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Dining on the joy, and the meaning, of life

IF you’re looking for confirmation that life means something, then perhaps don’t listen to what Hamlet has to say.
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William Shakespeare created one unhappy young manwhen he wrote his play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Life is basically miserable, according to Hamlet, then you die, and you’re forgotten.

In the play, when he’s angry that his mother married so hastily after the death of his father, Hamletsarcastically declares that, “there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year”.

If a “great man” is forgotten barely six months after he’s gone, what hope is there for the rest of us?

However,you don’t have to be born into royalty, or write an extraordinary play, to be cherished in life and remembered beyond that. Greatness comes in all forms, and it resides – and lives on – in every community.

When someone powerful, influential or famous dies, we all know about it. They are eulogised in newspapers, online, and across the airwaves.Yet every day, the world loses someone great, and most of us are not even aware of it. For they have lived in a manner that may not have led to headlines. Yetthey have left their mark in quietbut no less meaningfulways, especially on those who knew them and loved them.

Caleb Firkin, of Lake Macquarie, was one of those people.

Almost everyone reading this will have never heard of Caleb Firkin. You won’t find him in a Shakespeare play, and he receives only a handful of mentions, if you Google him.Which just goes to show you can’t find everything you’re looking for on the internet. Sometimes the best things, and the greatest people, can be found right in front of you.

One of the few references to Caleb on the internet is his death notice. Caleb died on 4th April, aged 93. The wider world doesn’t know who it lost.

Art led my wife and I to Caleb. Art was one of Caleb’s passions. After all, it had led him to his greatest passion, his wife Shirley. Actually, Shirley led Caleb to art.

During the Second World War, when he was a medical student in Sydney, Calebwas besotted withthis “golden-haired goddess”. His new girlfriend wanted to see the 1943Archibald Prize exhibition, which had stirred up so much controversy, with William Dobell’s winning portrait torn apart by critics for being a caricature. Caleb didn’t have that much interest in art, but he had a huge amount of interest in Shirley. So he agreed to go to the Art Gallery of NSW.

That day, when he saw the Dobell portrait and other paintings of his, Caleb fell in love with art. And Shirley fell in love with Caleb. Years later, as keen buyers of art, the Firkins got to know William Dobell. They were at an exhibition opening when the famous but notoriously shy artist declinedto be photographed, unless he could pose with the woman in thestrikingdress.He was pointing at Shirley. The problem was Shirley didn’t like being photographed either.

“You want to be photographed with this dress?,” Shirley said to Dobell. “I’ll take it off, and you can be photographed with it!”

The photo was taken – with Shirley wearing the dress. Caleb treasured that photo, especially after he lost his beloved Shirl in 1996.

Anyway, in 2001, my wife and I were visitingLake Macquarie City Art Gallery. We indicated we wanted to become members of the gallery society and were told, “Then you must meet the President”.There are some countries where that statement would worry you these days. But as it turned out, never has the term “President” been applied to a more generousand gentle person.

We met Caleb, this engaging man with movie-star looks and a mellifluous voice that made words sound delicious. We joined both the society and the long queue of Caleb Firkin admirers.

He invited us to a “long lunch” at his home.Little did we know what we were about to become part of.

Caleb’s long lunches often comprised smoked salmon and capers on Jatz, drunk chook (the name of the dish, not the state of the guests), and good Hunter wine. But you didn’t come to a Caleb long lunch for the cuisine. It was for the company, a group of people called the Fishing Point Mob. And you didn’t have to come from Fishing Point to belong tothe mob. It wasn’t based on geography but attitude. You justneeded to love all the beautiful things life had to offer. And manyof those beautiful things could be found in Caleb’s house.

Caleb was a sensual man, in the finest sense of the word. For the pleasure of the eye, the walls of his house, which was a work of architectural art in itself, were filled with paintings. He loved classical music, which he played at volumes that made AC/DC sound like a string quartet.

He adoredtastingwine, which would often end with the utterance, “Ah, nectar of the gods”. He was passionate about words. He had packed a library’s worth into that brilliant mind of his. At lunchhe would recite everything from Shakespeare’ssonnets to the poetry of A.D. Hope.

Above all, Caleb loved people. Everything came back to people. When he looked at his paintings, for instance, he saw not the art, but the artist. Many of the paintershad become his and Shirley’s friends. When he sipped Tyrrell’s Vat 1 semillon, perhaps his favourite wine, Calebdidn’t rave on about a “harvested field nose” or “apricots in late spring on the palate” but would praise thewinemaker, “Andy” Spinaze, saying he was such alovely bloke.Ultimately, that’s what Caleb’slunches and the Fishing Point Mob wereall about; not art, music, words and wine, but the love of people in all their joyous and flawed beauty. As a result, this mob wasa family, and Caleb was our patriarch.

Caleb was generous with everything he had:his wine;his art collection, which he had bequested to the Lake Macquarie gallery in memory of his wife;his time, and;his heart.Caring for peoplewas Caleb’s profession. As a doctor, Caleb had the Hippocratic Oath. But he didn’t need to swear toGreek gods to do his best by people. He enacted it, embodied it, in the way he lived. Caleb’s very naturemade people feel better.

If only Hamlet had known Caleb. If the Danish prince had sat around Caleb’s table, he would have seenbeautifuln art, tasted the liquid heaven of Hunter wine, developed slightdeafness from listening to Sibelius at 100-plus decibels, and been made to feel welcome inanother royal family, the Fishing Point Mob. Hamlet would have experienced the joy, and the meaning, of life. Caleb would have made sure of it.

At that point, Hamlet would have realised there are kings and queens among us who don’t wear crowns. And they never die, not in our hearts and memories.

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