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Friday, November 12, 2010

54. My Reading Life : Peter Fitzsimon's A Simpler Time

In his recently published memoir, A Simpler Time, the one-time Australian rugby player –turned journalist and writer, Peter Fitzsimons recounts stories of his early years. He grew up on Peats Ridge near Gosford in NSW, one of six children. A Simpler Time is a great read, a loving evocation of – as the title calls it – a simpler time. (The book is sub-titled: A memoir of love, laughter, loss and billy carts.)
Born in the 1950s, Fitzsimons – nicknamed Petee or Woozle by his siblings – was the youngest of six. The book evokes a time when you only wore shoes when you had to – and that was on very formal occasions, like when you went to church on Sundays. According to Fitzsimons, most of the kids growing up at Peats Ridge in the 50s went to school bare footed. Indeed, he remembers the indignation the local kids felt when a new headmaster insisted that all children must wear shoes to school. What had been a ‘sissy’ affectation – the wearing of shoes – became an iron-clad (perhaps leather-clad) rule!
His account took me back almost 60 years to the shame I felt as a 6 or 7 year old growing up in Coburg, with its bituminised streets and cobbled back lanes. Unlike Fitzsimons, I grew up an only child and a bit of a mummy’s boy. Reynard Street, where my parents lived from 1936 until the late 1980s, was a narrow and busy thoroughfare. It ran from the Post Office Hotel, on the corner of Sydney Road for about two or three miles, to the Moonee Ponds Creek – almost to Strathmore.
I was overprotected and over mothered. My parents kept me away from the gutters, thought to be a source of polio myelitis. There had been an epidemic of the disease among Melbourne children during the Great Depression. My parents also kept me from children who were rough.
Going barefoot was one of the ways ‘normal’ boys showed they were tough. I used to watch them with envy as they ran barefoot along the footpaths and in the parks. I was a tenderfoot. Other boys – the rough Coburg boys – ran barefoot, climbed trees, chucked yonnies, explored open drains, had spitting competitions. I was the timid little kid who wore shoes and who couldn’t climb – daren’t climb – trees.
For Peter Fitzsimons – for Woozle – childhood days were much like the old song described them:
Barefoot days when we were ‘just a kid’
Barefoot days , oh boy the things we did
We’d go down to a shady nook
With a bent pin for a hook
We’d fish all day, we’d fish all night
But those darned old fish refused to bite ...

Though tall for my age – I was pretty much the tallest or second tallest kid in my year level all through primary school – I was physically timid and socially inept. I played with my Dinky cars in the back yard at home, by myself. I was ‘highly strung’ – a characteristic I shared with Woozle Fitzsimons. We both feared the bogeyman who waited in the dark to pounce on little boys.
Fitzsimons relishes and celebrates the colloquial language of his parents and grandparents. I’d forgotten Mrs Kafoops – a woman well known to everyone around Coburg, as well as at Peats Ridge. But despite being well known, non one ever actually got to meet her.
Fitzsimons brings back to my mind those omnibus words : thingamyjig and whatyamaycallit. He didn’t mention dozziewhatsits - but I bet he knew what they were.
In the Fitzsimons household, as in Carozzi household, there were the same all-purpose phrases, with slight variations:
In Woozle’s house, someone would ask: Have you seen my thingamyjig?
And the answer would invariably come: Yes – it’s up in Annie’s room behind the clock.
Around our way, it was: Up in Lizzie’s room behind the clock.
And my all time favourite:
What’s that?
It’s a wigwam for a goose’s bridle.
[Or more correctly, a whimwham for a goose’s bridal.]
They’re phrases that have all but disappeared from the everyday speech of everyday Australians, and our language is all the poorer for it.

I loved reading ‘A Simpler Time’. It’s a heart warming evocation of childhood in the 40s and 50s – a nostalgic stroll along the winding paths of memory.
There is one passage in the book that spoke to me very directly, more than any other part. On page 72 Fitzsimons describes a chance meeting ...
I met a woman who was an orphaned only child of parents who had, themselves, been only children.
‘You mean,’ I asked her incredulously, ‘that you have no family at all?!?!?! No aunts, no uncles, no siblings, no cousins, no nothing?!’
‘Yes,’ she replied, bemused at my amazement, but I was really stunned. Until I met her IU seriously hadn’t even conceived the possibility. Fancy a life with no fixed reference points in the universe to steer by! For I always knew exactly who I was, still am and forever will be – a Fitzsimons of Peats Ridge, from the Wahroonga tribe of FitzSimonses on my father’ side and Grandpa and Pollie Booth on my mother’s side. Having a defined position, sitting on a strong limb of the family tree with deep roots in the one spot makes me feel secure, full stop. Not that I ever analysed it as a child – I must have just felt it....
...this woman ... had sort of drifted, shifted and rifted around from spot to spot in Australia, as the winds and her whims took her – and she never even had anyone to tell where she was going or what she was doing...
Familiarity with my family tree starts early and, piece by piece, as I grow I come to understand just here my myriad aunts and uncles fit on it, and which of my cousins belongs to whom ... This is no small undertaking ...

