The son of Salvation Army officers, he lived in a musical household. His father, he claimed, could play any musical instrument and very well. James, as he was known, took to music when aged six and never abandoned it, despite the several interruptions caused by his father's postings to Perth, Adelaide, Broken Hill, Ballarat and back to Melbourne. Music was his whole life.
Like his father, James Penberthy mastered instruments quickly. As a high-school student in Melbourne he began to compose. Later, as a teacher at Mentone Grammar and Trinity College, he developed a talent he had to put aside for naval service during the war. On his return, he began formal studies at the Melbourne Conservatorium under the direction of Sir Bernard Heinze. Fellow students included Peter Sculthorpe, Rex Hobcroft, Keith Humble and Wilfred Lehmann. He supported himself by conducting for the National Ballet and National Opera companies, both founded in Melbourne at that time.
In 1951, on a Commonwealth fellowship, he went to Britain, France and Italy, studying under outstanding musicians such as Sir John Barbirolli and Nadia Boulanger and talking to dancers such as David Lichine and Yurek Shabelevsky. Soon after returning to Australia, he moved to Perth where, for twenty-two years, he was a leading light in the musical scene. He became music critic for The Sunday Times, continued composing and was a founder of the West Australian Opera Company. He wrote many operas, ballets and concertos as well as songs and chamber music. His output over some forty years after the war was large and varied. Much of it was performed and recorded. He was one of those Australians who threw everything they had into trying to provide their country with a homegrown music, often against serious personal and artistic odds. At a time when both audiences and officials treated local compositions with at best indifference and sometimes with contempt, he and others struggled on. Eventually many succeeded. Although audiences may still prefer the European classics, at least they are willing to give Australian compositions a fair hearing.
This is an engaging autobiography. Penberthy tells his story with an artless simplicity. The picture he builds of his early family life is graphic and compelling. The story rolls on relentlessly. His wartime experience as a naval officer, serving in the Pacific theatre, danger often being present, is sometimes alarming, sometimes comic. At war's end he had the responsibility of sailing, in a converted trawler with only a handful of men under his command, from island to island in the then Dutch East Indies to accept the surrender of large Japanese forces. His tales of men he met and their fates are gripping, often sad.
As a post-war conductor and composer, he knew almost everyone in the Australian musical scene. Many are mentioned in these memoirs. His contribution to West Australian opera and ballet was enormous. Late in his career he worked, first, at the Sydney Conservatorium and, finally, at Lismore, in northern New South Wales, where he led moves to found a small conservatorium. On retiring in the late 1970s, he moved to Yamba near Ballina, where he went on composing. He died in the Maclean District Hospital, NSW, on 30 March 1999.
Patrick Thomas, in The Australian, 16th Apr 1999 wrote:
“-Jim at his most charming was eloquent, gracious and pursuasive.
In the lecture theatre, his students admired his broad and intense love of nature
and of all things beautiful. His personal culture was clearly of the broadest of dimensions.
But James was no dilletante. He had been well trained in new overseas standards.
Although some may have found his music not to their taste – by no means uncommon
with contemporary music—he was undoubtedly one of Australia’s most creative artists, with a strong, truly distinctive streak.”
On 9th1999, Larry Sitsky wrote , in The Sydney Morning Herald:
“His sense of mateship was highly developed band one you became his mate by demonstrated credential and behaviour (willingness to take on “the Good Fight”), there was nothing he would not do for you”
Penberthy began to write his story in Perth in the early 1980s but put it aside until resuming in 1991. The prologue and first fourteen chapters which follow are derived from a draft manuscript, now in the possession of his son, David. To these have been added two others, derived from an interview which Penberthy gave to Laine Langridge in Lismore in 1988 as part of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Project of the National Library, Canberra. They have been augmented by extracts from another, much shorter, draft memoir found among his papers. Such extracts are indicated by square brackets, as are a few editorial interpolations of information from other persons and historical or technical facts. All parts have been edited and, in a few places, editorial interpolations are indicated, also by square brackets.
He had already given a brief interview in 1966 to Hazel de Berg, who was also collecting oral history for the National Library. In that early interview he revealed some of his aspirations as a composer. He was more interested in life and people than in music and art, he said. If he could not relate himself to other people and they could not see the sort of man he was, there would be no point in writing music. He believed that life was far more important than music or anything else. And yet he felt compelled to compose.
“If I could become a perfect composer, I believe I would
never write any music at all. I would sit and become a
perfect human being, and a perfect human being wouldn't
require to express himself in any other way except [in]
peaceful relationship with other people. This sort of thing.
I think theoretically; practically, I still write music
because I get a pain inside somewhere if I don't. I accuse
myself then in various ways of being lazy or unproductive.
I can't justify musical composition intellectually but I
can justify it physically in that it relieves me of some
sort of pain. I can't sit quiet. I've got to make a noise.
