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Features & profiles


My schooldays

13 May 1987

Published in The Age

There were no dark corners, filled with the glister of migrant eyes, in our schoolyard. No old tyres to play on, no bleak tarmac, no Turf-smoking mothers, old at 30, lining the chain-wire fence at half past three. As a matter of fact there was no schoolyard. We had quadrangles, cloisters, lawns, rose gardens, impeccably green ovals - and a golf course. The school golf course, indeed, ran down to the school beach.

The beach was where my mate Nick Connell and I would take our cognac during the balmy evenings of third term. Thereafter, we would stroll to the car Nick had secreted in a hedge - Geelong Grammar, I forgot to mention, has rather large hedges - and gallivant here, gallivant there.

You pay for such things, eventually. The sad result of all this privilege - this long exclusion from the real world, dear reader - is that I have been painfully disadvantaged as an Australian novelist. To this day I am unable (try as I might) to pen the gripping tales of single mothers in Carlton tenements - or the scintillating political disputes, set around the dinner tables of Balmain - of which our world-class literature is chiefly comprised.

That's only the beginning. There is an even larger problem for graduates of boys' boarding schools - novelists and non-novelists alike. To wit, there are often "difficulties with women".

Geelong Grammar led the way in rectifying this: girl students were admitted the year after I left. (No connection.) Before 1970, however, it was very tough. On a typical date, the boy recently out of boarding school would stare fixedly all evening at the girl's shoes - raising his head only to pour in alcohol - grunt under questioning, and finally adjourn to flat, car or parking lot - there to fall upon the surprised female (who had extracted little more than a syllable from him all night) like a thunderbolt.

This kind of behavior was usually discussed, exaggerated, and tacitly applauded the following evening at footy practice. As a consequence, few ex-public school boys began to unlearn it before about thirty. Few, indeed, even contemplated leaving adolescence before middle-age.

The worst cases among my year suffer a life-long inabilty to understand the female sex - which is is something of a liability outside the boardroom.

Co-education, then, was a giant leap forward. But Geelong Grammar has produced an even greater gift to the world: its many eccentrics. Staunch communists, hairy poets, fey artists, a Prime Minister who did it his way, a ouija board-reading prince - you name it. The place claims to put great emphasis on individuality, and has the goods to prove it. My own first post-school decade - to provide a further example - was spent as a religious fanatic. Quite a number of ex-Geelong Grammarians joined me.

In our cult, however, I never met any old boys of Brighton Grammar - that half-way house to suburban despair where I spent the early years of my childhood. Perhaps they were all in dental school by then.

Like a raw nerve in a dicky molar, Brighton Grammar is something I inadvertently touch on once in a while. At this petit bourgeois citadel canings were handed out for such monstrous crimes as letting the barber shave your neck, wearing wrong colored socks, and interjecting some humour into the lectures of the sonorous bores who attempted our education. My jokes were pretty good: in the second term of 1966, at the ripe of age 14, I was caned 48 times. My dislike for Brighton Grammar is compounded by the relentless victimisation I suffered, at the hands of a jealous colleague, throughout fourth year. It took a nervous breakdown - falling to the floor, convulsing, et al - before anybody noticed this.

It was this nadir which prompted me to ask my parents for the transfer to Geelong. I'm eternally grateful to them for immediately agreeing to it. For at Corio I had a complete change of atmosphere, and the benefit of some tremendous intellects, and characters.

My History master at GGS was the erudite Peter Westcott, who rode the school grounds on a bicycle, blinking benignly at the traffic. Recently, I unearthed a fifth-form essay I did for him on Poverty in Britain. His final question - "How is poverty dealt with today?" - I answered thus:

Britain has since 1945 been a "Welfare State", a state in which the rich are taxed utterly ruinously - their inherent nobility and culture degraded - to appease a Government representative of the lower classes: by feeding out social benefits to the poor - often poor because of their own laziness, and often in need of medical benefits because of their own dirty living standards.

It was my Henry Root phase. Westcott's response to this twaddle, however, is good evidence of Geelong Grammar's basic liberalism. He greeted the essay with a brief peal of laughter, handed it back to me, and never mentioned it again. Even the supreme arrogance of adolescence was a little fazed by that.

My housemaster, Boz Parsons, described me in his final report as "the most difficult boy in my experience". It was undoubtedly true. I was profoundly unwilling to manifest any of my potential. But there was a reason for this. At the time, I was paralysed by the fear and the ennui deriving from life's great philosophical dilemmas. I was not yet ready to move. Of what significance was the GDP of Brazil, when I'd not yet fathomed the nature of God - or even the lyrics of Visions of Johanna? No school will easily mould a student in the grip of an existential crisis which began at eight.

Still, Geelong Grammar never gave up on me. It recommended prayer (I learned meditation). It prescribed Browning (I read Ginsberg). It suggested sport (I took up smoking.) It emphasised the Bible (I studied the Gita). It spoke of success, responsibility and the Future (I flirted with the idea of an early death, like Neil Cassady's). It put enormous time and energy toward getting me through Matriculation: I refused to study, even for a minute, in my final year - and failed.

If I was a callow, selfish and profoundly confused adolescent, many of my co-evals were more sensible. At Geelong they received a personal guidance I doubt is equalled, even now, anywhere in the world.

Perhaps the only thing I did half-well at Geelong was the long-jump - winning the Under 17 competition with a jump of 19 feet nine inches. Out of curiosity I recently paced this distance out. At the end I looked back and gaped (horror? pride? regret?) at what I'd once been capable of.

That's youth, isn't it? It fashions you a mad and fiery comet, your orbit quite elliptical to the world's. It bestows enormous energy, little sense of responsibility for its use - and no concept of its limits. Thank God it's over. And all honour to those responsible for its nurturing, while the fires still burn.

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