Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Robert (my brother) and I were holidaying in Brisbane in January 1959 when my Leaving Certificate results were published in the Sydney Morning Herald. We were staying with Aunty Addie Albury in Wollongabba, earshots away from the Cricket Ground. (I have no idea what relationship she bore to me - all old ladies were aunts in those days.)

We found a Sydney Morning Herald at the railway station (it being an interstate paper) and a milk bar and opened the paper at leisure to discover that I had been awarded five Bs for the six subjects for which I had sat. (I deliberately failed Modern History, a subject that bored me to tears.) Later that day I got a telegram from Mum and Dad, "Congratulations on your five Bs". This was in case I hadn't seen the paper, not a put-down, as they subsequently explained. (The lowest possible pass was four Bs.)

I was quite happy with this result. My ambition was to attain a ticket out of town. First prize was a Commonwealth Scholarship (in which case I would have studied architecture - so glad I didn't win it) and second prize was a Teacher's Scholarship, which I won. (I later discovered that my Bs were all close to As, the only two options in that exam - hence the scholarship.)

I had no real desire to be a teacher, but as I said, it meant escape from the farm. Although I was eight days below the minimum age for entry to Teachers College, they accepted me (they were desperate in those days) and in March 1959 I was to report to Armidale Teachers College for enrolment.

This entailed a ricketty bus trip from Lismore to Tenterfield, a country town in the New England region (and birthplace of Peter Allen) on a Saturday to catch the New England Flyer (a train) to Armidale, which got me and a few other neophytes there just after midnight. We were met, taken to the student houses, and in the wee small hours I was deposited in my room. As my new roommate was fast asleep, I silently slipped between the sheets and slept soundly.

I awoke early next morning (Sunday) and introduced myself from my bed.

"Hello, I'm Hugh."

"Hi, I'm Rod."

"Do you know where the church is?"

"Which church?"

Oh my God, I immediately thought, they've put me in a room with a Protestant! What do I do?

At the tender age of sixteen-and-a-half I had had very little to do with Protestants. In Ryde they were simply a no-no (which probably eased my conscience when getting little Jimmy Gordon to drink that beer bottle full of piss - Scots Presbyterian that he no doubt was) and along West Nimbin Road, Goolmangar, there were only the McLennans, whom we RockChoppers - the Boyles, the Bolands, the Macnamaras, the O'Keefes - graciously tolerated. Now I was sharing a room with a heretic.

And what a one! As Rod Hoad unwound the sheets and emerged in his Jockettes, my jaw dropped. Long before the days of gyms and buffed bodies, my new roomie was an Adonis. Like myself, he was a dairy farm boy, but there all resemblance ended. I was sharing a room with a hunk. He was from Denman in the Upper Hunter Valley and had obviously worked a lot harder than me on the farm. Not surprisingly, he went on to play scrum half for the College's First XV.

Anyway, I found the church (a cathedral, as it turned out) and managed not to miss Mass.

Newling House was the men's residence, an aluminium and glass prefab building, designed for the tropics, which the Department of Public Works in its wisdom had plonked down in the middle of wintry Armidale. Brrr! And that's in summer. Nevertheless, with the help of a one bar radiator, Rod proceeded to do his assignments seated at his desk in the aforementioned Jockettes and I had no wish to complain.

Armidale is an academic city, boasting the University of New England, the Teachers’ College (nowadays amalgamated with the Uni) and several boys’ and girls’ private boarding schools. (Think Boston or Cambridge, but much smaller.) It is situated in the section of the Great Dividing Range known as New England. Lots of deciduous trees, freezing in winter and not much warmer in summer. It was here I saw my first falling autumn leaves and my first snowfall. On winter mornings, as I walked across town to the school where I did practice teaching, the windscreens of parked cars were still iced over. It was cold.

