“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”


DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)


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05 January 2014

SYLVIA MAY WHITE

photo Stephen White




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Eulogy for Sylvia May White - 14 04 31 - 22 12 13






Mum's father, Ted Seymour was born in 1901.  He was a charismatic, headstrong man, brought up by a foster mother, Mrs Lansbury. He worked in middle management in the Central Spring Works, a dirty foundry that made huge coil springs for railway carriages.  Extremely fit in his early days, he was a fearsome and brutal boxer and racing cyclist.  He married Kathleen Geraghty, another tough Melbournite of very strong will, and together they raised seven children.

Kath Seymour came in 1926, Teddie in 27.  Sylvia May was number three in 1931.

Margaret followed in 33, David in 36, Philip in 39 and Donald in 42.

That's seven extra mouths to feed during the Great Depression.

Kath, Margaret and Philip survive.

Apart from his paid career, Ted, Mum's father - we called him Poppa Sizz - took up a 24 hour-a-day task preaching the hot gospel at his Calvary Gospel Mission in the old Buffalo Lodge beside a pub in Church Street.  With his famous Red Terror - a big old blood red removal van painted with Bible texts, and stacked with loudspeakers and batteries - he would work the local pubs and streets. These were parts thick with lost souls - each one a jewel for his Father's Heavenly Kingdom.

Poppa Sizz set in train a chain of fierce evangelical faith that has extended for four generations.

It was a life without the luxury we measure in physical goods, but one built tightly around the non-conformist protestant Christian family.

We lived according to 2 Corinthians 6:17:

 

"come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean [thing]." 

The nine Seymours squeezed into a tiny four-room timber row cottage in the slums in Stawell Street, Burnley, with a little sleepout in a backyard that boasted the first clothes hoist I ever saw, along with pots of Maiden hair fern, Crucifix orchids and the spiky Crown of Thorns plant.

That backyard was smaller than the modern living-room.

Stephen, Paul, Helen, Sylvia, Philip and Mark in the Callington town hall after burying Dad in the local Boot Hill ... photo Milton Wordley
While he hated the Catholic crucifix with its nailed Christ, and believed unswervingly in the resurrected, risen Jesus, Poppa Sizz liked explaining the crucifixion aspect of his plants to us little kids, just as I recall him showing me a huge vat of white-hot, boiling liquid salt at his work.  It was used to cure the giant springs which were lowered into it, to give them their lifelong spring, but to him it was a reminder of the fire of Hell.

Little Philip never forgot that.  It was a threat.

I've never liked being threatened.

photo Nadia Nottle
At the back of the Stawell Street cottage was the typical rusty galvo wash-house with its concrete laundry troughs and copper, for boiling the clothes, along with a very modern industrial spin-dryer which worked by mains water pressure. 

Behind that was the basalt-cobbled lane for the night cart, which the Seymour boys called the Deep Misery Wagon.  Everything was horse-drawn.  At the front, vendors would deliver the milk, the Ice Man delivered the huge ice blocks that made the fridge cool; another big Clydesdale delivered briquettes for heating fuel.

The Burnley air our lovely Mum grew up breathing was always thick with the smell of local industry: foundries, steam trains, the Skipping Girl vinegar factory, the sinful whiff of breweries and the acrid waft of the coal and briquettes which that huge city used for fuel. 

photo Milton Wordley

Ever resourceful, Sylvia and her siblings were the first out on the street to scrape up the horse manure for that tiny garden.  They were known on their patch as the Nure Kids. Til her last days in Kanmantoo, Sylvia was always careful to compost her kitchen scraps with any manure she could lay her hands on. 

Sylvia, Sylvie - Mum - rebelliously followed her big brother and sister to Sydney at a very early age, I think sixteen, where she tasted the bits of life that her Dad preached against.  Poppy Sizz found her big sister Kath's Bible in the second-hand book shop where she'd sold it for the cash she needed to flee.  He tracked them down.  Soon Sylvia was back in Burnley, contrite and unswervingly converted to the faith that kept her going for the rest of her life.

photo Stephen White
Sylvie soon took over as second lieutenant to her busy mother and fierce father, keeping the siblings in line.  She was known on the trams as a loving sister for her little brothers, and would spit on her comb to part their hair as she delivered them to school

She took work at S. John Bacon, a Collins Street bookseller who specialised in Christian books at the front while he ran an SP book out the back, taking illegal bets over the phone. In those days, phones were a rarity.  While Sylvia gave him some legitimacy, Bacon was sensibly nervous of his fierce fundamentalist employee discovering too much about this - not to mention her scary firebrand Dad - so Bacon was always wary, and never very kind to her.

