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Here Comes the Sun
By Jeremy Oxley, Mary Oxley Griffiths
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2015 Mary Oxley Griffiths and Jeremy Oxley
All rights reserved.
A HOME BY THE SEA
Jeremy, 1961 — 1966
I grew up by the sea in northern New South Wales. It fascinated me, the endless sea. I would sit for hours and study the waves, wondering where they came from and where they went; I'd listen to the numbing rhythm and roar of the flow — in and out, like a giant breath. I marvelled at the strength that made it able to shape and carve out an entire coastline, to turn rock into sand, millions and millions of grains. I wondered what it was all for — the rocks, the sand, the water. The universe. And why we were here? What was my role in it all? Where it would take me? I guess I was a bit of a dreamer in that regard.
My obsession with the sea has never waned; nor has its calming effect on me.
* * *
My father Eric was born in 1930. He was the only son of Sydney and Ivy Oxley, and older brother to Rita. The Oxley family originated from Salford, in the north-west of England. Legend has it that Dad's family were distant descendants of Robin of L'Oxley, better known as Robin Hood — but I don't know how true that is!
Sydney was a wood machinist by trade while Ivy worked in a bakery. They both wanted more for Eric, who was academically gifted and won a scholarship to attend St Clement's Junior School, followed by Salford Grammar School. His parents suggested he become a teacher. On completion of his schooling, Eric was awarded a bursary from Salford Council to attend the Manchester School of Art. The four years of study comprised of practical training as well as placement as a trainee teacher. Although he was artistically gifted, Eric became nervous and self-conscious when standing in front of a class to teach, and consequently he failed his final teaching certificate. The following year, he took a job in a local factory while he attended a teacher training college in the evenings and completed his tuition. A little older and more confident this time around, Eric passed his exam at the next attempt.
Now twenty-two, Eric's first job was at Tootal Road Secondary Modern School. He taught there for several years until he and a colleague, George Moore, decided to take advantage of the Australian government's assisted-passage scheme and emigrate to Australia as 'Ten Pound Poms'. So in 1956, the two young men travelled to London for the first time to visit Australia House, where they were interviewed to see where their expertise could best be put to use. They were given the choice to teach in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane. Both chose Sydney.
The trip on the Orontes lasted four weeks. On their arrival in Sydney towards the end of the year, the immigrants were met by government officials, and allocated temporary accommodation and meal vouchers until they could support themselves. Eric's first job — which lasted only a few weeks, until the end of the school year — was at North Sydney Girls' High School. Over the next couple of years, he was sent to various postings around New South Wales, including Coffs Harbour and Tamworth, before being transferred back to Sydney in 1958.
* * *
My mother, Janice, was born in Sydney in 1938 to Lilian 'Lily' MacRae. Lily was a dancer at the Tivoli when she began a long and passionate affair with the married musical director, Walter Reynolds. Their first child, a daughter, was born in the early 1930s and given to another couple to raise. Soon after, they had a son, and another daughter the year after that. Two years later their fourth child, Janice, was born.
At about five years old, the son was sent to live with Lily's parents. Only the two younger girls were raised by Lily, who was by now working as a waitress. The attraction between Wally and Lily slowly faded, and Lily was left to raise the girls alone. Life was difficult for them. Jan and her sister were often left alone while Lily went out to work or on dates. Jan could only ever recall meeting her father once, when she was very young. 'He was a very big and tall man who wore thick round glasses and looked quite domineering.' The girls and their mother moved around Sydney until Lily met Bill Watson, a hairdresser. Lily and Bill married and Bill adopted the girls as his own. A year later, Ray was born.
Jan, who wasn't at all studious, hated school from the outset. By fourteen, she was done with education, lying about her age so she could get a job.
Her first job was with a wool-buying company in the centre of Sydney. Around this time, the eldest daughter Ann came over to see their mother, seeking permission from her biological mother to marry, a legal requirement if a woman was under a certain age. It was only then the girls found out they had an older sister. Neither girl ever asked their mother about what had happened; Lily never spoke about it.
From the time Jan started earning her own money, she began attending dances, often as many as four nights a week. While at a dance at Petersham Town Hall one night in 1958, a handsome young Englishman caught her eye. Jan and Eric Oxley started dating straight away and married on 25 March 1959. In February 1960, Peter was born.
The following year, Eric took his new son and bride back to Salford on a working holiday to meet his parents. While there, he took up a twelve-month teaching position with the Salford Education Department. No sooner had they arrived in England than Jan fell pregnant with their second child: me. I was born in November 1961, a home birth, which was no mean feat given that I weighed eight pounds eleven ounces! A few months later, Eric's teaching appointment over, my family returned to Sydney.
