BRIAN HUNGERFORD –STORYTELLER, AUTHOR, MUSICIAN
Brian Hungerford is a professional storyteller, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, teacher of storytelling techniques, horseman and musician. He has won international literary awards, but regards his finest achievement as his five children and seven (so far) grandchildren.
Brian’s early life was supervised and disciplined by his maternal grandmother. When he was seven years old, she was only a head taller than him. But she was substantial and formidable. The mother of seven sons and three daughters she was to know hard work, financial success, dismal misery and loss. In 1917, her then husband, Charlie, was killed in France as part of the obscene stupidity that was the First World War. Charlie, a sapper hero to his children, was blown to smithereens underground. He had often wished to visit France and he promised Harriet they would do just that after the war. He is still there. His body was never recovered. Despite the lack of any funeral service, Harriet Emma Hopwood was charged one shilling for a burial sheet – which he didn’t receive. That bureaucratic robbery rankled with her throughout her life. She nurtured a well-nursed hatred of the military mentality.
At the end of the war, Harriet gathered her clutch of children and grandchildren and left the not-very-united UK for New Zealand. There was no talk of Australia. A family ‘authority’ had assured her that in Australia men and women just lolled about in the sun, too lazy to work. So, New Zealand it was, but not for long. Careers in NZ were scarce for her sons and she left for Sydney, leaving the family in the care of another Harriet, her oldest daughter. In Sydney, she was relieved to discover that Australian-based men and women worked hard. She was also impressed to note that the horses pulling the carts and cabs had good tall feet. She was impressed with Australian horses. Those factors satisfied her and within a few days she had acquired the makings of a prosperous poultry farm, miles out in the bush well west of Sydney, surrounded by virtually no one in a region that is now Bankstown She sent for back-up from New Zealand.
Brian’s mother Kit, (Catherine Mary) at 14 years of age was sent first. She was put in charge of her younger niece Edna and nephew Charlie. It was a dreadful journey with rough seas and heavy storms. Kit retired to bed sea-sick, while the two youngsters ran riot throughout the trip, At Sydney’s Circular Quay, she recovered enough to leave the ship and to escort the two exhausted children into Sydney and transport by a series of horse-drawn carts to Bankstown. Grandma was then busy adding rooms to the small house and building additional fowl houses for her expanding industry. She had acquired a horse and sulky along with a spring cart for heavy work, had painted the house and the stones lining the path to the gate. She had planted down vegetables and inspired the locals to stand and marvel.
Brian’s father, Bill, (Thomas Stuart Hungerford), lived on a sprawling family property nearby. A quietly spoken gentle person he was fascinated by the new arrivals. He loved their family jazz band and soccer team, their wild dances and working-class songs he had never heard before. He fell in love with the wild seventh offspring, Kit. He had never known such a fence jumping, bare-back rider in a girl of 17. For all her wildness she was attracted to his gentle nature and after a couple of years, they married. Within three years they had their first son, Stuart. He was followed three years later by “Mick” – Brian Thomas and, eighteen months after that by “Margo’t” Margaret Angela.
By 1940, nine of Kit’s generation were married and dispersed around NSW.
Bill, was then in the Australian Navy, fighting for the next three years in the Mediterranean and after that in the Pacific. He was twice mentioned in despatches. By late 1945 he was in Japan.
Harriet had her remaining daughter 16 year old, Amy, at home. But as with many women, Amy worked full time, winding motors and assembling ammunition in the munitions factories. Harriet needed someone. So, Brian became her offsider. They left Sydney for a dairy farm near Bega. From his grandmother he quickly learned dairy farming, poultry management, horsemanship, dog training and heard endless stories of her life in England and her dream of eventually running an enormous Australian farm.
Brian lived and worked with his grandmother until he was 12. At 14, he left school and took many jobs. He worked as a stockman, market-gardener, but best of all for him – horse breaker and drover. It was a two-year stint that gave him enough material to fill a lifetime of writing.
Brian’s mother Kit, was not so happy with his prospects and eventually won him over to returning to school. A formal education was something she had never experienced. Brian was luckier and ended up with three years boarding at Hurlstone Agricultural High School. They were three happy years. He excelled at Rugby, won prizes for subjects such as Botany, English and Agriculture and the prize he valued most was his top prize for poetry. Under the guidance of his English teacher and poet, Kevin Piper, his style changed from bush-balladry to more lyrical and intense verse.
