Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Dib, Dib, Dib, Dib |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Unreliable Memoirs — Dib, Dib, Dib, Dib


Somewhere about this time I was in the Cubs. When the time came for graduation to the Scouts, I was not accepted, and thus became for the brief time before I tossed the whole thing in, the oldest Cub in the First Kogarah Wolf Cub Pack and probably the world. Lacking the precious gift of taciturnity, I could never achieve the grim face essential to success in paramilitary organizations. Considering this fatal flaw, it is remarkable how many of them I tried to get into. The Cubs were merely the first in a long line. My mother made my scarf. It had to be in First Kogarah colours — maroon with yellow piping. She made me a woggle out of leather. Every Cub had to have a woggle. It held your scarf on. As well as the woggle, there were special sock-tops — called something like fuggles — which always fell down. After you passed your Tenderfoot you got a wolf’s head, or diggle, to wear on your cap. Also on the cap went a scraggle for each year of service. In addition to woggles, fuggles, diggles and scraggles, successful Cubs had the right, indeed obligation, to wear a whole collection of insignia and badges. The second in command of a sub-pack of six Cubs was called a Seconder and wore a yellow stripe on his sleeve. The commander of a sub-pack was called a Sixer and wore two stripes. A sixer in his final year would be so covered in decorations that promotion to the Scouts became a physical necessity, lest he expire under the weight.

Ruling over the whole pack was Akela. Her name was taken from The Jungle Book. She wore a brown uniform with a Scout hat. Otherwise she, too, was burdened down with woggles and fuggles. At the beginning of our weekly meetings, we Cubs would squat in a circle and worship her. While squatting, we made wolf-head signs with our fingers and pointed them at the floor. Then we chanted, ‘Akela, we’ll do our best. We’ll dib dib dib dib. We’ll dob dob dob dob ...’ This routine was climaxed by a mass throwing back of heads and emitting of supposedly vulpine howls. I used to get through the dibbing and dobbing all right but during the howling I usually rolled over backwards.

My lack of poise could possibly have stemmed from a never-to-be-satisfied wonderment about what dibbing and dobbing might actually consist of, but more probably it was just the result of an overwhelming love for Akela. I adored her. A schoolteacher in real life, she was a mother figure with none of the drawbacks. For her own part, she must have found me a problem, since I trailed her around everywhere. The theory of Scouting, or in this case Cubbing, was that boys should become independent through the acquisition of woodcraft and related skills. All I ever learned was how to attach myself to Akela’s skirt. This made it hard for Akela and Baloo to be alone. Baloo the Bear was a young adult King’s Scout who visited the pack once a month. Decorated like a combination of Boris Godunov and General MacArthur, a King’s Scout in full regalia could be looked at only through smoked glass.

Baloo also accompanied us on camps. We went on a camp to Heathcote, in the National Park. My mother came along to help. I had talked her into coming by telling her that every other mother would be there and that the campsite was yards from the station. It was seven thousand yards from the station. Mine was the only mother large-hearted enough to contribute her services. The trek to the campsite was along bush tracks and down cliffs. Swinging white-lipped from vines, my mother vowed to pick a bone with me later. By the time we got to the campsite she was too far gone to expend any of her remaining energy remonstrating with me. She cooked the sausages while Akela and Baloo put up the tents. It took Akela and Baloo about an hour’s walk in the bush to find each tent pole. Meanwhile my mother doled out the exploding sausages and bandaged the hands of those Cubs — all of them heavily decorated with badges denoting proficiency in woodcraft — who had burned themselves picking up aluminium mugs of hot tea.

That night it rained like the Great Flood. The river rose. Tents collapsed. All the Cubs ended up in one big tent with my mother. Akela ended up in a pup tent with Baloo. Shortly afterwards they were married. Presumably Akela gave birth to either a bear or a wolf. By that time I had left the Cubs. You couldn’t get into the Scouts without a certain number of badges. My own score was zero. Besides, I couldn’t face a change of Akelas.

The big change I couldn’t get out of was being sent to a special school. In fourth class at Kogarah, when we were all about ten years old, we took an IQ test. It was the Stanford-Binet, on which I score about 140. On the more searching Wechsler-Bellevue I get about 135. Such results are enough to put me into the 98th percentile, meaning that 97 per cent of any given population is likely to be less good at doing these tests than I am. This is nothing to boast about. Intelligence starts being original only in the next percentile up from mine, where the scores go zooming off the scale. Time has taught me, too slowly alas, that there is nothing extraordinary about my mental capacities. In my romantic phase, which lasted for too long, I was fond of blaming my sense of loneliness on superior intellect. In fact the causes were, and are, psychological.

