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Come the Revolution
By Alex Mitchell
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2011 Alex Mitchell
All rights reserved.
A CADET ON THE TOWNSVILLE BULLETIN
Journalism is a kind of profession, or craft, or racket, for people who never wanted to grow up and go out into the real world.
AMERICAN JOURNALIST HARRY REASONER
The powerful printing presses came to a halt and fell silent. My arms and shoulders were aching from lifting newspapers from the press and stacking them on a nearby table and my eardrums were numb from the screaming throb of the machinery. Without warning four men wearing factory boots and navy blue overalls came for me. They grabbed my arms and legs, carried me across the pressroom and threw me onto a cold metal bench. One of them pulled my trousers down to my ankles and I felt the cold slime of oil being poured over my genitals, followed by a thicker fluid. There was a circle of faces above me, all laughing and cheering as I kicked and struggled to break free. When they let go, I rolled off the table and ran to the washroom clutching my trousers at half-mast. From my waist to my knees I was covered in a mixture of black printer's ink and white sticky glue. In tears, I washed it away with industrial soap and cold water and dried myself with paper towels. Five minutes later the presses whirred into action and I hurried back to my work station to unload more papers. One of the printers made a point of coming over to tell me, 'Cheer up. It happens to everyone when they start here. It's a tradition and you've just passed the initiation ceremony. You're one of us now.' And he walked away, chuckling.
I was just 14 years old, earning 12 shillings for working every Saturday morning between 2 am and 6 am in the cavernous pressroom of the Townsville Daily Bulletin, or the Bully, in the port city of Townsville in tropical Queensland, Australia. It was big money in those days, enough to buy me a seat at a local cinema–the Roxy, the Wintergarden or the open-air, under-the-stars Olympia–plus a chocolate milkshake or a strawberry spider, a ham and tomato sandwich on fresh white bread with the crusts removed from Nick Lazaredes's Austral Café, or a Cherry Ripe bar, a box of Jaffas or a Violet Crumble bar. It was 1956 and we knew nothing of the Cold War, the Suez crisis or the Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary. But years later, when people learned I was a newspaper reporter, they would say, 'So, you must have printer's ink running through your veins', and I would reply, 'Well, actually, in a kind of way, I have.'
Townsville was named after its founder, Robert Towns, a merchant, pastoralist and New South Wales parliamentarian, who was born in Northumberland in England in 1794 and died in Sydney in 1873. After strategically marrying into the penal colony's first family, the Wentworths, Towns built a substantial commercial empire in shipping, trading, moneylending, meat packing, whaling and cotton growing. I remember telling a visitor to our home in the 1950s that Townsville owed its name to Captain Towns and receiving the disconcerting response, 'You mean Towns the blackbirder?' I went to my parents and asked, 'What's a blackbirder?' and learnt that the illustrious founder had been engaged in the kidnapping of Pacific Islanders, bringing them to Queensland to work on his vast agricultural properties, which covered more than 5000 square kilometres of the state. A milder variation of Britain's banned slave trade, blackbirding was eventually outlawed in Australia but not before Towns had profited from the cheap labour it afforded his empire. He also introduced labourers from England, Germany, India and China to work for his various ventures, which carried the business motto: 'To Hades and back if there is a profit in it'. His life was a rousing confirmation of Honoré de Balzac's rapier remark, 'At the back of every great fortune lies a great crime.'
* * *
My father, James Mitchell, was born in Glasgow at 6.30 am on 5 October 1908 at No 59 Crail Street, Parkhead, in the parish of Camlachie. His parents, Joseph Mitchell, commercial traveller, and Ruth Craven, restaurant waitress, and their three children moved to Oldham in Lancashire in the early 1920s when there were jobs aplenty and prospects were brighter. However, the destructive reverberations of the Wall Street crash put an end to my father's hopes of building a successful career in Depression-ravaged Lancashire. Soon after his 21st birthday he and some friends decided to try their luck on the other side of the world. He arrived in Sydney's Woolloomooloo only to find the unemployment queues were longer than Manchester's, so he 'jumped the rattler'–rode illegally on the northbound trains–from Sydney along the Pacific Ocean coastline to Far North Queensland, working as a labourer, canecutter, jackeroo and fairground rouseabout.
In the sweltering tropical heat of Cairns the newly arrived Scot met my mother, Lucy Gladys Wilesmith, from the second generation of a pioneering family. She was born on 14 February, St Valentine's Day, 1905, in Herberton, a frontier town on the Atherton Tableland. She was the second-youngest of seven children of Frank Gilbert Wilesmith, a tin miner and timber cutter whose family came from Worcestershire, and Susan Hannah Putt, of Cornish stock. My parents were married in Brisbane on 24 October 1936, and had four sons–James Gilbert (1938), Anthony John (1939), Alexander Robert (1942) and Jeffrey Bernard (1943). Although they were atheists, our parents sent us to Sunday School at St James' Anglican Cathedral in Townsville, where I was confirmed and became a boy soprano in the church choir and an altar boy. I often carried the crucifix during the processional and also swung the censer back and forth, filling the church with the fragrant smoke of burning incense to ward off evil spirits.
