How to Culture a Nine Year Old

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June 15th 1964
Published: January 21st 2019
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1964 Diary Entry

"The next morning we got up and had breakfast and then we started to pack for that day we were leaving for London. At about 10 o'clock we got a taxi to the airport. There we had our baggage checked and then we went into the flight waiting room. Soon after that we were called aboard the plane. When we got in we prepared for take off. After take-off we rose and levelled off and after about an hour we landed in London. There we went through passport control and customs. Mum saw Auntie Beth out the door. After we'd finished we went out and saw Auntie Beth."

.... and that's where the diary ends. Passport stamps and other assorted evidence tells me that we stayed in London until 11 September, interspersed with two forays into France and one to Switzerland, but there's no diary to fill in the details of the rest of the trip. I've instead had to rely on my memory, photos and various other pieces of memorabilia to piece together some of what we did during that English summer.

We spent a lot of our time in England with Mum's sister, my Auntie Beth, and her husband Uncle Geoff, at their house which was only a block back from the seafront at Shoreham-by Sea on England's south coast, a few kilometres west of Brighton. Geoff's wife had died of polio a few years before he met Beth, leaving him to look after two daughters, Sally and Barbie, then aged five and three. Uncle Geoff was a biochemistry professor at the medical school at Guy's Hospital in London, and Beth had travelled over to England from Geelong where she did some touristy things before starting work in the same hospital's laboratory, also as a biochemist. It was apparently well known at the hospital at the time that "Professor Haslewood was looking for a wife", so shortly after she arrived there Beth was sent to Geoff's office on some made-up errand by her supervisory professor, who was a friend of Geoff's. They were engaged soon after and married six weeks later. I was never quite game enough to ask what Beth's very conservative family thought about such a short engagement, but I'm fairly sure my ultra-conservative grandmother in particular would have been keeping a very anxious eye on the calendar for nine months after the wedding. I thought it was very cool that they lived so close to the beach. They had a small rowboat called "Geelong" and I spent a lot of my time there fishing for shrimp in the shallows using a purpose made net that you pushed along in front of you just below the surface of the sand. Beth used to tell the story of one of our visits to Shoreham from London that didn't go all that smoothly. It was on a particularly wet and windy day, where it seems that every attempt to keep a lively nine year old entertained had failed miserably. When Beth and Geoff dropped us at the station to go back to London, Mum told me as per usual to tell Beth and Geoff what a lovely time I'd had and to thank them very much for having me. It is said that I responded that I hadn't had a good time at all, and that things "hadn't turned out at all as I expected". Mum was of course horrified. The "hadn't turned out at all as I expected" line then apparently became part of Beth and Geoff's family folklore, and they told me years later how good they thought it was that I'd dared to tell the truth about the day in defiance of my parents' expectations. They might have thought it was good, but I suspect I wouldn't have enjoyed the long train trip back to London with my parents, which I'm sure I would have been made to endure in icy silence.

I met Sally for the first time virtually as soon as we arrived in London. She was a medical student, also at Guy's Hospital, and she turned up to meet us wearing typical student clothes and sporting a trendy wild hair do. She thought I looked a bit bored and offered to take me rowing on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I thought she was about as cool as it was possible for anyone to get. It also whet my appetite for rowing. The next time we went to visit Beth and Geoff, Geoff had clearly heard about this outing and offered to take me rowing on a large lake on the outskirts of the nearby coastal town of Worthing. It was a very windy day. We set off from the sheltered side of the lake, but soon found ourselves blown over to the opposite shore, and we then found that it was a real struggle to get ourselves back to the boathouse against the howling gale. My skinny nine year old arms weren't any help, and Geoff looked like he was about to expire by the time we'd fought our way back to the lee shore. I'm pretty sure he didn't offer to take me rowing again after that.

We visited all the standard sights - Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the Royal Mews, St Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Hampton Court Palace and the maze in its garden, Greenwich Observatory, and Windsor Castle. Our home in Melbourne was in Chaucer Crescent in the suburb of Canterbury; nothing worth mentioning there, or so I thought. But no, I was told all about Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, and if that wasn't enough we then followed the pilgrim's route from London down to Canterbury Cathedral. I remember thinking that this was all a bit boring until someone happened to mention the juicy detail that Thomas a Becket, later Saint Thomas of Canterbury, had been murdered in this very same Cathedral by the followers of King Henry II, back in the twelfth century.

Mum was as always continuing her lifelong efforts to infuse me with a least a small degree of culture - classical music in particular. It was a thankless task, but that certainly didn't stop her from trying. She started trying to teach me to play the piano when I was only four, but quickly realised that this wasn't going to work, so I was passed onto a professional teacher. This poor gent lived by himself, was totally devoid of any form of personality, and his only interest in life was the piano. The straw that broke the camel's back was him telling me that I had to stop playing cricket for six weeks before my next music exam in case my fingers got damaged. As an eleven year old Mum signed me up for a season of the Australian Opera Company's productions. I looked forward to those opera nights like a hole in the head, and used to count the seconds for the shows to finish so that I could get back to living again. A trip to Europe certainly wasn't going to interfere with any of Mum's efforts to further my cultural education, and no amount of subtle protesting was going to prevent me from being dragged along to classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and the London Festival Hall. I quite like listening to classical music in the background, but lengthy classical concerts and opera productions have just never been my thing. I wonder if Mum ever realised; she was incredibly well intentioned, so I certainly wasn't game enough to shatter her dreams by telling her that I regarded all this as a form of torture.

