A nice suburb

First published

It is much easier to write a novel or an autobiography if you have been miserable as a child, persecuted, tortured or banished. That is why the Russians Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol remain the greatest writers. Not only were they able to draw on their own emotional, anguished lives; they were also able to call upon the sufferings of their country: upon the poverty, the class conflicts, the frigid winters, the wars and the subjugation of the Russian people. Some writers who have found their lives not sufficiently awful have even gone out of their way to make them so. Philip Roth the United States novelist has admitted to doing this. What a handicap it is to have been happy. My parents were loving and generous. The climate in Melbourne was only frigid superficially - perhaps briefly in July or August. The political suffering under the benign dictatorships of Messrs Bruce, Lyons, Menzies, Curtin and Chifley hardly compared with that under the tsars.

What's more I grew up in an utterly affluent suburb.

I was born on the kitchen table on 3 February 1925 at 13 Coppin Street, East Malvern, a very suburban Melburnian street named in honour of George Coppin, flamboyant showman, actor, entrepreneur and politician. East Malvern was considered a very solid suburb in its own way, but when I was 4 we moved to Toorak, which was a positive pocket of indulgence and unquestionably Melbourne's most exclusive suburb. Toorak was really tiny: it only extended from Williams Road to Glenferrie Road and from Malvern Road to the Yarra. If you lived in Melbourne and you wanted to be socially top drawer, it was vital to live in Toorak. Oh, Camberwell was good, Hawthorn was fine and parts of Brighton were excellent, but if you wanted true prestige and the envy of your fellows you went to Toorak. Its smallness was a great help: it made it harder to get in and it helped push up real estate prices.

The postal address was SE2. South Yarra to the west of Williams Road was SE1, Armadale on the other side of Malvern Road was SE3 and Malvern over Glenferrie Road was SE4. Desperate people who lived on the opposite side of those roads tended to lie just a little and claim they were really SE2 people. Not all of Toorak was perfect. West of Grange Road was plebeian and south-west, around Mathoura Road, was Siberia, beyond the pale. Perfection was the east, beyond St John's Church, up around St George's Road, Lansell Road and Heyington Place, among the Myers, the Baillieus, the G. I. Stevensons, the Grimwades, the Knoxes, the Nathans and the Darlings.

Toorak is an Aboriginal word meaning reedy swamp. The heart of Toorak, of course, is Toorak Village. In the 1920s it really did look like a village. It had a charm of its own. Many of the shops had little gardens out front and the sweet shop just around the corner from Wallace Avenue, where we lived, had its own small picket fence. Flats, units and own-your-owns were unknown. As you left Toorak Village there was a long green fence that went all the way from Grange Road to Orrong Road. In the 1930s as the little Toorak shopping centre grew there was an attempt to retain the charm and to keep the village atmosphere. So it went all Tudor and the developers built several blocks of shops in mock Tudor to give a false impression of upper-crust county England. Toorak, I think, had the only example of Tudor architecture with louvre-glass windows.

Ladies always dressed, complete with hat, gloves and handbag, to go shopping in Reedy Swamp. It was good to own a Packard, a Rolls-Royce or a Daimler, and Toorak matrons did their shopping in the family limousine. There was never a parking problem in the 1930s because only the rich owned cars. The ladies would sweep into the shops and shortly afterwards uniformed chauffeurs would carry out the goods.

We lived at 20 Wallace Avenue, adjacent to Glamorgan, Miss McComas's school for boys. It was just west of Toorak Village or roughly grade three Toorak. We had a vast Victorian house: bluestone foundations, very, very solid brick walls and a slate roof, with a square, cast-iron look-out perched on top. It was built in 1889-1890, just before the great bank crash. We knew that was the date of its birth because workers found old copies of the Argus when repairing the slate roof. The name of the house was St, Anne's. My mother's Aunt Viola lived at Sainte Anne de Bellevue in Montreal, Canada, and the house was named in her honour.

I slept in the attic, which was a roomy space, reached by steep stairs, that included two bedrooms and a play room. Further stairs led up to the roof-top look-out. I slept in the corner room and when my brother was away it was lonely, indeed. The roof creaked and moaned with the changing summer heat. I swore the sound was footsteps and spent sleepless nights with the bedclothes pulled over my head, hoping the awful invader would not find me. I was convinced the house was haunted.

