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When strange things happen


PLOTTING my original ABC-TV four-part drama Marion, I was determined to cover my tracks. I set the story amongst the tall timber of East Gippsland, far from my first one-teacher experience in the Mallee.

I made the beginner teacher a woman. I placed it in the time of my own childhood – 1942.

But hidden forces were at work.

As I wandered through the wonderful, accurate and evocative studio sets, prior to the commencement of the first day of studio filming in the ABC studios in Ripponlea, I found one period element that jarred.

In the apparently faultless set representing the interior of the school committee president’s farmhouse there was a telephone. But it didn’t look right; too exotic. It had been hired from a noted collector, an Ericsson model from the 1920s. Then I looked closer at the telephone number. It was Rainbow 192D. The phone number of our first school residence was Rainbow 192U, the other instrument on a two-party line. Inauthentic indeed!

A few of the actors had wandered on set by this time and when I pointed out this remarkable ‘coincidence’ they looked askance: actors are a superstitious lot. But I was assured that the telephone was exactly right.

Some years later, Judy and I spent a few nights as guests of the farming couple who were secretary of the Mothers’ Club and School Committee president during the years when I was their teacher. The school had closed and been demolished by this time.

I told the story of the strange phone. Saying nothing, our host left us for a few minutes, returning with the records of the school committee during 1942 – there was the name of the president – and his telephone number: Rainbow 192U!

Several years later, colleague and good friend Howard Griffiths and I were commissioned by the ABC to adapt the epic novel Power Without Glory. We broke the book into 26 parts, shaped each into a separate episode and wrote the first episode together, then assembled a team of four or five writers to script the series.

The morning after the first episode went to air nationally, two doctors – a pediatrician and a gynaecologist – were opening their joint practice in far-off suburban Perth. They were discussing the previous night’s TV viewing.

“That Power Without Glory” looks like a good show,” one commented. “Yes, my brother-in-law wrote the script,” one of them said proudly. “No, my brother-inlaw wrote the script,” countered the other.

They were both right. The gynaecologist was married to my wife Judy’s sister, the pediatrician was married to Howard’s wife’s sister!

A year or two later again, a niece of mine was working as a nurse at an HIV clinic in Sydney. She and the social worker in the clinic had become close friends. They were discussing Picnic at Hanging Rock, which they had seen separately. “My uncle wrote the screenplay, one of them proclaimed. “No, my uncle wrote it,” the other argued.

They were both right. The nurse was my sister’s daughter, the social worker was my wife’s brother’s daughter! They had become firm friends not knowing they were related by marriage. Forty years later they are still firm friends.

I secured the job on Picnic because of where I live. Author Joan Lindsay had right of approval of producer, director and screenwriter. Pat Lovell and Peter Weir had passed muster, now it was my turn. We met for lunch at the ABC canteen in Ripponlea.

“Where do you live?” was Joan’s first question. “Warrandyte,” I replied. “Then that will be all right,” she said. “Someone from Warrandyte will understand what that book’s all about!”

It turned out that of all plac- es, Warrandyte was special to Joan. She had been especially close to Penleigh Boyd, the renowned Warrandyte artist who was her cousin. She had often visited his family when she was an art student, I even heard that she met her future husband Daryl Lindsay here in Warrandyte.

“How did you get to Warrandyte in those days?” I asked. “Why, by train to Ringwood,” she answered. “Then on to Warrandyte in a horse-drawn drag.”

“That drag was operated by a Mr Bill Hussey?” I said.

“I don’t remember his name,” she answered “Well, he’s in the book, except he’s Ben Hussey.” (Ben drove the girls on their fateful journey to Hanging Rock.) “Bill Hussey was our son-in-law’s grandfather!”

“Well,” Joan countered with a twinkle, “strange things happen, don’t they?”

Tale of three rivers


IN late November and early December 1934, the Yarra River at Warrandyte rose to its highest recorded level, lifting to beyond a metre above the decking of the old wooden bridge. Homes, orchards and shops were inundated.

I was born in December 1934 at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne. The Yarra River did not touch my life until several decades later.

My first river was the Maribyrnong. Not the polluted, sluggish stream that then flowed through Footscray, but the near-pristine river that twisted its way across the Keilor plain, its passage marked by the River Redgums and Yellow Box trees that lined its banks, emerging into the edge of suburbia beyond the open paddocks, outback from North Sunshine.

