Showing posts with label childhood. Show all posts
Showing posts with label childhood. Show all posts

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Maladie infantile que j'avais oubliée

Depuis des années, je ne pense plus à mon attaque de scarlatine, quand j'étais un jeune garçon. C'était une maladie très contagieuse, et j''ai été mis seul dans une chambre à l'hôpital de Grafton pendant plusieurs semaines. Mon père Bill, attristé par la mise en isolement de son fils aîné, a fait un geste extraordinaire pour me consoler. Il m'a construit un petit récepteur radio du type dit "à galène", ou "à crystal", que j'écoutais au moyen d'un casque. C'était un cadeau magnifique. Je ne pensais qu'à mon poste magique de radio. Je ne savais plus du tout que j'étais toujours souffrant. Mon père m'a guéri. La scarlatine a disparu de ma vie et de ma mémoire, sans laisser aucune trace.

Quant aux origines de cette affliction, chacun avait son idée. Ma mère était persuadé que ma scarlatine était arrivée par de grandes liasses de billets de banques en provenance de la Chine, ramenées en Australie par le couple de Lilian Pickering, une tante maternelle de mon père.

Cliquez pour agrandir

Cette affliction n'a donné lieu à aucune séquelle. Ce n'est donc pas à cause de la scarlatine que j'aurais développé mon extraordinaire habitude mentale du raisonnement associatif...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My childhood Eden

As a boy on the rural outskirts of South Grafton, I lived just a stone’s throw away from a pristine paradise: Susan Island, a luxuriant rain-forest Garden of Eden in the middle of the broad and fast-flowing Clarence River.

I was reminded of my childhood Eden by this image displayed by the wonderful Gallica website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Click to enlarge

Susan Island was the ancient home place of a gigantic colony of fruit bats, whose daily excursions (from where to where, I never knew, nor for what reasons?) filled the twilight sky over Waterview with a dark moving cloud. The zoologist Richard Dawkins would have been enchanted—as was I—by this mass movement in the sky.

The Big River flowed just a few hundred yards behind our house in Waterview. Here’s a photo of a family fishing excursion in 1951:

That’s Don on the left, I’m in the middle, Dad’s in the background and Anne and Susan are on the right. I think we were aware that we were being photographed, because we’ve more-or-less struck up poses. We used earthworms as bait. Don and Anne, with bamboo rods, fished for slender Southern Garfish [Hyporhamphus melanochir], which were full of bones but very tasty.

Dad and I, using hand-held lines, were hoping to catch a big Spangled Perch [Leiopotherapon unicolor].

You can see Susan Island—the sleeping ground of the fruit bats—in the background of the fishing photo. But we local residents rarely went there (even though it was easy to find rowing boats), because our island paradise was in fact cursed by a terrible event that had occurred in its vicinity (on the Grafton side) just before Christmas 1943: the drowning of 13 kids who were Cub members of the local Boy Scouts. Not long after this tragedy, I myself would become an active member of this youth organization, and I would never think twice about my drowned forebears. That’s the terrible thing about explicit historical tales. They persuade the living that they belong to the past, and that nothing of their likes will ever reoccur. For me, as a child, the Cubs were drowned… and that’s all I knew about this ancient affair, which ended up irritating me, like a constantly reoccurring news film (without images).

Of the 13 victims, 9 were buried side by side in the South Grafton cemetery.

Today, we have images of their ugly concrete and tiled graves.

Meanwhile, we never see pictures of the tombs of their 4 comrades in Grafton. So much the better. It’s all so sadly desolate, like the memorial on the banks of the Clarence in Grafton, erected through the efforts of a sympathetic police constable named Alan Dahl, mayor of Grafton: a family friend who once taught me the elements of photography.

There’s a recent article on this tragedy in The Daily Examiner [display].

Today, jolted into a state of reminiscences and meditation by the French image of fruit bats, I simply wish to list, once again, in alphabetical order—in the admirable Israeli style that consists of naming out loud their hallowed victims—the drowned Cubs of December 1943. [A precise name is enough, as it were. In Jewish mysticism, a name is often considered to be no less significant than the entity it designates. Many Jews refer to God, for example, as ha Shem : "the name".] In fact, half-a-dozen surnames are those of young siblings or cousins of the victims who went to school with me in South Grafton.