I'm truly an expressive person, I must talk my head off or
Penberthy's story overflows with pictures of his life, his times and his friends. He is not, however, forthcoming in some personal details. He married Dorothy (Judy) Kerin on her twentieth birthday in August 1940 and a year later they had a son, David James. He and she were divorced in September 1947, when he had already begun an affair with Barbara Newman, whom he then married. They had a son, Richard. After this relationship failed, he lived with and eventually married Kira Bousloff, one of Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes stars, who had remained in Australia during the war, by whom he had a daughter, Tamara. This marriage too came to an end. He left Perth in 1974 with Claire Bramley whom he married soon after arriving in Sydney. They had no children. Finally, in retirement, he lived with Isabel Atcheson, who had been on his staff at Lismore. She predeceased him in 1998. Kira Bousloff died in Perth in September 2001.
James Penberthy had an active, a driven life. He threw himself into music, both as a conductor and a composer. He never gave up. Whatever the final judgement might be upon his contribution to Australian music, at least it must be said that he tried. He never lost faith and he never despaired. As shown in the last words of his personal account, he was grateful for having lived, remarking that for him it had been a wonderful life. There was nothing like creation, he said, "nothing like imitating nature, and the birds and the world. If there is a God, or if there's a life somewhere else, or creation happens some other way than in the Bible, or whatever happens, it's all so wonderful one needn't try to understand it."
That strip of golden Western Australian sand, City Beach to Trigg Island, is a lotus land where young, middle-aged and old romantics run their lazy lives away. It was there, a few kilometres west of Perth that I spent twenty-seven years of the happiest living available to humans. Victoria, my birthplace, the main arena for my learning, my music, sport and that superior being, woman, had embraced the previous twenty-odd years of my life, but I had sneezed my way through the oppressive heat and cold of Melbourne long enough. It was time to throw away the wet handkerchief and head westward.
But what was my real motive for going west? In a word, fear. I had returned from a war, faced the armed might of the Japanese Imperial Forces at sea, in the air and on land, so what could possibly scare the wits out of me in staid old Melbourne Town? A criminal - a five-foot-six little crook from Melbourne's most famous bayside beach suburb, that’s who. One night I was strolling down the road, enjoying the evening air in cool St Kilda with the imperious ex-Russian ballet star, Kira Abricossova, when just in front of us a little chap dressed in a business suit stole an orange from the display at the front of a fruit shop. Abricossova scolded: "Naughty boy!" He peeled some skin off the orange and threw it in her face. Ever gallant, I also remonstrated: "I say, old chap!" He trumped my ace and spat in Kira's face. I lost my temper. "Now, steady on!" I cried. In return he gave me one for luck behind the ear. I went into action in my best commando fashion and was soon in the process of battering his head against a motorcar parked at the kerb.
Suddenly he darted across the footpath into the green grocer's shop, grabbed a pumpkin knife from the owner and proceeded to cut the buttons off my ex-naval greatcoat. This was too much. Ever alert, I noticed a phonebox nearby. I stepped in, barricaded myself inside and telephoned "Division 4". Minutes later half a dozen of the biggest plainclothes cops in Melbourne arrived and picked him up, took a revolver from his pocket and belted him around the circle. They took him to "Division 4" where the sixteen‑stone sergeant greeted him like a long-lost friend and smashed him insensible to the concrete floor with the weighty Melbourne street directory. As he was dragged off, after coming to, he was yelling at the cops: "I'11 kill your wives and children, you bastards!" The chief policeman told me that this nice little bloke, who had forty-three counts of assault to his name, was one of Australia's three most notorious crooks and was a known but uncharged triple murderer. "Our problem," said the officer, "is that no one will give evidence against him."
"I will," I foolishly promised. I went to court, the vice squad sat with me in the front stalls. The magistrate scolded me for hitting the poor little fellow and fined him ten pounds.
"You see what I mean?" remarked the head of the vice squad.
For the next few weeks my little sparring partner was on every street corner, pointing me out to his mates. This continual harassment eventually got to me so I left for Perth by ship. However, fear was not the only reason for my running. The other part of the story appears later in this book. It is rather strange, though, that, twenty-seven years later I also left Perth in a hurry, running as though twenty-seven devils were chasing me. But on this latter occasion, I paused long enough to get the last word in.
The night before I left the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, including among its players a rock band, performed my especially constructed farewell - a trombone concerto which said quite plainly: "This man is driven out of here by fear or by some equally disturbing emotion." One of the leading critics said that the concerto reminded him of Beethoven's Eroica, but I was no hero. The leading cellist, who was playing on a Guanarius cello, said that the rock band's vibrations were in danger of shattering the belly of his priceless instrument.
Some time later, after I ran from Perth, someone wrote and told me that, had I stayed, I would have been knighted for my services to music in Western Australia. Nothing in the world would make me believe that I was either that important or that pretentious. Life was too funny, life too precious to waste it on thoughts of undeserved baubles. And anyway, hadn't my father told me: "You are too big for your boots, Jimmy."
The day before I left W.A. I received the news that I had earned the degree of Doctor of Music from the Melbourne University. I knew that some doctors of philosophy could get their awards by saving soap coupons or going to America or writing long essays on the song habits of Colombo ants. But there were only three Doctors of Music from Australia's finest university at that time.
