Books: Unreliable Memoirs — The Imitation of Christ |
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Unreliable Memoirs — The Imitation of Christ


Thus, by a long battle of attrition, the matter was decided. But the beginning of my first year at Sydney Tech was still a long way away, at the far end of the school holidays. By this time the Meldrum boys had become regular attendants at Kogarah Presbyterian Church, which was situated about halfway between Prince’s Highway and the station. Mr Meldrum, a rationalist, would have disapproved of this development. Unfortunately Mr Meldrum was no longer around. A load of pipes had slid off his flat-bed truck and pinned him to a wall. He was brought home to die. The process took several weeks. By now a seasoned campaigner, I had prudently withheld from him the vital last tenth of my affection, so I was well able to survive the shock: indeed I hardly noticed it, since by some inexplicable coincidence I took to calling at the Meldrum house with steadily decreasing frequency. Others, notably Mrs Meldrum, were less well armoured against fortune. She was prostrated. Not just to get some relief from their presence, but also to prepare them against an uncertain world, she started sending her boys to church. After a decent interval I followed.

Kogarah Presbyterian Church was a solid purple-brick and red-tile affair with plaster interiors. Standing opposite the St George District Hospital, it was handily placed to entertain the polio patients with massed singing of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. Many a surgeon must have paused gratefully during a tricky operation to relish the top notes of our resident coloratura, Mrs Pike, as she howled above the choir like a dingo with its paw caught in a trap. Scalpels must have frozen in mid-slice as the Boys’ Brigade bugle band came marching by, emitting a rich collection of wrong notes and raspberries. One way and another the whole of Sunday and half the rest of the week saw the wee kirk teeming with activity. It was a whole way of life. I plunged into it gladly, egged on by my mother. I was supposed to be Church of England, but she wouldn’t have minded if I had been going to a mosque, as long as I went.

My previous Christian experience had been confined to an interdenominational Sunday School run by the Purvis family at their house halfway down Sunbeam Avenue. Mrs Purvis played the piano and Mr Purvis showed 16mm films of aborigines being converted. In the early part of the film the aborigines were shown standing around naked with a crotch full of shadows and looking glum while flies camped on their faces. In the later part of the film they were wearing trousers and smiling like Loretta Young. It was Christ who had made the difference. They had taken Him into their hearts, whereupon the flies had upped stakes and moved on. When the lights went up Mr Purvis would launch into an attack on beer and Catholicism. He pronounced beer bee-ar. The legionaries who pee-arsed Christ’s side with a spee-ar had undoubtedly been enslaved to bee-ar. A sure sign of Catholicism’s fundamental evil was that it required the drinking of wine even in church, wine being mee-arly another form of bee-ar. Mr Purvis would then get us to sign the pledge all over again and send us home with a warning not to be kidnapped by nuns.

But the Purvises’ Sunday School was strictly short pants, striped T-shirt and bare feet. We would have grown out of it anyway, even if Mrs Purvis hadn’t died of cancer. The piano having fallen silent, there was nothing for Mr Purvis to do except remarry, move to Melbourne and start again. He became famous years later as an anti-Catholic campaigner, warning of attempts by the Vatican to invade Canberra. Once again he had films to prove it. Nuns were shown scurrying darkly down side streets, while a familiar voice on the soundtrack talked of how the Roman menace loomed ever more nee-ar, and of the growing fee-ar that it would soon be hee-ar.

Kogarah Presbyterian Church was the big time. On Sunday morning there was Sunday School, followed by church, at which the Boys’ Brigade would frequently put in an appearance with snare drums rattling in approximate unison and dented bugles giving out random fragments of late Schönberg. In the early evening there would be church. Then there was a Fellowship meeting for older adolescents and young adults. This would be followed by church again, featuring a full-scale sermon from the Reverend C. Cummings Campbell, whose name was the inspiration of many a leaden joke (‘the Campbells are Cummingses, yes they are,’ etc.) and whose oratory bored the pigeons out of the roof. If you threw in and averaged out all the Harvest Festivals, preparations for Harvest Festivals, special study sessions for Sunday School teachers, special missionary group studies for Fellowship Study Circle leaders and so on, it would be possible to say that the devout young communicant could count on spending most of each week in constant attendance, with the odd break for meals. On Saturday night there was usually a Fellowship social. On Thursday night the Boys’ Brigade drilled in the church hall. At one time or another, as I grew older, I took part in all these activities, starting with Sunday School and the Boys’ Brigade.