Preparing books for post, Sylvia learned the most creative forms of string packaging.  She knew many knots.  She was a famous hoarder of string, just in case it came in handy.  She never ever threw out a plastic bag.  I once caught her putting Glad Wrap off the butcher's meat in the washing machine.

James Christopher White - Pastor Jimmy - our Dad, lived on a dairy farm called Carrington, on the Leongatha Road overlooking the La Trobe Valley near Yarragon in Gippsland, eastern Victoria.  A dissatisfied Methodist lay preacher, he made a habit of scouring Melbourne for fundamentalist groups he felt lived a life closer to that of the Christ he sought to follow.

Upon his introduction to the Seymours, Dad quickly took a shine to the beautiful Sylvia.  His street-preaching career began outside a Richmond pub at closing time, when Poppy Sizz offered him the chance to have a go at the gospel, front line.   His preaching efforts so impressed his God-fearing sweetheart that she spent her entire life supporting and encouraging him in his relentless service of their Lord.

photo Milton Wordley
Until she went almost totally deaf, Sylvie loved to hear Jimmy preach. He was her rock star.  She couldn't get enough of it.  After she went deaf, it mattered no longer.  She trusted him and their blessed Lord.  She loved to watch and feel the Spirit move.  But she overcame her deafness to sing a brave and victorious How Great Thou Art to help him through to the saints in glory as he died in August.

She also had a go at One Bright Morning.

I have never heard more haunted, spooky heartfelt yearnings, with that old voice cracking right where it should. [Couldn't say the same for the pitch, but she was close.]

Jim and Sylvie were married by Pastor Jackel and Pastor MacNaughton at Swanston St Melbourne on 3rd November 1951. For a wedding present, Dad's parents shouted him a set of false teeth, which meant pulling all his good teeth out with the bad ones, and jamming in a brand new rock-hard plate. 

This made their honeymoon difficult.

The hills of Yarragon were a far cry from the back lanes of Burnley.  There would be snow on the Mountain Ash forests in the Strezlecki Ranges on the uphill side, and more on the Alps across the La Trobe Valley on the other.   Between those ranges, below us, stretched that broad flat green valley, with its little farms, regular floods, and railway busy with long steam trains taking coal and briquettes to Melbourne.

During nearly nine years there, Sylvia and James had four boys.  I came in 1952 - I'm Philip Christopher - Stephen James in 54, Paul David in 57, and Andrew John in 59.  While Carrington was a graceful largish house for those parts, the six of us shared with Dad's parents Sarah Helen and Andrew James, who we called Nanny and Poppy White, and their second son, the rambunctious Robert Alexander.

While I loved my infant years at Carrington, even as a six or seven year old, I knew this was an awkward arrangement, as Poppy White and Uncle Robert were very obviously not of the faith.

When Robert's new wife, Judith, arrived with her lipstick and leopard skin negligee, it was over.  She was a beauty. She is still a beauty.

Old Pop would shake his head and say "What have I done?  One of my sons is a fanatic for religion and the other a fanatic for the booze!"

This put Mum in an awkward position, keeping her beloved sons from the influence of sin.


My beloved brother Andrew (dec) on his way to France ... photo Stephen White
Dad had contacts in the International Council of Christian Churches, a hard-core evangelical fundamentalist outfit set up to counteract the ecumenical movement.  His mates were the likes of Dr Bob Jones Jr., Dr. Carl McIntyre and Rev Dr Ian Paisley.  

Through this organisation he was put in touch with a group of like-minded Christians who'd separated from organised protestant congregations in the Murray Mallee and the Adelaide Hills.  They sent elders Doug Mumford and Gene Davis to Yarragon to interview their prospective Pastor, and soon we were all packed up in the Peugeot station wagon, and off on the long road west to Kanmantoo.