I was leaving Perth after a glorious twenty-seven years of running on the beach, mastering the technique of putting musical notes on paper and making loving friends - friends who had given me so much joy and unselfish assistance. But the party was over - joy had been vanquished by terror. How does one escape fears the second, third or tenth time? Not by standing still. In my coward's book, the answer is by running - shuttling between the east and west of an entire continent.
The question is: Does one ever escape fear by running? What happened to me is the subject of the following chapters. There is happiness in running, of course, that relief from sitting crouched in front of a musical keyboard, or manuscript paper, or conducting ballet in dark theatres. Sometimes the running seemed more important than the arts. No one becomes younger as the years roll by, by concentrating solely on arts, music, business or even education. Relaxation, meditation, exercise and diet may help but living for "now", without beer, potato chips, cigarettes or fear, may help even more. Eventually I learned to put most of my fears behind me, only reserving enough terror in my life to stay out of trouble. For me, as any patient reader will find out, this has been difficult.
In 1952 I was back in Perth, where I had lived as a child, running on the beach daily with sincerity. I was in good company. Herb Elliot was running up the same steep sand hill. If I saw him, I always raised a finger in greeting. He would raise a finger in reply. I would have spoken but I was always too much out of breath.
I lived first in South City Beach with sixteen cats, two children, an ex-Russian ballerina and a dog called Saafi - named after the heroine of a light opera I was conducting. Saafi got distemper and was buried. We moved further south into a small "packing case" called The Butter Box, which my Russian and Polish friends tried to demolish. The cats multiplied and became snake-hunters. Our neighbours were all wonderful.
The next move was to Scarborough, to a war-service house, which became a zoo. I bought land at the right time, almost for nothing - and sold it. On some of it there is now million-dollar development - skyscrapers jutting towards the blue sky, all on my golden sands, twenty yards from the main beach at Scarborough.
We moved again, first disposing of a kangaroo and an emu, enjoying more wonderful life above the Indian Ocean, spread out before us like a private pond. The next-door neighbour became our friend. After a year he built a second story on his house and wiped out the view and became my enemy. So I moved and built a three-storey edifice, two kilometres north on a headland at Trigg's Island. I designed it myself and it cost only $24 000. From my studio, on the top floor, I could see the beach and the ocean from Fremantle to Yanchep. It was all new and a perfect composition space.
I was a "spiritual" millionaire, writing ocean-inspired music. I didn't own a motor car. I ran or rode a bike. What a strange thing. I had more happiness, more leisure, more work, more money - not much, but enough - and more time for everything that mattered. Cars, aeroplanes and computers have played their part in harming society - they might even destroy the world. Nevertheless I had all that time, virtually untroubled by the internal-combustion engine and petrol exhaust. Travelling by train, ship or foot was romantic and imposed no real problems with time. Time on a ship was time enjoyed. Time on a plane is time out of joint.
My life in Perth was lived one way or another by, near or in water, usually salt or hot. Inspired by Western beaches, I was able to write a considerable amount of salt-water music. On a return trip to Perth in 1980 I put a deposit on a house on the beach, north of Scarborough. It had a superb view and in the middle of the sitting room was a large spa-bath. I almost choked with excitement and rushed to the agent. The next day I cancelled the deposit and returned yet again to the East, where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra played my Sydney Symphony. Nobody came to hear it except one of my students, his aunt and a nun. The orchestra, which in earlier years had treated me with kindness, made a mess of it. I had written a mouth-organ solo into the second movement to play a folk tune - The Girl I Left Behind Me. The young woman engaged to play the mouth organ couldn't play the instrument. So back to Perth I fled, where the W.A. Symphony Orchestra gave a marvellous performance. There were at least fifty in the audience.
Again I stayed in the West and settled on a wonderful island in the South-west but, somehow, shuttling back and forth had become a habit. On my next return to the Eastern side, I asked the Australian Broadcasting Commission to play my Sydney Symphony for the 1988 celebrations of that city. The keeper of the A.B.C.'s composer files must have burned mine for I have not received an answer to my letter.
It was on one of my extended retreats from the Eastern States, back to the real Australia in the West, that I began to write about my life. That was in the early eighties. By the time I got up to about Chapter Eight, I thought: "This unhappy man has had a very happy life - God has been very good to this Godless man." So I filed the manuscript under "G" and forgot about it for nearly ten years. Suddenly a co-author appeared with the cybernetic instruments and the inspirational discipline to make the rest of my story possible.
As I have looked forward and backward over my life to this moment, I have revealed some of my secrets, my irregular successes and failures. I have been embarrassed, humiliated, inspired and torpedoed. Still I continue to bounce between East and West and treat the rest of the country as though it doesn't exist. One thing is certain, however. Whatever lies between the two extremities of our land, the pieces of it I know convince me that there is no place like Australia and it's too late for me to worry too much that we stole it.
My father's father was Cap'n “Jack” Penberthy, who shipped to the Moonta mines on Spencer's Gulf, South Australia, some time in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Cornish copper mines had been worked out and, as a result, Cornish miners migrated to Australia and formed almost the entire population of Moonta, Kadina and Wallaroo. Every man was a Cousin Jack and they were more Cornish than those who had stayed in Cornwall. The manager of every pit was a Cap'n and Cap'n Penberthy's sons worked in the mines with him. At the age of fourteen my father pushed a barrow of rocks, five days a week, eight hours a day, his skinny legs buckling under the load.
