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My Life as a Leyland Brother and Beyond
By Mal Leyland
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2015 Mal Leyland
All rights reserved.
A Telegram to the Prime Minister of Australia
It was so bitterly cold that the water had frozen solid. This slippery, glass-like surface made the oddest of battlefields, yet lined up in neat ranks along opposite sides were soldiers standing in rigid defensive poses. These armies were equally matched, as was their stance. One was dressed in green, the other in red.
It was early in the morning, the beginning of winter in 1948. My brother Mike and I were silently watching and shivering while pressed up against the brick wall at the back of our home. A thick heavy fog swirled through the apple trees further down the garden and there was almost no noise. Our wide young eyes stayed glued to the scene on the ice.
'Nothing seems to be happening,' I whispered to my brother.
'Keep quiet!' he said. 'Just watch. It will take a little while.'
There wasn't the slightest movement except the very slow sideways tilting of a few soldiers. Then it happened quickly. Soldiers fell where they stood. Forward, backward or sideways as their warm feet melted through the ice. A cheer went up from Mike when a green soldier plopped into the black depths of the water. One of the opposing army joined him in his icy grave, and I too gave out a hearty cheer. This stand-off continued until only three red soldiers were left standing.
'My side wins,' declared Mike as he snatched them up.
We plunged our small hands into the rectangular tank of frozen drinking water to retrieve our brave lead soldiers. It was almost too deep for my arm and the water was bone chilling. Then we took our toys inside and placed them in front of the open coal fire to heat them up, so we could take them outside in about half an hour for another battle.
This unusual game is one of my earliest memories of a childhood that began in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England, on the 2nd October 1944. Britain was at war, and apart from my mother and father, three-year-old brother and a few relatives, no one was in any way excited by my birth.
I started school at the age of four and on the first day was led off to school by Mike. He was supposed to look after me and I was to wait for him to show me the way home. Kindergarten children were let loose earlier than the bigger children, so I simply walked home without waiting for Mike. This worried the hell out of Mike and Mum, but after their lecture I never did it again. My brother and I travelled almost everywhere together for the next 40 years.
My family lived in the middle of a row of brick houses with walled back gardens. I shared an upstairs bedroom with my brother, and next to my bed I had a small window that afforded a view over the paved courtyard separating our house from the one next door. I could see beyond this area into the apple trees of our garden and spent many hours surveying the little, limited world I knew.
Up the far end of our row of houses, we had a neighbour who was a bit of a gardener and had his own chickens. He was a kindly old gent who gave Mike and me rides in his wheelbarrow. One day he handed me an egg to take to my mother; this was a great responsibility, for eggs were scarce. I proudly walked home, the fragile cargo cradled in my hands. This was a long journey for one so little and had many obstacles to overcome: muddy puddles, the cat which almost tripped me and rain that had become a heavy downpour by the time I reached the back door.
I scaled the two stone steps but couldn't make Mum hear my shouts. When I raised my hand and gave a good loud knock, I dropped the prize, which splattered on the top step. I was so worried about wasting such a valuable item that I just stood there howling. When Mum opened the door and was confronted by my red face streaming with tears, she picked me up and gave me a huge hug instead of the hiding I was so sure I deserved. I can still see the tenderness in her eyes as she comforted me and took me inside.
These early years were as carefree as could be — but my cosy world was about to change dramatically.
* * *
It was evening and my family was travelling back from Liverpool by train after visiting my grandmother. Steel wheels rolled over steel rails with a rhythmic clackety-clack, and lights flashed intermittently through the carriage windows. The stomach pain I'd been experiencing for the last hour had become intense. I was curled forward, gazing down at my shiny brown shoes and attempting to endure the discomfort.
'I have that pain again in the belly, Mummy,' I uttered in a weak voice.
The response came from my father: 'So what's he been eating?'
I was taken to sit on the rocking loo of the train, but nothing happened. No diarrhoea or vomiting. The pain persisted. We were travelling in a crowded carriage and my antics caused a good deal of embarrassment to my family. Eventually the pain died down, and by the time we got home I was considered fine and sent to bed.
By the middle of the night the demons were in my stomach again and the only relief I could get was to lie across a lounge chair. In the morning Mum called the doctor. He declared I had a burst appendix and I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance with the siren screaming. At the age of five I found the whole experience terrifying: it was obvious to me that I was being punished because I'd caused so much trouble on the train. I had no idea how serious my condition was.
Once at the hospital my fears grew even greater as a frightening black mask was forced over my mouth and nose. I fought back but there were too many of them in their white coats. The men took my struggle as a sign of defiance and strapped me down with leather binds and buckles. I was then wheeled along a dingy corridor, my head spinning. The faces of those men were very grim and I fell unconscious in a state of absolute anxiety.
When I awoke after the operation, I found myself behind glass like a fish in a tank, my bed the only one in the room. It wasn't long before my mother, father and brother appeared on the other side of the glass. Mum's eyes were tearful, and all I wanted to do was hug her and be home.