Unbeknown to our parents we walked there. I was a small boy at the time, battling to keep up with the big kids. It seemed a very long way. Finally we reached our destination: a high, elevated railway bridge that crossed the river as it cut through its gorge, away down below.

Beneath the bridge hung a narrow pedestrian walkway, perilously close to the dual railway tracks above. This was our ultimate objective, to cross the walkway while a train thundered above. I was terrified. But no-one “squibbed”.

Goods trains were frequent, as the bridge was on a direct line to the north. Occasionally one of these interminably long trains was hauled by “Heavy Harry”, one of the world’s largest railway engines, built at the Newport Railway Workshops. Some were loaded with tanks, Bren gun carriers, field artillery, wingless fighter planes; all the hardware of conflict, for World War II was its height and Australia was under dire threat.

We crouched on the walkway as trains thundered overhead, deafened by the noise, scalded by steam, singed by flying cinders, longing for – and dreading – the moment when the engine would sound its whistle. And it always did.

My first introduction to the Murray River came via a railway train, the overnight sleeper to Mildura. I awoke at dawn, and from my upper bunk watched entranced as the sun arose, through the silhouette of a row of spindly gum trees, etched black against the early morning sky. We crossed the Murray later that morning and I marveled as the wide brown river rolled majestically through the Mallee towards South Australia on its way to the sea.

We travelled up and down the river on several occasions during that holiday, smelling the smoke and the oil-soaked steam, marveling at the great paddle-wheels churning the green water, admiring the deckhand as he leapt with the coil of rope from deck to wharf, envying the captain as he swung the big wheel in the wheelhouse, identifying with the oil-soaked engineer as he threw logs into the leaping flames in the firebox, pulling levers and twisting valves, following directions telegraphed from the wheelhouse above.

So impressed was I with life on the Murray, that when we reached home I spent the next weeks turning the woodpile beside our house into a full-blown paddle-steamer. An old bicycle wheel became the steering wheel and planks and logs became decks, a steep ladder stood in as a companionway and two more bike wheels were transformed into paddlewheels. I recruited a crew from the neighbourhood kids and we steamed the mighty river from the mountains to the sea, battling floods and fires and bushrangers.

My taste for Murray River water was far from sated, so when, decades later, the one-teacher primary school at Torrumbarry on the Murray, some 15 miles downstream from Echuca was declared vacant, I applied and gained the position.

My years on the Murray were among my happiest, and out of them grew a 40-minute children’s film, an educational documentary and my Riverboat Bill series of children’s books.

A new career now required a move closer to Melbourne. We crossed the bridge and headed off down Yarra Street for our exploratory look at Warrandyte: the Mechanics Institute, the picturesque shops, the tree-lined street, and above all, tantalising glimpses of the Yarra River. We were home.

Robin banks on a winner

Our Living TreasureWHEN Robin and Lainey Horkings sat down with a city bank manager to apply for a loan to build their house, the manager asked incredulously,

“Who’d want to live at Warrandyte?”

The young couple weren’t deterred by his cynical remark and replied enthusiastically: “We do, we want to live at Warrandyte.”

They bought their block of land in Webb Street back in the days of pounds, shillings and pence for only £1250. (It seemed like a fortune then.)

Their house was finished just before they were married in 1968 and they have lived there happily for the past 46 years raising a brood of three children along the way, Bruce now 41, Erin 39 and Jeffrey 35.

Robin and Lainey Horkings on their wedding day.

Robin and Lainey Horkings on their wedding day.

“Although the kids live in different parts of Australia, we are still in weekly contact and are very close,” Lainey said proudly.

“And the kids are close with each other as well, our six-year-old granddaughter Myah lives in Queensland but she rings us every week with lots of questions for Grandpa.”

When Robin came to live in Warrandyte in 1953 he was only 12.

“It was rather an eye opener coming from a big city school in Auburn South,” Robin remembers. “We had four grades in one classroom and a playground that stretched from the pine plantation to Fourth Hill Tunnel.

At lunchtime we used to fish for yabbies in the dam next to Lil Whitehead’s house opposite the school.

“My classmates were Bruce McAuley, Barry Able, Darryl Pike, (the policeman’s son) Irene Hendry, Lorraine Norman and Barbara Schneider.

“Things were different back then,” he continues. “To get a milk delivery you’d leave a billycan with your order and some money in it hanging off a tree in Mitchell Ave. Along came the milkman Tiger Flowers with his horse and cart and he’d bail out the milk from a churn into your billycan and take the money.”

