Books: Unreliable Memoirs — All Dressed Up |
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Unreliable Memoirs — All Dressed Up


As the final years of school flowed turgidly under the bridge I became increasingly lost. Now that I had at last grown up, my comic persona no longer quite fitted. For many years I was to remain a prisoner of my own, like a ventriloquist taken over by his dummy. Even today, unless I watch myself carefully, I take refuge in levity. Only self-discipline keeps my face straight. In War and Peace, if I were not allowed to identify with Andrey or even Nikolai then I suppose I would settle for Dolokhov. I would even try to be pleased if it were pointed out that I was in fact Pierre. But the man I can’t help recognizing myself in is the unfortunate Zherkovim, who makes an untimely joke about the defeated General Mack and receives the full blast of Andrey’s wrath.

Anyway, there is no point in carping now. My clever lip won me whatever popularity was coming to me at the time, so that I was able to go on finding myself welcome, or not unwelcome, among Griffiths’ surfing parties and the school YMCA team that competed annually for the Pepsi-Cola Shield. Indeed among the latter crew I at last found myself a measure of sporting stardom, since the vaulting I had so painfully learned at Boys’ Brigade was something of an advance on anything the other Centurions (that was the name of our team) could improvise uninstructed. My feet-through and flying angel-roll on the long box were instrumental in bringing the Pepsi-Cola Shield home to Sydney Technical High — a fact duly announced at school assembly. It didn’t sound much of an achievement (and in fact was even less of an achievement than it sounded, since the teams we had defeated looked like pages from a Unesco pamphlet about the ravages of vitamin deficiency) but it was something. I also managed, at the eleventh hour, to be chosen for Grade football. It was only Third Grade, which consisted mainly of rejects from Second Grade, but you were given a fifth-hand jersey to wear and travelled about, meeting similarly decrepit sides from other schools. My position was five-eighth: what in Britain would be called a stand-off half. I had just enough speed and agility to tempt myself into trouble, but not enough of either to get out of it. My short career was effectively finished in a game against Manly, whose two enormous breakaways, like the clashing rocks of mythology, hit me from different directions while I was wondering what to do with the ball. Semiconscious and feeling like an old car after it has been compressed into a block of scrap metal, I scored against my own side on the subsequent move and thus acquired the tag ‘Wrong Way’ James.

But at least I was able to have ‘Third Grade Football 1956’ embroidered in blue silk under the school badge on the breast pocket of my maroon blazer. Senior boys were encouraged thus to emblazon their achievements. My paltry single line of glory looked insignificant enough on its own and ludicrous beside the listed battle honours of the true sporting stars, which extended below their pockets onto the blazer itself. ‘First Grade Football 1954. First Grade Football 1955. First Grade Football 1956. CHS Swimming 1952. CHS Swimming 1953 ...’ My lost companion Carnaby had a block of blue print on his blazer that looked, from a distance, like a page of heroic couplets. As for the Captain of the School, Leslie Halyard, it was lucky he was seven feet tall, since his credits went on and on like the titles of an epic movie.

The blazer was an important item of equipment. I bought mine after I was elected one of the school’s eighteen prefects. I came in at number seventeen on the poll, one ahead of the school bell-ringer. Without the Third Grade football credit I never would have made it, and would thus never have enjoyed the heady privilege of supervising detention or of booking other boys for running in the playground. Admission to the rank of prefect was my sole latter-day school success. In other respects I might as well not have come to school at all. Indeed most of my clothes looked as if they had already left. By this time young men’s fashions were reflecting the influence of Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock. Another influence was the lingering impact of the bodgie era, which had occupied the immediately preceding years. The bodgies had favoured a drape-shape rather like the British Teddy-boys, with shoes the size of Volkswagens and a heavily built-up hairstyle razored square across the neck. The American tennis manager Jack Kramer also played an important part in shaping our appearance, even though his palpable influence was confined to the apex of the head. His flat-top haircut was faithfully reflected by what occurred on top of our own craniums, where each hair rose vertically to the level of a single, imaginary horizontal plane and then stopped dead. Even Halyard, normally conservative in his attire, turned up one day with the top of his head looking as if it had been put through a bandsaw. Griffiths set up a barber shop in the prefects’ room and gave us his skilled attention, checking the results with a T-square. Well greased with Brylcreem, the side panels of our haircuts were left to grow long and be swept back with an octagonal, many-spiked plastic rake which looked like the inside of an Iron Maiden for butterflies. At the back, above the straight-as-a-die bottom line, a muted duck’s arse effect occurred, further echoing the just-vanished bodgie ideal and directly presaging the incoming cultural onslaught of 77 Sunset Strip, among the first programmes to be shown on Australian television.

