Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Brown's Ovation

It was 1974 when I went to live at Swanleigh - a residential college in Midland where country children lived to attend high school in the city. In those days there were no mobile phones, and no personal computers. But it was the year of the original Pong game and calculators were just starting to replace slide-rules. The era of black and white TV was just ending, as Countdown with Molly Meldrum was just starting. Musicians of the day included The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Queen, and Supertramp. The Sting, The Exorcist, and American Graffiti were playing at the movies. Gough Whitlam was briefly Prime Minister. Darwin was devastated by cyclone Tracy.

I stayed there for five years while attending Lockridge Senior Highschool, a newly built school with no entrenched animosities. The times, like the school and pupils, were new and optimistic and open-minded. Swanleigh however, somehow retained an atmosphere of the old era, of British tradition, where children were to be 'seen and not heard' as they would say. It's several buildings snaked along a road on the Swan river, ending at the main complex which included the central boy's houses, and the office block which had a lovely old ivy-covered stone entrance-way, and the little church of St Mary's nearby. It was a significant place and time in my life. I still visit there on night-time astral journeys to this day.

The Director then was recently arrived Richard Stowell, previously a Manx Scoutmaster. He had a small stature and little hair, but a big ego and a big puffed out chest. We variously viewed him with fear or respect, or ridiculed him in secret as "Poon". His voice could have the power of Hitler, his look could dominate a room of 300 people. But he clearly cared for we children, even if we rarely saw his softer side. On one occasion I had to ask him for a reference for an attempt to enter Duntroon, but silly me had left it till literally the last day. He tore strips off me - "oh yes, I'll tell them you're a stupid scatterbrain who can't tell the date or remember anything important etc." Oh dear. But later that day I had a magnificent full-page reference with glowing praise signed with a triple-barrelled name and a fancy signature "Richard LaMothe Stowell".

As a child I remember the years on the "Other Side" as a time of control, even oppression, with every person and every minute accounted for in every way. Now as an adult I look back and I see that very tight control was effective and strong leadership, under which certain sins did not flourish. As far as I know Swanleigh was never stained like some other religious institutions who failed morally in the care of their children. Good job.

But for the first year I had a more free life. The 1st year boys (now called 8th year) lived separately in Cornwall House which was across Jane Brook (hence the "Other Side") from the main Swanleigh site. At the year they turned 13 boys were considered immature and they were molly-coddled away from the others. Cornwall house was run by a Mr and Mrs Brown - no-one ever used their first names. They were a conservative older couple whose children had grown up, and now they served by caring for the young boys. Mrs Brown was a lovely old duck - plump and warm, with a bung knee that made her walk with a pronounced waddle. Mr Brown was a big-bellied avuncular diamond in the rough. He smoked a pipe and had a crooked brown grin that only over-rode his stern look on special occasions.

Mrs Brown especially treated us with love and care - every day as we left for school she would tell us jokes - but the joke book, like her, was from a galaxy far far away (e.g. "she got a new dress for the party, but her heart wasn't in it" - which meant absolutely nothing to 13 year old boys.) Australia was changing in the early 70s, and I could see that the Browns and the Stowells of this world were from a prior era - an era that was ending. Like the old miner I heard in far outback Laverton in the year man walked on the moon. He recited "Old Man River" to a party of drunken adults who yet quietened to listen. I sat in the corner, a little boy entranced, while this bearded and gravel-voiced cobber of the outback proclaimed a classic poem. I realised this was a vestige of the old era, and that I'd never experience such a thing again. Of course I haven't.

Mr Brown was liked and respected for his firm and friendly guiding hand - but also feared - because this was back in the age of corporal punishment. It was considered acceptable to beat children with a stick, called "the cane", on the hands or legs or buttocks. I was caned several times, and frankly don't feel I suffered badly, but society grows - and now children are being brought up by people who were not beaten as children - wonderful. Nonetheless this was a happy time, weekends exploring the creek, new friends, sports and excursions and books and hobbies and girls and purple flaired trousers.