Many years later, when the old house was sold to Glamorgan school, it became the residence of the headmaster and I was invited for a cup of tea. 'Tell me', the headmaster asked, 'did you know this house has a ghost?'. I pretended innocence. 'You know that room up the front?', he continued. 'I think you called it the Smoke Room?' 'Yes.' 'Often a boy has come to me and said, "Sir, there is someone waiting for you in your study". I walk up to the front room, only to find nobody is there. There is no other exit or entrance, so where could the person have gone? Then sometimes my wife and I wake in the middle of the night and find a woman standing beside the bed. In Victorian dress, she is. Then she disappears - she just seems to go through the cupboard.'

The ghost was harmless as most of them are.

Ste Anne's was a house of lofty, 5-metre ceilings, big verandahs and climbing roses tended by Claude, the gardener, who came once or twice a week. Almost every room had a fireplace, a tribute to the never-ending labour of Victorian and Edwardian serving maids. The maids wore uniforms with white aprons and big cross over straps. Day uniform was butcher blue, night was black, with frilly apron plus cap.

One of our maids, called Mary, was a country girl very carefully watched over by her father. Thursday and Sunday afternoons were days off for the maids, but Mary sometimes went dancing at the Green Mill on Friday nights. The Green Mill, literally a great shed, was where the Victorian Arts Centre is now. Mary had two evening dresses, one gold and one black, and she wore formidable corsets.

Violet came later. She was devoted to my mother and the victim of every emotion. Weeks never went by without a dinner party and one was so important that my mother hired Mrs Cameron from Toorak Village to assist. During dinner there was a dreadful lull; the second course did not appear. My mother sent my sister, Helen, to investigate. Violet was out in the woodshed, crying. Why had they called in Mrs Cameron? She could do the job herself, perfectly well. Helen had to coax and cajole for some time before she would return to the house and get things going.

Maids were paid only about 10 shillings a week, plus keep, but being a servant in the city was considered good training for motherhood. There were certain daily rituals. Fires had to be constantly tended. An Aga stove in the kitchen burned anthracite. There were fires in my parents' bedroom, the living-room, the breakfast-room and, if there were guests, another fire in the sitting-room. Dad favoured the marvellous, slow-burning mallee roots. Every morning the fireplaces were painted with ochre to present a new, fresh, virginal appearance. The kitchen and the servery had splendid working spaces and benches of unsealed timber. These had to be scrubbed every day to preserve a noble, pristine whiteness. Formica had yet to be invented.

The house had a grand hall, with rooms down either side, including a private section for my mother and father, which consisted of a bedroom, bathroom and dressing-room. There was an east wing with yet another hall, plus bedrooms and bathroom. We called the hall 'the back passage', a term Mum did not like. 'It is not the back passage, dear, it is the back hall.' The maid lived in the far bedroom at the rear end, so to speak, of the back passage, next to the room with the briquette hot-water service. My mother, Marjorie Lillian Stuart Dunstan, was a Carnell and, like her husband, William, was born in Ballarat. William, whose father was also William, rated only one Christian name and his forebears were Cornish tin miners. The Dunstans came to Ballarat in the 1850s, looking for gold.

The Carnells were not quite so working class as the Dunstans. There was Henry Charles Carnell, a civil engineer from Perranarworthal, Cornwall, who arrived in Melbourne aboard the Shropshire on 30 August 1889. Another great-grandfather was Walter Ratcliffe, a saw maker from Sheffield, Yorkshire. He arrived almost at the same time. He was married to Helen McGregor McIntosh from Fifeshire in Scotland, and legend had it that she came from aristocratic Highland stock who actually had a castle in Scotland. The Dunstans, blue-collar working class, were amused by this, so Dad was irritated when in the 1950s he visited Scotland and discovered the Mclntoshes really did have a castle.

Grandfather Henry Carnell) was manager of Farmer's Hams and Bacon. There was never the slightest doubt in our minds that Farmer's produced the finest cured ham on God's earth. In our youth there was always a ham on the sideboard, a general purpose, eat-any-time ham. It was considered no crime to steal a slice quietly, every time you walked past.

Henry Carnell always wore a blue serge, three-piece suit with gold watch-chain across his comfortable stomach. There was a little medal attached to the chain, a trophy from the 1880s for being swift in foot running. Grandfather Carnell had competed in the Stawell Gift. A blue serge suit was a sign of respectability, and there were few concessions to vagaries of the weather. Even when the temperature got over 38 degrees Celsius a gentleman did not discard his tie or stiff collar. That was unthinkable. But it was permissible to wear a lighter jacket of black alpaca.

