Ed#434 Letters from Pop

6 June 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#434 Letters from Pop

Photograph by Papa G/camera Press/Austral Press

In 1967, aged 10, I wrote a letter to my maternal grandfather in Scotland, largely to show off a new set of pens. Somewhat to my surprise, he wrote back. So began a regular correspondence that continued until his death, early in 1985. I called him ‘Pop’, but I never felt he patronised me or was treating me as anything other than an equal. In April 1974 he got it right when he declared: “We live in different worlds; you with your youthful optimism in a young and growing country; me an old pessimist in a decadent land.”

In his typewritten aerogram letters he grumbled about the weather, the government, the lack of anything decent to watch on television and bugs attacking his garden. In reply, I’d describe what I was up to, using him as a combination of confessor (telling him things I never told my parents) and adviser on all kinds of subjects. Often he would not refer specifically to a problem I’d raised. Instead, he’d say “there is no justice in the world”, and I’d know exactly what he meant.

As I grew older and started pushing the boundaries of my world, there were times when the life he described in Stirling seemed dull and constrained and repetitious. But then he would write: “I always have a lot of tins of soup etc; I suppose a reminder of my years of starvation in internment”, and I’d recall he deserved a quiet life. A former British civil servant, he had been interned on Hong Kong during World War II. He never, ever, spoke about this, although occasionally he let something slip. In May 1971 – referring to his wife, my grandmother, heading into hospital for a brief period – he wrote, “She is very worried about my capacity to look after myself in spite of my four years with the Japanese.” This experience helps explain an unabashed undercurrent of prejudice in his letters. Lamenting racial unrest in Britain one time, he proclaimed: “We should never have let them in.”

He liked watching tennis on TV (except for “too many long-haired hippies at Wimbledon”), but confessed he found it hard to support Australia’s graceful Aboriginal star, Evonne Goolagong. He saw no need to apologise for his views, although, regularly, he’d undercut his own arguments with dry humour. Commenting on what he regarded as a misguided push for Scottish independence, he wrote: “Maybe I should buy the island of St Kilda, declare my independence, and ask for a seat at the United Nations.”

We caught up in person several times – I visited in 1972, then again in 1980 and 1981 – but I always thought we got on best on paper. The last time I saw him I turned around to say farewell, again, as I walked away, but he’d closed the front gate and was already shuffling back inside. In his final letter, from October 1984, he grumbled about Time magazine (“futile and repetitive”) and doctors. “Blessed are those who die young,” he wrote. “I am now 86 and it is no fun.” These days, I realise the importance of our relationship, especially now I’ve been able to see how my own kids have got to know their grandparents. This edition is for them – and for all our elders, everywhere.


With this edition we celebrate two more milestones: the 17th anniversary of the first Big Issue hitting the streets in Australia (16 June 1996) and the first digital version of this magazine. Readers now have a choice: the magazine, as you know it, and a digital copy of the same Big Issue – available through a download card sold by vendors. Content is exactly the same (as is the price), but we recognise that preferred methods of print consumption are changing.

Ah, how I’d love to get Pop’s views on that.