All this hard work was alleviated by an abundance of music. The Cornish were very artistic. My grandfather played the violin, Uncle Charlie the tuba, Uncle Harry the trumpet and Aunt Lydia the organ. These were the children of Cap'n Penberthy and his second wife, Mary. When his first wife died, the mining captain married the maidservant. Mary was my grandmother.
I have every reason to believe that Grandma was part Aboriginal, so perhaps I have some real Australian blood in my veins. Grandma had skinny legs and a far-away look in her eyes. She was dark and at the age of 83, when she had lost her memory, she'd go walkabout for twenty-six miles almost every day and always found her way home. The children of the first marriage became wealthy, those of the second remained poverty-stricken. The genes we inherited from our grandmother were possibly the better.
My father was Albert Sidney Penberthy, the favourite of his mother. He was darkly handsome all his life. When young, he looked a bit like Laurence Olivier. I thought he was extraordinarily good and kind as well. His harmonious marriage to my mother may have accounted for some of his good nature. It was strange that a man so handsome and attractive should be gifted in many other ways as well. If Leonardo da Vinci was a universal genius, so was Albert Sidney Penberthy. He succeeded brilliantly at everything he attempted.
His best talents were in music and preaching. One of his relatives was the English actor, Henry Irving. I doubt that Irving was more talented or better looking. My father had every worthwhile attribute and yet he died poor and comparatively unknown, except in the Salvation Army - and they soon forgot him. They wrote no books about him.
A band march, which he composed, is still in their music books; his many songs are never sung. He was the most talented musician I have ever met but he was self-trained. He was an electrician, an inventor and a builder, a skilled gardener, nurseryman and orchardist. Every time he preached, the biggest Salvation Army halls were packed and at the climax of his sermons, many women and some of the men were known to weep.
My father played the clarinet, the saxophone, piano, organ, strings, brass and all sorts of wind instruments. He spent much of his small pay on musical instruments and the house was full of them. It is not surprising that my sisters and brother were influenced. Before he left Moonta he could play the clarinet louder and faster than anyone else in South Australia, according to Uncle Charlie. At the prime of his life, he was recognised as the world's best exponent of the big English concertina. He met Alexander Prince, the king of concertina players. They played for each other. "You are the best in the world," Prince said.
He could make one weep with either his concertina‑playing or his preaching. Sometimes he would put his two outstanding skills together - at a Sunday night Salvation Army meeting - right at the spot where sinners are invited to come to the "Mercy Seat". He talked about the "Rich Young Ruler" who came to Jesus and knelt before him. He would run forward, pretending to be the young ruler, drop to his knees and implore: "What must I do to be saved?" Then he would stand up and take the place of Jesus, look down with great love, turn to the congregation and say: "And Jesus loved the young man for he was beautiful" - pause and go on: "Give all thou hast to the poor and follow me". Eloquent silence. Then Jesus - I mean my father - would look down sadly, pause again and say: "And the young man walked away. His name is never mentioned in history again." Next, longest pause of all, one could feel the choking sobs, Dad would turn to the Congregation: "My friends, will you follow Jesus, or will you turn your back and walk away?" Finally he would grab his huge English concertina, let organ-like emotive sonorities echo through the hall and lead the congregation in one or other of the Salvation Army's most moving choruses.
At the Army's Adelaide congress in 1925 six-hundred people used to crowd in to hear him preach every Sunday night. Strangely enough, my mother could produce the same effect. She too was a fine preacher but did not have one note of music. My father once said: "Mother dear, you must have much music in you, because none of it has ever come out."
Why did such a brilliant man join the Salvation Army? The short answer is that it gave him what he wanted - music, colourful dramatic opportunities, the chance of professional goodness and service to others in safety. Most of all, he wanted to escape from the Moonta mines and, as a result, embarked on a quest for safe music. He summed up that subject very succinctly. "Jimmy," he told me, "music is a beautiful art but a terrible profession." I didn't listen.
He was afraid of the questionable associations of music. He avoided every form of art which was not bound up in the safe arms of religion and goodness - particularly a religion which allowed the ultimate in drama and was confined in the strictest bonds of purity, goodness and service. By taking this option, he was grossly exploited; and escaped most earthly rewards. The Salvation Army took all his talent for granted and he gave all he had.
It was only at the end of his service that he realised the Salvation Army knows very well all the structures of a highly successful commercial enterprise.
Exactly how did Albert Sidney Penberthy, Moonta town bandsman and son of a good Wesleyan Cornish family, join the "Salvoes"? My father, for all his virtues and talents, though seemingly courageous, was desperately afraid. He knew fear when he was living and when he was dying. He was not saved by the Salvation Army but by the matchless love of his wife - my mother. How did he join the Army? How did he join the Moonta Mines Corps at fourteen and rise to the rank of brigadier and command a whole State of Australia - a Salvation Army bishop, no less. The answer is: "He met the devil."
