The photograph above dates from 1964. I am the second boy from the left in the top row and my friend John Scannell is third from left and circled. In late 1965, a year after this photo of the 5th Oakleigh-Monash scout troop was taken, I had what could have been a life-ending (though it turned out to be a life-changing) experience. I collapsed at school with an aneurysm that caused a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage (that is, a haemorrhage just below the brain). I spent six weeks or so in the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne (completely unconscious for the first two of these) and was operated on by the institution’s honorary neurosurgeon. I knew later just how close I had come to death. The aneurysm itself could have been fatal but if its onset had been delayed for only a few minutes I would have been riding my bicycle home along a busy road.
Though I was never keen on sport I had been otherwise as physically active as any sixteen year old, but the upshot of this event meant that I spent several months of my life in a state of relative physical inactivity. Though I had been a successful student generally I nonetheless had to repeat my fifth year of high school because I had missed the end of year exams. Over the academic year of 1966 I had it easy, with mostly unchallenging schoolwork and no sport. I began then to write poems. Elsewhere I have noted how periods of enforced leisure have often turned young people’s minds to writing. William Carlos Williams spoke of a ‘heart strain’ diverting his attentions from track stardom to poetry, and many others have had similar experiences. To be deprived of activity in one area while you are in your youth tends to divert your energies elsewhere. And this is what happened in my case.
Another side effect of my collapse was that my long-term memory, or at least that of events before the incident, was adversely affected. I realised later that much of what I thought I could remember was either the product of information given to me by a third party or a false memory worked up from photographs. Over the years I have retrieved memories that I know there is no external evidence for. But I have no memory of the day of the aneurysm apart from what I’d been told since. I’ve given an account elsewhere based on the information I had at the time but it turns out that this information was wrong on a couple of points and lacking in detail. Thanks to the web (and as of the last week) I have a clearer picture of what happened. John Scannell, whom I’d only seen once briefly since leaving school at the end of 1967, found, through happenstance, this site, and as a result sent me a couple of wonderful emails that finally tell a story that rings true. Here, in edited form, are the details in his words:
The main reason for me getting in touch was to fill you in a bit on something you have on another site regarding your aneurysm. The sequence as I recall it starts with you crouching at your locker (bottom row, second from the left) after school, getting your books out to take home. I was standing beside you when you put your hand to your temple and said "I've got a headache". At which point you collapsed to the left onto the classroom floor. This naturally attracted some attention, particularly from Mrs Mee who wanted to take you to the sick room. I stopped her and told her to call an ambulance. Other teachers arrived and insisted on moving you. I put the lid of a desk under your head and shoulders to prevent movement and it was at this time that the ambulance arrived. After it left with you aboard, I telephoned your mother and told her what had happened. The rest you probably know.
I recall that I would call in at your place each morning on the way to school for an update. I know that I visited you in hospital at least once. After reading your e-mail yesterday, I was surprised at how many memories came back to me. I was reminded of a passage from "The Shadow of the Wind", by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, where he said "As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable diminishing replicas of itself inside. Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors. Its identity fragmented into endless reflections." It goes on a bit later; "Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later- no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget- we will return."