The intro...

If you’re everywhere you’re nowhere, as somebody once said. Dangerous with a story of this type, for you have no idea where it will all end when you begin. You’re not quite sure  how you will manage not to become self obsessed, diverted, lost, and with a number of necessary stop starts, try to evade the real problem of ending up... nowhere? I turned 65 a while back and was given a book as a present from a young actress, about a fellow growing up in St Kilda, born 1936, the year of Edward’s abdication, Bob Pratt’s 500th goal, Collingwood’s premiership, Wotan’s Melbourne Cup and my entry into the picture. Why not my book? One more self-centred story to add to the never ending list. Emerson had a sign on the door of his study-WHIM?  

 

I recall in years gone by referring to my youth as tough times, coming from a working class background and actually believing it. They were far from tough. No car, no locks on the doors, very few clothes (we went to bed in a state of excitement when Mum bought us new pyjamas), lemonade on  birthdays, bread and tomato sauce, bread and dripping, no underpants and so on. Nobody was any better off as far as we knew, or if they were they were awarded only a passing thought. No television to guide us to a state of envy. No Tattslotto to live in hope. The depression had passed, influencing Dad for life. 

 

We were told  vague stories of  the  most severe hardship, making us by comparison very well off. I was always a touch frightened, moreso wary. Violence was not in my blood. A lot of tough kids roaming the streets of Westgarth, Northcote, North Fitzroy and Collingwood. Fathers fighting a War and mothers scraping for a living. Maybe it sounded good, a form of pride, bragging; I survived, improved myself? Perhaps it was my left wing Labour background. I know I rather liked saying it without giving it a lot of thought. Dad hated the “working class” label. He reckoned we were all workers one way or another. I’ve found that giving people a label, as in “working class”, comes with an inference that they aren’t as intelligent as other so called classes. Possibly true in numbers because there’s so many of us. Closer examination can reveal that people with intelligence, and others who make their decisions by way of instinct, prejudice, or whatever happens to be on the front or back pages of the newspaper, can be found in all classes. People like to think there’s always a “class” lower than them. The feeling of superiority, the search for a mini-dictatorship whatever the form. One just has to read the letters page of any daily newspaper to read such examples. On the other hand what is it that makes people conclude that intelligence is a true measure of worth, or money for that matter?  He might be a bastard, a thief, a pedophile, or simply a studious type with a degree who has never had an original thought! The world is full of intelligent people lacking in wisdom. Former Prime Minister John Howard referred to us, including himself, as “ordinary Australians”. How Dad would have ridiculed that label. Mr Howard, along with all right wing governments, is only interested in four things: your vote, your spending, your taxes and his place in history. The Labor Party has much the same interests. Politicians generally, to the backline. 

 

As kids it was Mum at work, or at home at work, doing her best, somehow surviving. Working five full days a week in a Milk Bar, making all the meals, washing, cleaning, and no husband to be seen. Two sisters about, also nowhere to be seen, but was I looking? Too busy “mucking around”, truly a favourite pastime, a favourite saying. A younger brother with a bright future, the family favourite. Joyous Christmas days, Northcote swimming baths, street cricket, football, yonny fights, catching yabbies down in the Merri Creek. School getting in the way, childminding centres really, playgrounds for the bully boys and bully girls, with the ever present impossible dream of someone belting the shit out of them, the boys that is, amidst cheers from the Outer. Hopalong Cassidy and Buck Rogers, Esther Williams and Jose Iturbi, Cyd Charise’s legs, Joan Leslie, Betty Grable’s legs, Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney and the Dead End kids, Al bloody Jolson and Jimmy Durante (Dad’s favourite). Makers of impossible dreams, at the “flicks” (never the movies), every Friday night and Saturday arvo, unless Collingwood was playing at home at Victoria Park, two short railway station stops away. The mighty Magpies with Mum and hot dogs, pies, peanuts, and home made corned beef and pickled onion sandwiches. Football was cheap back then. Another body in the house. A stranger home from the War. One very quiet stranger. New lessons to be learned. New rules. 

