Familiar faces in strange places!

With almost two leisurely weeks in Sydney before we traipse off again to Melbourne for our two consecutive big games there against the Hawks and the Cats, I decided today to take a drive to Bondi Beach to enjoy the magnificent Sydney sunshine and the warm 21 degrees.

Driving along Devonshire St, not far from home, I flicked the switch on the radio and to my surprise, Billie Holliday, in all her glory, is singing ‘Strange Fruit’. I found it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand, as her emotive voice filled the car with all sorts of emotions and memories.

I thought of my sister, Robina, who has always loved Billie Holliday. When she was 16 (back in the ’50s) she went to our school fair and bought a record of Billie Holliday, a seven-inch. It was sixpence and she wondered who he was. She was attracted to the name. Loving jazz and starting out on her political journey, especially involving the Black American struggle, this record helped change her life.

I thought of our times together in London, in the late ’60’s and early 70’s, living in a squat (for a while) and fighting the good fight together: telling those capitalists just what we thought of them; voicing our strong feminist opinions on anyone and everyone, whether they wanted to hear them or not; marching for justice for black oppressed peoples; Robina being arrested and put in a cell overnight; her introducing me to Eldridge Cleaver and his masterpiece Soul on Ice, which subsequently changed my life; and living in Portobello Road, going to midnight movies on Friday nights to the much loved Electric Cinema and walking back to our flat happily high on the delicious hash cookies consumed during the interval.

I also thought of what this sister of mine has done since those life-changing days. Still fighting the fight, but now as a Buddhist nun: visiting prisoners on death row; writing and editing books and journals; giving talks around the world at the many Buddhist centres that are prepared to wait their turn for her presence; and speaking at major conferences where like-minded people are trying to achieve understanding, forgiveness and contentment. And being the central character in the award-winning documentary film Chasing Buddha, directed by our nephew film maker, Amiel Courtin-Wilson.

Robina was never into footy. Actually, she did go once, when she was 5. Instead of coming with us to see South at Lake Oval in the ’50s and ’60s, she would stay at home with Mum, listening to our mother’s beautiful soprano voice and watching her play the piano as only our mother could. As she grew a little older she too would sing. She had a good voice and hoped, one day, to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Instead, her 10 years in London and New York led her to her current life’s commitment.

In 2010 she met Brett Kirk at an art gallery opening, and has, since that time – to my delight – become a real Swannies fan, watching as many games as possible on the AFL app on her iPad whilst travelling the world. Although, she wasn’t so keen early on, saying in a Comment on this site a couple of years ago “…I didn’t enjoy going to the games: I couldn’t cope with all the shouting and up-and-down emotions. (And it’s not that I’m lacking in up-and-down emotions!) In my early teens, my Saturdays were spent at home, studying classical singing with our mother, in the glorious space of an empty house while everyone else went off to the footy. Now, years later, as a Buddhist nun I’m a total fan. It began with our second grand final against West Coast. I was in Perth, and went into a pub to watch the last quarter. I still couldn’t cope! Especially those last few minutes. I’d have to go outside; it was too much. I’d hear the waves of groans and shouts, and in I’d go again. I’d ask the WCE fans, “Who’s winning?” “WE are!” they’d shout ecstatically. Of course, it was the wrong we for me. I don’t have a clue about the rules, although I’m learning. I’m forever emailing Jan with my dumb questions.”


‘Strange Fruit’ has finished, and as another piece of jazz is about to begin, I turn into Oxford Street on my way to Bondi. The traffic is slow, bumper to bumper, but I’m in no rush today. We crawl along for a few blocks and I get impatient. I pass two cars and stop at the lights behind a Sydney bus. My mind is still miles away, in London actually, remembering those eventful nine years spent there in those heady days of change.

I flick the indicator on to pass the bus, and I simply cannot believe what I am seeing! There right in front of me, as large as life, pasted onto the back of the bus, is Robina!

Sometimes, just sometimes, disparate things seem to work in unison: thoughts and memories intertwine – all in a matter of minutes – and it all makes sense.

And, without doubt, familiar faces certainly do appear in the strangest of places!

ps I had no idea she was coming to Sydney in September.

pps Her biography makes interesting reading: http://www.robinacourtin.com/biography.php

About Jan Courtin

A Bloods tragic since first game at Lake Oval in 1948. Moved interstate to Sydney to be closer to beloved Swans in 1998. My book "My Lifelong Love Affair with the Swans" was launched by the Swans at their headquarters at the SCG in August 2016. www.myswansloveaffair.com


  1. I haven’t been that involved with the footy this year, Jan, so haven’t commented on your pieces. But just have to on this one.

    It’s a real beauty! And what a very interesting person your sister is! Loved her Biography

    Thank you

  2. Jan, thank you for sharing that with us.

    It was so evocative.

    A beautifully written piece.

  3. Cat from the Country says

    Footy gets most people eventually.
    Lovely piece

  4. Thanks Jan! I love your article . Very well rounded.
    Have you got any Buddhist oriented Swan’s fans ??

  5. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Wow, Jan, fascinating tale! My partner often says I was born in the wrong times … I think he usually assumes that the 1700s or thereabouts might suit me better, but reading of your London life with Robina certainly made me feel that I was perhaps just a generation or two off. I would have been terribly torn whether to go to Lakeside with you or stay at home and listen to the singing lesson in the hollow of the home. Beautiful images.

  6. Thank you, one and all. I certainly enjoyed the experience, and then writing about it.

    Buddhist oriented Swans’ fans: yes, Kathy, but the operative word is perhaps “oriented”.

    And, Mathilde, yes I’m sure the ’70s would have treated you well! You would have loved the many challenges of the time.

    There’s a lot more of my sibling and me, not just in London, but in our teenage years, in “My Lifelong Love Affair with the Swans”. The book isn’t just about footy! So, if I’m allowed to ‘advertise myself’ here’s the website again: http://www.myswansloveaffair.com in case anyone is interested. Or click on the web
    link below the ABOUT box.

    Thanks again

  7. You write such wonderful stories, Jan. I can believe you saw Robina’s poster on that bus as there is no such thing as coincidence.

    Thank you for sharing your great story


  8. As a much younger sibling I wasn’t privy to the lives of my older sisters – especially when the ventured to the ‘continent’. I was still at school. It was much later that I grew to understand the significance of Jan and Robina’s travels and adventures – feminism and the black movement. Those exciting and stimulating days of feminism and throwing away the bra! The symbolism was weighty back then – you sure as hell wouldn’t get me going out without one now…

    So where did footy fit with all this? It didn’t fit one way or t’other!
    Footy just was – as it is today. Footy is the one continuum in an otherwise unpredictable and fickle world – the constant and therefore, reliable.
    Ciao from Italia!
    Jude x

  9. Thanks Jeni

    Nice one, Jude. And, I still don’t wear one!
    Let’s hope we win our two Melbourne games so that my presence in your house is a pleasant one!
    Enjoy Italy

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful story Jan! Amazing who you can see on the back of a bus.
    What an incredile life journey your sister sounds like she’s been on . Thanks for sharing.

  11. Thanks Luke,

    Yes, her life has been pretty incredible, and she’s not about to stop yet!

    I doubt I’ll ever see any other family members on the back of a bus!

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