Books: Unreliable Memoirs — The Force of Destruction |
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Unreliable Memoirs — The Force of Destruction


Such catastrophes distressed my mother but she wrote them off as growing pains. Other exploits broke her heart. Once when she was out shopping I was riding my second-hand Malvern Star 26-inch-frame bicycle around the house on a complicated circuit which led from the backyard along the driveway, once around a small fir tree that stood in the front yard, and back along the narrow side passage. Passing boys noticed what I was up to and came riding in. In a while there were a dozen or so of us circulating endlessly against the clock. Once again I could not leave well alone. I organized a spectacular finish in which the riders had to plunge into my mother’s prize privet hedge. The idea was for the bike’s front wheel to lodge in the thick privet and the rider to fall dramatically into the bush and disappear. It became harder and harder to disappear as the privet became more and more reduced to ruins.

Giddy with success, I started doing the same thing to the hydrangeas. Finally I did it to the fir tree, ramming it with the bike and falling through it, thereby splitting its trunk. When my mother came wearily down the street with the shopping she must have thought the house had been strafed. I was hiding under it — a sure sign of advanced guilt and fear, since it was dark under there and red-backs were plentiful. She chased me up the peach tree and hit me around the ankles with a willow wand. It didn’t hurt me as much as her tears did. Not for the only time, I heard her tell me that I was more than she could cope with. I suppose there was a possibility that I somehow felt compelled to go on reminding her of that fact.

Bombing my bed didn’t make me very popular either. It was a trick I learned while recovering from mumps. Climbing onto the top of the wardrobe in my room, I would jump off and land on my bed, which seemed an immense distance below. Actually it was only a few feet, but the bed groaned satisfactorily. Eventually there were half a dozen of us climbing up and jumping off in rapid succession. It was a mistake to let Graham Truscott play. He had a double chin even at that age and a behind like a large bag of soil. But it took him so long to climb the wardrobe that it seemed unreasonable not to let him jump off it. The frame of the bed snapped off its supports with the noise of a firing squad and crashed to the floor with the roar of cannon. I sent everyone home and tried to restore the bed to its right height by putting suitcases under it, but all that did was cave in the suitcases. Once again it was very dark under the house.

And once again there was an element of panic in my mother’s fury. It sprang, of course, from the fact that what we owned was all we had. My mother had a war widow’s pension to bring me up on. It wasn’t much. The Returned Servicemen’s League, always known as the RSL, was a formidable pressure group in the post-war years but those servicemen who had not returned exerted no pressure at all. The Legacy Club threw a Christmas party every year. Otherwise the bereaved wives were paid off mainly in rhetoric, most of it emanating from the silver tongue of Robert Gordon Menzies, alias Ming, who went on being Prime Minister for what seemed like eternity. My mother never failed to vote for him. She had quite a lot of political nous, but Ming’s patrician style numbed her judgement. Thus she went on remaining loyal to the Liberal Party, while the Liberal Party went on ensuring that her pension would never be so lavish as to encourage idleness.

She eked out her pittance by smocking babies’ dresses. The smocking was done on a brick wrapped in cloth. The panel to be smocked was threaded on a long pin and the pin was in turn pushed through the cloth along the top edge of the brick. Then with a needle and thread she produced row after row of tiny stitches, the stitches forming exquisite patterns on the pink or blue cloth. She was paid piece rates. They were not high. She worked pretty well all day and often far into the evening while we listened to the radio. She would stop only for Jack Davey, who we were agreed was a great wit. Bob Dyer she found ridiculous, but listened to him just so that she could loathe him. After I went to bed she often went on working. Once a week she took the finished pieces up to the woman in Oatley who assembled the dresses. The round trip took the whole day. It was often during these absences that I perpetrated my worst crimes, such as the bed-wrecking incident. Right back at the very start, almost the first week we were in Kogarah, I distinguished myself by helping to restore the colour in a faded patch of the lounge-room carpet. I did this by rubbing a whole tin of Nugget dark tan boot-polish into the deprived area. By the time she got back from Oatley I was already in pre-emptive tears, having divined that the results did not look quite right. On such occasions she looked beyond anger, manifesting a sort of resigned desperation.

Gradually I learned that damaging anything around the house produced more emotional wear and tear than I could deal with. So I started damaging things away from the house. I became adept at knocking out street lights. There was plenty of gravel lying around at the edge of the road. After dusk I could bend down, pick up a stone, flick it up at the light, and be halfway home before the pieces of shattered bulb hit the ground. These were small-time depredations but they led on to bigger things.

