When I turned three the time had come for me to start attending church, which our whole family did, morning and evening, every Sunday. I only went once a week at first. The church we attended had been co-founded by my grandfather, Alexander Fraser Knox, and by my mother's father, Samuel Brown. Alexander Knox had been a brilliant theological student at Edinburgh University, where he headed his year in those scrupulously factual religious times when it would not have been possible to laugh inside a church. He belonged to a segment of the Presbyterian denomination known as the Free Presbyterian church, which regarded the organ as an instrument of the devil and would sing only psalms - and no hymns. When the service started - 'In this corner of Christ's vineyard' - the front doors would be shut to prevent any latecomers from entering. In my grandfather's church in Scotland, there was a spyhole in the ceiling through which a member of the congregation, appointed for the purpose, peered down on the minister delivering the sermon in order to observe whether he used any form of notes to assist him. Every Scottish minister was expected to preach the whole sermon - sometimes extending to nearly an hour - verbatim. His five, six, or more points had to be succinctly arranged so that even his dour congregation would have to admit it was 'nae waur' than the previous Sunday's. Ministers who did not possess this kind of memory were despised and called 'Stickit' ministers.
When Alexander Fraser Knox took up his charge, the pulpit spy was no longer necessary because my grandfather would take out a completely handwritten address, spread it out on the top of the Bible, and then begin to speak with great authority and oratorical power. The spy, finding himself out of a job, left the church at once; but a growing congregation rapidly filled up the empty pews. Alexander Knox was demonstrating a special gift with which he had been empowered: verbal communication. He was able to make the characters of the Book rise from the page, a talent which to this day appears in various forms in the Knox family, monotonously repeated in the third and fourth generations. Grandpa Knox's wife, an elegant French-Swiss ma'moiselle from Lausanne, added her own special qualities to the Knox family group, which had both its good and bad aspects: good when it came off, and unfortunate when it was too finely bred and a few odd quirks appeared in the next generation.
The other side of the family were stonemasons and artisans and, in my mother's father's case, a cobbler. Grandpa Brown lived and worked until his eighty-ninth year. He never seemed to change physically in the twenty-four years I knew him. Like Moses of old, when he came to die 'his eye was not dim nor his natural force abated'. He died a few weeks after an accident in, in which he broke his thigh when he tripped over the leather strap that held the shoe to the bootmaking last in his shop. He lay on his back in hospital for six weeks. His thigh was knitting quickly and he was due to get up in a week, when he caught pneumonia. This was in the day before sulpha-drug cures, and the inevitable happened. I well remember him telling me how in the hospital one day someone had left the window open while they bathed him, and that he had caught a chill. Even after unconsciousness finally set in, his tenacious body continued to hang on for days because his heart refused to stop beating. Sixty-five years earlier he had been advised that his heart was so weak that he would die within six months. Hearing this had prompted him to start running everywhere, so that he could fulfill more of his spiritual commitments within the time remaining to him. His deep and struggling breaths - right up to the moment he died - were similar to my own father's when he lost consciousness for the last time some years earlier. It still makes me think about the slow dying process that may well be my lot.
Grandpa Brown was short in stature and thin and wiry of frame, but his erect bearing and Wellingtonian appearance gave him height and an imposing presence beyond his physical dimensions. It was not hard to imagine him standing in a British square at Waterloo to understand how formidable the French would have found his forebears.
Grandpa Brown was not an intellectual, but his integrity, his resolve, and his practical sanity made him memorable. His piercing blue eyes made it pointless to prevaricate with him. Either you acknowledged him as a serious, saintly man, or you kept out of his way. At most times, he was gently spoken. When he would step down from the back of his shop to attend to a customer his iron-grey beard, full head of hair, black shirt, and stiff white collar would make it feel something of an honour to be in his presence. The smell of cobbler's wax ingrained into his hands added an aroma of conscientious toil that went with his leather, his last, and his tacks. The extraordinary earnestness he exuded remains to this day. His bootmaking shop was situated in Canterbury Road opposite the Middle Park Station. It was a wooden, box-like extension to his dwelling house, and it remains exactly the same today. The only thing which has ever been changed is the name on the building, which was redone in 1946; but the name Samuel Brown remains there because the business is presently operated by Samuel Brown II, who took charge of it when his father, Grandpa Brown's son, died. It is breathtaking to step into it today and smell the leather and see the shoes ready to be delivered, wrapped in brown paper, sitting on the shelves over the machine where the finishing was done. Sam Brown, some years younger than I am, comes down the steps to greet me - it's as though Grandpa Brown just happens to be out and will be back any minute.
