Education by flagellation

First published

So many people look upon school-days as the happiest time of their life. For me school was little pleasure. I suspect my misery was self-inflicted. Home was such a warm, pleasurable place; school such a hideous, disciplined contrast.

At the age of 7 I was dispatched to Wadhurst, the preparatory school for Melbourne Grammar, which was in the grounds of the senior school. Melbourne Grammar, Anglican, bluestone, was created by Bishop Perry in 1849 and was one of the great public schools. The former Prime Minister Stanley, Lord Bruce, was a famous old boy, and the school much later could boast another prime minister, Malcolm Fraser.

Melbourne Grammar had a noble record not only on the Yarra with its crew, but also on the football field. Its history was impeccable. Indeed, in 1858 Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College played, very nearly, the first reported match of Australian Rules football. There were forty a side, including six or seven teachers. It took place over a vast area in the Richmond Paddock - so vast neither side could score the necessary number of goals to win, even though the game went for three hours until all were exhausted. They played on 7 August, tried again on 21 August and yet again on 4 September. Even then nobody had scored so they abandoned the game as a draw.

Melbourne Grammar possessed, and perhaps still does, a school song designed specifically to terrify the opposition. It was sung to the rabble-rousing tune of 'Men of Harlech'.

The chorus went as follows.

None our ranks will sunder.
Who would shirk or blunder?
For all are true to our Dark Blue.
Our foeman will go under.

'Under! Under!' was always chanted with terrible force. There were verses for cricket, football and rowing, also designed to inspire stark terror among the Presbyterian Scotch, the Methodists of Wesley College or, worst of all, the students of Xavier College, who were known as the Catholitics. Prejudice did not run as deeply as Grandmother Carnell's, but very nearly. A Melbourne Grammar boy wore a dark blue cap with badge at the front on which was the school motto, *Ora et Labora'. How much praying took place is open to question, but just to be at Melbourne Grammar was essential for social success. Affluent Melburnians did three things for their sons at birth: they put them down for the Melbourne Cricket Club, for the Metropolitan or Royal Melbourne golf clubs and, most essential of all, for a place in form one at Melbourne Grammar.

Travel to Melbourne Grammar was easy. We all went by tram except for the super rich who were delivered by car and chauffeur. The tram fare was threepence for an adult or a penny for a child. My brother, Bill, five years my senior, was told to guard me with his life on my first day. That was an embarrassment for both of us. When the time came to return, he said, 'Nick off. I knew my way and had to do it on my own.' Juniors carried leather bags, which hooked over the shoulders; seniors carried Gladstone bags, which went out of fashion utterly after the Second World War until Barry Humphries revived them by having his Gladstone bag specially made. On the tram, by law and under threat of school expulsion, we had to give our seats to any adult, male or female. Our bags contained our school lunches plus a few books. My lunch was always the envy of all. It contained one of my mother's superb steak and kidney pies, often a piece of home made coconut ice, and an apple. Sometimes the apple got eaten.

The teacher for form one was Miss Baker, an omnipotent power. Her method of discipline was a ruler that was brought down with a resounding crack on the outstretched hand. She noted at once that I was left-handed. Left-handers notoriously had lamentable handwriting. If I was to have a perfect script and go through life in the correct manner it was essential that I use the right hand like other civilised people. Beware of the left-hander. The Latin sinister for left made that clear. The French, too, had the correct idea: gauche meant left.

So all attempts by the sinister and gauche to pick up a pen with the left hand met with a crack from Miss Baker's ruler. Actually it was almost impossible to do other than write right-handed, since we sat in rigid desks that had an ink-well in the right-hand corner. Ink-wells were filled with ink every day and we had to use pens with a steel j-nib. Later on we could graduate to a broader, more comfortable relief-nib, but at least until form four the J-nib was compulsory. The ambition of all was to own one of the wonderful new fountain-pens. For example, there was the splendid Swan or the Onoto. Dad brought back from the United States a dazzling new variety. It had a glass centre, so I could see how much ink it contained. Miss Baker confiscated it and it was taken to Mr Caffin, the headmaster. Mr Caffin had a cupboard full of confiscated fountain-pens.

So, right-handed, J-nibbed, I battled, hands always covered in black ink. The desks were heavily etched with initials. We also carved little grooves, into which we poured ink to make fine Ganges rivers flowing in their channels until they made waterfalls to the floor.

