When I resigned from teaching and departed godforsaken Gunnedah in May, 1963, I travelled to the new family home in Strathfield, a prosperous middle-class suburb of Sydney.
Two years previously, Dad had sold the farm at Goolmangar, having realised that (a) none of us kids was likely to follow in his farming footsteps, and (b) the farm wasn’t making any money. Herewith one of those silly coincidences: the family that bought the farm was called Musgrave and the house Dad bought in Hyde Brae St belonged to a totally unrelated family called Musgrave.
The family now consisted of Mum and Dad, me, younger brothers Robert and Chris and sister Dorothy. Plus, a bit of a surprise: in February Mum had given birth to baby brother Stephen. (She was 43, Dad was 63 and rather proud of his achievement.) So the three-bedroom house was somewhat crowded.
On reflection, I realise that I rather selfishly did not think that I might be adding to this “Packed to the Rafters” situation. I automatically assumed that there would always be a place for me in the family home. I was right, of course. In very little time Dad had turned the enclosed veranda at the back of the house into an extra bedroom, for me. He also built a carport beside the back yard garage for my beloved Triumph Herald.
The Public Service
Well, of course, I needed a job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know I didn’t want to teach. Mum and Dad were not much help, but quite sympathetic to my predicament. The logical choice was to join the Public Service and become a Government employee. I went for an exam and an interview and they suggested I might most suitably be employed in the Commonwealth Education Office in Sydney. So I became a deskbound public servant.
My first task was to spend weeks and weeks poring over ledgers looking for errors. It seems that a previous employee had been fiddling the books. He had been found out, but the dodgy figures had to be located and corrected. This lasted for about six weeks, was very boring and I totally loved it. I didn’t have to make decisions, there was nothing innovative about the task and that suited me fine.
However, when this task was done, my bosses had to decide what to do with me now.
At that time, the Menzies’ Government had set up a program called the Colombo Plan. This was a scheme whereby people from various Asian and African countries could come to Australia, study in their chosen field, then return home and put their new-found knowledge to good use – a bit like the Marshall Plan in the USA. The scheme was financed by the Australian Government. On arrival and departure, they were entitled to be met by a car and driver to welcome and farewell them. I must have demonstrated some qualities that suited me to this task, as it was decided that I would be the meeter and greeter.
So every few days I’d be picked up in a big white Commonwealth car and whisked off to Mascot Airport to greet a new arrival or see one off. I thought this was very posh. For some strange reason I remember Dorothy Mkparu from Nigeria and Mrs Poonsombuti from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There were more perks if the person was a VIP. On one occasion we were visited by Professor Narashimnya, from the English department of the University of Mysore in southern India. I was delegated to take him to lunch at the airport restaurant before his departure – my God, I had an expense account! At lunch he asked my advice on what to order and I suggested the Filet Mignon. He said, “I don’t mind, as long as it’s not beef, of course.” Whoops. A diplomatic disaster had been narrowly averted.
But I didn’t see this as a career and by now had realised it wasn’t teaching I hated, it was the bush. With my twenty-first birthday fast approaching – still a virgin, still practising my religion and still completely apolitical - I also realised I had some growing-up to do. Some reflective thinking was called for.
I had decided that there were four categories of people in the world:
(a) rich and fun;
(b) rich and boring;
(c) poor and fun;
(d) poor and boring.
I quickly eliminated (b) and (d); fun rated higher than rich in my book. I created a Plan of Action.
Back to the Classroom
Meanwhile, my brothers Robert and Chris were completing their secondary schooling at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, a Christian Brothers school literally at the end of our street. I decided to approach them about a job.
They welcomed me with open arms. In those days there were still quite a few teaching monks, but the growing force of lay teachers was composed mostly of ex-monks or worthy, but untrained, drop-outs. To score a State-trained fully qualified teacher was a Godsend. Of course the first thing the headmaster did was issue me with a strap.
