Roland A G (Rag) Holmes AM 1918-2007

Rag Holmes

Many people have endured ragging about their name. For Roland Adrian Glennie Holmes, it became more literal than for most of them. "Rag", as his friends knew him, was a country doctor for everyone. He was witty, literary, musical, deeply passionate and caring.

His legendary wit became evident early in life. On hearing his father ask that his salad be "just leaves and no dressing", Rag responded: "Who do you think you are, Dad? Adam?"

Rag was six then. He defused potentially difficult situations with humour and goodwill for the rest of his life.

Born in Mosman, the youngest child of Dr Harry and Leonore Holmes, he attended Mosman Primary School, the Shore School and Sydney University where, following his two brothers, he studied medicine.

On his 18th birthday his mother gave him his precious cello, made in 1697 and attributed to Andrea Guarneri. This played a central role in his life and he performed on it in many settings, from the Conservatorium as soloist in the Dvorak cello concerto, to an outback campsite, to Bach in the Opera House.

In his final year at St Paul's College, he became senior student alongside the secretary, his close friend, Gough Whitlam. Rag was best man at Whitlam's wedding to Margaret in 1942. Sixty years later these two Renaissance men were still sharpening their wits on each other about a poem Whitlam had written. Holmes quoted it from memory and reported later that his friend might be losing his memory, having argued that it was in the style of Shelley, when Rag "knew" it was in the style of Keats.

He always assumed anyone old enough to speak was familiar with the complete canon of Western literature, and would understand references he made to the Bible or Shakespeare. The blank looks he usually got didn't put him off at all.

Holmes rowed in the college eight and was captain of boats, receiving a university blue in 1940. He played in the college rugby XV. Accused of not contributing to cultural life, he good-humouredly spent hours honing his embroidering skills. At one period, his routine was to row before breakfast, practise with a string quartet in the morning, attend a tutorial in the afternoon and rehearse with the Conservatorium orchestra in the evening.

Enlisting in 1942, Holmes served as a medical officer in New Guinea and Borneo. In New Guinea he fell in love with a nurse and young widow, Katherine Stephens (nee Body). They were married in 1944. She was the first of his "two bright-eyed women".

After the war the couple settled into the life of Yass, where Holmes began a 35-year medical partnership with David Graham. These were medically challenging years, especially before specialists and large hospitals arrived in Canberra, and accidents on the Hume Highway were frequent. Required to retire from hospital practice in 1983, he continued to work in the Yass and Gunning surgeries.

Following a heart attack in 1993 he reduced his workload to one day a week - at the Linton Hostel for War Veterans, where he formed a friendship with Ted Carse, the captain and navigator of the Krait, from which the commando raids on Singapore harbour during World War II were launched. He retired in 2001, at 83.

The founding of the Yass Music Club in 1953 and its continued success is one of Holmes's greatest legacies. As musical director, he enticed artists such as Don Burrows, Gerard Willems and Isador Goodman to Yass, often having them stay at his home. His cello was always an attraction. Many leading cellists, such as David Pereira, played the cello there, in concert, or borrowed it. Playing often continued late into the night after concerts and Yass became a mecca for artists of high repute. At least one internationally renowned group, Florilegium, accepted an engagement in Canberra only because, one member said, "it is close to Yass".

Holmes was a member of the Australian Doctors Orchestra until he turned 80. He toured country NSW with the eminent New Zealand pianist Peter Cooper. In 1980 he played some chamber music with a young Wollongong violinist whom he thought "might make it". His name was Richard Tognetti.

Katherine Holmes died in 1973. His second "bright-eyed woman", Ann, whom he married in 1981, supported him in all his activities, and added a few more.

Holmes worked with war veterans, Legacy, the Spastic Centre, Royal Far West Children's Health Scheme, the Challenge Foundation (later Andalini Services), Council for the Disabled, Freedom from Hunger, Community Aid Abroad and Amnesty International. He was a member in the Order of Australia (AM), a Yass Rotary Citizen of the Year and holder of a Centenary of Federation medal. One of his proudest moments was his invitation from the Yass Aboriginal Community to chair its Sorry Day activities in 1999.

Rag Holmes is survived by Ann; his three children, Mal, Kate and Nick; Ann's children, Tim and Lisa; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

He had said of both his brother, Tag, and father Harry, quoting Shakespeare's Marc Antony, after the death of Brutus, and it can be said of Rag: "His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up, and say, to all the world, 'This was a man.' "

A celebration of his life will be held in Yass on August 18.

Malcolm Holmes
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald