Time to Me by Greg Quinn
He* is calling you, but you’re probably not listening…
* Yes, that’s a reference to the Christian version of a deity – one of countless tens of thousands, but this is not a story about religion per se. Promise.
A colleague and I were mucking around and bantering on Facebook today, and the subject of our old alma mater came up. We share a similar sense of humour, and the mention of ‘bona fides’ led to ‘Fortes in Fide’ (from our old school motto: Strong in Faith).
In the course of our online conversation, my colleague mentioned the school anthem, which I confused with the popular hit of a hymn, ‘Eagle’s Wings’.
And it prompted a bitter-sweet memory.
I spent the first 18+ years of my life in the Canberra suburb of Downer. My mum referred to where we lived as ‘Upper Downer’, which was beautifully ironic, as I’m fairly sure that our property was at the exact lowest point in the rather large suburb. Mum always said she was going to start up a movement called, “Downer Is A Beautiful Suburb”.
Our family started its time in Canberra at #20 Wheelbarrow Street, Downer. Elder sister M. was born in 1965 in Camperdown Hospital just as mum and dad were relocating from Harris Park, Sydney to Canberra, allegedly for one year for dad to move from the NSW TAFE system to the then new Commonwealth Teaching Service.
In 1970, when I was three years old and just about to start pre-school, we moved a whole seven doors down the road to #34 Wheelbarrow Street. We may have all carried some of our goods and chattels, and I have a dodgy memory of dad loading up his old box trailer with stuff and getting some neighbourhood friends to help push it the 130 metres (I’m reliably informed by Google Maps).
The next year, in November 1971, my little brother Greg burst forth into the world to complete the fivesome of we Quinn siblings. Yes. Five Quinns. NO, STOP. We have heard all the jokes about five quins, I mean, Quinns.
Greg was a Daramalan College, Dickson Class of 1989 graduate. He then returned to the school to be a teacher’s aide in computing. Greg was also heavily involved with the legendary annual Daramalan school musical/play productions. Any time I hear the strains of any part of the seminal recording of Evita with Julie Covington urging Peronistas to not cry for her, Argentina, I’m back in Downer, with Greg doing lighting, mentoring performers, and even sewing some costumes.
Greg died of brain cancer at 4am, Saturday 22 August 1998 in Clare Holland House hospice which was situated in the grounds of the then Royal Canberra Hospital. It’s now been supplanted by the admin building for the National Museum of Australia, after a Commonwealth/ACT land swap moved the hospice east along the shores of Lake Burley Griffin to 5 Menindee Drive Barton.
Greg died at the height of one of the most severe thunderstorms that I’d witnessed up to that time.
Electrical storms were Greg’s thing, and he would sit for hours on the end of his bed with the blinds pulled up, just watching them from start to finish. There’s one brewing here as I sit in the hotel business centre in Dickson, not Downer as I just said on ABC Radio during the quiz with Chris Bath of ABC Sydney. It’s a professional and client confidentiality thing; I always say I’m in a region or in the next suburb or town over. Not even my closest friends know exactly where I am unless I have a good reason for telling them. This way I live my life can briefly be described as: hiding in full view. Tuesday 22 January 2019, 20:08 AEDT.
After Greg’s death (coincidentally four hours after Daffodil Day finished), we began organising a memorial service at the Dara school hall, and a service at Norwood Park for the family and close friends.
It prompted an acceleration of my affinity with the work of Billy Bragg, who Greg had adored for years and had even styled himself after in terms of his approach to playing the guitar and many of the themes. It was Greg who certainly introduced Bragg’s music to my siblings and me.
Somewhere in my storage shed is a copy of the business card Greg had made up for himself, looking uber thin and cool, resting on his Maton guitar, with the legend: ‘Greg Quinn, The Big Nosed Billy Bragg Busker’ emblazoned across.
A teacher friend of Greg’s took out a memorial ad in The Canberra Times, putting in a few lines of a song, ‘Tank Park Salute’, Billy’s eulogy to his father who died of cancer.
I hadn’t heard the song at that point. I certainly have now. And most recently sang it to a crowd of a couple of hundred at ANU while clutching my teddy bear for support.
Back to August 1998. Dad was keen to also have a church service. Greg originally resisted. Greg knew his death was coming for some time, so he was pretty much fully involved in planning the memorial service from go to whoa, and wasn’t initially keen on the church part.
But he relented, rationalising that he wouldn’t be around for it himself, so who was he to deny Mum and Dad that level of comfort that their faith could provide as they prepared to farewell their youngest child.
It said a lot about who Greg was.
Being a card-carrying agnostic (I think), I wasn’t uber-keen on the churchification either, but I turned up to support the family.
I remember when we walked into the service, there was a little table organised out the front with a picture of Greg, a memorial book, and a box of tissues. Greg’s widow Ainslea commented at the time, ‘Who forgets to bring tissues to a funeral?!’
