Reflections on a grieving (?) Andrew 'Boy' Charlton, Australian swimming legend
It's summer holiday time in Australia and that means water. Beach recreation. Boating. Even watering the vegetable garden in the cool of evening. Like most coastal Australians this writer has experienced all of these our whole life too.
Appropriately the ABC tv national broadcaster has replaced it's normal Monday night scheduling with outdoorsy shows with one about portraiture of sporting legend "Mr Charlton" , another about wild water rafting and kyaking in Butan.
There are some really sad aspects to the traverse of 'Boy' Charlton's remarkable life story. One that he died at 68 of a heart attack from emphysema due to a life of cigarette smoking. Another that he shunned his fame and mass media compared to the sporting "heroes" of today. In his day he held many world records. A pool in Sydney is named after him.
But the most sad we suspect was his mother's death when he was only 13 - a long illness that he witnessed. And it's this we suspect that hold's the key to 'Boy' Charlton's personality. The show last night suggested he got solace from swimming. True enough swimming laps or body surfing has the sensuous feel of a woman caressing one's body. Soft, wet, powerful, and yielding. Interesting too that dream analysts refer to the ocean as symbolic of one's emotional world.
What does seeing your mother die slowly do to a young teen? My intuition is that he felt dreadfully powerless. Also that he was grieving his whole teenage years. Poor kid. He certainly doesn't look happy.
The Bill Leak show last night dwelled for a moment on a certain expression of the youth emerging from the victorious race against Arne Borg. It's in the picture 2nd above. He was hearing no doubt the wildly cheering crowd, and his eyes are tracking the camera barrel, with not a hint of celebration or even happiness at beating the best the Old World had to offer. He's not even very puffed. Unlike in the pool in the race it was no doubt an "overpowering" public and media reaction.
Reaction to such celebrity takes many forms. It can be confronting. It can be thrilling and an ego boost. It can bring money and influence and 'friends'.
Apparently he was rowed around the pool on display. He was carried aloft on the shoulders of a crowd at Manly ferry wharf. Literally powerless in the crowd surf. Poor Andrew. A sports reporter said he was deeply embarrassed.
We do wonder if the reaction of the crowd and media may well have felt in his boyish emotional state like another overwhelming force on that scale of life changing events ..... namely loss of his mother. Was it the only other overpowering force he had the emotional equipment to compare with? By some confused cross wire of the emotions the 'joyful' experience reinforcing the grief stricken one? He was only 16 when he beat the world's best. Young men mature slower than girls at that age. If our guess is right then no wonder he never enjoyed the popularity and adulation - because the overpowering aspect bespoke a terrible loss.
So it seems he needed a situation that was in it's way big but different - like jackarooing outback, his own 10,000 hectare farm, or surf swimming - that he could still manage to control. None of the crowd or the adulation would bring back his mother. It was nothing compared to that. Medical science was a long way off yet too.
Poor bastard. It's not an entirely rational response to public acclamation but then high emotion doesn't follow orderly rules either. One hopes that at least in his private moments he felt real pride at his achievements away from the public glare when he had time to reflect on an incredible chapter in the history of the nation. And his role in it.
An aspiring youn bloke, a family friend recounted his dream to an older Mr Charlton - his dream to be an Olympic champion too: "You can't make a living from it" came Charlton's gentle response. Or did he mean: 'You can't make your mother live with it'. No indeed there are some things fame or even money just can't do. Ask the ghost of billionaire Kerry Packer RIP.
Who doubts Andrew Charlton would have traded all the world records and boat trips to Europe and celebrity and adulation in exchange for a hug from his living mother.
Here's to a sporting prodigy and man of the land Andrew Charlton, his mother's son. At least that's our interpretation of a remarkable life.
Posted by editor
at 4:45 AM EADT
Updated: Saturday, 27 December 2008 10:19 AM EADT