Who’s in charge; Mum, Dad, me? Nobody, it seemed. Still running wild. Dad had nothing to say for more than a couple of years, and not too much thereafter. Picture theatres again later on, still in the Front Stalls (cheaper) and beautiful girls, untouchable to most, always hoping, wishing, with fear of the unknown. Sometimes lucky, sitting next to one, “pashing on”, the film forgotten, exploring the big mystery, listening wide-eyed to bullshit from mates. Gambling on the horses, cards, getting drunk, smoking cigarettes, (a packet of ten State Express three 3’s would last a week), advanced bullshit now, junior football and pie nights. Still dreaming, permanently, of females and a motor car, any motor car as transport to a drive-in show. Sure to get a female with a motor car? But no visions. I didn’t know the difference, simply dreams. The absolute joy of finishing school, and those interminable dead boring science and geography classes.  Freedom! The foundations...for what?

Somehow those treasured early years became a blur, lost memories, lost relationships, set aside in matters of self interest - marriage, career, children, a house, attempting to improve one’s situation,  living with change, and the permanent dream of winning the lottery with the smallest allowable investment. I worked out the odds when there were 40 numbers-once every thirty odd thousand years. I gave up when they increased them to 45. 

A few years back I started to read Tim Winton’s novel CLOUDSTREET,  but couldn’t finish it. In 1999 I saw the play Cloudstreet, adapted from Tim Winton’s book by Nick Enright & Justin Monjo and loved it. The love, the squabbles, the camaraderie of the struggle. I read somewhere that Tim wrote the story to capture the beauty of the times, growing up, his youth. He also captured my  imagination, real thoughts of my youth, our youth. Made me think about it. And the one clear thought that I got was that never, at any stage of my youth, did I even realise that times were in fact tough. Plenty of food on the table. Didn’t everyone live like us? Wonderful times, full of adventures, excitement, boredom, jealousy, hopes, happiness, loyalties, illnesses, tragedies, fear, and love. So I thought I should attempt something, as a memory, to record and hopefully capture a good part of my youth and beyond, expand my sense of my own life, with enormous help from sisters May (in particular) and Valerie. How I would have treasured it if Dad had kept a diary, any sort of record. I must say that I’ve interpreted these memories. They are not necessarily the way others of that time see them. Nothing ever is. Everything though, after all, is in a sense autobiographical. Isn’t it?

All history  becomes  subjective; in other words

there is properly no history; only biography. Emerson.

“A line of development from earlier forms.” I liked that, even believed it once upon a time. Now I’m not so sure.  Monkeys? Crete had plumbing 2000 years ago, far better, I imagine, than what Athens has today, which would not be too difficult judging from my two visits. Civilisations became extinct; have done for thousands of years. How many thousands? How far back did we make the switch, if at all? It’s 2003, and I think back to as recent as the late 60’s, and the introduction of massive computers, the size of a house. Now, a mere 30+ years on, we have computers 1000 times more intelligent, that fit into my pocket. At this rate come another 15 or 20 years, they’ll be more intelligent than us, so some tell us. Surely not, but even so, is it worth writing a story? I’ve lived through the best years of our history in Australia. Too young for the second World War, Korea, too old for Vietnam, a joke called National Service in 1955. It fascinates me to think back now, trying to remember, to record. When one gets older one tends to look back, not so much yearning for youth, more an appreciation of what I really did not appreciate during those times. I have vivid memories of (some) older people spending the final years in a state of corrosive bitterness, regret. Perhaps it’s something to do with a need to have my say, my history...

Nobody ever really listens anyway unless it suits them, generally when they agree. Put it on paper and at least it’s there, recorded. Pursue the whim. I’m a pensioner. Too old even at 40 they reckon, hopefully a temporary aberration. In any case one of the primary dilemmas of adult life (sexual desire) has passed to a large degree, but not, thankfully, erotic dreams. Only love, solitude and death to consider now.

