Noel was born at Bancroft, his family home in Hornsby, on 9th November, 1921.
He died last Saturday evening, the 26th of October , at Bayview Gardens Nursing Home,
after spending most of his last month in Mona Vale Hospital, trying to survive the
compounding problems of a failing heart, pneumonia and a spiraling array of other difficulties.
In the end, he had had enough. During the last few days of his life he spoke almost exclusively in French, a language that occupied him greatly and pleasurably in the last decade of his life, and usually only a few words at a time. In the end it was simply the phrase “C’est trŹs difficile”. My own high school French had me interpreting this simply as “It’s very difficult” but I subsequently found that it also carries the meaning “Its very painful.” These two interwoven meanings, captured in the single phrase, succinctly express his situation in those last few days. He was, I’m sure, hoping that it would all be over soon.
During the last, often difficult, years of his life Noel’s sister Goi, and her husband, my Uncle Don Browne, played a huge role in helping him to maintain an independent life, sorting out his finances, making sure that he was supplied with food and the other necessities of existence and , above, all, with regular human company and affection and more. I would like to publicly thank them for all that they did for him.
I would also like to thank the professional carers who helped to make his life easier while he was living in his villa at Bayview Gardens, in the Mona Vale hospital, and over the last few days at the nursing home: people like Ana who made sure that he had food in his stomach and clean clothes to wear; Barb Bruton, who visited regularly to check up on his well being and, of course, the doctors and nurses at the hospital and nursing home.
That was the end of the book of Noel’s life, but , of course, it was the earlier chapters that contained much of the good stuff.
I’m sure we all have our own favourite memories of Noel, but, when dealing with a rich and diverse life, inevitably each of us can see only part of the picture, and even then it is impossible to do justice in the time we have here today.
Before I knew him, Noel had been a child running around in the bush at Hornsby with his brother Paul and sister Goi; a student at Gordon Primary School and North Sydney Boys High; a teenager; cleaned out wheat silos to earn a dollar or two; been a bush teacher; a teachers’ college student; an unarmed combat instructor; a soldier on the mortars and anti aircraft guns near Townsville and then in the Army Psychology unit; a dental student at Sydney University (he really wanted to study medicine like his brother but life didn’t permit). He had married my mother, the first of the two significant Margarets in his life, and become a father to my sister Rosemary. Finally he had travelled to England to set up a dental practice there. All of this, and much more, had happened before I arrived on the scene in 1952. My knowledge of this early period of his life is vicarious, most of it gleaned from long talks in the 1980’s and 90’s sitting on the balcony of his wonderful, beloved , self designed, home in Birubi Crescent on Bilgola Plateau, looking out over Pittwater.
My earliest memories of Noel are from the final years of that first English sojourn – when I was three or four – spending a day – boating on an English river , chasing dragonflies, digging a vegetable patch, going for picnics in the forests of southern England – pretty memories of childhood at a time when I now know he was facing the complexities and pressures of adult life – money, relationships and life choices.
We returned to Australia in late 1956 and Noel, now in his mid thirties, immersed himself in his dental practices – first at Narraweena, then Brookvale, and, for a brief time, Palm Beach. He worked long hours, and time with him for me usually meant Sunday trips to the beach , or Kuringai Chase, augmented with longer camping holidays at Christmas or Easter in the family Peugeot – a family tradition which continues to this day – there has been a French car in the family ever since he first saw one in Paris in 1956 and the camping trips continue to this day.
I learned most about Noel when , on rare but satisfying occasions, we went off together alone: fishing, camping, swimming or paddling a little plywood canoe around the local estuaries. It was on these occasions that he talked a bit about himself – about his life, and about the bush – with which he had a life long love affair. The tired, distant, dentist father, home for the evening meal, became a different, far more romantic character in these situations – talking of history, of the bush, of life, of Aborigines, and of some of his dreams. And of course he taught me how to fish, how to paddle a canoe, how to see and respect the bush at the same time. Many enduring joys of my own stem from these times.
Then Noel returned to England, with the rest of us following some months later. The trips now were to castles or historic mansions rather than into the bush, but the same pattern persisted. This time it was his passions for art and history that blossomed whenever opportunity allowed.
We returned to Australia in 1964, with Noel again delaying his return for a couple of months. Noel and my mother separated a couple of years later. I didn’t see much of him for a while and when I did it usually involved a heated discussion about political matters of the day (this was the time of the Vietnam war about which we had very differing views.) It wasn’t until I entered university that I genuinely began to know and understand him again.
He was living in Manly then, with the second Margaret. He was also beginning to pursue his interests in the arts more deeply. Margaret Gillett was a singer who had played significant roles with amateur and semi-professional companies in southern England. In 1964 she had won the ‘Actress of the Year”
award for southern England. They became involved in similar performances here. Typically Margaret would be playing the female lead while Noel filled a significant “character” role. After she arrived in Australia in 1967 they worked at one time or another with many of the leading amateur companies north of the Harbour – the Pymble Players, the Forest Musical Society and the Peninsular players all spring to mind.
Noel also began to become more serious about writing – something which he had always been interested in but never seriously pursued, though he had written articles on occasion for the Humanist society in earlier times. The Manly Centennial provided him with an opportunity to combine his love of music, story, performance and history in a single event. Noel became an author. The musical “ Dalley at Manly” , which he wrote jointly with Yvonne Gardiner, was performed by the Manly Centennial Players at St. Matthews Church , Manly in July 1977. (William Bede Dalley was a prominent 19th Century “scholar, patriot and statesman” who built a castle at Manly in 1881. It was demolished in 1939). Noel also played a part in the performance, which was directed by Margaret Gillett. Unfortunately I was living in Alice Springs at the time, and didn’t see it performed but for Noel it was clearly one of the more satisfying experiences of his life. It also gave him sufficient confidence to believe that he could, perhaps, go on to become a writer when he stopped being a dentist.
