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Authors: John Fiennes

Tags: #Fiennes, John, #Biography - Personal Memoirs, #Social Science - Gay Studies

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BOOK: The Good Boy
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My grandmother was a quiet and kind person, as was my grandfather (who did not come to the station and who never seemed to leave the house other than to go to Mass or to his weekly game of bowls in the Upper Reserve). He had kind eyes behind his gold-framed spectacles and used to wear a waistcoat with a fob pocket on each side of his chest, the two seemingly linked to each other by a gold chain. In fact, the chain was fastened to the buttonhole in the middle and the ends, one in each pocket, were attached to two fascinating portable treasures: a gold pocket-watch and a gold sovereign case. I never ceased to be enthralled by the way my grandfather would check the time, fishing the watch out of his pocket without looking for it, somehow flicking the cover open and then glancing at the dial, all in one smooth seamless gesture. The more intriguing item in my grandfather's fob pockets was, however, the sovereign case, smaller in diameter than the watch but a little thicker and which, with a mere gesture from my grandfather, would open and show a shiny gold sovereign sitting snugly inside … and then with another gesture would close, reopen … and the coin had disappeared! It took me some time to understand that the case could store several sovereigns, one on top of the other, and that the mechanism enabled my grandfather to leave all his coins stored behind the front panel, giving the impression that the case was empty, or to bring one sovereign into sight in the access panel.

My grandfather had an obsession with keeping things organised, neat and tidy. His workshop (actually the garage of his home in Bendigo: he never owned a car) was an extraordinary sight. On one wall he had hooks for all the rakes, brooms, saws and so on that could be hung up … an early ‘shadow board', I suppose. The other walls were lined with shelves on which were ranged dozens of glass jars which had once probably contained jam but which he used to store nails, screws, tacks, drawing pins, fasteners and hinges etc., all graded by size and neatly labelled. In the middle of the old garage was a massive workbench, with a vice and a lathe on top at one end and row upon row of neatly labelled drawers underneath, drawers containing sheets of sandpaper, tracing paper, plans and diagrams, instruction booklets etc. … and in one drawer, a collection of empty cigarette tins and cigar boxes saved rather than thrown out ‘just in case they could prove useful one day'. My grandfather did not smoke so I suppose these items had come from his sons, all of whom did smoke, and from the shop (SMS)
22
… just like the many biscuit tins also stored there and displaying faded and sometimes fantastical labels for ‘Swallow and Ariel', ‘Guests Biscuits', ‘Brockhoffs' and so on. The cigar boxes boldly labelled ‘Havana' probably first introduced me to dreaming about faraway places, and the biscuit tins with their brightly coloured swallows and parrots and Art Deco geometrical designs added to the wonder of the garage. This place seemed to be a real Aladdin's cave full of treasures and I was allowed to play there on condition that I replaced everything I touched and left the workshop exactly as I found it. These always seemed sensible rules to me, although twenty-first century children, and even adults, tend to roll their eyes at the mere suggestion of this being correct behaviour!

Bendigo is an inland city with a dry climate. It is hot in summer and cold in winter. With its thick brick and stone walls, my grandparents' house was always wonderfully cool in summer but in winter it was very cold. On the other hand, the kitchen was always cosy in winter because the wood-fired stove would be used instead of the gas one standing beside it. A fire was lit in the dining room in the morning, and after the evening meal (dinner was always in the middle of the day there) my aunt Nell, who lived at home with her parents, would scoop the coals and burning wood up on to a shovel and carry the smoking, flickering load up the hallway to the front room, tip it all into the grate and lo, instant fire! We would then add more wood, eventually a small Mallee root, and be cosy through the winter evenings.

The Millanes were inclined to be night owls, and sometimes we would listen to records such as ‘The Barber of Seville', ‘Caruso's Best Arias' and ‘Selections from Sir Harry Lauder' which were in my grandparents' much-used collection. These records were played on an ‘His Master's Voice' gramophone, which was housed in a handsome polished maple box about 50 centimetres square and 35 centimetres high. The hinged lid, when swung upwards, became a sort of sounding board (I think it was the model where the dual-purpose lid had just been introduced as an improvement on the large trumpet-top seen on earlier gramophones). The volume of the music could be increased by opening either or both of two little twelve-centimetre-square doors in the front of the gramophone. Before playing a record one had to wind up the mechanism and insert a fresh needle into the head at the end of the playing arm. I was allowed to crank up the machine but not to put the needle in or to lower it on to the rotating record … until I was old enough to perform these more delicate operations responsibly!

