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What's in a name ...
An interview with Sandy McCUTCHEON

AS HE SPOKE BY PHONE TO HIS BROTHER and then his sister last November, Sandy McCutcheon felt "a great weight lifting from my shoulders. Fifty years of doubt, despair and insecurity just fell away." Such was the cartharsis he was moved to "ring up my former wives, children, lovers, friends, anyone I'd wronged emotionally, to apologise for having been such a shit, to explain that any problem was never with them but with me."

The problem was identity, or the lack of it. And it had impelled him into a nomadic odyssey of false leads and fantasy, of wandering Europe for years vainly seeking his mother tongue and his people, of immersion in Judaism then Buddhism, of emotional self-destruction and re-construction.

Being an identity is never the same as having one - the latter requires an ancestral source, a sense of family as a basis, even if it is something to then escape from. By any criteria, McCutcheon is an identity. He has a million-plus audience for his networked Australia Talks Back show on Radio National. He's a top-selling author on the verge of a mega-dollar international film deal. With Ramona Koval, he coordinates Australia Talks Books, a radio-internet multimedia undertaking that is the biggest reading club in the Southern Hemisphere. He's a prolific poet, a playwright with more than 20 productions to his credit, a multicultural human rights campaigner, a globetrotter whose passports record more than 100 countries ...

And since 1997, he has been writing taut, literate thrillers of political intrigue. Deeply researched with an investigative edge, an Australian base and international stage, they subvert the super-stud spy genre in a pacy way. Tightly plotted, as well - almost as convolutedly as his life. Its elements would fill a book, and will when he completes the autobiography. Perhaps his opening remarks at a function earlier this year give some clue. "You're probably wondering why a New Zealander with a very Scottish name living in Australia, who has run a Tibetan Buddhist community for a decade, been awarded a Jewish playwriting prize and a medal for services to Finnish culture, should be addressing the Welsh community on St David's Day ..."

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ON THE VERANDA OF THE MODEST BUT STYLISH "Queenslander" in leafy Paddington he shares with his fiancée, photographer Suzanna Clarke, McCutcheon is uncoiling. Earlier I'd watched from the producer's control room at the ABC's Brisbane studio as he had overseen a "risky" program on Kosovo and the Serbian crisis, a passion of his. Both the energy and expertise were considerable. Winding down from the adrenalin rush has taken some time, however, understandable if you know how much of himself he throws into everything he does.

Which I do well, having shared stage and coach with him during three weeks of close-quarter living last August. Together with novelist Kathryn Lowe, we were the "talent" on a three-week Writers Safari through Queensland, a literary circus that took us town-hopping from Maleny to Charters Towers and then inland to Mt Isa. It was here that two elements of this story coalesced. In the fortnight it took us to journey up to Charters Towers, between on-the-road hours and twice-daily performances, McCutcheon sat, as Lowe noted, "with smoke billowing from his supercharged lap-top". He was writing the final 40,000 words of his latest novel, Poison Tree (HarperCollins), which was released last week and is already selling "with a bullet". And it was on tour, in installments in spartan motels, boisterous pubs and vodka-fuelled "performance unwinds" that I first heard his story ... and played a small role in its resolution ...

As a young boy, Sandy McCutcheon had constant, unsettling dreams of being utterly lost. "I'd obviously been traumatised and gone into denial; only when I was asleep could I admit the loss." There's an old home movie of him at five, he mentions, "where I had this thing that I was going to be the famous McCutcheon, and that drive to be someone stemmed I'm sure from the same trauma of loss." At nine, however, his life "fell into a complete deep hole". A kid at his school in Christchurch "called me a 'little Nazi bastard', and he and his friends began taunting me that I was adopted. They told me their parents said I had been taken in from a displaced person's camp in Europe. And somehow the story had credibility: my mother had been a decorated nurse, bombed out of Crete, sunk on the way to Alexandria - it was logical she'd have had contacts in that area." At home, he received "a flat, outright denial ... the whole time I was growing up, my parents totally refused to confirm it. But once the idea lodged in my mind, it fed an obsession to find out who I was."

After the schoolyard revelation, he began to read "everything I could about Nazis, even Mien Kampf. And I kept coming across the Jewish question. And the only difference I could see between Nazis and Jews was circumcision. So I whipped down the trousers for a reality check - and I was Jewish. The whole Jewish fantasy in my life sprang from that, from realising that as a white circumcised male displaced from postwar Europe, my alternatives had been ... curtailed." How was he to know that in New Zealand at the time, such a gauge would have meant at least 70 per cent of Kiwi boys were Jewish?

He sought out the Jewish community in Christchurch and was firmly rejected - "they were far too orthodox and I was obviously too goy. As they say, 'No baa, no moo, no cock-a-doodle-doo' ... you're either Jewish or your not. When I persisted, I was told to talk to the reform Jews because they'll let you be Jewish even if you're not." He became fixated, and over the years read everything Jewish he could, the Talmud, the commentaries. "I inculcated myself into a simpatico reading of history, aligning myself with the diaspora, the dispossessed, being on the cattle train ... in retrospect, it was a very obvious target for me because of the sense of otherness I had."