Sunday School was a waste of time from the religious angle, but had conspicuous social value. A hundred children broken up into ten groups of ten, we learned the fundamental disciplines of sitting still for an hour while an older person told boring stories. Apart from the chance to take home a deckle-edged sticker, stick it in a book and bring the book back to be marked, there was no action. The stickers had luridly coloured biblical illustrations on them. There was also a catechism to be learned. Prizes were to be won for learning it. Thus the memory was tested, if not the religious sense. Over the next five or six years I won every possible prize, up to and including the rarely awarded Cummings Campbell Bible, without experiencing, or even needing to pretend I had experienced, a moment of religious belief. Among the teachers, the few genuine believers were manifestly as crazy as Mr Purvis. Any sign of true devotion among the pupils was regarded as bad taste. Eventually I was to become a teacher myself and make a practice of getting the holy stuff over as soon as possible so that I could get on with telling stories about Pearl Harbor or the campaign in the Western Desert. No pupil ever complained.

But that’s to jump the gun. As a new Sunday School pupil I learned how to sit still with girls present. As a probationary recruit in the Boys’ Brigade I learned how to march up and down. The Boys’ Brigade was a paramilitary organization emanating, like the Scouts, from England, but with the emphasis on parade-ground drill rather than on woodsy lore. The uniform had to be imported from England. It consisted of forage cap, white cartridge pouch and brass-buckled belt, the whole thing worn over khaki shorts and navy blue shirts, although in winter we were expected to wear dark suits. One of the main attractions of belonging was that the merit badges, worn on the right sleeve, were made of what looked like solid silver. In practice these tended not to arrive from England even after repeated notifications that they had been won, but you could always live in hope. Another main attraction was that you got the chance to blow a bugle or bang a drum. It was with high expectations, therefore, that I set off for my first evening on parade.

My manner of dress perhaps showed questionable judgement. As a new recruit I was not entitled to wear Boys’ Brigade uniform even if it had been available. To compensate I eked out my shorts, shirt and sandshoes with a few extras. On my head I put one of Ray’s old RAAF forage caps with its flaps down. The cap was covered with about a hundred badges of various kinds, many of them celebrating our recent alliance with the Soviet Union. There were several portraits of Stalin. On my chest I wore my father’s campaign medals — not just the ribbons, but the medals entire. Usually I was allowed to wear these only on Anzac Day when we went into town to watch the march, but my mother had given me a special dispensation. On my belt was a holster containing a Ned Kelly cap pistol fully loaded. A multi-purpose jack-knife completed the ensemble. Since I was still quite small the jack-knife weighed me down on one side. I thought better of it and took it off. My mother persuaded me that the medals were perhaps gilding the lily, so I took those off too. The rest I kept.

Kindly Captain Andrews, the senior officer, forbore from comment on my appearance. There wasn’t much he noticed by that stage. Having grown old in the task, he tended to daydream. I fell in at the low end of a long line, which then divided itself into four sections of half a dozen boys each. Everyone started off as a private. The mere ability to turn up once a week ensured one’s eventual promotion to lance corporal. If your voice broke it was enough to make you a full corporal. To become a sergeant you had to pass a few exams. Beyond that lay the dizzy privilege of officer status, featuring long trousers and a cap with ribbons hanging down at the back. Down at my end of the scale it all looked very impressive, but even while occupying a rank more lowly than private I could see that Captain Andrews wasn’t too hot at drill. When he said ‘About turn!’ we about-turned. When he said ‘About turn!’ again we about-turned again. He then showed us how we should have done it. Facing towards us, he ordered himself to about-turn. By rights, upon completion of this manoeuvre, he should have been facing away from us, so that we could see his back. Instead he would end up facing sideways, so that we could see him in profile. Quickly he would add a few shuffles to take him round the rest of the way. Gary was the corporal at the head of my section. I could see his shoulders quaking every time Captain Andrews got it wrong. That got me started. Thus a sense of the ridiculous was inculcated, at an early age. For years to come I found almost everyone ludicrous except myself.

