My friend, Les Nayda, had a stroke a few weeks ago. He was up in central Australia where lay on the floor for some days before he was found, I was told. It sounded very bad. He was brought down to Adelaide for treatment. I sent him a card saying that I knew he would recover because he was Les and he had surmounted worse obstacles in this life. Yesterday my cellphone rang and it was Les. The old Les with just a bit of a slur. And, oh yes, he is recovering, for the fire was there in his belly - that wonderful, irrepressible fire. A beautiful, fierce, optimistic fire.
Les is an Aboriginal man. He was one of the "Stolen Generation" because his skin was light. He was taken from his mother and sent to a Church of England boys' home whence he was adopted by a white family who loved him dearly. He was given a good education. He grew up and married a white woman. But in his heart, he was a black man. A black man who mourned what had been taken from him, but returned the love of the white people who loved him. It was not their fault, that appalling governmental paternalism which assumed that "half-caste" Aboriginal children should be absorbed into white society. "Assimilation", they used to call it.
Les went on to make a success of his life. He was an Aboriginal activist with a gift for connecting with white society. Such an unusual firebrand was he that the enlightened Leftist government of the 70s put him where he belonged, working with and for the government on Aboriginal issues. He rose in the ranks and, by the time I met him in the 80s, he was running a vital Aboriginal affairs department and initiating bold and orginal schemes to help young Aboriginal offenders and dispatching wholistic counsellors to support the stoic "Aunties" of the Aboriginal world to cope with the weight they bear as the true carers, the ones at whom the buck stops in Aboriginal society. They are the strength of Aboriginal community who try to cope with the drunkenness, crime, petrol sniffing and deaths-in-custody, try to steer the young to another path... Les understood that, of all people, the "Aunties" must be kept strong. Many people looked askance at what they perceived as very "alternative" thinking. But Les got on with it, swearing and endlessly calling us in the media to help him keep the show on the road.
Governments change and bureaucrats jostle for elevation. Les could see it happening as they elbowed him sideways and then, crudely, out of his job. He had been decorated with a high Australia Day honour for his achievements - but the new powers-that-be were disinterested. Les put up a fight, and lost. He was devastated. He got cancer - and there was another fight. This one he won.
Meanwhile, something odd had happened. He had been overcome with an urge to paint. He had never painted and he did not know how. As a cross-cultural man, he took up chopsticks as his art tool, along with acrylic paints and board. And he did astonishing dot paintings. "Black Man with Chakras" comes to mind. And suddenly he was quite a good artist - exhibiting and selling his work.
Then he decided to move north. His marriage was all over. He had found a new woman and she worked in Alice Springs. He would return to his roots. And, up there, still ringing media and agitating for Aboriginal causes, he set up his new life - until the stroke.
Now, only weeks later, still working at physical co-ordination, he is back on the phone to his media mates, telling us how it is, what is wrong and what we have got to do to fix it. The solution is, says Les, to take Les on as a newspaper columnist - since, let's face it, we've never had an Aboriginal columnist.
You know, it's a great idea.
If only I could make it happen.