In an era of servants in the house Grandfather Carnell was never known to lift a broom, pull a weed or sully his hands with a tea-towel. On his living-room wall at Ballarat there was a vast picture in a heavy oak frame, showing him with a chain of medals around his illustrious neck. Around the portrait was a constellation of small pictures, like minor planets about the sun. These were of lesser gentlemen in the Independent Order of Rechabites.

Grandfather William Dunstan, a bootmaker, I saw only rarely. He made very occasional visits to Melbourne from Ballarat. He, too, dressed in blue serge and he, too, had the mandatory gold watch-chain. No athletic medals for him. On his watch-chain he had a marvellous gold sovereign case, which he would open for our fascinated inspection. It always held four or five real sovereigns and we gazed on them with wonder. On one occasion Grandfather Dunstan propped me on his knee and said, 'You know who I am, don't you?'. 'I know your face, but I can't remember your name', I said. It was a remark I was never allowed to forget.

Grandmother Dunstan I never knew. She died in the great influenza epidemic of 1919. She had had six children. Grandmother Carnell, on the other hand, was an amusing, ebullient woman, a born organiser who was on every charity committee. On one occasion, when she was ill with typhoid, every denomination in Ballarat prayed for her recovery. It would be interesting to know which were the most successful with their prayers - the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians or the Methodists. Despite the Catholics' prayers for her, they were her pet phobia. Catholics, clearly, were the source of all evil. What went on in Catholic churches, with their bells, incense, strange ceremonies, idolatry and such, she dreaded to think. There was even a suspicion that they sacrificed babies on the altar. Grandma Carnell was paranoid about Catholics. She couldn't even pronounce the name properly, but spat it out as 'KATH-licks'. Never would she go into a fish shop on Fridays for fear people might think she was 'turning'. When my sister ultimately married a Roman Catholic, Grandmother Camel] was never told. The shock would have killed her.

The Carnells were Anglicans and the Dunstans were Methodists. The invasions of the Cornish during the gold-rush ensured Ballarat was always a good Methodist city. In one street there were three Methodist churches in a row. By tradition the Dunstans did not smoke, drink, chew or gamble. Sunday was for church, nothing else: it was a sin to indulge in sport, dig the garden or even sew. Occasionally such godliness had unexpected outcomes. My father recalled a solemn occasion at the Golden Point Methodist church. The minister was in full cry giving his sermon, when one of the Dunstan children quietly entered the church and discreetly made her way to the Dunstan pew. A whispered message passed from one end of the pew to the other. After the service the minister asked anxiously whether some disaster had befallen the Dunstans. No, all was well. Mrs Dunstan had to find out where Annie had put the peas for Sunday dinner. The peas, of course, had been shelled on Saturday. Shell peas on a Sunday and the transgressor was in danger of hell fire.

My father was the first of the Dunstans to break the Methodist tradition and take up the Demon Drink. Yet sometimes curious things could happen. On his return from Gallipoli my father was stunned when his father took him to a hotel in Golden Point and bought him a glass of beer, one only. Fathers pre-war and in the 1920s did this. It was the symbolic recognition that a son had reached adulthood.

Doctors would describe Dad as a perfect case for a heart attack (and that is what eventually brought him down). He was dynamic, restless, one for immediate action. Like all grand Victorian houses we had two living-rooms: one for actually living in and another for not living in - the drawing-room or parlour, which was kept almost like a museum piece for guests. One day, as Dad was sitting in the real living-room, his attention was caught by the light, a single bulb with lampshade, which hung from a pretty ceiling rose of plaster.

'I can't stand that light any longer', he announced.

He left his chair, fetched the kitchen steps and, with one mighty heave, pulled the whole cord out by its roots. Bare wires were left in his hand. Down came lampshade, plus a huge blob of plaster.

'That looks better, doesn't it', he demanded triumphantly. 'We'll have it all patched up tomorrow.'
He did, indeed. Never again was there a ceiling light, and from then on we had floor standard lamps.

There were three children in our family. Bill was the eldest. He was dark, handsome, devoted to shooting and a champion rifle shot. Then came Helen, who had long, blonde hair and was a great beauty. I was the youngest and I frequently complained that the others had collected the good looks. My father, who appeared never to have self-doubts, insisted his children should not have self-doubts either. He saw us all as future captains of industry. He was always feeding us information.