While Mum was delighted to be free of the friction of Carrington-Yarragon, and very proud of her handsome husband's new enterprise doing the Lord's work, Kanmantoo was as different to Yarragon as Yarragon was to the Burnley slums.

Dad's new congregation at the Murray Bridge Bible Christian Church had rented for us the Shepherd's Cottage at Kanmantoo.  Mum was back in a four-room home, but this was isolated, it was made of stone, and it was, for a time, hers.  And it had only six people in it - her, her beloved husband Jimmy, and their four boys.  I shall never forget the girlish glee she showed when Dad bought her a new Electrolux vacuum cleaner.  Kanmantoo was dusty.

As a kid I missed the mountains, the forests, the snow and the cattle of Yarragon.  Kanmantoo was all soursobs, Salvation Jane, smelly sheep, The Big Erosion, rocks and lots and lots of preaching and communal prayer. In the summer, everything died and blew away. 

photo Milton Wodley
She never seemed to do much good at it, but Mum was stalwart in her attempts to defeat that rain shadow aridity and the stony ground with her composts. Her tiniest green successes brought her triumphant glee.

She moved for a while to a fairly new and modern house owned by Charlie Rowley on the other side of town.  It had classic sixties pastel-coloured cupboards with chrome handles.  Mum loved that, bought plates to match, and soon, on 1st September 1964, sister Helen Kathleen was born.

As much as us boys did, Mum loved letting our new baby sister careen down the hill there in the pram, or in the beautiful billy cart Poppy Sizz made for us and personally delivered from Melbourne. It was painted like the Rietveld Red and Blue Chair.

They were days of laughter.

photo Milton Wordley


Things changed again when we moved into the Black Dog Inn.  An 1853 pub built by Peter Lewis Snr, it had most recently housed Mrs Sloithe, who'd raised eight or nine daughters and a son there; her youngest.  It had jarrah timber floors in the front bar, as well as the lounge and the ladies saloon at the front, and somebody'd put cheaper timber in the big room at the end to make a dance hall, where previously Cobb & Co would unload their stagecoach passengers on a dirt floor, but under the comfort of a sheltering roof.

All the tiny bedrooms at the back had mud floors and very low hessian ceilings stuffed with dried wormwood.  The door lintels and gutters were about 5'6".  Somehow Dad raised the money to have these rooms replaced with a modest asbestos and plasterboard kitchen, laundry, bathroom and bedroom, all on a very modern concrete slab, and paid Mrs Sloithe off with a weekly stipend from the tithes his small congregation put in the collection plate on Sunday.

The Seymours and the Whites, cousin James Grundy behind Helen ... photo Milton Wordley
As the eldest son, I was skilled at observing exactly how much money each constituent put in the plate as I did the collection after they'd drunk Jesus blood but before the preaching. When they hid their contribution in an envelope, I was expert at remembering which was theirs. Dad never asked the details; I never confessed.  But I learned a lot about tithing.

And I've never really understood or wanted money since.

A very proud, beaming Sylvia brought Mark Alexander White home to her new bedroom a few days after his birth on 7th January 1966.  His bassinette went in there with Helen's cot; us four older boys slept in the bar-room, which was set up like a dormitory.  The tiny gentleman's saloon became the sitting room for small prayer meetings, the even smaller ladies' lounge a guest bedroom and the stagecoach/dancing room at the end became the Meeting Room for big prayer meetings and worship services with another small bedroom at one end.

We loved to sing the good fiery hymns, and Mum sang like Emmylou Harris.  

As we drove to church, or anywhere, with the tartan Willow cooler filled with food in the back of the Austin Freeway station wagon with the Blue Streak Six, and the pram wheels up-side down on the roof, we sang ragged-to-perfect gospel harmonies, led by Mum. 

[That tragic backslider, George Jones, obviously didn't know the words in the clip I've chosen to illustrate Dust On The Bible.] 

There was no dust on the White family Bibles.  And we always sang our country throats clear:

So we roll the old chariot along.

Some bright morning when the day is dawning.

What a friend we have in Jesus. 

You get my drift.

