Sunday, June 7, 2009

Donald Charles Skyvington [1941-2009]

Click the above image to obtain the original scanned photo.

After several decades of cerebral problems, difficult to elucidate and apparently impossible to treat, my brother Don died peacefully this evening in Brisbane, Queensland. During our childhood in South Grafton, New South Wales, Don was outstanding in many rural domains. From an early age, he was an exceptional bush horseman. Above all, he had an understanding of beef cattle that enabled him to be employed, when he was still a youth, as a professional auctioneer in the beef-cattle saleyards of South Grafton. It was there, unfortunately, when Don was still a child, that a thoughtless individual had slapped my brother's pony on the rump, causing it slip over and fall on Don's head, no doubt provoking internal lesions that were responsible for problems that reappeared constantly throughout his life. Much later, Don worked as a stockman with Aboriginal drovers on an Outback cattle station, in particularly rough conditions. In a profound Australian sense, Don was an eternal man of the bush, of a rare pioneering kind, like our father. In happier times, when I could communicate with him easily, we got along extremely well together. Among other things, shortly before I left Australia, we shared a flat in Sydney for a short time, and Don taught me how to play the cowboy guitar. A nurse who has been caring for my brother over the years told me recently that Don was very happy to tell people that his brother Billy had a family in France. Meanwhile, Don received regular visits from our three sisters: Anne (living in Coogee, whose evocation of our brother can be found here), Susan (Mullumbimby) and Jill (Woolgoolga).

For the rain never falls on the dusty Diamantina
And a drover finds it hard to change his mind
For the years have surely gone
Like the drays from Old Cork Station
And I won't be back till the drovin's done
John Williamson

Several old photos of our brother can be found on this brief web page.


  1. William, please accept my condolences - Paul

  2. Thanks, Paul, for your thoughts. Writing from my home in France, it's quite a challenge to evoke the character of an authentic Outback fellow such as Don, who lived and worked in an Antipodean world that I myself never knew at all. In fact, we were quite complementary brothers. If I were to express myself (fuzzily) in the language of genetics, I would say that my brother inherited surely all the chromosomes of our pioneering ancestors who, in the middle of the 19th century, reached the land that would later be known as Australia, and played a part in building that nation. I, on the other hand, had to content myself with the relics of Old World chromosomes.

  3. My condolences.

    Every now and then (when I’m fed up with "civilised" countries) I think about moving to Australia. I might buy a house there, in the middle of nowhere, once I’m retired. I would have liked to meet your brother.

  4. Thanks, Corina, for your message. I'm incapable of saying whether my brother's Australia (drovers on horses working on dusty Outback cattle stations) still exists. When he returned to the city after spending time out in the wilderness with Aboriginal stockmen, Don told me a fascinating anecdote. He had met up with an old Aboriginal who would spend hours every day carving boomerangs. As soon as he had finished a new boomerang, the old fellow would test the weapon by throwing it a nearby tree. In the case of a faulty boomerang, it would miss the tree and return to the thrower, who would say despondently: "That boomerang no good." But, if the new boomerang were perfect from an aerodynamic viewpoint, it would of course smash into the tree and disintegrate into fragments, whereupon the old man would gleam with joy: "That fella boomerang bloody good." He was so happy to have built a perfect boomerang that he didn't seem to be worried by the secondary fact that he had just destroyed it. I recall that my brother Don saw this behavior as a good illustration of profound differences between the respective mental structures of Aborigines and white Australians. It would be fabulous, indeed, if the only way of testing a nuclear weapon, to make sure that it's operational, consisted of destroying it!

  5. Bill,
    When I started up my computer this morning and clicked on to your blog (as I usually do as part of my daily ritual) I was most saddened to learn that Donny had passed away. Please accept my sincere condolences and pass these on to your three lovely sisters also. As you know, I first met Donny (and indeed the rest of the Skyvington family with the exception of Jill) at a young age when I came up to South Grafton from boarding school in Sydney. When I left school at the end of 1956 and started working in the sawmilling (timber) industry at Clouds Creek and Dundurrabin, I often caught up with Don at weekends, either in town or at Blaxlands Flat where we would spend some time together riding horses and mustering cattle. Later, when I was the successful bidder at a mortgagee's auction sale, I acquired my first motor vehicle - a second hand Fiat two seater car and this gave us the opportunity to 'get around' and spend more time with each other at weekends when we would venture out and go to community dances held at places including Coutt's Crossing and Nymboida as well as the regular Saturday night barn dance at the Grafton showground.
    I have fond memories of Donny and our times together and I know he will be sadly missed by all who were fortunate in having the privelege of meeting and knowing him. May his soul rest in Peace. Kindest Regards to you and your sisters, Bruce.

  6. Thanks, Bruce, for evoking your contacts with my brother back at the time when both of you were getting adjusted, in different ways, to rural life. When I hear you talking of community dances at Coutts Crossing and Nymboida, and the Saturday evening event in the big old hall at Grafton's showground, I realize with dismay that I simply missed out totally on this entire dimension of adolescent life in my native region. (It's a bit late now to do anything about it.) In an email you say that the doors of your little Fiat were capable of suddenly opening when driving into the wind, creating consternation. That's an amusing metaphor that could almost be applied to my brother. He would often let his personal doors fly open, spontaneously, and it wasn't easy to close them without forcing him to halt. Don's terrible horse accident, when we were still living at Waterview, put him into a coma for three days. When he emerged from it, in a darkened room at Grafton Base Hospital, I remember the doctor's use of a strange adjective, which I had never before encountered in common parlance. He said that, when Don was fully recovered from that trauma, we might find that he had become unusually jovial. I've always thought that this was indeed the case. Don was high-spirited and enthusiastic about life in general. I well remember an evening in Sydney, when we were about 17 or 18, when Don took me in tow for an initiation to the women of Palmer Street. There was however the constant possibility that his "joviality" might overflow into a form of agitation, indeed wildness. Now, this kind of spirit has always been perfectly common in the Australian country-pub environment, which Don frequented regularly, but his style and behavior were capable of getting him into conflicts whenever he happened to meet up with a fellow who was not on the same wavelength as himself. In fact, we had uncles on the Walker farm in Waterview who behaved regularly in an outspoken "jovial" style, so I've never really known to what extent Don's personality was out of the ordinary. Retrospectively, we have been obliged by the rest of Don's existence to admit that there was indeed some kind of a mysterious basic problem, which soon gave rise to neuronal problems affecting his motor functions. My sisters and I were relieved, a decade or so ago, when Don was invited into an exceptional rest home in Brisbane, where I visited him in August 2006. Curiously, it was a place created primarily for elderly indigenous folk from a remote corner of Queensland, and Don was probably the only resident of European extraction. So, it might be said that the beginning and the end of his erratic trail from Wave Hill cattle station up to the Brisbane home led through Aboriginal territory.