Julian Robertson, Tasmania Regional Meeting.
I was born in England, but my childhood was also spent in a variety of countries – Burma, Norway, Jordan, and Malaysia, where my father was posted with the British army. I grew up having to make a new set of friends every couple of years, but I received a wonderful international education, and as a result I have always felt a strong connection with people of other cultures.
My spiritual awakening was in my teenage years. One morning I was lying in bed listening to an Anglican service on the radio, and I felt a strong sense of the presence of what I then called God. It was the beginning of a long journey.
I attended London University in the mid-sixties, and eventually obtained a degree in mining engineering. During this time I spent a year working on a gold mine in South Africa, just at the time apartheid was a very public issue in the UK. I gained first-hand experience of the brutality of racism.
I then joined the Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies, and after six months training in the Netherlands, was posted to Qatar, as a well-site petroleum engineer.
It was interesting work, but my career as an oilman was doomed from the start! It was the seventies, and I was part of that generation that wanted a better world. As well as this, and partly through my mother who had become a Theosophist, I was introduced to the writings of J Krishnamurti, who encouraged people not to belong to any organised religion, but to be fully human. It was heady stuff for us young seekers!
And so I resigned from Shell and travelled deck class by ship from Dubai to India, in search of the Truth! And of course, 40 years later, I am still searching, but hopefully a little further along the path.
In all I spent seven years in India, most of the time working as a volunteer in a rural health centre called Seva Nilayam, or Home of Service. I regularly stayed at an ashram situated on the banks of the Cauvery River, Shantivanam, and run by a Benedictine monk called Dom Bede Griffiths. My visits there were inspiring. I also became a committed Vipassana meditator, and this practice continues to influence my spiritual path and my Quaker worship.
I first heard about Quakers in India. Canadian Quakers had volunteered at Seva Nilayam instead of doing military service, and one of the very supportive donors to our work was the US organisation, Right Sharing of World Resources. The British Quaker, Marjorie Sykes, who lived in India and worked with Mohandas Gandhi, visited us at Seva Nilayam.
Whilst in India I met Kay, who was travelling overland from Australia to Europe, but wanted to volunteer her nursing skills on the way. She had already spent a couple of years in Papua New Guinea with Australian Volunteers Abroad. We are about to celebrate 39 years of marriage.
Also whilst in India I decided on a change of career. I had been inspired by Jean Piaget’s book ‘The Moral Judgement of the Child’, and by Maria Montessori’s ‘The Discovery of the Child’, and I now wanted to be a schoolteacher.
After three years in India we travelled to England where I did my teacher training at Sussex University, and then taught in a delightful little primary school at Long Eaton, between Nottingham and Derby. But the call of India was too strong, and we returned to Seva Nilayam for another four years.
During this time we met our son, Christopher. The nuns at the Missionaries of Charity had given him that name – we added Natarajan, out of respect for his heritage. Our life in India gave us many things, but the greatest of all was this beautiful five month old baby, who is now in his early thirties, and recently married to Dharmini, who, like Chris, is also of Tamil heritage, but from Sri Lanka. Their relationship and our extended family are a wonderful new dimension to our lives.
When our time in India came to an end, we decided that Australia had the best future for our family, and we settled in Melbourne, Kay’s home city, where I worked first as a fiberglass boat builder, and then at a Jesuit school, Xavier College, where I taught maths and physics. I started to attend Meeting for Worship at the Toorak Meeting House. The tree that was planted on the occasion of Christopher and my Australian citizenship still flourishes there. Within a few months I applied for membership, and Dorothy and Laslow Benyei became my mentors.
I know it is a cliché, but it really did feel like coming home.
We were just settling in to a regular lifestyle in Melbourne when Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam Australia) advertised for a nurse and an administrator to work in Somalia on a Primary Health Care programme. Despite our new life we felt we had to apply, and were lucky enough to be accepted. We travelled to the quite isolated northern Sanaag District, which is now part of Somaliland, 300km from any tar road. We were in Erigavo for two and a half years, and Chris learned to speak better Somali than we did!
On returning to Australia in 1988 we settled in Hobart, Tasmania, where I taught at The Friends School, and Kay worked as a Community Health Nurse. At last, now in our forties, we bought a house and provided a base for Chris to grow through his school years, which he did at Friends. My brother Adrian and sister Marianne also moved from England to Tasmania after our mother died.
But the desire to travel had not left us. In 2000, with the house paid off and our son Chris now independent, we decided it was time for an adventure – but we had different dreams! Mine was to sail our little catamaran from Hobart to the Torres Strait, which we did, and worked there for a couple of years. And Kay’s was to travel by rail across Russia to Mongolia, which we also did, and then we travelled on down through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and to Miyanmar, (Burma), where we worked in a school in Yangon for six months.
For the last few years we have been back in our home in Hobart, and I am privileged to work as the Quaker coordinator at Friends’ School, and Kay has returned to her work in Health, although we are both moving to retirement.
Whilst in Hobart I have been an active member of the Quaker community, and for me it is my spiritual family. The Friends’ School is a place where Quaker values and processes meet the secular community. I find that the values in the Testimonies, the practice of silent reflection and other Quaker processes are enduring and are as relevant in today’s world as I expect they were 350 years ago.
I look forward to being Presiding Clerk with both trepidation and an awareness of the responsibility it carries. My experience as a regional meeting clerk has given me a strong sense of the breadth of skills a clerk needs – in listening, discernment and in writing a minute that reflects the sense of the meeting. I will be privileged to be working with Susan Addison as AYM Secretary. And like previous clerks, I look forward to being mentored by a small group of supportive Friends in Hobart.
I would like to explore the possibility of visiting F/friends around Australia over the next couple of years.
We just saw your name on the fabulous news article that the Quakers have pulled money form the big four banks. We are actively supporting the Greens in the Qld elections and so very pleased to see this!
Best wishes to you and Kay and fond memories of our time together in the Torres Strait.
Jan Irwin and Robert Lans
Dear Jan and Robert,
Greetings- it has taken a while to notice your note, which appeared in the Dec 12 edition of the Australian Friend. The editor notified me.
Yes the Quaker divestment from the Commonwealth Bank has just happened – it takes a while to look around for a suitable bank, and we have moved most of our accounts to Bankmecu (was Melbourne Education Credit Union. Really, it is a small gesture in terms of the amount of money Quakers have, but it has sparked quite a bit of response, and I have had three radio interviews.
Glad to know you are both still active and supporting the Greens. Thank goodness the public spoke in QLD and rejected the right wing govt. The same happened in Victoria, but I doubt NSW will change.
We are well. Kay is on her way back from South America, from where she visited Antarctica. It was something she has dreamt of for years, but ironic that she had to go to South America, when Antarctica is due south of Tasmania!!
Our son Chris is married and soon to be a Dad. He and Dharmini live in Canberra.
Good to hear from you, let’s keep in touch