At the time, of course, none of these questions came up. My mother was simply informed that her son had revealed himself as belonging to a category which demanded two years of special education in the Opportunity ‘C’ school at Hurstville. Opportunity ‘A’ schools were for the handicapped and Opportunity ‘C’ schools were for the gifted. At either end of the scale special schooling was a dubious privilege, since it involved travel by electric train. Hurstville was only three stops down the Illawarra line but even such a short voyage offered plenty of opportunities for sudden death. Mothers very understandably worried themselves sick about what their precious little sons might be getting up to on trains that conveyed whole generations of schoolchildren at dizzy speeds without benefit of automatic doors. For boys of any age it was considered mandatory to stand near doorways. For older boys it was compulsory to stand at the very edge of the doorway, holding the door open with their shoulders, draping their arms negligently behind their backs with their hands loosely grasping the door handle, and keeping balance with their feet and legs as the swaying train hurtled through cuttings and over viaducts. Stanchions had been provided every hundred yards. They were meant to hold up the power lines, but had the additional function of braining anybody who stuck his head out of the window. Everybody stuck his head out of the window, drawing it back again as a stanchion loomed.

Every second train was a through, meaning it did not stop at Carlton and Allawah but attempted to break the world land-speed record on an uninterrupted run from Kogarah to Hurstville or vice versa. At either end it was considered de rigueur to alight as early as possible. Anyone waiting for the train to stop was considered a cissy. The more athletic boys could languidly step off and hit the platform running flat out. If they mistimed it they ended up with a gravel rash starting at the forehead and extending all the way to the toes. The sport came to an end when the champion, a boy named Newell, got his stations mixed up and stepped off at Allawah from the through train to Hurstville. When we got the news about his injuries — his left femur, apparently, was the only bone that remained intact — we became somewhat meeker about leaving the train early. Nevertheless the deaths continued to run at the rate of one a year. It was another ten years before automatic doors were tried out even experimentally. Perhaps someone was afraid that the Australian national character would be weakened.

At Hurstville there was an Opportunity ‘C’ fifth and sixth class with about thirty of us freaks in each class. Otherwise the school was normal. The freaks strove to be even more normal than everybody else — an instructive example of the Australian reluctance to stand out from the pack for any reason other than athletic skill. Some of our number, however, ranked as exotica no matter how hard they tried to blend into the scenery. There was a boy called Nelson, for example, who made Graham Truscott look emaciated. Nelson needed two desks. But he could play chess at an exalted level. So could almost everybody else in the class except me. I didn’t even know the moves. A lot of the boys in the class wore glasses and had notes from their parents excusing them from soccer, swimming, running, jumping or even crossing the playground unattended. They were all drafted into the school’s fife band. On sports day they spent the afternoon marching awkwardly backwards and forwards while playing ‘Colonel Bogey’ on their black wooden fifes. The total effect was pathetic in the extreme.

The fife players also tended to wear those cissy sandals that looked like ordinary shoes with bits cut out of them. Whenever I could get away with it I defiantly stuck to bare feet. This was not, I think, any kind of class-conscious social gesture. I had no inkling of class differences. In Australia there is a widespread illusion that there are no class barriers. In fact they exist, but it is possible to remain unaware of them. There are social strata whose occupants feel superior but there is almost nobody who feels inferior, probably because the poor are as well nourished as the rich. It never occurred to me that most of the boys in the class came from more privileged homes than mine. If I had been smarter it might have done. The evidence was abundant. Graham Slender brought expensive toys to school. His father had bought them for him in America. One of the toys was a machine gun that fired ping-pong balls. For a few delirious seconds he showered the astonished class with bouncing celluloid spheres before the gun was impounded. Robert Lunn, David Carnaby, John Elstub and I usually occupied the back four desks in the class. Lunn seemed inordinately well supplied with funds. Sometimes after school he would shout half a dozen of us to a cream-cake blow-out in one of the Hurstville tea shops. He and I both knew what a blow-out was, since we had both been reading English comics and boys’ weeklies. Most Australian boys at that time read American comics but a few read English ones as well. With Lunn it was all in the family: his parents brought him up in the English manner and eventually he went to Sydney Grammar and after that to Duntroon. With me it was an accident. When I had a suspected case of diphtheria just after the war I was taken by screaming ambulance to South Coast Hospital near Bunnerong powerhouse for three unforgettable weeks of ice cream and lemonade. There were papers like Tip-Top and Radio Fun lying around in the playroom. I made my mother buy more of them. On visiting days my mother would arrive looking like a news vendor. It took the edge off having to pee in a jar.