In fact the Kogarah Presbyterian Church Company of the Boys’ Brigade was a shambles. Annually we came last in the district drill competition, even when it was held in our own hall. Our bugle band terrorized not just the hospital but the whole area, with bitches whelping at its strident dissonance. Not long after I joined there was a Display Night, held in conjunction with Girls’ Brigade. My mother was horrified to discover that her tiny son was last in a line of crouching small boys over which, or whom, large girls awkwardly dived before turning a forward roll on a mat. Her fears were justified. Graham Truscott’s older sister Maureen was built like Fatty Arbuckle and looked no lovelier for being clad in black sandshoes, blue shorts and a singlet like a two-car garage. As proud parents sat open-mouthed on the surrounding benches, she came hurtling out of the back annexe, along the corridor, through the connecting door, into the hall, up to the springboard and into space. She drove me into the floor like a tack. Artificial respiration got my breathing started while Captain Andrews and the Rev. C. Cummings Campbell attempted to calm my mother with a few ill-chosen words.

Such incidents were too common to be thought remarkable. At the District Athletics Carnival held at Trumper Park our company got no points. Count them: none. In the swimming carnivals Gary was our only swimmer ever to reach the finals of anything. As part compensation there was a great deal of rod-walloping. Masturbation, whether solo, mutual or of competition standard, was rife. So was petty theft. After a hard evening of copying Captain Andrews’s about-turns we would all race down to Parry’s milk bar, there to ingest the milkshake of our choice and rob the lolly counter when Mr Parry wasn’t looking. The only time Mr Parry ever caught one of us he contented himself with delivering a white-lipped lecture. It was a wonder he didn’t call the police. Anywhere in the world, immigrant shopkeepers have a particular horror of being robbed by the locals. It hurts to work so hard and suddenly discover that some of your customers subscribe to Proudhon’s idea about property being theft. If Proudhon had been running the milk bar he would probably have reacted far worse than Mr Parry. Luckily for us, Proudhon had been dead since 1865.

The other half of my double life had more hesitant beginnings. It wasn’t that I hated Sydney Tech. I just didn’t connect with it. On weekday mornings I put on my school uniform. It consisted, reading from bottom to top, of black shoes, grey socks, grey worsted short-pants suit with school pocket badge, blue shirt, tie in the school colours of maroon and sky blue and grey felt hat with hat band in school colours. Add in the enamel school lapel badge and you had an awful lot of maroon and sky blue. Exercise books, pencil case, pens, technical-drawing set and Vegemite sandwiches went into the inevitable Globite school case. Lugging this, I rode the trolleybus to Kogarah station and caught the train to Central. Other Sydney Tech boys were already on the train from stations further down the line. As we got closer to town, more joined. Boys from Sydney High also got on. Their colours were chocolate and sky blue. Age for age, they seemed slightly taller than our lot, with clearer skins. They were quieter and read a great deal. At Central they caught one tram while we caught another. They went to Moore Park and we went to Paddington. Nobody except a few aesthetes had any idea at the time that Paddington’s terrace houses were desirable residences. Gentrification lay far in the future. The only paint on show was kack brown and the cast-iron balconies looked like scrap metal waiting to be taken away. It wasn’t a slum area like Redfern — which during the Queen’s visit had been masked off with hessian so that she would be unable to see it from the royal train — but it was pretty grim. Sydney Tech was in the grimmest part and looked even grimmer than its surroundings. The playgrounds were entirely asphalt: not a blade of grass. A solitary Moreton Bay fig tree in the lower playground was the only touch of green. Jammed between the dilapidated two-storey buildings, even less prepossessing ‘temporary’ single-storey buildings cut the playground space down to nearly nothing. In the open air there wasn’t enough bench space for the whole school to sit down at once. We had to have lunch in two shifts.