Exercise books had to be filled with perfect, flowing italic script; fine upstrokes, thick down. The Dunstan efforts were appalling, ink splashed and illegible. Miss Baker fixed a gold star to pages that were exquisitely neat. Score a gold star on three or more consecutive days and, oh heaven, oh bliss, the boy received a school badge. Miss Baker would take out her rubber stamp with the Melbourne Grammar badge, swat her ink pad with it, then reproduce the insignia over the perfectly executed work.

I never scored a star, never scored a badge. Finally in the second form the teacher, Miss Peters, asked, even pleaded with me to write with my left hand. In 1943 when I was in the Royal Australian Air Force there was a second attempt to force me to write right-handed. It was all part of pilot training. I was told that in all aircraft the Morse key was on the left-hand side so it was necessary to take down messages with the right hand. Unless I wrote with my right hand I could not graduate. As it turned out I flew only single-engined aircraft and never once used a Morse key; all communication was by direct radio telegraphy. But the threat of being dropped from pilot training was so unnerving I did learn to write right-handed, and to this day I can still write with either hand although even Miss Baker, if she were still available, would concede my left hand is the more legible.

Dunstan was a poor student, always lingering at the bottom of the class. As we moved from class four to class five, it was the mathematics that filled me with dread. English, history, even geography were a joy, but algebra, geometry, arithmetic were subjects designed specifically to make life miserable. The crisis came with geometry. There were the dreadful theorems, particularly the theorem of Pythagoras. We had to learn each theorem, beautifully executed in our school exercise books with the badge on the cover, then write QED, quad erat demonstrandum. Every theorem was a mystery to me. I could not work any of them out. The only solution was to go to the textbook and learn each theorem by heart. In geometry class it was the custom for the teacher to call out a boy to go through a theorem, writing it down in chalk on the blackboard as he did so. Dunstan had to do this one Tuesday and he got it right. However, the teacher sensed it was all done by memory, with zero understanding. On Wednesday he called me out again, but this time he changed all the letters on the triangles. I froze. What was I to do now? 'Dunstan, come on, go ahead. We haven't all day, have we?' My mind was paralysed. I couldn't think. I wanted to be anywhere, any place on earth, except that dreadful school room. 'Come now, Dunstan. The class is waiting for the splendid solution you will give us to this problem.' Helpless, I drew a few lines, put a few words on the blackboard, but it was obvious that I was a failure, that I knew nothing. First there were a few titters. Soon the entire class was laughing as if they were at the city pantomime. 'You don't know anything, do you Dunstan? I doubt if you have even attempted to study this theorem. I will expect you back here on Saturday morning.' This was the most dreaded event: a Saturday detention. The sinning student received a printed card, almost as if it were an invitation to Government House. It had to be signed by the parents and brought back. The Saturday prison sentence was not an invitation to more learning, it was more penal - the writing of hundreds of lines. Brother Bill invented the Dunstan Quick Line-writer. He taped together four pencils, perfectly spaced and angled so that I could write four lines at a time. He did try five and even six, but four were the most practical and legible.

Nothing ever again went quite right at Wadhurst. Roald Dahl in his autobiography, Boy, tells of schoolboy flagellation and how his Norwegian mother could never believe what the English did to their young. My headmaster, Mr Caffin, taught Latin with a cane on the table. The cane was a metre-long length of bamboo, flexible, thin and capable of inflicting searing pain on the behind. Nothing before or since has filled me with such dread as the thought of that cane. I have often wondered where the school obtained torture instruments of such quality. Were they supplied by stationers along with the J-nibs, exercise books, rubbers and boxes of chalk? Could teachers buy canes individually, like golf clubs, with the correct length and weight for the strength of arm, or did they come neatly bundled by the dozen?

Dunstan sank and sank to the bottom of the class. Arithmetic, algebra, geometry were now my daily terror. Homework was a continuing nightmare. Brother Bill and sister Helen took pity and actually did my homework for me. This, of course, only made the situation worse.

It was in form five that Mr Caffin put me on the daily report card system. The report was like a weekly diary. There was a square for each forty-minute period, Monday to Friday. The teacher for each period had to fill in his square and initial it, then submit this report on my performance. There was a rule: if I scored two 'poors' or one 'bad' I had to report to Mr Caffin and that meant only one thing - a caning.

