Ballarat and Clarendon College
1973 saw my first year in secondary school at Ballarat. 1973 was also the year that Australia changed to decimal currency. I had just spent 6 years at primary school having all the imperial measurements drilled into me by our very efficient and thorough headmaster, Ron Caraday, when all of a sudden I had to relearn everything from scratch in metric.
Boarding school was hell for me. I was a fairly independent person who was sensible, intelligent and able to decide for myself. I was suddenly thrust into an environment where I was not allowed to think for myself, I was expected to conform to the expectations of my peers and superiors and existed in situations which had a sort of mob mentality. Everybody was expected to be interested in sport and science and differences were treated with contempt. Music and the arts were given passing lip service, but the real subjects were the sciences, mathematics and sport.
The junior boarding house held boys from Form 1 to Form 4, seniors were Forms 5 & 6. It was a situation where the strong were at the top of the pecking order and the weak were frequently beaten up. I was definitely at the bottom of the pecking order. I refused to fight, hated sport, was only interested in music and no longer had free access to a piano whenever I wanted, as I had had at home. The piano was my solace. Whenever I was happy, sad, angry, frustrated – any emotion you can think of – I would turn to the piano. I spent literally thousands of hours on the piano in my childhood. It was like a drug and suddenly I had to go without it, cold turkey. No more access to it. I had to ask permission to practice, I had to find the duty master to get the key – if he was available or if he could be bothered. Very often I was denied and went without practice. My piano teacher, Glynnis Lyal, was unsympathetic. I did a 4th Grade piano exam my first year in Ballarat and failed it. I had never failed before in my life. The Director of Music, Roger McLeod was a brilliant musician and encouraged me as much as he could but he had a huge beard and large glasses and was a somewhat bizarre character. Accordingly, he was treated as harmless lunatic and was not taken seriously by many of the teachers. The boys were even worse towards him – much worse.
I was terribly homesick and begged my mother to bring me home again. For the first couple of weeks I called her reverse charges every night because I so desperately needed to hear her voice, but then she started to become concerned about the costs of phone calls and asked me to stop calling every night. I knew then that I was on my own. For awhile I felt quite abandoned.
The college had a somewhat bizarre initiation ceremony for all new students and there was another one for all new boarders. The student ceremony involved being told that you had to go to a room above the sick bay where you would be greeted by several older boys, each holding sticks or brooms. In the middle of the room the boys formed a circle around a very beaten up rubbish bin upside-down on the floor and you had to stand on it and shout the college war-cry which was: Ringa, ringa roo! Digeta, digeta, Hey! Binka, banka, binka boom! The old B.C., Hooray! Whilst you were shouting this, the boys were hitting you and the rubbish bin with the sticks and brooms. With a little luck you managed to stay on the bin until the finish, however, more often than not you fell off, lost your place in the war-cry and was beaten even harder under you completed it. I was so scared, I spent a week memorising it before the initiation to ensure I didn’t forget it.
The boarders’ initiation ceremony was a little more painful. When you least expected it and you’d stripped off to go to the shower, they would grab you, drag you into a changing room and apply a liberal handful of toothpaste to your testicles. They rubbed it in and made sure you couldn’t run to the showers to wash it off for at least 10 minutes. Suffice to say, it started to sting somewhat. The whole performance was talked up by the more experienced boarders with stories of amazing suffering – the reality was far less than this, but it was enough to scare young impressionable boys into struggling considerably as they were dragged off to the changing room when it was their turn. I did hear one story, however, which I believe to be true, of a boy in the year above me having a spray-can of chrome applied to his nether regions, and once set it hardened to a strong lacquer, requiring scraping off by the nurse with a toothbrush.
I continued to be beaten up every day by other boarders. I didn’t have any friends, hated all of the boys in my form and became more and more isolated. I tried to gain friendship with some of my teachers, particularly my form master, Arthur Cluffen and Roger McLeod. Arthur Cluffen was not the sort of person that a student makes friends with and he shunned any attempts on my part. Roger McLeod and his wife Janice felt sorry for me and allowed me into their house quite frequently, but backed off when other teachers started making disparaging comments about the apparent inappropriateness of our friendship. At the end of 1974 John and Janice left Ballarat for another school.
