Saturday, August 8, 2009


Newcastle Boys’ High School Old Boys’ Association annual dinner
August 8, 2009

I’m honoured to be invited back to my home town to speak to the Old Boys of my old school. I’ve lived in Sydney for 40 years this year, but I’m always proud to say I’m a Novocastrian and particularly proud to say I went to Boys’ High. However, I’m not sure how well qualified I am to talk to you. Of course, in a sense no one’s qualified to talk. We’re here to do a little reminiscing about our school days, but Boys’ High existed for many years, and I’m conscious that some of you would have left the school long before I arrived and many of you would have arrived long after I left. So the scope for talking about people and events that don’t ring any bells for you is great.

I guess I should start by putting myself in the context of the school’s existence. The first high school I went to was Fort Street Boys’, then my parents - who were Salvation Army officers - were moved to Bathurst for a year before being moved back to the suburb in which I’d been born, New Lambton. That means I was at Boys’ High only for my last three years of high school, 1962, 63 and 64 - which was the second last year of the five-year leaving certificate before the introduction of the six-year HSC. The fact that two years after I left school no one left school in NSW proved particularly fortunate for me because, by then I’d finished my second part-time year of a commerce degree at Newcastle Uni. I wanted to switch to full-time, so I applied for a Commonwealth scholarship and, despite a checkered academic record, I got one - purely because they were going begging that year.

One respect in which I’m not well qualified to talk to you is that, although I was obviously smart enough to make it to a selective school, I wasn’t diligent enough to get anywhere once I’d arrived. I was always well down in the year and usually in the E class - in the days when all classes were ‘streamed’ (graded) and teachers made no effort to protect your fragile ‘self-esteem’ by disguising how poorly you were doing in the competition. At the Intermediate I just scraped through maths and failed English. I can’t remember doing much study for the Leaving, and the results I got were pretty undistinguished - two As and four Bs - but in those days that was enough to get you into uni. I can remember being quite over-awed as I walked around the old campus at Tighes Hill - I thought I was surrounded by people who were much brighter than I was - so I resolved to work a lot harder. It worked for the first year, but then I eased off. I actually failed macroeconomics at my first attempt (and failed commerce stats twice) but in those easy days failing a few subjects earned you only the minor inconvenience of having to ‘show cause’.

So I’m hardly the finest example of Boys’ High’s academic excellence. I guess I’m proof that there’s life after an undistinguished academic career. But another respect in which I’m not well qualified for this talk is that there’s a lot about my school days I can’t remember. For instance, I can’t remember ever playing any sport at Boys’ High. I guess I must have, but it’s just a blank in my mind. All I can remember was being keen to be a Library Boy because they were allowed to skulk in the Library on Wednesday afternoons. And I would much rather have been covering library books than playing sport. The only school prize I ever got was for being a Library Boy.

But it’s not just that I’ve forgotten so much, it’s also that my memories aren’t always accurate. When I attended our year’s 20-year reunion at the Rugby Club in 1984, I was looking forward to meeting our old headmaster, Harold Beard, and was completely nonplussed when the principal in our final year was introduced as Mr Richardson. Who was he? Where had he sprung from? It took me a long time to remember that Mr Beard had retired in our second last year and been replaced in our final year by the much less memorable Mr Richardson. But that’s not all. One thing I had intended to say tonight was my clear, indelibly imprinted memory of where I was when I heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination: in the playground at Boys’ High. But when I mentioned this to a friend he said I’d better check it because his clear memory was that JFK died on a Saturday. I checked, and he was right. So all I can do is borrow from Clive James and say that what follows is my Unreliable Memoirs.

Rather than talk about the other boys in my year I thought it might touch more chords if I mentioned the teachers I remember, most of whom were there for many years. This should be the point where I wheel out my personal fund of stories about Charlie Goffet - who was there when my brother went to Boys’ High in 1947 and still there when most of you went through. Unfortunately, however, I never had Charlie - my last year of French was with the mild-mannered Mr Jackson. My first maths teacher was Jacky Shield - a nice guy but not a great maths communicator, who later turned up in Sydney as an organiser for the Teachers Federation. But the maths teacher I remember most was young Tony Abraham, who had a Triumph sports car he was very proud of and spoke with a strange British accent I later realised was Welsh. If he wanted you he’d say, Come Cheer!