Robin says with a smile “the place was dominated by artists and potters in those days”. “They were a bohemian crowd, but you couldn’t hold that against them,” Robin said.

“I worked a couple of seasons at the butchers when I was still at school. My job was to link the sausages but the interesting part was the deliveries. We used to deliver as far as Christmas Hills in the van and I had to run in with the meat and collect the orders. Some of the customers used to invite us in for a cup of tea or something to eat.

“I remember one big bearded fella who wore shearer’s pants and a flannel top. He must have been a trooper back in the day because he told us that he was on duty the day they brought the Kellys in.”

Robin was the first registered scout of the newly formed Warrandyte Scout Troop.

“Our first meetings were held on the riverbank behind Ken Gedge’s chemist shop,” Robin said.

“On dark nights we met under a Tilly lamp fastened to a tree. Eventually we all bucked in and built the scout hall in the early ’50s.”

Later, Robin was able to give something back and worked as a cub leader for 20 years.

On school days Robin had a foolproof way of knowing if he was running late for school or not.

“If I heard Barry Able riding his horse across the old wooden bridge, I’d know it was 8.30am,” Robin said.

“He was as regular as clockwork and the horse’s hooves made such a racket on the wooden roadway.

Warrandyte was so quiet in those days. At night you could hear the old waterwheel on the river squeaking as the wheel turned with the current.”

Unfortunately the picturesque waterwheel that was situated above the swimming hole opposite the pub is long gone now.

Robin smiles as he talks about the old days and tells the Diary a story about Bill McCulloch who was the last mounted postman in Victoria.

“When the new postie took over Bill’s route he asked us if the previous postman was 10 feet tall because local residents had placed their letterboxes in a high position to accommodate Bill who was sitting up on his horse Silver. We replied, ‘No mate, he rode a horse!’

Things changed for Robin in 1959 when he was involved in a serious motor accident.

He was a passenger in a car that hit a tree alongside the Ringwood-Warrandyte Road. The accident affected Robin’s ability to concentrate and he changed his employment as a result of it.

Robin said: “I never really remembered anything about the accident.

No memory of it at all.”

Robin worked for 40 years at the Board of Works and then spent the last 10 years of his working life at Warrandyte Cemetery as a general hand and gravedigger.

Lainey worked as a nurse and also at a Ringwood doctor’s surgery early in the marriage but later worked in childcare.

Rob at 73 and Lainey, 68, are both retired now but keep themselves busy. Rob is still very fit and takes his dog Indie on long walks every morning right up to Eagles Nest at the top of Webb Street.

“And there’s always wood to split and grass to cut,” he says.

Lainey is heavily involved as a volunteer with Mainly Music at St Stephen’s hall and does patchwork on Thursdays.

Robin fondly reflects on his life in Webb Street.

“Everything’s been good here. There’s something about Warrandyte that gets into you and you can’t get it out of your system,” he said.

“Where else can you walk five minutes up the road and see wallabies, kangaroos and echidnas. Also parrots, wrens, kookaburras and currawongs.

“I think that bank manager got it wrong back in 1967. Warrandyte is a great place to live,” said Robin with a triumphant grin.

Falling for an age-old problem

HERSELF and I were on a mission.

We belong to a Probus club and had agreed to organise the monthly outings. Choosing the outing venue is not so difficult but then comes ‘transport’ and ‘the meal’.

A few years ago, neither Herself nor I (not ‘myself’!) could have imagined ourselves sitting in a coach with a lot of other old people, all wearing name tags, going on ‘an outing’.

To be seen going on an ‘outing’, in a bus/coach with a lot of other older people, was code for the horrified thought,

“My God, he’s getting past it! I can never see us doing that!”

It’s a bit like ‘the fall’.

When you are younger and assumed to be in control of your faculties, you just ‘fall over’. You trip because of too much exuberance or because you just make a miscalculation.

When you get older, you ‘have a fall’ and that’s an entirely different thing altogether. As soon as the phrase, “Poor old X has had a fall!” is uttered, it is inevitably followed by raised eyebrows and a knowing, “Oh dear.” Not the casual, “Oh dear, that’s a bummer. I hope s/he gets better soon,” but the more sinister “Oh dear!”

Immediately everyone checks their smart phone diary to check whether X’s obviously imminent funeral might clash with their regular HRT appointment or their base jump booking.

So leaving the shuddering horror of the situation to one side, let me proceed.

