State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 17 April 1976


Judge Stretton's Reminiscences

Cup Day

It was Cup Day, I think of 1902, when I was nine years old and Dad and I were taking a horse to a farm a few miles away to turn him out to grass for a rest. The paddock of our country pub at Campbellfield was poor and hungry and generally eaten out so to turn a horse out we had to look for other pasture. Dad was running the pub (and a real little village pub it was, although only ten miles from the city) as well as holding his job in the city to which he drove every day there and back twenty miles in a buggy in all weathers over mostly a bad road. He had been born in the village of Marchington in Staffordshire and had come to Australia with his mother at the age of eleven, starting work right away as an office boy in the Castlemaine Brewery in South Melbourne, with which he remained until he retired. He was a well-spoken man, detested bad language and was a firm teetotaller and non-smoker. Here, perhaps, you might have guessed, was a man of good address, respectable, possibly of out-of-bounds good breeding who had been “assisted” to Australia to allay the embarrassment at the vicarage over the somewhat over-sportive conduct of the vicar's undergraduate son — a superior kind of Trollope character. How wrong you would have been. I can't find one comprehensive word to describe him. He was as great a mixture of conflicting elements as a man could be. Above the middle height, he was florid, a good figure of a man, and although tending to portliness, active, sprightly, aggressive, most persuasive, quick tempered, sentimentally affectionate, and in combat, whether sporting, commercial or social, quick to choose and use whatever weapon seemed best suited to his purpose. He had been a good athlete and boxer. He was a master of the arts of provocative argument and derision, as quick in the uptake as he was to take offence; a most engaging talker, boastful, of a rumbustious humour — at times so salty that it did not bear repeating; and when he found it convenient, not completely truthful. He was never what was called in those days a loud fellow; his dress was clean and sober though, as old photographs show, at times somewhat inappropriately youthful. His moustache was of a fairish ginger and his beard so closely kept as to be but little more than a clean stubble, and his eyes were a piercing blue. He truly loved horses and, like many men who do, was inconsiderate of his womenfolk. I have often wondered why my gentle, fastidious mother married him. He was a mad gambler on horse racing and bike racing and any other sporting contest he could bet on, which kept us in an un-genteel near-poverty and sometimes on the run from his creditors. He mixed in the world of professional bike racing. By the age of twelve I was well educated in its many rackets — not that he would tell me of them, but he took me about with him and I got to know much that perhaps I had better not heard.
Stretton, Leonard Edward Bishop, C.M.G. (1893–1967), County Court Judge, Acting-Justice Supreme Court, President Industrial Appeals and Judge Marine Courts, Chairman Workers' Compensation Board; educated Moreland State School, University High School, University of Melbourne; author of Workers' Compensation Act 1946; royal commissioner on Bush Fires, etc., etc. As these reminiscences demonstrate, Judge Stretton was a gifted writer: extracts from his royal commission reports have been included in anthologies. This manuscript has recently been presented to the Library by his family.
The burden of looking after the pub and his job, of travelling to work in all weathers, of beating off his creditors and trying to “beat the books”, kept him in an almost unrelieved state of acute irritation. But I adored him; to me and my three sisters he was a good father who would protect us against all-comers, no matter what we'd done, as even on the second occasion I was expelled from a state school.
I had been born a puny weakling and I spent many hours with him “getting the boy out into the open air”, some of them terrifying, some heavenly, teaching me to run, including how to beat the starter, to box and,
better, to fight (“but never look for it, there's always a better man in the crowd who'll give you a father of a hiding”), to ride, to drive a racing trotter as far as it can be taught (“if you don't feel something coming up the reins just before the horse is going to break [i.e. break into a gallop] you'd better turn to something else”). He did his best to “make a man of me”, sometimes by methods which the modern parent or teacher would avoid because they might leave psychological scars. They did indeed leave scars. I wouldn't be without them. Scars are the record of experience, most of which is good. Of unduly gently nurtured youths he would say “Another mother's darling — Pentridge is full of them”. In later life I learned that he was not always wrong.
Whatever the family fortunes were, they were always varied and extreme. I have seen Dad, home from the races, piling sovereigns on the kitchen table — jovial, jubilant, transformed by the short-lived surcease which they brought him — or absolutely skun, beaten into the ground, desperate, angry and better left alone. But next day after church he would drive mother and my sisters and me for a picnic in the countrified fringe of whatever outer suburb we happened to be living in, and there would be races and pennies for the winners (and we would all win a penny), and sandwiches and the billy boiling for picnic tea, and he would be very kind to mother and us children and would walk me about on the back of the unharnessed horse and talk soft to me and tease us and get us all singing on the way home, and be our adored father As I write this in my seventies, I am a child again, and the world is a wonderful world.
We loved our kind, gentle mother who led us in the ways of peace and to the world which lives in books. But as in a garden the blazing, arrogant tropical flower may sometimes steal the show, somehow it was my father who attracted us most, and bound us to him by unbreakable bonds of immature and lively admiration.
Dad started to teach me to ride at the age of six on a grand old mare, Tibby, who was semi-retired though sometimes driven by my mother. Mother was probably the only woman in Melbourne who had in her earlier years quite often driven a tandem team through the city traffic. She was pretty good with horses, perhaps because her English father had driven a Cobb & Co. coach on the Bendigo-Swan Hill run at a time when the blackfellows roamed in that country. The tandem team was one horse in the shafts of a two-wheeled gig with a leader running free in traces attached to the shafts, so that the leader often just turned round head to tail with the shaft horse, and you were helpless to manage him. Someone would have to take him by the head and line him up again, which was a great humiliation for the driver.
Driving tandem was a very nice, flashy, useless skill of the racecourse-gambling, champagne-bankruptcy section of society towards the end of the century. My parents never were of that set because membership depended upon a great glittering show of opulence, which was usually born of vulgarity and often died in disaster, leaving as its memorials the big two-storied houses, walls crumbling, windows patched up, roofs beyond repair, which still haunted the Keilor plains when I was a boy. Mother could never have stood the life of that jimcrack society, but how Dad would have cavorted in it to his very last creditor! I believe that mother drove tandem, as she did most things, to please him, and perhaps wring a word of praise from him. I knew even as a little boy that she hated the life in the pub, and I believe it affected her health which began to fail there, and grew gradually worse until she died. For Dad, the important thing whenever the heat was unbearable was hosing the stable roofs to keep the horses cool. For myself, I would not have missed those three short years for anything.
As children we did not realize what a rackety life was ours. But in all our ups and downs there was always a spick and span buggy, a good-looking horse in the shafts, often a racing trotter in the stables. It was a morning adventure to get out of bed and go to the stables with a slice of bread and butter to stay the pangs until breakfast, looking at the buggy horse, stroking his soft muzzle, giving him a piece of the bread and butter,
helping to clean out the loose box. There in the winter was the steaming dung-pit (is it now a fertiliser repository?) with its sharp, medicinal smell of ammonia and its awesome distinction: it was what the jockeys sat in up to their necks at the trainers' stables to sweat their weight down in its hot embrace. Then came the business of getting Dad off to work: his clean clothes, his gleaming white starched linen, his hat at a slightly debonair angle, himself “seated”, never sitting, in the buggy, the correctly-held reins and whip — the whip for stylish carriage but very gentle use; the tautening of the reins, the quiet word, the horse stepping off, dancing a little, neck arched, tail cocked, to leave me waiting until they came home again. Seeing an ocean liner off in later years was never as interesting. Nor, if ever he had been sharp with me, as saddening.
But back to my friend Tibby. Dad belonged to the bare-back school of riding teachers, so I started bare-back on Tibby with a snaffle bit. He led her until I could walk her safely unled. Then I got a gunny-bag strapped on with a surcingle for saddle, and he circled her on a long lead until I could sit her comfortably at a gentle trot and a three-hapence-for-twopence canter, clinging by my knees, my heels free, and never, never hanging on by the reins (“Any mug can hang on by the reins and ruin the horse's mouth” — a mug was anyone who did not understand horses.) I was a very nervous child and asked whether I might have a bar bit and curb, but of this suggestion Dad was contemptuous; I had to learn to ride first; a curb could be a wickedly cruel thing; its only proper use was to dress or collect a horse by the gentlest touches, or to show-off a bit, which Dad was very fond of, both for himself and his horse. Of course a curb might be necessary as the only means of holding some hard-mouthed brutes, but who the devil would want to own one unless he was a money-spinning racing-trotter. Tibby was no racing trotter — she was highly-strung, spirited, kind and obedient. Dad led us out into the ten-acre paddock of the little pub and smacked her on the rump, and as if a bomb had exploded at her heels, off she went, and by some miracle on I stayed. I was paralysed with fright until by degrees it dawned on me that I was sticking to her. Then, a grandstand-player by heredity, I rode her with my heels until she'd had enough and I could pull her up. I slipped off, a badly shaken little boy, but with a grand new world opening. I had plenty of falls later and still have the mark of a shod hoof on my knee. But never again did I taste the delirium of the day I “mastered” Tibby.
