A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 14: Meeting Mernda

Chapter 14: Meeting Mernda

Author: Alistair Knox

The society of the entire world was in flux. Ramsay McDonald had long since been written off as a spent force in Britain, and his successor Stanley Baldwin was busily trying to maintain the status quo, though without the power to enforce it. Each month we were told that Germany could not continue under the Nazi regime and its persecution of the Jews, but apparently the German leader did not read the English papers or listen in to English radio. Germany continued to arm at a furious rate, while Mussolini declared war on Ethiopia in pursuit of acquiring an African empire.

Exams at the Royal Exhibition Buildings Melbourne Exams at the Royal Exhibition Buildings Melbourne in the early 1940s

I decided I should obtain my matriculation in order to qualify to do medicine and become a medical missionary. I entered for two subjects on the last possible day, reading some of the English text, and doing a bit of commercial practice. I sat for one exam on 1 December 1934, the first day of the biggest flood in the history of Melbourne. My desk was directly under the dome of the Exhibition Building, and drops of rain fell on my essay like teardrops. Perhaps this 'emotional' manifestation appeared to be part of the essay and affected the judgment of the examiner. In any case, I was given a pass; but by the time the results were published, the original desire had dwindled. Also, I was unable to face Latin, which was a compulsory subject.

The summer season at our house in Armstrong Street was attracting ever greater numbers of visitors, and the time passed pleasantly. I swam in the Middle Park Baths each morning and was a member of the last trio of early-morning swimmers who made the plunge when most of the others were already well on their way to work. My companions included Sol Green, a well-known retired bookmaker who used to come out to the deep end after his hot sea bath and massage. His booming voice always heralded his approach as though he were still laying the odds at Flemington. Sol cut an interesting figure, with his chauffeur waiting outside in the long black Rolls Royce; this combined in an original way with the dive he would enact from the landing. He would heave his aged figure out into space, and we would wait with bated breath until he hit the water with an ear-bursting belly-whacker. We were always doubtful he would make it back to the steps because he could barely remain afloat. The sight of those old arms clawing away at the water made us both proud and thankful for him and his survival. The other member of our trio was a returned soldier named Pat Hannah, who made full-length films - a rare activity in Australia in the 1930s. He used to spend long periods underneath the baths deck staring at schools of fish and trying to devise a method of catching them. He eventually proposed using the skeleton of an umbrella and sharpening the spikes to stick the fish with. We never discovered the efficacy of this method because the great storm washed away the main superstructure of the building, tossing it all over Beaconsfield Parade. This was also the year in which Grandpa Brown died, and I felt the new era had arrived. My own allegiance to the Meeting was disappearing: its single remaining spiritual force was no longer there to guard it with his prayers and strong example.

Since 1929 two young men - one English and the other Scottish - had become regular frequenters of our domicile. The Englishman, Geoffrey Vellacott, was later killed in the Malaya campaign in the Second World War. The Scot, Alan McMillan, would eventually become my brother-in-law when he married my younger sister Peggy in 1940. Both of these men had been brought to Australia under the Little Brother Scheme, and at this stage they were attending the University in preparation for becoming Presbyterian ministers. They had been partly responsible for the influx of university types which frequented our menage in heterogeneous confusion with all the other inmates and their friends. Geoffrey was a blond Englishman who stuck to his principles in all circumstances. On one occasion, he and three or four compatriots were thrown into the University Lake because they were members of the Labour Club, which disputed the pros and cons of social justice. My sister Isobel was an excellent scholar and teacher, and as she spoke of her English course at the University I became familiar with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Beaumont, and Fletcher and Ben Johnson, who was the only one besides the Bard to live beyond age thirty didn't die a violent death. I wrote lots of romantic poetry while lying on the couch and chain-smoking late into the night; this did great damage to my respiratory organs. I would wake the following morning red-eyed and fuddle-headed. After the great storm destroyed the Baths and there was no swimming to persuade me to rise early, I would lie in until the last possible moment. I knew the train schedule by heart and could hear the trains coming and going in the distance. It took me five minutes' smart walking to reach the station and board the 8.14 a.m., which was the latest train I should catch. There were city-bound departures every six minutes, giving me a deadline rising time of 7.56 provided I forewent the morning shower. My best time was worthy of the Guinness Book of Records. I once heard the 8.08 depart while I was still in bed; with my unbuttoned shirt flapping in the wind, fly undone, tie in hand, unshaven, grubby, and wheezing in sepulchral tones with ashen face to match, I still managed to catch the 8.14 after it had started to leave the platform.

