BOB Middleton was the Post’s second subscriber, one of the Post’s first writers and the only Post writer ever to be mobbed by a fan. As the pharmacist called "Bob Middleton?" a Post reader stepped out of a long queue and hugged him. “I love your stories” she said.
He found his subjects close to home: wayward chooks, wild birds, eccentric neighbours, racing pigeons, a succession of neurotic terriers called Charlie, horses, friends, musicians. His stories were deceptively simple but never lazy. Every word had the right weight. Close observation. Exact reporting. Then drilling down to find the essence of man or beast. A balance of the mundane and the lyrical.
He wrote about artists, shearers, farmers, musicians, carpenters, the postman. But most of all he wrote about birds. Wrens, honeyeaters, warblers, shrike thrushes, lorikeets splashing in the bird bath or singing in the trees as he observed them from the kitchen window. They didn’t have to be gorgeous, endangered or even native to draw his interest. He was a champion of the English thrush and the humble blackbird. (“Must we only value that which is rare or in short supply?”)
In Final flight he hears a bird thudding into the window with frightening force:
Outside a crimson rosella, its soft breast feathers drifting down in a cloud of pinks and greys. Eyes still open and still breathing its head lolling at an awkward angle. I pictured the last flight, the fatal headlong collision into an illusion of a never-ending landscape. You could tell it had only a short time left. I went to the wood heap for the axe.
His first Post story, Wonder of Kilcunda, featured his surfing mate Shane Simpson and an encounter with a great white shark just off the Kilcunda break. “Where do we find the courage to plunge into the ocean despite the dark shadows moving silently below?” Bob pondered, adding that he spoke as one who paddled in the shallows.
In his 70s Bob was still working in shearing sheds. In his 80s, he was fencing, felling trees, lumping redgum sleepers and moving mountains. He could hardly complain, then, when just about every part of his body, bar his heart and lungs, wore out.
Two years ago, he and Gill faced the inevitable and swapped their rich, nature-filled life in the hills of Jeetho West for the suburban convenience of Wonthaggi.
Bob mourned for a year before he was able to write of the move with some equanimity:
Our new place retains that feel of open country as it backs onto the fairways of the golf course and we are within a good tee shot from the wetlands. Mobs of kangaroos come right up to our back fence. More importantly, Dan Murphy is just around the corner. And it no longer takes a 30-minute drive to visit our friends who live down this way. I have a good feeling we are going to be OK.
He didn't exactly rage against the dying of the light but he cursed at his inability to do the things he had once done so easily.
He also acknowledged the compensations of old age: time at last to read, listen to music (having discovered the magic of Youtube) and daydream.
Post cartoonist Natasha Williams-Novak illustrated many of Bob’s stories. His words and her pictures seemed to have a special affinity. The originals hang in pride of place on his dining room wall. Natasha says of Bob: “He is in my heart.”
As Bob wound down, there were fewer Post stories. My compensation was daily emails, droll accounts of a grumpy old bloke called Bob, his endlessly patient partner Gill, neighbours, friends and of course the neurotic and much-loved Charlie. He continued to observe and celebrate the world around him, the antics of animals and people, the pleasures of domestic life, and the company of good friends, preferably over a bottle of good wine.
Just a sample from the past few months:
July 17, 2018
Been outside lately CJ? Looks like the world has gone upside down. Charlie and I just went out for a pee and for a second I thought I was in Alice Springs. One of those clear desert nights. Charlie has started his Jenny Craig diet. He looks better already.
July 25, 2018
When I was a kid song thrushes were everywhere, nesting outside my bedroom window, cracking snails on the stone driveway. Geeze they were as common as blackbirds. Now my bird book lists them as rare between Warragul and Lorne. I blame those lousy snail poison pellets and think someone ought to pay.
August 17, 2018
I typed in 'hnotmail ' in error and this came up on the screen. RUSSIAN MAIL ORDER WIVES. Find True Love with a Russian Woman. Fast and Secure.
Amazing how love can just fall into your lap out of nowhere.
September 5, 2018
The wood swallows are building their nest outside our bedroom window again so I lay in bed to watch their energetic efforts until guilt and Charlie's breakfast demands got the better of me. So good to see the flowering fruit trees too. Spring has finally arrived.
September 6 2018
Winchi came and tidied up lawns and garden yesterday. I can never get his tea break right. Make a full pot of strong coffee. A heap of milk and sugar and at least 5 sweet biscuits. When I collect the tray all that is ever left is some of the sugar. I keep on increasing it and it keeps on disappearing.
September 23, 2018
This evening the outlook from the sun room was full of corellas, not only swirling in the back ground but a dozen at least perching on the back fence. Then to add to the rural scene a mob of kangaroos in the background of the background.
September 26 2018
I'm not going to talk to you today. I spilt the whole bottle of cayenne pepper into the cauliflower cheese dish I had laboured so diligently over and it could not be repaired. I think the Wonthaggi gods have got it in for me.
September 30 2018
I don't reckon a dog calls it a walk if confined to a lead. I feel sorry for those that are not allowed to stop and smell the roses or whatever they want to sniff at but are just dragged along by their thoughtless owners.
That was my last email from Bob. The following day he was taking Charlie 2 for a walk – off lead, of course – when he tripped and broke his hip. Bob called time. His doctors debated the point but Bob won the argument. He died on November 15, two weeks shy of his 88th birthday.
Post readers are most welcome to join Bob Middleton’s wake at the Loch hall in Smith Street at 2pm on Friday, November 30.