The course was only two years and one was awarded a Teacher’s Certificate. Teachers were a scarce commodity in NSW in the 1950s and the machine was churning them out. I honestly believe I learnt absolutely nothing about being a teacher in these two years, except for the two stretches of practice teaching where I was out there in front of a class of ten-year-olds and winging it.

But I totally enjoyed those two years. I had to do a lot of growing up in a hurry, learning that the Proddos weren’t the Devil incarnate and reading set texts which dealt with adultery wasn’t a mortal sin. I clung to my Catholic faith, though, even becoming secretary of the Newman Society, an organisation that cared for Catholic students and kept us on the straight and narrow.

The girls’ residence was Smith House, a converted old mansion from the late nineteenth century, but there was also a residence for Catholic girls (if they so chose), called Merici House. For a while I was known as the Guardian Angel of Merici House. I only dated Catholic girls, in order to avoid sin. But this was to change, as we shall see.

I made some really good friends, apart from Rod the Prod Bod – at the start of second year students had the chance to change roommates, but to my delight Rod was happy with the status quo.

John Abercrombie was a wonderful human being – over six foot and pock-marked as the craters of the moon – with a wild sense of humour. He came from Mosman, a very prosperous Sydney suburb where one didn’t use sugar in one’s coffee, one used coffee crystals. (Whatever happened to…?) I met his charming mother and father and was inwardly outraged when she told some of the foulest jokes I had ever heard. I’m sure I blushed.

Alf Redman was equally delightful, but quite a different character. He was a Welsh “ten pound” migrant, a late entry student of 31. We thought him ancient and inevitably in the second year we senior students elected him President of the Student Union. But disaster struck for Alf. After graduation, he opted to teach in Nauru, a Pacific Island famous only
for its very valuable birdshit. If you signed a two-year contract you were on an attractive salary and paid no income tax.

On the plane to Nauru he met an English girl who was doing much the same thing. They settled into their jobs and fell in love. Alf bought a motor scooter and used to ride home to lunch most days. One day, at the town’s major intersection, he collided with the island’s only bus. He was seriously injured and fell into a coma. The Australian Air Force flew him to Brisbane, but he was dead on arrival, aged only 33. At his funeral I met his fiancée, Pam, for the first time, with some apprehension. But I distinctly recall at the wake exchanging stories of Alf, over a few drinks, with her and fellow mates, until we were laughing with happy memories.

In the summer holiday following our First Year, five of us new mates,including Alf and John, went camping at Hawkes Nest, then a basic, undeveloped beach some hours north of Sydney – the final approach was by vehicular ferry. I remember us making countless trips on this ferry to the pub, on foot, as we hadn’t brought a beer cooler. We basically only had stretchers and mosquito nets. As the evening drew in we lit a fire and I recall Bill Crisp saying that if we lay close together, we could “break each other’s wind”. When we woke at dawn in what we had considered a secluded spot, we were surprised to see countless trails of foot prints either side of our camp and at least three dozen ocean fishermen along the shore. Maybe that’s why I’ve never really been a beach person.

Though, as I said, I didn’t learn much, our lecturers were generally a pleasant bunch. Each of the four wings of Newling House was presided over by a resident master. Ours was Bill (alias Benny) Goodman and another really pleasant master was Robert Albert Ross (imagine naming your child Albatross). In the second year, a new young music master arrived. He was called Freddie Ebbeck, a stringy, gangly poof. But one night he had a few of us into his apartment and played his new LP – the American pianist Van Cliburn’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. He had won the prestigious Tchaikowsky Award in Moscow, a first for an American in the middle of the Cold War. I had never heard this concerto or any other before. I had never heard such a thing in my life. In fact, before Teachers’ College I had no interest in classical music. It certainly didn’t rate high in the O’Keefe household – Mum referred to the violin as the “vile instrument”. Now I was ecstatic and wanted more. A whole new world was there to be explored.

I avoided sport. The sissies like me had the option of archery, which we didn’t take very seriously. In fact a number of them were quite devout Anglicans who delighted in the fact that they could read Moravia’s “The Woman of Rome”, the heathens. For us it was on the dreaded Index (of Forbidden Books).