Then would follow the long walk up the carpetless, bare passage to Mr Caffin's study, the queasy feeling of terror in the stomach, the tremulous knock on the door.

'Wait, boy!' So I would wait and wait.
'Come in, boy.' Mr Caffin would look at my card.
'You know what this means, don't you? When are you going to start trying and learn to do better?' He would go to the cupboard, take out his cane.
'Bend over. More than that.' Sometimes it was one hit, sometimes two or three.

The first time this happened, I had my bath that night. As usual my mother entered the bathroom to hand me a towel. I screamed and told her to go out. She thought male modesty was taking over and retreated. That was not the story; I did not want her to see the red weals on my behind. I never told my parents what was happening. There was an unwritten law: parents should never be told anything that was not good for them. But I did show my lacerated behind to my brother, Bill. I was getting caned almost every day and he thought something had to be done. Bill, the inventor, this time devised a protector. He found an old car tube, cut out a square of rubber, fitted it with four tapes and tied this across my posterior. We used to wear woollen underpants and shorts of blue serge, so there was no revealing bump.

The W. Dunstan Patent Bottom Protector worked splendidly, but it did not cure the fear of Mr Caffin. I will not say the report card system was an entire failure. In a matter of months I leaped from thirty-second in the class to eighth, but my progress could not be sustained and the following year I slipped back again. The school reports said, 'Has tried this term but could show more application', 'Often inattentive in class' and 'Better than last term but much more improvement required'.

There was only one possible solution: send him to boarding-school. Geelong Grammar would be ideal; 80 kilometres from Melbourne he would be free of all distractions. There he would be able to devote himself entirely to study.

Banishment to Geelong Grammar I saw as a disaster of major proportions. As a school Geelong Grammar was considered slightly effeminate. The boys wore pretty, pale blue caps, pale blue ties and stiff collars. In the junior school they wore half-belted jackets and, glory be, Eton collars, huge things that came right down over the jacket lapels. I had seen them before. Tom Merry, Bob Cherry and those chaps in the English comics the Gem and the Magnet wore Eton collars.

And what did Geelong Grammar ever do? It had been known on rare occasions to win the boat race, but in serious matters, such as cricket and football, it was hopeless, never got anywhere. Geelong Grammar had a school song, but not a rollicking rabble-rouser that promised death to the enemy. Instead - could any schoolboy believe it? - it bad a school song in Latin. What use was this at a boat race?

Salve schola te pia laude efferamus, Pueri, niri, serves, usque te amamus; Corio, praenitens ludo et labore, Floreas virtutibus floreas honore. Ask any Geelong Grammarian what it meant and he had not the slightest idea. Then there was the problem of leaving my warm and comfortable nest, my close circle of Melbourne Grammar friends, matinees at Hoyts, and skating at the Glaciarium, to say nothing of the bountiful supplies from the Elliott soft drink company.

Dad was a director of many companies - Email, AWA and Prudential among others - but best of all he was a director of the Elliott soft drink company, which meant we had a permanent supply of lemonade, cola beer, raspberry soda and my favourite, creamy soda. These were stored in an ice chest. The ice man called twice a week, a big block of ice in a hessian bag on his shoulder. We had two ice chests, one in the kitchen and one on the back verandah. Some time in the early 1930s Dad became one of the first to get an electric refrigerator. As if the Elliott soft drinks were not enough, there was Sharpe's brewed ginger beer, the most heavenly drink of all. The Sharpe man had a horse-drawn wagon and he called on Thursdays. The ginger beer came in 4.5-litre stone demijohns. With careful management it would last just a week until he called again. There was a steady beat of horse-drawn delivery vehicles up Wallace Avenue. Milk and bread also came by horse power. My mother's favourite was the Chinese fruiterer, a gentle, sweet man, who sold fresh vegetables. Every Christmas he presented her with a green ceramic jar of ginger.

In addition to this, I faced the cultural shock of leaving my mother's cooking if I went to Geelong Grammar. Mum adored to cook and this was a sublime era when it was not considered evil to have a large waistline, when there was no such word as cholesterol in the vocabulary and when people did not try to live longer by not eating. Citizens did not jog, smokers were not pariahs and a cigar after dinner was considered a good smoke. A large breakfast was essential.

