A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 15: Marriage

Chapter 15: Marriage

Author: Alistair Knox

For several reasons, courtships in the 1930s were slower but generally more permanent. The need for security was greater because the welfare programmes of today were not then generally in existence. Marriage was still considered to be forever, despite an increase in the divorce rate since the end of World War I. Divorce was difficult to obtain, and adultery was the main justification for it. The family unit was much more closely knit due largely to the economic strait jacket, which reduced those same opportunities one would find more common after World War II. In Australia, home ownership was a life-long commitment. The average bank-officer's life revolved around mowing and weeding the lawn; tending the vegetable patch; handyman improvements; the desire to own a car - and going to the talkies on Saturday nights, listening in to the latest Trembler or the professional wrestling - all while said bank officer waited for his seniority to advance him to a branch managership, with residence attached.

Colonel de Basil's ?Original Ballet Russe? (Russian Ballet) season, Theatre Royal, Sydney, Colonel de Basil's ?Original Ballet Russe? (Russian Ballet) season, Theatre Royal, Sydney, Photo: State Library of New South Wales

Mernda's outgoing and fearless nature transcended this limited vision. On alternate weekends I visited her in the country, where she worked as a domestic-science teacher. She had taken such courses because she felt she was the most undomesticated person she knew of, and she knew these studies were critical to handling marriage successfully. We would go on walking tours around Clunes and Creswick, where she was stationed, and rediscover our historic past. These journeys to forgotten places cost us the princely sum of 2/- per meal and 2/- for a bed, and there was always the romantic hope that we might pick up a gold nugget on the side. Mernda would travel to Melbourne on the other weekends, and I found myself in a changing social environment. Mernda belonged to a creative-dance group under Joan Henry, and their expressive style of dance bore little resemblance to the eurhythmic-oriented motion generally preferred by ephemeral females trying to appear graceful. That year the Colonel de Basil Ballet Company visited Australia, and I got to see every performance they gave from the gallery of His Majesty's. I discovered Diaghilev, Fokine and Les Sylphides, Les Presages, Scheherazade, the Rites of Spring, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and all the rest of them. To my mind, Petrouchka stood out as the masterpiece. It was the one ballet that seemed to fulfill its potential: the puppet with a soul who died to rise again - this meant so much more to me than the limited stories of princes in tights shooting arrows at flying swans. When Mernda's long Christmas holiday arrived, we thought about where we should live. There was the possibility of purchasing a foreclosed house, either in the Hartwell or Camberwell area, for a small deposit with repayments spread over thirty years; but the general mediocrity of the facades' designs and the repetition of the suburban street - where every nature strip was edge-trimmed to within an inch of its life - turned us away from thinking respectability. The indelible negative effect all this had on me prevented me from ever owning a house on a sealed road. Mernda and I then explored the Yarra River for a boatshed or some outbuilding which we could adapt, and finally we found the most idyllic solution for 15/- per week located in Fairfield next to Clifton Hill - the office which had been obliged to open its doors to one of its least competent employees.

The Fairfield boathouse where they lived - altered but still standing
Photo: Tony Knox

