Vale Neil Bessell

I knew Neil Bessell at Burgmann College in the 1970s though I was not a good friend. I was shocked to hear that he’d died and asked Hugh Borrowman who is a friend of mine and who was also a good friend of Neil to send me the speech he gave at Neil’s funeral. For those who knew Neil, or indeed, those like me who like to read eulogies even if you don’t know their subject, Hugh’s eulogy to Neil is over the fold.

Vale Neil, and sincere condolences to Judy his wife and Caitlin and Nicholas his two (now grown) children whom my wife Eva taught in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were in primary school in Canberra.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Through they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

I met Neil, and Jude, in 1975. Suzanne met them when she arrived at Burgmann College in 1977. We have all been part of each others lives ever since.

First as students in the rough and tumble of a university college; as parents, when we had children at the same time and together watched them grow up – they are all here today: Sebastian, Cait; Nick, Saul, and Elspeth; in our professional lives, Neil and my paths would often cross, when he was an invaluable source of counsel and advice and encouragement on the mysteries and terrors of Estimates; when we travelled together on IPU delegations; and as friends.

Cait and Nic have lost a father who loved them deeply. But it speaks volumes that one of our daughter Elspeth’s first sadnesses is that Neil will not be at her own wedding.

There is much I could say about Neil: but this eulogy would be incomplete if it wasn’t recorded that he could be one of the most stubborn, difficult, moody men I’ve ever met.

But I want to speak about four constants I found I his life: poetry, music, politics and people.

Poetry, especially that of Dylan Thomas, was one of the continuous themes the 35 years that I was privileged to count Neil as my friend.

From those days when we would listen to the Caedmon LPs of Dylan Thomas reading his own verse, or the wonderful Richard Burton recordings of Under Milk Wood, to this year when only a few months ago he taught me a new reading of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good night”

Instead of the declamatory, imperative style adopted by Dylan himself, Neil proposed an almost whispered version, a pleading with the person to whom the poem is addressed not to surrender.

Neil had an extraordinary memory and could recite great swathes of verse, at both opportune and inopportune times. He would often, in the early days use it almost as a weapon to dominate a conversation or argument.

I think his attraction to poetry was that it represents concentrated meaning. It captures the sense of urgency of making you understand, something that Neil had in his own conversation: leaning forward, often with his hand on your arm, saying “yes, yes, but listen…”.

His very wide reading and extraordinary memory often meant he had a quote for every occasion.

If it wasn’t poetry, it was song lyrics – a distinction that, in the case of the other Dylan who was so important to him, he resolutely deny. He often forcefully argued that Bob Dylan should receive the Nobel Prize for literature, and was quite serious.

His love for and knowledge of Dylan’s work was simply astounding: every album, every song, different version of them, and close reading of lyrics to find insights and meanings.

You will hear today the song Neil himself chose for his own funeral. There is nothing foreboding to be read into this.

I had been at a funeral where a country and western song had been played . It was the Anne Murray Song : “Can I have this dance for the rest of my life”. Neil was horrified. He said choosing music at funerals should be banned. But as the discussion went on, he admitted he had his own choice.

We then had to guess what it was. And of course every wrong guess was met with the question “why would I want that?”

It ended up being a Dylan song I don’t think I had ever consciously heard, Series of Dreams, which you will hear shortly.

It wasn’t just Dylan. Sharing music discoveries was a regular feature, Neil would often show up, waving his latest plunder from CBA’s 2nd hand record shops, saying “bargain, bargain”. He rarely arrived without a collection of songs to leave and one had to be ready to discuss them when next he called. With particular favourites, you might even get a Neil dance, a very discreet, sophisticated step it was.

His visits would also invariably include politics, along with poetry and music, another unifying thread in Neil’s life as we knew him.

He was always intensely proud of his origins in the gong. As a younger man he was a class warrior, a formidable and often withering opponent in debate.

I remember sitting with him over a radio on 11 November 1975, his despair increasing, as he led me through the parliamentary steps unfolding as Mr Frazer tried unsuccessfully to suspend proceedings, Mr Whitlam moved a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, and the Speaker was despatched, fruitlessly, to Government House.

And one of the last messages he sent to us, the week before he took ill, was recognising and commenting on the political drama of the last month in Australia.

In the 35 intervening years, he never lost, in our experience, his love, his interest, his fire in the belly about politics. He chose to serve in an apolitical role, loyally serving one of the great institutions of our democracy

At the end, and without impugning at all his many friends and colleagues who are here today, it wasn’t a loyalty the institution repaid him.