And so on that Cup Day of 1902, with already a lovely collection of scars, mental and physical, my behind bruised by the floor of the springless cart, eyes smarting from the abrasive northerly, glorious with dirt and sweat, I was in that state of contentment which was seldom far from me whenever I was mixed up with Dad and horses. On and on and on we went, leading the horse to be turned out, until we reached Mr. Kemyss's farm where we rubbed down and watered the horses (it was a rule as absolute as faith, that the horses must be tended before we had food or drink) and went into the farm kitchen to butter-dripping scones and hot sugared tea. Mr. Kemyss was a dark-complexioned, solemn man, and Dad and he engaged in decorous discussion of the affairs of the local Presbyterian church, both being members of its board of management.
Dad and the minister of the church, the Reverend Benny Williams, a smallish, upright, uncompromising, deceptively mild-looking wiry man, with the spirit of a fighting cock, were on very good terms. Dad liked a man who could look after himself and the proceedings of that particular board of management apparently required a man of that sort. Benny admired Dad for his worldly ability to get for Benny what Benny wanted from the managers, by means which would not always have stood the light of day. Benny and Dad were disgracefully alike in many things, and respected each other for it. One Sunday Benny's text concerned a custom of drawing lots. He explained that the Romans used to draw lots from a soldier's metal helmet so that no official could retain the winning number in the fold of a soft hat until a pre-arranged winner should come forward to scoop the pool. At the end of that sermon
my father rose, walked to the front of the congregation, and raised a sovereign for identification by all before dropping it into the collection plate. I swelled with pride. I also remember a cricket match at which Benny, given “out” by a huge, red-faced farming umpire, had to be restrained by most of the fieldsmen from fixing that crook there and then.
But to get back to that Cup Day. At last we started on our way home. By now the day had hit its stride full belt. The sun was almost unbearable but our eyes suffered less because the wind was at our backs. On dusty days Dad wore dark glasses and carried a small phial of brandy which he poured neat into his eyes to relieve them. I remember that we talked a good deal on the way home. Dad, because as a gambler he was nearly always hard-up, took comfort from the miseries of winners. He told me of several men he'd known or heard of who had won the great Tattersall's sweep on the Melbourne Cup and how it brought most of them nothing but bad luck. In some cases, it appeared, they had courted bad luck, sat up and begged for it, he said, by winning the sweep while living in corner houses. This was a most provocative challenge to Providence — only a fool would live in a corner house anyway, because corner houses were notoriously unlucky. Luck entered largely into his philosophy. If you ate meat on Good Friday it would ruin your luck. If on the way to the races you passed a cross-eyed man, you would do better to turn round and go home with your money than go to the races and walk home without it. Opals, peacock feathers, the number 13, the colour green, not to turn your money over at the full moon, to sit on a table — all manner of things were loaded with the contagion of bad luck.
As we travelled, the day ran down and the wind stopped and the distant horizon began to blaze its warning of a riotous explosion of sunset colours. Suddenly it was one of those evenings when the world's pulse stops and the day stands still to listen to the silence, and the awful hush is so unbearable that you don't look behind you, even in treeless open country, for fear of evil. At such times we would talk softly, a little drowsily, to shut out the world of the wide plains and the starvation farms and the fear of the sunset; and Dad would tell me, I think now by a sort of compulsion, tales of horror learned in the village of his birth, of how the devil had beaten an idiot boy's brains out against the stone wall of the village church, and how the wall was pulled down and rebuilt with new stone, and how, slowly, the bloodstains began to creep up the wall again, and when the moon was full the boy's ghost would appear and grin and gibber at villagers going home late from the inn — and I would be in abject terror. When it came time to go to bed my maternal aunt would hear my prayers and see me to bed with a candle. I would try by every sort of shift to keep her talking to delay the awful moment when she would put out the candle and leave me alone in the dark.
We had seen little traffic that day, and I was glad to see coming towards us the milk cart, a lorry which collected cans of milk from the farms for a Coburg dairy. As we met Dad called out “What won the Cup?” and the driver replied “The Victory”. Dad was a moralizer, and would say things like “Well, well, another Melbourne Cup won and lost” and his voice would go soft and his eyes dreamy. “A great day, and a great race … the poor mugs fleeced, the bookies' nests lined again … how true the old song ‘Many a heart is broken, after the Ball”', and with a sort of pleasurable dismay “It's mugs like me that keep the game going” and then, his eyes blazing, “When will there ever be an inquiry into the running of a committee-man's horse, tell me that?” But he loved the whole great swindle and could not keep away from it. I decided to try it myself one day, but rarely did, except to back Wotan when it won the Cup at 100 to 1, my companion in the venture being a gentleman who later went gun-running along the China coast where he died, I heard, of double whiskies.
At last we got home. I was in the kitchen eating a slab of new bread piled with marmalade and cream skimmed from the big dishes in the pantry, when I heard a crashing noise like part of the house coming down the stairs, and there was Dad, holding a slip of paper and shouting, “I've struck it, I've struck
it, after all these years”. He'd drawn “The Victory” in the Tatts sweep on the Melbourne Cup. Why he didn't already know what horse he'd drawn, I've never understood. I suppose that after years of disappointment he'd put the ticket away and not bothered to read the draw. The prize was £6,750, which would be five or ten times as much in today's money — not a fortune, perhaps, as fortunes go, but to him it was the wealth of Aladdin's cave. There was great excitement in the pub, and Dad seemed to be trying to give the impression that he had not merely won the sweep but had invented it. He kept open house for a while, and then calmed down and buttoned up, as he called it, betting only a pound a year on the Cup and, perversely, backing a number of winners now that he no longer needed the money. And the funny thing was that what he'd so often told me, about the effects of winnings on winners, began to affect himself. He became tightfisted, suspicious of others, more arrogant than ever. Some friends who no doubt had tried to “touch” him and been told to chase themselves, drew away from him, which I think was no great loss. He and I, going our different ways, began to grow apart. At times there was hostility between us, which saddens me even now, until I remember the days with horses, and the things he taught me, and the scars he left on me, and the worlds of reality and imagination which he opened to me. Perhaps it is from his influence or my Irish maternal grandmother's that the cloud shadows come to pass across the mind, bidding it to sing lest it weep, to sorrow lest its gladness tempt the gods to reprisal, to know — in a despair for which there is no comfort, until the shadow passes — that life is a defeat which we cannot escape either by conquest or surrender. Or is it the prodding of the old Presbyterianism red in tooth and claw, as expounded by the hell-fire preachers of my childhood? I do not know or care, because it's been grand fun so far. “I don't think it's either,” my Dad would have said, “You see, it's all a matter of Luck.”


I was born in Brunswick only a lifetime after the settlement of Melbourne and about forty years after the separation of Victoria from New South Wales. We lived mostly in the Brunswick district but my first memory is of Newport and of two events which happened there — of waking and seeing a kid-goat tied to my cot, and of paddling with Dad at the bay beach at Altona. I don't remember much about the kid except that we spent a good deal of time together. But paddling on the beach remains very clear: fear of the water; the crabs hurrying about in the patterns of the clean sea floor; the shells; the holes from which bubbles and small creatures emerged; the wonder of seeing something new and lovely and unimagined. In later years the sea was to be an important part of the lives of my own family, who swam and surfed and sailed on it. For me, lying on the warm sands of an ocean beach, listening to the human voices coming from the surf, talking, calling, singing, laughing though the seascape be deserted but for the listener; here, the balm of a purposeless paganism, the utter emptiness, the freedom from all torment or sickness of mind, the perfection of being merely alive, all these the hypnosis of a singing surf can bring to the troubled spirit. A lucky break for a child born, as I know now, to a squalor which happily he could not recognize. I did not see real ocean or walk among real hills until I was fourteen years old.
Brunswick was a working man's suburb with a few clay pits, potteries and foundries providing a smallish field of employment. At that time Melbourne's great Land Boom had bust. The times were bad. Unemployment was widespread. Brunswick had a rash of to-let notices in the streets of small single fronted cottages in which many of its people lived for rents of five shillings a week. Most of Brunswick then would be a slum now. There was no sewerage. The house drainage flowed into the street gutters where it lay stagnant, green and smelly. Once a week all windows were closed against the nightman's visit and what came with it. Epidemics of typhoid fever and other scourges often carried off several members of a family within a week or two, as a visit to any of the old graveyards will most depressingly prove. Medical treatment still rested largely upon old wives' tales;
but if there were a great many human afflictions which he could not cure, the family doctor did bring other comforts. He brought you into the world, if you could afford his care, ushered you out of it and comforted those whose time had not yet come. He was a great and respected man who knew all that his limitations allowed him to know about you, was a friend in any kind of trouble, would drop in for a cup of tea and a chat and would pat a wide-eyed little boy on the head and leave him spell-bound. For typhoid fever you hung carbolic soaked blankets at doors and windows and a small sac of camphor by a tape around your neck. You lived or you died. In any case, unless you belonged to a lodge (a co-operative self-supporting medical benefit society — one was seriously named the Antediluvian Order of Ancient Buffaloes) you called the doctor as a last throw, because there wasn't much money about. The basic wage of £2.2.0 for a man, wife and three children, later increased by the Powers three shillings, had yet to come. Wages were meagre; but then, living was a pretty meagre business for the mass of the people, in those days. It was well to keep a civil tongue in your head if you were an employed man or small shopkeeper and, if the latter, a decent-seeming suit to be seen wearing on Sundays to some church or other, where if you could achieve some minor office it would be an advantage. In a glossier, more comfortable form that little fact of life is still with us. The eight-hour day and the weekly half holiday were still to be. The shadow of the English industrial revolution had moved across the world to darken Australia Felix. But with the shadow, there came also a little equivocal barnstorming Welshman, Billy Hughes, a speaker whose ranting at times came close to oratory and whose ascent of the ladder of success brought great rewards for Billy and considerable improvement of the lot of the working people who had become his followers. Good old Billy — surely the cook may take his good share of the pie and who shall grudge it?