But it wasn’t long before I was playing piano in the College dance band. There was a dance in the gym every Saturday night. I wasn’t the only pianist, so I got time off to dance with the Catholic girls, including Helen Larrissey who had enchanted me with her Hamlet, only a few years before, and Julia O’Rielly, a blazing redhead who later became a nun. But then I got word on the grapevine that a girl (Proddo!) called Denise Smith had taken a fancy to me. I would never have twigged otherwise. She was a very pretty strawberry blonde with a lively personality and we started dating – in foursomes, just to be safe. This was dodgy country. Friday was usually movie night, or sometimes just a feed at the fish café. Indeed the latter had presented to me, to my horror, a whole fish on a plate, eyes and all; and this was where I learned that rice could be a vegetable. As I said, I had a lot of growing up to do.

The Mistress of Smith House gave regular talks to her girls on good morals and the like. One evening she told them they should never wear red. Red inflames boys beyond control. On Friday when I arrived to pick up Denise for the pictures she was in red from head to toe. The penny refused to drop. After the movies the girls had to be in by midnight or so. (Interesting: we boys could stay out all night, but the girls were locked in, so they were safe. Pity the town girls, I guess.) The custom was to return to the huge front veranda of Smith House. Here were oodles of snogging couples, wall-to-wall, an amazing sight until the bell sounded. Denise and I did some snogging, but I wasn’t really enthusiastic.

Then as final exams approached at the end of second year, things got rather intense. I was doing Geography Honours (how geeky!) and hadn’t paid much attention all year. Long nights with No-Doz, my drug of choice.

The aforementioned Bob Ross called me aside to tell me Denise wasn’t coping well with the pressure. His proposal was that on Sunday he would drive us both with a picnic basket and some text books to a secluded spot by the Dumaresq River. He would drop us off for the day and call back at an appointed hour. We picnicked, we studied, Bob returned. Poor Denise.

Armidale was also the first place I played piano in a pub. Now that was the start of a long tradition. The pub was Mann’s Hotel and it was the one favoured by college students (as opposed to the uni bods – there was a distinct hierarchy) and the odd lecturer as well, including Elspeth Howie, who after a few beers delighted us all by dancing on a table and flashing her skirts. I was under age of course, still not much of a beer drinker. I knocked out a few tunes now and then - “Lipstick on Your Collar”, “Swingin” School”, any thing by Bobby Rydell and Connie Francis – until the manager offered me a spot with a modest salary.
Not much, but it was a start.

(To get ahead of myself a little here, years later when I met Peter Allen, I told him I had played at Mann’s, knowing he had also. He replied, “You must have followed me in there”, as if it were some big Broadway venue. And indeed I had, as he had been playing there at the ripe age of fourteen. I’ll tell you the whole story some day.)

Well, two years rapidly were drawing to a close and there was the Graduation Ceremony, and, no doubt, other final parties and events. And all I can remember of that time was walking back to Newling House for the last time, in the small hours of the night with Terry Simmons, a salt-of-the-earth guy, a big burly farmer’s son from the wheat and sheep belt and a fellow Catholic. We had taken drink, and walked with our arms around each other’s shoulders, both of us bawling our eyes out.

1 comment:

  1. I have really enjoyed reading your posts. I came upon them randomly because I 'googled' my Uncle Bob and got your blog as a 'hit'. Great stories! I'm tempted to mention that Uncle Bob's name is actually Robert Alfred Ross, but heh, it kinda wrecks a good story so maybe I'll keep it to myself...

    As an aside it is Uncle Bob's 88th bithday tomorrow - unfortunately he will be spending it at Ken Thompson Lodge (an Aged Care facility in Armidale) as he has Alzheimers. It's a pity he missed reading your story - I'm sure he would have loved it.

    Penny O'Shea