From then on I read Tip-Top every week and later graduated to the Wizard, Rover, Hotspur and Champion. By the time I got to Hurstville school I was an expert on these papers and could discuss their contents endlessly. I certainly identified with characters like Braddock VC and Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track. Braddock was a non-commissioned pilot who defeated the Luftwaffe single-handed but contemptuously refused all promotions and decorations except the VC, whose ribbon he wore half hanging off. Stuffed shirts were always objecting to his behaviour in railway carriages and then having to apologize when they found out he was the RAF’s greatest hero. Alf Tupper trained on fish and chips and ran the first four-minute mile. While admiring the prowess of these demigods, I completely failed to realize that they were fantasy figures specifically aimed at Britain’s lower orders. Perhaps Lunn had a better understanding but I suspect that he, too, was largely in the dark. There was a serial in the Wizard about a poor lad who with the aid of his tremendously self-sacrificing mother was able to attend a public school. He wore patched trousers and had to endure much scorn from the toffs but ended up Captain of Swimming, Cricket, Football, Debates and finally of the School itself. I don’t think I really understood what this story was all about. After all, in Australia all the schools were public — or so it seemed. It never occurred to me that in an English context ‘public’ meant ‘private’. Possibly because I was clueless, but more likely because the provocation simply wasn’t there, I didn’t develop any kind of chip on my shoulder until much later, so the social content of almost everything I was reading failed to register, even when social content was the only kind of content it had.

By this time I was starting to devour books as well as magazines and comics. I went Biggies-crazy and generally became an expert on aeroplanes. While the chess players were getting on with their chess I would be busy reading Worrals Wipes It Off or memorizing air-recognition charts. At the age of eleven I could recognize a photograph of any aircraft that had been built at any time in any country in the world. The Opportunity system gave its pupils plenty of time to develop such interests. The normal curriculum was dealt with in the morning and the afternoon was left free for the development of potentialities. Unfortunately like most educational concepts this idea yielded pretty thin results. No reflection on our teacher, Mr Davis — who had been a navigator in a Lancaster during the war and could turn a back somersault off the one-metre board — but learning to recognize aeroplanes is not the same as acquiring knowledge. The inevitable result was that those boys who were receiving some guidance from home flourished while those whose sole stimulus was the school did little more than fool around with ‘projects’. Since the choice of project was left to us, the results were hopelessly variable as to quality. One boy with bifocals would be turning an old washing-machine into a particle accelerator while the boy at the next desk would be cutting out pictures of giraffes. I’ve just remembered the name of the boy at the next desk. His name was Tommy Pillans. He was unhappy at home and committed suicide in his first year with us — the first premature death in my generation. His desk was empty for only a few days. Then there was a reshuffle. Perhaps part of Nelson moved into it. Anyway, that was Tommy Pillans. Gone without a ripple. Not for the last time, I accommodated myself with ease to the idea of someone vanishing.

As well as glasses, John Elstub had all the other attributes of dampness — shoe-like sandals, knee-length khaki shorts, fife and a purse full of notes from his mother saying that he was not to be exposed to direct sunlight. The only day he ever appeared on the soccer field he ran away from the ball. He was the son of an academic of some kind and spent his time at home absorbing the contents of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He always knew the answers but had a way of calling out ‘Sir! Sir!’ that not even Sir could stand. Elstub was a standing joke. Yet he was reading Ulysses while I was learning to tell a Messerschmitt Bf. 109E from a Bf. 109F. (The Bf. 109E had struts supporting the tailplane and the Bf. 109F didn’t.) I was invited to Elstub’s house once. There were a lot of pre-war American aviation magazines lying around. I asked if I could borrow them and when I got home I cut them up and pasted the best pictures in my scrapbooks. Next day at school I presented Elstub with the fait accompli and he said it was all right. It never occurred to me at the time that he had behaved well and I badly, or that what I had done would have been considered thoughtless in someone half my age. I was simply convinced that aircraft were my department and that those magazines had no business being in Elstub’s possession.

