Role models & civilization from another angle
My father was away in World War II and was held over for a while after the war’s end. He did, however, appear occasionally on leave, in a bottle green utility. He was a man of principal, great technical and manual skill, and responsibility, but he did not seem to like me. The period I had with my mother and younger sister was heaven. I came second in a national painting prize and I can still see my mother walking down to the school holding an envelope which contained the announcement and a cheque for a surprising amount at that time. I will never forget the expression on her face. Aunt Joan was a frequent visitor, so it was as if I had two same-sex parents. Double heaven. I still have books she gave me on birthdays and at Christmas. Treasure Island, Just William, Peter The Whaler, Biggles, Charles Dickens and many others, all brilliantly chosen.
In the early 1940s I began state school – kindergarten, then primary. For a brief period I went to a selective public high school. Then we went to Melbourne, when my father was asked to manage a factory in North Melbourne, whence came the Sydney Swans, and I attended a standard state high school. Essendon. A good one, but I left home at 14, largely because of my father. In primary school we saluted the flag and sang God Save The Queen. These rituals were not continued in either high school. I’m sure I never heard the phrase Western Civilization. The concept was not advanced, even when we were learning about the Roman Empire – just allegiance to the Queen and the British Empire, though most of our heroes by then were American (I was a rare fan among my contemporaries of Biggles and Sherlock Holmes – along with Hopalong Cassidy and Tom Mix of course) . I got the bamboo cane now and then. It hurt much more than the leather strap they administered in Victoria, but was almost worth it because it made you a hero for the day. You clasped the cold cast iron leg of your desk afterward to numb the numbness so to speak while presenting a stoic Biggles-like profile and, of course, stiff upper lip.
Apart from telling me that ‘You Proyestants will go to hell’ and – on one occasion – ‘Sister [or Father] said you Protestants do not have a true communion’ the Catholic kids in my street were sort of friends, but I deduce from the above endearments that their school did not advance the concept of a unified Western culture either. As for Communion, what the blazes was that? Were they fearful for my mortal soul, or was this just Catholic triumphalism? I suspect the latter.
Things were a little different in the olden days than Tony and Christopher seem to imagine. Yet I’m okay, believe me. I’d rather be me than Christopher Pyne. ‘Specially after hearing him quacking away that an opponent who seemed to have got something wrong was now hung out and swinging like a corpse rotting in the wind. Charming. Genial Joe Hockey also bellowed with vicious fury in the house. Western Civilization! Surely debate in the Forum never reached this exalted level.
Now it may seem that I am trying to give the impression of a happy and successful life despite absence of male role models. Happy and successful is far too simplistic, but I am fortunate to be able to return quickly to a high level of pleasure and satisfaction from fairly persistent vicissitudes.
And indeed, I had a number of male role models, mostly just a little older than I. After we moved from our forbidding but fascinating block of flats to a bungalow down closer to the beach we had for neighbour (amongst others of course) Des Renford, who became famous as a channel swimmer. He was one of my rare adult role models, and he had already won medals for bravery following rescues in rather massive seas, sometimes diving from the cliffs when neither boat nor powerful body surfer could enter from the beach. Furthermore, I went to school with Barry Rogers who became Australia’s first Iron Man and a champion surf swimmer, who also won medals for bravery after we had gone to Melbourne. I still see Barry at Maroubra from time to time and I was very moved to find that he and others I had known had read one of my books, though some of them had not seen me since I was thirteen.
These were not role models. It is a silly term. They were friends whom I greatly admired, but I never really wanted to be like anyone else.
There was also my cousin Warren Stewart, the pilot, Qantas executive and chief investigator of civic air crashes. Also Graham Nelson, road bike racing champion amongst many other things. Graham’s parents did not speak to each other. He was left to his own devices and was easily the most independent boy I had known. Also somewhat older than I was, he always found ways of making money on weekends and often invited me to join him. Working for the innovative landscape gardener Selwyn Bond was one of them, and this was something I pursued in Melbourne. Also we rode marathons together for (11 year old boys that is) including a sort of regular jaunt from Maroubra to Bobbin Head, a tributary of the Hawkesbury River. Then in Melbourne there was Peter Ford (let me ask the youngish sports commentator in Melbourne of that name, are you the great Peter Ford’s son?). But that’s enough. One day I will write my paean to George Power.
Of course it is a great advantage to have two excellent parents, and maybe it is and maybe it isn’t preferable that they be man and woman, but a life of crime and drug addiction is not guaranteed if you do not enjoy this advantage. I will finally add that my first boss after I left school was a woman (see Song Of The Shops on this blerg, or blog or something) and I have worked for many women editors since then. They all encouraged me and treated me very well.