For breakfast it was good to have steak and eggs, chops and eggs or sausages and eggs, but Mrs Dunstan's family special was fried eggs with fried bread. We had a cool cupboard in the kitchen, which always contained a large basin of dripping. After the cooking of every roast Mother topped it up, so never did we go short of fat.

A shortage of fat would have been terrible. Fat was necessary perhaps not so much for frying the eggs, as for frying a slice of bread to perfection in the deep, cast-iron pan. This required a lake of fat, very hot. The fried bread came out crispy and crunchy to the tooth. Tears of nostalgia come to the eye at the very thought of that fried bread. Even better were fried scones. Two or three times a week my mother made scones for afternoon tea, always being careful to make too many. This meant a breakfast next day of fried eggs and marvellous fried scones. Cooking them in butter was no good. It had to be the succulent beef dripping.

On Saturday morning, before Dad went to golf for the day, there were brain fritters. Sometimes Mum varied them with beef fritters and home-made tomato sauce, but absolutely the best fritters were the brain variety. Mum mixed up the batter, stirred in the lambs' brains and then, while I watched in wonder, put the fritters into the big frying-pan, with its splendid lake of fat.

Mum always cooked her own Farmer's ham. She did this in a pastry shell that set like iron, providing the ham with an oven of its own. Cooking over, off came the pastry cover, like a plaster cast removed from a broken leg. Mum then decorated the ham with pineapple rings and cherries. On the outside of every barn is a thick, white aureole of fat. These days it is treated as if it is cyanide.

`Absolutely the best part', cried Dad as he carved. It was, too. On Sundays there was the ritual of the wing rib of beef, which was massive, thick, red. Dad carved by making one large horizontal slice from which he then took mini-slices of fillet. Nobody usurped his position as carver. He claimed that had he been given the proper education he would have made a brilliant surgeon - except that all the surgeons he knew were abominable carvers. The wing rib was cooked in its own grand cast-iron dish and its own lake of fat, into which went the roast potatoes. That wing rib was always a beauty, a small mountain of meat.

'How did I get it? Well, I sat on the butcher's table and stroked his cheek', Mum would say impishly.

After the Sunday lunch ritual came the Sunday supper. Dad carved further slices from the wing rib and we made them into big sandwiches.

Another special was the Cornish pastie. The recipe had been handed down through many generations of Cornish Dunstans. The ingredients were a whole leg of lamb cut into fine pieces, turnips, onions and potatoes. It was large - two-thirds of a metre long - with a perfect rope of pastry across the top. Much work had to be done, much chopping and infinite slicing, but the Cornish pastie refined and improved by Marjorie Dunstan is still made in Dunstan households.

Mum's cakes were something to behold also: sponge cakes, fruit cakes, coffee cakes, lamingtons. Her lamingtons were not your anaemic, flaccid, kapok, church-fete lamingtons. Hers were made of the best quality cake, thick chocolate and masses of coconut. There was a Madeira cake recipe that had come down through the generations, but Mum made it her masterpiece. Into the mixing-bowl went astonishing quantities of butter. Madeira cake was meant to be long lasting, but if it survived uneaten for three days it was a record for longevity.

'I think it just needs a little straightening. It's crooked', was Mum's favourite line. So we would straighten the Madeira cake with yet another slice. Fortunately nobody ever achieved the perfect straightness.

My mother was kind. She passed on her recipes and particularly that of the Madeira cake. Yet no one could ever get just the right consistency. It was like trying to repeat a 1961 Chateau d'Yquem or make your own Johnny Walker Black Label. We never got there and sometimes we wondered whether she had left out a magic ingredient in the recipe. Then there was Mum's chocolate cake, rich and capped with thick chocolate icing. Always there would be such a cake to greet us when we came home from school. Our house was like a subscription-free club for small boys. They flocked there after school for Marjorie Dunstan's chocolate cake and the endless supply of sweet, fizzy drinks.