Graeme John Corbett (8), son of John Corbett of 32 Bent Street, South Grafton.

William Robert Dillon (8), son of Frederick R. Dillon of 104 Ryan Street, South Grafton. William was the only son.

Cecil George Lambert (8), son of George Lambert of 90 Hoof Street, Grafton. Cecil’s father was on active service.

Raymond Arthur Morris (8), son of Keith Morris of 127 Ryan Street, South Grafton.

Brian Leonard Munns (9), son of Leonard Munns of 43 Bright Street, Street, South Grafton. Brian’s father was the Deputy Mayor of South Grafton.

Keith James Rennie (8), son of William Rennie of 130 Hoof Street, Grafton. Keith’s father was a munitions worker.

Robert Alexander Rennie (10), brother of the above-mentioned victim.

Edmund James Retchford (8), son of George Retchford of 16 Mary Street, Grafton. Edmund was their only child.

Alvin Adrian Leo Spicer (10), son of Bert Spicer of 193 Ryan Street, South Grafton. When the tragedy occurred, Alvin’s father was apparently on his way home from the AWC in the Northern Territory.

Richard John Steinhour (8), son of George Henry Steinhour and Lillian Margaret of 29 Abbott Street, South Grafton. Richard’s father was a returned digger of World War II.

Dale William Thorsborne (10), son of William August Thorsborne and Iris Sylvia Doris of 106 Ryan Street, South Grafton. Dale was the only child.

Allan Crawford Tobin (9), son of Raymond Tobin of 27 Abbott Street, South Grafton. His father was on active service in New Guinea. Allan had joined the cubs on 8 October 1943.

Robert Walter Wilkes (10), son of Reginald Wilkes of Kelly Street, South Grafton.

There’s no point in mentioning the names of the older fellows who were supposed to be taking care of the Cubs. Meanwhile, the paradise of Susan Island continues to raise its ominous head above the mighty waters of the Clarence. And the squeals of the fruit bats are the music of Eden.

The tragic outing of the Cubs, although totally elucidated, remains in my mind as a kind of mysterious Big River Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

In the shadow of Grafton's cathedral

In the middle of the 1950s, the Anglican cathedral of Grafton (my birthplace in Australia) was a focal point in my young existence.

A charming legend evoked a link between one of my maternal ancestors and Christ Church Cathedral. Here's a studio photo of my great-great-grandmother Eliza Dancey [1821-1904] and her daughter, my great-grandmother, Mary Eliza Cranston [1858-1926]:

[Click to enlarge]

They had left their native Bailieborough in Ireland (County Cavan) in the 1870s. In Australia, Mary Cranston married Isaac Kennedy [1844-1934] in 1881, at a Protestant church in South Grafton. Meanwhile, Mary's young brother William Cranston [1862-1934] had become a bricklayer in Grafton and, in 1883, he was working on the construction of the front wall of the new Anglican cathedral. The bricklaying was watched with interest by two little girls, Bella Greenaway (14) and her sister May (6), who were waiting to meet their father, George Greenaway [1843-1915], captain of the coastal ship First Favourite, about to tie up at the wharf at the end of Oliver Street, after a voyage up from Sydney. The smaller child had with her a tiny porcelain doll. In the course of their conversation with 21-year-old William Cranston, the bricklayer was invited to place the china doll in a recess, high up in the wall... as a kind of offering to the emerging cathedral.

Over half-a-century later, in 1937, Cranston's brickwork was demolished, and replaced by a new western wall in which the tiny porcelain doll was given a central setting, where it can still be seen today. [Some of my data concerning this story comes from an article by Don Peck in the newsletter #116 of the Clarence River Historical Society, dated 27 July 2010. I have taken the liberty of slightly modifying certain dates, to render the account plausible.]

When I was out in Australia in 2006, I took a photo of a plaque containing the list of the cathedral's bishops:

One of these men, Kenneth Clements, had become my friend for a short while in 1956, just before I left Grafton to become a science student at the University of Sydney. As for the bishops who followed Clements, I had lost contact with the Grafton scene, and I knew nothing about these men... until reading about some of them in the national press. So, the stuff I'm about to relate comes purely from web pages that you can easily find by means of Google.