And so, although he grew up amid material comfort - summer house at seaside Akaroa, winter retreat at Arthur's Pass, top ski equipment and instructors, yachts and outboards for water-skiing, the best education, books, music, etc - he has "mainly very bad childhood and adolescent memories. And there's always that conundrum to colour them, as to where fantasy and reality merge. What was already complicated in fact was made even more so by my imagination."

All of his plays, even the comedies and musicals, have in them an element of search for identity and homelessness, even though he eventually partially reconciled his obsession with roots. "It wasn't always on the surface ... in my 20s and 30s, I was having a wonderful, creative life. But there was also always something missing." A huge influence on his creative impulse "was his father, Hugh McCutcheon, a Germanic-looking man with a crewcut (who had) won a scholarship to the Royal Academy for violin and was in London when war broke out." Bomber command turned him down because he was colour blind, so he returned to NZ to tour army camps playing jazz fiddle for the troops before becoming a dentist to contribute better. The first he knew his father was a violinist was when the Queen telegramed a request that he play for her on her coronation visit. She remembered hearing him years before at Buckingham Palace. McCutcheon remembers the violin "being retrieved from the garage rafters, and sitting in the hall with my ear pressed to the door hearing my father play the most beautiful, romantic classical music. I recall him as a tough man, kind but not given to personal affection. Yet the few times I saw him perform I was so touched by the humanity of this big man with his chins and the violent sweat pouring down his face that I thought my way to his affection was through artistic ambition. In fact it split the family up because it was not the done thing to 'waste your education'."

At 15 he was sneaking out of home to deliver performance poetry at the local 77 Club, backed by jazz musicians like Bruno Lawrence. At 18, the year his father died, he headed off on the Northern Star, the first of multiple trips to Europe to "find my roots, and to become an actor". At Lisbon, his first port of call, he jumped ship and went on "a hitch-hiking pilgrimage. It was the start of years of sitting on railway stations and at bus terminals, listening to accents and trying to identify my mother tongue." Throughout Europe, he tried to make contact with Jewish communities "with increasing lack of success, given the way I look, although my answer for that was there were thousands of Jews in China and who could tell what a Peking Jew looked like?" It was only when he reached his 40s, he says, that he realised his mother tongue complex was "a protective camouflage for the real question: who is my mother? I understood then that the desperation to find out whether I was Polish, or Finnish or Jewish didn't matter ... it obscured the real question."

After returning to New Zealand in his early 20s and a career on stage and then on radio, two children, a failed marriage and an irretrievable rift from his family, he lobbed into Australia in the early 70s. Here he was "warmly welcomed by the reform Jewish community - I used to go to the oldest synagogue in Australia in Hobart, a Friday night ritual. The sense of community appealed. I also identified strongly with Yiddish humour and writing, while the Jewish identity spoke to me of family. I just loved that, yet from a pure religious view I've always been a sceptic. And even when I was in my most full-on Jewish phase, I was also attracted by the whole search for self, and took it to esoteric extremes. I was interested in Hinduism, Baba Ram Das, Krishna Murti ..."

Over the next 25 years, his path was eclectic. He was on radio (Townsville, Hobart, Sydney at Double Jay, etc), befriended a network of the famous and infamous, travelled the world's trouble spots as a radio correspondent. He founded a Buddhist retreat in Tasmania's north-west "on this hippie-era idea of living an alternate life style. I discovered land in Laurina, 87 acres plus house for $2000, and called it Illusion Farm because most of my friends were sceptical I could get it together." For a decade, it provided free for those in need, "junkies, unmarried mothers, people just out of psych hospitals or returning from India after a bad experience with the orange people ..." He helped found a theatre company, wrote (and directed and acted in) plays. He wrote screen plays and literary novels, mostly unpublished. He married again, fathered another two children, divorced again, had long-standing relationships, spent two years in Finland as a writer/radio announcer after reworking the Beowulf-like Finnish classic Kalevala and winning a Finnish cultural medal. He joined the ABC, began Australia Talks Back, won a prize for Best Jewish play of the Year ... and much more.

Yet always the "who am I?" question remained. The first official confirmation he was adopted came only when his mother admitted it in the Supreme Court in the late-70s "during a hearing over my father's will, which I had been cut out of it. It was a test case for the law society there, and I mentioned that part of my grievance with the family was this adoption question. The judge demanded my mother respond and in open court she confirmed I was - she was ordered by the court to apologise to me, which she did in this wonderful letter later, bless her. But it never healed the rift between us." It did, however, give him some peace of mind in that his "fantasies" were fact.

But it was not until just before she died that "she finally admitted it to my face. I had gone to visit her after not seeing her for nearly 20 years. I accepted she had been a good mother to me, had given me opportunities I would never have had otherwise, and I wanted to make my peace with her. She brought out an adoption certificate, and there I was, flu-ridden in Akaroa on a blustery, freezing day in this old people's home. And she said, speaking in this strange third person way, 'we had to tell him he was from Europe otherwise he would have dug around and found out the dreadful truth.' That was when I learnt I was Brian David Parry."