1974 was a milestone for Ballarat College. It amalgamated with Clarendon College, the girls’ school in Mair Street, to become Ballarat and Clarendon College. Forms 1 to 4 boys and girls had schooling at the Sturt Street campus and Forms 5 & 6 were at Mair Street. Now all my nightmares came home to rest because I could now be teased by both boys and girls – and teased I was. Because I was different, musical, quiet, timid and a total outsider, I was now starting to be accused of being a poofter. The universal name-calling that is so often used by Australian males as a grand coverall for anybody who is “different” is to call them a poofter. I copped it in spades and the girls thought it was hysterical and joined in. In the boarding house the abuse and the beatings continued and frequently they would set out to deliberately break my glasses, knowing that I would have to go without for a week or so until my parents could send a replacement set. A whole week virtually blind, unable to play the piano or see the blackboard, or see 10 feet in front of me for that matter, is no fun and I endured it several times at college.
All boys in the boarding house were required to supply a woollen rug for their beds to cover themselves during the cold Ballarat winter months. Mum had bought me a good quality rug which after a year and a half had a small tear on one corner. One afternoon I came back to the boarding house to discover that two boys had deliberately torn the blanket in half straight down the middle. I went to the housemaster, Roger Hammond, who said it was not his problem. I went to the headmaster, John Maunder, who said that he thought the two boys were not liable, given that there was already a small tear in it. I argued that the blanket had been torn in half at a completely new point, not the least bit related to the small tear. He said he would look into it. I never heard anything further about it. A new blanket arrived shortly thereafter and I discovered some weeks later that the college sent the bill straight to my parents who just blindly paid it. I was furious!
At the beginning of second term, John Maunder and Roger Hammond asked my parents to come into the office for a chat. I understand that the gist of it was that they wanted to meet my parents to find out what made me tick. The meeting lasted about an hour and when they came out, Mum refused to tell me anything about the meeting. I never did found out what happened in the meeting. The net result for me was no change. My life continued as horribly as before.
In the boarding house was a student the year above me called Tony Phillips. He was a master a manipulating people and he convinced me that he wanted to be my friend – all the while plotting things against me behind my back. He consorted with others to do things to me so that they would get the blame, not him. I had a small tape recorder and a couple of classical music tapes I had bought – they managed to record over the top of them. They broke my things all the time, messed up my clothes, tore out pages from my books. One evening about 7pm Tony and I were in a piano practice room where I was playing the piano and I tried to open the window. I slipped and my hand shattered the glass. When I drew my hand back a jagged shard of glass cut a deep trench in my right arm about 6 centimetres long, barely missing the main muscle by a couple of millimetres. Tony ran out of the room and left me to it. I went into shock and gingerly fumbled my way down the stairs to the sick bay, blood pouring everywhere. The sister in charge was not the least bit sympathetic and told me what a stupid boy I was and stop dripping blood all over the place. She complained about how inconsiderate I was that she was going to have to take me to the casualty department to get my arm stitched up. They put 14 stiches in and a plaster cast to support it which I had on for two weeks. The day the stitches and the cast were removed, I was in the boarding house that night and Tony Phillips came up to me and twisted my arm. The whole wound tore open again and the sister had to take me back to the hospital. This time she was absolutely ropable.
1975 saw a new Director of Music, Stuart Lonard. He had flaming, unruly red hair and all the students used to call him Martian. He had apparently just come from being Director of Music at Geelong College which stunned me because he was singularly incompetent. He was a terrible pianist and organist and a hopeless conductor. He couldn’t keep control of his classes and the whole music department was in complete disarray. He was also a housemaster in the junior boarding house. The students were merciless with him. He lasted two terms before moving on.