In particular, there was the case of Donald Shearman, the bishop of Christ Church Cathedral for a dozen years, from 1973 until 1985. As far as I know, Shearman's bishopric raised no problems (no pun intended) in Grafton. It was only later that facts were published [article] concerning the churchman's alleged misconduct involving a 14-year-old girl in a church hostel in Forbes, back in the 1950s. In 2004, Shearman was actually defrocked by the Anglican church, which was an event of a kind that had never occurred previously in the ecclesiastic history of Australia.

On the fringe of this affair, the Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, apparently went out of his way to protect Shearman, advising him "to keep a low profile" [article]. By the time Hollingworth's cover-up role had been revealed, he had been appointed by prime minister John Howard to be the Governor-General of Australia and, for his old school in Melbourne (Scotch College), Hollingworth was hailed as a hero [article].

In 2001, moreover, he had been named a Companion of the Order of Australia. But, no sooner had Hollingworth started his job as the queen's representative in Australia than criticisms were aired publicly about his alleged protection of pedophiles during the 1990s, when he was Archbishop of Brisbane. Finally, in May 2003, Hollingworth resigned as Governor-General. In 2005, the woman at the heart of the Shearman affair, Beth Heinrich, spoke publicly for the first time about her relationship with the bishop [article].

Grafton's Anglican cathedral was in the news once again, a month ago, because of sad tales of sexual abuse of children. Having neglected to follow up allegations concerning the North Coast Childrens Home in Lismore, the bishop Keith Slater was obliged to resign [article].

In spite of these nasty associations, Christ Church Cathedral evokes several positive personal memories. Back in the mid 1950s, when I still imagined myself naively as some kind of a Christian (a situation that came to an abrupt end a year or so later, when I settled down in Sydney), I used to don regularly the red and white outfit of a so-called server officiating within the church.

Above all, the cathedral contains a lovely stained-glass window in memory of my paternal grandmother Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964].

[Click to enlarge]

Monday, November 7, 2011

Childhood memories of Waterview

In the dark lounge room of the Walker house at Waterview, there was an upright piano. I had started to take weekly piano lessons from an old lady named Maude McMenemy, whom we referred to as “Mrs Mack”. I recall waiting on her front verandah, listening to the end of an ongoing lesson and saying to myself that, if this were music, then I wanted no part of it. Maude Mack’s basic weakness was her own inability to play the piano skillfully and artistically. She would thump the keyboard angrily as if she were punishing the instrument for not producing beautiful sounds, and there was nothing in her teaching approach that might have inspired me to take an interest in learning music.

Once, in the middle of a lesson, there was an electricity blackout. Mrs Mack went into her kitchen and fetched a wax candle. No sooner had she lit it than the lights came back on, whereupon my teacher lamented: “Ah, I’ve wasted a match.” When my mother heard this anecdote, she was most amused. The exclamation about wasting a match became a permanent element of our Waterview repertory of humor.

At that time, at the South Grafton primary school, my schoolmates commonly assumed that I was enamored of a young lady named Nancy McDiarmid, who happened to be the daughter of the local Presbyterian clergyman. While it may have been the case that we were attracted to one another, I'm obliged to admit that I have no precise recollections of my yearning for her, or going out of my way to meet up with her. Be that as it may, we were suddenly thrown together through the piano, and the desire of Mrs Mack to have her pupils perform in public. It was decided that Nancy and I would combine our pianistic talents as duettists for a performance of a piece called Carnival of Venice at the forthcoming Jacaranda Festival in Grafton. I seem to recall that we practiced together once or twice at Nancy’s house up on the hill at South Grafton. For the actual performance—which went over quite well—Nancy looked cute in a pale mauve cotton frock (to match the color of our festival trees), while I sported a dark mauve necktie.