During the afternoons at school I spent a lot of time constructing sandpit battlefields full of lead soldiers. Later on, copying the school newspaper in The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s, I started a wall magazine to which everyone was invited to contribute. I usually decided that hardly anybody’s contributions were up to standard except mine. At the annual exhibition day, held in the school library, my sandpit battlefield made a huge impact. While all the parents stood devoutly around, I explained the strategic picture and announced that token detonations had been arranged in order to represent the effect of artillery fire and tactical bombing. Actually Slender, a dab hand at such matters, had sown the sand with bungers which could be set off in sequence by touching a wire to a battery. Slender was under the sand-tray with the battery. At the rehearsal we used Kwong Man Lung penny bungers and everything went all right. But for the performance proper Slender had planted something more ambitious — fourpenny bungers the size of a stick of dynamite. On top of this he got nervous and touched the whole lot off at once. The Korean War was in progress at the time and the parents must have thought that the Chinese communists had arrived in Hurstville. One man jumped into his wife’s arms — an extraordinary role-reversal which I would have laughed at if I had not had a mouth full of sand. It was cowardly of Slender not to come out.

The wall magazine was rather better received. Verbally it was derivative in every respect, with stories about heroic wartime fliers, athletes training on fish and chips and stoic young schoolboys rising above their patched trousers to become Captain of the School. Nearly all of it was written by me. But I shared responsibility for graphic design with David Carnaby. In the wall magazine, as in his notebooks, Carnaby had a subtle touch with lettering and a ravishing sense of colour. We usually shared the awards for the best set-out and decorated exercise books. I still like to think that my own lettering had a firmness of outline that his lacked. The grand designs were all mine. But he was unbeatable on tone and detail. Everything he did breathed a pastel elegance. It often happens that we are most touched by what we are least capable of. Evanescent delicacy is not the quality in the arts that I admire most, but it is often the characteristic by which I am most reduced to envy. Nowadays I know exactly what enchantment is being worked on me by Alain-Fournier’s hedgerows or Monet’s water lilies. I can put ‘Miroirs’ on the turntable and willingly succumb. I know that I can’t do it myself but nowadays I can live with the knowledge. In those days I would look over Carnaby’s shoulder and wonder if it was worth going on at all.

But go on I did, finding success easy. I was made class captain — a clear endorsement of my personality and attainments. There was thus no pressure on me to change my ways, which remained selfish, noisy and maladroit. At that time I was as big as, or bigger than, the boys around me, so it was not entirely absurd when I presumed to dominate them. As the teacher’s representative I could usually make them toe the line, confident in the knowledge that it was less trouble for them to obey than to resist. My biggest coup was to maintain discipline through the long rehearsals for the Queen’s visit. This involved months of drill for every school in Sydney, so that finally when everything was put together in the Showground the Queen and Prince Philip would be stunned by a coordinated display of callisthenics and flag-waving. For two days before the actual event we shone our shoes, polished our belts, had our teeth filled, etc. On the day itself the school transferred en masse to the Showground, where our display team, with me as front right marker, lined up with hundreds of other such teams to await inspection by the Royal Party.

We stood for hours in the boiling sun. The Royal Party was running late. Children were fainting left and right, as if their serried ranks were subject to sniper fire. Suddenly there was a screech of tyres in the distance. The Queen and her consort screamed past us in a Land Rover. I remember that they were standing up. Each held on to the top of the windshield with one hand while giving the famous mechanical wave with the other. How their hats stayed on was a mystery, since they were travelling only slightly slower than a Formula One Grand Prix racing car. There were not too many details to remember, but it was evident that the Queen’s complexion really was as advertised — peaches and cream. We then got on with our display. It was a measure of my almost psychopathic self-consciousness that I felt the Queen’s eyes on me as I waved my flag. But I performed creditably, as did my team. Not counting Nelson, who had fainted long ago and been carried away on a couple of stretchers.

Generally it is our failures that civilize us. Triumph confirms us in our habits. I would probably have abused my power had I been given any. Fortunately my role as class captain was all responsibilities and no privileges. The most onerous duty was to keep order when Mr Davis was out of the room. I tried to do this by shouting ‘Shut up!’ at the top of my voice. Eventually I could stun the whole school by sheer lung-power. Otherwise, until the end of my stay there, Hurstville Opportunity ‘C’ hardly changed me at all, probably because what was going on at home was so intense.

