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A Salute to Bill Withers

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Many of you will be familiar with George Homers book 'Indentured in Blue'. You would also be aware that Bill Withers illustrated the book for George. Bills 'nephew' Wayne Mathews has sent me the following Salute to Bill. Enjoy the read.


A Salute to Uncle Bill.

By Wayne Mathews

25 August 2020


Let me make this admission right up front:- My Godfather is one hell of a character. And I love to brag about him. So here we go…


The Honourable William Robert (Bill) Withers is his name. But I call him Uncle Bill for a couple of reasons. The first one is that when I was a nipper, my parents told me to call him, Uncle Bill. And I see no reason to change that. The second reason is that as a friend of the Mirriwun Mob (How that came about is a story for another time), Bill Withers has earned the respectful title of, Uncle.


Back in January 1948, Uncle Bill joined the RAAF as an Airframe Fitter apprentice on the RAAF’s number one apprentice intake with my Dad, when they were 16. After finishing his apprenticeship, Uncle Bill went for pilot training at the RAAF flight school at Archerfield in Queensland, but failed the final check flight because: A - he didn’t know he’d be doing it that morning. And B - he’d been bonking his model girlfriend all weekend. She was flying out that Monday to work in the USA. Because it was to be their last time together, they’d got stuck right about it from Friday night, right up until that Monday morning. And he was quite literally, tired (common decency prevents using the real adjective).


After being scrubbed from pilot training, Uncle Bill was sent to East Sale to be trained as a Navigator, which he breezed through. He was a sergeant navigator on the P-2 Neptune submarine chasing aircraft before he was commissioned, and then posted as an officer to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit, Detachment “B” in Richmond NSW, working with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as part of the cloud seeding experiments that were being carried out in the late fifties and early sixties.


The CSIRO purchased two aircraft, specially stressed, to conduct cloud-physics research and cloud-seeding to stimulate rain. The company supplying the aircraft, Rex Aviation, decided to use these aircraft to make the first ‘light aircraft’ delivery across the Pacific Ocean. However, the Australian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) insisted an Astro-Navigator, with a bubble sextant, should be in each aircraft (GPS hadn’t been invented back then). Uncle Bill and Arthur Tapp were both RAAF trained Astro-Navigators, employed by the CSIRO, and trained as second pilots. So they were seconded to Rex Aviation for the historic flight.


VH-REK and VH-REL taken at the end of their historic delivery flight across the Pacific Ocean on the 5th December 1957


In 1964, Uncle Bill teamed up with a mate called Howard Young, and resigned from the CSIRO. They bought a couple of double-decker Leyland buses. Then cannibalized one for parts, before selling it to a woman in Gosford NSW who only wanted the body. They loaded the remaining serviceable bus and a truck they had, to the gunnels with stock for the shop they were going to open in the place that was to become Kununurra WA. Then off they went in convoy. A double-decker bus, a truck, a Land Rover pulling a Caravan, and a Holden Station Wagon pulling a trailer and dinghy. With their kids on board, the wives drove the Land Rover and the Holden.


Can you imagine what a trip that would’ve been back then? To take that convoy from Berowra, near the Hawkesbury river on the East Coast of NSW, across the top end, and over to Kununurra in Northern WA. WOW!... Many of the roads were eroded, and some were completely washed away. So the convoy had to ‘go bush’ through Spinifex, and over Gibber rock plains at times.


YEE HAR!... Man, that’s serious Wild West stuff, right there.


A Gibber rock plain in outback Australia.


When they got to the town site, there wasn’t even a pub. But there was a wet canteen for construction workers. The nearest shop was in Wyndham, 65 miles away (they were still using pounds, shillings, and pence back in those days). So the Withers and Young store opened for business in the bottom of the bus. The wives sold stuff from the bus, while the men made their own cement bricks, and built their shop. As an aside: The moulds they had for their cement bricks were taking too much of their precious cement. So they spaced half a dozen empty beer cans into the centre of each brick as they poured it, so as to save cement.

In 1966, after Uncle Bill won a Kimberley Art Competition in Kununurra, he was commissioned by the Wyndham East Kimberley Shire Council, to do a representative painting of the East Kimberley, for the Parliament House Collection in Perth. Uncle Bill completed the painting with his heart in the right place. But he wasn’t happy with it… In his opinion, a good painting makes a statement without requiring an explanation.

EAST KIMBERLEY Oil on canvas by Bill Withers


Then, in 1971, when Uncle Bill was elected to Parliament and led to his office in Perth by the Clerk of Parliament, he was shown, “A surprise, arranged by the thoughtful staff.” … Dammit! … The bloody painting was opposite his office door!