The building we chose was a cabin set in the long backyard of a property in Park Crescent belonging to Mr and Mrs Edward; they were imposed upon by their son Lindsay, who would become a full-time artist. Lindsay was very persuasive when he learned that my uncle was W. D. Knox, one of his great heroes. Mr Edward, a housepainter with a difference, did murals and other eccentric works for special clients. When Mernda and I first saw the cabin, which had been abandoned since the 1934 flood, it was in need of proper repair. It stood about sixty metres from the edge of the river, on the steeply sloping bank and behind the houses facing Park Crescent. The waters had gone through it despite its height above normal water levels. The path descended seventy steps at the rate of one metre in three to the building. The under-floor space this provided accommodated two canoes, which we would later use frequently to paddle some miles upstream to where my father and his brothers had lived fifty years earlier. Mernda's uncompromising determination had lifted us out of suburbia and placed us in the Yarra Valley - the spiritual home of the Australian Impressionist painters with its unique colour and light - for half the cost of occupying a plaster-walled suburban convention complete with terra-cotta-tiled roof and two unwanted bedrooms. Our building comprised one main room about six metres by seven metres with a fireplace on one side, and some cleverly placed cupboards behind a waist-high bench on the other, which formed a backing to the low modern divan I made to sleep in. During the day, it formed part of the house furniture. Such innovation was twenty years ahead of its time, and its simplicity - which so evidenced the importance of deleting the inessential in design - has never left me. It has always struck me as so obvious that I have never really thought much about it. Perhaps it was just one more cog in the Lord's plan for my life; He was preparing things for me ten years before I would become aware of them. The remainder of the building was a low verandah at ground level which gave entry to the main room. Another verandah wing formed the high, riverside facade of the cabin. It contained a tiny shower room on the west end, a kitchen flap-table in the centre, and a cooking section on the east. The continuous run of windows was set ten feet above ground level and looked both ways over the water and along the idyllic bushland from Rudder Grange down to Willow Dell. On the flat space immediately below, we could look down and observe a grey-thrush's nest hanging in the branches of a red flowering ironbark. He honoured our presence daily with his twice-repeated deep-throated song of the eternal bush. This idyll was located fewer than six kilometres from the centre of the city.

The two greatest natural disasters for Victoria were the 1934 Yarra flood and the 1939 bushfires. The flood, centered more in Melbourne, was a combination of enormous rains which continued for several days, and gale-force southwest winds aided and abetted by a series of king tides; this all prevented the Yarra River from flowing into Port Phillip Bay at the usual speed. The confluxion of these forces caused the river to become two miles wide in the Heidelberg Valley a week after the storm began. One trauma of the first day - a man had drowned in a South Melbourne street when he fell out of his cart - sadly illustrated the severity of the local flooding, and I remember vividly the force of the wind as I struggled home along Armstrong Street after catching the last train from Melbourne. It was impossible to walk into the teeth of the gale without using the picket-front fences of the houses nearer the beach to pull myself along. There were ships that had lost their moorings; adrift in the night without power, they might come ashore at any time. Some hours later that night, there was a call along Armstrong Street for volunteers to help rescue the lessees of the Baths and salvage their furniture and belongings. We all responded, and found the water coming up through the floors amid the general scene of chaos, though it was not until we saw it by daylight that we had any notion of the real ferocity of the seas. Each succeeding day saw little relief from the adverse winds and tide, and on the eighth day the floodwaters, which had remained almost stationary for five days, suddenly rose three or four feet higher in the environs of the river in a matter of hours to create a sense of great alarm. Several houses that were flooded to their eaves simply took off and floated downstream. One of them just missed our little cabin and finished up in the back waters of Willow Dell half a mile further down.

Wreckage of Middle Park Sea Baths after storm in 1934Wreckage of the Middle Park Sea BathsPhoto: B. King, 1934 Museum Victoria

The bushfires of 1939 started around 15 January and raged around the whole State for a week. They burnt across a tenth of the whole of the Victorian land mass and by their promiscuity and dimension make the Ash Wednesday fires of 1982 fade into insignificance. They devoured the major part of the great mountain country and destroyed much of Victoria's best timber resources. Historic centres like Woods Point were reduced to nothing and never really recovered. On the final day, which became known as Black Friday, one of the fires hit Eltham and moved east, where it destroyed most of the Warrandyte settlement. We went swimming in the river at Fairfield that afternoon at about four o'clock, when the sky was half-dark with smoke and the air temperature had risen to one hundred fourteen degrees. The flames finally died down because there remained so little to burn. In many places the fire bypassed whole mountain ranges, only to start up again ten miles further on.

Melbourne has always been something of an overgrown village because of its uneventful terrain, which allowed it to spread out in all directions free from cyclones and earthquakes. We thought of it as a place where one could live a full, uneventful, and secure life without ever visiting another city - not unlike the inhabitants in many English towns of that same period who never travelled more than a few miles from their birthplace.