At other times we would listen to ‘good music' on the wireless, another large piece of polished timber furniture sitting on a table near the gramophone, and always tuned to the ABC. A much smaller wireless in the dining room was tuned to 3BO, the local commercial station in Bendigo, but that one was only turned on to catch the local newscasts. Only very rarely was I able to persuade my grandmother to play the piano in the front room (the rheumatism in her fingers made playing difficult) and in return I was expected to try to sing. The music cupboard was full of sheet music from the early 1900s, a piece called ‘The Rosary', the words in both English and French appealing to me once I had started to study French at school. It was not the sacred music perhaps suggested by the title, but a rather sad little love song:

Comme une prière sont pour moi,

les heures qui nous ont unissés …
23

And my grandfather used to sing that to my grandmother! … Sometimes we would all read, and I was encouraged to be adventurous in my reading and to join the local library so that I could borrow books while staying in Bendigo. Most of the books in the house were my Aunt Nell's, about art, or had belonged to my grandfather and were about Ireland, or belonged to my Uncle Bert (who was away at the War) and tended to be novels by Conrad, Waring, Lawrence, and so on. There was also a wonderful collection of postcards sent to the house by various friends and family members travelling in Australia and overseas which I loved to pore over. Particularly fascinating (kept at the back of the cupboard and not discovered until I was about ten years old) was a large and attractive souvenir program from the
Folies Bergères
in Paris, no doubt belonging to my Uncle Ray – also at the War! At some stage during most stays I would take the program out of its tissue-paper wrapper and dream over the near naked men and women strutting so confidently across the Paris stage. I think it must have been about then that I gave up my idea of becoming a bishop or a sailor or a lighthouse keeper, and started to think about the theatre …

My grandmother would usually crochet while she listened to the gramophone or wireless, even while she chatted, as she seemed able to manipulate her needle and wools without looking at the work. She was always working on multicoloured woollen rugs which, on completion, she gave away, and all of the family and many friends treasured those wonderfully warm, light and colourful rugs for years.

In the late 1940s my uncle Bill arranged for his mother's portrait to be painted by the Melbourne artist William Frater. He painted her while she sat in the lamplight, crocheting. It turned out to be a beautiful study, although my grandmother thought it made her look as if she had just died on the job … as this time she
did
look down at her crocheting, and her eyes
do
look as if they are closed.

Bill was the eldest son in the family. On leaving school he joined the staff of the Commercial Bank of Australia, where he was joined a year or two later by his younger brother, Frank. Frank spent his working life with the bank but Bill quickly found the life too restrictive and determined to go to the USA, then the land of the future in his eyes. Quite talented artistically, he supplemented his wages by giving violin and guitar lessons in the evening; by the mid 1920s he had saved enough for the fare to California and off he went, travelling on the Union Line's ill-fated
Tahiti
.
24
Bill spent five years working in San Francisco and three in Los Angeles. In 1932 he returned to Australia on another Union Line ship, the
Niagara
25
which, by some strange coincidence in his choice of ships, also sank some time after his passage on board. He finally settled in Melbourne where he took a position with a firm which imported electrical goods from the United States and also designed and made stained glass, wrought iron and other decorative pieces. That is where he met William ‘Jock' Frater, a Scot generally credited with having brought French Impressionism to Australia. In time, Bill established his own company to design and make decorative lighting, and once financially secure he derived much pleasure from supporting and learning from Frater. He financed various painting trips to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, to North Queensland and to Central Australia, often painting alongside Jock, watching and learning, and often being rewarded with the gift of one of Jock's paintings. Bill never married, although he did have a number of passionate affairs with women met in Melbourne's art world; when he died more than a dozen of these Frater canvases were found in his house, many others having already been given away to family and friends.