This observation reminded me of James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man. The young Stephen describes opening a school book:

He opened the geography to study the lesson; but he could not learn the names of places in America. Still they were all different places that had different names. They were all in different countries and the countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world was in the universe.
He turned to the flyleaf
of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.
Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

That was in his writing: and Fleming one night for a cod
had written on the opposite page:
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwelling place
And heaven my expectation.

There were three ‘only children’ on the Kipping side (my mum’s side) of the family: my cousins Lynette and Faye, and me. We were, each of us, the ‘apple of our parents’ eyes’. Lynette was a bit of a tomboy. She played in the streets with the Worcester boys , back in the late 40s when Pascoe Vale was just being settled, when Dorset Road – where Uncle Ivan and Aunty Iris lived – was an unmade street with an earthen gutter, and when there was a tip at the end of the street where you could catch tadpoles and find all manner of treasure.
Faye and I were shy and timid; we were much less social and much more solitary; our parents were more protective.
My oldest cousin, Thelma, who is now into her 70s, was one of three children.
Your parents always doted on you,’ she tells me. ‘They gave you everything.’ And that may have been true. But as Fitzsimons notes, they were simpler times. Teenagers hadn’t been invented; they weren’t a market to be exploited. Most kids left school and were out in the world of work by the time they were 15 years old, earning a wage, contributing to the family, establishing their financial independence.
It may be true that I had things that my cousins didn’t have. Over a number of years my Christmas and birthday presents were pieces for my Hornsby train set; each year I’d add some rails or some new carriages to that most valued possession. One year I received a second engine.
And when I was 9 my mother carried the huge metal box that contained my other great treasure – a No. 2 Meccano set, the second largest set you could buy. And when I was 11 Mum and dad bought me a banjo mandolin, and I had lessons at the Victorian Banjo Club. [I had wanted a guitar, but guitars were too dear. More than 20 years would pass before I bought myself a guitar and learned to play.]
Thelma also remembers how I would often stay in my room when they visited our place.
‘You were always studying,’ is her recollection.
My own recollection is that my childhood was a time of unremitting loneliness. I used to play in the backyard with my Dinky toys; I’d sit in the chook house and cuddle my pet chook, the one I called ‘Mumma’; I tended my collections – of fossils and of bottle tops.
I think I was a very shy child. I had few friends my own age, as I recall, until late primary school and early secondary school. At least none to play with around Reynard Street and the local neighbourhood.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s I wrote a story about the first story I ever wrote. I was 6 or 7 at the time, and I wrote it at a family Christmas party. In part it reads:

I wrote my first story when I was very young. I can see the scene vividly still, even though it was 60 years ago. I am sitting on the sofa at Aunty Vonny’s house. It is Christmas, I think. All of my cousins are there, and my aunts and uncles – my father’s side of the family. The adults are sitting around Aunty Vonny’s lounge room; my cousins are outside playing. I’m on the sofa, in the lounge room, the only child among the grown ups. I have a duplicate book, with white and yellow pages, and I am writing my story on the back side of the sheet. The duplicate book is one my father has brought home from work; he is a labourer with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.
I think it must be the Christmas of 1949. I’ve finished grade one. I’m six and a half.
Ronnie Fitzpatrick, who lived next door, was the closest thing I had to a surrogate brother; he was 6 or 7 years older than me. My cousins Frank and Lawrence Carozzi – who lived just around the corner in Loch Street – were 20 and 17 years older than me. So I had very little to do with them.
For the most part I spent my childhood in the company of my parents, or playing by myself. Thelma is right; they doted on me. I grew up believing that my mother had had three full term pregnancies, but my older brother and younger sister had both been still born, or died soon after birth. I was special because I was the sole survivor, and my ‘sole survivor’ status explained why Linda and Garrie were so protective of me. Linda had lost two children; the thought of losing her sole surviving child was too dreadful to contemplate.

There were family picnics, occasional trips to the beach, visits to Ballarat and to Hamilton to visit aunts and uncles and cousins on the Kipping side. But in my memory these were not all that common, and so all the mere memorable because of this.

