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Eric Shackle Writes: Australia's Oldest Columnist

Eric Shackle introduces us to Australia's Ken Sillcock, a writer who is even older than Open Writing's celebrated weekly columnist Henry Jackson.

Open Writing's famous contributor Henry Jackson (95) is probably Britain's oldest columnist, but Australia's Ken Sillcock has trumped him by two years for the world title.

"Hey, we have a bonzer 97-year-old columnist," (Bonzer is an Australian slang word meaning excellent) Alan Wheatley, editor of Melbourne's Bonzer! webzine ("The Online Monthly Magazine by, for and about Wise Elders") exclaimed when he read our story about Henry Jackson. http://www.openwriting.com/archives/2008/03/worlds_oldest_c_2.php

During World War II, Ken (born 8 Oct., 1910) was a wireless (radio) operator in the Royal Australian Air Force. He served in the UK in Bomber Command, in Lancasters http://www.lancasterdiary.net/images/assets/lancbomber11.jpg making perilous destructive raids over Europe.

Checking some of Ken's recent stories in the Bonzer! archives reveals much about his varied and eventful life.

He has written a biographical book called "Three Lifetimes of Dairy Farming in Victoria" about his grandfather and father and his own work as a dairy herd tester before he became Deputy Chief of Agriculture for the state of Victoria.

"Science for me seemed to end in 1930, two years into a four-year degree course, when the Great Financial Depression intervened," he recalled last November.

"Through life, skills which seem unrelated can combine to change one's destiny. For me, this happened in music. Until the end of 1924 my mother taught me to play the piano tolerably well. Ten years later I joined the local brass band as a learner and bought a cornet, just as a hobby, until I joined the AIF [Australian Army] in 1940 as a bandsman/stretcher bearer. This, together with my background in science, led to me being chosen for anti-malaria training.

"My elementary training in entomology was put to use in 1940 when the AIF sent me to a school on malaria control conducted in the Jordan Valley, where the disease was endemic and control work was in place. We applied our new skill in Lebanon and, later, in Sri Lanka.

"That ceased, for me, with our return to Australia, but in 1943 my previous studies of Physics and Mathematics were most helpful when I transferred to the RAAF and studied Radio Theory as a major subject in the Wireless Operator course. Science became a dominant interest again when, in 1945, I had the opportunity to complete my degree course, and in my subsequent career."

Ken attracts young as well as old readers to his writing. Here's a tribute written by Sarah, a 24-year-old Brisbane blogger http://todaysapatheticyouth.blogspot.com/2005/11/remember-this.html

"We still have old guys like Ken Sillcock alive at the moment, who are trying their best to pass on to us the lessons they took away from their painful experience of war. But we're not even listening, and soon, there'll be nothing to remember."

Here's a sample of Ken's lucid writing, from his latest column in the April edition of Bonzer! http://home.vicnet.net.au/~bonzer/p-o-v.html

Our money was fairly reliable when it consisted of alloys of gold, silver and copper, which only a metallurgist could fake, and genuine coins were minted only by the legal government of the nation. In my grandfather's lifetime he carried sufficient money for his daily needs in a spring-loaded case in a waistcoat pocket at the end of a chain.

On one side it held five sovereigns (pounds) and on the other five half-sovereigns. Banks with secure vaults were set up so that people could have their money stored safely when not needed. A fee had to be charged to pay the people who provided this service.

Things started to go wrong when banks started to make the rules. At first they were required to hold in their vaults gold to the value of five-sixths of the gold they held on behalf of their clients. Then note-printing was introduced when the Bank of England was given a licence to print them, and lend them out at interest.

Ken has a word of advice for his readers. He says old people who remain active and interested in their community tend, as a group, to remain more healthy than those who think they are ''too old, over the hill, or finished."

Last December, he sent this email to his friends and admirers:

I have an important message for the world, and I ask that you pass it on, especially to those who do not have email. It is: Don't be in too much hurry to help those who are disabled.

That sounds a bit at odds with the Christian spirit and with the beliefs of other codes of life, until I add: First, find out what help they need which will not cause them further damage.

Our bodies were designed long before the wheel and the hydraulic lift were invented. They work on a system of levers well understood by those who studied Physics or Mechanics to Year 10.

Every lever has to move through part of a circle around its pivot. It cannot, for instance, go immediately from the horizontal to the vertical position, but must arrive at it in two stages.

In a chair with arms my technique was to push myself halfway up, then change my grip to include a forward thrust and then steady myself on a firm object or with a walking stick.

So there I was, in my 97th. year, the oldest at our annual Air Force Europe lunch. The chairs didn't have arms, so I sat down through the toasts etc. At the end, when I had to get up, without warning, the two young and fit blokes, barely in their eighties, grabbed me under the armpits and, with the kindest of intentions, hauled me straight up, in defiance of the Law of the Lever.

In the days following I learned that a "crook back" is not just a dull sort of pain. It is that much of the time but. if you make a wrong move, it hits you with an uncontrolled spasm which really hurts. The only way to avoid that is to stand up or sit down in a slow spiral, not straight up or down.

I have just moved out of hospital into my own home, a separate house on my son's block. Indoors I use a wheeled walking frame and have a few grab bars installed, and have help calling to check on me, but I am not yet allowed to go outdoors unaccompanied. Time will heal a cracked vertebra and an apparently strained muscle on my left side.

On the positive side, I have gained this knowledge to pass on, extra compassion for those worse off than I am, and especially for those who have similar injuries much earlier in life.

I can still enjoy some independent living, still in touch with the whole world through Internet.

My family have been most supportive, even sacrificing time they should have given to their work, and the Department of Veterans' Affairs has sometimes anticipated my needs.

Ken moved into a 24-hour serviced aged care facility just before Christmas. He told one of his friends: "As I have to be here I aim to contribute something to the life of the place. I guess that’s what we should aim to do, whatever life deals up to us."

Australians (and others) may like to read Ken's moving poem, The Jinx Kite http://www.wordandnumberpuzzles.com/bonzer/B/contributions.html


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