Occasionally there would be even more than chocolate cake and soft drink after school if Mum had been entertaining ladies to afternoon tea. Afternoon tea in the 1930s was a serious social matter. Ladies constantly asked each other to afternoon tea, which took place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The ladies dressed in their finest afternoon tea dresses, plus hat and gloves. My mother never approved of any female who set foot abroad not wearing both hat and gloves. The ladies, maybe nine or ten of them, would gather in the best room - the sitting-room or parlour - which was kept for grand occasions. The sitting-room was resplendent with marble fireplace, lustres on the mantelpiece and piano in the corner, complete with pedal Pianola and Pianola rolls that played songs from The Desert Song, The Vagabond King and The Maid of the Mountains.

There was an hour of polite chat, then, some time after 4 p.m., a signal was given to Mary or Violet and in she came with an autotray. On it was the silver teapot, the silver hot-water jug and the best Minton china. Tea, never coffee, was served. Coffee did not become the vogue until the Second World War, with the arrival of United States troops, and afterwards with the migrant invasion from Greece and Italy. On the autotray there was also the food. There were always delicate sandwiches, cut into diamonds and neatly arranged with parsley on a silver salver. The ladies worked on these first, then negotiated their way through the shortbread, the sponge fingers, the lamingtons, the ├ęclairs, saving just a little room for the splendid climax: the sponge cake filled with thick country cream. Heaven it was to come home from school in time to catch the left-overs.

Of course, as the youngest, I was much indulged in the family. The hard battles had been fought by Bill and Helen. I was particularly the favourite of my Aunt Nell, and legend has it that for my first three years I was raised almost entirely on penny Nestle's chocolate bars and MacRobertson's chocolate frogs. To say that I got away with murder at home is an understatement; there has to be a stronger term. If school was always something to be escaped, home was something to be treasured. Life began again as soon as I left the gates of Wadhurst.

I had a great team of friends, a regular gang. There was David Campbell, whose father was a wholesale dealer in exotic hardware - all those door knobs, window sashes and such never sold by anyone else. Campbell was an unusual character who liked to do daring and different things. There was also Milton Johnson, whose father was an architect. Milton, who later became a distinguished engineer, could make anything, even boats for sailing on Port Philip Bay, and his model aeroplanes were always neater, better crafted and more airworthy than mine. And there was Dicky Bland, later to become an accountant. Dick was the brainy one, always top of the class, and his name was in gold on the honour board. It was good to look over his shoulder when we had algebra problems. Campbell lived in Balmerino Avenue near the Yarra, and the river became our special playground, as the Mississippi had been for Tom Sawyer. We spent hours making tunnels through the fennel in the open paddocks around Burnley. However, our greatest thrill - and terror - came from walking kilometres up the great drainage pipe that spilled water into the Yarra. As we walked in the darkness of the pipe we imagined we were under Toorak's stateliest homes.

One of our passions was the new game Monopoly. After school we rushed home to get out the Monopoly board and played until mothers began demanding the return of their children. Monopoly was a very good game for educating the young about greed and money. Yes, 400 pounds for the purchase of Mayfair, 150 pounds for the Waterworks, even 60 pounds for Old Kent Road seemed huge sums then. How fascinating that this power game of money, borrowing and acquiring property was invented at the height of the 1930s Depression. But little schoolboys at an Anglican public school knew nothing of depressions; a great national disaster passed us by. I remember travelling along the Footscray Road by the then-vacant lands that we called Dudley Flats, where the unemployed, the wretched and the near starving lived in humpies made out of galvanised iron little better than the cubbies we built on the garage roof. When I asked why people lived there, the answer was non-committal. Children should not worry about such things.

Weekends at home had a special wonder. Every winter I had a season's ticket to the Glaciarium, the ice-skating rink on the edge of the city, just near the YMCA in South Melbourne. Known as the Glad, it was the world's seventh ice-skating rink and the oldest in continuous operation. It opened on 8 June 1906. The entrepreneur was Mr H. Newman Reid, late general manager of the Portland and Western District Freezing Company. On that great day in 1906 he spoke of the marvels of the equipment, the mechanical stoking gear for the furnaces, how not a breath of smoke polluted Melbourne's air and how every texture could be given to the ice, from granite hard to cushion soft. At the opening there were 2000 ladies and gentlemen present, including representatives of both Houses of Parliament and the Chief Railways Commissioner, Mr T. Tait, who gave an elegant exhibition of skating.