One night Bill was battling with a school essay.
'Not good enough', said Dad. 'Show it to me.'

Thereupon he demonstrated how an essay should be written. Bill took it to school the next morning and it was a triumph. It received such high commendation that his teacher had it published in the Melbourne Grammar magazine, the Melburnian. Dad was thrilled with his achievement. Helen was also impressed. When she received an essay subject at school, entitled Will radio replace the newspapers?', she took it to Dad. Immediately the champion essay writer went to work. 'Of course, it won't', he said. 'Radio is just an expedient.' 'Expedient, that's a good word', Helen's teacher remarked after she had read the essay. 'Where did you get it?' The lady smelled a rat, so she wrote at the top of the essay: `Not up to your usual standard'. Dad was devastated.

My mother was a gentle character, but she knew how to handle my father. She could manipulate him with ease. Her system was never give a man bad news or discuss anything serious the moment he comes home from work. Wait until he has had a drink nr, even better, until after dinner when he is feeling good. So delicate was his sense of timing that she would sometimes delay breaking the news of an expensive new hat for several days.

Dad was chairman of a newsprint pool and he often went away on long trips. One time both he and my mother left for six months and our Aunt Nell came in to mind us. Aunt Nell was very warm, very indulgent. She always signed her letters 'Yours lovingly, Nell'. During her stay, Bill was away from school for a week, which required a formal letter of excuse to the school. So Aunt Nell wrote to Mr Plummer, the deputy head at Wadhurst: 'Dear Mr Plummer, I am sorry but I had to keep Bill home from school this week. He has been suffering from a very bad cold'. Then, without thinking, she added, 'Yours lovingly, Nell'. Mr Plummer was so overcome he read the letter to the whole class, while Bill, crimson with embarrassment, listened.

It was not entirely easy for Nell to look after a family of three, so my parents thought they would reduce her workload by boarding Helen at her school, St Catherine's in Toorak. Helen saw this as an injustice while her brothers remained at home. Consequently, every so often she ran away. A good time was on Sunday mornings when the young ladies of St Catherine's were marched off to church at St John's, Toorak. Off they paraded in pairs, the perfect crocodile, while Helen slipped away and ran home. Nell was always terrified when Helen rang the front doorbell. Suspecting the police were already searching for Helen, she would telephone the headmistress. Immediately a car would be dispatched from St Catherine's, driven by a chauffeur in a grey uniform. At the sight of it, Helen would flee up the stairs, into the attic and out onto the balconied look-out, screaming. Bill always had to fetch her down.

Helen had beautiful blonde hair, braided into a thick plait. Every night we used to watch her brushing this glorious, long hair. Brush, brush, brush. Thirty, forty, fifty brushings until it shone. Was she 15 or 16 at the time? In any case, a plait was not modern, not right for 1938, but my father insisted she keep it. One day, while still at boarding-school, she had an excuse to go to the city for a dental appointment. Dad's barber was in Collins Street, close to the Athenaeum. Helen went in and asked the kindly gentleman to cut her plait off.

'I can't, Helen', he said.
'You must.'
`Look, I won't do it. I could never face your father if I did.' Helen looked very menacing, indeed.
'Either you cut it off or I will.'

There was no choice. The barber cut off her magnificent plait, the hair that went almost to her waist. Carefully he put the locks in a parcel and gave it to her. A new era for Helen had begun. She celebrated by crossing the road and purchasing some figs from Mr Jonas, who had the superb fruit shop in Melbourne Mansions. She ate those figs on the way home and forgot about her hair. She left the precious parcel in the tram.

Aunt Nell looked at the short-haired blonde and screamed. Whatever would she tell Helen's parents? Bill was even more shocked. Tears ran down his cheeks.

Although in 1932 I had started school at Wadhurst, the preparatory school for Melbourne Grammar, my best education came from comics. It was the English comic that taught me to read. There was the Magnet, the Gem, the Champion, the Triumph, Chums and Boys' Own Paper. I would get them all. The Magnet and the Gem were both written by the astonishing Frank Richards.