Hire transport tends to come in two sizes, the 24-seater,  adequate but a bit like crossing the Himalayas in a billycart, or the 48-seater coach, the more comfortable and more expensive, stretch hearse alternative. Before hiring the 48-seater, for an outing in a month or two’s time, you need to be sure you can get the 48 participants with at least 10 on the waiting list because, as you know, at our ages, we have a lot of ‘falls’.

Then there are the outings we can get to by public transport.

This means we have to ‘do a recce’ beforehand to check the timing, the ease of access and where we might have lunch.

Now you’d think cafes and quasi restaurants would go

out of their way to attract cashed up oldies on an outing.

They have no trouble setting aside seating and tables and in some cases providing a fixed price meal but as soon as you ask, “Can we have separate billing?” so many of them throw up their hands in horror and complain that it’s too difficult. Strange, because our Dine Out and Lunch groups find restaurants that manage quite well and have received return business as a result. So we trudged from one venue to another, desperate to find somewhere that wanted our custom.

We eventually found ourselves in Federation Square and as it was Saturday, the second hand book sellers were set up in the food hall

area. Herself trawled the tables looking for titles we probably threw out when we shifted a few years ago. In the meantime, I was ordering lunch and checking out the cafes as potential lunch sites.

“I’ve found these!” she cried.

I walked over to be somewhat amazed that what she had ‘discovered’ were six titles from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. It seems that our Enid has had somewhat of a resurrection. Our grandkids are devouring her books and we were both amazed an delighted to hear from our local bookseller that Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series are also constant sellers.

“The kids can borrow these or we can read them to them,” I was informed. “And at $50 for the six, they’re a bargain!”

I suggested we check out Young and Jackson’s as a possible lunch venue before we took the train home. It was as inflexible as the rest.

We could pay $32 a head for the “express lunch’ in the upstairs posher section, but again, we would need to collect the money “to make it easier for us”.

As we walked to the train station we felt a little subdued.

Public transport to the venue was a doddle but lunch! It seems we were going to have to either collect money before the outing or go through the nightmare, on the day, of collecting money, people not having the correct money, not having change to give people who didn’t have the right money or people making addition and subtraction errors leaving us with the shortfall to cover.

On the train we decided to pre-collect the lunch money.

Then Herself rummaged in her bag and then started reading, Five Go To Smuggler’s Top. She offered me one to read but the thought of a man of my years being seen reading Enid Blyton on a train was almost worse than being seen on a

coach, wearing a badge, going on ‘an outing’.

Christmas on the edge

Village Green

OUR first proper home after we married was a tiny, pock-marked, white ant-riddled cottage, perched on an impenetrable limestone ridge on the edge of the Mallee, known officially as the Head Teacher’s Residence.

Attached to this shaky old structure was the single schoolroom. It was here we enjoyed our first years of teaching, at State School No. 4041 Wheatlands.

As the end of that first year approached, we were reminded, on a fairly regular basis:

“We’d better start practicin’ for our school concert.” We were told the concert consisted mainly of carols and “some other stuff”.

A local young pianist of some talent provided the music. She had taken it upon herself to teach the children some beautiful Australian Christmas carols. We followed this up with some bush ballads.

We decided to extend the Australian content.

We had toyed with the idea of performing a little play.

We searched the shelves of the educational bookseller in Bendigo but found nothing suitable: all too ‘English’ or too ‘soppy’ for these down-to-earth Mallee kids.

I had been reading The Magic Pudding to the whole school – all eight of them. (You try holding the interest of kids from Prep to Grade 6 with the one book.) The book was highly successful – perhaps we could do a dramatisation of The Pudding?

Being a published author by this time and recognising my moral responsibility, I wrote to Norman Lindsay seeking his permission. I included a number of children’s drawings of his characters with the letter and received a charming response, granting permission.

We built the script on the blackboard with the kids all collaborating, cast the play from the steps and stairs that was the total enrolment of the school – Bunyip Bluegum, Sid Sawnoff and the rest of them – and began rehearsals.

All seemed to be going well, but by the time we were approaching performance I realised the Grade 5 girl cast as Bunyip Bluegum was not coping with Bunyip’s convoluted dialogue. At the last minute I made a drastic decision. I would have to play Bunyip Bluegum! So I donned the magical koala ears – crafted by a skilled parent from rabbit fur and wire – and gave it a run.

Problem: I didn’t know the lines! So we built a cardboard gum tree and hid the original Grade 5 girl inside as ‘prompt’.