[Click to enlarge]

Meanwhile, I persevered with my scales and elementary pieces on the instrument at Grandma’s place. Obviously, for those within earshot—such as my uncles—the sounds I created were dull, if not unpleasant. One day, I discovered by chance that I could reproduce the melodies of songs I heard on the radio, and harmonize the music with my left hand using three chords: tonic, dominant and subdominant. Not surprisingly, the members of the Walker household found my improvisations slightly less monotonous than the scales. When I sensed that I was annoying my listeners less than before, this encouraged me to develop my skills in “playing by ear” (as this ability was described). From that point on, I lost interest in learning to read music and concentrated exclusively upon the art of inventing richer methods of improvisation. But I soon realized that I was clearly not marked out to become a competent pianist.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Once upon a time, I too was brainwashed

In the Melbourne press, an article by Leslie Cannold [display] draws attention to the fact that Australian school children are being brainwashed by religious marketeers, apparently with the approval or complicity of educational authorities and parents.

This alarming article has been reproduced on the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

I understand the substance of this cry of alarm. Back in the 1950s, I happened to be a pure specimen of the kind of mindless brainwashed individual that well-intentioned Australian scripture classes were trying to sculpt. I hardly need to say that, today, I'm embarrassed by the ridiculous tone of the following article:

The 5A mention after my name means that I wrote this tripe when I was in the A-class of the 5th grade at Grafton High School, in 1956, when I was about 15 years old. One might consider (along with me today) that I should have known better. But the truth of the matter was that I was a stupid country kid, in the desertic intellectual atmosphere of Grafton, molded by ugly forces such as the local Anglican church... not to mention the total absence of explicit parental guidance. I was a floating electron...

To understand the mundane context in which I penned such shit, you need to know that, at that time, the dean of the Anglican cathedral in Grafton, Arthur Warr, not so speak of the bishop, Kenneth Clements, probably imagined me as fine fodder for their future theological ranks. And I was indeed that kind of candidate, as an inquiring adolescent tuned to philosophical interrogations. Dean Warr, a kind but silly old Anglican fuddy-duddy who played chess regularly with my grandfather, gave me a brand-new copy of a book by an American evangelist (whose name I've momentarily forgotten) that promulgated all kinds of ridiculous US shit… which was decidedly new in Grafton. Fortunately, at the age of 15, I came upon a magnificent subversive book written by a great French doubter, Ernest Renan: The Life of Jesus. Between the dean, the bishop, Renan and Jesus, I had a marvelous opportunity of escaping permanently from the clutches of Christianity. So, I emerged rapidly and happily from this quagmire, and grew up quickly.

Today, I take pleasure in revisiting the Christian wastelands, from time to time, in my perusals of archaic phenomena such as Master Bruno and the Carthusian monks… who existed too early to know Renan.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Aging ghost from a ghost town

This year, my home town is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its proclamation as a so-called city... which no longer exists in reality, because the former municipality has been dissolved into a geographically broader entity that might be described as a regional administration. In a foreword to the following commemorative book, for example, the senior elected individual refers to himself, not as the mayor of Grafton, but as the mayor of the Clarence Valley Council.

Today's my birthday. I was born in Grafton (New South Wales, Australia) exactly 69 years ago. Now, if you want to know what Grafton was like when I grew up there (up until I reached the age of 16, when I left for university studies in Sydney), well you should simply go there today. Little seems to have changed. Nothing whatsoever appears to have evolved in a positive sense. It's a place devoid of visible development, of civic progress. A place where almost nothing of significance ever happens (apart from their antiquated colloquium on science and religion). The "city" makes a brave effort to take itself seriously (for example, the authorities commissioned the above book, written by an outsider), but the major economic actors moved out of town long ago, just as most of the dairy farmers on the banks of the Clarence abandoned their time-honored activities. Today, the global scene in Grafton is one of genteel decadence. When I last visited my birthplace, in 2006, I had the impression that I was wandering around in a ghost town whose ghosts are kindly requested to stay away from the few remaining pubs that still attract customers, and to keep off the streets after dark. I'm told that it remains nevertheless a nice town for people who like a quiet existence.

