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Our neighbour Sam



Our neighbor Sam is in his mid-seventies. He takes things quietly, enjoys a chat where our two gardens converge at a corner of the lambing paddock that unfolds beyond our shared wire fence and, regularly in summer, Sam is partial to a few cooling drinks. He is diabetic so he chooses his tipple very carefully and in line with such professional medical advice as he’s prepared to follow — which is not all of it. Still, he is very active, regularly mows his own considerable expanse of lawn, keeps an attractive, Australian garden and maintains a knowledgeable survey of the multitudinous bird life in our piece of the valley.

Sam in his garden, while politicians dismantle ABC sign (Chris Johnston)

Sam did not receive much more than the mandatory slice of early education and entered the work force as an apprentice butcher. Though successful, he moved on to the more gruelling but also at that time more lucrative truck driving. Meanwhile, however, he fell in love with a Dutch girl and after their marriage they moved to Amsterdam. In ensuing years, Sam mastered the language, broadened his skills from butchering and trucks to building and meanwhile the family took shape with the addition of two sons and a daughter.

Sam was fascinated by the ambience of Amsterdam and especially the Rijksmuseum which he visited as often as his day-to-day busy life would allow. There were names he’d heard of — Rembrandt, Vermeer — and others he hadn’t come across before — Franz Hals, Jan Brueghel, Ferdinand Bol. As he recalled those times in his slightly self-deprecating, measured way, yarning about great art over our Australian post-and-plain-wire fence, Sam would often admit to having felt in those years an excitement never again matched in his interesting life.

Back in Australia eventually, Sam and his wife encountered some hard times and the marriage faltered and finally broke down, though he remained in regular, amiable contact with the Ex, as he called her, and with his by then grown up family, routinely spending Christmas with them and visiting often.

With his health deteriorating, Sam was able to return to his old job as a butcher in a supermarket chain and, with the help of his daughter, he bought a small rural cottage on about half an acre on the edge of a beautiful, kilometres-long park-like paddock dotted with hundred-year old gums — the paddock which our garden fence also backed on to, and so we met.

Sam is an unobtrusive, courteous and thoughtful neighbour. When, at the beginning of our first winter in the district, my wife and I were unloading a ute-full of wood, Sam appeared unannounced at the fence wearing thick protective gloves (‘this split red gum is full of splinters, mate’) and got to work with us, emptying and stacking. Never one to intrude, Sam took several wood stacking episodes before suggesting politely to my wife that she buy some tough gloves for wood work’ and that her shoes were like ‘bloody slippers’ and she should get proper boots before she did some damage to her feet. But it was during these convivial working bees and the occasional after work drink that we came to realise that Sam is a man with a huge range of reference.


'...People who recognize attacks on and relentless defunding of the national broadcaster, bringing it close to effective annihilation, as a bridge of philistinism at last too far, as an ‘enough is enough’ moment.'


Without formal education but with a sharp, enquiring mind and being bilingual, Sam became a voluminous reader — of biography mostly but also Australian history and war history — and, in the absence of a Rijksmuseum, maintained his interest in classical art by careful choice of TV programs (he has recently acquired his first computer and is embarking on online researches). Sam is, in short, a genuine autodidact, self-taught, massively well-read and well informed.

But perhaps the most interesting observation Sam has made about his life of the past fifteen years — living alone, from time to time in indifferent health, intent on living and not merely seeing out the years, as he puts it — is his love of and dependence on the ABC. He listens to Radio National and ABC Classic, follows news on Channel 2 and tunes in to as many as possible of the ABC’s array of special programs — on health, sport, politics, gardening, documentaries and Indigenous affairs.

The enemies, opponents and disapprovers of the ABC include among others genuine intellectual critics, politically motivated activists and implacable ABC haters. In these categories, you can pick your own team from the usual suspects: Gerard Henderson, Chris Kenny, Andrew Bolt, Tony Abbott, the present Coalition government, most of its predecessors of either political stripe, The Australian, various ‘shock jocks’, Pauline Hanson et al.

It might be salutary for all of them to consider the possibility that there are many people like our friend Sam distributed across the country; people whose affection for, reliance upon and loyalty to the ABC cuts cleanly and sharply straight through their other preferences and connections. People who recognize attacks on and relentless defunding of the national broadcaster, bringing it close to effective annihilation, as a bridge of philistinism at last too far, as an ‘enough is enough’ moment.

