Friday, August 13, 2010

A child in post-war Brisbane

Me, Mum and Dad - at a wedding May 1949
I grew up in an old highset timber house with painted tongue and groove walls and lino on the floors.  It was not quite what is called a "Queenslander", which has a verandah right across the front and sometimes down one or two sides.  Our house was a style commonly built in the 1920s, the verandah going only halfway across the front.  My parents bought the house for 300 pounds (around $600) in 1947, the year I was born.  A lady came around on foot to collect the instalments and it took them a few years to pay it off.

I could lay in bed and put my feet up on those timber walls or do head stands up against them in the loungeroom.  The floors were good to play games on and, if we spilt something, it could just be wiped up with a wet cloth.  When I discovered that some houses had plaster on their walls, I couldn't imagine how people could live in them with ease.  They didn't seem like real homes with their walls made of royal icing.  Just one bang would dent them, not the kind of place to bring up children.

Under the house was a great place to play tea parties or Beam, a game consisting of bouncing a ball off the wide wooden beam.  When it rained, water flowed through as a stream and I enjoyed building dams with the mud.  And it was good for keeping us out of Mum's hair.  Grandma lived with us and she drove Mum crazy running backwards and forwards reporting to her on what us kids were doing under the house.

Born in Brisbane in 1889, Grandma was my connection to a world which no longer exists.  She was half Scottish, half Danish, but called England home.  Her maiden name was Andersen and there were other families with Danish surnames living nearby - like Hansen and Lorensen.  We formed a remnant of a Danish cohort that had first come to the area in the 19th century.  She was the only person I have ever heard pronounce "vase" as "vorze", not "vahz" or "vaize".

She had been a school cleaner but had the bearing of an old dowager.  She lived with her sister in New Zealand for a few years and returned with her middle and last names hyphenated, an affectation she seemed to love.  Her snobbishness seemed out of place in our working class home.

There was a time in the 1950s when I thought the old house would blow away.  A cyclone came close and it rattled and shook all through the night.  During the wet season, the roof would leak into waiting buckets and saucepans until my parents could afford a new roof.

Of course, there was no air-conditioning.  We didn't even own a fan or heater.  The house was poorly oriented to the sun so it was hot in summer and cold in winter, the August westerlies blowing through the gaps between the floor and walls.  My mother felt the cold terribly in winter, but it didn't seem to occur to anybody to actually close the back door and louvres.  The doors were left unlocked, even at night - well, they didn't have locks - until one night when my sister was followed home from the tramstop.  But that was much later when she was a teenager.

This was a time before television and computers.  We had a Bakelite wireless on which we listed to serials and the hit parade; and a windup phonogram that played old 38s - thick, black records - by people like The Inkspots.  Guy Mitchell singing She Wears Red Feathers and a Huly Huly Skirt was in the Top Ten and we laughed at that larrikin schoolboy, Greenbottle.

My first day at school was also the first time I became aware of letters and numbers.  "A" like an apple on a twig.  We learnt to write using slates, a slate pencil and a wet sponge to rub it out.  Later we used paper and nib pens which we dipped into inkwells.  I still have a "tattoo" on one of my fingers where another child accidentally jabbed me with her pen.

I thought our school readers were quite exotic because they used words like "van" and "chicks", words I had not come across in my home life.  In geography (or social studies as it was then called), I would pore and wonder over magic words like "isthmus" and "promontory".  It was like being transported into another world, almost like Oz or Narnia.

I was inoculated against almost everything; the fear of illnesses like polio and hooping cough was real and present.  Tonsils were removed as a matter of course.  I was a child prone to chest infections and removing mine actually improved my health.  I had been a poor eater, but once the pain of the operation had subsided, I became ravenous and haven't stopped eating yet.

(Continued in PART 2)

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