Advancing age is said to enhance the long-term memory at the expense of the short-term. At 70 I’m not aware of any particular loss of short-term memory but I am conscious of an ability to recall the distant past in clearer detail than before.
In particular, I’m surprised to find how clearly I can remember the layout of school grounds and the atmospherics of the schools I attended. The first was the Kingsville Primary School in Melbourne’s inner-west. I was there for five years. The asphalted assembly area, the rough gravel and grass playground, the cricket pitch and the stand of gum trees are in my mind’s eye as I write.
It was a time of inkwells, steel nibs to pens and severe corporal punishment, which I only suffered once. We played knockabout cricket and kick-to-kick football and cherry-bobs, which involved lobbing cherry pips at a hole with odds being called by the hole owner: ‘Five and your old girl back!’ I doubt anyone under 70 would have any understanding of this. And perhaps only those who grew up in the old City of Footscray would find it familiar.
I completed my primary-school education at Bentleigh West State School in the dreary south-eastern suburbs, where I just missed being a contemporary of David Williamson. Again, the grounds – asphalt, grass and gravel – are clear in my mind. House competition (something I gather from my grandsons is much attenuated today), was intense. On Monday mornings the flags of the four houses were displayed in order, reflecting the success of the sports teams in the week before. It mattered terribly.
There was also intense competition to gain entry to the feeder school to the selective high schools. I sat next to Jill Hough, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty whom I adored but never touched. I finished second in the year and made the cut to Gardenvale Central, but Jill didn’t. As it turned out it hardly mattered.
I rode my bike with a couple of friends to Gardenvale, helmetless, a couple of miles on frosty or searing Melbourne mornings. Long pants for us taller boys and lurex socks for dandies. I was twelve and had what I remember as my first (and very uncomfortable) erection on seeing a woman come out to collect her milk, wearing a silk dressing gown that fell open as we rode past. The classrooms were coeducational but the boys and girls were separated in the playground.
At Gardenvale the object, for males, was to do well enough to sit the examination to be admitted to Melbourne Boys High School in South Yarra. I made it, probably without much to spare, and was placed in the second tier of the third form.
I walked a mile from home to the station to catch a train to South Yarra and about a quarter of a mile from there to the school. Beneficial exercise. The headmaster was Brigadier (‘the Brig’) George Langley; he was followed by W M Woodfull, the legendary cricketer. Woodfull was an austere figure in an impeccable double-breasted suit, who drove a smart MG saloon car which he parked immediately outside the main entrance, high on Forest Hill. I was once hauled up before him for wearing a duffel coat in violation of school rules.
In front of the school the school there were a football and cricket oval, tennis courts, a basketball court and gardens. At the back, there was a wide playing area used on Fridays for drill and exercises by the cadet unit. More than 50 years later, I remember them clearly, as well as every corridor, locker area, seniors’ common room and staircase of the interior of the school. There was a rifle range where we fired .303s modified to shoot .22 bullets.
The ethos was simple – to emulate as closely as possible the manners and culture of the English public school – if not Eton, then at least Rugby: houses, prefects, rowing on the Yarra and some teachers wearing gowns. On later reflection, there was a latent homosexual tinge to friendships and admirations.
I loved every day of high school, so much more interesting and gratifying than my safe but emotionally undernourished home life. I thrived and won a scholarship that enabled me to stay at school in the face of tight family finances and my father’s opposition.
I’m told there is a portrait gallery of old boys who distinguished themselves in later life at the school. I know it features Graham Kennedy, who was there briefly before me. I’m sure it would include Ron Sackville, a contemporary who became a judge; David Parkin, the star school player in my time and an Australian football legend, and Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, later to be celebrated (with Judith Durham) as the Seekers. They were a year or two ahead of me, already charismatic, notable members of the school orchestra and the cadet unit band as you would expect.
Am I there in the gallery? I doubt it.