My two grandfathers became very close friends when Alexander Knox arrived from Scotland and started to preach at the Free Presbyterian Church in Dorcas Street, South Melbourne, in 1869. He had decided to immigrate to Australia because of his poor health. His capacity to fill empty pews was everywhere apparent as he moved from Victoria to South Australia and back again. A time of crisis eventually arose in this church over doctrine, and Grandpa Knox decided to demit his charge and to take those who would go with him back to a simpler life of faith and commitment. This moment of decision had all the ingredients of a neo-Reformation. After an evening service, he announced his intentions and reasons and challenged those who were prepared to go with him to stand on one side of the church, the remainder on the other. Grandpa Brown was the first to follow Grandpa Knox when he walked out to form a self-determining congregation, which for seventy years was known as 'the Meeting'. It consisted both of the grandparents' families and of a group of like-minded worshippers who sought to achieve a separation from 'the world' in the practice of their evangelical faith. There was no fanaticism - unless the rejection of 'worldly' systems, and of the accumulation of money and possessions, is considered to be so. While they lived they would remain in that world, but not of it. They regarded themselves as citizens of heaven who were, for the time being, living in enemy territory. They owned what they stood up in, and the simple necessities of daily life - and little else. They would not own a house, or even vote. They were living examples of the belief that true spiritual work never wants for money. When they first rented a hall in which they could meet each Sunday, the rent was £1 weekly. The fee was still the same in 1939. Throughout its life, the Meeting never took up a collection. Some of their practices - other than that of not having a collection - gradually eased and disappeared in the next generation during the 1930s.
It was to this meeting place that my feet were first directed in 1915 and to which I still returned to an ever-decreasing degree until the age of thirty-five. The Meeting was held at the South Melbourne Temperance Hall during that entire period. The Hall occupied a central position facing Napier Street between Howe Crescent and Clarendon Street, forming the sole separation between the Roman Catholic St Vincent de Paul's Boys and Girls Orphanages. It was like a running sore that could never heal. There was no love lost between the Sons of Temperance, the Friendly Oddfellows Society, the Rechabites, and the Freemasonry elements which totally opposed the Roman Catholic Church, especially in those times when the wearing of the green and the orange had general significance and was not observed only in Northern Ireland (as it later became). Although it was generally expressed in a non-violent manner, there existed a genuine, unspoken opposition just under the surface.
While I was enrolled at the Middle Park Central School, towards the end of World War I, there were periodic fights - between the Protestants represented by the State School and the Catholics from the adjacent convent schools - which took place on Ash Wednesday and any other of the calendar occasions when the Catholics would come marching down the road to attend the nearby Carmelite church. I didn't understand any of this because my family were silent on the issue, although they did have clear convictions which held that it was not their prerogative to take part in such conflicts, but rather to love their enemies (if they regarded them as such) and, in so doing, heap coals of fire upon their heads. Between the schools there were proper strategic campaigns which, however, were aggravated by the Irish troubles that began in 1916, continued after the European War, and still had repercussions into World War II.
The State School and the Roman Catholic church were separated by an island of houses measuring some three hundred metres by fifty metres, with a narrow street subdividing it across the wider measurement. The sight of the Catholics marching in line on their way to the church close to morning-bell time would generate ribald remarks from the Proddies and the shouting of the chant:
'Catholic dogs jump like frogs
In and out the water
When the Master rings the bell
All the children go to hell'.
The priests would prevent these forces breaking lines on the way into the church but, spiritual activities over, the students would be out of control. When the State School play bell went an hour and a half later, it was a case of 'Let the battle begin!' The protagonists would meet on the road subdividing the intervening house block, as well as at both ends, in a style reminiscent of a miniature campaign on the western front. Stones, fisticuffs, and shouts would rend the air as they charged. After them would charge the priests and some of the State School teachers to restore order; all of this would take sufficient time, thereby ensuring us a longer-than-usual playtime.
I was still in the Kindergarten building, where we were prevented by the teachers from leaving, so I missed the main engagement and had to be content with the stories the warriors would bring back with them - how the Catholics were dirty fighters who threw their stones upwards so that they would descend like shells in the midst of the combatants instead of those in front of them. By the time I reached the Big School, thoughts of the Great War had sufficiently receded to make the school fights a non-event; but the general anti-Catholic tensions did remain.