After matriculation, he worked full-time as an agriculture journalist, studied Arts at night at Sydney University, won a top award for his first three-act play, “The Ugly Duckling” on the up and down episodes in the foreshadowed-life of Australia’s first Aboriginal graduate. He had verses published in Honi Soit, sold no fewer than 25 dramatised documentaries to the ABC. His first dramatized feature was on the life of Louisa Lawson, Henry’s mother. Another highlight was his first one-hour feature on the life of Douglass Grant as the ABC’s first contribution to the first Australian Aboriginal Sunday. All his historical documentaries were produced by Australia’s then leading poet, John Thompson.
It was in the 1950s, Brian ventured into the art of the short story. His first story “The Fox” not only sold in Australia, but throughout the English-speaking world. That story was followed by many stories written for radio. They were broadcast in Australia, published for schools and like The Fox sold in most English-speaking countries.
In 1956, Brian married Megan Pratt, the third daughter of artist and author Pixie O’Harris. Within two years, son Tom was in the world, followed in due course, though in London, by Martin, Tinker and Padraig.
In common with many Australian girls, Megan had a passion to live in London. To please her, and with some misgivings, they sailed on the P&O liner Orontes. They disembarked in Gibraltar and there followed a few months in Malaga, Spain, of living, loving and guitar lessons. Brian wrote a series of talks for the ABC in Sydney. But Megan longed for London and they left Spain for the difficult life of a writer and broadcaster in London. However, life became more than interesting. Brian delivered Martin, Tink and Paddy. Megan had success as an artist, but the girlhood dream of London wore thin. She was unhappy and longed for Sydney. Brian on the other hand, found ready acceptance in the World Service of the BBC as a writer on science and agriculture.
Science and Agriculture features were interspersed with talks, interviews and programs on music, poetry and folk song. He had started lessons on classical guitar before leaving Australia, took serious lessons in Spain and continued in London under Len Williams, father of John Williams, probably Australia’s finest musical export. He haunted serious folk music venues and occasionally sang Australian songs at London’s Singers Club, then run by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger.
Brian had left Spain, but apparently Spain had never left him and he set about learning Spanish language and a serious study of Spanish History. Whenever possible he attended classes and often under the direction of a full-time, Post-Graduate student at the London School of Economics. His teacher was a young Spanish woman from Burgos in the north of Spain. Her name was, and is, Maria Luisa Espino.
Megan longed for Vaucluse and she left with the children, Brian agreed to follow as soon as his contracts with the BBC ended. It didn’t quite work out.
Megan had been gone for a few short weeks and a cold and foggy November set in. Brian was existing in the by-then, under-crowded Clapham flat and on a freezing morning the phone rang. It was a call from a Dutchman in Rome, Italy. He wanted to know if Brian’s Spanish was good enough for him to undertake an FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) project in Cuba.
At first, Brian thought it was a practical joke. He had been sitting there day-dreaming of how lovely it would be in Sydney with summer wafting in on a breeze from the Pacific. However, he eventually realised the Dutchman was in fact, Dutch and that his question was genuine. Brian hurriedly changed tone and assured him his Spanish was even more than adequate. The deal was struck and from that morning on, Brian kept on with his farming talks, but concentrated his energies in the Spanish and Latin American services of the BBC.
A few days later, the Dutchman rang again. This time to ask if Brian would consider teaching Rural Broadcasting in Turkey for three months.
“No, In English. Well, in it your strangely Australian version of English.”
And so, another deal was struck.
But Turkish was put on hold while Brian fiendishly studied Spanish with his ever patient and increasingly friendly, Luisa Espino. He didn’t know it, but the dye was cast.
A few months later and after a month in Madrid, Spain, meeting with the family of Luisa Espino, he flew to Havana. It was a flight he will never forget. One hour out of Havana, the Spanish plane was swallowed, regurgitated, chewed and spat out by a hurricane. The plane was struck by lightning and Brian surmised that all future flights would be cancelled. But just as suddenly, the storm was gone and the plane landed in one piece, on a flooded tarmac at Camilla Cienfuegos Airport.