As the sole resident of Gamone, and happy to remain so, I guess I should appreciate that viewpoint. But I'm sure I would be terribly frustrated if I were obliged to reside in Grafton. I'm much better off here in my adoptive home in France.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Irish songs

The title I chose for my maternal genealogy notes is A Little Bit of Irish. This is in fact the title of a sentimental Irish song that I used to hear on the radio when I was a kid. It was the theme song of a weekly concert, aired of a Sunday evening on the ABC station 2NR, by the Irish tenor Patrick O'Hagan. He's the father of the singer Johnny Logan, nicknamed Mr Eurovision because of his multiple awards, for Ireland, in this famous annual European song contest.

I haven't succeeded in finding a video of Patrick O'Hagan himself singing A Little Bit of Irish [for the moment, I'm awaiting an audio CD I ordered], but here's a version by another singer:

Here we have Patrick O'Hagan (who lived in Australia) singing The Wild Colonial Boy. You can see the same kind of wind-up gramophone we had at Waterview, to listen to 78 vinyl records.

For fuzzy nostalgic reasons, I still adore this corny bushranger ballad. I often sit down at the piano and burst into a rendition of the song for my dog Sophia... who doesn't, unfortunately, seem to be particularly fond of Irish songs. Or would it be my singing that my dog dislikes?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Room with a view

On certain occasions, in unexpected situations, Google's street-view gadget (mentioned in my previous post) is capable of rising to photographic greatness. Admire, for instance, this splendid image:

For Google, it's an unorthodox "street": the motor vehicle roadway on the upper level of the famous old steel bridge over the Clarence River at Grafton. When I was a kid, I surely rode my bike a thousand times past this quaint little room with a great view out over the Big River... as it was called when first discovered (by an escaped convict). The photo shows us the rusty toothed wheels and giant beam that used to raise a central span of the double-decker bridge (for trains as well as vehicles), enabling ships to get through. And the little room in the sky housed the electric switches to set the mechanism in action.

Children often dream of spending leisure time in a tiny house built up in the branches of a big tree. As I look nostalgically at this little control room (which has lost its electro-mechanical soul, for the span has long been condemned to immobility), I realize that I no doubt dreamt, once upon a time, of opening its door—stealthily, in the early hours of the morning, when the sun was coming up over the Pacific Ocean, and transforming the Clarence into a vast silver lake—and stepping into this tiny mysterious attic, like a cell in the tower of a medieval castle. I'm sure it would have been a remote and exciting place, far removed from urban neighbors, in which to meditate upon existence. For a child, it would have been a good address. For Google Maps, this little room with a view is located, so it says, in Craig Street.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Goldilocks zones

I remember vaguely seeing a movie that contained a dialogue along the following lines:

QUESTIONER: What made you want to leave England?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody cold.
QUESTIONER: Today, why don't you want to stay in Australia?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody hot.

That sums up things nicely. What we're all searching for, of course, is a place that's just right.

When I was a child, I was particularly fond of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. For those of you who've forgotten this marvelous tale, here's a version I found on the web:

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in. At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ah, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and ate it all up. After she had eaten the bear's breakfast, Goldilocks was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet. "This chair is too big!" she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. "This chair is too big, too!" she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. "Ah, this chair is just right," she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces! Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep. While she was sleeping, the three bears came home. "Someone's been eating my porridge," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" cried the Baby bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair and they've broken it all to pieces," cried the Baby bear. They decided to look around some more, and went upstairs to the bedroom. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed," growled Papa bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed too," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby bear. At that moment, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed: "Help!" Then she jumped up and left the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door and raced away into the forest. She never returned to the home of the three bears.

What I liked about this tale, I think, was the idea that a solid little single-son family unit could be existing harmoniously in the middle of the woods, in an isolated and independent environment. All the elements of their domestic environment had been adjusted optimally to cater for the respective sizes of the father, the mother and the son. And, when a lovely little blond girl happened to stray into this home, and evaluate its contents, she found—not surprisingly, I was tempted to imagine—that the mini-universe of the son (including his bed) was "just right".

For a long time, researchers in cosmology have been using the term Goldilocks as a metaphorical adjective to designate any remote world that might be just right for some form of life. We lucky Earthlings live in such a Goldilocks corner of the Cosmos. Maybe, elsewhere among the stars and black holes, there are other Goldilocks zones...