In the days before drive-ins, bowling alleys, indoor cricket and television, the Glaciarium was the social centre of Melbourne. Many a beautiful Melburnian romance, on skates hired at a shilling a pair, blossomed in the Claci's Mugs' Alley. It was marvellous to get to the rink very early on Saturday morning and be the first out, when there was a faint fog across the floor and the ice was virgin smooth. We skated to 'The Skaters' Waltz', then put on our tubes for the speed session. At half-time the prime delicacy was hot crumpets soaked in butter and topped with honey. If a skater needed to retire to the lavatory, the correct term was 'Excuse me, I must tighten my skates'.

Skating was rather genteel and polished. Skaters had to be correctly attired, usually in a proper shirt, tie and jacket. In the 1920s, for example, Table Talk recommended that lady figure skaters wear properly fitted frocks with fur collars and cloche hats. The opening of the season was always a black-tie affair, and the finish, for the select few, was a sentimental occasion. The ammonia was turned off, the ice melted, water became centimetres deep and we had the excitement of seeing who could skate over the bumps of the pipes.

Then, of course, there were the speed boys. Young Lex Davison indulged his first urge for speed at the Glaci, while the band played 'The Post Horn Gallop'. A really hot skater jumped chairs or barrels; the record for this was sixteen. In the 1950s the Glaci began to report losses. The 1954 annual report said that the customers were taking to square dancing. In 1957 the Claci closed down for ever, and a group from Flinders Lane bought it for 135 000 pounds. In April 1963, alas, it burned to the ground.

On Saturday afternoons we went to the Regent Theatre, South Yarra, which had a Saturday arvo matinee designed especially for the young. Hoyts would have give-aways designed to entice the young: balloons, sweets, cardboard gliders, mini-pistols. It was not the main feature that got us there, but the weekly episodes of Tarzan, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon and Tailspin Tommy. Tommy Tompkins, the boy mechanic who became an air ace, was our absolute favourite. He had a tiny airline that was always battling against nefarious villains who tried to steal his contracts. I remember in one episode Skeeter, Tommy's faithful mechanic, had his eyes burned by exploding oil. Tommy was pumping fuel into his aircraft to fly Skeeter to hospital when Hoyt, the villain, jumped into the plane and took off, with Tommy still hanging onto the fuel hose. Up they went, higher and higher, Tommy dangling underneath. Suddenly the fuel hose started to break and Tommy started to fall towards earth. 'What has happened to Tommy? Is this the end? Is he dropping to his certain death? Be sure you are back next week for the next episode in this thrilling story.'

We came back next week. Tommy was still hurtling to the ground. But it so happened that Skeeter, back at base, made a sudden and brilliant recovery. He took off in another plane and flew under the plane from which Tommy dangled. Just as the hose broke there Skeeter was, and Tommy dropped safely, right on top of his aircraft. What a relief that was. Just as a treat Mum occasionally took us all in the tram to the State Theatre in Flinders Street. The State was an amazing example of architecture in the grand Hollywood style. It was the largest theatre ever built in Australia, with over 3300 seats. The exterior had a clock tower, a dome, minarets and filigree bits; you could call it Westminster trying to be a Persian temple. Inside it was more ancient Greece, with statuary plus a few sacred relics, such as Rudolf Valentino's very own sword, later stolen. Up aloft there was an artificial sky with scudding clouds and little stars that twinkled. That was a city adventure, going and returning by tram.

Also important was Luna Park. Regrettably the Dunstan parents drew the line at Luna Park, which they looked upon as junk entertainment. There it was at St Kilda, its entrance a grinning face. Visitors walked in through the mouth, under gigantic teeth, to find the wonders of the Big Dipper, the Scenic Railway, the River Caves and the Giggle Palace, with its long, bumpy slide and funny mirrors. One year a noble parent took the entire class at Wadhurst to Luna Park for a birthday party. Even now I look back on it as an event very close to heaven.

So leaving all this, leaving the comfort and freedom of 20 Wallace Avenue, seemed at the time a living death, like going to Pentridge, Fanny Bay or Boggo Road Gaol. I pleaded with my father to let me stay at Melbourne Grammar. Melbourne Grammar, particularly in fifth form, had been a special kind of hell, but distant Geelong seemed infinitely worse. Protesting made no difference. My father was a kindly man, but his authority was complete. He was never to be crossed. There was one last glorious summer holiday in 1939 before I went to boarding-school, the last of an era. Every year, Dad booked the entire family into Erskine House, a large, gracious guest-house at Lorne, which had been there since the 1880s. We stayed there from immediately after Christmas until the first week of February, although Dad sometimes returned to the city and came down at weekends.