It was the day after my 65th birthday. I was having coffee in a little Cafe looking out over Port Phillip Bay, across the road from Nepean Highway, thinking back to when I was a lad of 33, an Accountant in the Commonwealth Public Service. Back then they had a tea room where we would all congregate twice daily (later they introduced a tea lady in the name of efficiency, thus a drop in morale; idiots) and all they talked about was superannuation units, reserve units, and how much they would be worth when they reached retirement at 65. Bored the pants off me. The average age for dying was 67, a lousy two years to whoop it up? 2001 was light years away as I saw it. I looked up at the street sign, Ozone Street, Rye, on the Mornington Peninsula. God’s waiting room, as the locals call it. The big Safeway Supermarket looking out to the Bay between Ozone Street and Hygeia Street (both named after the ferries running from Port Melbourne to Sorrento between 1886 and 1910).

 

I ordered a second hot strong cappuccino from the pretty young waitress as I pondered not too fleetingly on her shapely legs and superb bottom, a minor advantage of invisibility. Then at the Street sign. Ozone Street. My memory zipped back another 25 years. It was here, in Ozone Street, in 1940, some 60 years ago, that we had our first holiday. Back then travelling to Rye from Northcote was the equivalent of an overseas trip. A train ride from Rushall Station to Princes Bridge Station, another (a long one) from Flinders Street Station to Frankston, then the long long trip on the Portsea Peninsula Bus to Rye. Took forever, (as it does to the present day) but the excitement of seeing the water, the bay, on the Frankston train between Mordialloc and Aspendale, was something special, that whiff of anticipation, that very special smell. I can still feel it, smell it. Number 14 Ozone Street. The house long gone. No electricity, an outside toilet, a hole in the ground for sewerage, fit for the wreckers, complete with spiders, ants and mosquitoes. Catch a fly and feed it to the spiders. Certainly no Safeway monster. It was a big weatherboard house owned by Auntie Mill’s companion Marge Allen. And so we arrived. Mum, sisters Valerie and May, brother Lawrie, Big Auntie Elsie and Uncle Albert (the Blairs), Auntie Edna and Uncle Tom (the Banks), and me, otherwise known by my nickname, Bongo, which still survives. I had come full circle. How did I survive? Any of us for that matter.

Streams of consciousness, flashbacks of confusion, happiness, fear. Cricket in the Street with a tennis ball, the electric light pole as the wicket. Football with socks sewn together, or newspaper with rubber bands. Swimming. Kids everywhere, wary of the toughest, talk my way out of trouble or perish. No money. Going to school. Tomato sandwiches four hours old (I can still smell them too) and fearsome teachers, all with the same boring message...

 

”You’d do better if you tried Ellen.” (Authoritarian bastards!)

“Get stuffed” Oops. Shit. Nearly said it out loud.

 

At school. “What is your father’s occupation?”: Soldier, I put. Later on, a double decker bus conductor. Very important to have a bus conductor as a father. It’s the years between mid twenties to mid thirties where a dark cloud appears. Possibly the booze, combined with the need to strut, ego at large, thinking to the backline, an important  part of my early culture, or lack thereof. What you don’t know about you don’t necessarily think about? The makings of a Yobbo? A Redneck? A black and white neck?     

 