Uncle Bill worked in torment for twelve months before he offered to burn the above painting and replace it with a traditional painting, in his style, as shown below. The President of the Shire, and staff, refused his offer. To this day, the original painting hangs in WA’s parliament House.


CANE GRASS. Oil on canvas by Bill Withers.



William R Withers MP 1971


In 1975, Uncle Bill won a Parliamentary Scholarship to study Remote Area Development Round the World. And he then got himself into Chairman Mao’s China, with permission from the Central Committee to go anywhere he wanted. And, he was allowed to photograph anything he wanted (with the exception of anything military). No small feat back in those days, by crikey.


And how did he achieve this mini miracle? Well he did it by being honest and telling the truth to the panel of people who interviewed him on his arrival. Apparently the Central Committee recognised this unusual behaviour for a Gweilo (Cantonese slang for foreign devil) when the panel reported it. And the committee decided to give Uncle Bill a free hand, and see what he did. They invited him to look at anything and everything he wanted to, and to tell them of any criticism and suggestions he may have. The Chinese guide who’d been assigned to show Uncle Bill around, was absolutely gobsmacked. He told Uncle Bill, that in all his life, he’d never heard of anybody being given that much freedom.


So away they went, touring the incredible Xiang area of China for 9 days. During which time Uncle Bill recognised that contrary to what most Westerners thought, the sleeping Dragon was definitely awake and getting to his feet. The modernisation of that part of China had well and truly begun by 1975. But there was still plenty of evidence of the ancient civilisation that had led the World in so many things for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years.


Medical surgery being an example. Uncle Bill got to observe several operations carried out by Chinese Surgeons who were using acupuncture to anesthetise their patients.

These Surgeons told Uncle Bill, during the post operation debriefings in Xiang, that they weren’t sure when acupuncture had been introduced to China. But later, Uncle Bill visited the museum of the 6,000 year-old Banpo village, near Xian, where preserved acupuncture needles, made from bone, were shown to him. So acupuncture’s been around for a while, Folks.


When Uncle Bill returned to Australia, one of the reports he gave to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association caused the then Minister for Health, Hon Norman Baxter MLC, to request Uncle Bill to prepare a report, with photograph, for the Australian Medical Association (AMA). Despite the Minister’s repeated requests, the AMA refused to acknowledge the report. It took 34 years before the AMA made a public statement, “It appears, acupuncture may be used as an anesthetic, in some minor operations.


Goitre removed from throat using acupuncture as the anesthetic. Sian Revolutionary Hospital, February 1975


Anyway, moving on. There were many other things of significant note during that trip to China. Agricultural techniques and tourism potential being amongst them.


At the request of the Chinese, Uncle Bill offered his opinion of the new brochures they were planning for visitors. For the nine days he was there, they debated the issue with Uncle Bill before the Central Committee finally adopted his suggestions. And then, at Uncle Bill’s farewell dinner, the Chairman of the Central Committee invited him back to view the results in seven years (1982). Uncle Bill’s interpreting guide came near to choking again, he was so surprised.


After spending three months touring the World, looking at how various cultures adapted to their particular challenges, Uncle Bill returned to Australia armed with the new found knowledge that the world was in a mess. People were demanding more goods and services than they could rightfully expect from their own level of work output. And he also realised the World was being poisoned.


Uncle Bill tried to warn his parliamentary colleagues. But it didn’t go down too well. They all thought he’d been out in the tropical sun too much. So in 1976, without having ever heard of Bill Mollison or Alex Podolinsky and their ground breaking work in what was to become known as ‘Permaculture’, Uncle Bill and Aunty Judy began their crusade to acquire 22 acres of ‘dead’ land on the bank of Lake Kununurra. They then set about their scientific experiment over the next 25 years, bringing the land back to life. They gave their little piece of Nirvana the functional name: ‘Tropical farm – Ord River.’





It didn’t happen overnight though. The first photo shows the homestead being built in 1978. The second photo shows the grass is beginning to grow in 1982. And the following photo is what the homestead had grown into by 1990. Using earthworms, compost, chicken poop, and 220 mango trees, they’d turned ‘dead’ land into a place of productive beauty.





But that’s not all that was going on. Despite parliamentary sessions in Perth in the ‘70s, the dynamic Withers duo started, built up, and then sold several businesses in Kununurra, prior to selling their farm and moving down South in 2002. They owned one of their businesses, Nina’s Jewellery, for nearly 50 years before selling it in 2012, so as to retire completely. It’s worth having a look at their website.


