Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Rodney Hatcher was the most beautiful boy in Gunnedah in 1961. A limited claim to fame, I’ll agree, but true nonetheless. I know, because I was there. Unlike the other Rodney H, Rod “the Prod Bod” Hoad, my flatmate at Teachers’ College, he was soft and angelic. Rod Hoad had a muscular, footballer’s body, well-defined pecs and a six-pack. Rodney Hatcher was a 17 year old with the face of a choir boy and a swimmer’s physique.

But I digress.

In 1961 I began my career as a school teacher. Having graduated (Teacher’s Certificate) after a two-year course at Armidale Teachers’ College, I was a qualified primary teacher. The then NSW Department of Education appointed all teachers in public schools. You could apply for a particular place, but as a first-timer, fat chance. So where was I sent? Kelvin Public School, 12 miles north of Gunnedah, a wheat and sheep town of a few thousand inhabitants, in north-west NSW, about five hours’ drive from Sydney. I was put in charge of a one-teacher school in the middle of the wheatfields. I was just 18.

There was a shortage of rural teachers in those days, so I and other students had wisely taken the rural option in our course, knowing we were most likely to end up in the bush. But, hey, all on my own in the wilderness?

I was designated Teacher-in-Charge. My charges were twelve children ranging from 5 years (kindergarten) to 11 (sixth class). There was one boy in sixth class, no one in fifth class and only one girl. Of course, they were the sons and daughter of local wheat farmers. (When I left 2-and-a-half years later, enrolment had soared to 20 – no thanks to me.)

I had almost no idea what to do with them.

I had travelled by train to Gunnedah and then, as advised by my employers, got a lift in the mail van to my new accommodation. There was no school teacher’s house. Instead, I was billeted, term about, with one of the families whose kids I was attempting to teach – a not at all satisfactory arrangement, but there you go.

My first term was to be spent with the Jeffries family. Jeff and Mrs Jeffries had three sons. Peter and Paul were my pupils, Peter being the one sixth class boy. The other son was Robert, 16 years old and very handsome in a suntanned blokey sort of a way. I had bumped Rob out of his bedroom and for all of that term he slept on the veranda, just outside my window. I had a number of sleepless nights.

(Some time later I discovered Rob’s nickname among the town girls was ‘Snake” Jeffries. I never got the chance to find out why – perhaps a mercy.)

The school house had been built in 1899. It was a weatherboard building consisting of one room and a veranda. It had developed a decided list to port. There were also a weather shed, where the kids could eat lunch whilst sheltered from the sun (it hardly ever rained) and two cesspit “dunnies”. Boys’ and Girls’. There was a farmhouse across the dirt road. Other than that the only sign of human habitation was the telephone line strung along the roadside.

Before I go on, another digression. In 1971, while I was living in London, the film Outback was released. It starred Gary Bond as an outback teacher in Australia. The book was called Wake in Fright, as was the movie in Australia, a far more appropriate title. I saw it in London and was both enthralled and horrified. Somebody had made a movie of my life in Gunnedah. With its accurate depiction of drunken pub brawls and ruthless nights of kangaroo-slaughtering, it was not well received in Australia, but was a hit in England. Subsequently all prints of the film were thought lost, until one good copy turned up in 2004. So you could now well rent it from your favourite DVD store and skip the rest of this ramble. The choice is yours.

However, I’ll continue. With only 12 pupils, you’d think I could give them all daily individual tuition. Well, yes, I was OK with the older ones: “Do the sums on page 14 and then learn your spelling list. Write each word five times in your spelling book.” But with the infants – kindy and first class – I had no idea how to start to teach reading and writing. There was no pre-school in those days. I was miserable and frustrated, with no one to turn to.

Mr Johnson was the local school inspector. He was, I discovered, a Freemason and not at all disposed to us Catholics. I never established a helpful relationship with him. One Friday he arrived unannounced – not the proper protocol – and was pleasantly surprised to find me administering the weekly spelling test, with a blackboard full of sums for later. I was trying my best.

Ah yes, the blackboard - just remember that there were no photocopiers; I had no phone, no fridge, no television (a radio, yes, for the lifesaving school programs) and twice a week the mail arrived. And I wore a collar and tie every day, as required.

I was a very unhappy boy. So I took solace in what the local community had to offer, starting with the church. I got a lift into town most Sundays – some of the parents were Catholics – and soon made friends among the younger set after Mass. There was a bunch of guys my age who had formed a dance band. They called themselves The Zodiacs and by good fortune had recently lost their piano player. Hello? So soon Bernie Foster (trumpet), George Speed (sax), Les Fuller (drums) and I found ourselves to be the town’s major dance band, in popular demand. One of our regular gigs was on Saturday night at the Golf Club. In those days teachers weren’t allowed to have second jobs – could lower the tone – but Mr Inspector Johnson’s wife loved her Saturday night dancing to our music, so that was overlooked.

During this time, the highly-disorganised Catholic Youth group, no doubt with Father’s encouragement, decided to stage a Sunday night concert in the church hall after Mass. A good idea, but in retrospect, with no director and a singular lack of talent, a bit of a disaster. Until I sat down at the piano.

I started off with my own arrangement of “Jealousy”, followed it with Winifred Atwell’s “Black and White Rag” (a staple in my repertoire), and finished with an overdramatic rendition of “The Man I Love”. The crowd went wild – possibly with great relief that at last someone had done something remotely entertaining. But who cares? My performance was received with a standing ovation. For the first time in my life, as I stood there acknowledging the applause, I realised I could stand there just as long as they wanted to continue to clap and shout. It was a moment I will never forget.