I remember the head of the English department, Mr Judd (Pinhead), Mr Blunden (Chrome Dome), who was a leading light in the Youth Hostels Association, the librarian, Mr Rigby, and, of course, the man who rose to fame in various Channel 10 soap operas, Vic Rooney. I remember our history teacher, Mr Carter (Orsen Carter) who said something one day I never forgot: that for an exemplary example of written English we should follow his example and read the editorials in the Newcastle Morning Herald. I thought of that many years later when I was writing editorials (or ‘leaders’) in the Sydney Morning Herald. I guess my prose wouldn’t have been up to Mr Carter’s standards, but I hope I knew a bit more about the subject matter than most editorial writers did. Seeing the leader-writing process from the inside is like watching sausages being made - it’s better not to know what goes into them.

My last English teacher was Mr Kerr (Cat’s Eyes). I was in the E class, but one day I put up my hand and asked him if he thought it was worth me trying to get an A in English. He unhesitatingly told me not to bother - but as it turned out, I got one. Some tiny inkling of my future career was starting to peep through. Mr Kerr was also the careers adviser, but I don’t blame him for the careers advice I got which typically in those days was uninspired and uninspiring. I probably told them I wanted to be an accountant (which was true), they looked at my academic performance, saw I was quite good at a subject called accountancy but not much else, and grudging suggested that, if I tried really hard, I could probably manage a part-time tech course in accounting. Perhaps all the tough love we got from teachers in those days - all the negative comments on report cards - had a useful effect in making us determined to show we were better than our teachers assumed. I enrolled in accounting at uni rather than tech, and had no trouble doing well in it. It was only the economics that gave me trouble.

But Mr Kerr ended up doing me a favour. A local chartered accountant, Ray Patrick, came to the school saying he needed to employ a junior audit clerk. Mr Kerr recommended me, I took the job with alacrity and worked for Ray Patrick for two years before going to uni full-time and then moving to Sydney to work for one of the big chartered accounting firms.

That brings me to Lyle Abell, who taught me both accountancy (in which I got my other A) and economics (only managed a B). Took me a long time to see the point of economics, as you can tell. Many years later, after I was economics editor of the Herald, I was invited to come back to Newcastle to talk to a lecture day for HSC economics students from various schools held in the main lecture theatre at Newcastle Uni, one I had sat in many times as a uni student, the fragrantly named BO1. As I held forth to the school kids it suddenly struck me that, when I was studying economics at school, I wouldn’t have understood a word of what I was saying to those students. The modern HSC is a lot more intellectually demanding than the Leaving was in my day.

Then there was Harold Beard’s deputy, Tom O’Connor, known by his initials as TOC. He was the complete antithesis of the mild, intellectual Mr Beard. TOC was perpetually red-faced and shouting, a stern disciplinarian and wielder of the cane. Mr Beard was the good cop; TOC was the bad cop. Years later in discussions with teachers I discovered this was pretty much the standard formula for high schools: a principal who acts as the intellectual leader with a soul above the mundane, and a down-and-dirty deputy who does the enforcing.

But that didn’t stop us fifth-years having a little fun at TOC’s expense. I guess it wasn’t an original wheeze, but someone got the idea of taking an item of school clothing, marking on it the owner’s name, Mike Hunt, and handing it in as lost property. TOC would stand in front of the school assembly with the offending item of property and bellow at the top of his lungs, Where’s Mike Hunt!? while the fifth-years sniggered and the rest of the school looked puzzled. Then we played a more subtle game, inventing someone called Duncan Abercrombie - I guess we just liked the name - who, too, was always losing his uniform and having to be searched for. It took the authorities quite a while before they realised there was no such boy.

Everyone is supposed to have a memorable teacher who inspired them with ambition or a love of learning. All told I attended five primary schools and three high schools, but only one heroic, outstanding teacher sticks in my mind: Harold Beard. If you didn’t experience Mr Beard in the flesh during his 16 years as Headmaster then I’m sure you must remember his name from the F.H. Beard library.

He was probably the most eccentric man I’ve ever observed - not in his dress or demeanour, but in his beliefs and practices as a teacher. He had his own ideas - his own educational priorities - he was in charge of exactly the right school to implement those ideas, and so he did, not caring for a moment that others may have considered him odd (as I’m sure many did). In this he set a great example to us boys. He was a pioneer in the field of sex education, with his endlessly repeated showings of the battered and scratchy film, Human Reproduction, from which kids, by the time they were in fifth year, could recite long passages by heart.