It was a time of schoolboy closeness and loyalty. The Magnet had the story of Greyfriars: of Harry Wharton, the Famous Five, and Billy Bunter, 'the Owl of the Remove', who was fat, lazy, deceitful and always consuming buns. The Gem had the story of St Jim's: of Tom Merry and his extraordinary crew. They wore Eton collars, cutaway jackets and striped trousers and told tales of far-removed upper-class English privilege and the exquisite persecution the English inflicted on their young through their barbarous education system. The Magnet and the Gem were later castigated by such authorities as George Orwell for being snobbish, racist and the worst kind of literature. At the time they seemed wonderful. The Champion and Triumph carried shorter episodes, usually from adventure tales about such characters as Fireworks Flynn and Rockfist Rogan. These gentlemen were clearly forerunners of more bizarre people, such as Superman, Phantom and Batman. They could achieve anything and rout all evil. Rockfist Rogan was always depicted throwing a fist straight through a barrel. George Orwell was right, of course. Evil nearly always was something un-British - and frequently French, Chinese or black. Foreigners, if not evil, were strange and absurd. The French were always 'Frogs'.

Regardless of their shortcomings the comics were the most important thing in my life. They arrived at the newsagent on Tuesdays and a small pile, with 'Dunstan' written on the top left-hand corner, was always put aside. Each Tuesday afternoon I walked down Wallace Avenue and round into Toorak Road, with a strange feeling in my stomach, an ache of anticipation. Sometimes, because of a strike or a failure in shipping schedules, the comics were not there. This was a disaster of mega proportions; a day, a night ruined. Close to tears I would trail home again.

Chums and Boys' Own Paper were monthlies, more prestigious than the others and better written. Of the two I preferred Chums because the writing was superior and it had fewer serials and more complete stories. Every year they were bound as annuals. It was pure joy if a Chums or Boys' Own Paper annual appeared in my Christmas stocking.

Toys were different from comics. They came in waves of all-consuming crazes. There was the kite craze, the top craze, when every breathing creature had to own a whipping top, and the diabolo craze. The diabolo was like two wooden cones joined together, which the possessor made dance on a taut string, a feat that required great skill. Hoop bowling was good and all the rage for a time. The ideal hoop was an automobile tyre. Not any tyre, you understand. The best was an old T-model Ford tyre, which was lean and large.

This the enthusiast bowled along by beating it with a stick. My climactic adventure came in Linlithgow Avenue, which takes a sharp turn then drops steeply to Toorak Road. I was hitting my tyre at the top of the hill when it started moving faster and faster until gravity raced it away, far out of my reach. It sped down Linlithgow Avenue towards Toorak Road, gathering awesome speed. As I ran after it I saw to my horror that a tram was approaching along Toorak Road. Could the tyre possibly derail the tram? Actually it struck the tram amidships, bounced inside, tore through and went out the other side. Heaven knows whom or what it struck inside. I fled. In guerilla warfare it is wise to disappear as quickly as possible. I was not brave enough to return to the scene to claim my priceless T-model Ford tyre, and it was the end of my tyre-bowling career.

Then there was the go-kart craze, when we all manufactured go-karts, theoretically out of a soap box. Actually we never saw a soap box. The Elliott soft drink company made the best boxes: very solid, not too deep, and wooden. We attached to the box a stiff board, two cross-arms for the wheels and a rope to control the swivelling front arm. It was the very devil to get the right wheels. Pram wheels were good, but the best were roller bearings, usually acquired at a used-car yard. We considered it an act of honour always to make our own go-kart. Later, when my own children reached this stage, I was shocked to discover that the Myer Emporium sold go-karts, cubby houses and crystal sets all beautifully manufactured, with no need for the children to dirty their fingers.

It is customary for the aged to say that things are not what they used to be, but in the case of sweets this is undeniably true. Take the year 1933. In the glorious summer of that year aniseed balls, rainbow balls and acid drops were twenty a penny. They were always arrayed in 2-kilogram, glass-stoppered jars and it was a matter of immense deliberation how we disposed of a penny. 'Mrnmm . . five rainbow balls . . . ahh . five aniseed balls . . . five acid drops, two of them pink - no, make it ten rainbow balls.' Sweet-shop ladies used to suffer. My passion was cricket balls and cat's-eye rainbow balls. They cost a whole halfpenny each and, although some manufacturers have tried to make them since, they are not the same. They were made to the precise size of a small child's mouth and the idea was to keep popping them in and out to watch how delicately and beautifully they changed colour. They would last through at least two hours of continuous sucking. If we could get away with sucking them during class, of course, we would. Otherwise we wrapped our cricket balls in our handkerchiefs and waited until recess.