Now I had begun a network of friends and contacts. I got a few runs on the board. I could stay in town over the weekend, mostly at Bernie Foster’s. He lived with his parents and we slept innocently top-to-toe in his single bed – I was very skinny then.

And I got my first car. I was saving up to buy a second-hand Beetle, something that wouldn’t mind the corrugations in the gravel road too much and didn’t need much looking after. But then came the Credit Squeeze of 1961.

There was a federal election in December 1961. The result was and is still the closest ever. The Menzies Liberals defeated Arthur Calwell’s Labour Party by only one seat. This had been brought about by a credit squeeze which had banks lending less money, firms closing and jobs being lost. The direct effect of this on me was that the Triumph Motor Company had reduced the price of its Herald range to cost price: $750. For a new car. My brother John had latched on to this and suggested it would be a much better buy than a second-hand VW. So I became the proud owner of a Triumph Herald Coupe, a sporty looking thing, but built for English lanes, not the outback cattle tracks of Australia.

However, I was now independently mobile and this improved my social life no end. Amongst new friends was Robin Baxter. She taught at Gunnedah High and was a lot of fun. Her father was the local lawyer and had a property called Gunnible, just a mile or so out of the town. They were very much local nobility, such as it was, and I assume she is an ancestor of Erica Baxter, who married Jamie Packer, then Australia’s richest man, as Erica is a Gunnedah girl.

Another was a local radio station announcer whose name, happily, escapes me. I occasionally stayed in the guest room in his flat. If I hadn’t suspected he was gay, the pile of muscle-builder magazines under my bed would have alerted me. Nothing happened, nor did I want it to.

But I do remember Brian Wallace (not his real name). He too led a dance band (The Limelighters?) and I occasionally filled in on piano at dances. He was also the local shoe shop proprietor, married, no children and his wife was frequently away.

One night after an out-of-town gig he suggested I stay at his place (wifey was away). Perhaps, he said, there was no use making up the spare bed, there was plenty of room in the double bed. I suspected what was coming. When he moved his feet over to tickle mine, I said, “Go to sleep, Brian,” and he did. Well, at least, I did.

So I got through Gunnedah with my virginity intact. (Question: What constitutes losing one’s virginity in the homosexual world? To be discussed at a later date.)

By now I was the regular Friday night pianist at the Regal Hotel. Formerly the Royal, it had a burnt down a few years before and been rebuilt in grand red brick style and re-named. It was by far the smartest hotel in town – as well as a Saloon Bar, (where the local stock-and-station agents drank with the bank managers), it had a Lounge, where my grand piano was to be found. The Mayor of Gunnedah and also the State Parliamentary member (Country Party) was Frank O’Keefe. He always referred to me as his nephew, and I called him Uncle Frank, though we were not related. Every year he hosted a cricket game, the Mayor’s XI against the best of the locals.

One year Frank’s team consisted of Australian Test cricketers Jim Burke, Warren Saunders and Norm O’Neill and other big names. It promised to be a big weekend. I have virtually no interest in cricket, but remember this gang fondly, as they turned up at the Regal on the Friday night. When I discovered both Jim and Warren were very adept on the keyboard, a night of what might be called Duelling Pianos ensued. We took it in turns to upstage each other and I remember I played a Latin-flavoured piece called “Cumana”, full of flourishes and runs I could sort of manage in those days and I like to think it may have won the night. Anyway, it was another memorable night and I’m glad it wasn’t me striding out to the crease the next morning.

But all of this speaks of only the happy weekends. There were still miserable stretches from Monday to Friday of trying to teach and knowing I wasn’t doing well enough. In the evenings after meat and two veg, I’d retire to my room with a book or my new portable record player, alone and bored. By now, understandably, some of the parents were concerned. Little Helen wasn’t reading as well as might be expected, little Timmy was having a hard time with basic maths. Something had to happen.

Meanwhile, in my second year there, the Department decided to build a new school house, no doubt worried that the old one might actually fall down and hurt someone. It was a much grander affair. Besides the classroom there were a store room and an office for me, as well as a wide veranda. They even dug a third dunny, labelled, somewhat grandly, I thought, ‘Staff’. The builder was a Dutchman, a post-war immigrant and at least provided some friendly company during the day.

Two years later, after I’d left, the authorities decided it was cheaper to close the school and bus the kids into town each day. Wonder if it’s still there?

But as my second year at Kelvin was drawing to a close, I begged the Inspector for a transfer. A delegation of concerned parents had also visited him and finally it was announced that this would be my final term at Kelvin P. S.

The parents were never aggressive towards me and now, possibly with some relief, happily organised a farewell in the local hall. I made my goodbyes to friends and the boys in the band, had a last beer at the Regal and packed my bags. I headed home for the long Christmas holidays with my family, no longer on the farm, but living in suburban Strathfield, a rather gentrified Sydney suburb.

You can imagine everyone’s concern when at the end of January I turned up back in Kelvin, this time in my own car, the transfer having been refused, indeed, probably never even considered by the authorities. It was a most embarrassing moment for everyone, me especially. There was nothing to do but submit my resignation. I was still under a bond: in return for two year’s allowance while at Teachers’ College, I pledged to work for the Department for the first three years. I was two terms short, but the financial sacrifice was worth it. And I had decided I hated school teaching.

And Rodney Hatcher? Well, though he never knew it, he had helped me keep my sanity during that time. Often we would lay our towels out on the grass beside the Council swimming pool, in those delicious days before they invented board shorts, and chat about nothing. He had a prominent place in my dreams and fantasies. Remember, we were only twelve months apart in age, though our positions in the local community were quite disparate. The latter didn’t seem to bother either of us and although he wasn’t the brightest kid on the block, neither was I.

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