Dad came to Melbourne from Beechworth when he was 16 and worked in the Government Insurance Office. He went to the Murmungee State School to Grade 8 level. He was told he had a bright future, which I wouldn’t doubt, he was an intelligent man. He married Nellie at the Melbourne Registry Office on 10th May, 1930. That same year Don Bradman was giving the Pommies hell on their own dunghill, and Pharlap won the big race. Alas, he went to Dunlop Rubber, likely for more money, but due to the depression he and many others were given the heave-ho. Shades of today, minus the severance lolly. Dad went back to Murmungee to work in search of gold (mining) with my grandfather. One man was down the mine shaft and filled the bucket with ore, the horse walking a set path to bring the bucket up. The men up top then attended to the ore and the horse walked back to lower the bucket. There was a wooden sluice channel, ore being washed through with water, and if any gold (called specks) was there it stuck to the wooden bottom of the channel. They had tank water and put the ore in piles, and when rain came they washed the ore. The men would wait for their cheque, cash it at the pub, pay their bills and send some home. While Dad was in Murmungee Mum kept house for Aunties Doll & Mill and Pop Henderson. The Aunties were working part time, 4 days a week, and Pop probably received a pension. Mum also worked as a casual for Nurse in Thornbury where they did small operations, mainly curettes and abortions. Very Hush hush of course. I only knew of this many years later. She bought Val’s pram with the first money sent by Dad from Murmungee. Dad eventually returned to a job with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board as a Tram/Bus Conductor, around 1935/36. After the war he again returned to the Tramways. He had his picture on the new trams and buses for years (he started on the old cable trams)  with the caption...“It is your responsibility to hand fare to the conductor before leaving the car-penalty £5.” 

 

When we first moved to McLachlan Street (4A-rented premises @ 23 shillings a week) it only had the one bedroom. It was originally part of the Jones house next door. There was a small room off the kitchenette near the back door which Mum’s Dad Bob lived in for a time, before moving to live with Aunties Doll & Mill, who had shifted to a rented house at 88 Union Street, Westgarth. Dad then made it into a real bedroom for Lawrie and me. Bob Henderson had a glass eye late in life, died in July, 1940 and Val moved to Union Street some two years later. All three of us (May, Lawrie and I) slept in the side room attached to Mum’s bedroom. The bedroom, the large kitchen and the dining room (actually called a lounge room, never used unless we had visitors) all had fireplaces. The dining room had a beautiful marble mantelpiece and a huge mirror, also a wonderful rocking chair. There was a sideboard (buffet today), a beautiful bookcase with a glass cupboard on top and drawers underneath, a brown leather lounge suite, two brass wood boxes with leather tops, and old fashioned wooden venetian blinds. The kitchen fireplace was waist high. We regularly cooked toast on the fire with the aid of a long fork, also boiled the kettle there. The gas meter required money. The kitchen was our world, a huge room, without any windows, and a large rectangular wooden table where we ate, big enough for table tennis, where indeed we played thousands of games. It also featured wooden chairs, a dresser, an ice chest (later an ice refrigerator, rather exciting at the time; “very flash” as we would say), and an old black horsehair stuffed sofa. The floor was covered (and re-covered) with linoleum. The light switches were string, with knobs on the end. The back door to the house, where we came and went, including all visitors, was never locked. There wasn’t a lock on it. 

 

Sunday evening was also bath night. Separating the kitchenette from the bathroom (tin bath) was a copper, where the water was heated and (by saucepan, called a “dipper”) put into the bath, cold water added if necessary. I was always last in, murky waters. And what if the others peed in it; they never owned up? The copper was where Mum did all the washing. Nobody we knew owned a washing machine. In the first month of May’s birth there was a record number of fogs. Poor Nellie, getting all those nappies clean on our clothesline-a couple of sticks called props, with wire in between. Laurie and I later slept out near the back door some time after Grandpa Henderson went to Auntie Dolls. I slept nearest the fibro cement wall, with Laurie’s bed tight up against mine, and half a wardrobe each. God knows what we put in the wardrobe, we were very short on spare clothes, although we did have our Sunday suits, short trousers and suit coat. A typical old wardrobe, but actually cut into two so there were no arguments. Dad was an optimist. One very small bedroom in stark contrast to kid’s bedrooms today. No nick nacks, no toys, no posters, very few clothes. Later still, Dad converted the front veranda into a bedroom for May. We would all sit at the kitchen table for our meals and (after Dad came home from New Guinea), when finished, have to say, to Dad in particular...“May I leave the table please.” Dad would tell us to chew our food at least 28 times before swallowing. We tried it a few times, but the fact was it slowed up the eating process, so we dutifully told him we were indeed following his instructions, but we lied. He also encouraged us, with very little success, to talk properly...“The brown hound bounded round the brown house.” On the other hand he was insistent that we pronounce certain words in a certain way. Clurk [clerk] was never pronounced clark, likewise derby; all castle type words were castle, never carstle. Either connected with his anti-English feelings, or a resentment towards changing pronunciations. To this day I follow him on the castle type words, but followed the crowd with the clerks. 