My father said, 'This is all we need. Now we'll miss the ship and never get to Australia.'
These words are the first recollection I have of any reference to Australia. It turned out we were about to leave England forever: the reason we'd travelled to Liverpool was to farewell my grandmother.
My father had been in the RAF prior to the war, and as a gunner and electrical fitter spent most of the war in Canada training younger men for the fighting back home. During this visit he'd been introduced to a new way of living; compared to what he'd left behind in England, Canada was a classless society. Dad would often tell us how, as a young apprentice electrician converting gas lighting to electricity, he'd hated visiting the homes of the wealthy because he and his fellow workers were forced to use the tradesman's entrance. He had no time for the aristocracy and even less time for anyone who wanted to be part of it.
After the war, desperately wanting to get out of England, my father applied for a post as a peanut plantation manager in Africa. He also applied to migrate to Australia under an assisted passage scheme costing only a token £10. Dad was interviewed several times for the African position, and for a time it was down to him and one other applicant.
Impatient, my father sent a telegram to Prime Minister Robert Menzies. A few weeks later a response came informing him that his family had been accepted and the details of the passage were to be sorted out at Australia House in London. Dad then received news that he could have the plantation job. He declined, of course, which is just as well, as we later heard that the family who did go were killed during an uprising a few years later. I reckon we were destined for Australia.
On the 4th of May 1950, two weeks after my appendix operation, I was considered well enough to make the ride directly from hospital to the dock at Tilbury, London, to board the Orient Line ship Otranto. As the ambulance pulled up, I stared at the ship. Its massive steel plates made a long curved wall alongside the wooden dock. I could hardly believe that any ship could be this big.
The launch was an amazingly festive occasion. Thousands of people were gathered on the dock. As the ship pulled slowly away, a brass band played 'Auld Lang Syne'. Almost everyone was crying and hundreds of coloured streamers were thrown from the ship to the shore. People on both ends of the streamers clung to them until they stretched to their limits and broke. As if an umbilical cord had been severed, our crowded ship of emotional souls was thus set free from Mother England. We were headed Down Under, wherever and whatever that was. For the next six weeks we were to see foreign lands and endless oceans.
We had no sooner left than a call went out over the loudspeaker system for Mr Ivan Leyland to report to the purser's office immediately. Within minutes my father found himself being addressed by the Australian captain of the ship. 'Let's get one thing clear, Mr Leyland,' he said. 'On this voyage you will be treated like any other passenger. Just because you sent a telegram to my prime minister, that doesn't mean you get any special treatment on my ship!'
Dad was quick to agree that this was how it should be, then returned to tell us all about how he'd been dressed down by the captain. He was sure of one thing, though: the telegram had done the trick.
Our cabin, No. 645/8, was a tiny room on E deck. My bunk was only just long enough for me, and so close to the ceiling that rolling over involved dodging a large hot steam pipe. It was wrapped in cloth lagging, but still generated a lot of heat and made gurgling sounds all day and night. The cabin felt like a sauna but we were glad to be under way, and Dad seemed delighted that England was at last behind us.
Life on board ship for me was extremely limited as I was under doctor's orders not to engage in any physical activity for at least six weeks. I was a scrawny, skeleton-like figure with a sallow complexion. Mike restricted his activities too, mostly out of sympathy and a sense of duty to me. Every day was dictated by a routine of set meals at strict sitting times. Otherwise my brother and I aimlessly wandered about the decks with our parents, watching the other children running around and playing games.
For me this was the beginning of a boyhood of relative isolation. I certainly felt like an outsider among the other children on board. Most people interpreted my quiet nature as that of a boy so afraid to mix in that I was too shy for my own good. In reality I'd suddenly lost the security of our cosy home back in Hitchin. We'd left behind our apple trees, our comfortable hearth and the swish of my mother's skirts as she moved around the kitchen. All these familiar things had gone, but they slipped into a special place in my mind. Many years later, I would go back to England and visit my hometown, awakening some of those memories.
On the Otranto I felt that my world had been torn apart. My brother was my only friend. At least he was still there, I told myself, even if everything else had changed around me. I didn't fully understand what was happening, and in my own somewhat perverse way, I figured it must all be my fault. If only I hadn't had that stomach ache on the train!
* * *
About five weeks after leaving England, with a stopover in India, we made landfall in Australia at Fremantle. A large number of passengers disembarked, and since we were there for several days my family went ashore and for the first time walked on Australian soil.
The main thing I recall about Fremantle is the moment when we stopped to gaze into the window of a chocolate shop. There, before our wide eyes, was the most amazing array of chocolates we had ever seen. In England we'd never experienced much in the way of chocolate because that was one of the most difficult things to acquire as a result of war shortages. Mike and I pressed our little faces hard against the glass and stared in awe.