Sam doesn’t claim much but he could be right about this one. Let’s hope, anyway.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, ABC, arts, history



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Existing comments

thanks for this thoughtful piece. it resonates well with folk I know. As I listen the ABC when in the car, I am amazed at the range of people and their jobs and professions, who call in. Many are tradies and 'ordinary ' workers. The breadth of the ABC audience is a treasure.

Gerard Moore | 04 August 2020  

I love this article Brian, Sam sounds very interesting. I think there are lots of "Sam's" out there, myself inlcuded. Please....lets keep fighting for our only truly balanced reporting organisation. Thank you Brian.

Julie | 04 August 2020  

Like the old grey mare, the ABC is not what she used to be. It is like watching the decline and slow death of a dear loved one. We used to be glued to our screens watching the best dramas, etc., but now I feel her slipping away from me, show by show, cut by cut. But still she provides the most intelligent political commentary and asks the hard questions of those in power: no wonder they hate her and wish her gone.

Claire | 04 August 2020  

Dear Brian What a heartwarming article ..... and a wonderful illustration of the importance and value of our national broadcaster.

Betsy | 04 August 2020  

Brian, Timely! I'm now early retired. As a newly minted Methodist minister in Central Western Qld, mid 1970s, I was pleasantly surprised to meet several accomplished, well respected farmers and graziers (males and females) whose formal education ended with primary school. Yet, their general knowledge and critical thinking was broad and deep. They were well known at the public library and, like Sam, saw the ABC as one of the jewels of Aussie community life. I remember these folks with real affection and have kept up contact with a few of them across the decades. Disturbingly clear to me that those who would run the ABC into the ground, asset strip it and flog it off are seriously disconnected from the main productive and flourishing currents of the broad Australian community.

Wayne Sanderson | 04 August 2020  

Ah so this is the bit for entering comments! Well Brian as I see in the other comments you have hit on a vein of journalistic gold. Like ‘Neighbour Sam’ , and in common with other ABC friends (unofficial of course) I value the services of the Public !! Broadcaster. As we are wisely counselled : “let us focus on the good “ as you have done in this article, and encourage one another. The ABC is not without faults but compared with some other media is a paragon of virtue. Enough is never enough for some!

Martyn | 04 August 2020  

A gentle and whimsical story of a very sweet - and smart - man - let's hear it for the auto-didacts - a very classy breed

Kaye Fallick | 04 August 2020  

Each year Australian educational facilities turn out new "quality" candidates to work in media; they're often faced with a period of serving a further apprenticeship as in an internship (unpaid or even required to pay course fees) which may or may not lead to emploment. Unfortunately, the ABC is already quite full of career public servants... It might be worth the consideration that ABC service tenures be limited to (say) 5 years, perhaps with an additional 2 year consultancy/training period for suitably qualified persons. Make space, move them on... get some fresh faces with new thinking; a nice tweed jacket to complement their cardigans would make a good gift as they depart for the real world of the private sector, or perhaps the full DVD set of "Spicks and Specks" which they seem to insist is perennial viewing. Remind them not to forget their slippers from under their old desk.

ray | 04 August 2020  

The ABC caused much harm to "another man in his 70's," an innocent man. What does Sam have to say about all the ABC media hype and damage caused by harassment and persecution towards that man? Moreover, the staff should make way for young indigenous Australian reporters and journalists. They would if they were some out there? Well, guess what? maybe they just gave up on the dream of being a journalist and working for the ABC after their HSC, before uni, because they realised, they would never have a chance! Nor the 'connections'. Call it ABC*BLM and you'll get a better authentic real Australian crowd bubbling the news. Moreover, it is just plan greedy, these days to hog a position for more than 10 years. Times have changed. It will never be as it was before Covid 19. Get over it. The Money Machine, Wall Street, and Monte Carlo Casino, delusion is over and BTW what's the difference? It's time to bring in the new. New people, new ideas, new faces. And I am not saying just those on the screen. I saying the grey suit men and stiletto heeled women behind the scenes who have been there since the Flintstones.

ao | 04 August 2020  

Brian, As a kid from the bush, ABC rural radio was our lifeblood for news , weather and current affairs In times of bush fires and floods "Aunty" was literally our lifeline. In Primary school in the 1950's, the Nuns used the good old valve radios, brought with raffles and prayers , located in each of our three classrooms, (Kindi ,first class and second class; third class/fourth class; fifth class/sixth class) so we could listen to the schools programs and learn about the world around us. When I left school (1965) we received ABC T.V. in the bush for the first time. (Sydney had it for at least a decade before). For the bush ABC Radio and TV is an essential service. We have seen, sadly for those who have passed on, what happens when 'for profit' businesses take over essential services like retirement villages or the communications and electricity supplies. Service collapses and costs skyrocket! If 'Aunty' is bled to death by a thousand cuts. we will end up with heaps of "fake news" and political nonsense as is the case with Murdoch and Sky News at present. The U.S. is a basket case as a result of "fake news". Do we want to follow suit? Sam's story is the story of most country Australians from my generation. Our kids deserve far better than the tosh dished out by foreign owned social media and monopoly owned commercial media outlets.

