“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)





26 January 2012



Death of a Shed Man

One of the great shed men left us last week.

I have written about sheds before: how a proper shed is better than a grand hotel; and how those who manage sheds, and grow them, and coddle them through their birth and the sparse, lonesome difficulties of adolescence, to the prime, well-cluttered years of middle life and maturity, are usually our finest citizens.

Ian MacDonald’s shed was a new one to me, and I got to visit it only the once.  It had cosy leather chairs and the vital organs of motorcycles polished and displayed on tidy shelves.  It had several wings – it was one of those sheds which had, well, grown.  Part of it had that breed of roof from which all things hang, and you could sit there and drink and tell the truth about machinery.  One of its extensions sort of wrapped around the side of the house like a big warm arm, and it had a fridge full of icy cold beer perched on its elbow.  Lucy, the shed-owner’s daughter, in a delinquent, solicitious whisper, told me of that fridge on the day of my visit, and I applied myself with all due diligence. It was our secret fridge.

Partly because he was an incredibly practical man, partly because he was one of our best architects and civic thinkers, and largely because he loved motorcycles with an intense, burning passion, did MacDonald build his shed between his house and the street.  That shed was the first thing you’d reach once you’d gone through his gateway.  Only past the shed would you come to the back of the house.

That house faced into the block, its back to the street, so the shed gradually became the house.  The yard space was mainly past the house, out in the bit we would usually call the back; fenced and private.  Ian called that his front.  Sometimes it filled with motorcycles, too, but the easiest place to park was amongst the bushes near the street.  You would gather around, beside, or inside the shed.

It’s funny how you see a drinking companion on the horizon.  Ian MacDonald came from an unusual direction for me – he invited me to join him and his colleagues on the Civic Trust jury, and through our numerous meetings and deliberations I reveled in his wit and wisdom and his huge concern for the look and feel of our city.

The only drink we got to share through all of that was water.  But that was little matter.  There would be plenty of time once the work was done.  “We shall all go out to dinner,” he said, and I knew we would.

So when my mate invited me to his house for a few quiet drinks to celebrate his eightieth birthday, I slowly filled with a calm, warm, patient anticipation.

“If you’ve got an old motorbike to ride, I’d advise you to bring it,” he said.

The row of impacted vertebrae in my back and the various arthritic hinges and pulleys spread about my minions are reason enough for me to have long ago abandoned motorcycles as a mode of transport.  Bikes have been promoted to items of pure idolatry for me: something to whisper about from a good way back; far too awesome to stroke.  Leave the riding to the eighty-somethings, I told myself.  I would take a taxi, and instead of thrilling transport, I would find a nice bottle.

Finding a good birth vintage wine for an octogenarian is a difficult task – the best I could manage was a 1923 tawny. It had come from the Yalumba Museum, and had obviously been re-corked and waxed with great care, so I negotiated a price, bit my lip, and headed back up the track to Ian’s party.


You couldn’t get in for bikes.  There were dozens.  Broughs and Bimmers and Vincents, Ducatis and Harley-Davidsons, and one lonesome Tilbrook.  Kym Bonython came in on his famous MV Agusta, and there grinning in the midst of it was MacDonald.

“Put this away,” I said.  “Have it later.  It’s special.”

“Okay. I’ll start working on the guest list.”

He held that bottle with both hands.  It was just a matter of waiting.  We would be having dinner soon, by Jove.

The day prickled by – it was very hot and blue and the seed pods popped with the stubby lids.  The buzz of anecdote and honeybee slowed now and then when one of the mighty engines lit up, giving the noses as much to work on as the ears and eyes.

Ian did the rounds, but stuck mainly to his shed, where eventually, once the mobs thinned, we sat beneath the dangling bits that would come in handy one day and pulled the corks from a few deep reds.  Wendouree Shiraz at shed temperature.  Australia in the summer.  Lazy, bright, humourous yarns and laughter there ’neath the galvo with Pitti and Lu and some well-worn, lived-in mates.  Shed gospel.

Something about Shiraz it was, too.  Something about how deep and dark and compact the winesmith squashes history when he turns out a good one like the Wendouree. It was all confidence-boosting, reassuring stuff. We would all last as long as that damned Wendouree.

Of course we can’t.

When the bad news came, I wailed and cruised the bars, looking for the odd stray trace of this remarkable, beloved bloke with whom I would never again share communion.  Then I got to thinking about that bottle of port, and took deep relish in the thought that at least he’d left with my shout warming his belly.


But no, I should have known.  Ian MacDonald had promised to share that port over a dinner.  At the funeral Lu said she’d found a good bottle of port she’d once bought him, and she thought there was one from me there as well.  The skinny old bloke with the scythe was among the few who had managed to force Ian to change his word.  “So you’d better come and help me with it,” she warned me.

You bloody bet I’ll help with it.  And anything else that needs to be cleaned up.  And I’ll never forget dear Pitti, suddenly adjusting to this foreign thing they call widowhood, looking into me to say:  “It was such a short friendship, Philip.”  Short friendship indeed.  Just a glimpse, really.  A glimpse and a visit and a red in the shed.  But such a bright, full, fortunate glimpse of a drinking chap on his sweet home patch.  A bloke who’d actually got there.

This was previously published in The Advertiser, again in Stories from The Shed (Mark Thomson; Angas and Robertson; 1996) and again in The Complete Blokes And Sheds (Mark Thomson; Angas and Robertson; 2005).  If anyone has a photograph of Ian MacDonald on a bike - or off - I would dearly appreciate a copy!



Giffo said...

Thank you for a beautiful piece Whitey


Whatever happened to the Civic Trust, Whitey? Are you still on it? Do they still do Bouquets and Brickbats? Seems to have been very quiet!

Philip White said...

I lost contact sometime soon after Ian's death, but it's still barrelling on. I loved my time on that jury, travelling the state to inspect and judge new developments and buildings with such an enlightening group. They still make Bouquets and Brickbats awards, but get nowhere near the press exposure they had in those days. The website is http://www.civictrust.net.au/

Philip White said...

A yarn about Kym. Whoever built the horrid little suburb on the site of his old territory, the Rowley Park Speedway, had nominated themselves for a Bouquet. We walked around the joint, shaking our heads. Eventually he stopped and said "Can you remind me to change my will when we get home? There are bits of me spread all over this ground. I think I've nominated that this is where I want my ashes spread. I'd better change that!"

M. Arananga said...

Is that where that bastard Twelftree stole the name of his winery?