Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Billycart Hill |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Billycart Hill

The name I answered to in my early years was Vivian James. Later on my mother gave me my choice of new first names and I picked Clive out of a Tyrone Power movie. She sympathized with the fix she and my father had got me into by naming me after Vivian McGrath, star of the 1938 Davis Cup squad. After Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara the name became irrevocably a girl’s name no matter how you spelled it, so those few little boys who had been saddled with it went through hell. I just got sick of ending up on the wrong lists, being sent to sewing classes, etc. Children in Australia are still named after movies and sporting events. You can tell roughly the year the swimming star Shane Gould was born. It was about the time Shane was released. There was a famous case of a returned serviceman who named his son after all the campaigns he had been through in the Western Desert. The kid was called William Bardia Escarpment Qattara Depression Mersa Matruh Tobruk El Alamein Benghazi Tripoli Harris.

Things marginally improved when I was promoted, a year early, from the Infants’ School to the Primary School. The embarrassments of co-education were at last left behind. No longer were we obliged to pair off and hold hands tweely when marching into the classroom — a huge advance on previous conditions. I achieved early promotion solely through being good at reading. The reason I was good at reading had nothing to do with school. In our last year at Jannali I had started to pick my way through Grandpa’s musty old bound sets of Wide World magazine. Also there were bright yellow heaps of the National Geographic. In our first years at Kogarah, while searching my mother’s room, I found the wardrobe half full of magazines. These were mainly Picture Post, Lilli-put, Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Life and Reader’s Digest. I started off by looking at the pictures but gradually progressed to being able to read the text.

I can’t remember what it was like not to be able to read English fluently. Nowadays, if I am learning to read a new language, I try to savour the moment that separates not knowing how to from not knowing how not to. At the time, I simply found myself able to read. Over the next few years I absorbed everything in those few hundred magazines. I read them until there was nothing left to read and then read them again until the covers pulled away from the staples. The Saturday Evening Posts with the Norman Rockwell covers satisfied every demand of my aesthetic sense, the gustatory requirements included. I used to read them instead of eating. I felt about them the way Turgenev felt about the emblem book he wrote of to Bakunin, and made a part of Laretsky’s childhood in A Nest of Gentlefolk.

I suppose if I had been John Stuart Mill I would have sought out a better class of reading matter. Indeed my father and mother had done a lot of fairly solid reading together: stacked away at the top of the cupboard in the hall were cheap sets of Dickens, Thackeray and the Brontës. For some reason I was never to seek them out, even in my teens. I always had an automatic aversion to the set books. Reading off the course was in my nature. My style was to read everything except what mattered, just as I ate everything except what was good for me.

In primary school I ceased being the class half-wit and became class smart-alec instead. This presented a whole new set of difficulties. Coming out first in the term tests attracted accusations of being teacher’s pet. It was true, alas: Mr Slavin, although a fair-minded man, couldn’t help smiling upon anyone who knew how to answer the questions. Too many boys in the class had trouble remembering their own names. Most of the heat was focused on an unfortunate called Thommo, who was caned regularly. For ordinary offences Thommo was caned by Mr Slavin and for more serious transgressions he was caned by the deputy headmaster. Mr Slavin was authorized to impart up to four strokes. Thommo usually required six even to slow him down. We used to sit silent while the deputy head gave Thommo the treatment outside in the corridor. The six strokes took some time to deliver, because Thommo had to be recaptured after each stroke, and to be recaptured he had first to be found. His screams and sobs usually gave away his location, but not always. One day the police came to the classroom and made Thommo open his Globite school case. It was full of stolen treasures from Coles and Woolworths: balloons, bulldog paper clips, funny hats, a cut-glass vase. Thommo was led howling away and never seen again.

Despite Thommo’s fate, on the whole I would rather have been him than me. His manly activities merited respect. As teacher’s pet, I was regarded with envy, suspicion and hatred. I had not yet learned to joke my way out of trouble and into favour. Instead I tried to prove that I, too, could be rebellious, untrammelled, dangerous and tough. To register, any demonstration of these qualities would have to be made in view of the whole class. This would not be easy, since my desk was at the back of the room. There were five columns of desks with seven desks in each column. The five most academically able boys sat in the back five desks and so on down the line, with the desks at the front containing the dullards, psychopaths, Thommo, etc. The problem was to become the cynosure of all eyes in some way more acceptable than my usual method of throwing my hand in the air, crying ‘Sir! Sir! Sir!’, and supplying the correct answer.

