Jen often wants me to tell her a story. But it isn’t that easy. I’m not one of those blokes who can spin a yarn at the drop of a hat or even talk the legs off an iron pot (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). The mood has to be right and the muse suitably inspired.
The Harbord Diggers’ Club is a topic I’ve always vaguely intended to write about one day. Moreover, it’s an institution whose mere mention is guaranteed to send Jen into instant paroxysms of delight ever since she discovered its existence only last year. Not just that wonderful name, but the sheer hulking presence of this temple to fundamental Aussie values perched in tawdry isolation on the northern headland at Harbord beach where I grew up.
Strangely enough, the Diggers’ Club came up by sheer chance in conversation only a couple of nights ago, while we were having coffee and focaccia with Edmund and his partner Bob at the Cool Spot at Fannie Bay. I can’t quite remember how the topic arose, but Edmund confided he had once been a member of Harbord Diggers’ some years ago when he lived in Sydney. It seems Edmund wasn’t attracted by the beer or poker machines or the capacious lawn bowls greens at the Diggers’. He joined solely because of the excellent gym facilities, and so he could jog around the headland with the circuit training class. Edmund is a chappie of roughly spherical physical proportions these days, so I couldn’t help secretly visualising him as a chubby cherub prancing lightly around the Harbord headland, loosely clad in diaphonous robes and closely followed by an intensive care ambulance in case of sudden cardiac arrest.
Edmund’s unexpected conversational gambit spurred a series of long-dormant memories. I’ve realised that Harbord Diggers’ Club played a larger part in my life than I have heretofore admitted even to myself. And just as alcoholics begin their twelve steps to recovery by confessing their guilty secret before their peers, so too I begin mine in this post by confessing that I was a Harbord Diggers’ kid. I learned to ski while staying at the Diggers’ ski lodge at Perisher. Spent lazy summer days at the Diggers’ holiday shacks at Sussex Inlet on the NSW south coast. Suffered successive casual rejections of my fumbling nerdish romantic overtures at Diggers’ Youth Club dances. Later, I even worked a second job at the Diggers’ for a few months, squeezing between the glazed-eyed patrons at the serried ranks of poker machines to pick up beer glasses and empty ashtrays.
But the family’s most extensive connection with the Diggers’ Club happened much more recently, only a few years ago in fact. Mum and Dad didn’t have much time for their own social life while us Parish kids were growing up. But once Dad retired in the mid 1980s both of them threw themselves into the social whirl of the Diggers’ Club with gay abandon. They joined the Diggers’ Lawn Bowls Club. The greens are atop the multi-storey carpark adjoining the main club premises. Dad soon became a major talent among codger bowling ranks, while Mum let loose her prodigious organising skills on the ladies’ bowls club committee. Their days were filled with bowls club activities; the phone never stopped ringing even on the increasingly rare occasions they had a day at home.
Eventually around 1999, Mum’s awesome bureaucratic skills brought her to the attention of the powers-that-be at the Diggers’. She was approached to join the Board of Directors of this august multi-million dollar institution, the first woman ever to become a Director. Her appointment even made headlines in the local Manly Daily. All her fellow directors were boozy, rotund, florid-faced geriatric returned servicemen, and most had been on the Board for thirty years or more. Mum thought she’d been approached to bring some fresh talent to the club’s administration, and help to reverse the decline in membership that had begun to pose financial problems. In reality they probably saw her as a token piece of window-dressing who was smart enough to know what was expected of her and old enough not to rock a leaky boat.
At first everything went well. But then Mum had a flash of inspiration. She decided that the decline in membership numbers was partly caused by the fact that only returned servicemen who had seen active war service were eligible for full membership of the Club (and therefore Board membership). The younger members felt excluded and disenfranchised, that the club wasn’t being run with their interests in mind. No doubt she was right. Anyone at all could join as an associate member, hence Edmund had been one of those, as had I when I lived in Sydney 23 years ago. But not even retired miltary personnel could be full members unless they had served in a war zone. Many other ex-servicemen’s clubs had abolished these restrictions years before. But not the Diggers’, despite the fact that all its World War 1 vets were dead and most of the Second World War ones had reached a stage of life when time with the grandkids or a pipe and slippers in front of the telly were much more appealing prospects than a boozy afternoon at the Diggers’ . It was high time the Board bit the membership bullet, Mum was convinced, or the Club would continue its long, slow decline into bankruptcy, having not so long ago been the largest and richest club on the northern beaches.
But she reckoned without her fellow Board members. They warned her that she was treading on dangerous ground, and that she would be well advised not to put forward any motion to widen membership if she knew what was good for her. But Mum felt her own integrity required it, and she proposed the motion anyway. It lost by 11 votes to 2 or thereabouts. She was written off as an airhead troublemaker and voted off the Board soon afterwards. The Club still isn’t prospering, although it hasn’t gone broke yet.
Mum took her fall from grace hard. She not only withdrew from Board affairs but from the ladies’ lawn bowls club as well. She kept playing carpet bowls at Dee Why RSL for a while, until she tripped on a step and broke her arm. Then she retreated to the loungeroom and the soporific solace of daytime TV.
Jen is keen on an anthropological visit to the Diggers’ Club when we’re in Sydney at Christmas. We might even have a game of bowls with Dad, who still plays socially a couple of times a week when his health permits. But if I happen to see one of those Director codgers I’ll be sorely tempted to slag in his beer while he isn’t watching.