Licorice I adored. The licorice of those days seemed blacker and richer than today's. The piece de assistance was the licorice fishing-line. The thing to do was to put several metres of this fine licorice into our pockets, draw one end up into our mouths, then quietly chew it, no hands. Fizzos, too, were good. They were the size of a ping-pang ball, with a hard, sugary outer crust. We sucked and sucked until suddenly the shell cracked and there was an explosion of sherbet in our mouths.

If I was particularly flush I would buy a revolver. They were almost life sized, made of marshmallow and covered in thin chocolate. We always devoured a revolver by sticking the muzzle in our mouths and chewing up the barrel, into the cartridge cylinder and around through the trigger until finally we enjoyed the solid hunk of the grip.

But the real excitement was the halfpenny box. The halfpenny box was a special cardboard tray of individual treasures created by the MacRobertson sweet company. Every item in it cost a halfpenny. We could buy the entire box for 3 shillings. The thrill was to pick over the treasures. There were such things as mice, whizz-bangs, silver sticks, nulla-nullas, cigars, engagement rings, lipsticks and, perhaps most famous of all, Maurice Tate's boots. Maybe you are too young to remember Maurice Tate? He was the awesome English fast bowler of the day and he wore enormous cricket boots. So, naturally, it gave us a certain sadistic thrill to eat them. They were white with pink soles and made of the same stuff used for clinkers today. Another choice item in the box was the frying-pan and bacon. The frying-pan was made of flat, hard licorice and in the centre was the bacon, superbly real even down to the streaks. The bacon must have been a thin strip of toffee.

Buzz-saws were worth having now and then. They were made of rock-hard candy in the shape of a circular saw. There were two holes in the middle through which we threaded string. Then, by winding up the string and pulling, we could make the buzz-saw buzz.

Oh, I could go on and on, about Fiji bananas, ingots, niblicks, snowites, colt foot's rock - all names that have vanished. MacRobertson's in the 1930s had 2000 different sweet lines. By the Second World War most of them had disappeared. They were too labour intensive. Items such as the frying-pan and bacon were all handmade, and it took three days, building it up layer by layer, to make a really good cat's-eye rainbow.

The crystal set craze started around 1932 with the coming of Don Bradman. It was necessary to have a coil, which we created by winding fine wire round a spent lavatory paper tube, and a cat's whisker, a pair of earphones, a cedar cigar box to hold the set, an earth and an aerial were also essential. The cat's whisker was a fine wire attached to a little handle. The idea was to probe the crystal with the whisker to find the sensitive spot that would create the magic of 'wireless'. Almost every week there was a set of instructions in The Listener In on how to build the latest crystal set.

The crystal set was vital when the Australian cricketers were playing in England. Mum would send me to bed at 9 o'clock with strict instructions to sleep: I could read the scores in the Sun in the morning. But with Bradman going on to his second hundred how could I go to sleep? A crystal set with earphones was ideal for listening under the bedclothes. My aerial was connected to the steel bed base beneath me, and the earth was a wire that went right down the wall to a pipe outside the bathroom window. So it was possible to listen right through to 3 o'clock stumps, parents unknowing. There was just one problem: the cat's whisker was a fragile creature and any jolt or movement, or just the plain quixotic nature of the beast, could cause me to lose the sensitive spot on the crystal. Naturally this would happen at the most vital moment. How could I fail to wriggle when Bradman reached his century or Walter Hammond lost his wicket? Then there would be a terrible, frantic struggle to get a return of sound. The cricket broadcasts were important beyond measure in our house. Dad was general manager of the Herald and Weekly Times Limited. He was also a prime force in the early days of 3DB radio, which the Herald and Weekly Times had bought and started operating on 1 June 1929. Dave Worrall was the first manager of 3DB. He had a staff of eight and an income of 20 pounds a week. Commercial radio was very new - so new that during

