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Chapter Two

1946 to 1952 - High School

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Soon after his return to Australia, my father married a spinster lady, Rosa Heath, who had been a childhood friend. Though I never got on very well with her, I admired her courage at taking on the role of step-mother to three teenagers.

We lived at Currawinya for a short time before going to Hay in far western NSW to live in the Commanding Officers quarters in the POW camp. The camp was for Italian POWs who were considered harmless which was why we were allowed to live inside the compound.

The prisoners were given constructive work to do. The woodworking shop produced very elegant wardrobes for my brother and I which we used until we left home some years later. There was also a piggery and, on one occasion, Rosa asked for a joint of pork. The meat was prepared and put in our fridge by one of the Italian cooks in the officers mess. Rosa opened the fridge, saw a whole sucking pig carcass and screamed for someone to come and take it away.

I remember the primary school at Hay quite well. Because I played the piccolo, I was made the leader of the ocarina band. I also remember playing a game of Australian Rules football. The field seemed huge and I spent most of the time playing marbles with my opposite number while the play was going on far away at one end of the ground or the other.

The POW camp was across the road from the sheep yard at the railhead. One night after it had rained heavily, a mob of sheep had been driven in through the thick red mud. The next morning, my brother who used to ride to the high school on his bicycle, only managed to get a few feet into the road before his bike became stuck fast in the mud. It didn't even fall over when he got off but was left riderless and upright where it had stopped. The CO's staff car didn't have much more success negotiating the difficult conditions and we eventually rode to school in an army jeep.

I built and flew my first kite while we lived in Hay. It was constructed from garden stakes, and lots of newspaper glued together with flour paste. I flew it on the racecourse nearby on a great spool of heavy string. It flew really well but was quite difficult to bring down.

We had been at Hay only a few weeks when my father was posted to the POW camp at Cowra. I was thus transferred to my tenth school in seven years. My memories of Cowra are of performing solo on the piccolo at concerts at the School of Arts and at the cinema and of sneaking into the compound at the camp while retrieving tennis balls hit over the barbed wire by the officers wives. I remember thinking, as we were climbing under the wire, that the guards probably wouldn't shoot us because we were the CO's sons. The prisoners had been provided with a kitchen to keep some of them occupied and the pastry cooks were happy to give the CO's children as many delicious Italian pastries as we could eat.

In January 1947, we returned to Sydney to live in a house in West Epping. Colin and I went to school at North Sydney Boys High, an hour bus ride away. I guess there was no public high school nearer and we thought nothing of spending that much time travelling. Barbara had been a boarder at PLC Pymble since we returned to Sydney in 1942. I enjoyed the three years I spent at North Sydney. There were unhappy experiences but, by and large, the teachers were good and we got a good education there. Few of my many teachers left any lasting impression but Bob Harvey, the headmaster, was not someone you forget easily. Sadly he died while we were there and I participated in the guard of honour at his funeral. I remember his successor, not because of his contribution to my education, but because of the stark contrast between him and his predecessor.

I guess the travelling to Lindfield to go to scouts became too much because we started a new scout troop in West Epping. Our house had a very big shed with a dirt floor in place of a garage and my father fixed the floor with a load of ash which was supposed to settle into a solid mass. we found a local scouter to take over the running of the troop, Colin became the Troop Leader and I became a Patrol Leader. We had some good times but it wasn't the same as East Lindfield.

In 1949, father was posted to Melbourne and we moved to a big house in Murrumbeena, then an outer suburb, but now very much a part of the inner suburbs. This was the first house my father had ever bought and it had four bedrooms so each of the children had their own private space, a real luxury after many years of sleeping on various verandas and sleep-outs.

Moving from Sydney to Melbourne in the late forties created something of a culture shock. Many years later in the seventies, I was invited to a Liberal Party Branch meeting by a colleague who must have taken me for a potential party member which is strange as I have always been a "lefty pinko". The speaker was John Carrick, the Secretary of the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party. His subject was "The Evils of Centralism". John Gorton, the Prime Minister of the day, was trying to bring under Federal control some areas of public policy which belonged, under the constitution, to the States. His view was that as Australia developed from a group of largely separate economic entities into a truly national economy, there were areas of government policy which needed to be unified across the nation. Carrick's thesis was that States Rights were paramount and any dilution of them was, by definition, a bad thing. After the meeting I spoke to him and recounted three things that had happened to me when we relocated from one state to another all those years before.

Firstly, at Albury we had to get out of the train from Sydney and walk the length of the station to a Victorian train in which we could make the rest of the journey to Melbourne. The two states had different gauges for their railway tracks!

Secondly, I was not allowed to ride my bicycle until I had mastered the Victorian road rules which were different from those in NSW.

Thirdly, and most oppressively, I had effectively to repeat a year at school because the school systems in the two states were quite different. The NSW High school system had five years to matriculation and the Victorian system had six. My father had asked me to read the curriculum for the Victorian system, determine what I had already done in NSW, and explain to the Principal of the new school what I had concluded. He accepted my analysis and my conclusions but decided that I should be enrolled in Year 10 because of my age rather than in Year 11 as I thought appropriate. For a year, I idled my way through the same stuff that I had already done the previous year and picked up my education in earnest a year later.

John Carrick listened politely to me and said "I hear what you say, but we've fixed all that" to which I replied "Yes. I understand that some of the trains go right through now".

Melbourne High was also a bit of a shock. North Sydney Boys High had 400 pupils and everyone knew everyone. Melbourne High had 1200 pupils from Year 9 to Year 12. It was such a large institution that is contained sub-cultures which were largely separate from one another. I was in the cadet unit which meant that I would never be a prefect. I was promoted to a Commissioned Cadet Lieutenant in my last year and was expected to discipline all cadets both on and off parade while the prefects exercised discipline only over the non cadets.

Early in my career, I came across a management theory which was used in the giant Unilever enterprise in the UK. To ensure effective communication, no operating unit was allowed have more than 500 staff. I still think this to be a very good rule. Later in life I was able to observe the decline of effective communication in an organisation as it grew from 100 to 150 staff.

My time at Melbourne High was pleasant but not as satisfying as my years at North Sydney Boys High. The first year there was wasted and the last year was a real doddle because I knew from the outset that I would leave to go to London before the exams.

I remember going on a church parade with the other cadets. We C of E cadets were to go to the Toorak Parish Church. When the service started I saw people in robes, carrying candles and swinging censers and I thought I had made a big mistake and gone to the Roman Catholic Church. This was my first experience of an Anglican high church and possibly the beginning of my scepticism about organised religion.

My father had been posted to the Defence Department staff in London from mid 1952. He asked me if I wanted to stay in Australia or go with them to London. What a choice. I opted for the adventure which led to many things which would have been impossible in Australia. When he was posted back to Australia in 1954, he again asked me if I wanted to stay in London or return with them to Australia. What a choice. Why would anyone in their right mind go back to Australia before the adventure was done. I did return 14 years later but that is another story.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 23/06/2013
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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