I had enrolled myself in a family. The family were called the Meldrums and lived in Sunbeam Avenue. Mr Meldrum was a plumber. He and Mrs Meldrum had produced three children, all boys: in descending order of age they were Gary, Neil and Craig. There was also an Alsatian dog called Ruth, whom I will get to in a minute. All six of them lived in a house not much bigger than ours. Mr Meldrum wore a blue working singlet at all times. He was regarded in the district as something of a gypsy. In fact he was simply the most original man for miles. He made hardly any money but there was more going on in his house than in anybody else’s. He had turned all the boys into good swimmers. Gary was exceptionally good and got his picture in the papers for swimming a mile at the age of ten. Neil was a bit of a black sheep and Craig was simply dense, but even they were encouraged in their interests. Neil was mad about stamps and Craig was held by Mr Meldrum to be a promising biologist. In fact Craig’s biological studies consisted mainly of picking up privet grubs and eating them. He would also tuck into the occasional centipede. Mrs Meldrum’s understandable hysteria at such moments would be overwhelmed by Mr Meldrum’s gusto. He was the first man I ever met who had that. In short, he was a ready-made father figure.

The Meldrums taught me to swim. Mr Meldrum, Gary and Neil took me down to the creek in the park. Reeds lined the banks and willows kissed the surface. The water was as brown as oxtail soup but Mr Meldrum said that any water was clean if you could catch healthy fish in it. All the Meldrums could swim across the creek underwater. To me it seemed a fabulous distance. Gary showed me how to hold my breath and keep my eyes open underwater. I could see his hair floating. Inside an hour I was dog-paddling. Mr Meldrum threw his own boys up in the air to turn back somersaults. Then I rode on Gary’s shoulders, Neil rode on his father’s, and we had battles in the shallow water.

That was just the start. I think I was eight years old, or perhaps nine. Over the next few years I spent more and more time at the Meldrums’. I would bolt my dinner and scoot around to their place in time to join them for a second dessert. Thus I laid the foundation of my uncanny ability to inhale a meal instead of eating it. Another bad aspect was the inevitable encounter with Ruth. Like all dog-owning families, the Meldrums regarded their four-footed friend as some kind of genius. Ruth was Mr Meldrum’s blind spot. He seemed to think that his house would not be safe without Ruth to guard it. Apart from an abundance of life there was nothing in the house worth stealing. Nor, had there been, would Ruth have ranked as an early choice to stand sentinel. She was undoubtedly ferocious enough, but was no brighter than any other dog. She vented most of her fury on the family and its close acquaintances. If any burglars had turned up she would probably have ignored them, or else let them in and minded their tools. For me, on the other hand, she never failed to go through her entire repertoire of savagery. While I waited, yelling weakly, on the outside of the trellis gate in the side passage, Ruth would hurl herself against the inside of it like a piledriver and try to bite a piece out of it big enough to get at me through. I would stand petrified until a few of the Meldrums turned up, clubbed their pet into submission and dragged it back out of sight. Upon receipt of a written, signed guarantee that Ruth had been stapled to the ground with croquet hoops, I would advance trembling and join the family for dessert, tea and games.

There were scraps of dog-meat on the floor of the back veranda but Mr Meldrum’s Rabelaisian spirit turned the chaos and squalor into luxury. He was a great one for word games after dinner. As a natural diplomat he was able to cope with the fact that I often turned out to be better at these than his own sons. Seeking his favour, I was too keen ever to try less hard. When the word games were over Mr and Mrs Meldrum would listen to the wireless in the lounge while the rest of us would try to cross the spare room in the dark without getting caught by the guard. You took turns being guard. The spare room lay at the end of the corridor and I remember it as being the size of the Grand Salon in the Louvre, although I suppose it could have been no bigger than a box room. Old cupboards and other articles of furniture were stored in it. It could be blacked out perfectly, so crossing it undetected was a test of the ability to move silently while consumed with fear. Neil had a scary trick, when he was guard, of dressing up in some frightening costume and suddenly switching the light on. The mere possibility of his doing this was enough to make the hair rise on my neck the way it did at the pictures when the music indicated tension or impending doom.

