A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 5: Childhood

Chapter 5: Childhood

Author: Alistair Knox

It was during 1916 that I first recall the Extraordinary; it was a news sheet born out of due season by a specific war-happening - perhaps the drowning of Lord Kitchener, or some special action on the Western Front. The first intimation that any dramatic news was forthcoming between the morning and the evening editions of the dailies was circulated in this way: the newsboys would walk along the centre of the road and call out in sepulchral, faraway voices 'Extra - or - dinary!' I would lie awake, listening to this cry of impending doom in a state of deep apprehension. My father would leap up, find his shoes, pull his trousers over his pyjamas, and grab some coins before dashing out into the dim gaslit street and running to the corner of Armstrong and Danks Streets, where the newsboys congregated and continued to howl like banshees. Because the unearthly noise sounded more like cries from the outer darkness than a call advertising a news sheet, we would all wait in suspense until he returned. Once inside, he would berate the newspaper and complain that there was nothing new, that they should be prevented from stirring up unnecessary alarm by publishing these extras. The household would then quiet down once more; but I would lie awake in the dark with my ears stretched to catch the last cries of the newsboy or until the first streaks of dawn could be seen through the window and I felt it was safe to go back to sleep.

Newsboys Newsboys. Photo: https://newsboysfoundation.org.au/gary-tippets-history-of-the-newsboys/

My highly-developed imagination tended to see ghosts in dark corners, and wild animals down the back lanes at night. I became nervous when my bedroom light was turned out, but I was afraid to say how I felt except to ask that the light in the hall be left on. My father would come in at this stage to tell stories to my sister and me at bedtime. He was a natural story-teller, and his tales were terrifyingly realistic. After he said goodnight and went out, I would lie in fascinated horror in the Indian jungle and catch sight of the man-eater's eyes shining in the bright moonlight; every slight rustle was the long grass stirring with the subtle movement of the monsters about to strike. My only defence was to rock my head from side to side with a hand over one ear, bury the other ear in the pillow to block out the sound, and start singing. When I ran out of songs I resorted to inventing new ones about fictitious friends - especially one about a boy named John, who accompanied me everywhere on these nocturnal journeys. My parents both were concerned about this odd behaviour, but I blatantly lied to them, saying I wasn't sleepy and that I sang because I was happy. They were gradually convinced that it was as I said, and my father continued his story-telling most evenings - while I continued to live in a state of intense excitement and paralysing fear, almost too terrified to listen and always too fearful to sleep. I am certain that by age five, my nervous system had suffered irrevocable damage, and my globe of imagination had been abnormally distended.

My first real friend was Tommy Bird. We were about the same age and we fell into a strong, undemonstrative friendship. We never needed to explain things to one another; it always seemed just so inevitable to do what we did. Tommy lived two doors from Auntie Isa's and Uncle Jim's terrace house, so we would see each other daily.

I had recently been permitted access to Uncle Jim's magnificent tool collection, and we were allowed to explore its mysteries. An amazing series of tools filled every cupboard and drawer in the centre room of the house which looked out onto the light well. The dominating piece of furniture was a magnificent carpenter's bench with a four-inch-thick blackwood top which had been handed on from Uncle Jim's father George Forman. George had been a joiner, and his tools were branded with his name countersunk into them. His beechwood jack plane was a sermon of constancy. The grip of his left hand had worn its shape into the front of the plane, and his right hand fit perfectly on the handle he had used every working day for forty years.

Tommy Bird and I exchanged monosyllabic grunts as we examined the hundreds of shiny repousse tools which had become Uncle Jim's latest obsession. There were full sets of strangely-shaped hammers with heads ranging from two-ounce to twenty-ounce weights fitted with highly polished, deep-golden-coloured hickory handles. They were hung up on the inside of the cupboard doors in martialled ranks ranging from the smallest to the largest, looking like squads of perfectly groomed Asian soldiers on parade. Each door and drawer in this metallic pleasure dome revealed breathtaking wonders of every kind from another world. Tommy and I became vaguely aware as we studied them that they were keys which might open up opportunities of adventure to anyone who handled them with skill and knowledge. It never occurred to me that any time at all was passing as I watched Uncle Jim hammer large circular pieces of thick-gauge silver and copper sheet with persistent repetitive blows, hour after hour, with seemingly imperceptible results. I used to sit on a footstool at the bottom of his bench, leaning against the wall in a hiatus of space and time. I was observing a creative act, and I accepted it as being part of eternity. It was not until years later that it was discovered what effect the perpetual metal-on-metal tap-tap was then having on the O'Connells, the next-door neighbours. Uncle Jim's own family had often complained to him about it, but he would override their objections with surprised incredulity that anyone could object to such conscientious sounds, products of the Protestant work ethic. The light well, which served both houses, was divided down the middle with a six-foot-high brick wall so that both buildings had the windows of three rooms opening onto their half of it. The workroom occupied a central position, and the whole cavity formed a great white sounding-box which amplified every noise ten times. The neighbours responded valiantly to Jim's auditory assault by playing their piano. Their eldest daughter practised scales for hours each day with a conscientiousness that would have been inconceivable had she not been destined to be a nun in a convent by the predetermination of both her parents and her. It had to have been the noisiest light well in Melbourne, but neither Auntie Isa nor Mrs O'Connell said anything about these offensive and counter-offensive noises to one another. They were model neighbours in all respects until one evening after about three years' hammering, when an unusual quiet descended on the pianoforte front for a few days; this silence made the repousee work seem more ardent than ever. Suddenly, the O'Connells' window was flung open, and out came hysterical shouts of 'Shut up!' three times. The window was then slammed shut. There was an intense silence. The repousee work ended permanently. No more half-finished silver bowls were ever again handed around to be examined. Uncle Jim immediately started his next hobby of lettering and illuminating on vellum with goose quills. He had the most perfect natural handwriting imaginable, and his industry and application to the ancient scripts earned him renown as among the six best letterists in the world. Throughout my life I have found examples of his work hanging in well-established Edwardian-style houses. The subjects range from scriptural texts and quotations from Omar Khayyam to the sayings of artists on Art. Years later, Uncle Jim was the artist appointed to record the names of many of those who fought in the First World War; the volumes he created currently reside in the National War Memorial in Canberra.