'Founded by Bill Withers in 1966, we began our journey as "Djaaru Gems", proudly Kununurra's first jewellery retailer. Since this time our master jewellery designers have been creating unique pieces that celebrate the riches of our country. The brilliance of Australian diamonds, pearls from Broome and the South Seas and Western Australia’s own pure gold come together to fulfil the vision of our founder.In 1984 we were honoured to set the first diamonds mined in the remote Kimberley region at the now famous Argyle mine. It was the start of a relationship that continues to this day. Nina’s is one of a handful of Argyle Pink Diamond Select Ateliers in the world. We now have a Nina’s showroom at either end of Western Australia, one in the stunning coastal town of Dunsborough and the other in Kununurra, staying true to our heritage and connection to the Argyle mine'.


It was because of Nina’s Jewellery that Uncle Bill met two of his favourite people. In the early ‘90s, Leo McKern, the actor who played the lead role of the crusty old Barrister in the British TV series, “Rumpole of the Bailey,” walked in with his wife, Jane, to Uncle Bill’s jewellery shop in Kununurra, looking for Uncle Bill, because they’d been advised (Leo’s father was a jeweller in Sydney) to go and see Bill Withers if they wanted Argyle diamonds. Which they did...


During the ensuing discussion in Uncle Bill’s studio/office, it came out that Uncle Bill and Leo had both gone to the same schools in their youth. Leo was 11 years older than Uncle Bill, so he’d been there first. But they’d both gone to Sydney Technical High School (as had Clive James). Both had trained as Airframe Fitters at the RAAF School of Technical Training (RSTT) at Wagga Wagga, NSW (Leo had been an adult trainee, not an apprentice). Both trained in art classes at technical college. Both had written published works. They were both organic farmers. And later, after reading Uncle Bill’s book, “Frontier Dreaming,” and being impressed by the power of the poem about the Kimberley that’s on the last page of the book, Leo arranged for BBC Radio to broadcast Leo reading the poem… Let me tell you: The recording of the poem, “EMPATHY”, in Leo McKern’s distinctive voice, is a powerful rendition that gives me Goosebumps.





During lunch one day in England, when the Withers were visiting with the McKerns, Leo’s wife, Jane (who will ever forget Rumpole’s iconic line, “She who must be obeyed”?), said, “You’re a bastard, Bill. I used to be a ballet dancer before I met Leo. And my favourite ballet has always been Swan Lake. But ever since I’ve read the satirical spoof of Swan Lake that you wrote for Judy (see it here), I can’t help giggling at the wrong times.” Such was their friendship.

No matter what sort of spin you put on all this, there’s no doubt we’ve been looking at the life of a remarkable, and talented man.



Bill Withers 89th Birthday Candle Removal Ceremony 8th August 2020. Seven removed, two to go.


A BLOKE’S VIEW OF SWAN LAKE IN A LETTER TO HIS WIFE.

By Bill Withers © 1986


My Dear Wife, Judy,


Over the past 33 years of married life, you have been able to change some of my ways with your version of couth and culture. You have re-modelled me, so I sometimes wear pyjamas, I change my jocks and socks daily (well, most days), and I no longer mop up succulent gravy with my bun in a restaurant, nor sing therein. I occasionally trip over the cat and sleep on the floor with the dog when I have over-imbibed but I now try to give you warning. If I am at the club, and having a few drinks, I sometimes remember to telephone you. I know you are particularly pleased with one of the changes, that is, when I break wind, in a public place, I try to keep it quiet.


Despite your success in these areas, I must ask you to accept, I am not enthused, with ballet. As for voyeurism, you should be well aware, I am a doer rather that a spectator. ‘Strip shows’ always made me feel uncomfortable when I watched a few performances during my youth. The stripping girls usually tried, to look seductive, but the girls were always insincere. They had to be, of course, but I still felt uncomfortable. Even modern theatre productions, showing people making love or having sex, are embarrassing to me. I feel it is an intrusion on their privacy. When one analyses ballet, one finds, some weird acts, which are accepted on stage, but not in other public places.


You have described many ballet performances, to me, and I have tried to appreciate them. Your enthusiastic explanation of your favorite ballet, Swan Lake, has not gone unheeded. I watched it once but I have no desire to watch it again. I can appreciate your enjoyment, of the dance, and I recognize the effort the dancers put into their training and their performances. I consider the story of Swan Lake is weird. The story has as much appeal, to me, as the anorexic girls and pretty boys who perform the ballet.


I do not want you to think your husband is dead from the neck up so I will endeavor to impart my understanding, of the ballet, to you. You will then appreciate I learned from your teaching. I am sure you will tell me if my perception is incorrect. I see the plot of Swan Lake to be, as follows;


SWAN LAKE

There was once a Russian prince, who was into bestiality with a preference for swans. In this ballet, a well-built young man, with a sex identity problem, represents the prince on stage. He wears a tennis ball in the codpiece of his leotards.