The solution lay in the network of railways tracks carved into the top of each desk by successive generations of occupants. Along these tracks fragments of pencil, pen holders or bits of chalk could be pushed with chuffing noises. I also found out that the exposed wood was susceptible to friction. At home I was already an established fire-bug, running around with a magnifying glass frying sugar-ants. I had learned something of what pieces of wood could do to each other. This knowledge I now applied, rubbing the end of my box-wood ruler against the edge of one of the tracks. A wisp of smoke came up. Eyes turned towards me. The wisp became a billow. More eyes turned towards me. The billow was fretted with fire. Mr Slavin’s eyes turned towards me.

He gave me his full four strokes. The pain was considerable, but the glory was greater. ‘What’s sauce for the goose,’ he said as I tucked my smarting hands under my armpits, ‘is sauce for the gander.’ Mr Slavin’s epigrams were distinctly sub-Wildean but he had a knack for trotting them out at precisely the appropriate moment. He might even have had an inkling of how much I wanted to be a goose.

This small triumph spurred me fatally towards bigger things. There was a craze on for dongers. Crazes came one after the other. There was a craze for a game of marbles called followings. There was a craze for cigarette cards: not the cards that used to come in packets of English cigarettes, but cards made elaborately out of the cigarette packets themselves. The cards had different values according to brands, with English Gold Flake scoring highest and Australian Craven ‘A’ scoring lowest. You flicked your cards at a wall. The one who finished nearest the wall got a chance to toss all the cards in the air at once. The ones that fell face up were his. Bottletops worked roughly the same way, except that the one who got closest to the wall stacked all the bottletops on his upturned elbow and then swiped downwards with his hand, getting to keep as many of the bottletops as he could catch between hand and wrist. It is difficult to describe and even more difficult to do. I always lost. I wasn’t bad at cock-a-lorum, but falling over on the asphalt playground added painfully to my usual array of sores and scabs. The craze I hoped to be good at was dongers.

A donger was an ordinary handkerchief folded into a triangle. You held each end of the hypotenuse and twirled until the handkerchief had rolled itself tight. Then you held the two ends together in one hand while you rolled the fat centre part even tighter with the other. The result was then soaked in water to give it weight. The more reckless boys sometimes inserted a lead washer or a small rock. The completed donger was, in effect, a blackjack. Every playtime, with me hovering cravenly on the outskirts, donger gangs would do battle against each other. The brawls looked like the Battle of Thermopylae. Finally the teacher on playground duty would plunge into the mêlée and send everyone in possession of a donger up to the deputy headmaster to get six. With me hovering elsewhere, solo desperadoes would then creep up on their victims behind the teacher’s back. The idea was to clobber the target and be walking in the opposite direction with the donger in your pocket before the teacher turned around. He always turned around because the sound of the donger hitting someone’s head was unmistakable. It sounded like an apple hitting concrete.

I was very keen not to be among those victimized. It followed that I should become one of those doing the victimizing. To this end I built a donger and chose the target likely to win me the most fame. At one point in the circumference of the playground there was a low picket fence separating the boys’ primary school from the girls’ primary school. It was forbidden to linger at this fence. I noticed a girl using the fence as a whippy. She was leaning against it with her face buried in her folded arms while other girls hid. If some other girl got to the whippy while she was away searching, there would be a cry of ‘All in, the whippy’s taken.’ But at the moment she was still busy counting to a hundred, I came at her in a long curving run, swinging the donger like a sling. Contact was perfect. She dropped as though poleaxed — which, to all intents and purposes, she had been. I ran right into the teacher’s arms.

And so I kept my feared but wished-for appointment with the deputy headmaster. He was a tall, slim man in a grey dust-coat. I can’t remember his name, but I can well remember his quietly sardonic manner. He pointed out to me that in hitting the little girl I had caused her pain, and that he was now about to show me what pain was like. The instrument I had employed on the little girl had been strictly banned. The same embargo, he explained, did not apply to the instrument he would now employ on me. I was inspecting this while he spoke. It was a long, thick cane with a leather-bound tip. Unlike other canes I had seen, it did not seem to be flexible. Instead of swishing when it came down, it hummed. The impact was like a door slamming on my hand. I was too stunned even to pee my pants. The same thing happened to the other hand. Then the same thing again happened to each hand twice more in succession. That would teach me, he informed me, to hit little girls with dongers.

