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A Private Life
Fragments, Memories, Friends
By Michael Kirby
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Michael Kirby
All rights reserved.
OF FRECKLES, CROWNS AND CANES — MY EARLY TEACHERS
SHE WAS TALL AND spare. She was friendly enough but, underneath that sweet exterior, was a voice of cold command. It was not to be messed with. She needed that voice to keep control over the thirty or so boys and girls — five year olds — in her charge. She was Mrs Church: my first teacher. Her specialities were plasticine and the piano. Anything to keep our young minds occupied and out of mischief.
Like many members of my family, Mrs Church was a Celt. She wore the badge of that warrior people, as two of my siblings — Donald and Diana — were to do. Red hair. And freckles. Lots of freckles, right up her arms. 'Don't go out in the sun, Donald,' we would say. 'Or you'll get freckles like Mrs Church.' Donald's eyes would fill with unwept tears, making his pale unfreckled skin around his eyes redder than ever. Getting as many freckles as Mrs Church was definitely not the way to go.
The year was 1944 and Mrs Church ran a tiny kindergarten in the parish hall attached to St Andrew's Anglican Church. That church and hall still stand on the corner of Concord Road and Parramatta Road in Strathfield in the western suburbs of Sydney. Strathfield was then an old, well-established and rather prosperous suburb — the type of place one could be proud to live in. But we lived on the wrong side of the tracks.
Our home was on the northern side of Parramatta Road where the suburb was named Concord. There are various explanations of how that beautiful name was chosen. So much more poetic than the names of most of the inner suburbs of Sydney, taken from mansion-building colonial worthies. 'Concord' was reportedly either assigned because of an early peace agreement secured with the local Aboriginal inhabitants, or from the town in the United States, whose unpleasant revolution had led to the creation of the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. I never got to the bottom of the true explanation. Either account will do.
I have little recollection of my time under Mrs Church's tutelage. But I have it on the authority of my father that I was a quiet and studious boy with a joyful interest in creating objects with plasticine. It did not take me long to get the plasticine into my mouth only to discover that, although chewy, it was not edible. As the year wore on, I became keen to seek the limelight in the famous annual concert in which Mrs Church tried to demonstrate the beneficial effect on children that her little kindergarten was having.
Schooling with Mrs Church led naturally, on Sundays, to attending the adjacent church building, my earliest lessons in religion. No doubt that was how it was meant to be. The church was then described as belonging to the 'Church of England'. Only later was this association dropped in favour of the more impersonal designation, 'Anglican'. But above the altar of the church were two flags: the Union Jack and the Australian blue ensign. The name of the denomination might have changed, but the Englishness would always remain. There was also a lot of golden brass, polished so that it shone in the sunlight that seeped in azure hues into the church as we little children partook of early Sunday school. I had a Bible of my own, with lovely coloured plates. They illustrated the prophets of the Old Testament and the parables of the New. Jesus appeared in a coloured plate, with his kindly face. And like Mrs Church, Donald and Diana, his hair was fair. No visible freckles.
* * *
In December 1944, my days of kindergarten were over, and my mother took me in the following year to the closest public school. This was the infants' school at North Strathfield, a little more than a kilometre from our family home.
The infants' school building is still there in Links Avenue, so named because it abuts the golf links laid out in the early days of the suburb. The school is a two-storey building which looks as if it had been built in the 1920s. In 1944, like us the pupils, it still had the fresh bloom of youth upon it. The upstairs classrooms in particular were bright, and the large clear-glass windows meant that this was a sunny, well-lit, happy place. It was unlike so many other dark and pokey classrooms of the British Empire. On the walls were bright posters and a map of the empire on which the sun never set. Every land that was ruled by Britain was coloured in a lovely reddish hue, to distinguish it from the less attractive colours of more unfortunate nations. The French Empire, I remember, had a washed-out blue colouring. The Dutch East Indies, just to the north of Australia, were painted yellow. This was, of course, a pre-war map. At the very time that I was admitted to the school, several of the pink-coloured lands, as well as those belonging to the French and the Dutch were occupied by our enemies. Little did we know then how quickly the great empires of earlier days would disappear, including our own reddish one: Britannia's dominions.
My teacher in Class 1A in the infants' school was Miss Pontifex. Like Mrs Church, she was tall. But she was always dressed in sombre colours and I remember that her hair was always tied in a neat bun. My daily journey to school took me along the suburban pathways of Concord. They were safe for walking. There was not much traffic in those days — a product of post-Depression austerity and wartime petrol rationing. Each day would commence with a school assembly that began punctually. And then all the children in Class 1A, mixed boys and girls, would march, just like our brave soldiers, up the concrete stairs with satchels in hand to the tune of the Teddy Bears' Picnic. The recorded band boomed out from the school loudspeakers and lasted until we were all safely in our seats in our classrooms. In those days, all the desks were in fixed positions, but with retractable seats. Some of the desks looked as if they dated from the time that the Public Instruction Act was adopted by the colonial parliament of New South Wales in the 1880s. Often there were carvings recording the names or initials of long-departed students. Never did I deface a desk in such a way. The very thought of doing so was shocking, even then, to my law-abiding nature.