I've got lots of photos of me standing in Trafalgar Square, either by myself, or with my grandfather who had turned up to join the family party in England at some stage during the summer. In every one of these pictures I've got pigeons hanging all over me, usually sitting on my head, my shoulders and my outstretched arms, and trying to crawl up my unprotected legs. I'm pretty sure that the standard routine here was to buy a packet of bird seed, pour a bit of it into the palms of your hands, and then await the attack. The whole square must have been ankle deep in bird droppings, and whilst the old black and white photos are sometimes a bit indistinct, I'm fairly sure that my clothes didn't exactly escape unscathed either. There didn't seem to be too many pigeons there at all when we went back in 2015. I wonder how they got rid of them? I think it might be better if I didn't wonder about this too much.

Mum and Dad were reliving their time here before and immediately after they were married in London in 1953. Dad was travelling to London from Melbourne to take up a diplomatic post as the Australian Defence Representative to the United Kingdom, and Mum was going over there for a holiday. They met on the ship, got married, had me, and then came back to Melbourne. Mum got really sick with amoebic dysentry which she picked up in one of the ports on the way over, and was in hospital in London for weeks after she arrived. I'm not sure that the English people of the 1950s were all that renowned for personal cleanliness. Mum often told a story of getting friendly with one of the hospital's cleaners, who told her that she was going on holidays in about a month's time. She then went on to add that she was very well prepared for her trip, having already had her bath. I think Mum enjoyed life as a diplomat's wife. She was certainly well-schooled in the fineries of etiquette, and even in much later years when I had friends over to our house for dinner, Mum always made sure that the cutlery and crockery were set out with diplomatic precision, and that that the seating arrangements appropriately reflected the status of the guests. I'm not sure that too many of my friends took too much notice of any of this, but it was certainly important to Mum that rules were followed and standards upheld, irrespective of who the guests were.

Our visit to Westminster Abbey had special significance, as Dad, in his diplomatic role, had attended the Queen's Coronation there in 1953, accompanied by one of my half-sisters. He was able to buy the two chairs that they sat on afterwards, and they took pride of place in the family home back in Melbourne. We also visited what had been Dad's office in Australia House with its outlook along The Strand.

We took a trip out to the Cotswolds to visit an Admiral Willoughby who had been Dad's best man. He and his wife lived in an ancient cottage in the very pretty village of Stroud. I remember the tops of the cottage's doorframes being so low that the adults all had to duck to get through them.

Whilst Mum lapped up the diplomatic life, she struggled a bit with the military side of things. She was very gun shy, and used to jump at even the mildest of loud noises. This even extended to a pathological fear of thunderstorms. Dad managed to get the three of us tickets to the annual Trooping the Colour, and Mum spent most of the performance with her fingers in her ears. Worse still was an event called the Royal Tournament at the Exhibition Building in Earl's Court. This was held annually from 1880 to 1999, and during those years it was apparently the world's largest military tattoo. I don't specifically remember Mum hiding under the seats during this extravaganza of military displays, all of which were accompanied by loud gunfire, but if there had been enough room there I'm sure that's exactly where she would have headed.

The Australian cricket team was in England for an Ashes series in 1964, and interest in this was high. I remember Dad taking me to Lords to see a match, but he wasn't able to get tickets to the Test. I remember being a bit taken aback by how small Lords was, having been used to seeing cricket played at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground with its 100,000+ capacity. Uncle Geoff used to travel up and back from Shoreham-by-Sea to London by train every day, and I remember Mum and Dad once taking me to the station in London so that I could travel back to Shoreham with him. We got in a carriage with a bunch of his mates who he used to travel with every day. Someone then produced a transistor radio and attempts were quickly made to tune this in to the commentary from the current Test match. The reception was terrible and no one could hear what was happening. Uncle Geoff got really annoyed, and decided that the poor reception must have been due to the overhead train wires. He decided that the only way around this was for us to somehow get the train to stop, and talk quickly turned to pulling the emergency cord. .... and I thought it was only us Australians who took sport really seriously......


23rd January 2019
With my grandfather feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square

What a gorgeous photo
I really enjoyed this post Dave. And as a child who was 'renowned' for speaking my mind, I have certainly sat through many an icy trip with my parents too! p.s. Nice shorts :)
24th January 2019
With my grandfather feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square

London 1964
Thanks for your kind words. Yeah, I love that photo too - very atmospheric.
24th January 2019

Thanks for finishing the tale...
even though the diary stopped. Very fascinating!
26th January 2019

The diary ends
Thanks a lot for that. I've got a few entries to go, but the diary isn't going to help me from here on in!!

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