Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Belshaw's World - a legendary writer raised in Armidale

Jim Belshaw is on holidays. While he is away, Jim’s column is featuring some of his previous writing. This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on New England Australia in August 2006.

I learned today that Alex had died. My sense of loss can be nothing compared to that of Adrian, Merelyn and the family, but I thought that I should record my feelings. Added force is given to this because my wife has just left to take daughter Clare to school for the opening of the Wizard of Oz, a performance that Alex's youngest daughter is taking part in.

ABC radio today carried initial tributes to Alex as a writer. I cannot add to these without reflection. Many people knew Alex better than me. They will tell their own stories. But Alex has been part of my life since I was very young. So this is a personal reflection on Alex, his family and me.

Alex’s dad, Zihni, Buzo OAM, was born in Albania.

After completing his elementary education, he studied in Istanbul and the US before returning to Albania to work for the Rockefeller Foundation on a malaria control project, emigrating to Australia at the start of the Second World War.

Following the war, Zihni worked as a lecturer in Civil Engineering at Sydney University before moving wife Elaine and family to Armidale where he designed and supervised the construction of the Oakey Hydro Electric Scheme.

Zihni quickly absorbed the New England ethos and became an active proponent of water development schemes for New England. However, he also continued to work globally especially for UN agencies, working in more than 40 countries.

I do not remember when I first met Alex. Our parents were friends, so he was just around. Because he was a little older than me and in a higher class, we were not close. I do remember that at his parent's request he tried to look after me on my first day at The Armidale School (TAS), a difficult task because I was shy.
Later, and this bears upon his competitive spirit, I also remember playing football against him. I made a break, he ran me down to tackle me near the try line. Neither of us knew that the referee had already blown his whistle!

Alex and I had much more contact after we left TAS.

Alex had acquired a love of English at school. He found Armidale constricting and escaped to Sydney where he worked first in mens wear at David Jones. A keen observer, he collected accents, words and scenes. I am not sure when he actually started writing, but he did have a first play workshopped in 1967, with a full production of Norm and Ahmed in 1968.

Alex retained his links with Armidale. Wife Merelyn was an Armidale girl, a good hockey player, so he had family links with the town on both sides. I, too, retained my links with Armidale while working in Canberra.
Up until dad’s death, my parents had open house on Xmas Eve. The Buzos were regular attendees, so that's where Alex, I and later Adrian Buzo often met. Alex liked tennis, so at Christmas we often played tennis just down the road at Roy and Afra Smith's.

I always collected Alex's plays as they came out. Then he stopped writing them, pursuing other writing directions. I felt that this was a pity, and asked him why many years later. I think that it was just that he had broad interests and in some ways saw writing as a means to an end.

There was a gap in contact after my parents died.. Then Genny and Clare, our respective youngest daughters, ended up in the same class at St Catherine's and in the same hockey team. I again saw a fair bit of Alex and Merelyn at school functions and at hockey matches.

Talking is easy when you have known someone for so long and have so many shared experiences. In this last period, Alex like to talk about shared things, about the days at TAS, about his earlier experiences. He retained his dry wit and positive outlook.

This was a difficult period for the family. Alex was battling cancer, then his parents died. I felt with Zihni's death that this was the loss of another of the links with New England's past. But there were compensations among the troubles for Alex and the family with recognition for his long career and writing achievements.

There were interviews, while Currency Press put on a private reading of two of his plays that I was lucky enough to be able to attend with daughter Helen. The first play on the escape from a country town was clearly autobiographical. Alex expected me to recognise the allusions, and indeed I did. Alex also received an honorary doctorate from his old university, the University of New South Wales.

I knew that Alex was again very sick. But I still hoped that his fighting spirit would carry him through as it had done before, so the news of his death came as a shock.

I was not as close to Alex as some of his friends and I know that there are many more stories. I just wanted to provide a very personal perspective on someone who has been there to greater or lesser extent my whole life. My thoughts are with the family.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 29 September 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

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