Disaster struck on the first day, when Carnaby was assigned to a different class. In quiet desperation I sought out his company in the playground, but often he lunched in the other shift and always he was surrounded by new friends. So it had all been for nothing.

I didn’t even get accepted for the Air Cadets. The fact that I knew more about air recognition than anyone else in the world counted as nothing beside the further fact that I had an unacceptable level of albumin in my blood. An independent pathologist wrote a note saying that my level of albumin was all right for me but the RAAF doctor wouldn’t listen. If such an injustice had happened to me earlier it might have helped arm me against capricious Fate, but I was too spoiled to profit from the disappointment. Many, many years were to go by before I learned the truth of Noël Coward’s comment about the secret of success being the capacity to survive failure.

Soon enough I made new friends in my own class, but not in the same way as Carnaby did. His natural authority was reinforced by early maturity. Either that year or the year after, his voice broke. He had acne for about two days and simultaneously grew a foot taller. During this period almost everyone except me did something similar. I obstinately stayed small. Nobody looked up to me any longer. In that first year the only thing that made me worth knowing was my good marks. The teachers weren’t brilliant but they were conscientious. Besides, there was a certain flywheel effect carrying over from Hurstville, where we had been ahead of the curriculum. At the half-yearly examinations I averaged in the high nineties, coming third in the class. Things might have gone on like that for a good while longer if it had not been for Mary Luke.

I was coping with physics and chemistry well enough while Mr Ryan was still teaching them. But Mr Ryan was due for retirement, an event which was hastened by an accident in the laboratory. He was showing us how careful you had to be when handling potassium in the presence of water. Certainly you had to be more careful than he was. The school’s entire supply of potassium ignited at once. Wreathed by dense smoke and lit by garish flames, the stunned Mr Ryan looked like a superannuated Greek god in receipt of bad news. The smoke enveloped us all. Windows being thrown open, it jetted into what passed for a playground, where it hung around like some sinister leftover from a battle on the Somme. Shocked, scorched and gassed, Mr Ryan was carried away, never to return.

Back from his third retirement came Mary Luke. A chronic shortage of teachers led to Mary Luke being magically resurrected after each burial. Why he should have been called Mary was a datum lost in antiquity. The school presented him with a pocket watch every time he retired. Perhaps that was a mistake. It might have been the massed ticking that kept him alive. Anyway, Mary Luke, having already ruined science for a whole generation of schoolboys, came back from the shadows to ruin science for me.

Mary was keen but incomprehensible. The first thing he said at the start of every lesson, whether of physics or chemistry, was, ‘Make a Bunsen burner.’ He was apparently convinced that given the right encouragement we would continue our science studies in makeshift laboratories at home. So we might have done, if we could have understood anything else he said. Unfortunately ‘Make a Bunsen burner’ was his one remaining fathomable sentence. In all other respects his elocution made my late grandfather sound like Leslie Howard. The same comparison applied to his physical appearance. How could anyone be that old without being dead? But there were definite signs of life. The mouth moved constantly. ‘Combustioff off magnesioff,’ Mary would announce keenly. ‘Magnesioff off oxidoff off hydrogoff off givoff off.’ Worriedly I slid the cap off the inverted jar and ignited the gaseous contents to prove that hydrogoff had been givoff off. Carefully I drew the apparatus in my book, already aware that these preliminary experiments would be the last I would ever understand.