The years after Mark's birth were very happy ones for Sylvia, rich with the simple pleasure she loved most.  She could entertain, she could worship, and she could be surrounded by Christian kids as well as the odd orphan or lad or lass from a troubled family, which were many, and constant.  She loved having a house full of kids.  She'd joke and skite and cook biscuits on the woodfire stove and make endless pots of tea.

Sylvie loved Jimmie driving us back to Melbourne for holidays, where'd she'd spend her meagre savings on treats like banburies, nutloaf and bird's nests at the magnificent Roger's cake shop in Burnley Street.  

And she'd take us to the fashion quarter discount shops like Dimmey's, and buy us the best modern clothes, always fine-cut. 

Until my brothers got in on it, I was the only kid at my school with beautiful Italian shoes.

Mum wanted us to dress well.  She dressed us well.

But as her sons grew, the very thing she'd witnessed in Burnley began again. 

Just as her brothers and sister left to find their own way in the world, so she could see the sons she'd promised to God as missionaries beginning to look further afield for adventure, employment, learning and the sort of love that a mother cannot offer.

Stephen, Paul and Andrew ... photo Philip White

No amount of Bible reading and loud prayer at the table after dinner could slow us down.

Living in a mining town gave us boys a knowledge that was the key to the highway. 

The tireless ferocity of Mum and Dad's fundamentalist faith made it impossible  for any of us sons to leave the religion without also, painfully, leaving the family.  That was never an easy decision to take.  Once we'd gone, or even began to venture forth, our worldly ways were obviously a threat to the Christianity left behind and the family which was part of it and totally dependent upon it.

photo Nadia Nottle
Reading my own diaries last night, I was painfully aware by the age of seventeen that using the intellect that Mum's heavenly Father put in my head was well and truly out of bounds.

I was the first to go, and I can say I took no pleasure in the bitter discomfort my dear Mum showed at my choice of new life.  One son, two, three, four ... off we went.  I ran to the city, my brothers to the far outback.

Upon our return from afar, Mum would always measure the sin on our breath with a deep analytical sniff, before she delivered the loving, prayerful, forgiving kiss.

I was always fascinated by the number of sins she recognised by smell ... eventually I ceased to feel like Judas at our loving familial kiss.

As a person who has made a profession from the ability of his nose, sniffing wine for thirty five years, I am always aware of where this skill originated. It is genetic. One of Mum's mother's great greats through her Mum was James Barry, the first parfumier and essential oils distiller in the colony of Victoria.

Through all this turmoil of growing up, only my beloved Helen held the faith, which she stalwartly does, with her three sons, to this day.

I bow.

My Mum's mother, Kathleen Seymour, died in 1981.  My bother Andrew, a skilled bushman and stockman by the age of twenty, died with my cousin Jenny - uncle Philip and Aunty Beth's eldest - in a car crash on the way to her funeral.  Mum, Dad, Helen and Mark were on a preaching tour somewhere in the southern states of America, but somehow got home for their funeral in a US air controller's strike which lasted weeks.

Sylvie with her brother Philip at Jimmy's funeral ... photo Milton Wordley
The grief Mum and uncle Philip showed at the death of those young ones was something nobody should see.

After that, a great gulf of boundless sadness took over, along with a certain softening.  If only on a tiny scale, Mum was more forgiving of our worldly ways, and was much more appreciative when her growing sons dared to visit.

I ran off into the world in 1972, expecting no support from my parents.  That was tricky, but I managed.  I lived by faith.  When I won my Commonwealth Scholarship to tertiary study, and Pastor Jimmy told me the university was a Communist training camp and I should "get out now" Mum bought me a very fine sleeping bag.

She loved me, as she loved many.

photo Milton Wordley

I admit that during many years I avoided Kanmantoo.  I took few friends there, for fear of them being preached at.  I knew that Sylvia would always be there at the stove, the table, the fireside, looking for laughter and fellowship and the opportunity to lead visitors to Jesus. 

I learned years later from other people in that funny little village how their kids loved Sylvia, who was never so happy as the days her home was wriggling with children.  Some of them are here now.  Dad would sit there, reading the Bible like a stern professor, while Mum would serve tea and soft drinks and lollies, and love to be bounced on and giggled at by young'uns as she surrendered to the couch.

