Having known him for fifty-one years and eight months now, and having not got used in these last two years to the certainty of his passing, and buffeted more than I thought when it happened, find still his goodness, his mildness, his unstinted helpfulness, his unflappable resilience, his lack of anger and what I guess might be called his vow of poverty, puzzling. He might have directed Newsfront, which he co-wrote with me and Annie, and shot it all in black and white with McGoo on camera, as was our plan, adhering more closely to the excellent original script, its New Guinea sequence, its volcano sequence, its royal visit sequence, its Bradman sequence, and he might have had a career thereafter like Noyce’s, twenty million dollars per Hollywood movie, a Tom Clancy franchise, a welter of wives, incessant acclaim, and the rest of it.
He might have directed Phar Lap, and had a career thereafter like Wincer’s, Lonesome Dove, Free Willy, and the rest of it. He might have fought back, and with other obtrusive royal projects seized the day, and shyly, meekly, amusedly on Oscar night thanked some here in this room for their encouragement and guidance and thrift. Or, having been twice betrayed on a monumental, Iscariot scale, as he was, he might have dwindled into alcohol and carping and bitterness and foyers, as so many do. But he did not. He instead got on with it. He attended to his great love sailing, and the Sydney-Hobart race. He nurtured with guile and flair and relentlessness and lights and machetes and mosquito coils and sound systems and harried elderly actors his magnificent folly the Haven Amphitheatre. He commanded like Prospero the storms to stay away. I remember John Dease in a toga, stumbling around in a high wind at eighty in winter, perplexed in the role of Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome under Howard’s iron command. I remember twelve actors at microphones immortalising Under Mulga Wood, a work of genius improved by Howard, before, predictably, others took it from him, and he, predictably, let it go.
I puzzle at his forgiveness; and at the long hours given to projects in trouble, or in the process of stillbirth, or Christmas in the vegetation, when he might have been preening himself on the red carpets of Cannes and Venice, and on the front cover of Time magazine. It is indeed a puzzlement, as Yul Brynner might say.
I have thought about this, and I have decided that all of us, that is, all of us who are not swine, come early to a picture of what, in this life, we deserve, and are not all that comfortable with more. Howard got most, nearly all, of what he aspired to at fourteen: good books to read, the girl next door, foreign travel, physical adventure, the dawn glint of the Harbour silently running under a craft he loved like a woman, ten thousand jousts behind an Arriflex with light and time and framing and performance, the esteem of great actors, the comradely task of an unfinished script, the joy of rehearsal, the terror of opening night, the small but engulfing kingdom on earth of a theatre of his own, the pleasures of the table, good talk with friends, the extra-parental fulfilment of pupils learning the medium he knew so well, one small, classic, perfect, colloquial, Australian film, The Settlement, a beloved home he kept all his life in the great colonial sacred site that Burleigh Griffin built like a castle for those who like that sort of thing, good times, good books, good festival films, and three score years and ten of good health and a glad sun, rising.
He deserved so much more, and we know that, but it was what he was content with, easing himself through the day and night knowing well, or distantly suspecting, that he was beloved.
And rightly so. Bless you, Chaunce. Much missed. And well remembered. Our better angel. A light in our day.