Our lives were simple then. There was school all week. In winter I’d go to the football with my dad – he followed Coburg in the VFA – the Victorian Football Association. On Sundays we’d go for a Sunday drive – to Wildwood or Konagadeera or Bulla. Sometimes Dad would take me rabbitting with him; we’d drive up to the open paddocks near Barry’s Lane – now the built up suburb of Campbellfield. Or sometimes

During the long Christmas break we’d sometimes go on camping trips: to Bairnsdale and Buchan caves, or to Warrnambool, or to Adelaide. Or we’d visit Uncle Gordon and Aunty Phoebe in Ballarat, or Uncle Arthur and Aunty Doreen in Hamilton. Or we’d visit Mum and Dad’s friends, the Kynochs. Once we went camping, up near Murchison with the Craigheads.

The little boy who sat on the couch writing The Farmer and the Crow while his cousins played Tiggy and Hide and Seek out among the fruit trees in Aunty Vonne’s back yard, and who stayed in his room, studying’ when his Kipping cousins came to call, who was doted on and spoilt by his parents, who was kept from children who were rough, and who – in the eyes of his cousins – was a bit of a show-off, a bit of a sissy, a bit of a mummy’s boy – perhaps always felt himself to be an outsider.

I think I’ve always felt like an outsider, and I have always yearned for that easy sense of belonging that comes so easy to Peter Fitzsimons: ‘having a defined position, sitting on a strong limb of the family tree with deep roots.’

As he writes: ‘It’s not that I ever analysed that as a child – I must have just felt it.’
I, on the other hand, never really felt it.

I was not like the orphaned woman that Fitzsimons met. It’s not that I had ‘no family at all!?!? No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, so siblings, no nothing.’

But I had no siblings – and I longed and yearned and begged for a brother or sister. [I recall desperately pleading with my mother to have another child so that I could have a brother or sister.]

I had aunts and uncles and cousins – but I felt like an outsider, felt that I didn’t quite fit in, didn’t quite belong. At the time I thought this feeling of difference, this outsider status, was because I was an only child. I sensed a kind of resentment. It seemed that my status as an ‘only child’ was a stain, a cause for my cousins to reject me, or more accurately, simply not include me. I certainly felt different: I was bookish, solitary, shy, lonely, and had few ‘social skills’. I don’t think I quite knew how to play with other kids, or how to relate to them.

An event that stands out in my memory is an incident with my cousin Thelma. I was maybe 7, which means she was around 12 or 13. We were walking in Loch Street, just around the corner from my house – more than 60 years later I can still picture the scene. I was probably annoying her with my attention-seeking behaviour.

Do you know what you are?’ she said. ‘You’re a show off!’

In my recollection of the scene, I flushed with embarrassment and shame. I’d been caught out, I knew it; I was a show off. I think ‘showing off’ was my way of making contact, my way of seeking attention and recognition and acceptance among people who were largely indifferent to me. I took for granted the love and attention of my parents; in a strange way it didn’t really count; they had to love me (or so I thought).

In his book, My Mothers, Michael Blumenthal describes himself as ‘always up there on the diving board, never sitting contentedly on a deck chair beside the pool.’ It’s a strange mix of needing attention and needing to prove yourself.

In The Hero Within, a discussion of the role of Jungian archetypes in our lives, Carol Pearson talks about the orphan, the wounded child, the victim in each of us. The ‘orphan’- experience emerges from the inevitable ‘disappointments’ we experience; our parents can’t be there all the time; nor can they get it right all the time. Perhaps they’re preoccupied with their own lives, or with other children, or they misread the signs. And we feel let down, we feel unloved, cast out from the paradise of unconditional, unstinting love. We feel ‘orphaned’, isolated, unloved, needful.

The English psychologist John Bowlby wrote in the 1960s about the importance of attachment to healthy growth; our first twelve months are crucial in this process of bonding, of establishing attachment, of establishing what Erick Erikson called ‘basic trust’ in the world. (And that means the social world we inhabit.)

Studies of children raised in orphanages where a strict regime of neglect was the essential philosophy – where babies and young children spent hour after hour in their cot with only minimum contact with their carers – point to the serious long-term consequences of the failure to establish ‘basic trust’, the failure to bond or to attach.

Perhaps the sense of rootedness that Peter Fitzsimons writes about – the sense of solidity that comes from being loved and accepted in the family – gives us ‘fixed reference points in the universe to steer by.’ Basic trust is perhaps the knowledge that we have our place and that we are loved. It is a deep knowing that we are part of a tribe, that we have an accepted place in our tribe.

When that is not there, we always feel that we are outsiders; and we strive for acceptance, strive to be absorbed into the group. For Woozle Fitzsimons, this acceptance was never in doubt; he always ‘knew his place’. For Blumenthal – and perhaps for me and others like me – part of the life script becomes the ongoing attempts to become worthy of membership of the tribe, by showing off our cleverness or our strength or our special skills. For Woozle, his tribal belonging was taken for granted; for others, we feel that we have to prove ourselves, we have to prove our worthiness.