Every Saturday afternoon at the pictures there was a feature film, sixteen cartoons and an episode each from four different serials. The programme just went on and on like Bayreuth. The Margaret Street children would join up with the Irene Street children and the combined mass would add themselves unto the Sunbeam Avenue children and the aggregate would join the swarm of children from all the other areas all moving north along Rocky Point Road towards Rockdale, where the Odeon stood. In summer the concrete footpaths were hot. The asphalt footpaths were even hotter: bubbles of tar formed, to be squashed flat by our leathery bare feet. Running around on macadamized playgrounds throughout the spring, by summer we had feet that could tread on a drawing pin and hardly feel it.

When you got to the Odeon the first thing you did was stock up with lollies. Lollies was the word for what the English call sweets and the Americans call candy. Some of the more privileged children had upwards of five shillings each to dispose of, but in fact two bob was enough to buy you as much as you could eat. Everyone, without exception, bought at least one Hoadle/s Violet Crumble Bar. It was a slab of dense, dry honeycomb coated with chocolate. So frangible was the honeycomb that it would shatter when bitten, scattering bright yellow shrapnel. It was like trying to eat a Ming vase. The honeycomb would go soft only after a day’s exposure to direct sunlight. The chocolate surrounding it, however, would liquefy after only ten minutes in a dark cinema.

Fantails came in a weird blue rhomboidal packet shaped like an isosceles triangle with one corner missing. Each individual Fantail was wrapped in a piece of paper detailing a film star’s biography — hence the pun, fan tales. The Fantail itself was a chocolate-coated toffee so glutinous that it could induce lockjaw in a mule. People had to have their mouths chipped open with a cold chisel. One packet of Fantails would last an average human being for ever. A group of six small boys could go through a packet during the course of a single afternoon at the pictures, but it took hard work and involved a lot of strangled crying in the dark. Any fillings you had in your second teeth would be removed instantly, while children who still had any first teeth left didn’t keep them long.

The star lolly, outstripping even the Violet Crumble Bar and the Fantail in popularity, was undoubtedly the Jaffa. A packet of Jaffas was loaded like a cluster bomb with about fifty globular lollies the size of ordinary marbles. The Jaffa had a dark chocolate core and a brittle orange candy coat: in cross-section it looked rather like the planet Earth. It presented two alternative ways of being eaten, each with its allure. You could fondle the Jaffa on the tongue until your saliva ate its way through the casing, whereupon the taste of chocolate would invade your mouth with a sublime, majestic inevitability. Or you could bite straight through and submit the interior of your head to a stunning explosion of flavour. Sucking and biting your way through forty or so Jaffas while Jungle Jim wrestled with the crocodiles, you nearly always had a few left over after the stomach could take no more. The spare Jaffas made ideal ammunition. Flying through the dark, they would bounce off an infantile skull with the noise of bullets hitting a bell. They showered on the stage when the manager came out to announce the lucky ticket. The Jaffa is a part of Australia’s theatrical heritage. There was a famous occasion, during the Borovansky Ballet production of Giselle at the Tivoli in Sydney, when Albrecht was forced to abandon the performance. It was a special afternoon presentation of the ballet before an audience of schoolchildren. Lying in a swoon while awaiting the reappearance of Giselle, Albrecht aroused much comment because of his protuberant codpiece. After being hit square on the power-bulge by a speeding Jaffa, he woke up with a rush and hopped off the stage in the stork position.

Everyone either ate steadily or raced up and down the aisles to and from the toilet, or all three. The uproar was continuous, like Niagara. Meanwhile the programme was unreeling in front of us. The feature film was usually a Tarzan, a Western, or the kind of Eastern Western in which George Macready played the grand vizier. At an even earlier stage I had been to the pictures with my mother and been continuously frightened without understanding what was going on — the mere use of music to reinforce tension, for example, was enough to drive me under the seat for the rest of the evening. At a later stage I accompanied my mother to every change of evening double bill both at Ramsgate and Rockdale — a total of four films a week, every week for at least a decade. But nothing before or since had the impact of those feature films at the Rockdale Saturday matinees.

