Eulogy for Gavin Betts
[May 31 1932 - Feb 28 2013]
Dad was born in 1932, into a very different world. His Father was a station master on the railways in country NSW, a job that involved moving between different country towns, but much of his youth was spent in towns like Mittagong and Cootamundra, small country towns now, and I imagine no larger in the 30s.
Life was very different then, and I think a lot more was expected of children, and far more responsibility given to them early on. I well remember Dad’s story of how at the age of 8 he took a horse, by himself, 5 miles to be shod by the local blacksmith. Horses were very much part of country life then, and Dad learnt to make harness and tack from his Father and his Great Uncle John, something he enjoyed doing all his life; amongst other jobs he made harness with his father for Haile Selassie (emperor of Ethiopia and messiah of the Rastafarians), and of course in later years harness for children’s rocking horses.
Horses were also involved in one of Dad’s early crimes, when at the age of 14 he ‘borrowed’ his Father’s sulky while he was away in order to take a local lass for a spin. He was discovered by his Grandfather putting the sulky away, and after being begged that his Father not be told, apparently his Grandfather told him grumpily, “Hmph: Well you’d better clean the mud off the wheels then”, and no more was said about it.
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Despite the occasional infraction, he was obviously a hard working and intelligent student, and the first major step of his career was at the end of primary school, when he won a scholarship to go to The Scots College in Sydney. While he was not always happy there, and I think he felt somewhat out of place, he made some life-long friends, and was given the opportunity to study Latin and Carpentry, both of which became defining elements of his life.
One of my regrets is that I never wrote down all the marvellous stories he had of his school days at Scots, which as far as one can make out was in a continuous state of partial rebellion. When I was young I used to beg him to “tell me another boarding school story” and was rewarded with tales of how he put his foot through the Headmaster’s ceiling while birdnesting in the roof, or the story of the chamberpot on the rope dangled outside Matron’s window, the assault on the Head Master’s wife’s chandelier at the school ball, boys taking pot shots at annoying street lights, and many other terrible tales.
* * *
After school he studied Classics at Sydney University from 1950 to 1953, and worked on the rail yards during vacations. After a brief spell school teaching he again won a scholarship in ’54, this time to study Classics at Cambridge, staying at Trinity college. I don’t remember him talking much about his time there, but apparently the voyage there and back was rather good as the scholarship included a first class ticket - the Ship’s Cheese Trolley in particular was often mentioned as the high point of the trip, and the ideal to which all cheese platters should aspire.
When he got back he tried his hand working for the oil company COR, which was then being taken over by British Petroleum. COR seemed to have had the view that if someone could learn Ancient Greek they could learn anything, but it seems that both parties soon realised they had irreconcilable differences and they parted ways. I’ve always tried to imagine Dad as an Oil Company Executive, and I’ve never really managed it.
Fortunately he soon found a position lecturing at Newcastle University, which he very much enjoyed, and then in 1966 he accepted a position as a Senior Lecturer of Classics at Monash University, where he subsequently met my Mother.
He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1971, and stayed at Monash until he retired. I think for the great majority of his time there he was quite happy, and generally enjoyed working and collaborating with his colleagues. Despite the changes in intellectual fashion which saw Classics become less popular, he was very productive. He wrote a large number of books on languages, including Teach Yourself Latin and Teach Yourself New Testament Greek, and with his great friend Alan Henry “Teach Yourself Ancient Greek”.
I don’t know that Teach Yourself Ancient Greek has got quite the attention on the best seller charts that it deserves, but it’s been in print continuously for close to 25 years, which is a pretty decent run for a specialist text, and Teach Yourself Latin has actually done quite well, with over 150,000 copies sold.
He translated a number of works in modern Greek, including some stories by Antonis Samarakis and Maro Loizu, and he similarly translated a number of medieval Greek works. He had a wonderful time translating the 17th century Cretan romance Erotokritos with his friends Stathis Gauntlett and Thanasis Spilias, and also a series of rather racy 14th century Medieval Greek Romances which he dedicated to my Mother.
* * *
He retired slightly early in ’94, but naturally he continued working very productively, right up until he fell sick, with a continual stream of translations, new editions, and a collaboration he greatly enjoyed with his American colleague, Dan Franklin.
He was, of course, terribly good with languages. He would get quite cross if anyone suggested he had a “gift” for languages, and would say it was simply hard work, but of course he did have a gift, and it was gift for hard work. He was able to apply himself to dry tasks such as learning Sanskrit vocab or medieval Greek verb forms until he had mastered them, in a way that I think few people can today.
He would also get cross if anyone claimed he ‘knew’ a certain number of languages, since of course he didn’t ‘know’ very many at all. However since he’s not here to contradict me, I can say that he ‘knew’ French and Modern Greek well enough to easily converse with native speakers, and he knew Latin and Ancient Greek well enough to write the book on them. He knew Sanskrit well enough to be offered a position at the University of London teaching Sanskrit. He didn’t know German, except maybe to read the odd German novel for pleasure. He didn’t know Italian, unless it happened that he had to speak to an Italian, in which case it turned out he did. And of course he knew all these languages well enough to be able to read and translate the unusual ‘vernacular’ medieval Greek of the fourteenth century, with its mix of demotic Greek, medieval French, and Italian.