The Great Depression years people who could not afford receivers camped outside radio shops just to listen. Cricket virtually created 3DB. In 1930 Worrall talked to Oswald Anderson of 2UW in Sydney, and they had the idea that it would be wonderful if they could get some sort of broadcast of the cricket from England. They looked into it and discovered that the cost of urgent cables from the English cricket grounds was 6 shillings a word. This was appallingly expensive and the sponsors fled in terror. However, Worrall and Anderson decided to try it just for a few hours on the first day of the first Test at Nottingham. By midnight there had been no response from listeners so Worrall took the microphone. 'Is there anyone listening out there? Shall we close down now or go on until stumps?', he asked. The result was unbelievable. Every telephone began ringing at once. 'There are thirty of us here. The beer's running out, but we're still with you', one caller said. The next day there were several thousand letters, boxes of oranges, cases of whisky and wine. One group sent a keg of beer. So 3DB was made that day. Worrall was four years ahead of the ABC. Charles Moses did not start his simulated ball-by-ball broadcasts until 1939. Moses would wait until he had cables for a full over then re-create the scene as if he were in the grandstand. He even faked the sound of the ball by tapping the table with his pencil. Worrall never did this. He gave scores the second they came through so that 3DB and 2UW were always an over ahead of the ABC. Anyone who was desperate to know what was happening, of course, went to 3DB. To keep it all going 3DB had their funniest performers, Charlie Vaude and Ben Millar, cracking jokes and telling tales. Under the bedclothes this was pure excitement. They turned cricket into a dazzling show. There were appropriate songs for every occasion. For example, if the Australians got Herbert Sutcliffe or Hammond, they would play 'Thanks be to God'. For every fall of wicket there was their theme song, 'Rickety Kate', and when there was an Australian disaster they would get together and hurl words of defiance.

We don't worry, we're not cryin, We're not afraid of the big, bold lion. Australians still love their cricket, but then it was a passion, an obsession. Dad would go in to 3DB to observe the fun, and he would report the next morning that all over Melbourne there had been Test cricket parties: at 2 a.m. in suburban streets every light would be on. There would be parties, too, at the wireless shops, with people sitting outside round burning braziers to keep themselves warm, all listening in. Passion for cricket was never quite the same again.

This was the Bradman era. My earliest memory was of Friday, 30 December 1932, when I was nearly 8 years old. My father took me to the Melbourne Cricket Ground for my first Test match. Australia was playing England in the second Test, and a record crowd of 63 993 was present, all of whom had come to see this unbelievable young man, Don Bradman.

Bill Woodfull won the toss and opened the batting. He went, after an interminable innings, for ten runs. Leo O'Brien was run out and we were two wickets down for sixty-seven runs.

'Ahhh, now we're in for the experience of a lifetime', my father announced.

We made ourselves comfortable, got ourselves ready to watch Mr Bradman for the entire afternoon. The cheers were deafening. Tall, lumbering Bill Bowes came running in, bowled a sort of long hop. Bradman, not waiting a second to get his eye in, went for the hook, mistimed and dragged it onto his stumps.

There was the most profound silence ever heard at the MCG. The astonishment, the horror, the grief, the shock were boundless. This was not in the script at all, Bradman out first ball for a duck. The day was absolutely ruined. My father, normally not all that interested in watching cricket, was so disappointed we packed up and went home.

Cigarette cards further fanned the sporting obsession. Capstan, BDV, Players, all the best cigarettes carried cards, and we bought special cigarette card albums at the newsagent. There were butterfly cards, animal cards, movie star cards and cards that featured famous castles in England, France and Italy, but unquestionably the most popular cards were those that featured cricketers and footballers. It was vital to achieve a full set, showing off Bradman, Stan McCabe, Alan Kippax, Bill O'Reilly, Clarrie Crimmett . .

My parents were a failure. My father smoked only a pipe and my mother did not smoke at all. It was an unwritten rule: Dunstan women never smoked. So I plagued uncles and aunts, and like many others of my generation used every penny of pocket-money to buy cigarettes just for the cards. We tried unsuccessfully to smoke the cigarettes, then dumped them in the scrub by the Yarra.

Cards could be gained by swopping, but there was another, more unnerving method: flicking. It was possible to flick a cigarette card in the same way as a frisbee. By careful study of the wind, topography and arc of projection, cards could be flicked over a long distance. So there were card-flicking contests in which the winner took all the cards. I was not good at cricket, a poor performer at football and lamentable as an athlete. However, I was the champion at card flicking and [ quickly gathered an immense collection of cigarette cards, which I kept for more than thirty years.