I taught Fifth Class – all 56 of them, boys aged nine or ten – and I really came to love it as I felt I was doing something worthy, even if I had no intention of marking 56 compositions each week. I really loved those kids, even the exasperating ones. This leads us into dangerous territory. I was a gay, necessarily closeted, primary school teacher. Such are inevitably assumed to be pederasts – and in recent times, the world has discovered many of them were. I was not. I learned to love the open, ingenuousness of primary school age kids. I love their innocence, their optimism, their eagerness to know about the world, their desire to be loved and make an impression. And at that time I loved the powerful position of being the provider of wisdom and the drawer-out of latent talents. I loved being the only cynic in the room – for now I was becoming just that. Vatican II had come and gone and I was beginning to see a major contrast in what the “old” Christianity had taught me and what these kids wanted to believe in.
Oh, the strap. Well, I used it judiciously for the first few months but then gave up. It didn’t seem to be a very dignified approach to discipline and I don’t think it had much effect. Besides I had a painful habit of whacking myself on the shin with the follow-through.
After two years I was “promoted” to the junior secondary school. Despite the fact that I now got some free periods, this meant I was teaching thirteen and fourteen year olds. This worried me, as some of them were growing up fast. Especially when you are taking them for a Religious Knowledge class, the questions begin to become more knowing and more awkward. Although these subjects were not discussed, my views on wet dreams and masturbation were no longer those of Holy Mother Church.
Many years later I met an ex-pupil of this period in a gay club. He said two things: (a) “You wore a different suit every day, but we never thought you were gay,” and (b)
“You never did know what we were getting up to in the back row, did you?” No, indeed I didn’t.
And that’s another thing. I have an appalling track-record of predicting who of my students will turn out gay. But more of that anon.
And Back to the Piano
During all of this I had also joined a couple of dance bands in succession. The first was a rock-pop setup with female vocalist. Her big number was The Wedding. I had a good piano solo in the Monkees’ I’m a Believer. We had a regular Saturday night gig at the Rose, Shamrock and Thistle Hotel (now called the Three Weeds and much posher) in Rozelle, an inner city suburb. I remember the odd fight, the odd chair being thrown, (not at the band), famously on one occasion by a girl who already had her left leg entirely encased in plaster. It was great fun. One night some patrons invited the band to carry on at their home, a terrace house nearby. They had a keg of beer in the kitchen. There was drinking and dancing on the lino. Late in the night I found the hostess mopping up beer from the kitchen floor. “I hate a slow floor” was her explanation.
The second group was a more traditional quartet that tended to get gigs in servicemen’s clubs and the like. I can’t remember what either band was called, but they were fun and the money helped.
Growing Up and Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
In September, 1963, I turned twenty-one. We celebrated with a party in the local scout hall. There may have been seventy or eighty friends and family and the aforementioned quartet provided the music, but we got through the night on orange juice and just one dozen long neck bottles of beer. How times have changed.
Then in November President Kennedy was shot. It’s one of those world-stopping events where you always remember where you were when you heard about it. (Add here the Apollo11 moon landing, the sacking of the Whitlam government, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Burt Reynolds shaving off his moustache…) In Australia it was already November 23, a Saturday, and I was sleeping off a late night when my brother Chris rushed into the house with a special edition of the newspaper, crying, “President Kennedy’s been shot!” I heard him, but went back to sleep, only to wake up later thinking, I had a dream that President Kennedy had been shot. Of course, it wasn’t a dream.
That Saturday night I went out on a blind date. It was to be my last ever date with a girl, I had given up on them. A few months earlier I had had a dinner date with a very gorgeous girl from Gunnedah. Her name was Liz Heath and she was from a very wealthy grazing family. She was studying nursing. At the end of a candlelit dinner for two in an Italian restaurant swathed in fake grape vines and adorned with Chianti bottles, she looked into my eyes and said, “Oh Hugh, I do love you – you’re so funny!” Well, that was it. If they wanted funny, I’d give them funny.
But this blind date had been arranged by two of my dance band mates. They both had girlfriends, had no idea I was gay, and took pity on me. We went to Skelsey’s, an out-of-town night club with the ambiance of a road house. We danced and dined the night away, but I can’t even remember her name. That was that.
Well, that’s not quite true. Let’s fast-forward just a year or so. In the local parish was a prominent businessman (pubs) called Noel Dumas. He had eleven children, two boys and nine girls. Of these, Greg and Leonie were twins. Leonie was 17 or so, I was 21. We met at parties and took quite a shine to each other. It never led to more that a bit of a smooch and a chaste kiss and though it was general knowledge that her Dad was conservatively worth six million pounds (that’s half a million per sibling) and I was occasionally her date on family outings where Dad would pick up the tab, romance finally dwindled.