One hot Sunday evening in 1894, he went for a run up the dusty main street of Moonta. The sound of the Army band met his ears and, through the dust, came the marching bandsmen, followed by uniformed lassies beating timbrels. Albert followed them into the brown wooden hall. It was all colourful. He sat on a back seat. It turned out to be more colourful than he bargained for. No sooner had the meeting commenced than the Captain's lieutenant burst into view from behind a blood and fire curtain above the Mercy Seat, dressed in red tights and bore the horns of the devil on his head. The "devil" leapt from the platform and ran straight up the aisle towards young Albert, who ran for his life through the front door with the devil in hot pursuit - or so he imagined.
When he got home, he told his mother, who said: "Albert, next week we'll both go and see about all this nonsense!" And so they did. Within a few weeks her tall skinny frame was dressed in the long-skirted uniform of a Soldier and her strong grim face was wreathed in an enormous Salvation Army bonnet. A few years later her son was in the Officers' Training College near the real fire brigade at Eastern Hill, Melbourne.
Because of his talents, he was chosen later to lead the music for the Biorama Group which toured with the world's first movie, Soldiers of the Cross, and while travelling he happened to be in Kempsey, New South Wales, one day, having a cup of tea served to him by Florence Sarah Anlezark. In due course Florence Sarah became Albert's wife and my mother. While Miss Anlezark was serving the Salvationists their tea and making sandwiches, she accidentally sliced a sliver of skin from her thumb. "I'd like that," said Albert. He took it home sealed in a piece of see-through paper. Attached to it was a notice: "A piece of Florence Anlezark - more to follow later." That piece of skin has been preserved for ninety years. My sister, Florence, has it among her souvenirs. According to the rules Florence Sarah had to become a Salvation Army officer in order to marry Albert. Of course she did and they were more in love and happier together than any other two people.
What sort of name is Anlezark? There is more in it than meets the eye. There are two stories, both impressive. It is a queer name and, according to the preferable version, dates back to William the Conqueror and into Normandy before 1066. My Aunt Gemima (known as Mime), who attempted to provide us with a family tree, found that a follower of William was given a piece of land near Liverpool. The man's name was Anlezark and there is a town there of that name. The mystery deepens. Nearly a thousand years later, George Anlezark was selected to "go home" with the Wallabies rugby union team. The Anlezark family appointed George to represent it and to rescue the Anlezark millions. Apparently George never came back. Who knows what happened?
According to Aunt Mime's search in the maze of archives and family trees, the Anlezarks came to Sydney in 1803 in the person of Sir Thomas - one of Governor Macquarie's aides. In the other story, the first Anlezark in Australia was a convict, whose name was not really Anlezark at all. What we do know is that Jim Anlezark, my maternal grandfather, sired a bevy of interesting daughters and one boy, Wesley. It is easy to see how I became James and my brother, the painter, became Wesley Booth. The Anlezark family was completely poverty stricken. I doubt that any of my uncles or aunts ever earned more than five pounds a week - my father certainly did not.
My mother now enters the story. It is extraordinary that anyone could be so blessed, as they say in the Army, to have such wonderful parents. There were disadvantages, of course. Sometimes parents were bigger and better than was comfortable. Nothing grows under a banyan tree, even when it a well-intentioned little tree. Moreover, the God of the Salvation Army may be a loving God but the one I met was also stern, narrow-minded and sometimes stultifying. The Salvation Army's motto was: "Go for sinners and go for the worst," and so my father didn't mind the constant evidence of wickedness and terror which came to our house in the form of hopeless drunkards, smashed-up children and worse, but my little sins could bring down the wrath of a vengeful God, or father or both.
Albert and Florence had five children. The first was named Bendigo and he weighed fifteen pounds when he was born. He died ten minutes later. Ben wasted little time in the saga of the Penberthys. He does, however, illustrate a quaint custom of the time. They fed mothers on peanuts and rice in those days - to make big babies. My mother's eldest sister, Gert, nursed dead Ben all night and they gave him a Salvation burial next day. Vale, Ben. My parents must have yearned greatly for babies for, within a year, I was born in Prahran, Melbourne, at fourteen pounds. I often wonder whether, from their point of view, this was an error. I was born with constipation and developed pneumonia soon afterward. The nurse appointed to deliver and nurture me fed me milk-arrowroot biscuits ten minutes after I was born. Obviously I survived but have suffered from constipation for fifty years. Other members of the clan enjoyed asthma, hay fever, T.B., lung cancer and even more exiting diseases. My parents believed, along with the health cranks of their generation, that wheat and cow's milk were the health foods of the nation. Those of us, who gave up milk and wheat in time, eventually got rid of most of the Australian health curses and went on to adulthood and longer in surprisingly good shape.
The family was increased regularly until there were four children My sister Florence was born when Captain and Mrs Penberthy were transferred to the Hawthorn Corps in Melbourne. From here on I can remember clearly. I was perhaps three years old and could distinctly recall a black spot on the bell of a tuba which stood near the front door; and how Salvation Army soldiers, particularly fat lassies, rolled sideways as they walked down the passage when they came for lunch or for a meeting. But, most of all, I can remember my first romance. I enjoyed playing mothers and fathers in the front gutter when the little girl Butcher, from next door, came out to play. It was just about here that I developed those good and evil tendencies that persisted. Characteristics don't change, they only intensify.