When sister Helen's husband, Pastor Andrew John Jenkins died in his home state of Mississippi in 2004, Helen returned with her three sons, Andrew James, Edward Lee, and Jonathon Alexander, to live beside Mum and Dad in their new house up the hill, above the floodline.

They were delighted to have more kids at hand, and more delighted to have Helen next door to assist them in their last years.

Brother Mark Alexander had by then purchased the Black Dog Inn from Pastor Jimmy, and with his weekend visits with wife Caroline Lucy and kids Zaccheus Alexander Brian and Lana Lucy-May White helped pump that new White House on the hill with back-ups, not to mention help with mowing the grass.

photo Milton Wordley
Helen is a hero.  She did what I, as a non-believer could not do: over several years she helped ease my Father, and now my Mother, into their Heaven.

After their long illnesses, they're far better off now, back where they were before they were conceived.  Maybe that IS my heaven. 

There are many fine young adults I encounter now who tell me how Sylvie and Pastor Jimmy always offered them entertainment and merry fellowship as they grew up in that tiny isolated town.

Sure, we shared it all our lives, and watched our Mum and Dad practically witness for their Lord, and give and preach, and pray, and love ... but that's a family matter. You can have a bit of it, look at it, and love it, and live on it, but you'll never really know what it was like inside.

photo Milton Wordley


That's not important now.  What's important now are our memories, which we must nourish and preserve.

As Nadia, the first daughter of brother Paul and his wife Margaret, told me last night: 

I was Nan's first grandchild, then I gave her her first great grand child!

In her last few months, my kids and I would try to visit fortnightly and take her out for the afternoon.  Sometimes to a local playground where she would sit on the grass and watch the kids run and play, sometimes we would drive to Meadows, Murray Bridge or back down my way to Victor.

photo Philip White


One afternoon, during the whale season, we went to Middleton, stocked up on bakery food and went whale watching. She told me that she'd never seen a whale in her life.  So we sat on the grass and watched half a dozen whales leaping out of the water putting on a great performance, just for her and the little kids ...

I really want to thank Nan for being the most beautiful, loving and caring person ... 

from ALL of her grandchildren, thank her so much for raising the most wonderful children, thus leaving us with a loving and supportive extended family and the very BEST parents in the world! 

So I finish my awkward sermon and say from the bottom of my heart, thankyou Sylvia.  You were a champion, fierce, ever-loving Mum. And a perfect testament to your undying faith.

Join Jimmy and the saints in glory, happy in the fine, moral, upstanding and determined tribe you've left.

We are very very strong.

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photo Nadia Nottle











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photo Mick Wordley Dad in the cold hard ground 13 08 30
photo Milton Wordley Mum in the truck 14 01 03







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13 comments:

Pedro said...

Beautiful

Anonymous said...

i wish you had more parents

Ms Ya Ya said...

Beautiful words and photos for a very momentous moment in your life, Philip. My heart goes out to you, dear man. Much love and many hugs. Annabelle

@anthonyjmadigan said...


Sorry to hear about your Mum. Writing doesn't get any better than this.

@panda9d said...



I think you pulled it off beautifully.

@crazyeagles71 said...



An amazing read, thanks Philip.

@TheWineRules1 said...


Thank you for sharing her Philip Christopher. You are a good son. And loved. Despite your non-conforming ways.

@sandyn1cman1s said...



Pure words of beauty and heartfelt!

@KeithConlon said...



A privilege to 'meet' your Mum, Philip - and know you a little better.

@Keira_McIntosh said...


It's beautiful Philip. Thank you for sharing her with us.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful stuff Philip. As Anthony said, as good as it gets.

Grant Dodd

Robbie B said...

Dear Philip:

this eulogy has an unvarnished quality rarely seen in your writing.(BTW, that’s not a backhander!)

Beautiful.

Funny, the things that unite our damned blessed souls are the invisible shared tics, our not-always-smooth relationship with our parents and kin and the way it can haunt while yet you love deeply.

As always, I enjoy your thinking.

Anonymous said...

Whoever Pedro is I think he summed up exactly what the rest of us readers feel about you and your writing Philip Just that one single word encapsulates it; "beautifully"