As all of the local community inhabited the beach for four to six months every year, we all knew each other's movements intimately. The setting sun would eventually fall into shadow, and the cool south wind that came up would move me with unfulfilled dreams and deep melancholia. Underneath an agreeable but fruitless daily round lay a host of desires and uncompleted projects made impossible by the limitations the Depression imposed on us.

 Anarchists and other workers who attempted a social revolution after the military uprising of the right-wing General Francisco Franco in July 1936 Anarchists and other workers who attempted a social revolution after the military uprising of the right-wing General Francisco Franco in July 1936

The Spanish Civil War had begun in 1936, and the confusion of the bad news-reporting, along with the Fascist and Nazi intervention, made us all turn to the left - especially as we witnessed the official bungling in high quarters in France and Britain. It was the worst-reported war in modern history. By the time news reached our distant shores, any semblance of truth in it was purely accidental. The British Tory party was afraid to invest in armaments for fear of losing the elections to the Liberal or the Labour party, and Chamberlain's great appeasement plan was taking root in high places. Edward VIII succeeded his father during the same year, and the great traditional morality faced the challenge of the new 'modern morality', with the Chamberlains, the Samuel Hoares, and the Baldwins versus the Churchills. Would the twice-married Mrs Simpson be allowed to share the throne with Edward? Many believed this would destroy the Establishment forever. Adultery was one thing: the condoning of it, another. It was a time of disillusionment with the past, which no longer seemed what it had been purported to be. The appearance of right was essential, regardless of what went on in the heart. By the time of the abdication (when Edward became Duke of Windsor), war seemed an inevitability, especially as the presumptuous Hitler and Mussolini strode across the stage of Europe in polished jackboots and savage brutality.

The Western governments sank to their lowest ebb of all time. France relied on the Static Maginot Line defence, and England under Chamberlain believed it should make a deal with Hitler and push him eastwards toward the Soviet. I had no real understanding of politics except a general belief that the underdog was almost always right, particularly in those days, when it was largely amongst the working class that so many were jobless and starving.

My girlfriend Peg Lord was preparing to go overseas. Her fiance's visit from the west was not the hoped-for success, and some time after his return to Perth he called the whole thing off. My constant presence quickly reassured her that all was not lost and that if she went abroad, I would soon follow. I was undecided; after much thought, I consulted my Bible in desperation and picked a random passage. What it said decided me then and there: 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all those things will be added unto you'. I thought this was the correct answer for me because I was so soft when it came to making hard decisions. I was surprised at how it stuck. Sam's girlfriend Moya Dyring came with me to see Peg off. When the ship's streamers had all broken and we started to walk back along the pier, I simply said to Moya, 'That is the end of that'. 'Good on you, Knoxie', she replied, and I immediately felt the lump in my throat dissolve. I realise now, as I look back over the major decisions I have made, that there was always an unseen and mostly unknown influence at work in my life. In some indefinable way, it was by and large this force which made the decisions: they were not part of my normal mental processes. On many occasions I had made up my mind to go off on a tangent, but was prevented from doing so - against my desire - by this same force. I have no doubt now that it was the Holy Spirit convincing me of where I should be and where I was, and the fact of my Christian upbringing and the prayers of my elders kept me from many disastrous decisions. Because I assumed I was a believer, it all seemed to be as it should be. I was convinced that the first thing faith should give me was a life of security, harmony, and untroubled consequence - because that is what I thought I saw in the members of the family and the Meeting. The Protestant work ethic - now so much in the discard - kept these believers at their jobs, in apparent contentment, for a lifetime. Uncle Jim, the most consistent of men, worked for Briscoe & Co. for nearly seventy years until he died in his eighties.

