My brother Matt turns 50 this week, much to my surprise. I say ‘surprise’, not because I’m surprised that he’s made it this far but because for me he’ll always be a small kid in shorts with a laugh so contagious it ought to be held in a lab in Geneva.
Matt was born in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne on August 30th 1966. That’s the anniversary of the founding of Melbourne – and of Houston, coincidentally. It is also the birthday of Dracula and of Mary Shelley and of Warren Buffett, encouragingly. It is also National Toasted Marshmallow Day and National Holistic Pet Day. So plenty of cause for celebration.
In my mind I’m only really conscious of him from the late 60s when we lived in a double-fronted brick veneer bungalow in Rosanna and we’d do what all young Australian boys did back then: use houses under construction as life-threatening climbing frames, go for long walks along enclosed storm water drains, show an intense curiosity for venomous snakes and spiders in the garden, take our go-karts to the top of dangerously steep roads and roll down oblivious to the traffic, lose fingernails and toenails like small change, skin our knees and go the colour of teak under the Australian sun.
By the time we moved to Canberra, Matt was starting at the school I went to and already making his mark in various aspects of life. ‘Mark one’ was to always beat my mum home when she attempted to drop him off at school in the morning. ‘Mark two’ was to become the most popular kid in the school just like that.
Matt is the funniest man I’ve ever known which is a handy thing in a brother. My laughter resistance has always been set to discerning, but Matt always has me laughing like a spider in minutes. Living with Matt as a kid was a bit like living with Tom Sawyer. There was the time when, aged 7, he set up a barbers shop and cut the neighbour’s son’s hair on the hypotenuse with the garden shears. It required some serious remedial work and a begrudging refund. There was the time he showed an early penchant for science and set fire to the garden shed. There was the time he burnt a neighbour’s prize tree down. I’ll draw a veil over the rest.
Across the road from our house was a huge playing field and we’d head there in the twilight on many summer evenings and wait for the Christmas beetles to lift off under the Milky Way. Catching them was our equivalent of a video game.
We hung out a fair bit early on, learning how to fight by fighting each other, but when Matt got to his teens he was often gone. I can hear my mum saying nightly ‘Hame, go and call for Matt’, which was essentially the cue to get on my dragster and drive around our suburb shouting his name until I was hoarse. Life was like an episode of Stranger Things without the monster and five years long.
Eventually he’d show up, there’d be ‘the talk’, then the same would happen the next day. Matt has always been, and always will be, in the world.
In 1970 and then the Australian summers of 1975, 1978 and 1981, we travelled with our parents across to Britain and, on two occasions, the US. Matt and I spent all of this time together, losing a summer and becoming veal calves in the process but gaining a lot on the journey.
1975 was especially memorable. The first month was in San Francisco and Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Maine and we had an utter ball, though Matt had mumps at the start of it and his head was as round as a football.
Canberra was proof in the seventies that the EU really can work. Our neighbours, the Oksaanens, Munoz’, Schwabs, Noosianens, Lurgas, Grubers, Tinkanens, Campbells, Marzianos and Schneiders, all contributed to making Matt a man for all people, a unifier. When Matt showed up anywhere, it was bit like a one-man circus coming into town. He’d always have people in thrall. There are so many Matt stories that I ask him to replay whenever we meet. If I was a Twain to his Sawyer, I’d do him justice, but I can never describe him with the subtlety he deserves. Matt’s mate Mikka summed this up. Every time he’d call for Matt he’d pop in before they vanished to exchange pleasantries with my mum. Mikka would then turn to Matt and say things like “hey Matt, tell your mum about the time I fell over and scraped my knee,” knowing full well that (a) it wasn’t that great a story, (b) in the hands of anyone other than an expert it was going to be terrible, (c) confusingly, the last time Matt had told it, Mikka was amazed at how funny this boring incident was, and (d) that in Matt’s hands it was going to be a work of hilarious and uplifting art.
Brothers are always a bit yin and yang. Matt was the external and I was the internal. But when we did coalesce – and when we do – it is my best of times.
Some memories don’t amount to more than a tin of beans, but together they’re a banquet. The times he use to act as the human aerial for our broken old black and white Thorn Atlas TV watching the salacious Number 96 with the volume almost down long after ‘lights out’; the times we used to try and reach the CIA or NASA or Aliens on our $2.99 walkie talkies; the fridge raids for party food when we knew that all the guests had gone to sleep during one of my dad’s interminable slide shows; banana on toast watching Disneyland in front of a two bar radiator on a punishingly cold Sunday night prior to school; working the gruelling milk round and feeling that we could win the Olympics.
Over the years Matt has helped me more than I’ve let him know. Excavating me from a rut, reassuring me when I need it, reminding me of things, offering a trusty stereoscopic view on something where I need it. He’s done this consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes in person and sometimes through me replaying some of the things he’s said to me over the years.
Matt has lived the first fifty years as a kind, enlivening, craftsmanlike, deep-thinking, centre of gravity in the lives of many, including his amazing kids and his mum and his partner. Try his hand at anything and Matt makes it a great success. He’s a thinker, a craftsman, an entertainer, a musician, a magician with the spoken word and an impressionist like no other. People travel thousands of miles to see Matt and to catch a glimpse of those tiny supernovae in his eyes. He’s a stove that you can warm yourself near, a brother like no other. Sounds like a hagiography, doesn’t it? It is. In the brother department I got extremely lucky. Happy birthday Matt. Your present’s in the post.