December 2009 - January 2010

The Nation Reviewed

A wild colonial boy

By John van Tiggelen
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ben Laycock buried his father on Melbourne Cup Day. The 300-odd mourners, a rather arty lot, were assured Peter Laycock wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He had lived not by the Roman calendar but by the Melbourne Cup calendar. The affliction may well have been congenital; Peter was born in November in Adelaide’s Glenelg Private Hospital, in the very same bed as Bart Cummings. In fact, the neonatal Cups King – then presumably a prince – had vacated the sheets just days earlier. Curiously, Peter likewise ended up with lushly tufted eyebrows.

Peter kept track of the years by Cup winners. He turned three when Phar Lap won and 19 in Russia’s year. In the year of Just A Dash, he bolted to north Queensland. He lost his boat to a cyclone in the summer of What A Nuisance. The year of Let’s Elope saw him move back to central Victoria with the love of the rest of his life, Judy Tregear. This year, however, time finally cornered the big fella. Crippled by arthritis and pain, he was felled by a heart attack after backing Bart’s winner in the Cox Plate. It took a second arrest three days later to finish him off, in what came to be the year of Shocking.

Peter’s eulogy service was held at the Castlemaine Art Gallery, between a church, which couldn’t be helped, and the TAB, which proved a happy circumstance. Mourners were able to pop in during refreshments. Ben requested that close family and friends wager an additional $10 on Allez Wonder, Bart’s third-string horse and Peter’s deathbed tip. “I hope it wins, as that is how we’re paying for the funeral,” Ben told the throng. “Peter always claimed a special relationship with Bart. Though I believe Bart was never aware of this relationship.”

Ben, who has long, ropey grey hair and his father’s eyebrows, wore a hat, an unpressed green shirt and black pants with a Che Guevara buckle. He was barefoot, as usual. Like his father before him, he’s proud of leading a low carbon emissions life. Ben doesn’t drive and likes to forage for his food – including for fresh roadkill.

Ben and his younger brother made their father’s beautiful, deltoid coffin from discarded timber and sheet metal, and painted it a glossy black. It looked like it might contain a cello. On top of the box lay Peter’s old guitar, missing a string. Also on the box stood a large, earth-coloured urn, as if, in the spirit of the day, Peter was having one last fling each way. But no, it transpired Peter had been a potter of note. He was in the coffin. The gallery walls featured an exhibition of self-portraits. Behind the coffin was an X-ray image of a skull, which turned out to be Ben’s. Arranged to the left was a large portrait of Peter throwing a pot, by Clifton Pugh. To the right, a biography of Pugh had been opened to the page where Peter was described as the “most boisterous” member of Pugh’s artist colony, which had dwelt in the hills capping Melbourne, back in the ’60s and ’70s.

Ben related how his father suffered from a condition peculiar to Glenelg natives, called Palindrome Syndrome. “He never knew if he was coming or going,” said Ben. “Neither did we.” Peter Laycock had been a restless soul, forever torn between his flair for technology and his passion for the arts. He’d variously been a folk singer, a maths teacher and into theatre. He’d studied at three universities and liked to boast he’d not passed one subject. In Sydney, he met Helen, the mother of his four children, only to abscond to India for six months, where he slept on the streets and “probably took the job of some poor starving Indian” in a restaurant. Upon his return, he taught art in a Geelong jail – until he lent two inmates a pair of tinsnips so they might, at their request and leisure, finish a metalwork project in their cells.

In the year of Hi Jinx, Peter carted his young family to the Dunmoochin artists’ colony to eke out an existence as a potter, without electricity or running water. “It was another episode of Palindrome Syndrome,” said Ben. “Peter wanted to return to the earth.” When Ben mentioned it was left to him to split the tonnage of wood it took to fire the kiln, three people called out: “And me!”

Peter’s lifestyle shifted steadily to the pub and local TAB. In the year of Red Handed his wife kicked him out of their mudbrick-and-beerbottle home. “Peter moved to the next hill, with another woman,” said Ben. “Then he moved to another hill, another woman. And then he started to go a bit wild.”

In the year of Gold And Black versus Reckless, Peter hosted his fiftieth birthday party wearing only a crocheted jockstrap. A growing disdain for clothes spurred him north, to Nimbin and onwards to the jungle community of Bingil Bay, in Far North Queensland, where he decided to do away with walls as well. Cassowaries tore right through his house. Peter migrated across the water, to Dunk Island, where his potter’s shack became a tourist attraction. Some visitors stayed a little longer. Then along came Winifred. She was a cyclone. “The only thing that stopped his shack blowing away was the tree that fell on top of it,” said Ben.

Ben’s tribute tripped along for a very entertaining hour, followed by short, slightly less laconic eulogies from his brothers. The eldest, a singer-songwriter, had clearly weathered the brunt of his father’s willfulness, and intimated his father’s death had lifted a weight from both their shoulders. Led by Peter’s widow, the crowd broke into songs by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Peter himself played the last song, a distant recording of ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. His fine folk voice rang fast and slow, up and down – like he didn’t quite know if he was coming or going.

Outside, mourners huddled around the hearse, a home-welded trailer that resembled a farm gate on wheels, hooked to a tandem bicycle. The coffin and flowers were tied down securely. Amid rousing cheers, Ben – sans helmet – and a muscled friend mounted the bike and set off with Peter past the TAB and up the Pyrenees Highway. Some fifty mourners trundled on bikes behind them. The cortege was bound for a bush cemetery in the Chewton hills, 7 kilometres away. On top of the last rise, at the Red Hill Hotel, party-goers in retro-racing dress spilled out from under the vine-covered verandah to line the road in silence.

The farewell was warm and solemn. Afterwards, mourners pedalled back to the botanical gardens for the wake, just in time for the big race – if only someone had remembered to bring a radio. No one seemed too fussed, though. When later told Allez Wonder had failed to pay for the funeral, Ben shrugged. “We kind of knew,” he said. “Peter was always going to find it tough channelling Bart from beyond the grave.”

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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