The Land Boom had ended in a welter of commercial skulduggery, crashing fortunes and bankruptcy, some of it highly profitable to the “victims”. The resultant depression brought its hardest suffering and misery to those least able to bear it and the kind of people amongst whom we lived had more than a fair share of it. But for those who could afford it there was still a depleted fare of the races, the fights, the old-time music halls and the dead-pan comedian Will Whit-burn (a friend of Dad's), and in the theatre Bland Holt with his race-course dramas, and the “tragedienne” Eugenie Duggan, robed in billowing cheesecloth, her ample bare parts distempered with whitewash, her organ voice, the vox humana stop pulled out almost by the roots, bewailing this, bemoaning that, voicing her insufferable sufferings and proceeding from one misery to another ankle deep in the tears of her worshipping public. In one memorable scene, having to rid herself of an unwelcome baby claimant of the fortune which was r-r-rightly hers, she threw the six-month-old actor over a stage cliff but the man who was to catch him having stepped out for a little refreshment the lad landed on his head. He now tells me that that is why he has risen no higher than doorkeeper of a Melbourne restaurant. Of the more conventional survivors of the busting of the boom, many lived the rest of their lives in penury paying off their creditors, many were “made” by it, many were ruined and paid nobody. Some spectacular defaulters are still remembered by older people. Those who paid up are mostly forgotten.
Though we ourselves lived in a state undulating near to poverty, most of our young years were spent in houses somewhat superior to those about us, which is not saying much. Dad rented some of them, and paid a small deposit on others, which he would sell if he could get as much as twenty pounds profit and off we'd go again. I don't think we had many friends. Mother tried to keep us away from the neighbour children and I do not remember many friends or playmates. There were two or three elderly women who occasionally visited mother, I think all widows, rather moth-eaten, shabby-genteel, who spoke very precisely, smelt of old age and seemed to make a point of being unpleasant to little boys. They stuck out the little finger of the
operative hand as they drank tea from “the best set” with conspicuous refinement. Dad also had one or two respectable friends. I don't know where a man of his make-up dug them up but they visited us for years and Dad always seemed pleased enough to see them. They were extremely dignified in manner and speech and I was very attracted to one who wore a gold horse-shoe pin in his black stock. I longed to handle it and examine it but was too shy to ask. Another was a great talker. He was welcome to come, but very reluctant to go. As midnight drew near, Dad would take off his boots, drop them noisily in the fender, wind up the clock, yawn gustily and so get his friend moving.
The general populace of Brunswick was I suppose no different from any other working populace of those times. Mixed with a great preponderance of the very depressed there were a few comfortable, even rich, people who had made their money in Brunswick and instead of moving to a “nicer” suburb preferred to stay in Brunswick. There, congregating in certain streets, they built their big houses amongst many survivors of the poorer sort. My wife and I think that we can spot these streets to this day. Some of the big houses have been turned into “institutions”, some into tenement houses, some are preserved and occupied by the sort of people who built them, and some are self-consciously refurbished by local men who (like their predecessors) have only recently struck payable dirt in the suburb. The purpose of the people who built them was to proclaim their prosperity to all who had not succeeded as they had. Some really had made their money, some were still gambling for it, some had “important” occupations to declare; others were poor cripple-minded pretenders claiming connexion with titled English families, skimping and contriving to keep their unpaid butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers at bay until they must at last disappear without trace, by the ordinary mortal's method of the moonlight flit.
After Dad won Tattersall's Sweep we returned to the Brunswick district and lived in one of these streets in Moreland, between Brunswick and Coburg. Dad had chosen it because, of course, he wanted to “show 'em” and he did show 'em, with uninhibited relish, goodwill and vulgarity. He was brought into this select company by a sleek, discreet estate agent who lived in the street, sold him the house we were to live in, and nursed him and his winnings as prospects for further business. All of which Dad knew, and played him at his own game. The elect were a curious lot and behaved as members by birth of an ancient club of hereditary membership. It was a pleasant tree-lined street, the houses had well-kept gardens, there was a tennis and bowling club at which bazaars and “thé dansants” were held, the members, like us, rather shying off pronouncing the latter. There were a clergyman, a dentist and a veterinary surgeon. Dad soon got the strength of the vet, who he declared didn't know a horse from a cow. The dentist he ignored altogether because he'd known the dentist's father, a very good reason indeed, for what Australian has not heard that definitive dismissal of many a successful man—” 'Oo the 'ell does 'e think 'e is — Blimey, I knew 'is old man!” He got on very well with the clergyman, the then moderator of the Presbyterian Church, who was as entranced as the Reverend Benny had been to hear of the more mentionable rackets of the race-course and the bike track. There were several successful tradesmen and shopkeepers, one of them a master plumber on whose front fence was a brass plate such as doctors and solicitors displayed, bearing his name and the letters S.E. which one learned stood for Sanitary Engineer. He was fond of saying that after the theayter he'd gone for oysters at Rubira's Carf in Bourke Street. Others were retired, were “in banking”, or “in insurance” or “in a warehouse” or were “an important man in Buckley's” a soft-goods shop in the city, and so it went, the show of status and consequence and human frailty. Some had dyed hair and moustaches of whom Dad said they'd been at the tarbrush. “A touch of the tarboosh” was the commoner expression, but tarbrush was more exact. The matrons talked about their charities and the shortcomings of their servant girl; or of the goings-on at Government House to which of course they were never bidden or likely to
be, but which ran neck and neck with Heaven for outstanding value, though beaten by lengths for accessibility. The young women, if they looked sufficiently sickly, hid the featureless wastes of their arid bodies under flowing, draped dresses, languidly displayed their suede-bound copies of Omar Khayam, and without actually wearing notices “Out of order: Inquire at desk” tried to look as Burne Jones as possible. Dad said he knew what was wrong with them, but he wouldn't tell me. The more modern young women would mention quite openly, mark you, the name of Oscar Wilde, and would say they thought young Mr. So-and-so was very ordinary. At musical evenings they would sing songs like After the Ball, Less than the Dust, Melisande, Fleurette, all rather tearful; the young men would sing manly songs like the Galloping Major and Asleep in the Deep and recite Laska, Fuzzy Wuzzy and Gunga Din.
The tennis and bowling club was a centre of social life and it was there that the president, who had achieved that office because he was mayor of Coburg, when wishing to say that the dancing following the “sit down supper” was about to begin, said “Now we're going to clear away these 'ere chairs and tables and 'ave a little conviviality on the floor.”
I no longer lacked friends. Including recruits from less circumscribed streets, there was a tight little circle of as low young blackguards as the ten year old heart of a boy could desire. We drove the elderly horse-tram drivers mad by bouncing on the back platforms until the trams jumped the rails. We fought regularly and often, we threw stones on iron roofs and sometimes accidentally, sometimes not, through windows. We stole the eggs from the hen's nests in the back yard of Moran and Cato's store and sold them to the old gentleman in charge over his front counter. We stole lollies and cigarettes from the shops, we smoked, used bad language, lied and cheated; a great and liberating advance from the life I'd known, way back, four years ago, when we were poor people. Years later three of my boon companions went to gaol for grave assaults, one for bigamy, and another became a notorious receiver of stolen goods. The brother of one of them sat as a juror in my court on a criminal case and gave me every encouragement, short of open applause, for my lightest utterances. I didn't enjoy it much, but it touched me to feel that he was still on my side.
Next door “a brushed up looking codger”, as Dad called him, drove a good, showy cob in a dog-cart and had once entered him, unsuccessfully, in his class at the Melbourne Show, which had made an unforgettable impression on the old codger. In our stables were a good buggy horse and a racing trotter and a disreputable-looking youth to look after them. That perhaps will serve to define our status in the new world to which the deity of Luck had translated us — the world of “Show-Em Avenue” and “Gone Bung Alley”.