Eric took several positions over the following three years, but by the time Peter was due to start school, my parents decided it would be better to settle in one place, preferably in the country. Eric was told of a permanent posting teaching art at the high school in Murwillumbah in northern New South Wales. He started teaching there the following year, 1964. Unable to find anywhere suitable in Murwillumbah, we found a home in Kingscliff, a new coastal township development about twenty minutes away, with beautiful sandy beaches and rolling surf.
* * *
Kingscliff was a great place to grow up. While our new house was being built on the hill on McPhail Avenue, we rented a place right on the beachfront. We were at the beach every day. The waterline was constantly changing so there was always something different to see: new shells, rock pools with tiny crabs, schools of little fish that would dart back and forth in the shallows. It was a wonderland. I'm sure that was where my love of the water first began. Peter and I played on the beach most weekday afternoons after Dad came home from work, and most weekends too. Dad became friends with a lot of the locals at the surf club and was sometimes able to borrow a board for Peter and me to muck around on.
I was four when I first stood on a surfboard. It was a green longboard and belonged to a bloke known as Pinhead. I loved it. It felt like I was standing on a big tabletop. I'd be in waist-high water, the wave would come along and Dad would give me a little push and I'd try not to fall off. Pretty soon, Peter and I were pestering Dad every weekend to borrow the board and go surfing — or at least what we called surfing. We joined Nippers as soon as we were able and spent every spare minute in the water, becoming strong swimmers. Pete and I got to the point where we were both able to paddle out on a board and start to come in on a wave on our own, with Eric looking on. All I had to do was to bend and shape my body into a position that blended with the motion of the waves and learn to go with it, not against it. It felt so natural.
By the time we moved to McPhail Avenue, the brood had increased to three with the addition of Melanie. I don't really have many memories of Melanie as a baby, or Mum being pregnant with her (probably because Pete and Dad and I spent so much time at the beach!). I just remember that all of a sudden there was a little blonde-headed girl toddling around. Tim was born a few years after Melanie, and then Damien followed. Mum was always busy. She was a great cook. We'd return from the beach famished and gorge on fresh biscuits and cakes, jams, sauces and even bread, which filled the house with delicious aromas. Making do on one wage, as most families did in those days, we learned to live economically; as well as cooking, Mum made most of our clothes when we were small. Nothing was wasted and most things were passed down from child to child.
From the new house on the hill, we could still see the ocean and feel the salty air on the breeze. We didn't play a lot of games or need a lot of toys; even in winter, except for a couple of weeks, the water would still be warm enough to swim. The beach was my life.CHAPTER 2
I'm sure that somewhere there exists a 'Good Housewife Manual' that strongly suggests that a 'good and practical' mother should have their children two and a half years apart. I can only presume that this is so that everything can be passed down and recycled; one baby out of the cot, the next in, and so on. It made fantastic practical and economic sense, a skill that every man of that era adored in his wife. This manual must have been read by most of the women in the street where I grew up, because the next-door neighbours as well as those down the back and across the road all abided by this rule. And, accordingly, I was born in 1967, nine months after my sister's second birthday.
Mum brought me home to Stephen Street in Morningside, an eastern suburb of Brisbane, five days after I was born. My sister Ann was given a brightly-coloured toy mower as compensation. I was christened Mary Caroline after my two grandmothers.
The early years of my life were full of happy times. My first memory, when I was perhaps two, was of running the length of our back yard looking across at my sister running beside me with her big cheeks flopping as she ran, her hair bouncing in ringlets around her face. She was laughing and so was I. It wasn't really a race, we were both just running for fun. It's a memory I still treasure today.
We had a corner block and a huge yard bordered with trees. My mother kept vegetable gardens, with a passionfruit vine covering a fence that housed the incinerator and an assortment of old tubs with potatoes growing in them. A chain-wire fence divided our yard from the Warburtons and we regularly played tennis or football across it. The house was a nineteen forty's style high set one. Underneath was the laundry, and a large concreted area that housed Dad's workshop, parking space for the cars and two other areas which Ann and I converted into cubby houses and furnished with cardboard boxes and things made from scraps of wood. There was never a lack of things to do. Using chalk, we drew whole townships of roads on the cement floor, and drove our Matchbox cars on them until the chalk wore away. We played army men or Cowboys and Indians with bags full of small plastic figures in the thick clover, shoe shops or school with our dolls and teddies, and when we were tired there was always a pile of butcher's paper to draw on.