If he meant that it would teach me not to hit little girls with dongers, he was right. For one thing, I couldn’t have lifted a donger, let alone swung one. When I tried to feed myself my play-lunch sandwiches, I kept missing my mouth. But at least the fame accruing to the maximum penalty had raised my status somewhat. I was never admitted to the inner circle of Kenny Mears, the school’s most impressive bully. But for a while I was not so often among those bullied. Probably I was lucky not to be included among the oppressors. I admired Mears, but for his self-possession more than for his capacity to inflict suffering. He was completely without fear. Like Napoleon or Hitler, he seemed imaginative through having no idea of natural limits to his actions. He was a sawn-off Siegfried, a Nietzschean superman in short pants. He embodied Gibbon’s definition of the barbarian, since his liberty was to indulge the whim of the moment, and his courage was to ignore the consequences. He was a frightful little shit.

But he had the kind of poise that I have always envied. He swore at the teachers man-to-man and could absorb an infinite amount of punishment without batting an eye. Indeed he never even blinked. Playing marbles, he made Mick Roach look like the Marquis of Queensberry. Mears fudged unblushingly. Wittgenstein defined a game as consisting of the rules by which it is played. If he had seen Mears in action, he would have realized that a game is further defined by what the dominant player can get away with. The basic rule of marbles is that the taw must be fired from outside the ring. If the firing hand creeps inside the ring before the moment of release, it’s a fudge. Mears fudged more blatantly than his helpless opponents would have believed possible. Standing up instead of crouching down, he fell forward until his firing hand was almost touching the dates. Then he released his taw. The dates sang out of the ring and into his keeping. If anybody protested, violence would ensue. Nor was anyone allowed not to play. Years later I saw the film of Guys and Dolls. There is a famous scene where Nathan Detroit’s floating crap-game moves to the sewers, and Big Julie from Chicago proposes to roll his own dice, which have no spots. When challenged, he produces a .45 automatic. I thought immediately: ‘Mears.’

Mears’s favourite means of persuasion was the Chinese burn. Grasping your hand in one of his, he would twist your wrist with the other. After having this done to me by boys older and bigger, I sought revenge by doing it to boys younger and smaller. But I quickly found out that I was naturally averse to being cruel. Reading the Wide World magazines, I had been excited by a chapter dealing with torture chambers. I still find it disturbing that sex and cruelty should be connected somewhere in my instincts. But the human personality is a drama, not a monologue; sad tricks of the mind can be offset by sound feelings in the heart; and the facts say that I have always been revolted by the very idea of deliberately causing pain. Considering the amount of pain I have been able to cause without meaning to, I suppose this is not much of a defence, but to me it has always seemed an important point. I burned a lot of sugar-ants with my magnifying glass, but if the sugar-ants had spoken to me as they might have spoken to St Francis, I would have desisted soon enough. Having a character that consists mainly of defects, I try to correct them one by one, but there are limits to the altitude that can be attained by hauling on one’s own bootstraps. One is what one is, and if one isn’t very nice or good, then it brings some solace to remember that other men have been worse. At various times in my life I have tried to pose as a thug, but the imposture has always collapsed of its own accord. I could be coerced into hurting other people. I have done it by chance often enough. But I could never enjoy it.

At home things were a bit easier than at school. Once or twice I announced my intention of running away, but my mother defused the threat by packing me a bag containing peanut-butter sandwiches and pyjamas. The first time I got no further than the top of our street and was back home within the hour. The second time I got all the way to Rocky Point Road, more than two hundred yards from home. I was not allowed to cross Rocky Point Road. But I sat there until sunset. Otherwise I did my escaping symbolically, tunnelling into the poultry farm and surfacing among the chooks with a crumbling cap of birdshit on my head.