In the Brunswick I knew from below in my first six years and from above after our return to it, the great men were the professional men, the doctors and clergy out ahead and the solicitors, dentists and successful businessmen fighting it out for third place. The cable tram ran from Melbourne along the Sydney Road, past the old brick-walled hay-market and pig market (on which now stand the Dental Hospital and University High School) and beyond them a great deal of open, sparsely housed country reaching to Essendon and Moonee Ponds. On the other side was a region of the mysterious and the unknown: the University and Princes Park and the General Cemetery. It was in the open country to the west that Dad who “liked a man who could look after himself” revealed in himself something of that very quality. One day before he won the sweep he was on the run from a court bailiff who had a warrant of execution against him under which his furniture and even his beloved horse could be sold to satisfy a creditor's claim. Time was all he needed, time to scratch up enough to stave off the oppressor. He had driven us over to a new house he'd taken in Brunswick and had returned to the old house to keep an eye on the vanman who was to move our furniture. He left his horse and buggy standing as he'd driven it in. The van was loaded and about to leave when in a cloud of dust along the countrified road came the bailiff's
buggy at the gallop. Driving into the yard, the bailiff asked, “Are you Stretton?” and Dad replied, without untruth, “Stretton went off hell for leather that way some time ago”, pointing to Essendon and the purpling west where soon the setting sun would bring rest to a fretful world. The bailiff looked about, saw the horse and buggy facing inwards instead of outwards, hopped into his buggy and raced away to the beckoning sunset. When all was clear, Dad, followed by the van, drove at an easy pace, all passion spent, eastward to another dawn, two or three more of which would see a sufficient killing at the races to pay out the bailiff.
The great treat on a hot, suffocating night was to ride to the city and back in the open dummy of a cable tram through the tree lined avenue of Royal Parade between the Sarah Sands hotel and the Haymarket, and to get off the tram and walk past the freshly watered, sweet scented gardens of the great houses, as they seemed, where lived another race of beings, the “toffs”. The discomfiting of toffs was the point and subject of a great many of Dad's stories. As I was led to understand it, theirs was a world in which “ladidah” men and balcony-bosomed women all lived on Turkey and Champagne which was the daily regimen of toffs; and where there were young women of a well-groomed come-hitherness, reputed by dissenting Brunswick bible class standards to be very “fast” indeed. A few years later, at closer quarters, I was to find their speed most evident in evasive retreat.
There were hotels by the dozen, it seemed, along Sydney Road, in Brunswick, and in many of the lesser streets. They were beer shops, unashamedly, and drunkenness was all about you, public, coarse, crude and desperate and more or less accepted as part of the scene. On St. Patrick's Day, the Orangemen and the Hibernians joyfully primed with strong waters and armed with anything handy would march down the middle of Sydney Road until they met in their annual free-for-all battle. There would be blood-letting, window smashing, arrests and the sequel in the police court next morning. On that great day, if I had to journey as far as to Mr. Paddock's corner shop, my mother would pin a piece of green ribbon on my coat to protect me from other children, though why she chose green instead of orange I don't know. I had in any case learned that it was safer to keep away from most strange children, whoever they were, on any day of the year. The treatment of children and animals was wicked. When I compare what went on in my very early childhood with what has evolved in the rest of my lifetime, I feel that I was born into an era of dawning compassion which would have been, if recognized, misunderstood and mistrusted by many even of the good people of my earliest years. At the age of about five years I saw a young horse in a horse breaker's jinker, bewildered and terrified and incapable of moving, flogged by two men until it fell where it stood, probably from exhaustion or heart failure, breaking a leg and having to be shot — all this on a vacant allotment, surrounded by houses, watched by men, women and children, not one of them intervening. And other horrors I saw the memory of which still makes me get up and walk about, as a safer activity than sleep. I am thankful that the age has passed when ordinary men used ordinary horses; I do not (as some old horse-copers do) regret the genteel artificiality of what remains of the horsey world today.
Children were unmercifully thrashed by parents and teachers and it still mystifies me to wonder how normal parents could do it or permit it to be done. It was not a practice of the “lower orders” only. Public and private schools had their “great flogging masters”; prefects still flogged; rich families as well as poor had unmerciful thrashings, though with more specialised equipment and moral solemnity. One favoured refinement was to send the culprit to bring the instrument to the flagellator. In the State schools all teachers, of whatever status, were apparently allowed to use the cane. Half a dozen cuts on each hand on a winter morning would leave them bruised and useless for hours. If you pulled the hand away, some of the teachers would become enraged and thrash you on the legs, the back, the behind. This was all done in full view of the boys and girls of the class. You went back to your place weeping with
the pain, the nervous upset, the humiliation. Curiously, when your parents found out about it, they did not seem greatly concerned. After all (that phrase we use to “rationalize” anything very unpleasant) after all it was only about fifty years since the last public hanging. I was never thrashed at home. But I got a few three-star beltings at school.
What children did when they left school I don't know. Unemployment had become one of the accepted facts of life. Girls had not yet entered industry as a matter of course. Domestic service was their main field of employment and a degrading, ill-paid, unprotected service it was. Some became “the girl” in milliners' or dress-making shops just as the boys became “the boy”, with much better though still dim prospects of advancement, in shops, offices, and industries. Some of the girls inevitably drifted in an amateur or professional way into the oldest profession. Dad told me in later years, probably with his usual ebullient exaggeration, that there had been “a whore in every lolly shop”; there was probably some truth in it. There was no known cure for venereal disease — at best there was treatment that would mask the symptoms until, in many a man's life, after he had begotten his children. At least the girls in my class were mercifully denied the opportunities of the depressed, unmarriageable young ladies who became private-school teachers on pittance-salaries, “ladies' companions”, or seamstresses living-in with rich families, which was the fate almost worse than life that awaited the daughters of the pinched, impecunious clergy, the genteel poor, the mass of the lower middle classes who had missed the bus that runs to the foot of the rainbow. It was for a tricky little Welshman and others of his kind to bring not the genteel poor, not the honest or any other sort of poor, not the oppressed victims of this or that system, but hundreds of thousands of, simply, people to a state of betterment which may not have entirely redeemed or much ennobled this society, but has at least made it more bearable.
Old men harp on things and are tiresome. Will you let me say again that I have lived to see a great thing happen — the dawn of a new compassion in my country. Where it came from, how it happened may be important to know. It seems enough for today that it has begun.


Before we went to Campbellfield I was in the infant class at the Moreland State school. It was even then old, and its crowded classrooms badly lit and ventilated by narrow windows. One water tap in the crumbling asphalt yard served several hundred children. The privy was unsewered and its gutter, when not blocked, ran I don't know where. In the summer the flies made a muted brass band. The infant classroom was a gallery of ascending tiers of desks and backless forms. All I remember of school there is the smell of lunches, boots and bodies and being drowsy and hot and tickled by serge pants next to my skin, and my back aching because you could not sit comfortably.
Campbellfield township was nine miles from the city. There were the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, two hotels, ours The Plough Inn a mile further along the Sydney road, the school, the smithy, the bakery, the store, the lolly shop, a closed saddler's shop, and smallish farms, few of them prosperous. There were hawthorn and briar hedges and wooden gates to swing on; a few labourers' cottages on small plots of land; the clay holes, as the pits were called, two or three bluestone quarries, a one-roomed railway station; and the Big House, of two storeyed brick on perhaps two hundred acres, used by a squatter's family as a kind of town house. All we saw of them were the boys at a distance, on holiday from their public school in the city. Some of the people spoke of them scandalously, some respectfully, but all, including Dad who was inclined to cock a snook at them, I think felt something of the authority which the Big House would have represented in their fathers' native villages. It was a curious, narrow community, at best semi-literate, not visiting one another, each living in his own cell by choice or imprisonment; the prosperous were great church-goers of a sort of pasteurised respectability, the poor lived as only the poor of those days could live. There were some good but arid sort of people.
There were fifteen year old boys who had been no further abroad than Coburg, five miles away. They lived close to the soil and the animals. I can't believe that they had any interests beyond them. Social life was centred in the churches or the pubs, according to the two classes into which the people had divided themselves. The church people came to church from miles around, in their buggies and traps. They met at tea-meetings there and occasionally a concert, with perhaps a “visiting artist” brought along by my father — one of his “artists” was a sepulchral woman elocutionist who bore the curious name of Ryda Boyes. The others met at the pub, or sometimes at a rough and ragged football or cricket match in a paddock to keep alight the hatreds which these matches caused between neighbouring townships.
There was no village green, no innocent rustic jollity at all. I remember nothing of the girls, who were kept separate from the boys (or was it the boys who were kept separate from the girls?) Most of the boys were coarse in their talk and habits, under-nourished, dull, and cruel to animals, who were not their friends but articles of use in a life of unending drudgery on the mixed farms of crops, dairies and pigbreeding. Of the poetry belted into our memories at school, The Slave's Dream was for a time the piece de sodden resistance — “Beside the ungathered rice he lay, his sickle in his hand, His head was bare, his matted hair, lay buried in the sand”. Despite hidings and detentions, the best one boy could ever do was “His sickle in 'ees 'air”. We understood practically nothing about sport and played only kick for kick football and shinty with clubs of carved gum saplings and a battered jam tin for ball. The big boys had other diversions such as setting the little boys on to fight one another under threat of “biting your arse” if you refused; the biggest boy, whose favourite sanction it was, bearing you to the ground and biting your behind repeatedly, leaving you bruised, caring and humiliated: arm-twisting; stamping on your chilblained toes: and a form of indecent assault (“cobbing”) which was more of an affront to your modesty than a grave offence. They caught cats and young rabbits and chased them across country stoning them to death. They would trap sparrows and hang them by the necks in a loop of string until they fluttered to death. (Such things are deplorable when done by the wrong sort of people.) I think they were more to be pitied than some others of their class because to the poor city child's life of want and neglect there was added the daily drudgery of their struggling farms. To milk by hand a number of cows, and feed calves and pigs, morning and evening after being all day at school in the keeping of a sadist, to do all this in winter in the slush of milking shed and farmyard, your hands and feet a mass of chilblains, would tend to put you off learning or thinking or feeling however enthusiastically you were belted because your brain could not grapple with anything beyond your bodily needs. There were many of these children throughout the State, especially in the dairying districts. Years later, on circuit by train, I saw them at the country railway stations pallid, sickly, underfed, dressed like scare-crows, some barefoot, come to see the train come and go. In the working suburbs of Melbourne, as in the country, the majority of children went poorly clothed and barefoot until the second world war, taking a few of their fathers, brought prosperity to the rest.