This religious turmoil was all headed up by Archbishop Mannix, regarded by some as a true subversive element within the British Empire. I remember passing by the new Carmelite Roman Catholic Church Hall with Uncle Jim in the afternoon on which it was dedicated in the early 1920s; we were on our way home from Sunday school, where my uncle was a teacher. We stood and watched the rather willowy figure of the archbishop as he addressed the large crowds below from a balcony facing onto Richardson Street. He said nothing which I could comprehend sufficiently either to alarm or inspire me. I did not understand how this slightly swaying, red-and-white personality with constantly gesturing hands - partly blessing, partly defying his audience - could pose any serious threat to Australia. I was to realise later that every resolution of any Irish question had always been complicated; it was only when the spiritual fires of Roman Catholicism died down during World War II, to be re-ignited with the rise of the Democratic Labour party in the 1950s, (that I saw??) that I recognised how interminable the Catholic problem has been in Australia.
Anzac Day occurred on 25 April 1915. It was not remarkable to me at the time, but it did take on significance ten years later because of a poem my father wrote. My mother had seen an advertisement for a competition where the writer of the best five-hundred-word poem about Australia - which she misread as five hundred lines - would be awarded a prize; she urged my father to enter, because he was a natural poet. The cadence of his words as he preached at the Meeting on Sunday evenings made his sermons memorable both in delivery and content. He was reluctant to spend much time writing verse, as though he thought the words produced might not be in harmony with his spiritual state and standing. When he did write verse, however, it was always excellent. Over the years all of his poems have been lost, and I can only recall snatches of them here and there. The competition's required poem was a fairly tall order, but my father set about penning the approximate number of suitably short lines; they centred on the theme of Australia being the Never-Never Land because its true value was always misunderstood and underestimated by other lands and nationalities. I can especially recall the part of this poem which refers to Australia, Anzac, and France. It used to cause the hair to prickle on the back of my neck. It ran more or less as follows:
'I will try my gold
In a final mould
Its place in the race to settle
And the great God Mars
Flung the nations all
In a crucible
'Til it hummed like a witch's kettle
And Australia there
In the trembling air
Made the rocks and the mountains quiver
With a flash of flame
To the German claim
And the answer of "Never, Never!"'
In addition to trips to church on Sunday mornings and evenings, when we generally travelled by train for only one station, from Middle Park to Albert Park, there were various other outings I undertook in the company of Aunt Isa and Mother. The first passion of my life at three years old was not Loveday Williams, the girl who lived next door, but rather the beautiful little steam trains that flew from St Kilda to Melbourne along the track that divided Albert Park from Canterbury Road. The line was built up above the road level and passed over the viaduct spanning the wide Albert Road, so that every movement of the pistons and every plume of white, grey, or black smoke could be seen and appreciated perfectly. The red 'dog box' carriages the train drew were identical in every detail with an oversized model, and I would endeavour to get my head out the window to catch their every movement. My cautious and precise Aunt Isa, of course, would never allow such a dangerous act to occur, and would close the window. It was only after my stubborn opposition that it would be re-opened, provided I keep my head well inside the compartment. Even then, smoke and soot would occasionally blow in, and I would get a cinder in my eye. My mother would quickly wet a corner of her handkerchief, which smelled of eau du Cologne, and tilt my head back to start cleaning out the offending ash, saying what a silly boy I was.
Once, on the train, we found ourselves in a smoking compartment - complete with spittoons on the floor - which was almost as sacred as a gentlemen's club. The two ladies and I sat in silence until we could make our escape a few minutes later, at the next station. I spent this time staring at the spittoon, which had a hole in the bottom of the concave bowl to drain out the spittle; through this hole it was also possible to see the sleepers and the ballast flashing past in a grey blurr. On the occasions when my mother and Aunt Isa went to the city to shop, I always walked to the station with my aunt at a leisurely pace; she would always leave in plenty of time, unlike my mother. My aunt was shorter and broader than her sister, and much more phlegmatic. My mother was always trying to crowd innumerable extraneous activities into the time at her disposal and would leave home expecting to complete the five minutes' stiff walk to the station in two minutes flat. She was a great runner by First World War standards, and my aunt and I would watch her sprint like a schoolgirl down Armstrong Street just as the train was approaching from St Kilda.
At the section where the platform passed over the viaduct which gave access to the adjacent Albert Park, the Middle Park Station provided a perfect viewpoint from which to gauge the chances for success of those travellers running to catch the train. At this point the usual platform hordings had been deleted, and it was possible to see far into the distance, left and right, along Canterbury Road, as well as to have an uninterrupted view as far as the beach along Armstrong Street. Running for the train in the days of steam was a social activity greatly enjoyed by the train-going public both because of its masochistic nature, and because most of the sprinters were well known to the spectators. The advent of electric trains in the early 1920s ruined the sport because now the porters were compelled to close the gates to the platform just as the trains stopped. In the steam era the gates were left opened all the time; so it had been possible to still be bounding up the ramp while the train whistle blew and the engine was actually moving out of the station, and still make a spectacular catch. Steam engines took longer to get up speed than did their electrical successors, and the classic train-catching act involved leaping onto the running board, opening the out-swinging door, and falling into the compartment when the train was partly out of the platform.