'You can have anything you want in the shop,' Dad announced.
Mike chose a huge chocolate bear, so then I wanted one too. In the next few days, as our ship made its way across the Great Australian Bight to Melbourne, the two of us munched away on our bears. I don't remember getting ill from overindulging, but I do remember savouring each small mouthful. Australia may not be so bad after all!
More passengers disembarked when we reached Melbourne, but the majority of the ship's human cargo went on to Sydney where my family made our final walk down the gangway. It was the 9th of June 1950. We had arrived at our final destination in Australia. So where were the fields of wheat and the kangaroos? We'd been shown pictures of these on the ship, but there wasn't a roo in sight, let alone a grain of wheat. Had we been conned?
After a long train journey north from Sydney to the Newcastle suburb of Waratah, we gazed up at a brick block of eight flats. Surrounding the entrance was a curved facade that led to a small hallway and a flight of concrete steps. As we headed up to what was to be our dwelling place for the next few months, the noise of our progress echoed around the barren walls of the stairwell. Compared to the home we'd left behind, this was like a concrete tomb.
Albert and Ada Basford lived in the flat, friends of our parents from England. In order to migrate to Australia under the assisted passage scheme it was necessary to have a sponsor, meaning that somebody who'd already migrated to the country would vouch for the family and recommend them. In the event that the immigrant did not have a job or anywhere to live, the sponsor took on the additional responsibility of providing housing until some more permanent accommodation could be found.
Settling into our new life would require a lot of adjustment. We'd only been shown sunny pictures of the country and were instantly disillusioned. In June 1950 the Hunter Valley experienced a massive deluge that continued for weeks on end. So much rain fell, both night and day, that most of the valley was flooded and towns such as Maitland were completely inundated. The devastating floods of the 1950s have since become the yardstick by which all floods in the Hunter Valley are measured.
After the rains had stopped we finally had the chance to go shopping down the street. I was clutching my mother's hand and, judging by the stares we received from the Australian children, we must have looked every bit the pommy immigrants we were. We paused in the street while Mum spoke to a passer-by, probably asking for directions. At the end of the conversation, the Australian woman said a friendly 'Hooray' as she walked away. Mum responded by yelling out, 'Hip hip!' This caused the woman and several onlookers to burst out laughing.
When Mum later relayed this incident to Ada Basford, she discovered 'Hooray' was the parting equivalent of the greeting 'G'day'. They might speak English in Australia, but we soon realised they also spoke Australian.
* * *
I was enrolled in the local infant school while Mike went to the primary school. My first day was an amazing eye-opener. Because I was very shy and quiet, I made no impact whatsoever; at least, that's what I thought until we stopped for little lunch. I'd just eaten and was leaning up against a brick wall, in the shade of one of the buildings, when I was approached by a group of about six boys.
'Hoggsy wants to bash you up,' declared one of them.
I eyed the group, who had formed a semicircle around me. 'All right,' I said, wanting to seem agreeable.
'The pommy bastard's pretty game!' the boy yelled to his mates.
I must have looked really puzzled. 'What,' I said, 'do you mean by "bash up"?'
A sinister expression of understanding flashed across the boy's face. 'Hoggsy's bashed up a Russian, a wog, a Greek, a German and a Frog, but he's never had a chance to bash up a pommy bastard,' he said.
'What is a pommy bastard?' I asked.
'You are, you stupid idiot.'
'I don't understand.'
'He doesn't understand,' the boy echoed in a mocking attempt to mimic my accent. The other boys all began to laugh. From the back of the group, one tall and heavily built boy stepped forward and stood right in front of my face. 'This is Hoggsy,' the spokesman said to me.
Excerpted from Still Travelling by Mal Leyland. Copyright © 2015 Mal Leyland. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface — Farewell Brother,
1 A Telegram to the Prime Minister of Australia,
2 Discovering Film, Photography and Adventure,
3 Doing the Daily,
4 Hungry for Adventure,
5 New Job and New Pursuits,
6 Big Plans and a Fortuitous Accident,
7 Wheels Across a Wilderness,
8 The Movie Business (How Hard Can It Be?),
9 Gullible Americans,
10 Three Men in a Boat,
11 Untamed Coast,
12 Off to see the World and Falling in Love,
13 'Roadshowing' and a Return to TV,
14 Off the Beaten Track: a Successful Accident,
15 Behind the Scenes and Another TV Series,
16 The Show Nobody Wanted,
17 Interactive TV? Ask the Leyland Brothers,
18 High Hopes, High Ratings,
19 Nothing Succeeds Like Success,
20 Leyland Brothers World: the Dream,
21 Leyland Brothers World: the Nightmare,
22 Stop the Treadmill! I Want to Get Off!,
23 Bankruptcy and Bloody TV Reporters,
24 The Big 'C',
25 Determination: the Long Hard Battle,
26 Tough, Sad and Exciting Challenges,
27 A Self-Sufficient Life,