The NASA has just launched its Kepler satellite, designed to spend the next few years searching for Goldilocks zones inside the Milky Way.

Now, I don't wish to be a devil's advocate in any way whatsoever, because the idea of finding new forms of life appears to me as one of the most exciting human challenges that could possibly exist. But the Goldilocks metaphor disturbs me a little, for two reasons:

— We cannot exclude the possibility that the satellite might discover unfriendly places inhabited by ferocious giant Papa bears and wicked Mama bears.

— The harshest part of the children's story is that Goldilocks, having found an environment that was "just right", did not however decide to stay there. For bizarre reasons, she raced away in terror. In other words, in this otherwise delightful tale, there was no happy ending...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hell's just across the street

Whenever the Tour de France runs into cold rain, icy winds, fog or sleet, you can be sure that a French cycling commentator, to describe the weather conditions, is going to drag out one of their favorite adjectives: dantesque, meaning "atrocious". The first time I heard this highfalutin epithet, I found it funny, because Dante Alighieri [1265-1321] was renowned for his vision of Hell, which we don't usually imagine as a cold damp place. Dante's literary Hell is in fact a terribly complex environment, with a little bit of everything in the way of horrible tribulations... including slippery slopes covered in wet mud.

In his play entitled No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the famous but misunderstood claim: "Hell is other people." He wasn't saying that other people drive us crazy, and that everything would be so much nicer on Earth if we were all alone. Sartre was merely making a two-step observation:

1. An individual constructs a representation of himself by "digesting" what other people seem to be saying and thinking about him. We tend to see ourselves in the "mirror" provided by the attitudes towards us of other people: friends, enemies, etc.

2. When the global assessment provided by these reflections from other people seems to be a real mess [I'm paraphrasing Sartre in crude terms], then it's as if these outside commentators have thrown us into a personal Hell. On the other hand, it might happen that other people are not formulating all that many bad ideas about you. What's more, you might not give a fuck about what other people are saying about you, be it negative or positive. In either of these two happy cases, Hell ceases to exist for you. As Sartre puts it, such fortunate folk are "condemned to be free".

I have the impression that the existentialist Sartre and the zoologist Richard Dawkins are saying much the same thing. God does not exist, so there is no divine plan for the essence of human beings. We might indeed be struck down by lightning, just as we might become the object of "evil vibrations" from other people who desire to impose Hell upon us. But our existentialist freedom to be what we wish to be remains untarnished. We are never obliged to assume a role of victims, neither of brutal Nature nor of Others.

Let's change the background. My birthplace, Grafton, Australia: a sleepy country town (locals like to call it a city) that's proud of its jacaranda trees and its aging bridge across the Clarence River. Let's nudge the background a little bit more, to talk of jails. Before Australia became a nation, it was a vast prison. In my July 2007 article History of my birthplace [display], I mentioned the excellent historical work by Robert Hughes entitled The Fatal Shore, which depicts starkly the terrible penal system that the British installed in the Antipodes. For many decades, Australia's early history was dominated by the abominable treatment of convicts and the continent's indigenous people. Later, the two strands of horror would flow together, in the sense that the majority of inmates in many Australian jails were Aborigines. [This was the case in Fremantle, for example, where I resided in the shadow of their jail in 1986-1987.]

The quiet town of Grafton erected an ominous jail back in 1893... even before they got around to building a town hall and council chambers.

The fortress is still there, inside the city, just across the street from the local hospital... where my brother was treated for a trauma after a horse accident in the 1950s, where my father died in 1978.