Whatever the Campbellfield boys, the baddies, may have known of kindness and affection in their homes they left at home. At school there was not a gleam of grace amongst them. But I wanted to be of them and would try to ingratiate myself with them — without success. I suppose I played with the younger boys at times but I don't remember much fun or companionship with them. With some of them I would sometimes walk home from school, playing leap-frog or looking for birds' nests, but I was a figure of fun because I was a new-comer and spoke differently and we did not become friends. I don't remember much about the good boys. Perhaps they avoided the rest of us. I suspect that I was not drawn to them.
We once invited several boys and girls to a party but once was enough. They brought with them an air of guarded hostility and a reluctance to accept food or drink. Asked if
they would like some cake they would say, “I don't care” or “if you like” or “none of that for me”. There was no conversation, no parting thanks. The fiasco faded and the guests did not so much depart as beat it. The only laughter we heard was before they were out of earshot on their way home. In the part of the pub which was our home, there were chatter, laughter, books and music. My elder sister, Elsa Louise, was a good pianist. My next sister, Jessie Violet, had a good voice. My younger sister, Dorothy Emma, was too young for “accomplishments”. I give their names as sorting agreeably with the coloured pictures which we pasted in our scrap-books. Elsa played the organ at church, Jessie was in the choir and with my Aunt Miriam they taught in Sunday School. Dad mostly handled the problem of the Sunday licensing laws, which he had “stream-lined” a bit, but managed to attend church quite often. After we won the sweep my elder sisters went to Haslington College, Miss De Mumby's School for Young Ladies in Royal Park. Only when Elsa gained a diploma from The Trinity College of Music of London and later matriculated in the University of Melbourne when matriculation of women was still uncommon, did Dad give up saying that she would belt the soulcase out of the piano and that she would read herself blind at her studies.
Jessie had a contralto voice and having once been auditioned by Madam Melba and received some praise, by kindness or courtesy or what I don't know, became The Voice of the family and our friends. I don't know how, in the circumstances of our early childhood, Elsa had begun to learn the piano; I suppose that music teachers were still very cheap. The diploma, the matriculation and the Melba incident all happened after we left Campbellfield. Before we left, my sisters were closely guarded from the public parts, and the patrons, of the pub.
The local men who came to the pub were the small farmers. They were poor although the soil was part of the great lava flow which covers the Keilor plains and sweeps across Broadmeadows to Campbellfield and beyond, with outcrops of plutonic rock amongst which is good sweet picking for sheep and cattle and which grows good crops. The cultivated farms had been cleared of the rocky outcrops and the smaller boulders had been used for stone walls with which some of them were fenced, not beautifully dressed and laid as in the approaches to the Western District, but in their natural form. It may have been ignorance which kept the farmers poor or it may have been poverty or under-sized holdings which led them to neglect the soil. What little was known at all of soil conservation in Victoria was not widely known until the 1940s. Up till then the Lands Department, the Forests Department and other public bodies led the community in the destruction of its forests, soil and water resources. The Campbellfield farmers knew only one good rule of nature — that all growing things taken from the soil must be returned to it. They had no self-conscious societies for the making of compost or “the disposal of town wastes in nature's way”. No fear. They simply got the Coburg night-carts to come in broad daylight and spread their contents over the ploughed lands; and a few of them grew good crops, and prospered. Shocking smells seem to have pervaded my childhood. When the enriching element had settled down, after a week or so, I would explore the ploughed land looking for square-torn pieces of the coloured comic papers and would let them dry and read the small pieces of pictures and print, so hungry was I for the forbidden fruit. There was no silly business about baths. Everyone who had a bath had it once a week, one after another in the same hot water in the zinc tub. You were expected to wash your hands and face before meals.
Our farmer patrons had English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh names and in the lands of their fathers would have been to each other “they furriners” from the next county or Wales or Ireland. Some spoke still in their native dialects. Some dropped the articles of speech. “Thomas is pretty plough”; “Mornin' was mortal cauld” Richard would say; Henry “If I saw daughter Elsie with man I would break ‘err legs”. There were no Tom, Dick and Harry names. One or two spoke with the imaginative grace of some of the lowly Irish. They were given to violent argument
over trivial matters. I once heard polite, dignified, spry little Charles Norris in the heat of argument call another man a liar then offer his hand saying “I was wrong, William, to call you a liar but you did speak untruthfully” and off they went again. Sometimes Charles would come on Sundays to relax, clean and wearing an old threadbare suit, and would let me open a locket on his watch chain and admire the coloured picture of a woman's handsome face. I was strictly forbidden to go near the bar, but its people attracted me as a fly to the honey-pot and I used to spy on them and listen. I don't think I ever heard from them talk which I recognized as foul.
There were a few married labourers who lived in small cottages or shacks on small plots of ground. The unmarried ones slept in bunks of their own making in farm sheds and didn't stay long. They were a wild lot and I kept away from them except old Dan Mahony who always greeted me with — “Good-day, you young bugger. How's that bloody old ram, your old man”.
The women seem to me now to have been mostly a grim, tight-lipped lot. Sometimes a woman would sit in a cart outside waiting for her husband in the bar and he would placate her by taking her a glass of beer or the more ladylike “portwine”, as one buys time from a parking meter. They didn't like us. One Sunday, when Benny Williams mentioned in his sermon the “publicans and sinners” they turned their heads like a flight of birds and glared at us. They had good reason. Their men spent too much time at the pub and from their poverty came part of the money which enabled us to live in comparative comfort.
A summer day would begin with the promise of heat. A load of hay would pull up outside the bar on its way to be delivered. Hay was carted in two wheeled drays with wooden frames extending horizontally from the sides to increase their capacity. When the hay was loaded, packed in the cart, spread on the frames and piled high it looked as if it must topple, but it never did. When he stopped at the pub the farmer might rest the load on a prop hinged to one shaft and let down, when the load was not travelling, to rest on the ground and take the weight. In all two-wheeled vehicles you had to decide whether to adjust the load and the harness so that the vehicle would ride “light on”, with the centre of gravity behind the axle so that the belly-band tended to “lift” the horse, or “heavy on”, causing the weight to bear down on the horse's back. On good roads a “light on” load rode more comfortably for both driver and horse. On bad or steep roads a heavy load was better set somewhat “heavy on” to give the horse a better foothold and a more direct pull on the traces. It depended on the farmer whether the horse spent its standing time comfortably, or with the weight bearing on its back. However the horse spent its morning, the farmer spent his in the bar. In would come another farmer who would perhaps have passed by if he had not seen the first load standing there. Then perhaps one or two more, and what with the company, the heat, the talk and the beer they might not leave until sunset, fuddled and quarrelsome, to return home with their undelivered loads. I hated them for leaving their horses standing for hours under a hot sun without food and water. I wanted to water them but was afraid the farmers would be angry with me.
There were a great many swaggies “waltzing Matilda” along the road. (That expression was used in those days long before the song became popular. Played with orchestral pomp and suitable words, what a magnificent national anthem it would be. There is in the music tenderness, courage, challenge and triumph. I have suggested this to “musical” people who have laughed at me because it is a song about a swaggie. The music, or so I think and as one of them told me, is older than civilization in Australia.) The swaggies had all their belongings rolled cylindrically in a blanket and carried like a knapsack except that the shoulder strap passed under one shoulder and over the other so that the swag rested diagonally across the oblong of the back. A dilly bag and a smoke-blackened billy hung in front. The swaggies' worst troubles were their feet. Their worn-out old boots, however stuffed with newspaper, still chafed and blistered them and let in plenty of the grit of the road. In summer, corks
hung on strings from the rims of their old felt hats to vie with the flies in tormenting them. Swaggies were one of the two divisions of society which “the law, with magnificent impartiality, forbids to beg alms, to steal bread, or to sleep under bridges” — a prohibition which I have never heard of the other division offending against.
The swaggies were not welcome to anybody. The police hounded them from one police district to another. Most of them did not ask for work unless from someone unlikely to offer it, and then only if questioned by the police or cadging tucker. They slept in the open or in farm sheds and lived chiefly by scrounging and I suppose by petty thefts. When asked for tucker and a pinch of tea, a farmer might clear the swaggie off or (if he wanted wood chopped) ask if he could “swing Douglas”. This sometimes got the wood chopped for an hour or so but as often “me terrible rheumatics” forbade it. During the depression of the ‘nineties and the turn of the century there were hundreds of them on the roads, many looking for work, many not, some just released from gaol and heading off to “beat the vag” (to avoid arrest as vagrants).