Mr and Mrs Brown usually took Monday and Tuesday off, when they retired to their own home and other staff cared for us. But one Monday it was different and we saw another side to Mr Brown. This day they had decided to stay to themselves at Cornwall inside their rooms, and Mr Brown had left a message on a blackboard for us, warning us they were in their bedroom, and asking us to be quiet. But - the sign was literally written in strine. Strine is the strine word for 'Australian'. It means a broad aussie slang transliterated by sound (e.g. "Jareedna piper wairtsed abat the bushfires?" is "Did you read in the paper where it said about the bushfires.") So 30 schoolboys bubbled off the bus after school and tried to read the sign - a noisy gaggle repeating it and interpreting it, and then loudly and repeatedly telling each other to "be quiet!" I saw and decoded it in five seconds, and went quietly inside to get dressed, with the others following along in noisy clumps.

A minute or 2 later, as we are all getting dressed into normal clothes, Mr Brown suddenly came storming into the room in his gown, with eyes a-flash, the cane in his hand, and shouting furiously at us like "you selfish little bastards, can't you read a simple sign, I'll show you some consideration for your elders". It was a long thin room, with boys on either side, and he rampaged down the centre as he shouted, wildly swinging the cane, hitting any boy's legs and buttocks in reach, left and right, whack, whack, whack-whack. He turned at the end, and started his second pass back up the room towards me - whack whack whack ! But his steam had vented and he wound down to a halt in the centre of the room - a room full of boys hugging the walls, tears in their eyes, trying desperately not to show their pain. All except me. He had not seen me, standing quietly in the hidden corner behind the door, a small, gentle, polite and studious sort of boy. I stood wide-eyed in my underpants, facing a huge angry man with a stick in his hand and rage in his eyes.

He glared at me with an angry "I didn't get you, did I?" and I squeaked "no sir". But his blood was cooling, he just gave a parting snort, and stormed out again. Phew. A karmic reward which made up for many an injustice. They never spent Monday and Tuesday there again. The incident was never discussed.

A few years passed, we sometimes saw the Browns and chatted, and over time they were even more liked and respected by all. And then one day there came an announcement at tea, with all 300 of us gathered in the dining hall - Mr and Mrs Brown were to retire. And the most amazing thing then happened. As the realisation that the Browns were leaving us struck home, it brought their goodness to mind, their years of good work, and how they would be missed. These feelings were not mine alone - we started to clap and cheer and whistle and stomp. This outpouring grew and grew, and we stood up for a standing ovation, with cries of "good on ya" filling the room. The cheers and clapping and praise of hundreds swelled to a crescendo, the air sparkled with gold. It was the most wonderful spontaneous and genuine outpouring of love I have ever experienced. I have no idea if Mr Stowell planned or expected anything such, or even what he was doing - for the only moment in 5 years, Mr Stowell at the High Table was not the focus.

In the midst of this tsunami of feelings for the Browns I twisted and turned to find them amongst the cheering throng - I caught a glimpse of Mrs Brown, still seated because of her knee. Her face was a-glow with pure joy, her eyes were sparkling, and tears streamed down her face. Her aura was shining with a well-deserved glowing crown for a good life full of care and giving for others. Thank you.

I looked too for Mr Brown but could not see him. It was some time before I realised why - he was not there ! This sea of emotion was too much for someone of such stiff upper-lip, and he had had to step out of the door. While hundreds of children noisily poured out their hearts to this beloved 'uncle' - he stood outside, in the dark, all alone. I imagine his face contorted with unfamiliar tears, overwhelmed with a confusion of happiness and embarrassment, his ears ringing with that cacophony of respect – but with his pride preventing him from being present for that climactic reward for his years of good work. Men didn't cry.

We love you Mr and Mrs Brown.

No comments:

Post a Comment