His eyes betray his youthful heart: they’re bright, alert, sapphire blue. Yet his hands have seen ages: weathered and sometimes bruised, a side effect of chronic kidney disease. His voice is the same as ever: strong, resonant, with a hint of the larrikin; but there are also those measured vowels that suggest the store his parents put in education, and a penchant for reading poetry and debating in that long-ago childhood in a very different Australia.
Screen legend Jack Thompson is 80, and life has never felt more precious.
“Here I am,” he begins, sitting by a wide-open window. He surveys dewy garden, wooded hills, silver-white sand dunes beneath a blanket of scrub; pauses to hear the cackle of a kookaburra, the roar of the waves. “Here I am in this fortunate paradise by the sea. It’s a magic day.”
A year ago, the hills were ablaze behind this patch of paradise on the NSW mid-north coast. Jack and his partner of 50 years, Leona King, returned from Europe to find their garden strewn with charred leaves.
“Ten days later,” Jack says, “we were told to put everything we absolutely needed into a bag, and if the alarm came, we were to head east. If the fire had hit, we would have been standing in the Pacific Ocean with a little bag carrying, what I discovered in the end, was very little. What do you really need? All those things you’ve collected – the paintings, books, music – have to go. You realise that your life is much more important than the material objects in your life, although I was already well aware of that.”
That lesson was brought home to Jack powerfully in February 2018, when he was suddenly diagnosed with renal failure.
“According to the doctors, I was only 72 hours away from death,” he explains. “When I was in St Vincent’s Hospital, one of the doctors used to put his head into my room every morning and say, ‘Morning, Jack. You should be dead, you know.’ And I’d say, ‘Thanks to you guys, I’m not.’”
Now Jack hooks himself up to a dialysis machine for roughly five hours on three days of every week, which keeps him not only alive but apparently thriving.
“It’s like I have been given a second shot at life.”
Jack of the second chances. He has fallen on his feet more than once before – the first time when he was just a golden-haired four-year-old.
Jack was a ’40s child. His father, Harold, was a merchant seaman who spent Jack’s early years away at war. His mother, Marjorie, was young, affectionate, beautiful and worked at the popular Mark Foy’s department store in Sydney. Jack (who was born John Hadley Payne) and his younger brother, David, spent weekends with their mother in seaside Manly, but on weekdays they often stayed in what was called a boarding creche. Jack’s earliest memories are of eating icecream in hospital after he’d had his tonsils removed, and of his mother, who anchored his world in place.
“I remember being with my mother and an aunt on the Corso at Manly,” he says. “And I remember walking with my younger brother and an adult who I think was my mother, looking out over the harbour. David would’ve been two, so I must have been three.”
Jack’s mother died suddenly the following year, throwing the family into grief and the boys’ future into question. All he remembers is that “she went to hospital one day and didn’t come back.” Young Jack and David rolled with the punches. “There’s a thing about children,” he says. “Early on, you just accept life. It’s later in life that you might reflect on it and think, ‘That was tough’. But at the time, you do what’s required.”
Harold returned from the war unable or unwilling to care for two small boys. Their Aunt Beverley, who had been keeping an eye on them, had married a US serviceman. “She had a babe in arms,” Jack explains, “and was about to follow her husband to America. A whole ship was chartered and it was full of American war brides – most of them with babies. Before she left, she said to her father, ‘What are we going to do with Harry’s two little boys? We’ll have to put them in an orphanage.’”
Then they heard about The Children’s Seaside Hotel, or Lake House. A utopian experiment in residential education, it was set up by Irene Brown and Geyda Campbell – both teachers – the latter of whom had worked in England at A.S. Neill’s famous ‘free’ school, Summerhill.
Jack’s first memory of his father is of the day he and Aunt Beverley took the boys to Lake House. Immediately Jack had a sense that this would be a great adventure.
“Those women were motivated by the love of children,” he says. “No child was turned away. There were two kids with Down’s syndrome. A couple had learning difficulties. There were children who had been sent from Indonesia to relatives in Australia who had found they couldn’t look after them. There were children like David and myself who had come from broken homes; during the war, almost every home was broken. And there were day children whose parents were interested in this new form of education.”
With the Narrabeen Lagoon on one side and the ocean just across the road, there was plenty of fresh air and Famous Five-style outdoor exploring. Imagination and independence were encouraged, too. There was art and music, and Jack entertained other pupils with impromptu performances based on showreels he’d seen at the Saturday picture show.
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