 

We always had cats, one at a time, always called Stumpy, and sometimes kittens, which Dad (sadly) would drown by way of a sugar bag and stones, probably in the Merri Creek across the road. At Christmas he would acquire a large chook and cut the head off, leaving me (for years) with this vision of a headless chook running around the backyard. Bit like me really. Naturally said chook ended up as the feature of a roast dinner, which was lunch. Chickens tasted much better then than they do today, likewise rabbits.

 

Dad survived two heart attacks, a bout of cancer and a nervous breakdown, not to mention the 1300+ days on the frontline at the War. When I was doing National Service in 1955 we moved from Westgarth to Bonbeach, purchased by way of a War Service loan. A standard 3 bedroom home, with Laurie and I still together in bunk beds in one very small bedroom next to the bathroom. Dad would always shave late at night for the following day, and as I lay in bed I’d hear him, making lots of noise, walking up and down the passage to the bedroom for reasons unknown, and nearly always singing either “Land of Hope and Glory” or “Jerusalem.”

 

May tells the story that when my wedding day (1961) was coming up, Mum told Alice Patterson, next door that Dad didn’t give her any money to buy an outfit, so Alice kindly made her one. Dad was one for show in public, by way of looking the part and minding our own business, so it’s more likely that Nellie squandered the cash on the horses. At Bonbeach Mum didn’t have any extra work to gain income, hence her reliance on Dad, the desperate plight of many a good woman, particularly later in life. Mind you, she knew how to shop for bargains, in fact May tells how she taught her. Mum and Alice Paterson would put Alice’s baby in the pram, walk to Nepean Highway, Chelsea, and go from shop to shop-there was three of the early supermarkets there - knowing the prices, getting the value, the specials, long before it became a national obsession. 

 

Nellie was a scream when an unexpected knock came at the door. She would curse the interruption all the way to the door, and as she opened it her face beamed with happiness. Of course if Nellie had a win everyone was happy, we all benefited, except Nellie. Generosity was her middle name. If she liked you you could do no wrong, but always wise to keep on her right side. I lent her £5 once, and reminded her of it many months later; nearly lost my head. Regularly, as with all kids, self interest was prevalent, though nowhere near the scale of selfishness that prevails today. If we felt we were not getting a fair go we would utter the famous catchcry “That’s not fair.” Mum’s stock answer, no racism intended, was “Neither is Joe Louis’s backside.” Joe was our hero, the world heavyweight boxing champion. Many a morning, at Bonbeach, I would get out of bed and find Nellie in the lounge having a cigarette, with the cryst-o-mint lifesavers on the coffee table, and no doubt a great deal of coughing before I entered. I never quite got the connection, but with 40 odd years of smoking under my belt I do now. She did those final ten years tough, never complained, and we were too stupid or selfish to realise.

 

If Nellie went to town she would call in at the Maypole Delicatessen in Little Collins Street, behind Coles, to buy baked rabbit, ham off the bone and potato salad; or the fish shop in Elizabeth Street near where the London Hotel was for shrimps. On extra special occasions we would have crayfish and mussels. Sometimes Big Auntie Else and Auntie Doll would share with us, and they ate the horrible guts parts. Afterwards Mum would wrap up the shells etc and I would dump them over the fence across the road - Merri Creek area. Standard practice back then. I’m not sure how often the dirt man (rubbish man) came around. Twice a week I think, first in a horse & cart, then a truck. 