Continuing to read downwards, we come to the drape-shape jacket. The emphasis was on heavily padded shoulders and a waistless taper towards a hemline on the lower thighs. Cut to my personal specifications, the drape of my own jacket was so tastefully judged that you had to look for several seconds before noticing how a supernumerary set of shoulders, sloping at a steeper angle, started where the real ones ended. Shirt and tie were something assertive from a shop near Museum station called Scottish Tailoring, the pink, cerise or Mitchell Blue shirt flecked with white and the multi-banded iridescent slub tie cut square at the bottom like a decapitated coral snake. Scottish Tailoring also supplied the peg-top bottle-green slacks with the fourteen-inch cuffs and the personalized fobs. Socks were usually chosen in some contrasting colour to the shirt. I favoured mauve socks myself, since they interposed an arresting bravura passage between the bottle-green cuffs and the quilt-top ox-blood shoes with the half-inch-thick crêpe soles. Moving, the shoes made a noise like cowpats at the moment of impact. Stationary, they allowed their occupant to lean over at any angle. You will understand that I am describing a representative outfit for day wear. In the evening I dressed up.

Somewhere else, in the parallel universe inhabited by the Australian equivalent of the middle class, boys of my age must have been learning to feel at ease with their advantages. Doubtless I would have found theirs a world of stultifying conventionality, had I known it. But I never knew it. The essence of a class system is not that the privileged are conscious of their privileges, but that the deprived are conscious of their deprivation. Deprived I never felt. I had neither the insight nor the power of observation to realize that there might be another breed who recognized each other simply by the untroubled, unquestioning way they shared good manners, well-cut clothes and shoes that never wore out. I didn’t feel disadvantaged. I just felt lost. Conforming desperately with my nonconformist outward show, inwardly I could find nobody to identify with — certainly not Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. The inarticulacy of those two heroes would have been a blessed retreat. Instead I was the captive of my fluent tongue. The effort of being continuously diverting left me limp. I never doubted that those were the only terms on which I would ever be accepted.

Close friends would probably have been there had I really wanted them. But that would have taken time from the daily task of playing to the gallery. To that, the only alternative I could ever countenance was solitude. Very occasionally I went out with Gary on the pillion of the BSA 500, but by now the refurbished one-lunger was disturbingly fast. Even in top gear the separate ignition strokes were still audible, but the vacuum behind me swelled my shirt out like a spinnaker, the airstream was hard on the eyes and when we heeled over in the corners I thought the speeding asphalt was coming up to hit me in the ear. Eventually he sold the 500 and bought a BSA 350 OHV which he started to adapt for racing. No matter what he did with it, it would never be as quick as the AJS 7Rs that dominated its class, but it was still a demanding machine with expensive tastes. There was no longer much room in his life for me.