Not long after, Noel decided to emigrate to Canada, taking the entire brood with him (Greg and Leonie were the second-eldest). He was becoming anxious that a Labour government would come to power (it finally did in 1972, after 23 years of conservative rule) and grab all his assets. Not long after setting up home in Vancouver, he dropped dead on the tennis court. He was 50.
Enough of the girls, what about the boys? Well, yes, by now I had found a few gay pubs and gay friends, which meant I began to live a double life in earnest. You have probably read about that in my last blog.
But What about The Plan?
But I need to go back a few paragraphs to that Plan of Action. How was I going to meet fun, preferably rich, people? (Obviously, given the story of Leonie, I eventually did, but we need to rewind to late 1963.)
Whilst still a public servant I took the 414 bus to the railway station each morning, going to work in the city. At the same bus stop most days was a young lad wearing the uniform of Trinity Grammar School, a posh Anglican school a few suburbs away. I befriended him.
His name was Ross. I got chatting to him and met a few of his older friends. One of these was John Williams. His parents had a beach house at Whale Beach, about an hour’s drive from the City. The house had an upstairs for the parents and a separate downstairs for John and his mates. With new friends Bob Donnelley, Graham Harris, Brian Strauss and others, all in our late teens or early twenties, a habit of weekends at the beach was formed. We all had cars and all drank and drove. We’d spend the weekend at the Newport Arms.
The Newport Arms
Fifteen minutes drive from the Whale Beach house was the Newport Hotel, always referred to as the Newport Arms. It is on the shore of Pittwater, the southernmost arm of Broken Bay, a wonderful maze of waterways and a great boaties’ playground. There is little commercial shipping – fishing boats and ferries, mainly – but there are plenty of sailing boats and stink boats.
This sprawling hotel with a huge beer garden on the shores of Pittwater was a boozers’ paradise where we would eat hamburgers and get pissed on Saturday arvo, then do it all again on Sunday and drive home. None of us got killed.
Generally, pubs couldn’t open on Sundays in the 1960s. You could only buy a drink if you were a bona fide traveller. That is, you had travelled twenty or more miles before your drink. So at the pub we’d sign in with a false address twenty miles away on the other side of Sydney. No one ever checked your driver’s licence. Then we could booze on.
Of course, on the other side of Sydney, determined drinkers were signing in at their locals as having come from Newport or Whale Beach. So when the pubs shut around five o’clock, there would be two streams of traffic full of drunken hoons bearing down on each other in opposite directions. Crazy!
A great new invention at the pub was the Scopitone machine, a forerunner of today’s video clips. It was the first video juke box. On high rotation was a German couple, the Kessler twins, extremely leggy as I recall, doing The Locomotion on the engine of an old steam train. They did a pretty good Quando, Quando also. But it cost 20 cents a go, as opposed to five cents for the regular juke box, so when a clip finished, the cry would go up, “Sponsor! Sponsor!” and some rich punter would contribute to a round of drunken applause.
Tim Bristow was the very inefficient bouncer. He was a minor thug with a high opinion of himself, but there were still plenty of under-age drinkers there and no one seemed to care. I remember two pieces of graffiti that took my eye. On the sign above the entrance from the car park someone had scratched, “Suck me till I sag”. In the loo was its mate: “Love me till the juice runs down my leg”. Charming.
In the middle of the garden was a corrugated iron shed covered in bougainvillea. This served as the bar for the garden. The barmaid served beers from a gun-type dispenser. One weekend Bob Donnelley had the use of his parents’ cabin cruiser and there were twenty-one of us on board. We anchored off the pub and went ashore. Someone said, “Let’s order 21 middies (10 oz beers)”. Someone else said, “No, make it schooners (15 oz)”. “No,” I said, “let’s have two each”.
I walked up to the barmaid and said, “Forty-two schooners, please”. She didn’t bat an eyelid, just lined up the glasses and fired away.
Beach houses and cabin cruisers. I was on my way. Time to upgrade my Triumph Herald for a white Triumph Spitfire convertible with red upholstery.