Cubby houses were vital to our games. These, like go-karts, we manufactured out of Mr Elliott's sturdy soft drink boxes, with the addition of old sheets of galvanised iron. Their location was the garage roof. From there we conducted warfare with toy guns and bows and arrows. The only acceptable toys were those that killed other human beings. Every participant had to know how to fall over dead, and we killed or maimed at least 300 victims a day. Somehow it did not seem to harm our psyches.

Yes, I possessed a beautiful collection of weapons. There was the toy Thompson sub-machine gun, so we could be Al Capone and the Chicago gangsters. There were six-shooters that would take caps on a long roll, providing up to sixty useful explosions in a gun fight. My finest weapon, the envy of every child in the district, was nickel plated and a perfect reproduction of a Colt .45 revolver. My father bought it for me on a visit to the United States. When I pulled the trigger, the cylinder that held the bullets revolved exactly as it did in a real revolver. The revolver made a superb explosion, with smoke issuing from the barrel. There was just one problem. It took its own special variety of caps, a disc of six that fitted on the revolving chamber. Fresh supplies of caps could be purchased only in the United States, so my fancy revolver had to be used with discretion; it could be used only for the most serious, the most important killings.

Naturally, this led to a desire for the real thing. When I was 16, I acquired a single-shot Remington .22-calibre rifle. Vastly excited, I took it to Leongatha and at the fifteenth attempt I finally shot a rabbit. Rushing forward to my prey, I found the rabbit half-paralysed, shot through the spine and lying on the turf, squealing in agony. I put another shot through its head to kill it, took home my dazzling new Remington and never fired it again.

It was also important to collect toy soldiers to have on hand a private army. Toy soldiers today seem mainly for adults, for those who like to indulge in war games and re-create the Battle of Stalingrad, Waterloo or Agincourt. Our soldiers were made of lead, now considered too expensive and too toxic for toys. The soldiers, little taller than a box of matches, were exquisite. Mostly they were gentlemen of fine British regiments and brilliant in their micro-detail. It was possible also to get Germans and even Turks, so the lust for genuine battle could be assuaged. Part of our joy was to declare war and fight a battle against our dearest school friends. The shops sold reproductions of First World War artillery pieces. They were spring loaded and fired tiny steel shells. The idea was to line up opposing armies on either side of the room and indulge in artillery battles akin to those on the Somme. The general who was left with more soldiers standing was the winner. I was militarily powerful, the Kitchener or Bismarck of Toorak.

One of my most magical Christmases involved toy soldiers. It could have been 1936. Christmas was always taken very seriously in our house. It began with Mum making her Christmas puddings in November, then, come early December, squadrons of Christmas cakes. The cakes were stashed away in secret kitchen recesses. Sometimes they did not reappear for a whole year, then at the appropriate moment Mum would say: 'I just managed to find a mouldy old cake. It won't be any good'. Of course, always it had matured like a Mouton Rothschild and was magnificent. Every December there was a Christmas tree erected in the, ah, front passage, under the skylight, which was 6 metres from the floor. Decorating the tree was an all-day project, using the Christmas decorations Mum saved from year to year in boxes.

Dad always insisted on being Father Christmas and delivering presents correctly. We put out pillowslips, not stockings, for expected treasure. Dad waited until he was convinced we were all asleep before he did his rounds. Naturally, sleep was impossible. I would wait and wait and wait until I heard his footsteps on the stairs, then feign slumber as he stuffed the presents in the pillowslip. After he left there was the problem of opening the presents in the dark. Children become knowing about the contents of a parcel very early. Some presents were discarded quickly. Aunt Annie always gave handkerchiefs. What on earth could any human being do with handkerchiefs, or even socks? Christmas 1936 I discovered a large box in my pillowslip. It was filled with toy soldiers: American soldiers, an entire United States Army complete with vehicles, equipment and weaponry, brought back by my father from his latest visit to the States. I dared not turn on the light, but there was a glow from the moon. I paraded my soldiers up and down on the wide sill of my dormer window by moonlight, almost to the dawn. That was my happiest Christmas.

Continue to chapter two: Education by flagellation

In this first chapter of the first book of memoirs, 'No Brains At All' Keith reflects on growing up in Melbourne in the 1930's and at school.

Keywords in this article

BallaratCricketEast MalvernGallipoliGeorge CoppinGlamorganGold RushGreat DepressionMelbourne GrammarMethodismPhilip RothReligionSir Don BradmanToorakWadhurstWilliam Dunstan VC

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