Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Death of Alex Buzo

In my post on New England Australia - Writers I spoke of Alex Buzo.

I learned today that he 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 has 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.

I mentioned in my writer's post that Zihni, Alex's dad, had come to Armidale for the building of the Oakey Hydro Scheme. As an aside, I spelt Zinhi's name wrongly, failing to add the h. But then, I have always said the name, rarely spelt it!

Zihni Buzo OAM was an Albanian. He used to tell me now he had been in the Boy Scouts with Enver Hoxha who later become communist dictator. Apparently Hoxha was a nasty piece of work even then.

After completing his elementary education in Albania, Zihni studied in Istanbul and the US before returning to Albania to work for the Rockefeller Foundation on a malaria control project. I know that Zihni immigrated to Australia at the outbreak of the Second World War although I am not sure of the exact date. However, Italian troops entered Albania in April 1939 forcing the King into exile, so it was presumably around this time.

Following the war Zihni worked as a lecturer in Civil Engineering at Sydney University before moving wife Elaine and family to Armidale where he established his own practice. Here 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 development schemes for New England water. 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. His parents and my 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 and tackled me just near the try line. What neither of us knew was that the referee had already blown his whistle!

Alex and I had much more contact after we left TAS, again because of the links between our parents.

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 I think have a first play workshopped in 1967, with a full production of Norm and Ahmed in 1968.

While Alex had left Armidale he retained his links. 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 my father's death, mum and dad used to have open house on Xmas Eve. The Buzos were regular attendees, so that's where Alex, I and later Adrian often met when we were all in town. Alex liked tennis, so during these visits we also played tennis just down the road at Roy and Afra Smith's. For a period Adrian and I also coincided in Canberra.

During the Canberra period I collected Alex's plays as they came out. Then he stopped writing plays, instead 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.

After my parents died, there was a gap in contact. Then Genny and Clare, our respective youngest daughters, ended up in the same class at St Catherine's at Waverley. They were also in the same hockey team, so I again saw a fair bit of Alex and Merelyn at school functions and standing on the sidelines at hockey.

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, achieving remissions. First Elaine died and then in July this year Zihni died aged 94. 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.

I was especially pleased that Alex was receiving some recognition for his long career and writing achievements.

There were interviews, 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.


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating post, and thanks for your comment on mine. Did you happen to know John Traas, a language teacher, at TAS? I later was a colleague of his in Wollongong.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for this, Neil. I have left a short response on Neil's blog -

Anonymous said...

Hello there Jim, thought you might be interested in checking out
Emma Buzo
The Alex Buzo Company

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Emma. I am in fact preparing a story on the Company. Rob Busby had been in touch with me through the TAS link.

At this point you will have three of us, maybe four, at the night out.

Anonymous said...

Hooray! Heartening to hear Jim and thank you for your support. Alex was such a proud Armidalian and TAS Old Boy. The respect he had for his various alma maters was remarkable. Owing to the all-inclusive nature of the event (show, drinks, food etc) tickets can only be sold in advance. Let me know how many you end up booking (tickets through Ticketek) and I'd like to offer you the same number of complimentary tickets to the staged reading of Alex's spellbinding play "The Marginal Farm" on September 16. Details on the website.

Please email me in reply.

Emma Buzo

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi again Emma. I have put up a post on the launch - - plus copied you in my email to Rob Busby.

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