imagine any other life.  The young woman he loved left too, but still he stayed. Until no-one was left. Then he too ended up in a DP camp and from there, he signed on to work on the Snowy Mountain Scheme in order to get a visa to come to Australia.  Having completed his contract, he came to Melbourne. He helped set up the Bund, and Tzukunft,  he joined the Labor Party and became the head of its immigration council, he  became a travel agent and built his small one person agency into Jetset, Australia’s biggest travel group.

He never forgot Chava,  the young woman who had decided she could not stay in Lodz with him. She ended up in Canada where she married, had children and wrote novels and poetry in Yiddish. She was a writer who was much admired in Yiddish literary circles–small circles they were, I must admit– and I can remember her coming to Australia to lecture on Yiddish literature.  Bono, I found out later, paid for her major novel The Tree of Life,  set in the Lodz Ghetto, to be translated and published in English.

Bono Weiner never married. It was always an experience to go visit him in his apartment near St Kilda beach where even when I was quite young, I would be offered a glass or two of whisky by the woman who Bono was entertaining at the time.  He never spoke to me of the woman who had left him in Lodz with his dream of  re-building a Jewish socialist movement.  He was a big man with a broad face and a high forehead and he spoke at such great speed, Yiddish and English, that I often wondered what the hell he had just said to me.

Almost five decades after she left him in Lodz, Bono and Chava were re-united. He never spoke to me about this. It just happened. Most of the time they were together in New York, for Chava did not wish to live in Melbourne. Bono would visit us when he was here–he had sold out of Jetset, he said, because business held no interest for him– usually without warning and he would bring with him small gifts for my children and my wife and for us, for Bono and me to share, a bottle of Johnny Walker.

Bono was neither a sentimentalist nor a nostalgic. He spoke of the past as if it were history. He did not live in memories. He treated me, from the time I first met him when I was a child–and others I am sure– like the future belonged to me. In that sense, Bono Weiner was a humble man. This was a rare quality, I have come to realise.  Bono Weiner’s life was extraordinary but he remained, until he died, a man with no need of disciples.

As Sam Lipksi spoke that morning last week, I thought about Bono Weiner and I remembered how often we disagreed about things, Bono passionate and insistent in his arguments, often showering me with insults, but always with gruff affection. No doubt there were times when he felt let down by me.  Later, when my public life became my life, I did not always have time for him. He never showed it. He was proud of my achievements for which he refused to take any credit. He was a mentor who celebrated the fact that, in his view, I had come to no-longer need his mentoring.  He believed and accepted, without regret or rancour–he would have said that I owed him nothing– that I no longer needed his guidance and advice.

It was thus that Dick Pratt was there with Rocky and with me this morning, despite my true desire to walk without him, for these morning, I do believe are best left to the two of us. We have come, both of us, to look forward to this time which I do believe, is the best of times. What of Robert Manne who was also there with us? Manne was never a mentor of mine. We have known each other for many years. I convinced him to write a column for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald which does not mean that I want to take credit for the fact that he is considered, certainly by those who are like -minded, to be Australia’s leading public intellectual. 

I did not think of Robert during Sam’s eulogy for Dick Pratt. It was later that day, when I read Robert’s take on the dispute between him and the publisher Morry Schwartz, with the editor of  The Monthly, Sally Warhaft, who left her post last week because she fell out with Manne, the magazine’s editorial board chairman.  I thought, as I read  Robert’s account of how he had been Sally’s mentor and how she had repaid him for this, for all he had done for her, by refusing to be collegial–in other words by asserting her independence– how few are the mentors who understand that the role is not about gathering disciples.

I thought about Morry Schwartz’s trashing of Sally Warhaft and his claim that he, Morry Schwartz, was responsible for The Monthly’s success, not Sally Warhaft who he implied had been nothing more than an underling, there to do as she was told. I thought of Robert’s trashing of her gifts and her judgement as an editor and I thought of Sam Lipski’s euology of Pratt and I thought of Bono Weiner’s life and the times when I had no time for him and how he would, at these times, pour me a large glass of whisky and himself one too and how he would say that I should always have time for a drink.  Having gulped down his drink, he would head for the front door and as he left, he would smile, an impish, knowing smile and he would hold my hand, gripped tight, for a moment or two, before he disappeared into the night.

And I thought that even on a morning like this, an Autumn morning of warming sunlight and drifting pink clouds turned white and gliding black swans, when we had set out with eager expectation, there are people who come to walk with us who try as I might, cannot be put off until later in the day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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