Because the 1930s were a decade when so many of the old values were destroyed it became inevitable that there must be a Second World War. Many Christians thought Armageddon was on the doorstep and could happen any day. My decision to give up Peg Lord when she went overseas was made easier when I met Mernda Clayton, whom I would marry in 1937. Mernda was the daughter of 'Reggie' Clayton, one of the more interesting masters at Scotch College. He had taught me during my first year, and his rendition of Horatius keeping the Bridge against Lars Porsena and his Etruscan Army was wonderfully histrionic. He was a man of short stature, and was heavily involved in the outside activities of the school. We nicknamed him 'the little aristocrat'. He and his great friend 'Sandy' Sandford were the essential force behind the many excursions and holiday trips the school undertook to places as widely separated as the Lerderderg Gorge and Mount Kosciusko. Reggie's daughter Mernda was a very special person whose figure and nature reflected a balanced combination of both her father and her mother. Her father's character had been deeply coloured by the genes of his own mother - who was high-born Spanish - on the one side, and through his mother's mother - the daughter of a half-French mother - on the other. Mernda introduced me to the true meaning of personal courage. She was, herself, alone at all times, and her opinions were always well thought out and original. She would stand against all odds, undaunted. Her unusual face shape was broad and Spanish, her nose large and commanding; her figure was poetry in motion. She was a born dancer with perfect co-ordination and semi-double-jointed limbs which combined to give her an exquisite gracefulness in all her movements and high-Castillian pride. It was not hard to discern, when you looked at her, how the Spaniards were able to drive the Moors out of Europe in the fifteenth century and become the conquistadores of the sixteenth under 'Stout Cortes' when he defeated Montezuma and the Aztec hordes to win Mexico and its gold for Spain. She, like they, could similarly burn her boats and would die rather than turn back. The other side of her family was equally undauntable. In both lineages, it was the women who were the strength. Mernda's maternal grandmother went on to a selection in South Gippsland in the Strzelecki Ranges which the settlers started clearing by cutting down the two-hundred-foot mountain-ash forests and exploring the fern gullies and misty delights of the Tara Valley wonderland. Their first house consisted of one large room with an asphalt floor. Stores arrived only once every six months, by bullock wagon. As the family increased in number, a measure of privacy was managed between males and females by stacking the stores up into walls. This improvisation was limited, however, because the walls would shorten in height as the stores were depleted and the bi-annual bullock-wagon trek came nearer. But Grandma Crutchfield, nee Debney, was as French and as practical as they come. The asphalt floor proved infinitely more practical than would have a Burgundy axminster carpet. Her husband, who by profession was an engraver of elegant objects rather than of landscapes, had - inevitably - become merely the titular head of the household. Though he died much earlier than did his strong-minded wife, he did live long enough for her to bear him twenty-two children - most of whom survived - which was all the more remarkable in that she bore the last six of them alone, without any help or midwifery. Under her dominion the family became reasonably successful. They eventually built a substantial two-storeyed, dormer-windowed French-flavoured house a few miles further up the precipitous hillsides; they could look out over the southern ocean and study its stormy moods and wild coastlines. When Grandma Debney made the move to this new residence, she dug up and balled all the mature fruit trees from the original house garden and replanted them in the new property by dragging them up the rough terrain herself with teams of horses.

Mernda and I were both the products of individual families, and neither of us had placed much store in accumulating wealth; this personal quality was doubly advantageous in those Depression years. Mernda wrote poetry with a bold, wide handwriting, but her major linguistic quality was her ability to read poetry with extraordinary power and clarity. She could reel off the first book of Paradise Lost verbatim with such quality of voice and understanding that one stood mute, halfway between tears and amazement in the realisation of what poetry actually is. Her personal courage also gave her the freedom to ask questions that I felt were too childish to admit to, but which caused her no embarrassment whatsoever. Of course I, too, would listen to the answers even more eagerly than she did to gain knowledge without having to admit my ignorance. This was typical of the difference between her openness and my secretive nature.

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