It was 1996, and he was soon to turn 50. "I immediately rang the authorities but kept hitting a bureaucratic roadblock until someone mentioned I might 'look for siblings'. That was the first time I'd even thought of brothers and sisters. I came back to Australia to finish In Wolf's Clothing (his first thriller) and dedicated it to Brian David Parry 'who had gone undercover in 1949 ... and to all those who had failed to uncover him'."

He had his name but no history. Via the internet and using public records, he wrote to likely Parrys seeking information. To no avail. Which is where I come in: having heard he was to visit New Zealand on a PR tour for his second novel, Peace Crimes, I convinced him to use every radio and TV appearance to talk about his search. Odds were, someone somewhere would respond. Which he did, to the detriment of pushing his book ("my publicist there hates you," he asides ruefully). And someone did respond, a cousin, Pauline Young. She suspected she knew his family, she said in a phone call, but would have to check with them before telling him. McCutcheon returned to Australia in a high state of expectation. After several days, anxiety forced him to ring friends in Christchurch to see if they could help. They rang Young to discover she was hesitant because she didn't know what McCutcheon looked like, and because the story just sounded too implausible. "Do you have a fax?" the friend asked. Young did. An image was transmitted. Thirty seconds later, Young was on the phone: "My God, my God, it's my grandfather, it's my father ... His brother's name is Glyn and he lives in Sydney, his sister Bronwen lives in Rockhampton, his family is Welsh."

Then came the phone calls, the tears and jubilation. A few days later, he met Bronwen Watson and Glyn Parry at Brisbane airport for a week-long catch-up on a lifetime's separation. It was the final healing of a hurt that had encompassed lies, loss, dislocation and emotional turmoil. "We related with such extraordinary ease that everything else just melted away. We found out that we had all suffered from destroyed relationships and a sense of loss. And we all felt this mantle of sudden completeness. I also discovered that I had three half-siblings and an army of aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews." To compound the ironies, both his brother and sister had been listening to him on radio for years.

***********************

AT 52, SANDY McCUTCHEON IS A COMPLEX OF CONTRADICTIONS, both cynical idealist and compassionate pragmatist. A bon vivant with hippie leanings, he's a sociable loner who is fondly self-involved, a raconteur who loves broad-brush storytelling yet is obsessed by the minutiae of life. And he is a man trying to "pare back my imaginative compensations" by accepting realities rather than ruminations.

The McCutcheons adopted him, he says "because they were good people, and childless. They also adopted a sister, Mary Jane, from another family. And she sees my search as a betrayal of the family who brought us up. Maybe it is, but if they had been honest with me, I would have accepted the situation happily. They weren't, and I couldn't." And if he has forgiven the subterfuges, he can't forget what he lost through the lies.

Perhaps the cruelest loss, he says, was in his name being changed to Robert Hamish. "At 2, when they adopted me, you know your own name. That must have exacerbated the trauma. And it must have been a deliberate erasure of my family background - I don't how much of that was because of '50s Christchurch social mores, how much was from fear that I might seek out my family, how much was a class thing."

As far as he can ascertain, his natural mother ran off with his father's business partner, leaving the two older children but taking him as the baby. That was definitely beyond acceptable social norms of the time. And there's evidence of domestic violence in the new partnership: McCutcheon doesn't know whether he was put up for adoption by his mother or claimed by the authorities. He does know his birth father, a Welsh fishmonger, later remarried and moved north. "He went sharemilking, won a taxi licence in a lottery, was secretary of the magician's union in Auckland, was by all accounts a lovely man who, strangely enough, died in the same year as my adopted father."

The remarriage was more problematic for his brother and sister - they had a tempestuous relationship with their stepmother and often wished they could be adopted out. "Ironically," says McCutcheon, "about six years after I was adopted, my McCutcheon family went to court and applied unsuccessfully to adopt my brother and sister. I suspect it was because I was being unruly - I was apparently calling out for my sister although I had no conscious memory of her at that stage."

Bronwyn Watson eventually ran away from home at 15, and soon after tracked down their birth mother. "She asked where Brian was, and was told I was at school, even though I had been adopted for some 8 years by then. Until she met me, Bronwen thought I had grown up with our mother, that I was okay and it was me who was making no attempt to get in touch with her."

"Now we have met," says McCutcheon, "I have become so settled in myself, knowing I have a real brother and a real sister, knowing my real family, knowing what tribe I belong to." His main regret is that the knowledge came too late for him to meet his birth mother - she died 10 years ago - "but just knowing who she was, the where and the why, has mollified much of the emptiness I felt. In many ways, I'm strangely grateful for what happened. My quest gave me this huge canvas to draw upon, a lust for travel, a capacity for listening, a highly developed imaginative capacity. Many years ago I wrote a poem in which the final line was eerily prophetic: we are of the same tribe now. That's what is most important to me - I have finally found my tribe."

This article was first published in The Australian Magazine.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999
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