In addition to his academic work, he also enjoyed the woodworking clubs he belonged to - the Waverley Woodworkers and the Knox Woodworkers - where he honed his skills and made a number of good friends, friends who stood by him and my Mother in his final illness. There were also the clock clubs, both in Melbourne and Sydney. He couldn't visit the Sydney clock club very often but valued its members and their clock-making abilities highly.
* * *
He was a great Father. He and I argued a bit during my teens, but I knew that he always, always meant the best for me, and I treasure the many Sundays I spent with him in the workshop. We worked on innumerable projects in wood and metal; from precision clocks to massive oak tables, from bookcases to suits of armour. He had an incredible range of skills which he was always seeking to improve; from cabinet making to welding, from dovetailing to tempering steel, from fixing Mum’s cupboards to melting down her aluminium pots (with the aid of her vacuum cleaner) to cast the step pulleys for the bandsaw.
He had a genius for being able to fix my mistakes, and I’ve often thought that a large part of his ability was not just that his mechanical skills were excellent, which they were, but that he had a knack for being able to recover from an error and still produce first-grade work. That said, I also remember innumerable pieces of my own work that were judged to be beyond redemption and had to be discarded and started again from scratch!
He was a man who loved his family very deeply, but didn’t display his affection so much through words or physical demonstrations, but rather by taking an immense interest on what his wife and son were up to. He was a man who showed his love by doing things, whether it was making toys for children, saving money for the future, building furniture for a house, fixing broken machines or installing white goods for children too foolish to be trusted to do their own plumbing.
He was a good husband. It’s often difficult to see these things as a child, where you grow up believing that whatever you personally experience is ‘normal’, however I’ve come to see that my parents' love was far from ‘normal’.
As most of you know we had very little multi-media in the house, and it has only been in the last few years that my parents have bought themselves a DVD player (my Father had a terrible soft spot for the 60s TV series “The Avengers”). Friends would ask him “what on Earth do you do in the evenings”, and his answer was “drinking with my wife”. And indeed for decades Mum and Dad would sit and talk far into the evening, gossiping about work, politics, discussing the latest outrage from their son, and arguing about whether or not to open a second bottle. Indeed they would joke that their epitaph would be “they didn’t have to finish the whole bottle”.
In these days where so many families seem to fragment off into separate bubbles of activity and entertainment, this sort of close shared relationship now seems to be the glorious exception.
He leaves behind so many memories: of picnics in Sherbrook Forest, building my cubby house, secret trips to get gelati, doomed attempts to teach me botany, putting together a telescope to see the moons of Jupiter, re-roofing the house (and selling the old roofing asbestos in the trading post), playing backgammon, and of course the great overseas expeditions, the largest one (in my eyes at least) being the year spent in Greece when I was ten.
* * *
The year in Greece (1978) was an astonishing trip where I was exposed to all sorts of wonders that I didn’t really appreciate at the time. However I gained some wisdom. Dad hated crowds and so we went through many famous sites in the middle of winter when there were few tourists; I can now tell you that the common thread joining all famous Greek ruins are that they are extremely cold, windy and covered in snow.
But it was an amazing year; the Greeks are a friendly people, and were delighted to find a foreigner who spoke their language, and especially one from Australia. Dad was welcome wherever he went, and we followed in his train as he roamed all over that beautiful country. He was a supremely confident traveller, which worked well almost all the time, although I don’t think Mum ever forgave him for the night we spent sheltering in a ruined building on Santorini that had partially collapsed in an earthquake twenty years earlier, and was used on a time-share basis by the local donkey.
* * *
In later years he and my Mother went on a number of long trips to Paris, studying at a language school. I don’t really know too much about what happened there, except that my Father grossly misrepresented Australia to the international community. There were students from all over the world at the ‘Alliance’, and each was required to talk about their native land: what people ate, what holidays they celebrated and so on.
Some imp of the perverse inspired my Father (which it often did) to claim that the majority of Australian cuisine was made up of witchity grubs, snakes, insects, kangaroo and so on, and that the main holiday of Australia was “National Shark Day”. This was greeted with a certain amount of scepticism until a British tourist joined the group who had actually been to Australia on an outback safari and had indeed eaten all sorts of bizarre things!
When Dad returned to Australia he printed off a whole set of “National Shark Day” cards and sent them off to his old classmates...
* * *
Unfortunately, because of his illness, Dad didn’t get to see a great deal of his younger grandchildren, although Julian may still remember some vigorous readings of “The Rainbow Frogs”, and the rocking horse has seen much use, and is currently Eve’s favourite. He was delighted at the way Alex enjoyed being read to, and stories of what the Grandchildren were doing were always a great comfort to him.
* * *
My Father was a one of a kind, a true Australian ‘character’ in the best sense of the word. A man who combined a keen academic mind with a very practical knowledge of the physical world. A man with a penetrating eye and a dry sense of humour.
He was a man who could never bear to be idle. He was always working on a project, studying, writing, building or learning.
Above all, he was a maker. Whether he was writing a book or cutting gear teeth, he was always creating something new, and whatever he put his mind to write or to build, he always did it to the very best of his ability, and he was very able. In an age of consumers, he was very much a creator.
He was a gentleman with a gentle soul. My Mother and I have been very touched by the number of people who have told us what a gentleman he was, and even when he was very sick towards the end he was a favourite of the nursing staff because of his kind nature and good manners.
He was an inspiring, kind and loving Father and Husband, an honest and upright man, and we will miss him terribly.
- Christopher Betts, March '13