The year was getting worse in that I was so constantly stressed by life at college that my grades were failing. My parents were distressed that I was going from the happy child that they had known to a depressed, morose teenager. My piano playing was atrocious, my studies were not happening and I was losing the desire to live. A vote was taken in the boarding house as to who was the most hated boy in the school and the vote was unanimously me. Even Roger Hammond, the housemaster, came into the discussion and confirmed that he knew what a hated boy I was. The word went around the school and it was soon general knowledge. Obviously, this did nothing for my self-esteem, which was slowly being eaten away.
One of the requirements of the school for the younger forms was for all students to take up a sport. I hated sport with a passion. The Physical Education teacher was an English man, called Michael Blaine. He was a short, thin, wiry man with jet black hair, Clark Kent type black glasses, ex army with a vicious temper to match. He barked out orders to the students like we were on a parade drill. He spoke with a clipped accent and everything he said was sharp and pointy like he was poking a pencil into your eye. His favourite put-down was “I’ll flatten you, lad!”. He used to walk around the old gymnasium hall with a metre long rod of bamboo cane, flexible enough to do maximum damage when he whacked you across the back of the legs whilst you were doing exercises. His favourite exercises were gymnastics – running, jumping onto a small trampoline and somersaulting over the “horse” – a triangular shaped box with vinyl padding on the top, and landing on a mat on the other side. Everybody was petrified of him. If you ran, jumped and misjudged the distance to clear the box and crashed into it, he would scream at you for incompetence instead of checking whether you might have hurt yourself. Michael Blaine hated wimps and I was certainly a wimp. My report cards at the end of each term were always full of admonishments because I didn’t play any sport.
I longed for the weekends where I could get out and go into the city. Sometimes I would just walk, sometimes I would visit my relatives, the Schenker family. Eric Schenker was Dad and Stan’s cousin, making his five sons my second cousins. I like all of the boys and spent quite a bit of time there. The only problem for me was that they are extremely, excessively religious and their whole lives revolve around their church – the Peel Street Gospel Hall. Many was the church service that I attended there, so desperate was I to get away from the boarding house for awhile. I’m not religious and have a lot of problems with the human rights abuses that have been perpetrated by the Christian church throughout the ages, but anything was better than staying in the boarding house on weekends. I know that Eric and Marjorie mean only the best in their religious lives and for all the people they came into contact with and they were very kind to me. However, I needed something different and I found it in Gretel Filchie and her family.
In July a tent chapel that had been built at Sovereign Hill, the historic gold museum, was consecrated by some of Ballarat’s clergy from various denominations. The ceremony was on a Saturday afternoon and I decided to go along. Quite by chance I met Gretel Filchie and her daughter, Karina. Gretel was a teacher at College and an altogether agreeable person and after the ceremony she invited me to accompany her and her daughter home for dinner. I met the oldest son, Ryan, who was a couple of years older than me at College, Owen, who was 6 months older than me and Ann, a couple of years younger than me. They were, and still are, an altogether agreeable family and they looked after me very well. Many was the weekend I spent there, desperately needing a family atmosphere. As if that wasn’t pleasant enough, the Filchies were also intelligent and interested in arts, music and literature and I felt like I’d joined the family from heaven, so removed were they from the unintelligent, violent and unsophisticated boys in the boarding house. Even my own family, which had a passing interest in the arts, but absolutely no understanding whatsoever, paled into insignificance by comparison. Ryan sang a goodly bass voice and played the bassoon and Owen played very good classical guitar and trombone and had interests in becoming a conductor. Ann has become a director of wonderful fine art galleries and Karina has an eye for home furnishings. I was in my element. From time to time the father, Dr Peter Filchie would come home on holiday from his work in America and he was a most educated and interesting man and I delighted in hearing him discuss some a wide range of theories with his family. There was a sharing of ideas, of free thought, hearty discussions on all manner of subjects – it was like the Renaissance – the enlightenment of man – Erasmus, Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and Plato all rolled into one. It was the family that gave me the greatest hope in my most horrible year and for which I will be eternally grateful.