My mother and I still went to every change of programme at both Ramsgate and Rockdale Odeons, so we were seeing at least four movies a week. She sat there dutifully through the war films, even though she despised most of them. She got really angry at John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Musicals she couldn’t take, but she still sat there, generously keeping me company while I envied Gene Kelly and doted on Cyd Charisse. She even sat still for Betty Hutton, though she would rather have had her teeth drilled. In fact the only film she ever walked out of was Hot Blood, an epic of gypsy life in which Cornel Wilde and Jane Russell stared significantly at each other through the flickering light of the campfire, very occasionally raising their arms above their heads as if to check up on the current state of their own armpits, although it turned out that they were only getting ready to dance. My mother and I quarrelled frequently but we reached a comforting unanimity on such matters as what constituted a lousy picture. She could be very funny about poor Mario Lanza. She took her revenge over antipathetic film stars by getting their names wrong. Muttering imprecations at Dolores Day and Susan Hollywood, she was good company as we walked home through the night along Rocky Point Road. For years the mere mention of Lizabeth Scott, renamed Elspeth Scott, was enough to send us both into hysterics. I wish our closeness could have been at least partly due to a conscious effort from me. On the contrary, it was only our apartness that was fuelled by my will. She knew that I was doing badly in my last years at high school. I knew she was right, but didn’t want to admit that I had made a mistake. When we clashed, the talk and the tears went on for hours, leaving both of us exhausted.

So at most it was a family of two, except for Christmas, when we always went to visit Aunt Dot in Jannali. Aunt Dot laid on a Christmas tree and an enormous Christmas dinner, eaten as usual at noon on Christmas day. The fatted calf scarcely ranked among the hors d’oeuvres. Everything was still as scalding hot as the day Grandpa spat the zac. The same trifles, plum puddings and lemon-meringue pies. Decorated with cotton-wool snow, brittle globular doodads and strings of tinsel, the tree shed dry green needles and presents for me. Another highlight of the trip was a visit around the corner to some distant relatives called the Sturrocks. The size of troglodytes and older than the hills, they crouched in the stygian depths of their weatherboard house and croaked greetings. All their lives they had gone on putting on clothes without ever taking them off. I believe they were spontaneously combustible, like those people in Dickens. The whole of Christmas was a solemn ritual but my mother and my aunt needed to be close even when they got on badly. Their brothers had never been much use to them, so they supported and comforted each other as their losses mounted. I would have been proud of both of them if I had had any sense. Lacking that, I withdrew into myself and counted the hours until I could be alone again.

At school and church I got by as an entertainer, but it was a solitary’s way of being gregarious. I was never really at ease in company. Nowadays I am at last blessed with friends so close that I don’t even feel the need to try, but at the time I am talking about such friendships belonged to other people. I observed them enviously from a distance. It was only in my own company that I could switch off the act. Until the Glaciarium closed down I used to go skating alone there twice a week all through the winter, on Wednesday afternoon after school and for two sessions on Saturday. I bought a second-hand pair of Puckmaster ice-hockey skates. They were a typically bad buy, although not as bad as the football boots that were three sizes too big and finished my Boys’ Brigade soccer career before it began, since I had to run some distance before the boots started to move. The hockey skates were merely clapped out in the heels and soles, so that that the screws pulled out and the blades parted company from the boots at critical moments. But on the days when my skates stayed together I was perfectly content, circulating endlessly while ogling that prettiest of all sights, the line formed by the behind and upper thigh of a girl skater. I never went to classes and could perform no tricks more complicated than a ‘three’, but I had a flash turn of speed. During the fast skating periods I could run quickly enough in the turns to lay my inside hand on the ice — the surest way of pleasing the crowd, especially if another skater removed your fingers. As usual, I was trying hard to look good, but there were also moments of genuine, monastic solitude. Talking contentedly to myself I would circle with the crowd, zigzagging to hold my speed down and tucking one hand inside my windbreaker, like Napoleon. Perhaps Napoleon found out that he had chicken pox the same way I did. It was a hot day outside, the ice was covered with an inch of slush, there were thousands of people jamming the rink, the loudspeakers were playing ‘Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes’ and I discovered I had a little bubble on my stomach. Two little bubbles. Scores of little bubbles. I left immediately, guilty with the realization that I had infected the whole Glaciarium. It closed soon after, probably as a direct result. Since there was no other ice rink nearer than San Francisco, I hung up my skates.

