Yesterday the list clerk asked me to take a case for an Indigenous man who wanted a sentence indication in relation to an appeal he had. He was late, didn’t have a mobile phone and I was told he was over at the Magistrates Court getting a food voucher for lunch.
When we got underway I asked him what his language group was. He told me he was from Sorrento. I recognised the name. It was Mick’s girlfriend’s family. I asked him and he said yes, she’s my aunty. I had no idea the family were Indigenous or maybe I did then and it wasn’t anything we thought about. I knew them all. We all just lived together, happily, many years ago.
He told me his family had been in Sorrento for at least eight generations that he knew of. They fished the bay. He told me his aunty’s mum was still alive but not too good now. He said she’s 90. And I remembered his aunty’s cheeky little brother.
I told him my mother’s, father’s and sister’s ashes were in the water in Sullivans Bay. He looked at me and started to cry and said ‘God bless you, your Honour’. I was moved too and had to leave the court. I asked him to give my best wishes to his family. Another judge was assigned to the case.
That night I wondered what it had all meant. Why had he come into my court that day and where was his aunty? And I thought about the power of home and of place.
I thought maybe he was crying because he too felt that power and only as an Indigenous man can. He is from that place, that little bay near the heads. When I put mum’s ashes in the water there with my family and dad watching from the beach in his wheelchair, a shovelnose ray swam up to us, to see what we were up to.
In 1971 my father’s untreated post-traumatic stress disorder caught up with him and he and my mother dropped out of city life for good. He had served as a lieutenant in the Australian Army in Singapore and been captured after Singapore fell in February 1942. Dad was never one to sit around and he and John MacGregor escaped from Changi. They were recaptured in Malaya, tried by the Kempi Ti and sentenced to two years solitary confinement in Outram Road prison in Singapore. They were fortunate not to be executed. The Red Cross was already monitoring Japanese war crimes at the time of their ‘trial’. This was a prison run by the Japanese Army, unlike Changi, which was run by British and Australian officers. Outram Road was a death sentence for many. John and my father survived but both were deeply damaged for the rest of their lives. Dad was 28 when he started his sentence and a vital young man by all accounts. John was blind when he came home, his illness caused by the depraved conditions in Outram Road.
Like so many in the services in that war, my father came home to little or no psychological support. One simply got on with life, but as we now know, this was fiction. Many thousands of homes suffered immeasurable stress and pain. Ours was one such home and my father’s enormous capacity was always thwarted by his disturbed psychology and profound survivor guilt.
He was a man of the sea. His family arrived in Perth in 1836 and set up a business on the beach in Fremantle as boat builders, Thomas Mews and Sons. Emma Mews, my great-grandmother, married Edward Dean. My father and his father sailed on the Swan. He fished for most of his life and so it was inevitable that one day he would move to the sea, where at least he was able to find some peace. In 1971 he was 57 and could no longer live in a city and moved to Sorrento. I went too. I was 13. My siblings stayed in Melbourne.
Our house was near Sullivans Bay and Camerons Bay. The early settlers’ graves from the 1804 expedition from Van Diemen’s Land sit on the point between them. When we moved there, the local fishermen kept their boats in Camerons. One such fisherman was Des. Des knew the bottom end of the bay backwards. He fished the ‘rough up’ and caught and sold the best fish.
Des had two sons, Mick and Keith. I didn’t know it then, but these two guys, who were a bit older than me, would shape the entire direction of my life and the lives of my sons. When the big south-west winds came up the bay, Mick and Keith would wear footy jumpers and ride the wind swell in Camerons on coolite boards. They progressed to the ocean side of the peninsula and were probably the first serious surfers in town, along with Geoff, Zulu, Pygmy and little Bruce.
I joined the life saving club. Dad had been a lifesaver at North Cottesloe in Perth and he thought it would be a good way for me to find my path to the ocean. I joined with Tim, whose father had been taken by a shark at Portsea in 1956. His mother, pregnant with him, was on the beach that day. He is a lawyer too these days and we share the experience as teenagers of saving drowning people in the surf there. One day we had to recover three bodies from the water at Pearces Road in 2.5-metre surf. There was no psychological counselling for us either. We probably snuck into the pub that night.
There was a cultural divide between surfers and clubbies. Some of us tried to bridge it, but as the 1970s took hold it became wider. I opted for surfing. Gough Whitlam was shaping a new world.
Mick and Keith made my first board behind Des’ fish shop. Geoff Coker shaped it and I think Mick glassed it. It was orange with a clear deck, not quite two metres, a square tail and with a single green fin. It was around number 12 of the boards they went on to make and cost $15.
I lived in the town and played local footy but wasn’t a local. I wasn’t born in Sorrento and went to a school 50 kilometres away. I occupied two worlds. Mick and Keith understood that and were always a bit cool with me. But I dug their life and they knew that. They had a lime-green HD panel van with the name of their surfboard business painted in bold purple letters along the panels. One night Mick reversed it into a melaleuca and it became a swallow tail. Mick’s girlfriend did my mother’s hair. She was a wise quiet person and mum loved her. They talked about dad.
Surfing became the framework around which my life was built. I managed to do well at school and went on to university. Mick and Keith made my boards. I travelled to Noosa in winter, got through my course and spent as much time as I could in the water. A clear memory to this day is Zulu carving a massive wave at Sorrento backbeach on a Sunday night before I had to go back to school. I often wonder where Zulu is now.
In 1977 Geoff shaped me a new board, the Coker Stoker. A swallow tail twin fin. Clear glass job and perfect. Prices had gone up to $75. I was in third year university and was a member of the Melbourne Uni intervarsity surfing team. The event was to be held at Byron and Lennox in northern New South Wales. We camped at Broken Head.
My first heat was held at Lennox in clean conditions and almost two-metre waves. I had no idea who else was in the heat although there had been a rumour that a very hot surfer from Sydney Uni Economics was competing. It was Derek Hynd. It turned out I had a good day, or maybe the judges didn’t. I was in position when a perfect wave came through. The Coker Stoker slid effortlessly into the wave, I put my hand in the face and entered the green room. I came second in the heat and Derek third or fourth. He went on to win the event of course, and I departed in the quarters. Right place, right time as dad used to say, although he generally spoke of wrong place, wrong time. It was the high point of my contest career. Derek Hynd went on to pro surfing and got to number seven in the world, before losing an eye at Pipeline. He’s a columnist these days.
I went overseas for a while after that and studied in Britain. When I got back, a friend had ‘cut down’ the Coker Stoker to make a ‘fish’.
That was all 40 years ago and an eternity from life as a judge until yesterday when this man reminded me of the power of home and of place.
Mark E. Dean was appointed to the County Court of Victoria in 2010. Prior to his appointment he had practised at the Victorian Bar since 1983. He was appointed senior counsel in 2001.