The fires awakened a new understanding in me; I became aware that so much of the mountain vastness of the high country had been razed and would never be the same. I had fallen in love with the great mountain-ash forests; from their wood I had only a year earlier built furniture for our little cabin in Fairfield. Thirty years later, there were still entire hillsides of the remains of two-hundred-foot burnt-out giants standing like ghosts overlooking the carnage of that terrible event. Some idea of the fires' total dimension may be grasped by the fact that a great smoke pall continued to hang over the Southern Hemisphere as far away as South America for weeks after.

Margaret Knox (mother), Alistair Knox, Peggy McMillan (younger sister), Mernda Knox, 'Ninna' Clayton (mother), Roderick McMillan (Peggy's husband)

Soon after we were married in the Scotch College Chapel, Mernda became pregnant with our first child, whom we named Anthony in honour of Anthony Adverse, a widely read book of the period. During the pregnancy, Mernda began to exhibit her unique nature more extensively. She retained her exquisite figure, which made it hard to tell that she was pregnant at all. She went into the city the day prior to her confinement dressed in a Spanish creation, looking every inch of her high-born heredity; it was as if she were on a tour of one of her estates. The confinement was over in a couple of hours, and I quickly became aware that Mernda was showing signs of being as fecund her maternal grandmother had once been in the Strzelecki Ranges.

I was twenty-five when Anthony ('Tony') was born on Saint Patrick's Day 1938, and our family enjoyed much of the year before the outbreak of World War II in the natural, serene environment, only vaguely conscious of what our unpredictable and foreboding future would bring. In Europe, British Prime Minister Chamberlain was still asserting that Hitler's territorial demands would cease - first in Austria, and then in the Sudetenland. France and Britain looked optimistically to the Soviet should there be the hint of further changes to come in the European map. Meanwhile, the Republicans in Spain had been savagely defeated by General Franco - through both the massive assistance of German and Italian armies and air forces and the general lack of assistance from the feckless Allies, who appeared to be more afraid of the Socialists than of the Nazis. The crowning weakness came when Chamberlain flew off to Europe and signed the Munich Agreement with the irrepressible Fuhrer - and with Mussolini, Hitler's somewhat bloated and comic counterpart.

Mernda with Tony

In retrospect it is amazing to contemplate how easily and completely the aggressors came to dominate Europe within a decade. Great publicity was given to the piece of paper Chamberlain brought back with him from his European mission and to his claim that he had won peace in his time for us. The time he would gain, in fact, was less than a year, which was spent by Hitler finalising war preparations and moving further ahead of our defences every day. The German domination of the air was total - as it was in every other department of aggression - but Britain and France still appeared confident they could repel it and turn it instead in the direction of Stalin and Russia. The German U-boats and Pocket battleships were honing up to defeat the Allies' merchant fleets, and the effects of the Depression had not yet fully disappeared, but the wheels of industry were gradually returning to the production of guns, planes, and armaments.

The final realisation became absolutely concrete when the Soviets, whom we saw as a massive threat to the Nazis in the east, signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler shortly before he attacked Poland. I had become more politically aware through the publications of a journalist named Douglas Reid, particularly his volume Disgrace Abounding, which revealed the fate that awaited us through indecision and the inability of the Western powers to face up to the realities of life. Our leaders told us that Germany was insolvent, lacking in raw materials; quite unable to fight for any length of time; and that the good old British Lion would rouse itself and blunder through once more. It was soon revealed that the new generals were as high-born and as incompetent as their predecessors had been; in addition, they persisted in their belief that the common British soldier, though slow to start, would be able to hang on at all costs against any aggressor no matter how ill-equipped their commanders left them. There seemed little hope that any lessons were to be learnt in a country with such social divisions. There were those born to rule, and those born to serve; between them stretched a great abyss through which no man could pass. The Dad's Army concept we laughed over in later years had essentially been accurate. The new armies had to train with wooden guns until real ones became available, and there was a time when a British MP seriously recommended reintroducing the medieval pyke (..??..) to repel the Germans if they invaded Merrie England. It was just a great pity that Drake wasn't still alive 'to drum them up the channel as he drummed them long ago'!

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