Dad wouldn’t let us have a beer in the house until we reached 21. He never wavered from this rule, despite much pleading in my late teens. I came home drunk once, to be greeted by brother-in-law Jack (Sharp) and Dad. I do believe Jack spoke harshly to my mates for allowing me to show myself at home in such a state. Jack, Val’s husband, was a tough bugger in his youth, out of Port Melbourne and with a superb background in working class family tradition. This tradition shone through in Jack, a popular young man who always made one feel safe in his company. Nor were we allowed to swear unless we wanted to run the gauntlet of having our mouths washed out with soap and water. I doubt the threat would have been carried out; he only ever hit me once, with a small stick; what for I cannot recall, but no doubt fully deserved. Dad says I must have dreamt it, which is possible. We did not own a lawn mower and cut the grass with a sickle. We had an Orange tree in the front garden, also a big palm tree, and for years we had an owl living in it. People would come and look at our owl, who would sleep all day and fly off to the Merri Creek at dusk, likely to feed. We had a wonderful mulberry tree just outside the back door.

 

Dad rarely spoke of the War, or the past, but he did say three Ellens came from England, although there was a story some were originally Irish. Our family tree now appears to prove this to be correct. Grandfather Bo in later years worked for the Board of Works making timber sides for the mine shafts. Mum’s dad Bob was a Sawyer all his working life, cutting timber for Beauchamps (pronounced Beechams), on Number 1 Sawbench. He was earning £5 a week at his best, a great deal of money, so he must have been very good at it. Every payday he would put £2 under the clock, Emma’s money. Doesn’t seem over generous, so maybe he paid the bills, though unlikely. Mum told us Bob got the sack at 80 after turning up for work drunk. Also said he would buy a bag of lollies and eat them in front of us?

 

The so-called “hard times” never registered, as Mum fed us like royalty and almost certainly spent the following year paying off last year’s Christmas presents. Rarely did Mum sit down to eat tea with us. Surely she must have sometimes, but not in my memory. Bex powders, cryst-o-mint lifesavers, cigarettes, gambling, and us. I’m sure there was a lot more to her; it’s just that she kept that part of her personality well hidden. Nellie was not an attractive woman by normal standards, but she had this rare ability to be very popular with the people that mattered to her. Always the best meat from the butcher shop, always charmed the bill collectors, always a fantastic food table for visitors. 

 

One story Dad told was when the wireless inspector came to our house, and of course we didn’t have a licence. He came to the back door and was going to fine us, but Mum walked him down to the front gate and by then he had changed his mind. I only saw her ever buy one  dress (at 28 shillings, a cotton print) and never did I know of her eating at a restaurant, or take in a movie. May says she actually bought herself an opal ring late in life. Valerie reports Mum would often have a meal in Coles Cafeteria type places during a day in town. Regularly she would get up from the couch (listening to a radio show or serial) and make Laurie & I hot chips at 9.30 in the evening, if we so desired. Dad said Mum would earn a shilling where others would starve, but she’d spend two shillings. Probably true, but other than her dreaded gambling she certainly did not spend it on herself. Dad used to mend our shoes, but Mum chopped the wood most of the time. He also laid carpet from after we moved to Bonbeach in 1955 - no expert, but good enough for us after 20 years of linoleum.

 

Sometimes Mum would give me lunch money - a big treat. I would invariably buy 3 penneth of chips or potato cakes (called fritters) and an icy pole with a small ice cream (two-up) on top.  Grade 5 saw my promotion to a pie & sauce plus icy pole. Sometimes hot buttered crumpets for threepence. Pricey, but delicious.  My first day at school I met Tommy Bell. If we were poor Tommy was destitute. Little, but tough. Most of the boys at Alfred Crescent State School (now Fitzroy North Primary) were destitute. Many were tough. I was a talker. Very very handy. They had a centrespread in the Sun newspaper years later, (16th February, 1968) describing it as “the black hole of Fitzroy.” (“The school that’s dying of shame”). Charming. No fathers around, all at War. Two of my mates lived in houses with dirt floors. It was rumoured that one of our mates lived in a house where they “did their business’ in the long passageway, but I was never game enough to test that rumour. The single fronted variety, all over North Fitzroy. Not today. A fine school and expensive (still single fronted) houses.

 

More to come...