The police were a mixed lot. There was an arrogance and even savagery among them that I think the modern force has outgrown. It was a time of entrenched officialdom which included police and police courts, as they were then appropriately called. A police court consisted of a police magistrate sitting alone or with justices of the peace, or of two or more justices sitting without a magistrate. The magistrates were required to pass a very elementary law examination. They were mostly ignorant men who had, as clerks of police courts, associated closely with the police for many years. The present day magistrates are still drawn from clerks of courts but a much better knowledge of law is required of them and from all I have heard they are a different race of men who, with of course some exceptions, make satisfactory magistrates. In those days they were generally biassed against accused people and, as I found for myself years later, would bundle people into gaol without any serious pretences of fair trial. I also found for myself, years after the time I speak of, that one policeman could outswear half a dozen ordinary citizens. The justices were no better; they were local men, mostly uneducated, and more untrammelled in their judicial incontinence than were the magistrates. The worst of all magistrates were the bible-bangers. I have at times envied the man of true and private religious conviction for a solace which is not mine. But whenever you meet the public bible-banger, watch the rogue. The one shining exception among the magistrates in my day was Philip Cohen, P.M., who would have graced any court in the land. He became my friend and by his advice and insistence helped to alter the course of my life, much to my advantage.
There were of course decent policemen. Some would let a swaggie sleep in the lock-up, get him to clean up the station yard or chop some wood and set him on his way with some tucker. Somehow, chopping wood hung over beggars, swaggies, boys and husbands like a storm cloud. “Get out on the wood-heap, you young loafer” was a traditional order for boys in parental disfavour. “Could I chop a bit of wood for you, missus?” the down-and-out would ask at the back door. To the husband hurrying to the haven of his work, “Henry, have you chopped the wood?” “Chop, chop, moving up and down again, there was no release from the wood”. Some police would arrest a drunk, keep him a few days, feed him, get him to clean up the station, “chop a bit of wood”, and let him go without bringing him before the court. They got some work out of him, he got his keep and made a recovery. It wasn't a bad transaction. But I heard tales, and men being what they are some may well have been true, of police arresting a drifter, keeping him for several days, forcing him to do manual work about the station which they themselves ought to have done, and then sending him packing. One of my informants was my maternal uncle, an upright and responsible man who (shall I say “also”) became a member of parliament. For the victims he spoke of there was no likely redress, even if they had been foolhardy enough to “get in bad with the coppers” by seeking it. After
we won the sweep, about twenty swaggies who had heard the glad tidings over the mulga wire came and settled under the hawthorn hedge across the road and “ran the rabbit” (sent one of them over at calculated intervals for a billy of beer on the house) until the policeman, no doubt by request of the management, dissolved their Utopia by moving them on.
The police at Campbellfield and other countrified places were mounted troopers. They wore a black, shiny helmet, black close fitting jacket, tight white cord riding breeches and black leggings and spurred boots. Like the good moleskin trousers worn by some working men in those days, the breeches “whistled” when they walked. A good pair of riding breeches were known as whistling cords. They cared for their horses well and at a slow canter or amble looked very impressive. The amble is an easy, shuffling and skipping gait between a quick walk and a slow trot. It has something of the single-footing action, a serious fault which I am unable to describe precisely: it is as if one foreleg misses a beat of the four-point action of a square trotter. Anyway the amble is much quicker than a walk, easy for the horse, and gives a rocking-chair ride. It used to be said that the Victorian police horses showed too much daylight (were too long-legged) and they still do. Perhaps the extra height is worth it for crowd control.
Besides this world of people and poverty and riches and the shapes of reality, I now began to discover another: a world of poetry which the mind makes for itself, for one man alone. I had no conscious idea of it then and few words for it now. In those days I had no friends and spent much of the time roaming the countryside with my retriever dog Mick, and together we discovered things which drew me back to them again and again — commonplace in their setting but fascinating for a town-bred child — in the rippling, undulating crops and the long brown grasses of early summer. I have never found much pleasure in the too-pictorial spring. For me, one of the truly moving moods of the physical world lives at early dusk in the rolling plains of the long, dry summer grass, brown and, as the dusk deepens, golden and passing through a gentle succession of pastel colours to die in the darkness; or when the high heat of afternoon sets the brown distances shimmering, though neither man nor beast is moving in the stillness. This is the lure and the trap for the poet; for me, forever inexpressible. In an unusually confidential moment, it must have been at dusk, I tried to tell an English friend something of this heat and distance. He was all for the spring and was too polite to scoff. He spent a summer week in the Western District and when we met again he agreed with me. He could not express it, either.
Then in his season there would be the ploughman at his work; the horse drawn plough with the old fashioned plough shares, the green earth turning over in a moist, cascading, solid wave; the big Clydeside horses, their feathered legs moving so surely, their shining, sweating coats, their deep regular breathing, sometimes a cloud of mist about their muzzles; patient and strong they were; the ploughman plodding heavily yet effortlessly behind them through the tumble of moist earth, the swingletrees creaking, the birds walking and in short flights following and waiting for something to turn up and the laughing jackass, swooping from a dead, bare tree to grab the big worm and bear him wriggling aloft; the stop for a breather for the horses and a few puffs at his pipe for the ploughman and then “Come up, Prince; oop, Shandy, oop” and off we'd go again. Or watching the sowing by broadcasting the seed from a bag hung at waistline; sowing, sowing, sowing with a rhythmical casting by alternate handfuls of the broad, fanning showers of seed so cunningly that none of the ploughed earth would be left unsown; the rhythm of the arms, of the heavy hobnailed boots, of the showering seed in an effortless unity. The nosey little boy had no words for it nor needed any. Then, as now, every day a new world was born bringing as it still does a sort of subdued excitement and expectation too often doused by bedtime. There would be the morning welcome from Mick, at times with a tail feather of a chook hanging from his silly, guilty smile, the scrounging in the kitchen of a piece of bread soaked in bacon-fat
if the luck was good; in winter, the sun on the frost and frost pictures on the windows; a look round the stables and helping to get Dad off to work in the city; perhaps a run to the waterhole for ice to be mixed with sugar and cream and trying to believe it was ice-cream; the quick shadow of school passing over the morning. In the holidays, if there was nothing which I couldn't miss going on at the pub, roaming the countryside with Mick, finding rabbit burrows and fox holes; Mick, a fool at times, chasing rabbits which almost turned round and laughed at him; shooting with my Daisy air rifle. I shot a sparrow once, which may have helped to cure me of my liking for blood sports; Mick “foxing” a stick or ball or finding it after it had been hidden when on a pretended throw he had gone off on a false start, or retrieving a stone, always that stone, thrown into the murky depths of the Merri creek after he'd had a look and a smell of it; watching a thatcher at work on a haystack. There were wild blackberries and old mulberry trees to be picked over, and the hawthorn hips. All the children ate the tasteless hips, perhaps because they were not given fruit. Perhaps we ate them for much the same reason that fat women wear tight shoes in hot weather. There were birds' nests to rob and the eggs blown and the sick feeling of finding in an egg a bare, pink thing that you couldn't blow; and jingles made up as you roamed like the one about the rouseabout who wore a black shade over one eye, “Dirty old Charlie eats raw barley”, which probably he didn't. He was a dirty old chap and I had seen him turn and kick at the flies which followed him.
Through the winter there were bouts of asthma, croup and earache which in their easier phases was when you did a lot of reading. There was a set of Dickens in the house and for birthdays and Christmas mother would give you a book — Helen's Babies, Handy Andy, Coral Island, The Old Frontier, books about the Boer War, Indians, naval battles, ships and the sea and a big coloured chart of the flags of the nations. Sometimes there would be a Comic Cuts or a coloured comic paper of which today's “comics” are not even bastard descendants. To get a comic paper was a great concession because they were not “good books”. Sometimes I would come by one illicitly and to enjoy a guilty hour of uninterrupted reading would crawl into the dark recesses of the fowl house, not a deserted place of refuge but a well established, busy going concern. There was in this, I like to think, something of an obscene parallel with the cotter's son studying by the peat-fire light for the meenistry.
Of course I did not understand a great deal of the grown-up books I read, but the people and places in them held me in wonder. Mother was the only one you wanted to read to you. She never made the mistake of stopping to explain what the book said when all you wanted to hear were the words running on and on and to make your own picture of what they said. Dad used to read Dickens in bed, the candle on his chest between his eyes and the book. He loved Tony and Sam Weller and would talk about them to me. I don't think he knew that he was a composite of several of the Dickens people, but you never could have guessed because he always was a bit of a show-off.
