Jeffrey Bernard Mitchell, my youngest brother, has died from a heart attack. It followed the recent deaths of my oldest brother, James Gilbert Mitchell, and Anthony John Mitchell. Jimmy, Tony and Jeff were three of the four sons of Lucy and Jim Mitchell, who lived in Brisbane, Townsville, Southport and Koala Park, Tallebudgera. Once there were four, now there is only one.
After a 50-year career as a reporter, and enduring many life-threatening moments (as well as copious long lunches), I genuinely believed it would be a scientific and medical triumph if I lived longer than 50 or 60. But things have proved otherwise.
I am still standing – with the help of a wheelie-walker – and living, writing, walking, gardening, shopping and cooking. I live in regional NSW with my life partner Judith Mitchell, née White. We try to stay connected to our local community, particularly First Nations people. They were subjected to furious insults, ignorance and pure racism during the 2023 referendum which would have given them to right to advise Federal Parliament on issues affecting their lives.
Jeffrey, born 10 May 1943, died 12 November 2023, was a thoughtful and talented younger brother. Heather, his ever-loving life partner, will be devastated by his unexpected departure. Outside of work, his passion was the stage and he produced, directed and acted in many plays staged by the Brisbane theatre company that he helped to rebuild.
Apart from the stage, Jeff was keenly interested in his children (three boys: Alex, Cameron and Simon), grandchildren, classical music and food served with lashings of good beer, wine and cocktails. He also followed Federal and State politics in great detail and I phoned him regularly from my desk at Sydney’s Sun-Herald when I worked there from 1976 until 2006 as senior reporter, chief of staff, columnist, assistant editor and State political editor.
To attend one of Jeff’s weekend parties by the barbecue and the swimming pool was like entering a world of utter hedonism. Guests never felt like going to work the next day, and they went straight home at the end of the day to sleep it off.
When Manchester-born Judith and I returned to Australia in 1986, I discovered that Jeff had “adopted” my oldest children, Laura and Lachlan, and – with the ready consent of their mother Joy – given them magical holidays which they never forgot. Indeed, my whole family welcomed us. The experience brought home to me the great importance of family, and taught me a life-changing lesson: don’t ever take your family for granted.
In recent years, Jeff and I became closer than we’ve ever been. We talked regularly on the phone and visited each other. During these important discussions, we drew up a pact: we would not believe idle gossip, lies and inflammatory stories about each other. It worked, and we were able to understand why and by whom our relationship had been systematically poisoned in the past. In one of our final conversations, Jeff said that he wished others in our family (and outside it) would adopt a similar strategy.
It is no secret that Jeff was named Jeffrey Bernard Mitchell in honour of George Bernard Shaw who, in his early days, was a strong socialist. Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion (1913) used comedy to ridicule Britain’s class system and show that a woman from the working class could climb to the top of society if she spoke right! One of Shaw’s most famous sayings is:
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – GB Shaw (born Dublin in 1856, died Hertfordshire in 1950)
Jeff would agree with Shaw’s saying, not because he (Jeff) liked people who changed their views at the drop of a hat or their trousers. No, he felt that everyone should feel free to change their opinions when new circumstances arose. He believed that was how they “grew”.
My favourite story about Jeff occurred almost 60 years ago, shortly after I arrived in Sydney to work as a reporter on Sydney’s Daily Mirror, a tearaway tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch but now defunct. Just as I felt that I had reached the pinnacle of sophistication, Jeff and his first wife, Lenore, née Garland, arrived on their honeymoon. To impress them I used all my Mirror contacts to book a table for dinner in the Silver Spade Room at the Chevron Hotel, Sydney’s swishest hotel in Potts Point. The table was far from the orchestra which was playing like mad and preventing guests like us from hearing each other over dinner. As I studied the wine list which was pages and pages long, I heard Jeffrey say in a very loud voice, “Could you bring us a bottle of Claray?” The bemused wine waiter asked, “Which wine, sir?” Jeff boomed again, “I said claray, a bottle of claray.” As diners at neighbouring tables shook their heads and rolled their eyes, I hissed to the waiter, “It’s claret. He means claret.”
When the proper bottle of claret was served, we drank a toast to the newly-weds from Townsville in far North Queensland. Just when I thought things had settled down, Jeff startled me again. He wasn’t finished. As a special treat I had ordered large plates of succulent prawns which the waiter served with finger bowls with a slice of lemon floating on top. Jeff picked up his finger bowl and drank it to the last drop. The whole room seemed to freeze and I conceded through gritted teeth, “Okay, you win. I’m not a city slicker.” Then Jeff said with a note of triumph: “I was acting a part. I was teaching you a lesson. Never take yourself too seriously.”