On Saturday afternoons Mr Meldrum led expeditions to the Domain. The Domain, or Dom, was an old swimming baths opposite Woolloomooloo on the south side of Sydney Harbour. We got off the train at St James and walked to the baths through long lanes of Moreton Bay fig trees. At the Dom we changed into blue vees and swam. The benches on the bleached wooden catwalks of the Dom were weighed down with ancient wrecks soaking up the sun. Men older than John D. Rockefeller or Pope Pius XIII shuffled dazedly around, their vees draped approximately across their shrivelled loins, their skins burned so brown that their sprinklings of black skin cancers looked like currants in a fruitcake. But the main point was that they had lived a long time. Mr Meldrum was obviously right about the preservative effects of sea water.

Mr Meldrum, Gary, Neil and Craig always did well in the swimming races. To me it seemed too much like hard work. I had some of the knack for swimming but I lacked the will. My main reason for going to the Dom with the Meldrums was to be able to go home with them afterwards. On the way back through the trees to St James station Mr Meldrum bought huge paper bags full of fruit. We gorged ourselves on grapes and plums and had battles with the Moreton Bay figs lying around in thousands on the grass. On the train there were more word games. Laved and cured by salt water, fed to repletion with unadulterated fruit, we were in a state of grace.

For the rest of the weekend Gary was the ringleader. While Mr Meldrum was off doing the extra jobs which were obviously all that kept the bailiffs from the door, Gary was the one who led the great treks to Botany Bay or the dump at Tempe. Down at the bay in the early winter mornings we used to watch the fishermen pull in the nets and were usually given a few yellowtail or bream to take home. Before they built the refinery at Kurnell the bay used to be as full of fish as when Banks and Solander first stepped ashore. At Tempe dump I uncovered choice items for what was to become one of the world’s leading collections of old piston rings, rusty egg-beaters, quondam bed-springs and discarded transmission components for Sherman tanks. I shall not attempt to describe my mother’s joy when I lugged this stuff home, staggering out of the sunset long after she had called the police. A dump in those days, before plastics had conquered the world, was a treasury of precious metals.

It was Gary who led the first, historic expedition to Kingsford Smith aerodrome, always known to us by the name of the suburb near where it was situated, Mascot. The aerodrome was only a few miles distant — in fact our house was quite near the first set of approach lights to the main runway — but walking all the way there and back seemed a feat comparable in daring to anything contemplated by Burke and Wills. As for Mascot itself, it was simply fairyland. Until well along in my teens I went there almost every weekend, just to watch the aircraft land and take off. ANA and TAA were flying mainly DC-3s and DC-4s. The arrival of the first DC-6 was a big event. The first Stratocruiser flight to arrive from America was greeted with national rejoicing. The TAA ground staff let us take a look inside a Convair 240. Gary found the Southern Cross standing in a hangar with its tyres down. I suppose after Smithy’s last flight they just wheeled it in there and left it. Standing with her nose tilted snootily upward in the gloom, the old blue Fokker tri-motor looked romantic past belief. There was no one in there with her except us. Gary couldn’t get the cabin door open. But on a nearby stretch of waste ground there was the wingless hull of an amphibian Catalina. The guns had been taken out but the turrets and blisters were still in her. We used to climb inside and play wars for hours. Gary and I were pilot and navigator. Neil had the nose turret and Craig was the waist gunner — a good position for him, since among the ribs and stringers there were plenty of spiders to be caught and eaten. Defending Mascot from Japanese and German attack, we shot down hundreds of Zeros and FW190s.

The Meldrums’ back veranda was a combination of dormitory, playroom and workshop. All three of the boys had their beds there. Each bed had its own set of shelves for a headboard. Neil’s shelves held his stamp albums and catalogues. Craig’s were a teeming, pulsing nightmare of chicken embryos and legless frogs. Gary’s shelves were full of balsa model aircraft made from kits. Solid balsa kits are unheard-of nowadays, when all the skill required to make a model aircraft is a light touch with the plastic parts and a steady hand with the glue. In those days you matched a block of balsa against a rudimentary diagram and got going with a razor blade, which sliced your thumb as readily as it carved the balsa. If the result was recognizable as an aeroplane, you were an expert. If your thumb was recognizable as a thumb, you were a genius. Gary worked fast and accurately. He built a Ju.88, a Hawker Sea Fury, a Heinkel He.1ll, a Kitty Hawk, a Chance-Vought Corsair ... I can remember them all. He would have had an air force if he had looked after them. But when he got tired of having them around he soaked them with dope and set fire to them. The glue came in a tube and was called Tarzan’s Grip. If I close my eyes I can remember how it felt to squeeze the last tiny transparent blob from the malleable lead tube.