In 1917 there were no such things as pre-school centres. Children's minds were free to wander into the subterranean imaginings of hinted facts of the long dreams of childhood. There was no gulf between concept and realisation. Our thoughts and needs were one in that most lyrical time of life. The mood of the home which cultivated my vivid imagination - developed, as it had been, by parental stories of tigers, jungles, and swamps which on most nights left me exhilarated, terrified, and sleepless - contrasted greatly with the seeming tranquility of Tommy's home life, which was much more perfunctory. He was the youngest of five boys and had been conditioned to accept what was left over. His mother had a long, thin face dominated by a large pointed nose and pronounced bridge - they vaguely suggested a caricature of the map of Australia when they were viewed in profile. Mrs Bird was strong and positive and seldom smiled, but I never consciously realised that life must have been difficult for her.

 SS Edina, Coastal Trader & Passenger Ship, 1853-1938 SS Edina, Coastal Trader & Passenger Ship, 1853-1938. Photo: Museums Victoria

During winter months the streets of Middle Park were as unfrequented as they were wide and spacious, so Tommy and I were permitted reasonable liberty to explore our very safe local environment. We would go down to the Marine Parade, where the grey waves rolled in driven by the keen south wind, and watch the fishing skiffs plunging through them only a short distance from the shore. Farther out in the main channel the Edina, one of the oldest steam vessels then in commission, could be observed heading down towards Geelong and Port Arlington on her daily journey. The black smoke of the coal-burning boilers would streak behind her like long strands of black hair. Her flared, sailing-ship bow and shortened bowsprit lacking a figurehead so distinguished her from all other steamships that she became the Spirit of Hobsons Bay and the Port of Melbourne to the local inhabitants. Not even the Paddle Steamers Waroona and Hygeia - which, like the Edina, left and returned mornings and evenings - made as indelible an impression as did this old Clydeside vessel which had carried troops to the Crimea in 1854. She had been designed with Scottish canniness to use both sail and steam at the same time. Only her tall masts and sailing-ship lines eventually revealed this fact, because she no longer wore sails.

The Marine Parade was practically deserted on weekdays in the cold weather, except for the bakers' carts and two-wheeled milk-delivery vehicles which made their twice-daily deliveries, stopping systematically at every second or third gate. There was a generous walled-garden reserve in the centre of the wide roadway, with a grass lawn in the middle that was eminently suitable for foot-races. The edges were planted with boubiella - which we called 'looking-glass plant' - and a variety of other hardy Australian flora which were able to maintain themselves in the strong salt air and the widely varying climate of Port Phillip Bay. At each end of this reserve, which stretched from street to street, the passerby was notified that the speed limit was fourteen miles per hour. Just how this particular velocity was decided upon was always a mystery, unless it was estimated to be the maximum speed a jinker drawn by a good pacer could maintain from Port Melbourne to St Kilda.

One day Tommy Bird and I had watched an itinerant steam-roller as it leisurely puffed its way along Nimmo Street towards the beach. As it wasn't going back and forth over specified sections of the macadam roadway, we evinced more than usual curiosity in it. The flywheel was spinning at full speed, and the pistons worked with tradesman-like efficiency as the fireman kept opening the fire door periodically and stoking up with coal. We swung on the entrance gates of houses and balanced on top of the brick dividing fences as we watched and waited for the strangely human high-funnelled green-and-brass juggernaut to turn into the Marine Parade and head towards Port Melbourne. We were so curious to know where it was headed that we followed it for nearly two hours. Then suddenly, we were apprehended by two agitated females who demanded to know our names. They then answered themselves in the same breath: 'You're Alistair and Tommy, aren't you?!' they raged. 'How dare you stay away and get lost, you naughty boys! Come home at once!' One seized Tommy's unresisting hand and set off for his house; but I had no intention of submitting to such an indignity, and I wrestled to release the other female's grasp. 'You naughty, naughty boy!' she reiterated, and her neat, precise figure shook with indignation as I got away and took to the extreme edge of the footpath and followed them all, scowling resentfully. I was ushered off to Danks Street while Tommy was taken quietly to his house, and the search my mother had set in motion was finally called off. In all we must have been missing for three hours, and neither Tommy nor I could understand all the fuss. I was still smouldering the next day at the idea that we were supposed to have been lost. It was after Tommy and I had seen each other practically every day that one day I was surprised when my father told me I could not go over to his house to play because he was sick. When I asked permission the following day, my father quietly told me that Tommy had died. The realisation that I would never again see my wonderful friend's serious, expressive face left a blank in my mind, a sense of loneliness that I had never known before. I cried a little, but I felt a sense of inexplicability - rather than sorrow - that things did not remain unchanged forever.

Medical science at that time was unable to deal with diphtheria, typhoid, whooping cough, and many everyday diseases like it does today. Tommy had contracted meningitis, which could claim its victim in a day. Most families in Middle Park lost at least one child up until after the First World War. Death was always a day-to-day possibility. We knew that 'In the midst of life we were in death'.

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