When we were kids, my sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch TV during dinner. The risk of seeing John Howard was too much for my parents to bear.
In the months after he became Prime Minister, Mum and Dad wore their opposition proudly: chortling of his imminent demise and slapping a “Don’t Blame Me I voted Labor” sticker on our dusty family van. But as the Howard months turned into the Howard years, their mood turned first to frustration – Dad would refer to Howard no longer as “the miserable little man” but as “the little shit” or “the little dickhead” – and eventually to enforced censorship. Should Howard slip through their low-fi parental block, unexpectedly cropping up on The 7:30 Report (G’day there Kerry) he could expect a missile launched his way before promptly being switched off. My Mum was throwing shoes at John Howard long before it became fashionable on Q&A.
But I for one relished what televised glimpses of John Howard I could manage: those bushy eyebrows, suddenly plucked to make him electorally palatable; the chunky bulletproof vest under his shirt after the Port Arthur massacre; the loud shirts at APEC summits; the louder Wallabies tracksuit on his morning powerwalk. He was a strange sort of fashion icon.
My favourite item in Howard’s wardrobe was his Akubra. Reserved for visits to marginal, rural electorates, it was always accompanied by a Drizabone – irrespective of the forecast – and a pair of RM Williams boots.
What I found most intriguing about the hat was its pristine condition. Flat brimmed, symmetrical and impermeable, it was so different to the hats my farmer father wore in the paddocks of my youth – tatty, smelly, rags of things, luridly stained bright pink with serrated tussock poison and full of holes to facilitate skin cancer growth.
Years later, two weeks before I turned 30, I got a phone call from my Mum. Dad was in an ambulance. He’d had an accident, and the thumb on his favoured hand was broken in several places.
Farming families often need a crisis to start a conversation about succession, and this was ours. In time my Dad’s thumb made a (near) full recovery, but since that phone call I’ve spent one day a week working on the farm.
In honour of this new direction in career, and largely in jest, a friend gave me an Akubra for my 30th birthday. It was, I realised when I took it out of its box and studied it – flat brimmed, symmetrical and impermeable – Howard’s hat.
In the year and half since, JH, as I call it, has come to mark my progress as an apprentice farmer. This, sweat-stained, smelly and misshapen piece of rabbit felt you see today wasn’t always so charming. After hundreds of hours of being sat on, blown off and pulled back on, JH has slowly come to fit my head – and my nascent identity as a primary producer.
The days I spend with my dad on the farm are ones of quiet, wholesome routine: straining up fences. Marking calves. Planting trees. Hanging gates. Rejuvenating creeks. There are rituals to observe: morning tea with Michael Cathcart. Lunch with Eleanor Hall. Afternoon tea with Phillip Adams. Opening the ute door for Suey the sheepdog; swearing at Suey the sheepdog when she refuses to hop in next to us. Me and Dad don’t say much to each other while we work, but I’m sure I’ll look back on these days as among the richest I’ve spent with him. There is a silent transaction underway. Skills are being taught. Knowledge, shared.
Bearing witness to it all, in sun and rain, is JH. Every time I go out to the farm to work, the first thing I do is put on my hat. I’ve come to rely on JH. Maybe a little too much.
Late last year I accompanied my parents to a cattle sale in Victoria’s Western District. Naturally, I wore JH. Among this crowd of beetroot-faced, overweight cattle prospectors, JH was among the dirtiest, biggest, hats. I looked the part – much to Dad’s chagrin. Worse than John Howard, he remarked as we got in the car to leave, now I looked like a member of the Young Nationals.
Sam Vincent's first book, Blood and Guts, work of narrative nonfiction about whaling in Antarctica, was longlisted for the 2015 Walkley Book Award. It is currently on the shortlist of the 2015 ACT Book of the Year award, and the 2015 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature. He is a regular contributor to the Monthly, and is currently working on a new book idea.