A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 6: My father

Chapter 6: My father

Author: Alistair Knox

My father's job did not follow the normal pattern for those days, when most breadwinners' hours were very regular and uneventful. He never seemed to leave for the city until after nine in the morning, when he would saunter down to the station and finally arrive at his office around 10 a.m. His office building was situated in the Western Market fronting William Street. It, together with the Eastern Market, has long since disappeared. The Colonial Mutual Building now stands on the site it once occupied. I can still remember the slate which paved the footpaths around it in William Street because of the irregular way in which it had worn into hills and valleys, telling something of the history of early Melbourne. It was the beginning of my long love for natural materials which had been worn down gradually by the impact of man upon them. My father managed - and was the junior partner in - an insurance broking office which was to develop into the second-largest in the country by the time of his death. His day generally started quietly, but it would end in a flurry of colourful excitement unusual for those routine times. He would often catch the train home for lunch and return to work in order to organise the insurance day, which ended at 4 p.m. The office staff included his senior partner, who generally appeared once a week to sign cheques and collect some money; six male staff; and two elegant and efficient females. Most of the men seemed to float around the office and drift out casually once or twice a day; it was as if they had no real aim or destination. In business, only the girls worked consistently. Tension would begin to rise if my father, who did nearly all his work by visiting clients outside the office, had not returned by 3 p.m. The staff knew his leather satchel was filled with policies that would have to be renewed by 4 p.m. If he hadn't returned by 3.30, they would post lookouts on pre-arranged city corners for signs of him. As soon as he was sighted they would sprint up, receive the policies and hurried instructions, divide the deliveries between themselves, and storm the insurance company's doors to beat the 4 p.m. deadline.

My father Frank and his younger brothers Walter and William had received only three years' schooling at the Melbourne Grammar Preparatory School because until my father was twelve old, the family had lived at Chelsworth on a farm on the Yarra River adjacent to where the Burke Road bridge now stands, seven miles from Melbourne. There were only three other houses in East Ivanhoe in 1880. My grandmother was supposed to supervise her sons' education, but she so often languished in a state of indifferent health that the boys seldom received their instruction. Their life, except for Sundays, consisted mainly of being involved in blood sports - primarily coursing hares with greyhounds - and shooting anything that moved with an old muzzle-loading gun. When they started this activity Frank, the eldest, was nine years old. Although Walter was eight and Willie only seven, their parents apparently trusted them to take care of themselves. Each of them became a wild country boy with finely developed senses and athletic skills. Part of the Chelsworth farm has since become the East Ivanhoe Golf Course, so that much of it remains essentially the same as when they lived there. Remnants of the treelined drive which once enhanced the entrance to the property still remain, including one particular tree from which the boys could watch Mr Kidd, one of the Meeting stalwarts, set out in his buggy to visit them from Kew, some miles away.

Their lack of formal education did not appear to hinder the boys' intellectual abilities. Frank's natural literary abilities, combined with a slow and careful reading style, enabled him to retain whatever he read. He knew whole cantos of Scott's epic poems by heart and would, on occasion, recite them with all actions included. An unusual ability to think visually was his special gift. He was an emotional man, and the trace of tears that came into his eyes in dramatic situations always endeared him to me as much as it aggravated him to himself. Their country upbringing had developed a zeal for individual endeavour which pitted itself against all opposition, whether imagined or factual. There existed in them that unnamed but seriously understood antagonism to suburban thinking, and it caused all the Knox boys to act defiantly. They despised the English in general, and their part in the Boer War in particular. During the War the boys rejoiced when General Kremer and his mercurial soldiers outwitted the well-trained but ineffectual British regiments. The three brothers were also great cricketers and footballers at the Grammar School. Frank was selected to train with the senior team when he was just thirteen but had to withdraw because his parents thought it too 'worldly', a stance they maintained in many other matters as well. In their adolescent years the boys formed cricket teams which played in Albert Park - often against men's teams, with some dramatic results. Walter was a brilliant all-round cricketer and a freak fieldsman. On one occasion, he crept into the silly-point position against a batsman who was clouting the bowling despite the fact that he had warned Walter he would kill him if he stayed there. A few balls later, the would-be murderer directed the ball at Walter's head with great power. He had just enough time to sway a few inches to one side, raise his hands to his shoulder, and catch the ball as it whizzed past his ear. The combined velocity and impact of the ball dislocated the four knuckles of his middle fingers and they remained black and blue for months; but the all-important objective of dismissing the offending batsman had been accomplished. The freedom of their uninhibited, open-air lifestyle - a freedom superimposed on an intellectual, gentlemanly tradition - caused overreaction in nearly everything the Knox boys did.

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