But there was also my bicycle. Simultaneously with my first long trousers had arrived a scarlet 28-inch-frame Speedwell to replace the old brown 26-inch-frame rattletrap on which I used to tilt quixotically with the privet hedges. The frame of the new bike was not fully tapered but with my eyes half closed I could almost call it a racing bike, especially after I had it equipped with white-wall tyres and three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub gears. At the beginning the saddle was flush with the crossbar. By the time of my final year in school the saddle was extended to its full height. I had given the bike’s appointments a lot of thought. The gear-change trigger was placed next to one of the brake levers at the end of the ram’s horn handlebars, so that changing down was like firing a gun, while all I had to do to change up was flex my knuckle. Impressively clad in striped T-shirt, sandshoes and khaki shorts with rolled-up legs, I rode many miles every weekend. I could be at Mascot aerodrome in a few minutes, at the George’s River bridge in half an hour. Sometimes I rode all the way to the National Park, just so that I could coast down Artillery Hill. Boys got killed trying that: it was a long, long hill. The idea was to go down without ever touching the brakes and at the end to go streaking across the dam without any change in the stoic expression. No expression could have been more stoic than mine. The speed of the airstream was enough to distort my features until they looked like what happened to the rocket crew in Destination Moon, but underneath I was still heroically stoic. It was an important test, which I passed, although typically I was unable to do so without posing.

So I got used to travelling alone. It was hard on my mother, who earlier on had always been good at setting up interesting trips. She would sort out the details of trains, buses and boats, so that without effort I would find myself beside her watching the aborigines diving for coins at La Perouse, or howling along through the latticed girders of the Hawkesbury River bridge in the Newcastle Flyer. On the boat to Bundeena she got seats for us in the prow so that I could lean daringly over and watch the porpoises as they appeared, disappeared and reappeared in our bow-wave, sinking to spin around each other and rising in quick succession to blow a squirt of aerated water that sprinkled your delighted face like angel spit. Now there was a gang worth joining. My mother told me that there was nothing in the sea, not even sharks, that could hurt them, and that there was nothing they wanted to hurt. Those were the days when she could still tell me things. The breeze caught her hair and pulled it back. She looked like Garbo in Anna Christie. When the water grew shallow enough for the sand to be clearly visible the porpoises peeled away and left us together.

But now I knew it all and couldn’t bear to be told, not even by myself. I shouted down my own conscience when it tried to inform me that I was well on the way to securing a Leaving Certificate which would scarcely rank as a dishonourable discharge. Even English had gone completely sour on me. I had my name down to take the English Honours paper. Big joke. I was fully qualified to answer anything that might be asked about Erle Stanley Gardner or Leslie Charteris, but beyond that I was perfectly clueless. None of the dozen books a week I had been taking out of the local public library had anything to do with literature. Nor was the teacher assigned to the Honours class likely to spot the discrepancy between my knowledge and the tests about to be made of it. He was, in the first place, a librarian. He was, in the second place, geriatric. He might have been Mary Luke’s older brother. Where Mary started every lesson with instructions on how to make a Bunsen burner, Dewey — short for Dewey Decimal System — always began by showing you how to open a new book from the centre so that reading it would not distort the spine. The book’s spine, not yours. He was probably sound on that one subject but on anything else he was a dead loss. While he burbled aimlessly for his allotted hour, I spent the time memorizing all the parts of the Moto Guzzi V-8 racing motorcycle engine. But I was already well aware that not even so prodigious a feat of memory would do me any good. It was the older boys, the ones who could do the maths, who would go on to design and construct the beautiful machines. While I read about cars, they were already buying them, taking them apart, putting them back together and driving them around. On the other hand, I was no longer any good at English either.

I entered the examination hall with the same feelings the RAAF pilots must have had when they flew Brewster Buffaloes into action against the Japanese — underpowered, outgunned, fearful and ashamed. I left the examination hall fondly recalling how well I had felt going in. The mathematics papers I had expected to find incomprehensible, but it was unmanning to find the English Honours paper equally opaque. It was full of questions about people I had never heard of. Shakespeare’s name I recognized almost instantly, but who was George Eliot? What had he written? I could do none of it. Simpler than going home would have been to catch a tram to the Gap and jump off. I spent weeks reassuring my mother that everything would be all right, while simultaneously indicating that if everything turned out not to be all right it would be no true measure of my real ability or future prospects. But when the results appeared in the Herald the bluff was over. I got an A and five Bs. The A was in English: it meant that I had failed my Honours paper outright but had been above average in the ordinary paper. Since the average mark for the ordinary English paper had been set to coincide with the linguistic attainments of Ginger Meggs this did not count for much. The five Bs meant that I had wasted my time for a lustrum each in five different mathematical subjects — a total of twenty-five man-years straight down the drain. About all that I had managed to achieve was matriculation. It sounded like micturition and meant even less. Practically anybody could matriculate. But you needed several more As than I had achieved if you were to get a Commonwealth Scholarship, and without one of those there was not much hope of acquiring a university education. I was a total failure.

