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Dealing with Dennis Claude

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Dennis Claude Ebbs - self portrait

The dulcet tones of Cher belting out Gershwin’s Ain’t Necessarily So over Larry Adler’s mouth organ is the way we introduce tales from the past. It ain’t necessarily so is an opportunity for the Patriarch to pontificate. In this week’s episode I’m going to pontificate about Dennis Claude Ebbs, my paternal grand father – the mega patriach, the patriarch of the patriarchy. 

Here’s a younger brother or Eric Harvey Ebbs. Harvey is the family middle name, traditionally given to the older son. I should have been Geoffrey Harvey Ebbs. 

But I’m not. 

My mother didn’t like the name Harvey, which was part of the reason for the enduring dislike of my father’s family for my mother. Of course, the real problem was that she was a peasant and they were snobs. Well, the real reason might be that she gave me my father’s brother’s name without asking, but we may return to that later. At that stage we could also return to my eldest daughter, who would have been named Harvey were she a boy and her views on pegging the patriarchy and family names. 

But to Dennis … Dennis Claude. I’ve posted his self-portrait to illustrate this tale. 

Dennis was a painter without a great deal of technical skill, but his self-portrait is his view of himself so is accurate on one level. That’s why I love autobiography: it’s flawed but fascinating.  

My eldest daughter (the next Harvey who wasn’t) took one look at it and said, “Why did he paint himself in hell?” Those piercing blue eyes look terrified against the fiery red background, which is probably a set of curtains in his study, if the truth be known. 

Dennis Claude was an engineer who worked for Metropolitan Water in Melbourne. A passion for water and engineering generally runs in the family Ebbs, but I will not bore you with the list of all of my male relatives and their relationship to engineering, except to say my girlfriend rapidly tired of dates by large reservoirs and never shared my interest in sewage treatment. 

As you might gather from the painting, Denis Claude smoked pipe, wore a jacket, and dressed for dinner. He had a gardening tie and a painting tie: separate ties for separate occasions. He would forgo the jacket in very hot weather, but never the tie, that I remember. 

He was quite a stern fellow, very reserved. I’m not aware that he traveled much, though we waved his wife off on an ocean liner, when I was about six. 

He always said grace and always carved despite joking that, “the cow should sit at the head of the table because she’s the only one who can calve.” 

Of course, port and pipe was tekan after dinner in the lounge. The gentleman retired. He was a member of the Free Masons and one of the big clubs in Melbourne, I think it was a Melbourne club, certainly, a letter from another great Protestant member of the Melbourne club, ex Prime Minister Robert Menzies was read at his funeral. Very proud of that letter from the PM was Dennis Claude. 

He was very concerned about social position as Anglicans are, much more concerned about social standing than any ethics, morality or theology. In fact, my father reports that the family struggled financially while Dennis Claude spent a significant amount of money in joining those expensive clubs and buying expensive alcohols who entertain his rich white male colleagues. 

Denis Claude had five sons. Three of them were Catholic and two were Anglican. He and his Welsh wife, Mafarnway divided up the sons between them. 

Robert was a Catholic priest. Brian, my dad, was an Anglican church club boys club leader. Russell was Catholic brother, and so it goes: Catholic, Anglican, Catholic, Anglican. 

But Russell broke his vows to marry a Protestant man, which of course, the youngest son, Michael the Catholic said killed his mother, so they stopped speaking to each other. 

The sleeping quarters of their house were practically divided into 2 kingdoms. The Anglicans at one end and the Catholics up the other. 

Michael was much younger than the others. I think he was born after the house had been split in two so I suspect a bit of rumpy pumpy after a Christmas party one year when the line was crossed. It’s never been determined whether the Anglican ventured into the Catholic area or vice versa, but some vice was committed and the Catholic’s came to outnumber the Tudors of cenvenience. Perhaps said occasion occurred in the lounge room after too much port after too much Christmas dinner. 

Now, some of Dennis painting still exist. As I said, I’ve posted the self portrait of the man onto the Fashion by Dad socials – Facebook and Instagram. I did have the opportunity to collect his paintings and bring him home with me, but I have resisted that. I thought them uninspired and poorly executed, which is somewhat cruel and disrespectful of a grandson, nevertheless. 

He was an alcoholic. 

No one knew including his doctor, until he was in his late 70s. Dennis had all these doctor’s appointments early in the morning so that he could wait until afterwards before he had his first double shot of whisky for the day. 

His liver failed in his 80s and he lived with my family until he died – fading in front of our eyes. I remember him drooling sort of dark green bile from the corner of his mouth at the dinner table. 

His formal manner went all the way through to his joke-telling, which demanded complete silence and attention, and a very forced punchline, which made it almost impossible to laugh. That style did rather spoil his son’s comedic style. They were naturally funny fellows, but they worked far too hard at it. 

Now Russell is probably the exception to that rule. As a vow-busting Catholic brother it was natural that he had a large number of children. They stopped at 5 actually, but anyway, he was much loved by his family generally, and work colleagues, a witty and well-loved fellow. 

Speaking of Dennis, he did imbue hjis sons with a huge sense of civic duty that’s been passed on to me and my siblings. 

I never really spoke to him about his interests, hobbies or reading, but I know all these boys love the great colonist, English writers, Dickens Kipling and Burton, and the middle class Australian bard, Banjo Paterson of Snowy River fame. Indeed, my capacity to quote Banjo Paterson nearly got me into a fight in a pub in Inner city, Sydney. I mistakenly joined in a drunken poetry shouting contest, quoting the opening lines of the man from Snowy River: There was movement at the station for the word had got a… and so on. 

I was shouted down and surrounded by Lawson lovers as a middle class twit. That was a Lawson pub and the people drinking in that pub remembered the days of the Pushes in Sydney where they would fight to the death in the streets of Surry Hills, Paddington, Balmain and so on.  

I’d crossed the line.  

I was in this Surry Hills, Lawson pub and apparently Banjo was only quoted in Paddington, which was already a middle class suburb in the 20s, though still drunk enough to go to war with the neighbouring suburbs. 

So, that was the sort of books the ancient Ebbs read. And I’ve still got books of my father’s childhood. All my shells which reflect that, very colonist view of the world. My father never chose to read French novels (they were lewd) or Russian novelists (they were idealistic, not worth reading. Too much politics and dreaminess). Of course you read the French in a shed, on your own. Pleasure yourself with the gardening tool, perhaps. 

I imagine that Dennis loved a good gadget. He was keen to teach me the use of the slide rule. I learned that very well. I actually won a slide rule for inventing a very primitive electronic calculator as a youngster, so there we go, but he always wanted to teach me the theodolite, the sextant and other surveying instruments, but we never actually got out into the field. As close as we’ve got over that kind of bonding experience was getting water out of a fish pond and looking at it under a microscope. 

Generally speaking, I would have said that he was no fun. A petty bourgeois snob with stick up his bum; full of himself without much empathy for humanity. I was never particularly proud of him or interested in when he was alive, but as I’ve become cranky, old Geoff, I have started to realize the magnitude of his influence on me.  

And perhaps most interestingly, in the quest for his self portrait, I spoke to my cousin Katharine, who said, “What a gentle and lovely man he was. He always had time to sit and listen and had an aura of kindness.” 

So, it just goes to show, in the words of Cher quoting Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so”. 

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