The performance was a wild success. The combination of me with rabbit skin ears and the Grade 5 girl bellowing the lines ahead of me from inside the tree, with me following limply behind, brought the house (or rather the corrugated iron hall) down.

The following year we had to eclipse our previous effort. So we decided to write our own play – and we’d make it a musical!

Once again we constructed the story and dialogue on the blackboard, titling it Christmas at Boggy Creek.

This time we could craft the characters to the children who would be playing them.

(The Grade 4 girl who was the village postmistress who opened everyone’s mail, actually became a real postal clerk and remained so through her working life.)

We incorporated several bush ballads with lyrics tweaked to fit our story. The plot explained how it was discovered that Santa Claus was not visiting Boggy Creek that year – so something must be done. Skulduggery was discovered, but justice prevailed, the local bushranger turned from villain into hero and the ‘real’ Santa Claus appeared on stage with his bulging bag and proceeded to hand out presents – purchased by the Mothers’ Club – to every school child and preschooler in the hall.

We knew it would be a hard act to follow; but by the following February the teacher had moved on and the school had been closed due to diminishing enrolment. A neighbouring farmer bought the limestone ridge, and demolished school and residence. The site has long since reverted to wheat crops.

Footnote: A writer friend, who viewed the performance, suggested I send the script to the ABC. So I did what I thought was a creditable radio version and posted it off. It came back in due course, suggesting the work was mainly visual. Could I rewrite it for TV? This 40-minute version went to air the following Christmas with a fine professional cast, marking the beginning of my future new career.

Better ‘very’ late than never

LATE again! It’s always been a bit of a running theme at our place, despite my best efforts.

When our kids started high school they discovered that there was a Late Book in the Head’s antechamber. All entries had to be signed off by an appropriate adult. Their school was located far from here, and excuses that were standard fare in Warrandyte were decidedly novel in suburbia.

My eye ran down the page of preceding entries.

“Dentist … headache … optometrist … dentist …”

We soon changed that.

“A tree fell across our drive, and we had to wait for somebody to come with a chainsaw,” was a reason for missing the school bus on more than one occasion. I suppose I could’ve phoned somebody to ferry the kids to the bus stop but we were invariably cutting it fine and of course we didn’t find the fallen tree until we were leaving. No, we were just late. Sometimes very late.

“I slept in because I was out all night on a platypus survey.” An excuse to be used only sparingly, admittedly, but one of undeniable originality.

“I slept in because Mum’s car was being repaired and we had to get the bus home.”

That took some explaining. In those days there was no bus along Research Road after 7 p.m. so after a late finish at school we ended up having to walk several kilometres from the bridge. I seem to recall a black moonless night, too dark to see roadside puddles.

By the time we’d trudged up the last hill it was very late and we were wet through with squelching shoes. I did consider hiring a car, but doing without seemed so much more adventurous. And it was educational. I can vouch for that.

“One of our budgies started attacking the other budgies. We had to get another aviary so we could separate them. It took ages to catch her, and there was blood and feathers everywhere. I had to go and put a clean shirt on.” I remember some amusement at work as well when I phoned in late with that story.

“We got snowed in and missed our flight home.” Entirely true, Your Honour. On the last morning of a long weekend getaway, we awoke to find our car covered by a foot of snow and the only road out impassable. It took hours for the snowplough to get through. I didn’t realise that nobody at work had believed me until I took my photo album along a couple of weeks later. “Oh, you really DID get snowed in!” they exclaimed, looking amazed. I was a bit miffed by that. We seem to have excuses enough through natural causes – I can’t recall ever having to invent one.

“We had to find the baby Tawny Frogmouth and put it in a safe place.” It had fallen out of its nest. The parents fed it and looked after it at night, but we couldn’t leave it flapping helplessly on the ground during the day or the neighbour’s cats would have made short work of it. As it got stronger over succeeding weeks, the little beggar got harder and harder to find.

“We were in Queensland competing in Nationals and the beaches got shut down for two days because of sharks.

After that everything was running behind schedule …”

Well that was all over the TV news, with spectacular aerial footage of packs of sharks hunting a thick black cloud of sardine-like tiddlers along the shoreline. Nobody could argue with that.

But the excuse that I’ve had to use most frequently over recent years – an excuse that everybody understands, even those unfortunate enough to be buried in the wilds of suburbia – has just struck again.

“My computer won’t work – Windows keeps crashing! Damn!’

It’s obviously time to go right to the top for help.

“Dear Santa …”