My father worked as an insurance salesman for the Mutual Life and Citizens Company (MLC) and as a supervisor at the Alligator Creek meatworks, ran a newsagency and eventually owned his own used car yard, called Better Used Cars. My mother was involved with the School of Arts and the Townsville Dramatic Society, producing plays and arranging visits by touring productions from the Australia Council. When the One People of Australia League (OPAL) was established in 1961 as an Aboriginal advancement organisation, she became a founding member. Most homes shunned Aboriginal people and many of my classmates were afraid of Indigenous Australians and kept well away from them. But they dropped in for a cup of tea at our place, and my mother gave warm encouragement to local activists like Roberta Sykes, Grace Smallwood and Eddie and Bonita Mabo (Eddie Mabo was to lead the historic claim for land rights to the High Court of Australia), and made firm friends with Henry Reynolds, the eminent historian of Aboriginal culture at James Cook University, and his wife Margaret, later to become a Labor senator. My parents would not tolerate anti-Aboriginal remarks in our house and there were tense times when visitors were asked to apologise or leave. Others were simply never invited back. My mother, in particular, spoke of the dignity, culture and gentleness of the Aborigines with whom she had grown up on the Atherton Tablelands and she instilled in all of us a strong commitment to equality for Aboriginal Australians, who at that time couldn't vote and were classified as 'wards of the state', with none of the rights enjoyed by the white European settler population.
Years later I found a booklet recounting the history of the early pioneers of the Watsonville–Stannary Hills area, the rugged rainforest and bush country where my mother grew up. Her mother, Susan Putt, was related to Edward Creber Putt, who 'selected' a vast block of land in 1884 (that is, stole it from the local Abori-gines). His son, my great-uncle Albert Creber Barron Putt, later recalled:
My father and his family lived in constant danger from the wild blacks. They would throw spears and boomerangs at the house whenever they saw anyone walking around the place. He applied to the Government for protection and they sent up a Constable Hansen from Brisbane with a supply of rifles, revolvers and ammunition. He taught all the older girls to shoot. Hansen took a party comprising Edward, Ted and Bill Putt, William Colley and Peter Jackson out into the scrub where they shot a number of Aborigines. That 'civilised' the rest.
This shocking piece of family history–and it wasn't an isolated event in that era–demonstrated to me that everyone who came to Australia as soldier, settler or convict in the late 18th and 19th centuries was connected inextricably to the cruel destruction of the Aboriginal people's 40000-year custodianship of the continent. As the world's largest island was 'civilised', the Indigenous people were cruelly displaced, killed off by police and settler hunting parties and reduced to phantom fringe dwellers, ignored and ostracised in their own homeland. Except, of course, when they performed with inspirational athleticism and intelligence in sport, and then they became national heroes.
* * *
My parents owned their newsagency in the early 1950s and the ready access to free comics took a highly impressionable toll. I was romantically attached to the notion that Superman could work on the Daily Planet during daylight hours and rescue the world after dark. Our shop in South Townsville stocked the first Penguin books to arrive in North Queensland and I devoured George Orwell and Joseph Conrad. As a teenager, I read Charles Dickens and revelled in his scathing commentary on the poverty and cruelty of Victorian England. I was enthralled by the exploits of Ernest Hemingway and the soaring literature of Dostoyevsky. A real author, Ernestine Hill, who wrote My Love Must Wait, the incomparable novel on the life of the great naval explorer Matthew Flinders, was a family friend. Our house bubbled with dinner table conversation supplied by a procession of guests including itinerant actors, musicians, travelling salesmen, writers and merchant seamen, all of them worldly-wise and spreading homespun philosophy. I'd been to see On the Waterfront on an embarrassing number of occasions and felt Marlon Brando's pain when he said that he could have been a contender but the opportunity had been denied him.
During my 14 years in Townsville our family moved house seven times–once every couple of years. We renovated each new home with a fresh coat of paint, building extensions, repairing bathrooms and kitchens and undertaking backbreaking garden improvements before moving on. It was a nomadic upbringing: my brother Tony swears that as a teenager he went away on a week-long ANZ Bank training course and when he returned the family had moved and he had to ask the neighbours for our new address. The constant need to change houses showed my parents' restless ambition for a bigger and better place to live, and it was also an insurance policy against the possibility of another economic depression. I took up the rootlessness of my childhood but not its upwardly mobile stability: I was in my sixties before I owned my first piece of real estate. No matter where we lived there was the sound of classical music from my father's collection of vinyl 78s, chiefly the treasured symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, the piano masterworks of Chopin and Liszt and the voice of Kathleen Ferrier. And there was always chess. Dad was a keen member of the Townsville Chess Club, where he played competitively one night a week, and collected the books of grandmaster Harry Golombek. Chess was an extension of the man: quiet, thoughtful, reflective and determined. He taught all of us to play at an early age, and he must have been a good teacher: the 1958 school magazine records that A Mitchell was undefeated when our team won the FR North Trophy in the interschool competition.