My mother was strict and each day followed a precisely timed routine. The house was spotless. Dinner was always served at five o'clock on the neatly laid out kitchen table. Our clothes were clean and ironed. Everything seemed fine. It was only when I was much older that I began to notice that life in our house was not quite the same as in other homes.
* * *
My father John Noel Margeson — Jack — was born on Christmas Day 1918 in Scunthorpe, in the north of England. He was the middle child of three. Albert, my grandfather, a painter and decorator by trade, was having trouble finding work following the war and decided to move his young family to Australia for a better life. In 1927, they packed up and emigrated on board the passenger ship Demosthenes.
Like most families who relocated to Australia, the Margesons spent several weeks in an emigration facility before finally moving to Bulimba in Brisbane's south-east. They shared a house in Parry Street with another migrant family, the Lugtons; this was commonplace among immigrant families until they found their feet in the new country. Sadly, Albert couldn't find a job that paid enough to support his young family. Mariah, my grandmother, took in washing and ironing and also worked as a cleaner. Albert succumbed to depression, and tragically in 1930 he suicided by jumping into the Brisbane River. A newspaper reported: 'His clothes were found neatly folded on the bank of the river at Toowong.'
At the age of eleven, Jack became the 'man' of the family. He finished primary school at Bulimba and then went out to work, doing anything he could to help feed the family, even going to the markets at the end of the day to beg farmers for their 'specks', damaged or old fruit and vegies. Over the next ten years, Jack tried his hand at many jobs: he worked on a cane farm, endured a short stint in the army (he was discharged for having flat feet), and worked in the office at James Hardie, which was located across the river from Bulimba. Every day, Jack would catch the ferry captained by Old Man Woods, who had five daughters and a son. Occasionally, Jack would stop and chat to the Woods kids, who would hang around the ferry terminal. One daughter in particular, Lorna, caught Dad's eye — she was feisty with a cheeky smile.
In 1939, war broke out again and Jack's younger brother Robert joined the army. His sister Win began working for the Red Cross. Both siblings left home but continued to send money to help support Mariah. Eventually, they had saved enough money to put a deposit on a home in Nutall Street, Bulimba. Mariah became the house cleaner for the wealthy McWhirter family, who had a large home across the river. As well as working, she took in a boarder to help pay the mortage. Eventually, Jack became a furniture salesman, first for Waltons and then at Coupon, a large store in Woolloongabba.
* * *
A hemisphere away, my mother, Josephine 'Josie' Marie Field, was born in London in 1929, the second daughter of Joseph and Caroline. Joseph was a mechanical fitter, while Caroline worked in a factory that made radios; her job was to French-polish the cabinets.
When war broke out in 1939, ten-year-old Josie was billeted out to a country town called Kingscliffe in Northamptonshire. She often told us stories of her time in the country, of German planes flying over the hops fields where they were playing and opening fire so they all had to scramble and dive under the bushes. One time, a German plane was shot down in one of the fields and the kids rushed over to grab souvenirs from the wreckage.
During her time in the country, Josie won a scholarship for secondary school. When it was safe to return home she completed her schooling and then went to commercial college to study bookkeeping. For the next ten or so years, Josie worked in London for various firms until she took advantage of the ten-pound fare to Australia offered by the government to celebrate the Queensland Centenary. She boarded the Orion with 138 other eager passengers in 1959, anticipating the 'new and exciting life' promised by the promotional material.
One of Josie's friends from college had already emigrated with her husband to Melbourne and tried to encourage her to settle there, but Josie was tired of the grim London weather and wanted to try a warmer climate. Brisbane would be her new home, she decided. On arrival, the passengers were taken to Yungaba, a migrant hostel in Kangaroo Point. Government officials visited the following day to arrange jobs for them. My mother hated the noisy and cramped hostel, and was determined to accept the first job that was offered to her so she could leave as quickly as possible.
Two days later, she accepted a job in the office at Coupon. Immediately, she moved into a flat further along Main Street in Kangaroo Point. These flats were also full of migrants and were noisy with the comings and goings of all the new workers. Josie became friendly with two other girls living there and between them they decided to find somewhere quieter.
On the other side of Brisbane, in Red Hill, the Grandlund family had a big house, the underneath of which had been converted into flats. My mother and one of the girls rented one of these. Following several short-term appointments, Josie accepted a permanent job at the Queensland Club in the city and remained there for the next five years.
Excerpted from Here Comes the Sun by Jeremy Oxley, Mary Oxley Griffiths. Copyright © 2015 Mary Oxley Griffiths and Jeremy Oxley. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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