Miss Pontifex's challenge was to teach us how to read and write. This meant learning the alphabet. The letters were already written on the blackboard in perfect copperplate style. First, the smaller version of 'a'. And then the larger. There were two measured lines across the blackboard within which the body of each letter was written. The slope of the writing, like our lives themselves, had to maintain a perfect and uniform forward tendency. The copperplate that Miss Pontifex taught us was graceful with lots of opportunities for curves and elegant decorations. This was not Miss Pontifex's objective. She simply wanted us to learn each of the letters of the alphabet and each of the numbers on the blackboard so that we could begin our journeys into literacy and numeracy.
The following year, 1945, was a big one in the history of Australia. It was the year we won the war. Australian soldiers had joined with others from Mother England, the United States and the Allied forces in the Pacific to defeat our enemies. These soldiers were out there in the jungles, faraway, helping to keep our peaceful suburbs, with their quiet homes and churches and schools, safe from foreign invaders. We all felt very grateful to them.
I remained in the infants' school in 1945. In Class 2A, my teacher for most of the year was Mrs See. She was less forbidding than Miss Pontifex. Miss Pontifex was condemned to go through life with the title of an imperial Roman leader, a title with which she seemed perfectly comfortable. Mrs See was more like one of the mothers. Shorter in stature, dressed in floral attire, more friendly. Still concentrating on reading and writing, but with a leavening of games. The year with Mrs See was more like my year with Mrs Church. She introduced us to a book, issued by the Department of Education, with simple stories designed to make our alphabetical studies more relevant. The book was distinctive because it had laminated paper and a special smell, unlike most of the coarse paper in those difficult wartime years.
Smells were important in the days of youth. My mother was a great gardener and I knew the smells of all the flowers that decorated the surrounds of our home. The vases in our living rooms displayed her best offerings. Nasturtiums, at the bottom of the garden, gave off a particularly memorable perfume. Whenever it returns, it takes me back to that small shaded part of my mother's garden in Concord. Roses and daphne might be more luxuriant, but my mother taught me also to love the strong earthy smells of chrysanthemums and dahlias.
* * *
In 1946, I graduated from the infants' school to the 'big' school. This is still found on the corner of Concord Road and Correys Avenue in North Strathfield. Here indeed was a building erected soon after the passage of the Public Instruction Act. The school was the local physical symbol of the extension throughout New South Wales (and ultimately Australia) of the three great principles of public education: it would be free, compulsory and secular. Australia was the first continent on earth where every child would be educated in free schools. I was a beneficiary of this ambitious project.
Like public schools everywhere in the State, mine at North Strathfield had a badge in the form of a shield, which was coloured blue, with symbols I cannot now recall. For some reason, whilst the whole world called the suburb 'North Strathfield', the badge declared that we were 'Strathfield North PS'. And our school motto was 'Play the game'.
The school building had a large veranda at the front which faced Concord Road. In 1946, that road was not nearly as busy as it was later to become. However, I have clear memories of the large military trucks that passed like an ever-flowing stream along it. They were coloured khaki and on each side was a large white circle in which was emblazoned the sign of the Red Cross. These were the vehicles that carried the injured soldiers to the Concord Repatriation General Hospital, two kilometres along Concord Road at Yaralla. From time to time, we would be taken to stand at the front of the school building, or even on the footpath, to wave to dignitaries making the journey to the hospital. In the morning, if it was raining, I would arrive at the school on a double-decker bus along Concord Road. In those days, the buses were red, just like in England. The bus fare was a penny. Sometimes, despite the rain, I would walk to school so that I could purchase teeth-crunching hard-boiled lollies with that penny. Parents with triangular yellow flags stood guardian to halt the traffic, to let us pass safely into school.
In the 'big' school, boys and girls were separated. Girls were taught in the northern wing. In the southern wing, it was the boys. My classroom was under the charge of Mrs Godwin. By this stage, learning had become a much more serious business. Every student in Class 3A had to purchase a Commonwealth atlas. This had maps of the Australian Commonwealth, but also of the world in which we lived. Each month, every child in all of the state's public schools would receive the School Magazine. It contained stories and other items including poetry that could be used by the teachers in class. We were expected to read these out loud and would be marked when our moment came. The desks were still arranged in fixed positions, all turned towards Mrs Godwin, standing at the blackboard. When I was called upon to read, I would take the departmental magazine, stand in my place and recite the passage assigned to me.