The teacher’s pet image would have followed me home if my mother had had her way. She had a deadly habit of inviting the neighbours in for tea so that she could casually refer to my school reports a couple of hundred times. The most favoured recipient of these proud tirades was Nola Huthnance, who lived four doors down. Nola Huthnance was no mean talker herself, being joint holder, with her next-door neighbour Gail Thorpe, of the local record for yapping across the back fence — an unbeatable lunch-to-sunset epic during which there was no point at which one or the other was not talking and very few moments when both were not talking simultaneously. But not even Nola Huthnance could hold her own when my mother got going on the subject of her wonderful son and his outstanding intelligence. Long after I had been sent to bed, I would lurk in the hall listening to my mother extolling my virtues in the lounge room. Apparently Gogol’s mother was under the impression that her son had invented the printing press and the steam engine. My own mother thought along roughly the same lines. I lapped it all up, but could see even at the time that such talk would do me no good with the locals, unless I cultivated a contrary reputation on my own account.

Luckily, whether by being just the right age or by having more than my fair share of productive neuroses, I continued to think up the kind of games that most of the other children in Margaret Street were keen to get in on. Wet weather put an end to the tunnelling season, but it produced flooded gutters. In those days proper concrete kerbing had not yet been laid down. Water flowed down erratic gutters through the width of bare earth and clay between the front strip and the ragged-edged asphalt road. Swollen with rain, these gutters were ripe for having sticks and plastic boats raced down them. At the top of Margaret Street, beyond the T—junction with Irene Street, was a block of waste ground known as the quarry. Probably the convicts had once hacked stone there — Botany Bay was only about a mile to the east. The fall of ground from the back to the front of the block was only fifteen feet or so but to us it looked like Annapurna. In wet weather the water poured down the exposed rock face of the quarry and formed streamlets begging to be dammed. I used to build whole networks of mud dams, fanatically smoothing them off and facing them with pieces of fibro, so that they resembled the photographs of the Boulder and Grand Coulee dams in my Modern Marvels Encyclopedia. In the lakes formed by the dams I built harbours for plastic boats. Liberated from the confines of the bath, they could be pushed around in a more interesting seascape than that bounded by my soapy knees. There were secret bases under tufts of overhanging grass. Holding my face close to a boat as I pushed it, I could study the bow waves and the wake. The boats were only a few inches long but they looked like the Bismarck if you got near enough. I built roads along the docks and up through the foothills. Plastic, lead and tin toy cars could be pushed along them. Dinky Toys were rare at that time. A Triang Minic jeep — later lost, to my mother’s anguished disgust — was the star turn. Wound up, it could make progress even through mud. Other vehicles had to be pushed. With them it was all pretend.

But it was pretend in ideal surroundings. Other children brought their boats and cars, blundering into my ashlared revetments, gouging crude paths, botching together laughable garages and ludicrous U-boat pens. At first I told them to go and build their own dams. Then I resigned myself to having my work ruined. At the small price of an offence to my aesthetic instincts, I was able to rule the roost. Besides, with cheap labour available my schemes could be allowed to wax ever grander. Like Themistocles linking Athens with Piraeus, I walled in the whole area. My designs assumed the proportions of Karnak or Speer’s Berlin. I was the overseer, the construction boss, the superintendent of works. But even when my loyal slaves were toiling away in every direction, I would sometimes relapse into a detailed concern for a certain stretch of road or dockside, smoothing it endlessly with the edge of my hand into an ever sweeter curve or sharper edge.

None of this meant that I was a good practical hand. For example, I could not build billycarts very well. Other children, most of them admittedly older than I, but some of them infuriatingly not, constructed billycarts of advanced design, with skeletal hard-wood frames and steel-jacketed ball-race wheels that screamed on the concrete footpaths like a diving Stuka. The best I could manage was a sawn-off fruit box mounted on a fence-paling spine frame, with drearily silent rubber wheels taken off an old pram. In such a creation I could go at a reasonable clip down our street and twice as fast down Sunbeam Avenue, which was much steeper at the top. But even going down Sunbeam my billycart was no great thrill compared with the ball-race models, which having a ground-clearance of about half an inch and being almost frictionless were able to attain tremendous velocities at low profile, so that to the onlooker their riders seemed to be travelling downhill sitting magically just above the ground, while to the riders themselves the sense of speed was breathtaking.