The Salvation Army is, or used to be, an organisation better for those who join it than for those born into it. There was always the terrifying example of super-good parents with bad children flung into all the wicked ways of the world six days a week and fronting up to six holiness and blood and fire meetings on Sundays. Here is a list of the things that we, as children were not permitted to do - the adults were forbidden the same things. Salvationists and their children had to keep all Ten Commandments of course, plus no smoking, no drinking, no plays, no cinema, no spending money and no sport on Sundays. The biggest sin of all, however, was "girls". There's a paradox somewhere in this. Salvation Army boys were not permitted to go out with girls, be alone with girls, nor even carry girls' cases home from school. Salvation Army girls, on the other hand, were permitted boyfriends. I have no idea how this was achieved. Perhaps the Lord kept a stable of good boys especially suitable for Salvation Army girls.
I had no trouble with the ban on smoking, drinking or sport on Sunday or going to shops on the Sabbath - but girls! They filled my thoughts from the age of three and now, at over seventy, they still do! I anticipate at least ten more years of tortured delights in which I am still vastly guilty of this terrible evil - woman. Inevitably I am drawn like Ulysses to the Sirens, knowing that the bonds which tie me to the mast can never save me from Charybis, so to speak. My mother, of course, was once a girl, even though a Salvationist, and she was an absolutely marvellous person - to the point of sacrificing herself for the good of her husband, children and the social dregs and derelicts of the likes where we lived. She loved us and we loved her but the fear of the devil was ever near.
As the eldest, I carried the hopes of my mother. She wanted me to be as good as her "saintly" father, Jim, so I was called Jim. She wanted me to be as wonderful as her husband, Albert, so she called me Albert. I lived in fear of both my mother and my father. I knew that they were saints and I was a sinner. "If you're not good, I'll pray you dead, Jimmy," she once told me. "I'd rather you were dead than bad."
I was brave enough to take my chances. I fell in love for the second time with a three‑year-old girl next door to the Salvation Army hall in Broken Hill. One Saturday afternoon, while this tot and I'd been playing red-hot mothers and fathers in the washhouse, my mother called me in for a bath. This was a tin tub in the kitchen. The physical evidence of my four-year old masculinity was embarrassingly evident. "Jim," she accused sternly, "you've been playing with yourself!" I had not. It was an unjust accusation. All my life, then and thereafter, I had no need to, but I'd been playing with the girl next door. Guilt set in and never left me.
My mother could get a look in her eyes, comparable with the look the Army's God might give on Judgement Day. "Jim," she repeated with that same look in her eyes one Saturday afternoon at five o'clock, in my father's headquarters "house" in Melbourne - I was eighteen. "Jim, have you been down to the beach with Jean Saunders?" Jean was the daughter of a high-ranking officer and very lovely. I had no trouble with the question - only the answer. "No, Mum," I replied fearlessly and moved away. I stopped. Here it was, the look of doom. I had been to the beach with Jean Saunders; she was wonderful but I'd never even touched her with my hand or been within six inches of a kiss. I was crushed. Then and again and again. I was always guilty. I was eighteen. I am still guilty. My mother is in heaven or wherever good Salvationists go and I still fear her and those who represent her - all women. And I still love them. I am not sure whether they have been my salvation or my damnation.
I must admit, however, that my father's influence was more devastating. To him girls were a more deadly brand of sin than tobacco and in the Army that was something. I was blasted every time he caught me with a girl. He blew hell out of me even for carrying quite a plain girl's case home from school. What tortured him? He had only one wife and they were obviously ecstatic about each other. There I was, frantically searching high and low for something similar for myself and he was gospel-hot for seeing that I didn't get it. I thought I had cleverly manoeuvred a satisfactory solution when I fell, hook, line and sinker, for the daughter of the divisional commander of Western Victoria.
I walked her to my front veranda after a prayer meeting one
Sunday night and we talked earnestly of the spiritual things - of God, goodness, salvation. Suddenly up flew the front window and my father poked his head out. "Jim, I hope you are not talking about wicked things." I was hurt. Marjorie was mortified. (She later married a rich Salvationist and died in an air crash.)
From the age of six I was sure my father was a great and good man but I was mortally afraid of him. After I was six, I believe he carried with him forever the idea that I was not capable of any sort of goodness. It still horrifies me. It happened in Perth when I was six. We lived in the city - a narrow street. The traffic was horse-drawn - men walked in front of steam rollers, waving red flags to prevent horses from bolting. Horses were then the main road danger - cars had not reached Perth in numbers. Dad was on the front veranda; I was on the other side of the street, holding my sister, Florence, by the hand. A horse and cart hurtled up the road towards us.
"Stay there, Jim!" he shouted.
I disobeyed. We ran across, almost under the horse's neck. My father stood, white faced, stiff with anger.
"No!" Jim wouldn't.