The third term of 1975 saw a new Director of Music – Smedley Bix. With no formal qualifications as a musician but quite a good trumpeter, he was, I’m convinced, exactly what the headmaster was looking for – the total opposite of the two previous musical directors. Rough around the edges, didn’t take crap from anybody, he took the music department by the neck and got it into some shape. He got the orchestra going, brought in new musicians, created an interest in wind instruments and started to make the Music Department something the College could be proud of. His music classes were not theory and study. He would put on a record of anything – could be classical, jazz, pop and then we would discuss it freeform. To many he was a breath of fresh air. I, too, saw the merit of what he was doing but I was petrified of him. From the moment he met me, I am absolutely certain he took an instant dislike to me and this was confirmed by at least one music teacher a couple of years later. I was everything he wasn’t – socially awkward, sensitive, uncomfortable in large groups of people with virtually no self-esteem whatsoever. I believe he found me one of the most irritatingly insipid people alive. This, combined with the fact that he had a drinking problem and his marriage was shaky, meant that he only barely tolerated me. Because he couldn’t play keyboard instruments, it fell to me to become the school pianist and organist, a position which I cherished. It was the only thing I felt that I had any control over. Nobody in the school could play like I could – it was all mine. Maybe Smedley hated me for that – I don’t know.
1976 started out a better year. Buoyed by being able to go to the Filchie’s house on weekends and being able to play the piano a bit more, I was feeling a little better. Being in Form 4, I was now at the top of the junior boys’ boarding house. The people who used to beat me up all the time were now in the senior boarding house and were less interested in us. My grades got a little better. The position of Sister in the sick bay came up for grabs and my mother’s sister, Ollie, gained the position. Suddenly, I had family at College. Although I wasn’t that close to Auntie Ollie, at least it was something of a comfort knowing that she was there should I need her. I spent time with her after hours in her flat just talking and watching tv. It was relaxing.
In September an influenza and gastro-enteritis epidemic went through the College. For weeks on end the sick bay beds were full of sick boys. One week my aunt was on holidays and the relieving nurse who was not very good was in charge. One evening she decided that she couldn’t cope any more and went off “sick”. Suddenly, the sick bay was without anybody. I turned up to discover 25 boys in bed with no-one looking after them. Some hadn’t eaten and nobody had been given any medicine. I went to the kitchen and got dinner for those who had not eaten and firstly made sure that everybody ate. Because there was nobody to help me return 25 trays to the kitchen, I had to take them 1 or 2 at a time back to the kitchen. The kitchen staff, who were a bunch of very fat and very disagreeable ladies, flew off the handle and screamed at me for being so inconsiderate as they had to wait until all trays were returned and washed before they could go home. I tried to explain that I was the only person helping in sick bay, but they just screamed all the louder. I was very upset. I then set about to give the boys what medicines were required. Teachers and housemasters were advised that the sick bay was empty but nobody came to assist. I manned the sick bay single-handedly for a whole week until my aunt came back from holidays. I managed to get some healthy boys to help me with the meal trays which made things a little easier, but every night I slept on the cold floor of the sick bay to ensure that I was never away from the patients. At the end of the year my aunt left the college.
During the September holidays the junior boys’ boarding house went on a ski trip to Mount Buffalo. Roger Hammond, the housemaster, had asked us to arrange some spending money from our parents for the week, or we could ask him to provide it and our parents would reimburse the school. I asked him to provide money for me. We took the train to Melbourne and then a bus to the ski-fields. On the way to Melbourne he came around, handing out spending money to those who had requested it. He bypassed me. When I asked him for my money he said “Oh, did you ask me for money?” I replied that I did. He said, “Oh, well. I haven’t got any for you. Sorry”, and walked off. I was totally devastated. Suddenly, what was promised to be a nice skiing holiday suddenly turned to hell. I spent the entire week with 17 cents in my pocket. I took two pairs of glasses with me and broke both pairs in the first two days of skiing – one when I fell over in the snow, the other when somebody hit me with a ski. Roger Hammond and the other housemasters looked at me with my cracked lenses with a hole in the middle of one lens and laughed heartily. They thought it was terribly funny. I spent the next three days in the clubhouse looking forlornly out the window whilst everybody else was out skiing. I couldn’t even read a book. On the second last day, we took the bus past Mount Buffalo and stopped to get photos. There were lots of skis and equipment on the floor of the bus, making it difficult to get out and as we were slowing down, we were asked to get up to go out to take the photos. When I got up and was walking towards the front of the bus, the driver put on the brakes rather severely. I tripped over the ski equipment and fell forward, hitting my head on a seat and crashing into the front of the bus. The driver yelled at me into the microphone he was using, called me a stupid fool, everybody laughed at me and the other lens in my glasses was smashed. The holiday was a disaster for me and I was beside myself with anguish. I just wanted to die. By now I hated everything about myself and my life.
