My mum, bless her heart, had really wanted a girl, and when I popped into the world, I was hardly welcome. Even the doctors had problems in getting me to depart the comfort of the womb. They used those damned forceps to help things along, a bit too helpful I can tell you, for after the event my navel looked like a small flagpole protruding from my tummy. The protuberance was to be a bane on my early years, for when I went bathing down at St.Kilda, on Port Phillip Bay, I was very self-conscious, and tried to hide my deformity as best I could in my knee-length togs.“Take care of your little brother,” said Mum, and sister Sue jumped into action. When my brother and elder sister were out swimming, showing off their new bathers to the world, Sue would stay back on the beach taking care to see that I didn’t run away. St. Kilda pier that was far from safe in those days. It was very easy to fall into deep water from one of those slippery boat ramps. Sue would also make sure that I didn’t get sunburnt, for it was the fashion to lie out for hours in the sun, getting a tan. I was a curly fair-haired little nipper, and too much sun meant lots of tears back home.
A big event was going to Luna Park. When I was about ten, Sue used to ask Mum, “Can I take BoBo to Luna Park?” and Mum would put her hand in her pocket and dole out a couple of shillings to cover costs. What Sue really meant was “Mum, can I go to Luna Park to pick-up a boy?” when ‘picking up’ meant finding someone to have fun with, someone who would buy you an ice-cream, and tell you how pretty you were. All very innocent. I got regular trips to Luna Park this way, and loved it.
Luna Park in those days was really a magic world. The Giggle Palace was great. I particularly liked struggling to get through all those vertical ropes that prevented you crossing the swinging bridge in the semi-dark; it was so scary, especially as things would pop out at you and make strange terrifying noises. Inside the lit-up section there were a lot of those wonderful distorting mirrors. One made me seem like the skinniest boy in the world with unbelievable distorted features; another made Sue look like the Queen of the Amazons, for it expanded her waistline by at least 500%!
As I grew up, I joined the Cubs and wore a lovely soft green cap with a peak, and then graduated to the Boy Scouts. It was great fun to visit the bush, go camping, and eat lots of bananas, as Lord Baden Powell recommended in the Boy Scout Handbook. In the Scout troop, I was a member of the Wombat patrol. It was tremendous fun. In the Scouts, you could get away from girls, be with your mates, and have a good time. Cook camp tucker, sing around the campfire. Then, at the scout camp there were those exciting but mischievous competitions such as getting together with a group of one’s mates, hiding behind some bushes, standing, trousers down, in a large circle, and seeing who could lay the longest turd. I should have won, but they said two separate pieces were not the same as one continuous length! Bob Loxy won as usual. Eleven full thick inches! Loxy won everything. He was good at tennis and football, and went sailing with his mates in a dinghy on the Bay. I hated Loxy!
I will never forget Ripponlea Primary School. It was on the top of a local hill. Sue and I just had to cross Hotham Street, and walk up the Avenue. Sue held my hand all the way. Very protective. Most kids love school, I know, but I hated it. The main problem was that as a youngster I couldn’t speak properly. My tongue simply would not obey my mind. The words that had me tricked were those that began with ‘th’, words like ‘this’ and ‘that’. When I was instructed by Miss Aberwerthy to stand up in the middle of the class and say “the cat sat on the mat” what came out of my mouth was “der cat sat on der mat”. More like German than decent English. “Go to the front, Basil, you stupid boy, and stand in the corner!” Miss Aberwerthy would say, and the whole class would giggle. Life was not easy.
Looking back, with all modesty, I can say that as a baby, with my golden locks and dimples, I was what you might call a perfect child. A perfect spoilt child. For example, when I was three and a half, Mum decided that we should all go back to England to Congleton, near Manchester, to see Granddad’s butcher shop, and visit our cousins and aunts. We booked a passage on the lovely three-funnelled P&O liner, the Orama, which made its way regularly to London via the Suez Canal. On the way over, I won the children’s section of the Fancy Dress competition! My sister Sherie dressed me up as The Lindberg Baby, complete with papier-mâché wings, and I won First Prize, a beautiful genuine EPNS solid brass serviette ring. I adore that serviette ring! It is still on the shelf near the computer. Made of genuine solid brass, with a coat-of-arms of the RMS Orama in enamel soldered to the side. I polish it religiously with Silvo every month.
As I grew older, I became crazy about chemistry and science. At home, when Mum wasn’t looking, I would dissolve a copper coin – a penny – in a glass beaker of nitric acid and watch as a fascinating velvety-brown gas ascended slowly to the kitchen ceiling. Everyone almost got gassed! I also experimented at school. I would secretly put some calcium carbide from my bike-lamp in the inkwell of the boy in front and the chlorine gas generated would fumigate the whole class! Later, I accidentally brought a small bottle of hydrochloric acid and iron sulphide to church choir practice. Although it was corked, inside it generated what is called ‘bad egg gas’, and during a hymn suddenly there was a loud “bang!”. Out popped the cork. Out streamed the gas. The church began to smell like a chook house. Mr. Bartholomew, our very gentle, loving choir master and organist, went into a mild fit. I was not the perfect choirboy.
Tugging me in another direction was a growing interest in the written word. It started when Mum gave me a birthday present of an imitation-leather-bound miniature copy of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. This book never left my hand. “Come to dinner, Basil” Mum would say. “Please close that book, and come and sit down at the dinner table!” But I was hypnotised by the story and the telling of it. Not only did I identify with poor little Oliver, holding out his plate courageously asking for more, but I felt Dickens’ language subtly stirring my soul. If only I could write like that!
Autobiography, when I was young.