I was dragged in. He stripped the rubber tyre from the wheel of the baby's pram and belted me across the back until I could not stand. My mother came home. My back had huge bleeding welts across it. Mum's eyes blazed.
"Don't you ever touch that child again!" she said in her stern-as-Judgement Day tone.
I felt uncomfortable with my father ever after and he with me. And yet I knew he was a truly good and great man. By the age of eighteen I'd left whatever house they then lived in and never went back except for visits. In a good Salvation house the eldest must be born and stay a paragon of virtue in order to survive [as a good soldier]. Generally the eldest sons of Salvation Army officers leave. The musical training is excellent but the rest, in my days, was restrictive to the point of destruction. Goodness and love cannot be preserved by force or precepts.
I paved the way for my brother and sisters. They survived relatively unscathed by guilt. At least Florence and Wesley did. They remained near our parents until both mother and father died. [My younger sister, Mary, married an Anglican choirmaster and organist but died young, officially of lung cancer but it could have been from an excess of Salvationism. Marriage is no sure refuge from the bonnet, the timbrel and the blood and fire of Salvationism.] I believe in marriage - one man, one woman. It is an ideal to which I have frequently aspired. [Officially I have failed four times in marriage, unofficially many times more.] Every women I have ever loved has been a wonderful thing, deserving the most kindness, love and devotion. I have received from each of them just that. Every woman has been my mother - each one the equal or even better.
When we got to Broken Hill a big strike was on, 1919 or 1920. There was universal poverty and industrial trouble. There was little food and what we had our mother gave away to the needy. We lived in Wolfram St, opposite a huge mine. We lived on bread and dripping. Here our brother, Wesley, was born. He was born sick and skinny and stayed that way until we'd shaken off the red Broken Hill dust and moved to Perth. My sister, Florence, a toddler, was also sick and stayed that way for years. She cried incessantly and, instead of a vase of flowers on the table, we had Florence as the centre piece, yelling her head off. It was dry and hot and the dust rolled in, turning day into night. When that happened, the town stopped and the powdery red dust settled over all.
After the tribulations of Broken Hill, Adjutants Albert and Florence Penberthy were probably glad to get an appointment as Corps Officers, Perth Fortress, Western Australia. In my mother's family it is said that the chooks all lay on their backs waiting for their legs to be tied every time a removalist's van passed by. Each time we packed, and that was about every two years, my father would get out all the big wooden packing cases and within a week everything would disappear, nailed down and whisked off to railway or ship. We would see nothing of our treasures until we unpacked in the new place, months later. My father's possessions were six-hundred books, three flutes, four clarinets of all sizes, a saxophone and a Bullhorn organ, which we still have. There were also several of the world's biggest and best concertinas. Through the years he added violins, mandolins, ocarinas, a banjo, a harp, a zither, trumpets, cornets, a tuba and other odds and ends. Most are still about in one or other of our families.
The journey across the Nullarbor Plain was a wonderful experience. The trans-continental railway had just been built and we were among the first to use it. It was hot and dusty and, on this trip, the train carried hoards of Salvation Army officers and their children from East to West and it was fun - almost. The first adventure was the stop at Port Augusta - but here a diversion. My father travelled extensively, so he knew practically every official on every railway train and line in Australia. Before I was born he'd been Corps Officer in Lismore, N.S.W., 1901 and again in 1907; Stanthorpe and Innisfail in Queensland; Uralla and Glen Innes back in N.S.W.; as well as Launceston, Tasmania; and Bendigo, Victoria. My parents were married in Bendigo. The female timbrelists and Corps Cadets had lost him forever. I think his best and most valued friends were railway officials. He always got the best seats on the train and V.I.P. treatment. He knew where the best railway pies in the country were to be found.
We had arrived at Port Augusta and stayed with the stationmaster for a whole week while the railway fraternity held a short strike. My father gathered hundreds of periwinkles from the beach. After he'd cooked and eaten them for a whole week without dying, we were back on the train bound for Kalgoorlie. We were skinny after Broken Hill and famine; we were sunburnt, dark and dirty; Wesley was still sick and Florence still crying - and I was having the time of my life. The train stopped at all stations and one morning a crowd of Aborigines arrived. They were fed from the leavings of the passengers' breakfasts. The men crawled under the engine to get grease to rub in their hair. Aboriginal men are very fashion conscious.
When we arrived at Kalgoorlie, the railwaymen staged a train strike and we were stuck there for two weeks. Some of the time we stayed in a galvanised iron hut and lived on strawberries and ice cream. Aboriginal people roamed through the houses, begging tobacco, tea and sugar. They had fallen for the white man's curses but they were beautifully wild and frightening. There were goats roaming the streets; it was hot and dry. Half the time we spent in Kalgoorlie we were quartered in the local racecourse grandstand, along with a lot of other Salvationists from the train.
Eventually the train was off to Perth and I was off to school, where on the first day, I fell in love with the infants' mistress. The old James Street Infants' School was next door to the gaol and the boys used to poke fun at the Aborigines staring out at us from behind its bars. Perth was exciting. One could get home late after roaming through nearby city shops or playing on the horseshoe bridge or the railway station. This was after my belting with the pram tyre and we'd gone to live in another house behind the People's Palace, which was later pulled down to make way for the new Perth Fortress. This was an exciting place, right in the heart of the city and near the practice room for the famous Fortress Band - a band that has had a succession of Palmers as bandmasters for eighty years. I don't know what will happen when the supply runs out.