Perhaps I was never cut out for chemistry. But I had a right to think that physics might have lain within my scope. I impressed Mary with my precocious knowledge of the planets, which I could name in their order outwards from the sun. Mary looked momentarily blank at the mention of Pluto, but otherwise he seemed well pleased. A novel rearrangement of his lips took place which I guessed to be a smile. The teeth thereby revealed featured eye-catching areas of green amongst the standard amber and ochre. If only we could have stuck to astronomy. Instead, Mary sprang optics on us. ‘Thoff angloff off incidoff,’ he informed us, ‘equoff thoff angloff off reflectioff.’ We fiddled dutifully with pins and mirrors. I had the sinking feeling of being unable to understand. The moment of breakdown came when Mary started exploring the different properties of concave and convex mirrors. I couldn’t see which was which when he held them up. More importantly, I couldn’t tell the difference when he said their names. ‘Thoff miroff off concoff,’ he explained carefully, ‘off thoff miroff off convoff.’ Proud of having made things clear, he smiled fixedly, giving us a long look at his wrecked teeth. What was going on in that mouth of his? I could see things moving.

But some of the other boys seemed to understand Mary even if I couldn’t, and anyway in the straight mathematical subjects I had no excuse. The teaching might have been uninspired but it was sound enough. Besides, if I had had any mathematical talent I probably wouldn’t even have needed teaching. As things were, I remained good at mathematics as long as mathematics remained arithmetic and algebra. I was passable at trigonometry. But when calculus came in, the lights went out. My average marks gradually started to shelve downwards. Things weren’t helped by the weekly classes in woodwork and metalwork. I could handle technical drawing well enough, helped by my skill at lettering, but when I entered the workshop I was a gone goose. Metalwork was bad: anything I put in the lathe refused to come out true. It would start off as a cylinder and end up as a blob. So much for my dream of building new jet engines to outclass the Rolls-Royce Avon and the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, of designing aircraft whose power and beauty would enrol them among the masterpieces of Sydney Camm, Kurt Tank and Willy Messerschmitt. Woodwork was even worse. Nobody whose hands are not naturally dry can ever be a good carpenter, and I suffered badly from sweaty hands. My hands started to sweat with fear from the moment I put on my calico apron. By the time the woodwork teacher had finished explaining what we had to do my hands would be dripping like taps. Wet hands leave a film on wood that renders it hard to plane. Our first job was to make a breadboard. The breadboard had to be made from half a dozen lengths of wood glued together edge to edge. For this to succeed the edges had to be planed true. I kept on and on from week to week, planing away at my half-dozen pieces. It took me an entire term of classes before I got them true. By that time they were like chopsticks. When I glued my breadboard together it was the right length but only two inches wide. You couldn’t have cut a French loaf on it.

At the end of second year my average mark was down into the eighties. Suddenly I had lost my role. Being bright could have saved me from the ignominy of not growing tall. Growing tall could have saved me from the ignominy of not being bright. As things were, I was losing on all counts. In every subject except English and German I was obviously going nowhere. German was all right for a while. At Sydney Tech there were only German and French to choose from. Typically I chose the less beneficial. It was taught by a huge, shambling teacher we called Lothar, after Mandrake the Magician’s assistant. He was a nice man but charmless. I found it easy to keep level with Hans Kuckhoff, an immigrant from some unheard-of country whose family spoke German at home. Kuckhoff and I shared a desk and compared erections while Lothar concentrated on battering declensions into the heads of the slower boys. Der den des dem. Die die der der. It was back to the Cubs.

In English I shone — fitfully, but sufficiently to keep my morale from collapsing altogether. Our teacher in the early years was ‘Jazz’ Aked. He also doubled as our music teacher: hence the nickname. ‘Jazz’ taught English according to the curriculum. The curriculum was prescriptive. There were grammar, parsing and Latin roots to be learned. Without resorting to violence, ‘Jazz’ had a way of getting results. Eventually I learned to parse any sentence I was given. I couldn’t do it now, but the knowledge is still there somewhere at an unconscious level. It was invaluable training. On top of that, he set good essay subjects. My essays were sometimes read out to the class. I was thereby established all over again as teacher’s pet, but at least it was something, in those dreadful days when everyone else seemed to be doubling in size overnight, while simultaneously acquiring an Adam’s apple like a half-swallowed rock, a voice like Wallace Beery and a case of acne like the boiling surface of the sun. Such are the pangs of being left behind — that you can die of envy for cratered faces weeping with yellow pus.