The flight into Havana was the only Cuban discomfort. There followed intense actions working with Cuban broadcasters, helping broadcasters to inspire farm workers to study agricultural science and practice; watching a world-class education system take off. Of watching older students training young ones and seeing adult men and women sitting in class one day a week, for the first time in their lives, learning to read and write. Brian looks back on his time in Cuba as an outstanding highlight of his broadcasting life. Even now he is a dedicated member of the Australian Cuba Friendship Society in Canberra. His wife is President of the local branch.
Then followed assignments with FAO in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Then back to Rome and London and Luisa Espino before flying off to Turkey.
Turkey was three months of wonder, fabulous music, friendships and excitement.
From Turkey it was home to Sydney and trying to adjust to an earlier life. It was not a great success.
In Sydney, Brian wrote for the ABC, Country Life newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, Harper’s Bazaar, the BBC and tried to communicate with Megan. It didn’t work. Their lives had grown too far apart. They decided to separate and Brian took a job as editor of The Cessnock’s iconic Eagle Newspaper. It was a wonderful full-time, seven days a week job.
After a year with the Eagle, Brian took over a failing newspaper in Moruya. Within months, the opposition newspaper folded. Success was smiling, but Brian was restless. He saw an advert for broadcasters in PNG and replied. A few weeks later he landed in Port Moresby and over the next five years, funded by FAO, Brian helped establish local radio stations and trained the staff.
For a while Megan re-joined the family in PNG and she occasionally seemed happy. Brian gradually came to realise that, all along, Megan had suffered cruelly from chronic depression. She saw the institution of marriage as her major problem. Again they decided to separate and Brian put down the deposit on a house for her in Armidale and Meg left for the last time.
A month after Megan left PNG, Brian, then in Kavieng, wrote to Luisa Espino, who was at the time, working in Brazil. He invited her to join him in his tropical paradise. Two weeks later she arrived in Kavieng and as Homer once wrote: They embraced and never quite let go. They married a few months later in Port Moresby, surrounded by friends and UN colleagues.
Together, Brian and Luisa lived and worked in PNG, the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Western Samoa. They worked in Bangladesh for five years and in that time Jasmin was born. Luisa taught Spanish while Brian worked full-time for FAO in the Farm Broadcasting service of Radio Bangladesh. An almost-lasting moment in that life happened when the UN in New York asked that every UN group involved in helping Third Wold nations should present an audio-visual program outlining their work. The UN in Bangladesh invited all officers to contribute colour slides of their work. Hundreds flowed in. Brian arranged them, wrote and recorded a narrative and with his counterpart, Mahomet Ali, who organised the music and production, they sent their program to New York. It was awarded the first prize as the finest contribution from more than 130 countries concerned. But Brian was again restless and while Luisa and their daughter Jasmin visited her parents in Spain, Brian worked in Zambia for three months. He re-joined the family in Spain, spent a holiday and, almost reluctantly, the three flew to Australia.
In Canberra, Luisa studied for her Masters in Letters which she took with Honours. She is a full-time teacher of Spanish language and culture.
Brian again turned to radio and wrote talks and interviews for the ABC and had a series of Short Stories broadcast and published.
Brian has always been in demand as a public speaker and teacher of Storytelling techniques. His stories are often accompanied on the Scottish Smallpipes, the Irish harp or the classical guitar. For fourteen years running he was booked as a performer at the Woodford Folk Festival. He regularly performs in schools, café theatres and folk festivals in the UK and up and down most of Australia.
In all, he has a repertoire of some 300 odd stories, many of them his own, and has written three books. One how-to book on writing for rural radio was commissioned and published by FAO and distributed throughout the Third World. In 2011 he wrote his first novel “Different Waters” which practically sold out before ever being placed in any bookshop.
Brian guardedly admits to being an Australian of part Irish, part Norwegian and part Romani ancestries. At 78, he says he is living out the adolescence of his old age in the company of Luisa and his Percheron mare Hippola, of playing various forms of bagpipes and has optimistically set out on another round of writing of another 300 stories.