There was no longer any hope of dissuading my mother from the conviction that she had been right all along. Even in the dust and flame of the debacle, it was obvious that English had been my best subject, or at any rate my least worst. In the mathematical subjects which had been supposed to further my engineering career I had scored almost nothing. I fought back with all the petulant fervour of one who knows that he is in the wrong. In my heart I had long known that the other boys would be the engineers. But where did that leave me? What was the thing I was supposed to do, now that it was proved I could do nothing else?

At this point, like the Fairy Godmother, the Repatriation Commission stepped in. The Australian government never got around to doing very much for war widows, but in a weak moment it had developed a soft spot for war orphans, who could claim a free university education as long as they matriculated. Far from having to meet Commonwealth Scholarship standards, they needed only to obtain the number and quality of passes that might be appropriate for an apprentice bottle-washer. By this absorbent criterion, I was in. All I had to do was apply. Even then I almost managed to persuade myself that I wanted to go to the University of Technology. If I had prevailed in this wish my mother would undoubtedly have ended it all under the wheels of a trolleybus. Luckily the Repat. wasn’t having any. Sydney University it had to be. They advised an Arts course. Since I thought this meant drawing, at which I had always been rather good, I signed on the dotted line.

In retrospect it seems incredible even to me that I had come so far and remained so ignorant. It was not just that I was nowhere compared with an English sixth-former or an American prep-school graduate. I was nowhere compared even with my fellow Hurstville alumni who had gone to Sydney High. When I met Elstub on the train he was reading The Age of Anxiety and I was reading Diving to Adventure. Knowing nothing, I scarcely suspected what I was missing. Barely realizing what a university was, I looked forward to it as something vague on an indeterminate horizon. The immediate task was to survive as an office boy in the L. J. Hooker organization, my first proper job. In my senior high-school years I had tried several different jobs during the school holidays. The most disastrous was as a shop assistant in Coles, where I rapidly discovered that I was incapable of dealing with impatient customers without becoming flustered. Merely to discover that the anodized aluminium tray I was supposed to wrap was wider than the wrapping paper was enough to set me darting about distractedly in search of wider paper or a narrower anodized aluminium tray. In just such a frenzy I ran into a display stand on which were carefully arranged hundreds of cut-glass bowls, dishes and plates. The stuff proved to be amazingly durable, which raised questions about the composition of the glass. Instead of shattering, it bounced. But it bounced everywhere, and before the last piece had stopped rolling I was on my way home. I had a similar job in Herb Horsfield’s Hobby House, but rather than sell wind-up toys to wind-up customers I retreated into the toilet and read The Caine Mutiny. When Herb finally realized that he was making no sales at all when I was in charge he reluctantly opened discussions about terms of separation. He quite liked me, which was foolish of him in the circumstances.

L. J. Hooker’s was a bigger thing all round. By this time my mother was in despair of my ever accomplishing anything. She had no idea what a university Arts course might be but she had every reason to suppose that I would make a hash of it. L. J. Hooker’s, on the other hand, was the fastest-growing real-estate firm in Australia. If I applied myself I might work my way up. If only to blunt the edge of the disappointment in her eyes, I resolved to knuckle down. In the three months before university started, I would prove myself as an office boy to myself, my mother and the world.