Many stories were told about this activity, and none was more impressive than that which involved a new train-traveller who had been sighted approaching Canterbury Road well back in the St Kilda direction, in an apparently hopeless position. He was still a block away as the train was gliding to a halt. The train had well started up again when this agile figure sprinted along the platform and made the guard's van. Even accomplished runners were impressed, so a look-out was kept the following day: the process was exactly repeated. There were even a few cheers from his fellow travellers, whose heads - without exception - were thrust out the windows. Everyone was waiting the following morning for another brilliant performance, but they were to be disappointed. The runner was seen walking very quickly, but it was clear he would just make it in time. The same thing happened the next day, and everyone became so dejected that they asked the man what had happened to spoil this exciting sport. The explanation was as simple as it was disarming: 'It's like this', he said. 'I live half a mile from the station, and I leave in time to catch the train by walking halfway and running halfway; and the last two days, I decided to run the first half and walk the second'.
In some miraculous way or other, my mother always managed to make it to the station in time; but even as I watched her sprint like a teenager, I would always be grateful for the steady Auntie Isa, who had purchased tickets with five minutes to spare and would sit exuding a great sense of security, something I very much appreciated. Once safely inside the train, my mother would catch her breath, set about repacking her hastily filled bag, and make a few female adjustments to her clothes. She would then start on me. On one particular trip, after she had touched up my curls, she put on my head a white cotton hat with a floppy brim and silk band - these features were meant to encourage me to wear it. I solemnly removed the hat and handed it back to her each time. This process was repeated two or three times during the journey. By this age, I was certain that my curls were of some importance, and I did not intend to allow them to be covered up. I finally become bored with the whole act: I just took the hat off, put it straight out the window, without comment, and watched it whirl away out of sight. My mother couldn't quite keep a straight face, which made her intended scolding a waste of time. From that day on I never wore a hat again, except when in naval uniform in World War II.
My great ambition in those days was to drive one of those delightful steam engines. To observe the St Kilda train drawing close to the Port Melbourne train as the lines converged before they traversed the Queens Bridge overpass and the river, and then watch them race along together to Flinders Street Station - this was the highlight of the week. They were close-coupled because the small coal-tender was part of the engine itself; this gave them a different appearance from the usually heavier locomotives of the longer lines. They were brisk and gathered speed more quickly; the glint of their shiny pistons oscillating in the sunlight with steam jetting out of the steam box, and the chimney stack puffing up full-blooded blobs of smoke of all colours, would have made them the envy of the most ferocious dragons of mythology. Since much of the travel track was elevated as it approached the city, we were also afforded exciting glimpses of foundries, iron yards, windmill constructions, and paint factories on the riverside; these were labyrinths of enchantment to the young mind imagining a world of steam and power in every corner. It was still the day of the horse-drawn lorry with its teams of straining Clydesdales pulling bridge-sized steel girders from the steelworks on the other side of the road. Great, glowing fires were visible through the doorways of the factories with their vast corrugated-iron walls and the saw-toothed roofs which extended for a hundred yards with the Johns and Waygood printed on them in letters several feet high. The most fascinating view of all was the one the train provided of the mosquito fleet of ketches and small schooners moored in the Little Dock near Queens Bridge, just across the road from the Port Authority Building at the corner of Market and Flinders Streets. These denizens of the deep which sailed from Tasmania and the islands of Bass Strait were weatherworn sermons in canvas and timber.
City traffic was primarily horse-drawn vehicles; they mingled with the picturesque cable trams, which sped down Market Street hill towards the river, their bells clinging interminably as the grip man strained on the brakes to bring the car to a halt at the Flinders Street corner. It was a different skyline from that of today. The railway building and its clock tower loomed large against St Paul's Cathedral - as yet without its spires - and with few exceptions the buildings were not more than three or four storeys high. Hackney carriages for hire waited in line in various locations, and throughout the city the tempo was immeasurably gentler in 1916, when Australia's population was only five million people. The drain caused at that time by recruitment for the war left the streets quieter than they would have been fifty years earlier - when the population was less than half that number, and when Melbourne was the colourful capital of the world's richest (because of the Gold Rush that began in 1851).