Four world events, regularly mentioned in our household, informed my early years–World War I, 'the hungry Thirties', World War II and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They weren't the subject of parental lectures but they were absorbed intuitively as gravely terrible events which became woven into my DNA. From my Uncle Arthur, a veteran of the Somme, I learnt that the 1914–18 slaughter which took eight million lives was provoked by armed banditry between the competing European powers. Fugitives from the Great Depression who sat at our dinner table talked of the millions thrown into unemployment, homelessness and destitution in order to rescue the banks and the private corporations in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash. Returned servicemen from World War II, which claimed 60 million lives (over half of them civilians), spoke movingly about their part in the defeat of German Nazism and Italian and Japanese fascism but were bewildered by the post-war agreements between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt that carved up the world into spheres of (their) influence. They spoke angrily about the post-war settlement, which failed to deliver freedom and independence to countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. And there were bitter recriminations over America's decision to launch the world's first (and only) nuclear attack on the civilian population of Japan when its defeat was certain and a surrender was under negotiation.
I was too young to hold political convictions but I accepted the strongly held views of my parents and elders and they became part of my received wisdom. As a family we never visited the Cenotaph to glorify war in the company of blood-drenched politicians and the armchair militarists of the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL). I've religiously kept away ever since and I'm pleased to say my three children don't take part either. The genes have been passed along straight and true.
* * *
My final years at Townsville State High School had been momentous: on 3 February 1959 Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in Iowa, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. As a mark of respect we rang the school bell between classes in slow motion and when we changed classrooms we marched in single file, evoking the solemnity of a funeral procession. It was 'the day the music died' and no one in Form VIB has ever forgotten it.
The previous year I had almost killed myself and some classmates. It was Saturday afternoon, 25 October 1958, when six of us gathered at David 'Doc' Hale's house to remove a tree from his backyard. Instead of using conventional tools such as a saw or an axe, I suggested we blow it out of the ground with a homemade explosive device, thereby giving some practical purpose to our chemistry lessons. We placed a thick steel pipe inside a large metal can and packed the space between the two with clay and dirt. The aim was to fill the pipe with gunpowder, place the can under the roots at the base of the tree, light a fuse and sit back and watch the spectacular uprooting of the unwanted tree.
Apart from Hale, my other accomplices were Frank and Brian Bell, Ron Gordon and one of the school's most accomplished pupils, Ken Miskin, a school captain, house captain, prefect, head of the cadet corps, marksman and shot putt record-holder. After the bomb went off prematurely I felt a stomach-turning panic as I watched Miskin trying to stem the blood from his mangled hand: I had almost killed Kenny, the school hero. The Townsville Daily Bulletin accorded our misadventure front page treatment with the headline 'Six High School Students Injured by Bomb Explosion'. Over three columns it gave a detailed account of our enterprise, saying:
Police said the youths had gathered at Hale's home with the idea of manufacturing a gunpowder bomb to blow up a china apple tree located in a vacant allotment at the rear of the residence. Miskin had commenced ramming the manufactured gunpowder tightly into the cylinder with a piece of one-eighth inch copper wire, which was about eight inches long. While Miskin was doing this for the purpose of obtaining a greater explosive effect, the bomb exploded scattering minute pieces of tin.
I was reported to have been admitted to hospital with a shrapnel injury to the left eye, gunpowder burns and shock. The report concluded, 'Police said all the youths were students and chemistry is a part of their courses. They had learnt the gunpowder formula in chemistry lessons.' While it was true we had dabbled in mixing gunpowder in the chemistry laboratory at school, I had benefited from extracurricular instruction expertly given by my eldest brother, Jim.
Miskin's hand was repaired, though some fingers remained crooked and scarred for life. I spent long days and nights in a silent hospital ward in restraints–my wrists tied to the iron bed frame and my head between two sandbags–after I had heard a radio report predicting that I faced blindness and torn the bandages from my eyes to find out for myself. My time in dark immobility was eerily character-forming. First, I made acquaintance with mortality; we casually shook hands and walked on. Second, my enforced immobility freed my imagination to soar to places I'd never been before. And third, I had the time to conduct a searching self-analysis from which I concluded that I was guilty of incredible irresponsibility. I had shamed my parents, made a fool of myself in front of my brothers and inherited the mantle of class clown. How could I redeem myself in their eyes? I wasn't fully aware of it then, but I was climbing onto a treadmill and setting the achievement meter at a punishing pace.
Excerpted from Come the Revolution by Alex Mitchell. Copyright © 2011 Alex Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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