Sunday 3 February 2019

Vale Philip Gardner - Bill Conn and Peter Thorneycroft, friends for life, remember

Bill Conn
Note: Bill Conn was a great friend of my brother. He gets a mention here as well

Phil and I met on our first day at Moreland High School – early 1960 - 59 years ago.

We became firm friends and were ‘as thick as thieves’. 

There are some here who may think Phil was a goody two shoes however you weren’t there when he crawled through the ground floor classroom window and was promptly sent to the Principal’s office. Neither were you there when, as a prefect and in company with another prefect who shall remain nameless, he was hauled from the Prefect’s room into the typing class next door and soundly castigated in front of a class of year ten girls for making loud vocal ‘guitar’ noises that had somehow penetrated the wall and the clacking typewriters. Humiliating. Believe me.

During those years we spent a lot of time together inside and outside of school hours. At 109 Tinning Street (Phil’s place) we played records on his portable record player – pretending to be ‘DJs’ while his mother kept the sandwiches coming. We’d sometimes ride our bikes down to his dad’s grocery store and ‘help’ his dad behind the counter. 

At 71 Gordon St (my place) we’d sing and record ourselves in the big back room - which had an echo! We’d record on Phil’s mini reel-to-reel tape recorder. The spools were about this big – (demonstrate). The sound quality must have been appalling! 

We tried writing songs on Mum and Dad’s piano at one stage. We called ourselves John McCartney and Paul Lennon.

When we were about 16 we took over production of the school newspaper. It was called ‘The Periodical’. We did everything – wrote it, formatted it, printed it on a roneo machine, stapled it and sold it for a pittance in the school-yard. Most of the time we were desperate for something to write about. Once we went through every class-room counting all the pieces of bubble/chewing gum stuck underneath desks. I can’t remember the actual number but it was staggering! We wrote an entire front-page article about it. 

We also used a style of journalism that is still employed by the Murdoch press today. We asked the sports teacher if he planned to have a staff/student cricket match at the end of the year. He said “Oh yeah … probably” That was enough for us. For the next couple of weeks we plastered the school with  ‘Periodical’ posters that said “staff intend to fight it out with students”. When asked about it we told people to wait for the paper to come out. The published article read “Staff and students intend to fight it out in an end of year cricket match” That’s all. It sold like hotcakes. We hid in the school building for the entire lunch period.

A couple of years ago while enjoying lunch at Montmorency with Gaby and my wife Merryl, Phil pulled out a copy of ‘The Periodical’ and showed me an example of our 16 year old humour. The joke we’d published read: 

‘What did Anne Boleyn have in common with a flat iron?  Henry the 8th pressed his suit with her.’

We four people in our sixties laughed till we cried.

In late High school we formed a singing group with Sharyn Cambridge. The first gig for “The Cambridge Trio” was at The Progress Theatre in West Coburg. Phil recently sent me a scanned copy of the small ad in the local paper promoting the event. We were in Form 6. 

Post school the group became “The Cambridge Four”.

We played Capers in Collins Street and a number of other gigs over the next 4 years. A few months ago Phil sent me a scanned copy of a poster that read “Koffee Kup featuring The Cambridge Five.” We were five for a short while.

I married in 1970 and Phil was our Best Man. Merryl and I lived in Gippsland so the gigging finished for me but we kept in contact with Phil. When we moved to Sydney in 1973 the contact dropped off – no mobiles, no internet and we didn’t even have a landline for 4 years! We attended his wedding to Gaby and his mother’s funeral.

However eventually life got in the way and we lost contact through our 30’s.
We reconnected on my 40th birthday and maintained  contact from that day to this. With the help of advancing technology the contact became regular and constant – particularly during the footy season when the banter was sometimes manic.

During the 80’s/90’s, together with Gaby and Merryl, we’d catch up while on holidays on the North Coast of NSW and Merryl and I have enjoyed some great meals and excellent wines at Montmorency and Harmers Haven.

Merryl and I came to Melbourne for Phil’s retirement function. A great night.

In February 2007 Phil flew to Qld for my mother’s funeral – I was bowled over by the gesture. I said: “Mate, thanks but you didn’t need to come all this way” His reply: “ I’ve decided to pay more attention to people I care about”

The occasion that will stay with me is the celebration of his 70th birthday last year in Sydney. Merryl and I, Phil and Gaby joined our hosts his brother Geoff and sister-in-law Karen for dinner and some very special wines that Phil had sent up to Sydney 3 or 4 weeks prior. The following night we all sat in premium seats at La Boheme on Sydney Harbour. It was sensational!

The week prior to Phil’s death I sent him a photo I’d found of my granddaughter at 4 days old, in a crib, under a television set playing a Swans match. I added the caption: “It’s never too early to start the brainwashing process” His reply: “Poor child. I’ve alerted Child Protection Services”

He rang me on Thursday January 17th because he was planning a trip to Sydney on the 9th of Feb. The last thing I said to him was: “See you mate. Talk soon”.

I will miss the banter. 
I will miss his generosity – Merryl mentioned she liked ‘Cry me a River’. The next week or so a CD with 20 odd versions of it turned up in the post.
I will miss his IT skills – he was my ‘go-to’.
I will miss the music he regularly sent me - music he had written/performed/produced.
I will miss his warmth, his humour, his talent, his wit, his insight, his intellect, his commanding presence.
I will miss him.

Thanks Phil. I love ya.

...and here are some additional thoughts from Peter Thorneycroft, another of Philip's lifelong friends:

Well said Geoffrey and Bill. Having known Philip since we were Milk Monitors in Bubs grade at North Brunswick Primary School, I can say he was a truly remarkable gentleman and wonderful friend for life. He was highly intelligent, both intellectually and emotionally. He was the living embodiment of the Moreland High School motto, "Sapere Aude - Dare To Be Wise!”. He was a fine guitarist and gifted songwriter, with a keen observational sense that informed his lyrics. 

I am humbled and grateful to have had a long, close friendship with Phil. We had been recording some music together just a few days before he passed away. The last thing he said to me was, "we have many more projects to do." Sadly, those projects will now never happen. I will cherish my memories of Philip and the times we had together, and love him always.

Program for the Moreland High School Production of Moliere's The Reluctant Doctor, 
starring Bill Conn with Philip  in a supporting role. Click to enlarge

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