OK folks, it's back to the life and times of. Ryde was behind me. Now read on...
Early in 2008 I wrote to The Northern Star, Lismore's major newspaper, announcing that fifty years ago, I had formed my first dance band, along with Kevin (saxophone) and Richard (drums)Mackney from Tuncester. Richard was a classmate at school, Kevin, a few years older. I was fifteen. We were The Mackney Trio, which was fine by me. We played for lots of the dances at Goolmangar School of Arts and got three pounds each for a gig. Also fine by me.
Both Richard and Kevin saw the letter and replied by email. Later I had a long and charming phone call from Richard and as I hadn't seen him since we were 40, we had a lot of catching up to do. Richard said, among other things, "You were always the flamboyant one." Hmmm... is that code?
Well, let's not get paranoid, let's move along...
My brother Robert has written elsewhere – he is three years younger than me - about his Goolmangar years and as far as I'm concerned, though his account is delightful, it seems we were on two different planets. He loved the farm, hated school. I hated the farm, loved school.
So from the start. I've already told you about Mum's icy reception at Casino railway station. Now I was introduced to the farm, and the rest of the family had had three months' start on me. One of the first things was horses. To backtrack, the Blewitts, (Uncle Mac and Auntie Pauline, Peter, Paul and Michael, who were also living with us at the farm - Dad had optimistically calculated that it could support two families - wrong!) had previously managed a property at Cobbity, near Camden (that's where I learned about the birds and the bees, remember?). On one occasion there Robert and I had been invited to ride the horses. I stubbornly refused - I wasn't getting on one of those things!
Now I realised that for God knows how many years I'd be stuck in this place, I had better try to fit in. There were two horses, big black Ned the work horse and old grey Rex, the kids' horse. So I took the plunge and mounted Rex. He was great - if you fell off (and I did) he stopped within a footstep. He didn't mind how many of us climbed aboard, he was there to be of service. Eventually, I would mount him barefoot, no bridle, no saddle and steer him with his mane. I felt like some Indian in a Western movie. Yes, that bit I enjoyed.
But there is nothing to be said for getting up at five o'clock every morning (cows don't know it's Good Friday or Christmas Day) and milking cows for two hours before breakfasting and dressing for school. Then getting home from school and having to help clean out the bails (the buggers were milked twice a day!) before tea and homework. So school was my escape.
Marist Brothers High School, Lismore, was situated on a flood plain, just below St Carthage's Cathedral, which was, as in all country towns, placed on rising ground. I entered First Year (i.e., Year Seven) in January 1954. There were 56 in the class. At the end of Term I I came second in the class. Jimmy Grainger came first. Jimmy was a swot and I quickly realised it would take a lot of hard work to knock him off his pedestal. I wasn't into hard work (and still am not, I confess) and felt that second place with little effort was pretty damn good. Subsequently, I always came second or third. Jimmy went off to become a priest and his place at the top of the ladder was taken by Bill Buckley. Fine by me.
We were all caned regularly - this was the norm - myself included, and Robert has already written of poor Brother Julian, surely no more than nineteen, who always got an erection while caning, which was why so many of us lined up. So while I wasn't totally a saint, I was not among the group who got caught letting off the rotten egg gas bomb in the Vogue cinema one Saturday night and were ritually and publicly flogged on Monday morning.
Our Intermediate class (Year Nine) was housed in a room with a very high ceiling and very high windows - you couldn't see out of them without climbing on a desk. One of our games was, in the change of periods, to climb out the windows one-by-one, jump down and rush around and re-enter the classroom by the door before the next brother arrived. Someone would inevitably arrive back to find brother had arrived - a sort of Lismore Roulette. When it was me, Brother Fergus said, "What are you doing out there, O'Keefe?" Something inspired me to reply, "You put me out there, Brother." "Oh, did I? Well, get in here and sit down." "Yes, sir."
I was a great liar - I think I was, because I did it a lot and rarely got caught. At one time, first class after lunch was Geometry, and as I always got 100%, I didn't feel guilty about missing it. I'd go downtown at lunchtime (did we have permission? I don't remember) and look at the new sheet music in Palings and put sixpence in the jukebox at Florian's Cafe to hear "Green Door" one more time (a great sacrifice, as my pocket money was one shilling a week) and be back in time for the next period. One Monday, I was loitering outside a chemist's window, ogling the ad for sun cream which had a couple of boys in cute swimsuits, when who should appear but Dad. I had forgotten Monday was market day.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, not unreasonably. As I was not briskly walking anywhere, I replied "Oh, I'm picking up a prescription here for one of the Brothers. It's not quite ready yet."
"Well, I'm surprised they don't use (he named the Catholic chemist)."
"Yes, me too," I replied and with that he walked on.
Looking back now, I realise that my education was appalling. In those days, with classes in the fifties and brothers hardly out of their mediocre training or on their last legs, school was all "learn this for the exam" - often by heart. Write it out and memorise it. No time for debate, no questioning allowed. The priests and the brothers were God. The only book I ever read at school (and loved) was Treasure Island. To this day, I have never read Austen, Dickens, H.G Wells, Thackeray and, God forbid, Hemingway or Steinbeck. Great grounding for the future school librarian.
Shakespeare. Intermediate year was Twelfth Night and Leaving Certificate was Hamlet. The girls at St Carthage's Convent mounted their all-girl production of Hamlet and we boys were invited. Helen Larrisey was Hamlet, she was great and it was great, but I can't remember why. We just learnt it for the exam.
At the convent two of the nuns, Mother Carmel and Sister Pascal, were distant relatives of ours. Sister Pascal cooked in the convent and my privilege as a relative of a holy nun was to be allowed to visit her at lunchtime (perhaps this was how I got downtown). I'd return with a pocketful of warm, delicious biscuits, straight out of the oven.
I was very much the class wimp - hopeless at sport, but good at running. These days I'd have been a victim of gay-bashing, but none of us knew anything of that. I won my spurs by being the class clown and bashing out the Black and White Rag and hits of the day on the classroom piano at lunchtime. "Please sir, can we go in and listen to Hugh on the piano?" I was never game to ask myself.
And yet, as I said at the beginning, I loved school. Each year I'd think, this is great, better than last year. I can only put it down to having nothing better to compare it with. By the Year Five (Leaving Certificate) we were a class of only six. Most boys left at Intermediate to work on the farms or get jobs in town. We had a considerable camaraderie in my final year, a headmaster, Br Emile, who was young, handsome, decent and manly, and a charming old English teacher, Br Fergus, who tried to instil a love of literature in us, but it was too late. (As a precursor to the cryptic crossword freak I have become, I worked out that our surnames spelt SOMBRE - Smith, O'Keefe, McDonald, Buckley (he was still topping the class), Rayner and Everingham.)
Then we sat the Leaving Certificate exam at Richmond River High School, being forewarned not to put JMJ at the top of the page, or they would know we were Catholics. Our school years were done. I had just turned sixteen.