He was a great believer in current affairs and public speaking. Two days a week would be divided into nine periods rather than eight, and the last period of the day would be devoted to this purpose. The senior or junior half of the school would go to the assembly hall to listen to a guest speaker, while the other half would go to their roll teacher who would take them in ‘speech training’. Sometimes we’d do debating, other times we’d each give two-minute speeches in front of our school mates on a topic we’d been given only a few minutes to think about. I think that was excellent training for boys likely to end up in positions of leadership. Nothing could be better calculated to help people overcome their fear of public speaking.

Mr Beard did all he could to encourage our interest in current affairs. We would memorise the names of Asian political leaders for his regular current affairs tests - Lee Kuan Yew, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Sukarno, U Thant and many more. He conned many of us into subscribing to Sydney University’s Current Affairs Bulletin, and every month or so the school corridors would be awash with bulk copies of the latest CAB, that none of us were keen to read. Then there was his enormous faith in the ability of the United Nations to deliver world peace. We had a loud-speaker system in every classroom and, at times of international tension, Mr Beard would listen to the radio and then excitedly break into our lessons to bring us the latest uplifting news from the world. It was only years later that I realised how few people shared Mr Beard’s faith that the UN would solve all our problems.

My favourite guest speaker at the assemblies was Professor Brinley Newton-John, the vice principal of Newcastle University, who’d been in the British secret service during the war. He used to tell us he was sworn to secrecy about his wartime exploits, but still managed to tell us enough to keep us interested. Only later did I realise we should have been more interested in seeing and hearing his daughter Olivia.

As a boy I thought the Second World War had happened in the olden days. Only much later did I realise how recent the war was when we were growing up in the 50s and early 60s. Most of our teachers were ‘returned men’ - and by today’s standards it’s remarkable to think how many of them were men. In my first two years at Boys’ High there was only one woman on the staff, the music teacher Mrs Hindmarsh. But by 1964 she’d been joined by three other women. Perhaps that was Mr Richardson’s doing. I note that whereas Mr Beard was always referred to as the Headmaster, Mr Richardson was the Principal. When you remember how comparatively rare university degrees were in those days - a lot of returned men had the qualification ASTC (associate of Sydney Technical College) - it’s surprising that almost all our teachers had BAs. Perhaps that was Mr Beard’s doing - or perhaps in those days, unlike today, the Education Department accepted that a selective school needed highly qualified teachers.

When the guest speaker didn’t turn up to school assemblies, Mr Beard, who was a pianist, would lead us in community singing from a special school songbook he’d had printed. These were riotous fun. Mr Beard’s problem was that, from the piano on the stage, he needed one set of glasses to see the music and another set to see us. So while he was frantically juggling his owlish glasses, the fifth years would be up the back demanding to sing our favourite, the Drinking Song from the Student Prince - Drink, drink, drink! Let every true lover salute his sweetheart - let’s drink!

Perhaps because of his great interest in human reproduction, Mr Beard still had a young family to support after he retired, so he became a representative of World Book Encyclopaedia, and used his extensive contacts with other school principals to sell a copy of the encyclopaedia to most of the schools in Newcastle.

One event that sticks in my mind was when, in 1963, the Minister for Education, Mr Wetherell, came to open the new library. I’ve never seen a place so on edge; the staff were beside themselves. The school had been cleaned and polished from top to bottom and a collection potted of aspidistras had been acquired from somewhere and distributed strategically along the corridors. It was all so pristine that any boy who dared set foot in the school was roared at and we were kept out in the playground for the whole day until the Minister arrived. But then it rained during the opening ceremony and everyone had to rush inside. I often thought of that day 11 years later when I was a cadet reporter in the press gallery at Parliament House in Macquarie Street. The then minister for education could have been an old Labor lag, a drunk and a buffoon, a figure of derision around the House, but were he to visit a particular school, everyone from the principal down would quake in their boots.

I was very sorry not to be able to make it to my year’s 40-year reunion in 2004; I didn’t hear about it until after I was committed to flying out to Europe the next morning. But I did attend the 20-year reunion and found it quite memorable. I know that only those confident of their success are inclined to show up to reunions, but even so I was struck by how many people in my year seemed to have ended up as barristers and medical specialists. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised - when you take the brightest kids in a city as big as Newcastle it’s not surprising a lot become professionals - but I guess I hadn’t realised what a high-powered group we were. Our year and every year at Boys’ High.

