YOU’RE never too old, and never give up. These may well be the slogans of newly minted author Malcolm Bailey, 80 years young, of Stockton.
Thousands of us old-timers, oops, mature-aged citizens might think we have a book hidden deep within us, but unlike others, he’s made his dream a reality.
Age? It’s just a number. Malcolm’s a quiet, gentle soul with a wry sense of humour and a deep streak of compassion and humanity – and it clearly shows in his first book.
Called Salt of the Earth, it was launched recently at Hamilton’s Gallipoli Legion Club. Sub-titled as “A skinny book of short stories” it’s about growing up and some of life’s experiences, some funny, some sad, gathered over eight decades.
A retired engineer, Newcastle-born Malcolm Bailey back in his third year of high school had wanted to be a writer, a journalist like his mother, Jean Bailey, who once wrote for the Herald.
But in his fourth high school year he decided instead to become a member of Australia’s diplomatic corps and enjoy some exciting overseas postings. Alas, this was not to be. As he writes in his book: “On reflection, I realised that conservative governments would not allow my left-wing leanings to pollute the world stage”.
So, instead, in his fifth year he decided to become a dedicated mathematics teacher and applied for a Teachers College Scholarship to do an arts degree at Newcastle University College at Tighes Hill. But he failed the medical.
“I had myopia: I was short-sighted,” he says.
And so, he “accidentally enrolled” in the civil engineering course at Newcastle University only to discover one and half years later the Department of Education was now offering him a Teachers College scholarship along with presumably many, many others “suddenly well-again students” (caused by a looming teacher shortage perhaps?)
Now well entrenched in civil engineering, Malcolm didn’t take up the offer, instead pursuing his chosen career that took him to outback NSW to build public works, water supplies and sewerage schemes in towns such as Ivanhoe (“It’s in the middle of nowhere, towards Broken Hill”) then Oberon, Blackheath, Mittagong and Bonalbo – west of Casino towards the Queensland border – plus flood mitigation works at Morpeth.
After retiring in 1998, he returned to Newcastle to do some consulting work then worked part-time as a mediator with the Community Justice Centre.
But he’d never forgotten his love of words and telling whimsical anecdotes. And that’s how he finally became an author late in life, although somewhat reluctantly.
Malcolm was urged to join the writers group of the Newcastle University of the Third Age (NU3A) last year. Here, his sister Janet plus his partner, Vera Deacon, played a major role, according to writer Elizabeth Elliott in the NU3A 2018 autumn newsletter.
“They encouraged Malcolm to put his stories down in writing and, after making the group laugh and cry with his stories throughout the year, he finally set out to publish them,” she said.
“(Best-selling author) Bryce Courtenay once said a good book should have a bellyful of laughs and a bucket-load of tears and Malcolm’s stories certainly meet those criteria, for they will most certainly make you laugh and cry.”
And they do. Malcolm’s slim, but entertaining, book of 91 pages is full of good humour and the ironies of life. It’s old-fashioned storytelling at its best, simple, direct, often ending with a moral, but never sickly sentimental.
Sometimes, it even feels like he’s there at your elbow telling a cheeky yarn.
As the remarkable Stockton environmentalist, author and heritage activist Vera Deacon, 91, comments: “Once Malcolm started writing, putting his tales down on paper, it all snowballed.
“Malcolm’s always seen life as building community through good public works, building things like water supplies and dams to help make things better for ordinary people while sharing their joys and pain,” Vera says.
“My involvement has been over-emphasised by the publishers. Embarrassing really, as Mal’s sister, Janet Sutherland, did the important thing.
“She signed him up and paid him to go and attend the NU3A course. He became the star of the writing class. I have known the family for 74 years. He’s been a little unwell lately so the book’s publication has come at a good time, ” she says.
“One of my very favourite stories from Mal’s book concerns his experience in the 1955 Maitland flood,” Vera says. “The Newcastle Trades Hall Council had called for volunteers to clean-up the horrendous mess, and more than 1000 men and women responded.
“Mal and others, armed with shovels, were sent downstream of Bolwarra where there was a report of a man who couldn’t find his house.”
Amid hundreds and thousands of tons of sand, silt and flood detritus from fences, sheds, trees and even homes, Malcolm’s work crew found an elderly bloke sitting on what looked liked a stump.
“Hey mate. Have you lost a house?” they called out. I thought I had. But I’ve found it now. I’m sitting on it,” the man replied.
Sure enough, the homeowner was sitting on a chimney poking out about one foot (30cm) above the sand.
The man asked the rescuers if they could recover “some stuff” from his deeply buried bedroom. Despite the men thinking they’d need an excavator, they dug through the sloppy mud and, after about five hours, found the bedroom window.
The man asked if someone could enter the muddy mess of his bedroom and retrieve his dressing gown from the wardrobe.
“We looked at each other,” Malcolm Bailey writes. “All that work for a dressing gown?”
But as the landowner said: “It was my 80th birthday three weeks ago and my sister gave it to me. It’s the first time in my life I have ever owned a dressing gown. And my sister died the day after my birthday, so it is special.”
There’s an odd sequel to the tale 14 years later, in 1969, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened.
I’ll leave you with words from Malcolm’s unusual foreword (in the back of the book, naturally) that if you didn’t like it then “you, the reader, can stop reading now and give this book to one of your enemies. Please don’t waste it . . . someone will love it”.
Truer words were never spoken.