His parents, the king and the queen, keep their cool when they hear of their son’s sexual preferences. Like most royal parents, who make similar discoveries, they decide he needs a “cover” to present a better public image. They plan a big shindig and announce their son’s desire to select a bride from the guests. The king and queen invite all of the eligible princesses, from around Europe, and they tell their son; he is to forget about swans and select a bride-to-be.


The king sends a secret diplomatic communiqué to all the other kings. He promises trade advantages and sumptuous gifts to the kingdom, which allows their princess, to marry the kinky prince.


All but one of the eligible princesses can attend the pre-nuptial ball. Unbeknown to the royal families, the missing princess was metamorphosed, by a wicked wizard. The wizard is the one who cast the spell, which changed the princess into a swan. Nobody knows why the wizard is in the story or why he changed the princess into a swan, but without him, and his spells, there would be no story line.


For reasons unknown to the audience the wicked wizard has replaced the swan-like, converted princess with an evil little bint in a black tutu, black tank-top and black leotards. In many ways, she is sexier than the white, swan-like princess before the change. The little bint, dressed in black, spends a lot of time, on stage, trying to look like an erotic swan. It is obvious she has knowledge of the prince’s sexual preferences because her dancing, is designed to burst the prince’s tennis ball arrangement.


The cavorting of the surrogate princess doesn’t do anything for the prince. The bint, in black, just manages to look like all the other dancing princesses who are dressed in white. All of the princesses spend most of their time spinning their tutus. They all gaze into space with flicks of the head and, occasionally, leap into the air and raise a leg to cool the perspiring areas.


Sometimes they do the cooling bit with outstretched hands to collect floating cobwebs, which can’t be seen by the audience. All of these activities are with grace and in time with the music. I have to admit they are fairly good, at that.


The prince is a strong young fellow, with well developed hands, arms and legs. He struts around the stage displaying his calf muscles and demonstrating that he is a fine example of that jam acronym. You know the one, FIG JAM, (Faith I’m Good, Just Ask Me). He might attract the women in the audience but his strange habits, would not be tolerated, off stage, in our society. Without dialogue he can’t explain his actions nor are they described in the program so the audience has to do a lot of guessing.


Occasionally the prince grabs a princess, throws her in the air and holds her above his head, for around 20 seconds, whilst he inspects what is under her tutu. The princesses do not object to this, they even assist him to make the inspection. Whilst they are up there, they do not waste time because their hand movements indicate they are catching the higher cobwebs, which still can’t be seen by the audience.


The music, by Pytor Tchaikovsky, is fantastic. It is particularly enjoyable when one closes one’s eyes and lies back to listen to the music without the distraction of the spinning, leaping and prancing of the stage performers.


There is a bit of fancy prancing when the prince finds a swan who really turns him on. Things become a bit confused, in this part of the act, because no one seems to know whether the dancers are pretending to be swans or whether the swans are pretending to be dancers. All the dancing princesses, on stage, seem to know what is what and who is who because they are happy for the prince. If the truth be known, about their private royal thoughts, they are secretly pleased they have escaped being engaged to a bloke who prefers swans to real women.


The wicked wizard and the evil little bint in the black tutu disappear from the stage. The ballet is without dialogue so the audience is not sure whether they have been banished because they had no other part to play or because the director did not like their dancing. It is probably the former because later on, after the show, they all appear on stage, to receive flowers while the whole cast, and the audience, claps.


But, we are getting ahead of the story line. The swan that attracts the interest of the kinky prince is none other than the metamorphosed princess. The white swan, cum princess, finds out about the prince’s preferences and turns back into a princess. The prince throws the princess into the air, makes his inspection under the tutu, and marries her. The prince fantasizes the princess as a swan and she must like it because she never lets her feathers get ruffled. The final inference, before the curtain falls, is the probability they will all live happily ever after.


When the show ends, the audience claps wildly because they know they can now go home. Bunches of flowers are handed around, to key performers, and there is a lot of bowing and scraping between the members of the cast. The ladies, of the audience, traditionally exclaim, “wonderful”, sublime” or “heavenly” as they stroll out to the foyer. Their husbands dumbly nod and hope the bar is still open.


And that, my dear wife, confirms I do understand your favourite ballet, Swan Lake. You now know we can discuss ballet, at social functions, without you being embarrassed, by my lack of knowledge on the subject.

With love and understanding,

Your Husband,

Bill.

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