The master in charge of the senior boarding house and one of the College English teachers was a very arrogant British man called Tony Flintstock and he had an even more arrogant, horrible wife. They had two young boys and they all lived in the senior housemaster’s house which was right up against the sick bay. Surrounding these buildings was the main building of the College which formed a U shape. At one end of the U shape, furthest away from the senior housemaster’s house, was a music room with a piano in it and it was this piano that I practiced on each night. I was the only boarder who was studying music and, consequently, the only person who used this room to practice. One day in the third term, Tony Flintstock passed a ruling that nobody could play the piano after 7pm any night. We had dinner at 6.30pm so by the time I finished dinner there would have been no time to practice. I wasn’t aware of this ruling until the night after. I was in the room practicing for an up-coming piano exam when suddenly he stormed into the room and absolutely bawled me out and shouted at me terribly for playing after 7pm. I was flabbergasted and then angry. I stormed down the stairs only to be greeted by his bitch of a wife who also shouted at me and called me a “fairy in a fit” and told me that I was unfit to be a student in this school. I stomped off to the boarding house, seething. Once again, my ability to practice the piano had been restricted by ignorant people.
Towards the end of 1976, Smedley Bix organised a concert in the Anglican Cathedral Chapter House in Ballarat. It was a very hot December afternoon and many of us went to perform in the cool hallowed halls of the Chapter House. Various school musicians performed and Smedley asked me to play a piece on the piano. Because of not being able to practice, I had nothing up to standard that I could perform, so I made one up. I got up and announced that I would play a Nocturne and March by Mozart. No such piece exists, but I knew Mozart’s style well enough to be able to fake it. I played quite well and the crowd applauded politely. After the concert, I noticed that Patricia Hewson, a well known piano teacher in the Ballarat region, was in the audience. I saw her talking quietly to Smedley Bix but thought nothing of it until we arrived back at College where he called us all into the hall to announce that no musician will be allowed to play in any future concerts unless they have the permission of their music teacher. When Smedley got angry he used to go bright red in the face like an over-polished tomato and sweat profusely. He glared pointedly at me throughout this announcement, his cheeks getting rosier by the second, and I realised that Patricia Hewson must have pulled him aside after the concert and told him that I was a fraud – there was no such piece as Nocturne and March by Mozart.
The end of year school concert was a surprise for me as I was awarded the first prize I had ever received at the school. I received the citizenship prize for being the school pianist/organist and also for looking after the sick bay for a week.
In 1977 I moved to the senior boarding house and had classes at Clarendon. My hatred for the school was growing daily. After 4 years in this place I still had no friends, still was treated badly by everybody and still had limited access to a piano. I can’t explain how important the piano was, and still is, to me. It was everything – it was my life. I needed to escape, I needed to have music flowing. But I knew that it was being rationed by staff who hated me – seemingly as a punishment. The stress of the last few years played on me and during 1977 I had the next best thing to a nervous breakdown. I just got to the point where I couldn’t cope any more. After the bushfire on our property, my parents were preoccupied with rebuilding the farm and they were more than just physically distant – they were emotionally distant. This was sufficient to send me over the edge. I stopped going to classes, I stopped caring. Every Wednesday when we had Physical Education, I would go to the sick bay with a “headache” because I simply couldn’t face Michael Blaine and his army discipline. Every couple of weeks I went to a local doctor because I was convinced that I had a brain tumour. This was rubbish of course, but I was so maxxed out and so overloaded that I wanted to die. Word soon got around the school that David Cundy was off his tree and stupid Tony Flintstock told me one day that it was because of my music. He told me I needed to give up music and get back down to earth. What a total moron! I hated him so much. I spent time in sick bay, totally unable to function. The headmaster, John Maunder, came and visited me one night and told me that he didn’t know what to do with me. He knew that everybody called me a poofter and he didn’t know whether I really was or not but I was certainly a problem to the school. Tony Flintstock and his family moved on at the end of 1977.