Gavin O'Brien | 04 August 2020  

Two gold nuggets - the ABC and Sam!

Anne Layon | 04 August 2020  

Sam reminds me of the “wharfie philosopher” Eric Hoffer who acquired his knowledge from reading books from public libraries. But while ABC provides good quality programs on topics like classical music and gardening, its political coverage lacks balance, and anything that goes against its in-house worldview is likely to be given short shrift. It has a reputation for being anti-Christian. Dr Stephen Chavura, lecturer in history at Campion College, said, “There are Christians working at the ABC who are afraid to identify themselves for fear of persecution.” And it runs agendas. Professor Greg Craven slammed the ABC for being “part of the cheer squad” out to get Cardinal George Pell. The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent ran a program making sensational allegations of an Australian government cover-up of the wartime hangings of Japanese collaborators at Higaturu in PNG. But that history was well known in PNG, and the ABC had even contacted historian Hank Nelson who had written three books in which these events were treated, one being published by the ABC itself. Nelson’s contribution was ignored presumably because it contradicted the desired conspiracy narrative. Mark Twain was correct: “It’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so”

Ross Howard | 04 August 2020  

Couldn't agree more! The integrity and truth telling of the ABC lies in stark contrast to the often distorted views of many of her detractors. Thanks for your comments, Brian. They are well placed!

Jim Slingsby | 05 August 2020  

As a child with a thirst for knowledge of the wider world, growing up on a farm in a small rural community, my small world was immeasurably enlivened and enriched by the weekday hour-long wireless broadcasts of the Argonauts' Club, while my mother would catch her breath with "Blue Hills", and silence was religiously observed around the dining table while my father and grandfather listened to the evening news. Decades on, in recent years I've been in the habit of just leaving ABC Radio National on during my waking hours, so that every time I step into the house after going out, there's something interesting and informative to listen to. I have always thought of the ABC as the Voice of Australia, and not only "white" Australia, as there've been many programmes, both regular and special features, focusing on the human diversity that is Australia, including First Nations Australia and its languages. I hesitate to use the word iconoclasm, since a medium as volatile as radio is inherently responsive and adaptable to its changing environment. But the ABC and its works have helped to shape, articulate and communicate a unique national identity, usually for the better. How sad that this voice of and for the people is being systematically gagged and silenced.

Jena Woodhouse | 05 August 2020  

Thanks for this, Brian. It's appalling the way the ABC is penalised for being the ABC. How many years in a row have they had to endure funding cuts, and shed the staff who play an important role in keeping us informed? Some of the wisest people I know (admittedly now in their seventies and eighties; perhaps that says something of the benefits of life experieince) had limited opportunities for secondary and tertiary education; they made up for those deficits as did your neighbour Sam. More power to them!

Barry Gittins | 05 August 2020  

I like wine. So I pay for it. I don't ask other Aussies to subsidize my preference. If you like the ABC, then demonstrate your preference by paying for it yourself. If someone disagrees with its systemically leftist line or anything else about it, they shouldn't be screwed to pay for it. What's the problem? The reply "Oh, but lots of other people really love the ABC!" is not to the point. Lots of other people really like wine!

HH | 05 August 2020  

What a delightful and insightful piece. I warm to the sentiment expressed; and have come across many 'Sams' who, lacking opportunity for a formal education, nevertheless show more wisdom and intelligence than many with strings of letters after their name. The ABC is a wonderful font of learning and interest. It is a beautiful masterpiece deserving to be preserved for out children's children. Only professional haters and philistines would want to destroy it.

David Philp | 06 August 2020  

Only professional lovers of justice, righteousness and those who know substance is subject, want to see a positive change. What's real can't die.

DAVID | 07 August 2020  

BTW. News today also on the ABC: Australian television a whitewash as Anglo-Celtic presents dominate newsrooms. Media Diversity report finds 76% of presenters,commentators and reporters are Anglo- Celtic despite making only 585 of the Australian population.

AO | 17 August 2020  

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