Erskine House had its own gate right on the surf beach, its own grass tennis-courts, bowling greens, croquet lawns, ballroom, billiard-room and even its own nine-hole golf-course. There were both ancient areas and modern. There was a new wing, absolutely the latest in art deco, with modern bathrooms and a splendid foyer, but then Erskine House wandered into antique areas, mysterious passages and alcoves, up and down to the picture theatre-cum-ballroom, on to the games area, and finally out to scattered bungalows among the cypress trees near the tennis-courts. Dad did not like the main building; he preferred the isolation and quiet of the bungalows in the garden. The expedition to Lorne was always a grand affair. In the early days we went in an Essex sedan. Several suitcases would be strapped to both running-boards, others lashed on the luggage carrier at the rear. By 1939 our travelling had been refined. Dad sent a Herald and Weekly Times van on ahead. This was loaded not only with luggage, but also with enough whisky, gin, vermouth and beer to last a month. There was also ice. It was tricky trying to find ice for a whisky out in the bungalows so Dad also carted ice to Lorne in large insulated boxes. This way he was able to entertain in style.

The drama and magic of Lorne was the Great Ocean Road, which started at Anglesea and twisted, turned its way along steep cliffs to Apollo Bay and on to Peterborough. It was completed in the depression years around 1936 to become one of the most spectacular coastal roads on earth. In the 1930s it was narrow and required very careful driving. Every year three or four cars went over the edge and dropped to the rocks below. From Anglesea, through Airey's Inlet, the drive was partly coastal, partly in thick bush.

At Erskine House we were always a large community of several hundred. All meals were provided - breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus morning and afternoon tea - in the dining-room. Bells called us to meals. The first bell was the early morning warning bell at 7.30 a.m. The old hands used to say this was not the get-up bell, but the warning bell to advise males to return to their own beds.

Gentlemen dressed for dinner in black tie and ladies wore long gowns. There was a dance in the ballroom every night with a live band, except on Sundays when there were movies. The projector did not run sound so we had silent pictures: the best of Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Cops and cartoons, such as Felix the Cat. Once a week, say Thursdays, there was a fancy dress ball.

Most guests came and departed on Sundays. The service car from Melbourne arrived at noon. Not many people had automobiles in the 1930s so the arrival of the service car, a stretched Hudson or maybe an elongated Pontiac with multiple seats, was a vital social event. Guests sat out on the verandah just to run an eye over newcomers. At 1 p.m. those leaving were farewelled.

No one ever stayed for less than seven days because a whole week's activities were organised. Each Sunday a committee was elected to arrange the entertainments and sports for the following week. Archie Whyte, a born entertainer and compere, was a favourite president. The week's programme included tournaments for bowls, tennis, golf-croquet, golf and table tennis, complete with a treasure hunt and a sand castle competition for the children.

In the summer of 1939 I was brave enough to enter the golf-croquet tournament, a very serious matter, indeed. The croquet lawns, like those for the lawn bowls, were as smooth as velvet, beautifully manicured by George the greenkeeper. Guests never considered walking on them unless in the correct shoes. I fancied myself as an exponent of croquet, having a reasonably straight eye. I can't remember the name of the female champion, but let us call her Hilda Derbyshire. She played pennant croquet in Melbourne. The draw was always placed on the notice-board on Sunday evening. Mrs Derbyshire ran her finger down the list and noticed with some satisfaction that her partner was Mr Dunstan. Unbeknown to her, Dad did not play croquet. That was not his style at all. Mrs Derbyshire was aghast, horrified, even humiliated, when she at length found that the Dunstan in question was a 14-year-old boy. Worse than that, he was little, blond and looked about 10 years old.

Golf-croquet is a mean, ruthless game, ideal for ladies dressed as nuns, in all white. As soon as your opponent gets in a position of advantage the idea is for you to blast this enemy out of existence. Yet the game is full of subtlety, requiring, like billiards, a knowledge of what happens when two spheres collide, of what direction each will take. Then, too, the ball has to be projected through hoop after hoop.