But the thing I found really disconcerting about that night at the Rugby Club was the way the whole show was taken over and run by our prefects, with the school captain presiding, wearing his school blazer, lovingly preserved by his mother and which he could still fit into. What disconcerted me was that this arrangement instantly re-established the social hierarchy that had existed in my last year at Boys’ High: prefects on top, followed by the first XIII, then the first XI, and so on down to the misfits, Choir Boys and Library Boys. I’d spent the previous 20 years fighting to get myself a bit of social status and here I was cast right back to the bottom of the pecking order.

In the years since leaving Boys’ High I’ve often considered the rights and wrongs of selective schools. They’re hugely popular with parents these days - and no politician would dare do anything other than add to their number - but the Teachers Federation has long been implacably opposed to them and, as you well know, there was a time when that opposition was in the ascendancy and some selective schools were deselected, so to speak. I still remember the disappointment I felt when I learnt that Boys’ High was now nonexistent, with Waratah High taking its place. As I pondered this over the years I realised that most of the big-name Sydney selective schools had been left intact - Sydney Boys, Sydney Girls, North Sydney Boys, North Sydney Girls, although the two Fort Streets had been merged. Indeed, just about the only other selective school to bite the dust that I heard of was John Howard’s old school, Canterbury Boys. How come we got the chop when so many others survived? My own theory is that many of our most influential old boys rose in the ranks of BHP and so were all down in Melbourne and thus unavailable to do what I suspect the influential old boys of the surviving schools did - have a quiet word with the Premier: ‘of course, Premier, the new rules won’t be applying to my old school will they?’ ‘Oh no, Sir John, not to your old school.’

I once met a university education lecturer who was very much opposed to selective schools arguing, among other things, that they were bad for the confidence of the kids selected. These kids had come from being first or second in the class at their primary school, only to discover that at high school they were well down in the year, and this would lead them to doubt their abilities and stop trying so hard. I don’t think I accept that. I didn’t see much evidence of it at Fort Street or Boys’ High, and it ought to be counteracted by the fact that you’re thrown into a whole group that’s travelling much faster than the individual kid would be travelling back at the comprehensive high school, as well as having a lot more expected of them by their teachers at the selective school.

If anything, I think going to a selective school frees bright young kids from the peer-group pressure at comprehensive schools not to act brighter than the others and not to do nerdish things like bringing a violin to school.

I think kids in selective schools are more tolerant of individual differences - you can be a bit odd and no one thinks much of it. Certainly, that was my experience at Boys’ High. I realised this years later when I went to work for a big Chartered Accountant firm in Sydney, which was staffed by a lot of private school boys. They just couldn’t help themselves remarking continually on the respects in which I differed from all of them: my oddball religion and even what they regarded as my odd political opinions.

I think what we had at Boys’ High was a good mix of classes. There must have been plenty of middle-class boys who were the bright sons of bright fathers who were the town’s business and professional people, but there was also a high proportion of boys who were the bright sons of fathers who were just ordinary workers. We had a mixture of classes but we weren’t terribly conscious of it. People were different in some way, but what of it? The denizens of the NSW Right look on the Labor Party not as party trying to advance the interests of all the battlers and disadvantaged, but as a ladder the bright sons of workers can climb to achieve their overwhelming goal in life: escaping the working class. I think Boys’ High filled that ladder role for many of the boys who attended it - including me.

How well did the experience of starting your career through life at a school like Boys’ High equip you for the fight to get ahead in the world? Did going to Boys’ High heighten your ambition? Well, I suppose it must have provided a good base and made many of us more ambitious. Although we didn’t have famous old boys paraded before us as was the case with Fort Street, I think you can find running through the rhetoric of Mr Beard and Mr Richardson the expectation that we were bright, intellectually privileged boys who would go far and had an obligation to contribute to the advancement of our nation.

I think that growing up in the working-class town of Newcastle left many of us feeling like we were outsiders with something to prove; many of us with a burning desire to prove we could make a better fist of material advancement than our fathers had. That’s certainly the way I felt - it was a big part of my motivation - though a lot of that came from my family circumstances. We didn’t have the natural self-assurance, the born-to-rule mentality of the kids attending private schools, but we did have a belief that we lived in a meritocracy, where those who were bright enough and worked hard enough could get ahead. It was the very opposite of The Old School Tie. Perhaps it was that positivity that Boys’ High added to our attitudes as boys growing up in a working-class, anti-boss town like Newcastle.