My Aunt Nell, the third child in the family, worked for twenty years or so on the local newspaper, the
Bendigo Advertiser
, as Social Editress: she was responsible for a full page of news, ‘Mostly For Women' on each Tuesday and Thursday, and for two such pages on Saturdays. She worked from her study at home in the mornings, then in the afternoon from a big room she shared with her assistant in the
Advertiser
building in Pall Mall. I was always intrigued by the brisk and business-like way in which she handled the minor crises and deadlines of the job, using shorthand to record phone conversations and interviews, swiftly typing up final copy for the printing room, always calm and immaculately dressed … she seemed to me to be the very epitome of a lady journalist. Long after retiring from the
Advertiser
, she told me how she had come to take up journalism. She had moved to Bendigo with her parents in 1933 and after a year or so there doing nothing, had been urged by friends to apply for the newly established position of Editress of the ‘Women's Page'. She had been called in for interview by the Board of Directors and apparently was in the process of impressing them as a well educated and artistic young lady, when one of the Directors suddenly asked her whether she felt she could handle the quite considerable amount of typing involved in preparing the social material for the printing presses. Nell told me with a twinkle in her eye that at that stage she had never typed a line in her life: typing and shorthand had not been part of the curriculum at Loreto Abbey in Ballarat when she had been a student. But realising the importance of the question and recalling the typewriters she had seen in the office and even on sale in the family shop in Hamilton, she had smoothly replied that it was ages since she had touched a typewriter, but she felt quite sure she would be able to cope. She was appointed to the position … and then rushed post-haste to a Business College in Melbourne to do a crash course in shorthand and typing, amusing the Principal there by saying that she wanted to become reasonably proficient by the end of two weeks. ‘The College wanted to stretch the course out over six or twelve months,' Nell told me, ‘but the basics could really be picked up quite quickly if you wanted to, and I wanted to, so I did.' She did more than
cope
, and ten years later was elected President of the Bendigo branch of the Business and Professional Women's Club of Australia.

As Social Editress of the local paper, Nell seemed to know everybody in town, or at least their wives and daughters, so her list of contacts was very lengthy and useful. There were still a dozen goldmines working in Bendigo when as a teenager I spent my school holidays there, and one year I pestered Nell to arrange an underground visit for me. Nell, who had been down the ‘Big Deborah' mine herself in the course of her journalistic work, knew that visitors were not really welcome and were viewed as something of a nuisance and safety risk. She put me off as long as she could but I persisted. Eventually she gave in and phoned the CEO of the largest mining company in town, whose wife and daughter were often mentioned in the columns of ‘Mostly For Women', and a few days later I reported at 6 a.m. on a frosty May morning at the South Deborah mine for my underground tour, to be personally escorted by the shift foreman. My teeth were chattering with cold and my knees were knocking with fear as I stepped into the open-sided bucket/cage with the foreman, another miner and another curious visitor like myself, a visiting Indian schoolteacher. The rusty metal half-door clanged shut, and without further ado the cage started dropping down, down, down the narrow shaft. The little square of pale sunlight that indicated surface level soon shrank to nothing as we plunged on down in total darkness. At 2000 feet the cage stopped, we got out and with a clang and a bang the cage plunged on down to a lower level of the mine. We were standing in a sort of rocky foyer lit by a few naked electric light globes strung along the walls, revealing the dark, gaping entrances of three tunnels running off from the main shaft. The tour took us along these tunnels, up and down ladders leading to adjoining levels, through rock-strewn areas where blasting had recently been done and up to workfaces where miners were drilling into the granite walls to place further charges. At times we walked along narrow-gauge railway lines used to trundle small wagonloads of rock back to the main shaft for hauling up to the crusher on the surface; up there the sifting and sorting and cyanide treatment would eventually separate the gold from the mullock. Finally, when I was on the point of announcing that I had had enough of all the climbing and walking, the noise of the drilling, the clouds of rockdust in the air, the water dripping on us from the tunnel roofs, and the sheer claustrophobic atmosphere of the mine, the foreman pointed out to us in one of the rocky walls a line of white and black quartz zigzagging across the tunnel wall. It was the Deborah Reef, the reason we and the mine were there. When the lights were focused on the quartz, we could see a thin line of bright shiny gold, about a centimetre thick, squeezed all the way along between the layers of black and white quartz. It was strangely exciting, even beautiful, and I quickly forgot my complaints – cured by a touch of gold fever, I suppose! We made our way back to the main shaft and the bucket lift slowly hauled us up to ground level and the sunlight. We had been underground for nearly two hours and although it had, after all, been a wonderful educational experience and had at least taught me to respect and indeed admire the men who work in mines, I had to admit that Nell had been right when she had said, ‘I don't think you'll enjoy it.'

BOOK: The Good Boy
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