I have mentioned before in these chronicles those little episodes in my life when I brushed up against a famous scientist, author or sportsman. The stories are always (to me) enthralling. Best of all, they enable me to bask momentarily in the reflected glow of a celebrity whose path I crossed, and with whom I rubbed shoulders and perhaps even exchanged pleasantries. Like all of my stories they lose nothing in their retelling, and the more often I retell them (I find) the more my audience is impressed.
But not always.
Lunching last week with two of my oldest friends Phil Ledger and Rob Jowett, a favourite memory of a famous brush with fame was seriously punctured. I came away sadly disillusioned.
Phil, Rob and I started school on the same day, in 1947 in the Grade 1 (known in those days as “Infants” or “Bubs”) class at Dalkeith State School, and later we shared many intriguing adventures as contemporaries at Nedlands State School and as teenage mates. After high school, we went our different ways, Rob into agri-business and farming, Phil into pharmacy and me into forestry. But now and again, seven decades later, we meet for lunch, and when we do, the intervening years roll away.
Over our meal and a glass of wine last week, we were exchanging the usual anecdotes and laughter when suddenly I remembered a memorable night back in 1960, a fabulous brush with fame, and I set about recounting the story to them.
Back then (I said), Phil and I had a mutual friend Malcolm Lee, and on this occasion, he was hosting a little party in his flat in Cottesloe. There was a 5-gallon keg of beer, and the usual lads were there, and the scene was a happy one. There was a sporadic game of poker, interspersed with yarns and a song or two, and a great deal of laughter. We knew how to amuse each-other in those days. Phil was there, but Rob was off selling Chamberlain tractors in the wheatbelt somewhere.
Flat-owner Malcolm, I need to mention, was a tall, spare lad, with ginger hair, a poker face and a sardonic sense of humour. He was a man of few, but always well-chosen words. He was in his second year at Law School, and as host of this particular drinking party on about the 4th floor of an undistinguished block of flats overlooking the Indian Ocean, it was hard to imagine that he later would become one of the country’s most senior law-makers, Mr. Justice Lee, a Judge in the Federal High Court of Australia.
At some point in the evening, we became aware of a loud knocking at the flat door. Malcolm went off to investigate. He was away some time, but eventually re-joined the group.
“Who was it, Mal?” I asked.
“Ray Sorrell” Mal replied, straight-faced, “he wanted to join the party, but he was completely pissed, so I convinced him to try elsewhere”.
This was a name to conjure with! At that time, he was one of the greatest footballers in WA history, a star centreman with East Fremantle and for the State side, and a multiple Sandover and Simpson medalist. Tough, skilful and clean. I felt honoured to have nearly met him.
But at the same time (I admitted to Phil and Rob, who were listening to this story with a strange expression on their faces) it was basically a tragedy. Why would Ray Sorrell, outstanding football champion, the hero of every young West Australian, be trying to get into a Mal Lee drinking party on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Cottesloe on a Saturday night? I found this sad and inexplicable, and wondered about the psychological implications. It was, I said, something that had worried me across the years.
As I got to this point in my story, Rob Jowett looked at me. His blue eyes were twinkling and there was a sly little smile on his lips. “I suppose Polly Farmer was also there?” he asked.
I paused, not quite seeing where this question was leading, when ….
“No, no, I remember it all now” Phil broke in. “Not at the door. Polly was down in the car waiting for Ray to secure an entre for the two of them to Mal’s party”.
Then they saw my face. They saw the shades dropping from my eyes. They saw the disillusionment. They saw the dawning understanding.
That bastard Mal had conned me.
Not Ray Sorrell. Maybe a flat neighbour at the door, complaining about the singing. Phil and Rob roared with laughter. I had eventually to join in, and then to steer our lunch conversations off on another tangent.
At home that evening I told Ellen the whole story, and she also roared with laughter, saying how much she wished she had been there to see the innocent look of pride and pleasure on my face when Malcolm informed me that it was my hero Ray Sorrell at the door.
Actually, I did eventually meet Ray. This would have been forty years later, and Ray was running a real estate business in East Fremantle and he tried to sell me a house. He was a nice bloke, and we had a pleasant chat. The subject of late-night parties in Cottesloe did not come up.