Everybody in the Perth Fortress Brass Band was a fine musician as well as a holy man. They were all brave celebrities who went off to wars. At the time there was probably no more efficient musical entity in Perth than the Fortress brass band. No symphony orchestra nearly matched the prowess of the Palmers and their friends. There was no jealousy or sin or dross in any one of them.
I was surprised to find, later in my life, that in other places Salvoes were ordinary people in fancy dress. On average they seemed to be on the godly, temperate and sober side of life. I was somewhat astounded therefore to find that a sergeant-major in one corps was shot when climbing through the bedroom window of someone else's wife. I stayed with the Army as long as I could, pretending not to be there when any of my friends passed by while we were marching or playing in the street. Finally I thought it best to be honest and burn the red guernsey.
By the time this happened I was, thanks to my father and the Army, a fairly competent musician. I think my discovery of Mozart's quartets helped me to stray. Perhaps I should later have taken the invitation to re-enter and become bandmaster but it was just as well I refrained. It would have done little for me, I was past redemption. I'm pretty sure it would not have done much for the Army either.
After Perth we moved to Malvern, Victoria, where Commandant and Mrs Penberthy were Corps Officers. On the first day at school I asked who was the best fighter. "Baines," a girl told me. He hit me once and bloodied my nose. Baines is the only thing I can remember about that school, except buying marbles at Miss Tindale's shop. Malvern was auspicious for the birth of my beautiful younger sister, Mary.
Inevitably I now go into a diversion about sex and creation. It should now be obvious that this would crop up from time to time. Let's get it over and done with for a while. When I was twelve and living in Bendigo, my friend, Ocky Nelson, who used to kill dozens of southern yellow robins and little lorikeets with his shanghai, strolled up to the gutter outside our house and we started kicking stones and generally mucking about. After a while Ocky came out with a most important piece of local news. "Smithy fucks his sister," he said. I knew already that this sort of thing might happen among the big kids but not little kids with their own sister.
"Jeez, who'd want to do anything with his old sister?"
"'Strue," he said, "Smithy told me."
I didn't doubt him because I recalled how one day May Whitehead of the 5th Grade was sitting on a fence on my way home from school. As I trudged along the footpath and under her perch, she called quite plainly: "Will you fuck me?" Before I could answer the red-headed witch had jumped down from the fence on the other side and run like a rabbit, bare feet flying over the grass. I knew these things were physically possible. After all, I'd made my first forays into what fits into what at the age of four and, to the age of six, had rubbed bellies once or twice. I knew that girls knew about it. That was valuable information. Nevertheless, Ocky now shocked me as never before or since.
"Your mother and father do it," he said.
I flew at him. "You rotten bastard! It's a wicked thing to do and my mother and father would never do such a thing."
Ocky had a piece of bread and jam in his hand. He took a bite or two and considered this.
"That's how babies are made," he pronounced.
"If that was true," I answered, "Wessy, Florence, Mary and me wouldn't be here."
To this day I am not altogether convinced that I was wrong. I can't quite equate beastly sex with the birth of Salvation Army children. We'd had never heard a word about procreation from either parent as long as they lived. There was no talk about it - no physical sign of an amorous nature in my parents' behaviour. I never heard the bed squeak. I would never have imagined the possibility. They never even went to bed at the same time. My father would go into the bedroom every night, kneel beside the bed and study or pray; my mother would work and sew and put us to bed. They spoke beautifully to each other with deep love and obvious adoration, but it seemed holy love and there is no way I can picture "sin" tainting it in any way. As I have grown older, I have never quite allowed my mind encompass this awful thing that Ocky Nelson suggested.
This brings the story back to my sister Mary - a really beautiful girl who became a top professional model, the mother of two beautiful daughters and eventually a fine sculptor. Mary was barely fifty when she died. No one knew that she'd been abysmally unhappy and depressed. She'd hidden her sadness. The medical evidence is that Mary died of lung cancer after having been subjected to passive smoking for most of her married life. Near the end she told me: "I think I was an accident. I don't think I was wanted. You all thought that I was contented and placid as I sat by myself as a child but I thought you were all wanted except me." I wished she had mentioned this to the rest of us much sooner.
Despite my feelings about the purity of my parents, I'd heard a rather beautiful story from a woman, a friend of my mother, a "backslider" from the Army. This lady had been talking to me about her own busy sex life with her second husband. I told her about my feelings on the apparently sexless life of my parents and the four virgin births. She told me this story: "One Sunday morning, when someone other than your father was preaching the sermon at the Citadel, your father and mother decided to have a beautiful daughter. At precisely eleven o'clock, with the sun shining full on the bed, Mary was conceived." The last time I saw my sister before she died, I told her this story. "I wish I'd known," she said and wept. And so did I. In due course, after comparing notes with Wes and Florence, I came to the conclusion that I was the only uneducated member of the family.