The European thinker Jean Gebser writes of the two conflicting currents within us. Our current sucks us towards the tribe. This ‘tribal instinct’ is strong in us. Maybe Groucho Marx was being cynical and fussy about membership of the in-group; I recall his quip: ‘I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.’ Or maybe it was an expression of a deep sense of worthlessness – rather like the line in the Methodist Holy Communion service: ‘We do not presume to come to this, Thy table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness...’ [In the Christian religion, no-one is worthy to join the ‘communion of saints’ except through God’s grace, and through Christ’s sacrifice.]

This yearning in us, to be a part of the tribe, is powerful. Tribes can be of many kinds: family, the extended family, the church, work groups. The extremes of ‘allegiance behaviour’ that we observe every winter – especially as the Grand Final approaches – speaks volumes for this ‘tribal imperative’. In his novel Lord of the Flies William Golding explores the power of tribalism. Golding places a group of 30 or so boys on an island; there are no adults. Over time, rationality is swamped by the emotional power of tribalism. The tribe’s rituals provide its members with a sense of oneness, a sense of belonging.

Tribes include – but they also exclude. Tribes like extended families, or the cricket phenomenon, The Barmy Army (composed of fanatical English supporters), or the Collingwood ‘faithful’ – all such tribes are inclusive of their members. Members join in the rituals – the songs, the stories, the symbols, the tribal myths – and feel a part of the great oneness.
[It was interesting to hear the emotional response of the Collingwood Football Club president following the Grand Final win in 2010. He spoke of the joy of the Collingwood faithful; he referred to allegations that Collingwood were ‘toothless’ – a reference to both the working class origins of the club and its supporter base and the long standing doubts about the clubs ability to ‘win the big one’.]

It is the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of tribes that arouses passion. Rationality is anaesthetised.

In many ways it is the intensity of the Collingwood tribe that provokes such an intense and passionate response: football supporters in Melbourne are either Collingwood supporters, or they hate Collingwood; there is almost no middle ground.

Rationality and decency and respect for others are often deadened by the overpowering passion of the tribal urge. This is the dark side of tribalism. It is not surprising to discover that one of AFL’s most ‘celebrated’ moments emerged out of tribal excess. In 1993, the aboriginal footballer Nicky Winmar was playing for St Kilda against Collingwood. Throughout the game Winmar was subject to constant, bitter racial abuse from members of the Collingwood crowd. At the end of the game, when St Kilda won, Winmar turned to the abusive crowd; he pulled his jumper up to show his upper body - and pointed to his skin: His gesture was unmistakable: he was telling the Collingwood crowd: ‘Yes – my skin is black. And I am PROUD OF IT!’

Dominant tribes, convinced of their own superiority, find it almost impossible to grasp the destructiveness – indeed, the indecency – of their stance. Fundamentalisms of all kinds are about asserting the superiority of one tribe over all others.

[There is a joke from my religious days, when I was heavily into the Methodist Church, that focuses around this notion. It goes like this:
A Methodist dies and goes to Heaven. St Peter meets him at the pearly gates and offers to show him around. They go into one large room and there are people singing and playing instruments and praising God.
‘These are the Salvation Army members,’ says St Peter.
They move on to another area of Heaven, where people are gathered beside a river. Every few moments they duck under the water, then stand up again.
‘These are the Baptists,’ says St Peter. ‘They’re really into full immersion.’

They go a little further and approach a very high wall.
‘Now you must be VERY quiet,’ says St Peter. The two climb up a ladder and peep over the wall into the other side. There hundreds of people are going about their business, praying and talking and reading the Bible.

When St Peter and the man are back on the ground, the fellow says:
‘Who were they?’
‘Oh,’ says St Peter. ‘They’re the Catholics.’
‘Why do we have to be so quiet?’
‘Well you see,’ says St Peter, ‘they think they’re the only ones up here!’]

It’s tempting to argue that John Howard’s steadfast refusal to say ‘Sorry’ to aboriginal people stemmed from his utter commitment to his own tribe; to say ‘sorry’ would have been – in his eyes – a betrayal.

But there is another strong current within us, drawing us to the polar opposite of tribalism. Maslow called it ‘individuation’ – the self. We strive to be ourselves – unique.

Individual, that’s what I want to be
Unique and special. The one and only me...

My identity does not begin and end with my tribal associations. Indeed, I want to assert my independence and separateness from the tribe. My tribe does not define me.

But the constant interplay between these two force has been a constant throughout my life - something I will explore further, in a later blog.

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