After school and at weekends boys came from all over the district to race on the Sunbeam Avenue footpaths. There would be twenty or thirty carts, two-thirds of them with ball-races. The noise was indescribable. It sounded like the Battle of Britain going on in somebody’s bathroom. There would be about half an hour’s racing before the police came. Residents often took the law into their own hands, hosing the grim-faced riders as they went shrieking by. Sunbeam Avenue ran parallel to Margaret Street but it started higher and lasted longer. Carts racing down the footpath on the far side had a straight run of about a quarter of a mile all the way to the park. Emitting Shockwaves of sound, the ball-race carts would attain such speeds that it was impossible for the rider to get off. All he could do was to crash reasonably gently when he got to the end. Carts racing down the footpath on the near side could go only half as far, although very nearly as fast, before being faced with a right-angle turn into Irene Street. Here a pram-wheeled cart like mine could demonstrate its sole advantage. The traction of the rubber tyres made it possible to negotiate the corner in some style. I developed a histrionic lean-over of the body and slide of the back wheels which got me around the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber. Mastery of this trick saved me from being relegated to the ranks of the little kids, than which there was no worse fate. I had come to depend on being thought of as a big kid. Luckily only the outstanding ball-race drivers could match my fancy turn into Irene Street. Others slid straight on with a yelp of metal and a shower of sparks, braining themselves on the asphalt road. One driver scalped himself under a bread van.

The Irene Street corner was made doubly perilous by Mrs Branthwaite’s poppies. Mrs Branthwaite inhabited the house on the corner. She was a known witch whom we often persecuted after dark by throwing gravel on her roof. It was widely believed she poisoned cats. Certainly she was a great ringer-up of the police. In retrospect I can see that she could hardly be blamed for this, but her behaviour seemed at the time like irrational hatred of children. She was a renowned gardener. Her front yard was like the cover of a seed catalogue. Extending her empire, she had flower beds even on her two front strips, one on the Sunbeam Avenue side and the other on the Irene Street side — i.e., on both outside edges of the famous corner. The flower beds held the area’s best collection of poppies. She had been known to phone the police if even one of these was illicitly picked.

At the time I am talking about, Mrs Branthwaite’s poppies were all in bloom. It was essential to make the turn without hurting a single hair of a poppy’s head, otherwise the old lady would probably drop the telephone and come out shooting. Usually, when the poppies were in bloom, nobody dared make the turn. I did — not out of courage, but because in my ponderous cart there was no real danger of going wrong. The daredevil leanings-over and the dramatic skids were just icing on the cake.

I should have left it at that, but got ambitious. One Saturday afternoon when there was a particularly large turnout, I got sick of watching the ball-race carts howling to glory down the far side. I organized the slower carts like my own into a train. Every cart except mine was deprived of its front axle and loosely bolted to the cart in front. The whole assembly was about a dozen carts long, with a big box cart at the back. This back cart I dubbed the chuck wagon, using terminology I had picked up from the Hopalong Cassidy serial at the pictures. I was the only one alone on his cart. Behind me there were two or even three to every cart until you got to the chuck wagon, which was crammed full of little kids, some of them so small that they were holding toy koalas and sucking dummies.

From its very first run down the far side, my super-cart was a triumph. Even the adults who had been hosing us called their families out to marvel as we went steaming by. On the super-cart’s next run there was still more to admire, since even the top-flight ball-race riders had demanded to have their vehicles built into it, thereby heightening its tone, swelling its passenger list and multiplying its already impressive output of decibels. Once again I should have left well alone. The thing was already famous. It had everything but a dining car. Why did I ever suggest that we should transfer it to the near side and try the Irene Street turn?

With so much inertia the super-cart started slowly, but it accelerated like a piano falling out of a window. Long before we reached the turn I realized that there had been a serious miscalculation. The miscalculation was all mine, of course. Sir Isaac Newton would have got it right. It was too late to do anything except pray. Leaning into the turn, I skidded my own cart safely around in the usual way. The next few segments followed me, but with each segment describing an arc of slightly larger radius than the one in front. First gradually, then with stunning finality, the monster lashed its enormous tail.

The air was full of flying ball-bearings, bits of wood, big kids, little kids, koalas and dummies. Most disastrously of all, it was also full of poppy petals. Not a bloom escaped the scythe. Those of us who could still run scattered to the winds, dragging our wounded with us. The police spent hours visiting all the parents in the district, warning them that the billycart era was definitely over. It was a police car that took Mrs Branthwaite away. There was no point waiting for the ambulance. She could walk all right. It was just that she couldn’t talk. She stared straight ahead, her mouth slightly open.

Clive reads ‘Billycarts’ on 2nd October 2003 at the Concert Hall, Perth, Western Australia:

From the 2005 double CD album 'Clive James & Pete Atkin: Live in Australia.