This jail in the heart of my birthplace has always been a striking example of an elephant in the living room. Graftonians were all aware that the jail existed, but nobody ever spoke about it. Visiting the hospital, we would make an effort to avoid looking across at the scene on the other side of the street, where the more docile inmates were working in potato fields, behind barbed-wire fences, with rifle-pointing guards observing events from corner towers. Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of situation. Many great cities such as Paris and Marseille have giant prisons in their midst. This is no more shocking (indeed less so, in my opinion) than the countless Breton towns centered around cemeteries, as if the ideal motivation for building a dynamic society consisted of reminding citizens constantly that they were mortal. The only difference is that a cemetery concerns the dead, who no longer care about how they're being treated, whereas a jail inside a social entity such as a city concerns living human beings, whose treatment should remain the object of our vigilant attention. Unfortunately, at Grafton, we knew nothing about what might be happening inside the walls, and we cared even less, for this phenomenon failed to disturb our anesthetized and antiseptic sense of the distinction between what might be humanly acceptable or unacceptable in the outside world. Stupendous error: the "outside world" of tortured inmates happened to lie just across the street.

Meanwhile, I attended Latin classes with Tom Mogan, whose father was the governor of Grafton Jail. Tom was a devout Catholic, and I imagined vaguely that this might have something to do with his desire to learn Latin. After school hours, Tom never invited any of us to his home in Hoof Street: the governor's residence. So we knew nothing about our mate Tom... who went on to become a priest, working with Aborigines in Western Australian, before his premature death.

I attach, with no comments, a public document concerning the period during which I was a high school student in Grafton and the father of my mate Tom was governor of Grafton Jail:

Australian studies in law, crime and justice
The abuse of prisoners in New South Wales 1943-76

Published in:
Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector
P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989 ISBN 0 642 14605 5
(Australian studies in law, crime and justice series); pp. 27-46

The punishment of convicted criminals is an issue which has indelibly marked the two hundred-year-old history of European settlement in New South Wales. Indeed, a central purpose of the original colonisation in 1788 was to relieve overcrowded conditions in British prisons. For its first thirty years, the colony of New South Wales was little more than a military prison.

Although the severity with which the convicts were punished for various breaches of penal discipline defies precise analysis, such limited statistics as do exist depict a regime of grim brutality. Over 42,000 floggings (with an average of more than 40 lashes per flogging) and 240 executions by hanging were officially recorded for the period 1830-37 (Historical Records of Australia, vol. 1, no. 19, p. 654).

A century later, penal methods had evolved substantially - at least in theory. The beating of prisoners was proscribed by law. But well into the second half of the twentieth century, many ugly vestiges of British colonisation were still recognisable in the prisons of New South Wales.


During World War II, increasing tensions in the state's prisons, and a number of serious assaults on prison officers, led the then NSW Prisons Department to use Grafton Gaol to house the state's most intractable prisoners. The penal methods implemented there over the following thirty-three year period were described by a Royal Commissioner as a 'regime of terror', '... brutal, savage and sometimes sadistic'. The Commissioner referred to the period in question as 'one of the most sordid and shameful episodes in NSW penal history' (New South Wales 1978, p. 108).

He concluded:

It is the view of the Commission that every prison officer who served at Grafton during the time it was used as a gaol for intractables must have known of its brutal regime. The majority of them, if not all, would have taken part in the illegal assaults on prisoners (New South Wales 1978, P. 119).

The practices in question consisted of the systematic beating of prisoners upon their arrival at Grafton, euphemistically termed a 'reception biff, and further physical assaults in the event of breaches of gaol rules during their subsequent incarceration there. In other instances, beatings were administered on a more or less random basis. In most cases, the assaults took place without violence or provocation by prisoners (Zdenkowski & Brown 1982, pp. 181-2 and 240-1).

Prisoners arrived at Grafton customarily attired in overalls and slippers, their arms strapped to their sides by a security belt to which their wrists were handcuffed. In the words of Mr Justice Nagle:

In some instances, the beatings began even before the security belt and handcuffs were removed. The beatings were usually administered by three or four officers wielding rubber batons. The prisoner was taken into a yard, ordered to strip, searched, and then the biff began. The word biff by no means describes the brutal beating which ensued. A former prison officer, Mr J.J. Pettit, described it: ,sometimes three, four or five of them would assault the prisoner with their batons to a condition of semi-consciousness. On occasions the prisoner urinates, and his nervous system ceases to function normally'. If most of the prisoners are to be believed, the officers had no compunction about beating them around their backs and heads; nor were they averse to kicking them when they were on the ground. They invariably abused them while they were hitting them, calling them 'bastards', 'cunts' and other abusive names. Sometimes they threatened to kill them (New South Wales 1978, P. 110).