The main office of L. J. Hooker’s was situated in Martin Place, just near the Cenotaph. I got off the train at Wynyard every morning, walked to the building, descended to the basement, hung up my coat, picked up my scissors and applied myself to the thrilling task of cutting out all the L. J. Hooker classified ads in that day’s Herald. It took most of the morning. The rest of the day I pasted them into a big book. At set intervals I also delivered mail all around the building, thereby giving myself the opportunity to die of love for the boss’s secretary, a tall, ravishingly voluptuous girl called Miss Wiper. Every day, delivering the mail to her, I would greet her with a suave one-liner gleaming from the polish of twenty-four hours’ sleepless rehearsal. ‘Hi, patootie,’ I would pipe casually, ‘how goes it?’ Her answering smile invariably floored me completely. I would enter her office looking as relaxed as Ronald Colman — if you can imagine Ronald Colman wearing quilted shoes the size of small cars — and leave it crawling and sobbing. It seemed to me at such moments that my love was being answered. Actually, I now realize, something more interesting was happening. A kind woman was enjoying, mischievously but without malice, the spectacle of awkward young manhood searching for a voice and manner. Where is she now? What lucky man did she marry?

But love for Miss Wiper is an insufficient explanation for how thoroughly I became alienated from the task. If I had been blessed with a gift for self-knowledge, I would have clearly recognized myself to be unemployable. As it was, this and many other attempts had to run their disastrous course before I at last learned that I am good for what I am good for and for nothing else. It was only by an accident of timing that I was able to resign from Hooker’s before I got the boot. Every Friday after work I had to take the mail — which was all contained in a special large envelope — across Martin Place to the GPO and drop it in the slot. Then I had to take another large envelope full of copy for the weekend’s classified advertising around the corner to the Herald building and leave it at the desk. On the Friday before the week I was due to leave, I paid both these calls, hopped on the train at Wynyard and was off to Kogarah for the usual weekend of quarrels, movies and long, lonely bike rides. Since we had no telephone, I did not have to answer for my latest achievement until Monday morning, when I got to the office and found a note on my desk from Miss Wiper asking if I could come up and see her as soon as it might be convenient.

Pausing only to comb my hair for half an hour, I translated myself to her office, the first lines of an off-hand speech already vibrant on my lips. She forestalled me with the information that it was L.J.H. — meaning Mr Hooker himself — who was requesting my presence. I had barely time to die the first nine hundred of a thousand deaths before I was in the great man’s office and face to face with him across a desk which I at first thought was tapered at the sides, until I realized it was so big that my stunned vision was being struck by the perspective. There was nothing on top of the desk except L.J.H.’s folded hands and two empty envelopes. ‘The famous Mr James, isn’t it?’ enquired L.J.H. This was the time to tell him that I was not the famous Mr James at all, but was in fact Group Captain the Baron Waldemar Incognito of the Moldavian Secret Service on a sensitive diplomatic mission which, alas, demanded that I should leave immediately by the nearest window. Unfortunately the words would not come, partly because my tongue had spot-welded itself to the roof of my mouth. ‘Luckily the GPO and the Herald both got on to us while there was still time,’ L.J.H. reassured me. ‘A pity, in one way. You realize our weekend classified advertising involves several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of business. It would have been the biggest mistake any office boy had ever made anywhere in the world. You would have been in Ripley.’ By Ripley L.J.H. meant a newspaper feature called Believe It or Not, in which the readers were asked to marvel at such phenomena as a man who had cut down a gum tree with his teeth, or an office boy who had put half a million pounds’ worth of classified advertisements through the wrong hole.

L.J.H. stood up. He looked very large. He also, I was pathetically relieved to note, looked very kind. He had his hand stuck out. At first I thought he was inviting me to read his palm, but then I realized he was saying goodbye. ‘Something tells me that we’ll be hearing more from you one day. Perhaps in some other line of work. You’re going to the University, I believe.’ It was a statement, not a question, but it gave me a chance to say something. ‘Nyengh.’ L.J.H. generously chose to ignore this further evidence that he was dealing with a Venusian, just as he had chosen to ignore the distilled water dripping from my hand. ‘It’s a good life. You’ll find yourself there.’ I was on my way out, going backwards. The oak door was shut. I was alone with Miss Wiper. Silently she offered me a Mintie.