Before we left the pub, the Jameson Raid had born its unseemly fruit and the Boer War was over. My sisters were attracting one or two boyish young men, one a decent youth who was a shop assistant at the general store and two more straw-hatted visitors who were also what today would be called assistants in a city drapery store. Assistants, forsooth. Alas for the attrition of the mother tongue. Nightmen, casting aside the convention that night is for deeds of horror and now working in the daytime, have become sanitary assistants and, by way of real profanation, the ancient tipstaff of the High Court has become a High Court assistant. And, so help me, women lift drivers are Elevator Hostesses. I have even met a fancy corkscrew whose “gift wrapping” called it a “cork extractor”. What awaits the high and honourable rank of third mate of a merry-go-round is probably cooking up an unseemly deliverance from the chancy womb of time. No doubt my neighbours and I shall wake to find that we no longer live in historic Broad Gully Road in Diamond Creek but in Bella-vista Boulevard, Bellevue. (Yes, this is like taking an unleashed dog for a walk.) The
young gentlemen, dressed in their Sunday suits, would accompany my sisters on an afternoon walk and then there would be Sunday tea and music. The Boer War songs would be sung, Dolly Gray, Goodbye My Bluebell, Kipling's song of forty-thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay, Pass the hat for your credit's sake and pay, pay, pay and a spirited, rather athletic piano duet by my sisters, the Witches' Flight; the grocer's nice young man would sing “Oh, the moon shines bright tonight along the Wabash”; there would be more piano; my sisters would show a curio all the way from the South African battlefields — a piece of Khaki cloth, inscribed in colours with a field gun arched over by rifles with fixed bayonets and the words
Torn from my coat I send to thee
This piece of old and worn khaki
With love and luck from one alone
To thee dear (someone) and all at home. Dad would start popping his head in the door and generally causing unease. The young men who had been for hours in the presence of my sisters without a second's relief would say, with urgency, that they really must go and would depart. One happy memory is of sitting, as I often did, listening to Elsa playing Chopin waltzes while I watched through the window the gentle swaying of a creeper tendril or branch of a tree. Years later I would get her to play waltzes while I watched a branch through the window. The music and the branch became inseparable — and the psychiatrists can all go where old Dan Mahoney used to tell me to go.
The name The Plough Inn was not in keeping with Dad's plans and so he got it disgracefully changed to the Cyclists' Hotel and had painted on the wall a larger-than-life picture of a racing cyclist on a bicycle. It was an arresting picture and passers-by would stop and look at it and laugh and sometimes come into the bar. The cyclist, while his bike was proceeding along the wall, had screwed his head round full face to survey the passing traffic with a most surprised expression, for which he had good reason. He appeared to be pushing the same pedal, at the top of its revolution, with both feet. When Dad discovered this he was very angry but he cooled off as its commercial possibilities dawned upon him. A traveller would stop, look puzzled, laugh, come in, and if Dad was in the bar, tell him about the painting. Slightly offended, Dad would not believe it (several times a week). The traveller would take him out and show him; Dad would say “Dash me rags, (or dash me buttons) so it is” and be very surprised. They would return to the bar, the traveller would enjoy the situation and would come again as an old friend, perhaps bringing others with him. It was a time-proof trick, because when it became well-known it lost none of its charm; it then established Dad as a great practical joker.
Cycling had become a craze. The old penny farthing metal or solid-tyred bicycle had given way to the new pneumatic-tyred “safetybicycle”, much the same as it is now. There were bicycles everywhere, people riding to work and for pleasure, people learning to ride, riding singly or in club packs, pushing punctured-tyred bicycles home. Ladies' bicycles (there were no men or women) did without a cross bar from saddle pillar to front pillar to enable them to mount easily, and had a guard to keep their clothes out of the chain. The gentleman's bike had a step about two inches long protruding from the bottom of the back fork on which you placed one foot to kick off with the other and land on the saddle. Ladies were shocking in their bloomers, and later in divided skirts like those worn by the far more shocking “ladies” who rode astride horses. Why were the clothing and disposal of the womanly form of such delicate importance? It was a long, long haul from such alarmed modesty to the days of the bra bra black sheep advertisements and the Hickory jingle: Father — Hickory Hickory ha, The Mouse ran up the bra, Half a crown to fetch him down? Son — Raise your bid, papa. There were pneumatic tyred tricycles, tandem-bicycles for men chums (if you were above working-man status you didn't have “mates”) for married couples and (just a little daring) for engaged couples and (probably frowned upon) for going-steadies and walking-outs; and there was the Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do song. How any normally moulded woman of those days could
look neat on a bicycle seat in all her globular plenitude beats me. The gentlemen wore deerstalker caps, club-caps, skull-caps, Norfolk jackets, close fitting pants buttoned below the knee, woollen stockings and boots or cycling shoes. Photography was rife. The gentleman cyclist, when being photographed, lent gracefully on his bike without bending his back, one leg crossed over the other, looked very stern indeed behind his moustache and gazed into the distance as if he didn't know there was a photographer in the district. Out of all this grew the cycling clubs, and amateur and professional bike racing on banked asphalt tracks and on the roads.
The Sydney road was of broken blue metal, crushed down by steam rollers and “blinded” with fine crushed metal which when a northerly was blowing blinded its travellers and the people of Melbourne with clouds of gritty dust. It was rough and potholed and dangerous for horses and cyclists. Along the roadside were heaps of blue-metal rocks. Elderly men sat “knapping” these with hammers into road metal size for road construction and repair. They were taciturn old fellows. They worked in all weathers except perhaps in very heavy rain. In winter they wore a piece of heavy sacking round their shoulders and from knee to ankle. Their industry was ensured by their being paid so much per cubic yard of metal broken. Like many elderly labourers a number of them were half crippled by one of the forms of arthritis known as “the rheumatics” or suffered chest ailments and died of “the consumption”. Many of the chest complaints were probably symptoms of heart embarrassment in which case they were, except for the extremes of heat and cold in which they worked, living the life that today's heart specialists would have advised for them — to keep on working within their capacity; and this they almost did, of necessity, in frost and blinding dust, out in the good fresh air, coughing their way through the muted colours of autumn and the pie-crust promises of spring. In the extremity of illness I suppose they could have found a place in a public hospital if anyone had been sufficiently interested to get them into one, but they and their kind had a horror of public hospitals as places where you died. The better-off people didn't go to public hospitals either. So the old devils weren't so badly off after all — that is to say, after all.
Dad was already involved in the professional cycling game which like professional running was very popular. It drew big crowds and there was heavy betting on it. The newspapers gave it at times even more space than they gave horseracing. To horseracing the horse contributes at least a minor but irreducible element of honesty. But both running and cycling became so corrupt that the public dumped them and they lapsed for some years. With the roads as they were and tyres and tubes so very vulnerable, on a bike ride of any distance there was a very high risk of getting a puncture. Along one side of the Sydney road was a tramway, made of two metal strips set into the road at axle distance, for the heavy traffic of drays carting clay, blue metal or timber. But there was no provision for bicycles and without it a ride from Coburg to Campbellfield was risky. A “spill”, as it was called, on a rough metal road could be painful and disabling even though your speed was a modest ten or twelve miles an hour. So Dad got the council to lay a bike path along the side of the road from Coburg to the pub. How he did it I don't know. It was a raised earthen path and under the wheels of the hundreds of bikes which it attracted it became a very good path. It drew amateur cyclists on a comfortable, puncture-free ride into the country, enthusiasts on club rides, and racing cyclists training with their crowds of followers. Cycling was a thirsty business.
On busy days there were bikes stacked several deep against the walls and fences of the Cyclists' Hotel. I didn't learn to ride a bike but I watched every move of the cyclists; so one busy day I “borrowed” a bike, got on it and rode off, insecure and wobbling, for a hundred yards or so, crashed it into the fence and put it back where I'd got it. I could ride a bicycle and my next great want was to have one for myself. But Dad never wavered from his love of horses. Horsemen were a broadbased, honourable kind of scoundrel.
Of cyclists he would say “Don't trust them. Never trust a man with a behind like a little shut fist.”


It was an arty age of bits and pieces, bric-a-brac, objets d'art, knick-knacks, novelties, notions, horse-hair and bamboo furniture, musty morality, blancmange, and sago pudding. Houses had bunged into them mercilessly carved overmantels and sideboards, embossed wallpapers, potted palms, drainpipe umbrella stands stuck over with bits of coloured glass and broken crockery; coloured china, glass and pottery figures of animals, birds, frogs, angels, balloon-bellied tipplers, greenery-yallery draped bobbled curtains, paintings of the Christmas card school framed in violent velvet; pictures of Boer War generals, wrecks of the Hesperus, Queen Victoria, Quatre Bras, Landseer dogs, Louis Wain cats, blueberibboned, staring implacably at corpulent little mistresses with hands in muff; stags at bay, Queen Victoria as a girl, deaths of Nelson, monarchs of the glen, deaths of Little Nell, life boats in perilous seas of greenish mashed potato, dying gladiators, Florence Nightingale, Abraham about to serve up Isaac, The Tetrarch (the spotted thoroughbred sire), Queen Victoria sitting in a Gladstone-induced disgruntled heap; pictures of disaster by land, sea and air — by volcanoes, landslides, shipwreck, icebergs and gasfilled balloons.