The Royal Commissioner went on to quote a former Grafton prisoner, a local resident who had served a short term for failing to meet maintenance payments, and who was thereby spared violent treatment:

Later one afternoon ... I heard a commotion coming from an adjacent cell underneath in the 'trac' section. I could hear a lot of screaming and shouting and also the sound of thuds hitting against something. It went on for at least three minutes, I then heard the sound of a cell door slamming. The intense screaming then continued and its direction appeared to be moving. I then heard the same screaming coming from the yard. It lasted for some time further, and finally disappeared. The next morning at about 7.00 am I and other prisoners went into that yard. I saw what appeared to be pools of blood of considerable quantity on the concrete as well as on the path leading to the wood-heap.

He described the second incident in the following manner.

One afternoon ... I was marching through a walkover near a small yard, and looking towards the pound. I saw officer Wenczel and a prisoner, who was against a wall. Mr Wenczel was flogging him with his baton across his back and shoulders. I saw five to six blows, and the prisoner turned and was struck heavily across the head. Blood spurted from his forehead which was split. He fell on to the ground. The prisoner had his shirt off and blood was appearing on his body. I walked away from the scene (quoted in New South Wales 1978, p. 115).

It was clear, moreover, that the beatings in question were in furtherance of departmental policy; prison officers who testified before the Royal Commission conceded as much (Findlay 1982, p. 46). Departmental correspondence referred to the desirability of 'robust officers' to staff the institution, and for thirty-three years prison officers at Grafton were paid a 'climatic allowance' (New South Wales 1978, p. 108) - certainly an ironic euphemism, as the climate in the Grafton area is arguably the most equable in Australia.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Childhood paradise

We all need a vision of Paradise, with a capital P, otherwise we would surely be tempted to step out of the rat race, in one way or another, politely if possible... like Amy Winehouse not turning up to sing in Paris. Return to sender, address unknown. Nobody's home...

Here's a fuzzy scene from one of my childhood visions of Paradise:

At the Mulligan's property at OBX Creek, among other things, I discovered a magic macadamia nut tree. There were three brothers in the vicinity: Athol, Stan and Norman. A small sawmill near the house had produced timber for the dinghy in the above photo, which had the sweet aroma of shellac. The brothers fiddled around with souped-up motor bikes that they raced on a dirt track at Bawden's Bridge over the Orara.

When I returned to Australia in 1967, with my wife and daughter, I was proud to cook dinner for everybody, in my parents' house at Southampton Road in South Grafton. I chose chicken. Athol Mulligan, observing the dish, said: "Billy, your chicken looks like it's been run over by a steamroller." And everybody christened my dish, instantaneously, Continental Chook.

Here at Gamone, in the company of Sophia, I still serve up Continental Chook from time to time... and I've often dreamt that the Mulligans of OBX Creek might drop in magically, one evening, as guests.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Just as few people apart from me—born beyond Waterview, South Grafton—can know that a chook is a chicken, or that a poop is a smelly human shit in all its round brown glory (akin to Dorothea McKellar's My Country), I don't expect many readers to understand that a lolly is a piece of candy. So what the hell! I've never imagined for an instant that colloquial Aussie English of the kind I encountered during my childhood contained any elements that might have justified its preservation. It was empty parlance, detached from its origins. Even within the microcosm composed of my English-Protestant-oriented father and my Irish-Catholic-oriented mother, there was a nasty daily opposition concerning the way in which one might pronounce such a fundamental word as "bread". Dad said bred, in a curt clear-cut monosyllabic fashion, whereas Mum liked to drag out this word as brea-eud... as if the extra effort in the pronunciation represented a final essential stage in the baking. Can you imagine it? Parents who disagree upon how to pronounce the word bread? How could they possibly agree upon anything else in the universe? They didn't...

Today, like an ugly old man trying to entice little girls, John Howard is offering lollies to potential voters. It's perfectly normal. Some 8.5 billion dollars worth of candy. The style of Aussie politics disgusts me. Dirty old men flashing their overcoats on the edge of the school playground. Exhibiting their lollies.