I’ve mentioned so far three unifying themes of Neil as I knew him: poetry, music, politics. The last I want to mention is perhaps the most important.

Neil was someone who, despite a very private streak to his character, was an astounding people person.

He could talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

When he was visiting us in London once we went to a concert at the Barbican. It was almost sold out and we could only get one ticket in the front row and one in the back. Because I lived there, Neil sat in the front.

Looked down and couldn’t believe my eyes as he appeared to start a conversation with one of the cellists. Neil always insisted that the man had turned to him and said ”Do you have a program? What are we playing first?”

I’ve sat with him in a park in Moscow, talking to some Angolan students he had collected; travelling with him on IPU business was like meeting a large extended family, all of whom Neil seemed to know personally and intimately.

We were joking with Cait that as he was wheeled into hospital, he was probably saying “Hello, I’m Neil. Who are you?”

In the six months, when he was off work, he had become, in a way he couldn’t before, part of the local community. People in shops, people he might have met only on a passing basis, would always be asking us after him.

It’s been a very hard question to answer. And what has been very striking has been the depth and genuineness of the sense of loss of these people when we have.

For as long as I have known him, Neil was a man battling with his demons. He did it through poetry, he did it through family, he did it through work, he did it through travel; I think he did it in even in his obsession with the clarity of his pool water.

He of course did these things for other reasons as well; but he was not a man of whom it could be said that he was always at peace with himself.

But through it all, from the first day I knew him to the last, he loved life, and engaged with it, vitally.

Over the last six months, Neil had come to recognise and acknowledge that he suffered from depression and was seeking treatment for it.

These six months combined periods of deep despair with great elation. We have a card he sent us from Luang Prabang in Laos, saying, simply, “Best – underlined – place I’ve ever been.”

He meant it, he told us afterwards, not just in the physical beauty but in a spiritual and psychological sense. It was a peace he was working towards.

In this period he came to see us several times a week, spending it mostly with Suzanne and a person he often described as his true soul mate, someone with whom he had a special connection, Saul. I think both Suzanne and I sometimes thought he came to see Saul rather than us.

I can’t attempt to analyse this relationship, but I think it has something to do with purity of spirit.

Saul and Neil would go out together, hooning is the only word for it, often listening to Dylan, or one of their favourite songs: “You’ve Got a Friend”.

In thinking about what to say today, I found it hard to separate out particular recollections or observations.

I realised that this was because Neil had become a part of the fabric of our lives, someone we didn’t observe from the outside, but someone who was a member of our family too. Someone we loved.

His leaving could often be quite peremptory, with his characteristic: “Gotta go – cheers – bye!”

It’s sort of what he’s done to us all now.

And now we’re left with the thought of another great singer songwriter, also one of Neil’s favourites: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

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Janet McKenzie
10 years ago

Dear Nick,

I went to a small Burgmann College reunion in London last week at John Dauth’s (he is High Commissioner now) and was very shocked to hear of Neil’s death. John Dauth had few details and all I have found is your website with Hugh’s eulogy.

I would like to be in touch with Judy, one of my greatest friends at university who I have seen so little of. Actually I have lost proper contact with friends there since I have lived in Scotland for 25 years and my husband has been seriously ill since 1996 after a 6 weeks prognosis in Dec. 2000, needing endless care.

I remember you looking at a small child in college (a Rushbrooke) and saying something to the effect ‘I wonder when it becomes a person = when it starts to suffer?’. My eldest daughter did Philosophy at Cambridge a logic based course as you know doing her dissertation on Nietzsche and Hegel, now writing comedy.

I wonder if you know where Nick Buchdahl is as well? Hope you don’t mind me asking. So grateful for your entry.

warm regards,
Janet

Helen Agnew
Helen Agnew
9 years ago

Nick,

Only just found this and am so saddened.

Best,
Helen

Stephen Bull
Stephen Bull
9 years ago

I also just found this. I worked with Neil in the Senate in the mid 1990s. I was the senior research officer in the Legal and Con secretariat. Neil was one of the secretaries I worked with. I was ‘difficult to manage’ and Neil was by far my favourite and more importantly the one who taught me more professionally and personally than another person I encountered in the Commonwealth Public Service. At the beginning of our working relationship I managed to draft a letter that Neil signed to the Australian Financial Review with a typos for an enquiry into journalistic standards. The Fin then put it in the paper. Neil was wonderfully gracious. I also took Neil to a gay bar in Darwin called the Mississippi Queen which he found a bit ‘different’. He was a very good person.