Later in the year the orchestra went on a tour to Tasmania at the same time my mother and sister went to Launceston to stay with my aunt. We were in Hobart and I just lost it completely. The school arranged for me to fly to Launceston to meet my mother and I stayed there for the rest of the holidays.
During the year, I had myself confirmed in the Anglican Church. I had been a member of the choir of St Peters’ Church in Sturt Street, not far from College. Singing in the choir was a good thing for my musical development and I learnt blending and harmonising in this choir. I decided to take classes with the rector and later in the year was confirmed. I asked my mother to come to the confirmation, which she did, but I detected a lot of resistance from her. I’m not sure whether she was reluctant because I was entering the Anglican Church instead of the Uniting Church where I had been raised, or because of her impending illness which I knew nothing about at the time, but I think she came out of duty, rather than desire.
The one satisfying thing about 1977 was being able to have Music History and Literature classes in a meeting room in the library with Carolyn Crighton. Carolyn, or Carol, as she was known, was a fine pianist and organist and taught various music classes at College. Her father, Bryan Turner was a well known organ tuner in Ballarat and he and his wife also sang at St Peters. The classes with Carol were enlightening because for the first time I was able to learn about where music had come from and the development of the various musical styles throughout the ages. We were a small class and Carol encouraged discussion. We talked freely about music and disagreed from time to time. It was a very liberating experience.
1978 started out badly. Mum was dying and this was my final year at College – it was do or die. I was totally determined that I was not going to spend another second at College than I had to, so I resolved to pass my H.S.C., come hell or high water. Mum died in March and for the rest of the year I was a zombie. I floated through the year in a perpetual haze as my family disintegrated around me.
One day in September I was in a Music History and Literature class and we were having a lively discussion about some element of music when suddenly the art teacher, Peter Willcock, barged in to the room and demanded that I leave the room for a minute to talk to him. I barely knew him. He then proceeded to loudly berate me for the next couple of minutes in front of everybody in the school library, telling me that, as he listened to our discussions about music, he became more and more angry because I was being rude and disrespectful to Carol Crighton, our teacher. I was to go back in there and apologize to her and he would be listening in on all our future classes to make sure I wasn’t so rude again. I was totally aghast. I liked Carol and had no desire to be rude or disrespectful to her. I thought we were having a very interesting discussion. I lost a lot of interest in the discussions and was fairly quiet from that point forward.
Late October saw us preparing for our final HSC exams. Smedley Bix had given me a key to the piano room that Tony Flintstock had so unceremoniously thrown me out of a couple of years back, so that I could practice when I needed to. My piano exam which was my major subject was due in two weeks and it was crucial to me that I passed. I practiced a lot and did a lot of study in this room. There was a housemaster in the senior boarding house who was ex army and lived in the boarding house. He played the trumpet brilliantly but suffered from a bad drinking problem. One night he got drunk, cornered me and demanded that I give him the key to the piano room. I argued that I needed it for my final exam but he became more and more aggressive until, fearing for my safety, I gave in and handed over the key. He told me that I would never get it back again and he was right. I went to Smedley Bix for help, then the master in charge of the boarding house, finally the headmaster, all of whom claimed it was beyond their control. For the last two weeks before my exam I did no practice. I was beside myself with worry, thinking I was going to fail the exam. Miraculously, I passed but only just, but it was sufficient for me to be able to leave College at the end of the year, never to return. I won the music prize that year and was happy, at least, for that small recognition.
On the day that I left I was so very, very happy to see my father’s car when he came to pick me up for the last time. I was leaving forever.