My elder sister and I exchanged furtive glances because that would be us.
Not long after the service started, big sister and I were rationing our meagre stash of Kleenex between ourselves.
The catalyst for me was that hymn: ‘Eagle’s Wings’. I’ve been looking for the lyrics online but have so far failed. But the opening line goes:
♪♪♪ ‘I have carried you on eagle’s wings…’ ♪♪♪
That was enough for both my sister and I to melt into salty-teared, quivering wrecks*, and we were dabbing at our eyes with remnants of whatever tissues we could dredge up from corners of pockets or jacket linings.
However, and this was the point of the discussion earlier today, I always appreciate it when high emotion is diffused with great humour — intended or not.
So. The priest delivering the service was the then parish priest at Dickson (the Catholic church closest to Mum and Dad at the time, and to the school).
And while the priest was a kindly man, he didn’t know Greg.
Being a priest, it’s in the job description to put in some subtle ads for the firm, so there was a bit of churchifying going on, notwithstanding the fact that Greg just wasn’t in any way religious or spiritual. His lack of personal knowledge of our brother showed:
‘And so, when his time had come, God called Gregory to his heavenly reward.’
At which point, my elder sister started to titter, and I had to suppress fits of the giggles. I’d even say we were in dire risk of entering ‘The Giggle Loop‘.
Gregory Benedict Quinn hated the full form of his name with a passion that bordered on violence.
I jokingly called him ‘Greggy Ben’ (Mum’s pet term for him) at a party Greg hosted many years earlier, and I got the shock of my life when he cracked me over the bag of the head with a fairly handy rabbit punch.
Greg was normally not a violent man in any way, shape or form.
Meanwhile, back in the church, we had just saved ourselves from the dreaded giggle loop when either my sister leaned over to me, or vice versa, and said: ‘If God’s calling “Gregory”, he’s not coming!!’
We shared a fairly black sense of humour, most of us Quinns, so this was mightily appropriate. Much like Greg’s choosing to turn up to oncology visits in his ‘Mr Happy’ t-shirt.
Or that probably the most uproarious night of my life was spent sitting in the house at Molesworth Street, Watson, with the aforementioned sister, plus Greg and wife Ainslea, effectively planning the memorial service and having just far too much fun with it.
There was one slightly poignant point in proceedings on that planning evening when Ainslea suggested there would be 26 flowers on the casket.
Greg: ‘So you don’t think I’m going to get to 27?’
No, she didn’t.
And no, he didn’t.
A wonderful part of Greg’s legacy has been my involvement with a poker/blackjack cards group he started in the early 1990s, based around Daramalan and associates thereof. After Greg died in 1998, some time afterwards, I took his place at the table, as it were.
One of the really nice moments for me at these monthly gatherings was when a little too much red wine was imbibed and someone called me ‘Greg’ by mistake.
Which is no mean feat as there’s another Greg in the group.
I’m taking a break from the group for a few months because….. well, the next few months are likely to be chaotic and all over the shop on just about every conceivable front. But hopefully I’ll be back for the traditional dinner at a Canberra City Chinese restaurant followed by the very judicious investment of a whole $20 each at Casino Canberra.
Very occasionally we’ve put in an extra $20, mostly we don’t. Sometimes we walk out with only a beer buzz, but we’ve usually been way ahead. $150+ each on a couple of occasions.
Well, that took on a life of its own. Writing is my joy and sometimes my therapy, so I hope you bulk bill because my wallet’s in my other pants.
Here’s one of Greg’s original songs that I believe summarises his life and pretty much describes what he believed was the value of a life well-lived and worthy. The learning I take out of it is that it doesn’t matter too much whether you’re changing the world, or looking after a few cats at home, or raising a family:
“You’ve got to leave your footprints somewhere, or take them with you when you die”.
Be kind to each other. Help each other where you can.
And if you can’t help someone, don’t harm them.
A hotel room in St Peter’s, Sydney, New South Wales
Nine days on the road and feeling every second of it…
* There’s another example of a song absolutely touching the emotions and opening the floodgates.
When my elder sister was doing her serial world-hopping (two years in Sydney, two years in Japan, two years in London, two years in Papua New Guinea, two years possibly more in Timor Leste, we all missed her tremendously, wretchedly, and tearfully at times.
Dr Quinn tells the story of how a deep-voiced Quinn family member rang her down the international subscriber network telephone one night, and she initially thought it was our father (who art in Downer – or was).
No, it was a pubescent Greg, his squeaky, tinny ‘Greg The Sausage Machine’ voice now having taken on a lustrous deep timbre.
He was teaching himself to play guitar and wanted to dona song for big sister the good doctor (then DipT, possibly B of Ed by that stage, too).
The song was far too on point and relevant to that tyranny of distance and feeling of missing her:
Crowded House’s ‘You’d Better Be Home Soon’.