A little before this Noel had finally satisfied another of his life’s dreams. He had always wanted to have a house built to his own design. Rough plans sketched on squared paper were always a feature of our Australian life, for one block of land or another that had taken his fancy, but it finally came to reality when he found an affordable block on Bilgola Plateau. The fact that some work had already been commenced there cramped his style a little, but he still managed to produce an immensely workable schematic design. The house itself was completed in 1975 or early 1976, just after I had moved to Alice Springs. The house, with its stunning views across Pittwater, was another major love of his life. Here too he could finally hang many of the paintings which he had been gradually acquiring and find a place for thousands of books. One of Noel’s other dreams, never fulfilled, had been to retire from dentistry and establish himself as an art, antique and book dealer.
Noel and Margaret also began researching the life of his great grandfather, Conrad Von Hagen, with a view to writing a book about him. This took them travelling all over eastern Australia, visiting places that Conrad, and other ancestors , had an association with.
Through the 1970’s life was full for Noel – as if everything was finally falling into place, but in 1983 it all came crashing down with the death of Margaret Gillett at the age of 52 in an horrendous car smash. Noel was completely shattered. A short while later he lost most of the sight in his right eye (he had been blind in the left because of a cataract since his mid 30’s), suffered from some spinal problems and accordingly found himself living alone, crippled and almost completely blind while still in his early sixties. He had been considering retirement but was now forced into it. My mother, the first Margaret, returned for a while to look after him while he recovered from his back problems and underwent a cataract operation on his long blind eye and laser surgery on the until recently good one. Some of us wondered whether he would live to see 65.
Within twelve months or so though, he was clearly on the mend. He had recovered sufficiently to travel again, and headed off around the world, with a protracted stay in France. He began to rebuild his life. He had always been interested in the English artist , Turner, and now studied his life and works with increased intensity. He learned to use a computer for word processing, though it never really supplanted the innumerable notebooks, scraps of paper and tissue box interiors on which he penned most of his thoughts.. Most importantly, he took up the French language with a vengeance. He joined U3A, first as a student, and then as a teacher.
The University of the Third Age is a remarkable, wonderful, organisation, dedicated to the ongoing education of people who have reached retirement age. It became the core of Noel’s life for many years to come and provided an immensely valuable focus for his active and able mind. It also brought him back into a world that provided real human contact, away from the dark chasm that his mind had occupied after Margaret Gillett’s death.
He remained at Birubi for the next fifteen years after Margaret Gillett’s death. He greatly enjoyed the company of my daughters, first Ari and then Freya, whenever we were able to visit, reading stories with theatrical flair , talking with them about life and helping them feed the white cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets and possums that took up semi-permanent residence on his balcony overlooking Pittwater.
For a while he also became increasingly involved in environmental politics, joining Greenpeace and ACF, and assisting in electoral campaigns for environmentally sensitive candidates in the local area. Noel had always been politically interested, but never a political party animal. Issues such as the environment, education and Aboriginal matters excited him, but he was highly sceptical and fiercely independent about politics and politicians generally.
His health continued to trouble him at intervals. The need for a multiple bypass operation slowed him for a while, problems with dermatitis and his knees made some things hard to do, and, most worryingly for him, deterioration of his eyesight made it increasingly difficult to drive and to read. He had increasing trouble sleeping too, and could often be found listening to radio at 3 or 4 in the morning. He agonised for much of 1996, 1997 and early 1998 about whether his life at Birubi Crescent was still sustainable and ultimately concluded that it wasn’t. Reading his notes from this period is heart-wrenching. He desperately wanted to stay at Birubi, but simply felt unable to do so. He hoped that if he moved to a retirement village he might make it into his late 80’s but thought a year or two was the best he could hope for if he stayed. I find myself thinking that perhaps he left it a little too late. Or perhaps he should never have moved at all.
At first Bayview Gardens offered some respite. A new eye operation meant that he was able to continue with his French classes with u3A, and to drive, for some time, but he became increasingly aware that both his body and mind were failing. Helped along by dubiously prescribed and poorly monitored long term Temazepam usage, he became increasingly confused and erratic, alienating some of those who had been close to him in the process. He courageously gave up the drug without any assistance from the person who had prescribed it, and recovered some of his equilibrium (and began sleeping better as well), but time was catching up with him and for the last year or so of his life he was heavily dependent on the support of Goi and Don and community support staff.
It was, for this extremely intelligent, fascinating, witty, mischievous and immensely enjoyable man, time to go.
Noel used to variously describe himself as a hedonist, a humanist and a pantheist. Of the first two I have no doubt. Noel truly enjoyed, and sought to enjoy life, but did so generally with great empathy for the position of others and a strong belief in the importance of both individual freedom and social responsibility.
As to the pantheism, he clearly loved the natural world and found it a source of great pleasure and stimulation. He had a huge fondness for the lorikeets and for the White Cockatoos that visited his balcony at Birubi, knew them all individually and treated them as friends. Always a sceptic he decried the thought of anything beyond life, but he once confided in me that he and Margaret would often speak whimsically of living on as a pair of great White Cockatoos soaring over the places that they loved. I’m a sceptic too, but I know that whenever I see a white cockatoo in future, I’ll be thinking of him.
1st November 2002