We were also marked for writing. No ballpoints in those days. Instead, every desk had a hole cut out in one corner, into which was placed a white porcelain ink container. As if by magic, each night unknown emissaries of the Department of Education would appear to fill the containers. The school provided us with a brown wooden pen with a nib. If the nib was new, we had to suck it to give the ink traction so that it would flow freely. Slope cards were given to us to be placed under the pages of the green-covered departmental exercise books issued to us for writing. If we did particularly well in writing, or in presenting a little essay of our own, we were rewarded. Mrs Godwin would place a stamp in our book, which we could proudly show our parents. Invariably, the stamp was a red crown of St Edward. This was the crown our king wore. King George VI. We knew that he lived in England and that his soldiers had just won the war. As generally they did. How else did a quarter of the world end up coloured red?
It was in Mrs Godwin's class that I first became conscious of distinctive racial differences amongst our fellow students. One of the boys in my class was Bobby Chong, who had also come up from the infants' school. He was small in stature but, as it turned out, big in brain power. Before him lay a life of distinction in biology and, in due course, a professorial appointment in New Zealand. But, of course, we did not know that then.
I always tried to do my best in class. But Bobby Chong, from time to time, did better. These were the days of 'White Australia' and our classrooms, like the community generally, were pretty monochrome. We were mostly pale children who could trace our forebears to the British Isles. So Bobby's successes became doubly noticeable.
I remember an occasion in 1947 when I reported half-yearly results to my mother. It was in the garden at the front of our home in Concord. The one with the flowers. I handed my mother my report card signed by the Headmaster.
'I've got my half-yearly results, Mum.'
'How did you go?'
'Where did you come?'
'Second in the class.'
'Who came first?'
'It was Bobby Chong.'
Bobby 'McIntosh' or Bobby 'Yeomans' would have been unremarkable. After all, second in the class was not so bad. But in a country that still rejoiced in expelling Asian people, Bobby Chong's success came as something of a surprise. Years later, with other survivors of that class and our partners, Bobby Chong and I met again. The reunion took place in what in 1947 had been a grocer's shop but by then, symbolically enough, was a Chinese restaurant on the southern corner of Correys Avenue and Concord Road. We laughed about my mother's reaction, as she too would do in later years. We celebrated the progress that had come with the intervening decades. Today, Strathfield North PS has a large proportion of students who are Asian — Australians. Bobby was a standout in those postwar days. In more ways than one.
* * *
In the following year, 1948, I moved to Class 4A and my teacher was Mr Casimir. He was a somewhat irascible man. He was forever going on about the evils of drinking and smoking. Because my parents neither drank alcohol nor smoked, these strictures did not affect me very much. However, in those days, more than 50 per cent of men in Australia did smoke. This meant that most of the boys in Class 4A would go home and tell their parents of Mr Casimir's rebuke for their having introduced the evil weed into the family. Looking back, he was ahead of his time. He was a good teacher and he made sure that we paid attention to the school broadcasts that interrupted the day from the wireless loudspeaker positioned at the front of the class, up near the ceiling.
The School Magazine contained the words of the songs we learned to sing in class. These were taught, over the radio, by Terence Hunt, a baritone with a splendid voice, strong and confident. Many of the songs, I recall, were traditional English songs with words that recounted the beauties of the scenery of Mother England. A favourite was The Ash Grove. But Terence Hunt was nothing if not eclectic. He also taught us The Blacksmith, with the powerful hammering theme that I was later to discover was one of the songs of Franz Schubert. A particular hymn we were taught, These Things Shall Be, was written by James Addington Symonds, a disciple of Charles Wesley. To this day, I can remember the words and tune. And the important message that it brought to that little classroom at North Strathfield:
These things shall be, a loftier race
Than all the world has known shall rise
With flame of freedom in their souls
And light of science in their eyes.
At a later hour, twice a week, we would all listen to an ABC radio broadcast by Mr H.D. Black on The World We Live In. He would always begin in his jaunty way, exclaiming, 'Hello girls and boys'. He would tell us about the events that had occurred in the preceding days, interpreting the great world happenings unfolding at that time so that we could understand them and see their relevance to our lives in faraway peaceful Australia. I can remember distinctly Mr Black telling us of the onward advance of the Red Army in China as it drove the forces of the Kuomintang to their ultimate exile in Formosa — Taiwan. The Chinese Revolution was underway. Whether it would bring riches to the Chinese people was of less significance, after the Japanese war, than whether it would bring danger to us in 'White Australia'.
Excerpted from A Private Life by Michael Kirby. Copyright © 2011 Michael Kirby. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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