Mrs Derbyshire was so furious she did not speak to me through the first round, which oddly enough we won with ease. The second round she was the martinet, the drill sergeant; every prance of the ballet was directed by her. Of course, Mrs Derbyshire had her own personal weapon, which she always brought to the green in its own protector. Don Bradman could not have looked after his cricket bat half as much as Mrs Derbyshire cared for her croquet mallet.

By the fourth round her fury had subsided. She was calling me not only Keith, but also her little pal. The final took place on Saturday evening and all Erskine House gathered to witness this mighty event. The crisis came at the end. I had to play a 5-metre shot right across the green to blast my female opponent. Mrs Derbyshire said in icy tones, tones that might have been expected from Field Marshal Montgomery at Alamein, 'Keith, you will remove Mrs Watson and I don't expect you to miss'. There was a long, tense pause, all eyes staring. It wasn't exactly like Greg Norman lining up for a long putt. No, there was a sighting line down the centre of the mallet. I pretended I was at home with my Daisy air-rifle, which I used by the hour firing lead pellets at Havelock tobacco tins. I lined up my opponent's ball. 'Now', hissed Mrs Derbyshire.

My ball went right across the green. A direct hit on Mrs Watson's. Mrs Derbyshire sailed through the final hoop and we won. Never again did I dare enter the croquet competition. I wanted to preserve my record. It was the greatest triumph in my miserable sporting career, and I won a whole pound, a fortune practically beyond my dreams. The prize was presented on Saturday night in the hall at the weekly prize-giving.

Another important event was the Erskine House photograph, which took place at least once every summer. The entire complement of guests gathered on the lawn in front of the verandah at 11 a.m. Carefully the photographer arranged us in appropriate rows. The camera was on a wooden tripod, with a black cloth shade for the photographer's head, and it had an extraordinary lens that operated by clockwork motor. The lens moved in a 45-degree arc so that it could produce a panorama of the guests. My cousin George Farmer and I always made sure that we were positioned in the left-hand corner of the group, then, as soon as the lens started whirring, we sprinted round the back and got into position on the right-hand side of the group. Somewhere in the family archives there is still a picture of the Lorne gathering that curiously depicts twin boys on either side of the group.

The summer of 1939 was drought ridden, hot and dry. Victoria was famous for its dreaded north wind. In the 1850s and 1880s Melburnians had called it the Brickfielder because it blew hot, red dust from the Mallee. Come January 1939 the Brickfielder was ready to break all records.

On Friday, 13 January 1939, the temperature in Melbourne was 42 degrees Celsius and all Victoria was ablaze. Millions of hectares of forest were destroyed, seventy-one people died and 1500 were left homeless. The fire swept through Airey's Inlet and burned right down towards Lorne. The flames raced through the houses we used to call Little Colac and burned the suspension bridge over the Erskine River at the back of the Erskine House golf-course. At one stage it seemed all Lorne would go and we gathered on the beach by the water's edge. From there we looked in awe at the columns of rising black smoke. Everything smelled of burning bush and charcoal and the sky was raining ash. Dad was in the city, but he was determined to get back to his family. He was a man who would not be stopped by opposition, official or otherwise. He drove his big, eight-cylinder Buick 860 through all the road blocks. He ignored all warnings that getting to Lorne was an impossibility. From Airey's Inlet on he was driving through fire, at speeds of over 145 kilometres per hour. He arrived triumphant, the car singed by the flames.

There were other holidays at Erskine House after 1939, but never again was it the same. There was no formal dressing for dinner, and the balls, the tournaments, the elaborate weekly programme were all gone. After the war the crowd that could afford to holiday at Erskine House went elsewhere. For the Toorakers it became the fashion to have a second house at Sorrento or Portsea, so that people who drank and supped with each other all the working year continued to drink and sup together through the summer break, not having to meet anyone else. The rich took cruises 'home' to England aboard the Strathnaver or the Strathaird, or sailed on the Mariposa or the Monterey to California.

For me it was the end of an era, also. Number 20 Wallace Avenue had been like a cosy womb. There I had my own room, my own private territory in the attic. Now that life was over. After the summer of 1939 I had effectively left home.


Continue to chapter three: Siberia

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


Keywords in this article

Erskine HouseGeelong GrammarLuna ParkMelbourne GrammarMilton JohnsonStanley BruceWadhurst

View all keywords