When I was 14 Mum and Dad asked me if I’d like to learn to play the piano. Would I! My sister Nanette had learned piano from the nuns and played quite well from sheet music. Years before, in Ryde, Nanette’s brother-in-law John Leonard would knock out popular songs of the day on the piano at Nona and Grandfather’s. I was always there, clapping along to the music. Now, on the farm, Nanette taught me the notes on the sheet music and how they corresponded to the piano keys, key signatures and time signatures. I could pick out a tune OK, but I couldn’t play with two hands.
In North Lismore there was a piano teacher called Mrs Rix. She was perhaps in her sixties or seventies and so popular that my lesson was at 7.30 am on a Friday. (How did I get there? I vaguely remember Alan Lowe dropping me off on his way to work.) I progressed rapidly and after a few weeks she asked me if I wanted to concentrate on classical or popular. Hey, I was a fourteen-year-old boy! Popular it was. Over the next months as well as all the scales she taught me to read guitar chords (these are printed on popular sheet music). With these I could play a vamp bass to the melody line – it’s a short cut, but it worked. Soon I was thumping away with both hands. The downside is that I’m an appalling sight reader, but happily I have a “good ear” so that eventually, I didn’t even need the sheet music. I could listen to a song on the radio a few times, then play it. By the age of fifteen, the lessons had ended (money) and I was playing in my own dance band. And what a legacy this was to become! Piano playing has literally taken me around the world.
Lismore boasted something very special. At the Riviera Ballroom, on the banks of the Richmond River (and likely to slide in at any time) on each Saturday night, Stan Chilcott and his orchestra played for a 50-50 dance. This was no ordinary dance band. It was a 14-piece ensemble, drums, guitar, piano, bass, saxes, trumpets and trombones, the full Glenn Miller/Benny Goodman swing band. The only one of its kind in the 500 mile stretch from Sydney to Brisbane. From the age of 15 I was allowed to go there with my older cousin Paul on Saturday nights. I loved it – I learned all the old-time dances - gipsy tap, Canadian three-step, Pride of Erin – as well as the modern foxtrot and quickstep. I distinctly remember Agnes McNamara teaching me the barn dance to Jerome Kern’s beautiful “Long Ago and Far Away” –not Kern’s intention, I suspect, but at strict dance tempo it worked. I believe the band still plays, with many of the original players, over 50 years later.
I’ve told you about my time at high school, but I’ll close this somewhat exhaustive account with three last school anecdotes.
One morning, for reasons I now forget, I decided to wag first period. The roll was taken and I was found to be missing. The class teacher decided to check with my brother Robert, who said, yes, I had been on the bus. So during second period I received a message to report at play lunch to the office of the headmaster, Br Emile. He was a good, upright and approachable man, and rather handsome. He asked me what had happened. I told him I had got off the bus at the Goolmangar village and it had taken off without me. Of all my multitude of lies, this was the most appalling and the most implausible – didn’t stand up for a minute, and I knew it. For example, how had I subsequently got to school? He said, “Come back and see me at lunch time”. I did so, apprehensively. He said, “See me after school.” I couldn’t do this, as I had to go straight to the bus and he knew it. I realised he was deeply disappointed in me, and wanted nothing more than to wash his hands of the matter. I was extremely ashamed. I guess that was his intention. I think that might have ended my lying years.
We had a science lab. In our final year, the overworked science teacher allowed us six boys to do our experiments unsupervised. How foolish. The game developed that when you walked through the lab door, someone would throw you a glass beaker. The rules demanded that you immediately throw it to someone else, and so on until someone dropped it. And you may recall, I was physically handicapped when it came to throwing, let alone catching. Much broken glass ensued. Then someone dropped the phosphorous into a beaker of water. It buzzed and bubbled, but thankfully didn’t explode. Then we put silver nitrate in the holy water fonts at the entrance to each class (Catholics will understand). This was a clear liquid, but stained your fingers black (and your forehead, if you were really devout). And at the end of the year, the science teacher told us how well-behaved and trustworthy we had turned out to be.
Finally, sex. We had had no formal sex education, though I had finally found out where babies came from and, what’s more, how they got there. Fr Casey, a young curate, had decided things had reached a crisis point (perhaps from things he was hearing in the confessional) and took matters into his own hands. Fifth Year had a series of Formal Lessons on Sex Education. Big time! Diagrams were displayed on the blackboard and things were explained in great detail. Eventually we got the explicit diagram of the female genitalia in all its glory. As he finished his explanation, pointing again at this mystifying diagram, Fr Casey said, with great piety, “… and remember, boys, the finger of God is in all of this.” I thought I’d burst my sides. He spotted my spluttering and said, looking straight at me, “Isn’t it, Hugh?” I don’t know how I regained enough composure to reply, “Yes, Father”.
Here endeth the lesson.