A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 7: The big school

Chapter 7: The big school

Author: Alistair Knox

The postwar world produced a new sense of freedom which developed into a real fact of life by 1920. The war was over; the men had returned home and were trying to make some sense out of the promises the nation had made to the navy, army, and airforce volunteers, but with only partial success. It was quite possible for someone to get his old job back if he were a standard-type employee, but the grand proposal for closer settlement in marginal areas like the mallee was much more difficult. Australia as a nation had always done damage to its agricultural and environmental resources by over-development and exploitation of the means of production. It was a hangover from the nineteenth century, when it had been traditional to overwork the horses, the labourers, and the land without making any attempt to restore their original capacity. It was the old colonial system of hitting where one saw a head. The Australian landscape was still being viewed as remaining an asset of eternal value, no matter how badly it might be misused or damaged.

At the beginning of the 1920 school year I was promoted from the Infant Department into the Big School. Miss Jinnee Kinnane, a fifty-year-old sheet-anchor teacher of the school, sent for me. I wondered what I had done wrong because I had tried my best and knew my tables back to front. To my surprise she wanted to test me on multiplication and division, which I had learnt from Lennie Williams - our next-door neighbour who was four years older than I was, and with whom I felt it essential to keep on even learning terms. I passed the test and the teacher said, 'You can go up to the next grade', so at the age of seven I found I had hurdled the third grade and made the fourth. All my classmates were a year older. After a few weeks I was not so pleased with my achievements. I felt lonely and very young in that group, and I wished I hadn't been so clever.

During April I suffered through my first attack of bronchitis for the season and from that moved on to whooping cough, measles, and a whole series of ailments which kept me in bed until Christmastime. Early in the New Year, I spent a month in the country with Uncle Bob (who had recently come back from Scotland) before going back to school. When I finally returned there, the headmaster did not leave me in the fourth grade but demoted me to Grade 3. Thus, I had not only become a year older but had also fallen a grade behind instead of being one grade ahead for my age level. I wished I could fade away - but I couldn't. It was all very real.

At school, I struck up a friendship with my deskmate Neville. He was smaller than I was and came from a poor, working-class family; we were very loyal to each other. He had close-cropped, sandy-coloured hair and his features were flat and negligible. His antiquated clothes would not have impressed my mother; but in a lonely world, Neville was a true friend to me. We needed each other. I did not get much pocket money, but he got none at all, so I would split mine into two equal parts. One morning his mother asked to see me, and I was taken inside the house for the first time. She emerged, only partly dressed, from a bedroom. I remember looking at her bony, bare feet rather than at her face as she stood there on the dusty floorboards. 'Where did you get the money you gave to Neville?' she asked bluntly, as if it were inevitable it must have been stolen. I was taken aback at having my generosity misconstrued in this way; but I eventually made some response she considered adequate, so she concluded by saying, 'Oh well, he can keep it, then'. I was learning that life is more complicated than merely having good intentions.

We had a teacher named Miss Pollock. Flaming-red-haired and fiery-tempered, she kept excellent order in class with her strong clear voice, a powerful right arm, and a vicious leather strap. I had some slight influence with her through my older sister Isobel, who had paved the way for me because she was so good at English. These advantages, however, meant nothing one day when Miss Pollock thought I had been talking and called me out to the front. I insisted to her that this was not the case and emphasised my answer by making a slight face to Neville and to the class generally. In an instant I realised my mistake. I was turned around, screamed at, and told to raise my hands one at a time. The two wicked cuts to each palm, however, meant little compared with my intense anger and frustration. I was surprised to realise I felt like strangling her where she stood. I remember returning to my seat and making another hint of a sneer, which she fortunately failed to register. It gave me some small degree of self-respect in a world which, apart from the family orbit, seemed devoid of friendly adults.

The following year brought many changes. Neville's family left the district, but George ('Georgie') Ellis and Jackie Lerew came to fill the gap. They were very close neighbours who had transferred from Honeybone's - a disused hat factory converted into a private school - to the Middle Park Central School. The Lerews were one of the superior families in our lower-middle-class society. Jackie's father was a government veterinary surgeon, a qualification regarded as interesting and unusual in those days.

Mrs Lerew was a tall, handsome woman with a large nose, a massive coiffure of henna-coloured hair, and a statuesque appearance. She had a predilection for musical-comedy singers and stage artists which she developed as a platform to fulfill her social ambitions. The Lerew family owned the two best properties in Armstrong Street, whose physical appearance demonstrated that no practical expense had been spared to make both of them long-lasting and maintenance-free. From the tuck-pointed brick porches, tessellated tiled floors, and large terra-cotta dragons placed on the tiled roof ridges, to the cast-iron gutters and large dark-green gates, everything spoke of permanence and sensible good quality. Each house opened into the other, and the family decided to sleep in the smaller building and develop the larger into a high-class guest establishment befitting the reputation of its proposed inhabitants. It was style of living, not remuneration, which Mrs Lerew sought. Her husband's profession, which required him to travel to the country for part of each week, gave her the perfect opportunity to display her elegant establishment, and her cup of joy would overflow when one of the guests happened to be the romantic lead in Tea for Two or No, No, Nanette.

Mrs Lerew held soirees in the big front room on Sunday evenings. The dividing glass doors would be opened up to display the expensive floral carpets which went so beautifully with the black-timber art nouveau decor and the pink cushions on which the guests would lounge back with eyes half-closed in ecstasy as the reigning tenor of the moment struck his high falsetto notes and a visiting female counterpart joined him in a duet.

'Georgie' Ellis lived next door to the Lerews on the corner of the cobbled lane called Little Page Street. The Ellises were as near to the lower end of the pecking order as the elegant Lerews were to the higher. Mr Ellis was a short, fat pensioner with a limp, and the house must largely have been financed by Georgie's three adult sisters. Georgie, who was two years older than Jackie and I, was much taller and bigger in every way than we were. He always wore the same ill-fitting double-breasted coat, sloppy shorts, and lace-up black boots with worn-out soles and crooked heels. The boots made his legs seem a little suspect, but he could run faster than we could and played football for the school when he reached the sixth-grade level. He was generally accompanied by an old black-and-tan bitch of mixed ancestry called Lucky. One of Georgie's sisters, Mrs Cartledge, lived at home with her son Alan, who formed a second line in our social order in a kind of carrying-and-fetching role. I was sometimes invited to the Ellises' social evenings, where one or two would bring sheet music and everyone would sing around the piano. I was particularly enthralled by the words of 'I Left my Love in Avalon'. Then they would play parlour games like passing the matchbox, where the cover of the box was placed on the nose of the leading members of two opposing teams of players seated on kitchen chairs opposite one another. The object was to get the box from one end of the line to the other, without touching it by hand, in the shortest possible time. The game curiously highlighted the facial varieties of the participants - how long it could take for a large, Semitic-style masculine proboscis to transfer the box to the retrousse button on a retiring female - or advanced the opportunities for ogling which it made possible within the strict confines of social decorum which existed prior to the advent of the 1920s Jazz Age.

Jackie Lerew and I were dressed well, in terms of the social-strata current of our times. Well-made shorts and sweaters in the colder weather - finished off with good shoes having wide, uncramped toes, and with long, blue woolen socks turned neatly down below the knees - confirmed our healthy bodies. I had inherited a runner's legs from both sides of my family and always thought they showed up to advantage when compared with Jackie's, whose knees seemed to make him crouch slightly. We were great rivals in both sport and schoolwork, and Georgie would range between us like a caricature deity maintaining his authority by dividing and ruling.

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