In those days Johnny Weissmuller was making his difficult transition from Tarzan to Jungle Jim. As Tarzan he got fatter and fatter until finally he was too fat to be plausible, whereupon he was obliged to put on a safari suit and become Jungle Jim. I was glad to learn subsequently that as Jungle Jim he had a piece of the action and was at last able to bank some money. At the time, his transmogrification looked to me like an unmitigated tragedy. His old Tarzan movies were screened again and again. Many times I dived with Tarz off Brooklyn Bridge during the climactic scene of Tarzan’s New York Adventure. In my mind I duplicated the back somersaults executed by Johnny’s double as he swung from vine to vine on his way to rescue the endangered Jane and Boy from the invading ivory hunters. In one of the Tarzan movies there is a terrible sequence where one lot of natives gives another lot an extremely thin time by arranging pairs of tree trunks so that they will fly apart and pull the victim to pieces. This scene stayed with me as a paradigm of evil. No doubt if I saw the same film today I would find the sequence as crudely done as everything else ever filmed on Poverty Row. But at the time it seemed a vision of cruelty too horrible even to think about.

I can remember having strong ideas about which cartoons were funny and which were not. Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, with their stylized backgrounds and elliptical animation, had not yet arrived on the scene. Cartoons were still in that hyper-realist phase which turns out in retrospect to have been their golden age. The standards of animation set by Walt Disney and MGM cost a lot of time, effort and money, but as so often happens the art reached its height at the moment of maximum resistance from the medium. Knowing nothing of these theoretical matters, I simply consumed the product. I knew straight away that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were the best. In fact I even knew straight away that some Tom and Jerry cartoons were better than others. There was an early period when Tom’s features were puffy and he ran with a lope, motion being indicated by the streaks that animators call speed lines. In the later period Tom’s features had an acute precision and his every move was made fully actual, with no stylization at all. Meanwhile Jerry slimmed down and acquired more expressiveness. The two periods were clearly separated in my mind, where they were dubbed ‘old drawings’ and ‘new drawings’. I remember being able to tell which category a given Tom and Jerry cartoon fell into from seeing the first few frames. Eventually I could tell just from the logo. I remember clearly the feeling of disappointment if it was going to be old drawings and the feeling of elation if it was going to be new drawings.

But the serials were what caught my imagination most, especially the ones in which the hero was masked. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the producers, among whom Sam Katzman was the doyen, kept the heroes masked so that the leading actors could not ask for more money. At the time it just seemed logical to me that a hero should wear a mask. It didn’t have to be as elaborate as Batman’s mask. I admired Batman, despite the worrying wrinkles in the arms and legs of his costume, which attained a satisfactory tautness only in the region of his stomach. But Robin’s mask was easier to copy. So was the Black Commando’s. My favourite serials were those in which masked men went out at night and melted mysteriously into the urban landscape. Science-fiction serials were less appealing at that stage, while white hunter epics like The Lost City of the Jungle merely seemed endless. I saw all fourteen episodes of The Lost City of the Jungle except the last. It would have made no difference if I had seen only the last episode and missed the thirteen leading up to it. The same things happened every week. Either two parties of white hunters in solar topees searched for each other in one part of the jungle, or else the same two parties of white hunters in solar topees sought to avoid each other in another part of the jungle. Meanwhile tribesmen from the Lost City either captured representatives of both parties and took them to the high priestess for sacrifice, or else ran after them when they escaped. Sometimes white hunters escaping ran into other white hunters being captured, and were either recaptured or helped the others escape. It was obvious even to my unschooled eye that there was only about half an acre of jungle, all of it composed of papier mâché. By the end of each episode it was beaten flat. The screen would do a spiral wipe around an image of the enthroned high priestess, clad in a variety of tea towels and gesturing obdurately with a collection of prop sceptres while one of the good white hunters — you could tell a good one from a bad one by the fact that a bad one always sported a very narrow moustache — was lowered upside down into a pit of limp scorpions. Exotic locations left me cold. What I liked was the idea of possessing unlimited powers and yet blending undetectably into everyday life, although not so undetectably that ordinary people would not be able to tell at a glance who I was. The trouble with Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Batman and the rest of the dual-identity squad was that no one thought much of them when they were in mufti. Lois Lane practically wore her lip out sneering at Clark Kent while the poor drongo stood there and took it. Billy Batson was always getting his crutch kicked. Bruce Wayne was derided as a playboy. None of that happened to me. Discreetly informing people one by one, I made sure everybody in the district knew that when dusk descended it was I, and nobody else, who became the Flash of Lightning.