Saturday, May 23, 2015

GITTINS the Book: Sneak preview I

I was an "OK" - an officers' kid. Both my father and my mother were officers (ministers) in the Salvation Army and, until I left home at 21, the Army and its strange way of life dominated mine.

For 45 years my father was in charge of a succession of small corps, or churches, around Queensland and NSW. This meant our family moved every two years, sometimes every year.

I ended up attending five primary schools and three high schools. All that moving meant I have few friends from school days, but it was the only life I knew and I've yet to meet an OK who felt it did them any harm.

Especially for a corps officers' kid, the Army was an all-consuming religion. The whole of every Sunday was taken up attending prayer meetings ("knee drill"), open-air meetings on street corners, holiness meetings in the morning and salvation meetings in the evening, plus, for "junior soldiers", directory meetings in the morning and company meetings (Sunday school) in the afternoon.

At all of these meetings I'd wear the appropriate uniform, of course. On week nights there'd be "legion", a bit like Boys' Brigade, and as I grew older, band practice and choir practice.

The Gittinses are an Army family. Of my father's 13 siblings, three of his brothers and three of his sisters also became officers. An aunt and an uncle of my father's were officers, and six of my cousins are officers, plus a couple of their kids, making four generations in all.

My parents were strict, but never stern or preachy. They did their duty to God faithfully (my father's favourite word and highest ambition) and cheerfully, never questioning their superiors' arbitrary decisions to shift them hither and yon.

But they lived for their children and though, as products of their age, they were undemonstrative, I was never in any doubt that I was loved. I was, in any case, the baby of the family.

Even among other Salvationists, my parents were rather old-fashioned in their disapproval of "worldliness". Like all Sallies, they disapproved of drinking, smoking and any form of gambling (we were allowed to play Happy Families or snap, but never with ordinary playing cards for fear people might think we were betting), but they also disapproved of make-up, jewellery, dancing and doing anything much on Sundays bar attending meetings. Even going to the pictures was frowned upon.

This last one pinched a little with me. I remember wandering the streets alone on Saturday afternoons while my mates were at the matinee, rolling Jaffas down the aisle and watching serials and such exciting flicks as Smiley.

But no one in my family was rebellious, and nor was I. It wasn't until I was a full-time student at Newcastle University in 1967 that I began sneaking off on Wednesday afternoons to see a movie in Hunter Street.

I suspect the experience has left me with an addiction to cinema-going. People will tell you little has changed except the day: I now sneak off to the movies on Tuesday afternoons, and I usually see three films in a row.

My parents' objection to worldliness had as much to do with conservatism as spirituality. Their views had been formed long before the advent of television, so it escaped their strictures.

When TV arrived in 1956, their problem with it was purely the prohibitive cost of buying a set. I was never discouraged from joining the throng on the footpath watching telly in the windows of department stores and often went down to see the latest episode of Robin Hood outside the electrical store near our house in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Leichhardt.

When my parents retired, my sisters bought them their first telly, on which they happily watched reruns of all the movies they had disapproved of for so long.

All this may help explain why my own kids were deprived of television throughout their school years. My wife, Claudia, rang me at work one day when our first child was still very young to say our house in Redfern had been broken into and our TV stolen. Don't worry, I said, I'll pick up another set on my way home. Don't bother, she said, let's try life without it.

I explained to my son, Sandy, that we no longer had a television because someone had stolen it, and he accepted that.

We let our kids watch TV at their friends' houses, I took care to buy them the books or toys associated with TV crazes, gave them an unlimited book-buying budget and occasionally rented a telly so Sandy could watch the Rugby World Cup, but we didn't buy another set until the day our second child, Katie, finished her last Higher School Certificate exam.

Our lack of TV was something I kept dark during the two years I was on a huge, part-time retainer to the Ten Network, but I never felt my inability to watch current affairs TV left me at any disadvantage professionally. I got on with my work most nights. As for Claudia, it was her idea. And I doubt it did the kids any harm and may have meant they read and studied more.

At this late stage I'm proud of my Army heritage, proud of my father's contribution, proud of the mark the Army and my parents have left on my values and happy to talk about it - though when I do I quickly become emotional, a trait I inherited from my dad.

But growing up as an officers' kid in such a small, strangely behaved and attired sect does make you feel a bit of an oddity and an outsider - not one of the gang. Whenever my kids were embarrassed by the doings of their parents, I'd say, "Until your father turns up at your school wearing a uniform from the Crimean War, you don't have anything to complain about."

Leaving aside the "social work" of the Army that so many people know and admire, as a church it's just another Protestant denomination, formed when William Booth broke away from the Methodists in London in 1865.

The Army is very musical. I was taught to play a brass instrument at the late age of 13 and I played in successive small Army bands until not long before I became a journalist.

Although I've long been what the Army would call a backslider, all those tunes, songs and choruses have stayed part of me. I often listen to Army music as I sit writing at night and the words can move me almost to tears. On the census I still put myself down as Army.

Like my father, my mother left school at 12. She worked for a tailoress and for the rest of her life was an accomplished dressmaker, making all our uniforms, with their intricate braid and piping.

Her aunt was a Salvationist and it was at an Army meeting that my mother met young Lieutenant Gittins. She, too, travelled to the Army's training college at Petersham and in due course was commissioned as an officer.

My mother was highly intelligent but painfully shy, with no sense of direction. She left all the grocery shopping to my father (which suited him because he wanted to patronise the shopkeepers who made weekly contributions to the Army's "shop league"), and when she needed to shop for clothes, or more likely clothing material, he'd take her.

My father was a simple, trusting, hard-working, gentle man. He was the most saintly man I ever expect to meet simply because, unlike the rest of us, he never harboured an uncharitable thought about anyone.

And despite his limited schooling, my father never used bad grammar. My mother had long ago beaten it out of him.

When we were appointed back to the Newcastle area, my father's name would occasionally appear on a roster of ministers whose sermon the previous day would be reported in the Newcastle Herald's Monday morning "From the Pulpit" column. The minister was required to submit his sermon notes, which (presumably) the most junior cadet reporter would cut down for the column.

The first time my father submitted his sermon, what appeared in the Herald bore no resemblance to anything he had said, nor to anything any minister would have thought made sense. So my mother stepped in and, on future occasions, she would write out a sermon, giving one copy to the paper and another to my father.

He would preach an approximate version of it, but what appeared in the Herald would be virtually unchanged. That's how I know any skill of mine as a journalist comes from my mother.

Edited extract from Gittins by Ross Gittins (Allen & Unwin), out next week.