There were coloured picture post cards, and albums to keep your collection in, of stately homes, of members of the royal family, of actresses (one a King's favourite) of a voluptuously redundant amplitude kept under restraint, may one say, by a nip-and-tuck policy of corsetry resembling an ageing dictator's waning authority over a turbulent populace; of “fine women” in prime condition, their hour-glass figures suggesting a cruel collaboration of winch and whale-bone.
It was a time of rampant morality. A great many of the pictures gave off a moral message or there were reproductions of photographs of statuary of the human form which, already morally neutralised by their essential marmoreal frigidity, had in the case of the males apparently been the targets of a claythrowers club; and of cupids operating in a favourable wind which with a wisp of drapery had fortuitously, delicately done for their aerial modesty what the clay throwers had done with frank deliberation for the mundane models. From this kind of art the comic picture postcards of the day represented a breakaway movement, aiming not at a great “emancipation” or “release”, but at the boiled-beef-and-carrots belly-laugh of the unconquerable mass. There were postcards depicting very small men rowing very big women in very small boats, of fat women's posteriors, a dominant theme, shown cycling, bathing, bending, at the seaside with large crabs attached, always with a small man in attendance, some with faces split in glee at ma's discomfiture, others, the majority, looking like the reluctantly on-duty janitors of deserted cathedrals at midnight. One postcard pictured a party of defamatorily conventionalized Comic Cuts Irishmen, sea-bathing, and, in allusion to the “controversial” question of mixed bathing, entitled Micks Bathing; there were pictures of all the homely vicissitudes of the masses, of uneasy matrimony, of various degrees of tipsiness, of people falling over things, of things falling on people, of untutored, robust pleasures affronting the prevailing simper of their middle-class superiors; pictures of a world copied rather than revealed by the music hall before the great national loss of its passing coincided with the call to the nation to come and be trimmed, pressed and shaped into the emasculate likeness of the masked automatous figures of Noel Coward's prophetic Dance Little Lady. All the funny pictures bore funny remarks as subtle as a poke in the eye with a charred stick.
In the houses every plain surface, horizontal or perpendicular, was covered as much as was possible with ornaments and pictures, as an adolescent lad might try to cover each pimple with a band-aid patch. Young ladies were high amongst the ruling subjects of artistic expression. They were depicted in an endless variety, most of them wearing a dead pan, noli me tangere expression. They were in danger, in suspense, in hansom-cabs, in extremis with the family at the bedside, in
waywardness (“Please do not go to the dance, dear; stay with our baby tonight”), in remorse (when her conscience brought her home from the dance “There on the bed, baby lies dead, while the dance goes on”); cycling in saucy bloomers; on swings, balconies, in the wicker cages of balloons, on stiles, sitting on cold rocks in damp surroundings: mauling dogs, calves, lambs, ponies, elderly relations, each other and anything else they could get their arms round and their bosoms against; roguishly, but so innocently, with the piquancy which tired business men believe innocence brings to provocation, showing three inches of ankle above the daintiest silken slippers in order to tease stiff, lumpish, droopy moustached, tight trousered, straw-hatted samples of still life; but, as one could only hope on close inspection of the object of their wiles, with their feet metaphorically but firmly on the starting blocks ready to make a quick get-away should it become necessary — the intriguing scene being set in a dim, insanitary-looking forest dell with a waterfall and an ornamental bamboo whatnot table. And so the young lady pictures went on, showing them in every mood, situation and attitude short of being drunk and hanging by their toes.
Perhaps the most pervasive of all was Mr. Watts's picture of Hope, sitting on Top of the World, temporarily as it turned out, trying to pluck the last note of comfort from the Last Remaining String of a busted lute and, to maintain the vein of music, looking like a deflated “burlesque” artiste, sensing that during the long exposure she must have moved and smudged the picture, trying to winkle-pick the last remaining rhinestone from her G. string as a little something against a discouraging future. And far away from the parent country, the wayward child clinging to the eternal verities embalmed forever in Balmoral, Big Ben, the chaste majesty of great cathedrals, and the Albert Memorial.


There was of course another world — of calm and comfort, charm and charity, of freedom from the corroding pre-occupations of living, all of which wealth may ensure. We may think that the charity of its people was bleak and limited, that they did little to abate man's inhumanity to man. But they must be judged in the light of their times. We tend not to notice the things we see about us every day; we may never notice them except dimly as the background of our established world; and he who would meddle to amend it may be thought to be a dangerous fellow indeed. For them, there was the trinity of Throne, Church and Empire, established forever and ever; and God's work was finished. They lived in a foreign country, far away across the Yarra river, in Toorak, South Yarra, Kew and Brighton, in pockets on the eastern approaches to Port Phillip Bay, in Essendon and about the Keilor plains, withdrawn from the gim-crack race-course-champagne society which fibrillated rather than flourished among them. Even so, their part of society has today an appearance of lavish display, of making too brilliant an occasion of both domestic and public gatherings and seeking a dynastic merging of money and estates and families in the marrying-off of their children. It was the unacknowledged child of the late Victorian and Edwardian stages of English society sprung-up in this country, lacking something of the splendour and virtue which seemed to some, who forget its costs, to grace its English parent. To the have-not, his nose pressed against the ballroom window, bemused by the lights, the jewels, the music and the blandishment which the blending of artifice and riches could bring to a nice young woman to make her a princess, it must have seemed, in the later poetry of the cinema, a pre-view of a multi-million dollar spectacle come true in glorious technicolour — that is, if he too forgot some costs. Perhaps its inhabitants were snobs, but to be one of them must have seemed good and satisfying and the enclave which they created entirely laudable. I think the origin of snobbery has generally been a desire to secure and protect against unsuitable invaders, by their exclusion, something thought to be valuable which they might tarnish — a creed, a philosophy, race and breeding, power benevolent or otherwise, riches or whatever it might be. But the glory of the thing possessed comes to be transferred to the possessor and to be worn as a special endowment of nature; and the further from its
origins the wearer, the more flauntingly is it worn. Many of them sent their sons to English public schools and universities where for some of them their ancient scout may have been footman in a great house in which their grandfather had been coachman. Some of them were unknowingly the middle segment of the tripartite arc from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. But over all they were fortunate, decent people of their time. As a police-court-battler solicitor once said to me, “You can be a damned good fellow as long as you've got a few bob in your pocket”, which crystallises much of what I'm trying to say. Some of them were of gentle birth. For some, their money was an hereditary, accepted part of a world whose better members did give some sort of service, following a chosen path with decorum, not so much at the bidding of grand purpose but because their forbears had done so. The sons of some of them, and the grandsons, were the wildest playboys who ever drew an innocent onlooker gratefully into the machinery; but even of those, some grew up to take and administer high office with sober distinction or to improve their land and teach those about them something of the husbandry of animals and the soil as far as was understood in their times.
Recently I drove round the Mornington Peninsular with a granddaughter of a merchant family which was almost ruined by the collapse of the Land Boom. Her father by good chance and industry was mending the family fortunes when she was a child. Although I have known her well for fifty years she was a little embarrassed by my asking her whether when she was a child her family had been hard-up. Amongst her parents and their friends money was absolutely not mentioned. She said that well, no, you couldn't say they'd been really hard-up. They had lived in Toorak about six miles from the heart of the city in a house which I knew fairly well, the ground floor consisting of a porte-cochere, drawing room, dining room, ball-room, reception rooms, kitchen and the like, the upper storey of six or seven bedrooms, a wing for servants' quarters and a nursery. There were some acres of land, which was not uncommon in Toorak in those days, an orchard and stables. They didn't have a carriage and pair. Her father drove a horse and buggy, there was a pony for each of the three daughters, a groom, a gardener, domestic servants and a governess. In the Dandenong hills they had a holiday house which, when as a young man I first saw it, I thought was very grand indeed. They went to Mornington for some of their holidays, taking their ponies with them. They were not in the social swim, perhaps because it was felt that they could not afford it or because the parents who were very good people were not attracted to “society”. No, they were not what you could call really hard-up. As we drove we saw the estates on which some of their friends had lived. The big old houses, some gracious in their ageing, had up to a mile of private approaches, gravelled drives lined with pine trees, from their gatekeeper's lodges some still with their great iron gates, through which at night the guests drove in their carriages to balls, parties and musical evenings. (“Lights are gleaming on the Grand Canal, Come, oh Come, and see the Carnival”, Tosti's Goodbye, songs of love and longing, the music of the pianoforte, and perhaps a harpsichord, the thin sweet plaining of a string quartet, the starlit, dreamy drive home.) Some of the houses are lived in by descendants of their builders, others have been put to lesser uses.
How strange it is by a most confusing dichotomy of feeling to deplore the passing of those people and their world of comfort, security and decorum and to feel nevertheless that mine has been a better life than theirs. But I know, I hope I know, that this is postfabricated romance, and that the new world is the better world. True, by comparison with what might have been, some people, good people of their times, and their descendants, have been hurt. The garlands are dead, the lights fluorescent, the music of the spheres jazzed up and the world racing to an unknown destination. But the law of growth and decay abides. Yesterday has become today and today will be tomorrow. I am happy to leave it at that: much happier than might have been expected.