MY LUCKY LIFE - Part 1 - 1931 to 1952
1. From the Other Side
Fame in my father’s family is very thinly spread. Donald Billings Mount’s mother had some distant connection with the founders of Billingsgate Fish Market; his great aunt was so fat she got stuck in the turnstile at Southend Pier and his legendary Grampa Irons was reputed to have been a South Sea Islands pirate - but was more likely involved in the financial South Sea Island Bubble bursting.
Dad claimed to be a “Man of Kent”, having been born at Margate, on England’s fingernail, as opposed to those lesser “Kentish Men” from the rest of that County. As the seventh child of a seventh child, he was supposed to have some supernatural skill - but only on the night of his funeral did we find out what this really meant.
Trained as a Dental Mechanic, Dad only stayed long enough to finish his apprenticeship. At twenty one he worked his passage to Australia as a cabin steward. Once there he did all sorts of jobs including mining at Iron Knob and working on a Mildura apricot orchard owned by his brother Walter. In 1924 word came from the other side of the world that their mother was dying and, as the only unattached son, he returned to England to be with her.
Dad loved drawing and decided to go to Art School. Here he made many friends - but the one he really fell for was Betty Ackery. She enjoyed his company but only as part of their large group. She was never particularly keen on him and in 1929 she married Ken Allen, another member of the group, and they migrated to Canada to make their fortune.
A year later, without warning, Ken died of a brain hemorrhage leaving Betty alone and far from home. Fortunately Dad and his friend Jimmy Banning had by then also decided they would seek the gold at the end of the rainbow on the other side of the Atlantic.
Naturally Betty turned to Dad for consolation and, as one thing led to another I was soon on the way. Her parents recommended abortion – so my very first bit of luck was when she ignored this advice. The quaint notion of “making an honest woman of her” prevailed so they married - although Betty later told me she knew she was “on the re-bound” from Ken and could never have loved Dad.
They returned to England as the Great Depression deepened. Their short marriage ended with Betty walking out leaving Dad with little money, no real job and eighteen-month old me to look after.
Dad first parked me at a boarding nursery school at Basingstoke for three years. Then he parked me at a succession of boarding schools while he moved about the country as a lorry-driver’s assistant and amateur photographer.
Hitler replaced Dad's roving with reserved war-work as an engine parts inspector at the Bristol Aircraft Factory.
After hostilities ceased he developed a small business selling thousands of hand-painted figurines he'd designed himself.
At twenty one I came to Australia, largely because of the tales Dad had told about his Australian adventures at my age.
Two years later he followed me. Here he had endless trouble setting up his business because of the smaller market, the huge distances and high transport costs. Here he modelled Namitjera's head as a pair of bookends and Truganini and King Billy at bas-relief wall plaques. A bronze version of Truganini was later installed in her monument on the highest point of the Bruny Island Neck.
Once more, back over to the other side he went - to England, old friends and real Pubs. There he succeeded for a few years but became progressively sick so came back again, to spend his last seven years in the flat we built for him on to our house in Taroona.
Although he once had had so many tales to tell, whenever I asked him to record them he refused. He dreaded death and I think he saw re-telling his life as an unnecessary step in that direction. But after a while it occurred to him that some of his more exciting adventures in Australia in the 1920's would be of interest to the ABC. So we gave him a tape recorder and a stack of tapes and he set about learning to use it.
He sat in his armchair in his flat's warmest spot next to the oil stove on one side of the room – with the recorder on the table on the other side - where the power point was. That's where we left him - talking across the room to test the volume level. He never told us how his storytelling was going and, not wanting to nag, we eventually forgot all about it.
Four years later, on the night of his funeral, we found and listened to all those tapes. The first was blank so we switched to fast-forward and whizzed through the rest - blank after blank. The last one seemed just the same until we heard a blip of fast-forward sound. We re-wound the tape and ran that blip at normal speed.
There we were, lying in bed, with the lights out, emotionally all washed out by the funeral, sad about the good things we hadn't said to him and would never now be able to, and about all the family history that had died with him, when we heard his voice from the other side saying loud and clear: -
"Can you hear me from here?"
2. Basingstoke Baggage
Two years of National Service in the Somerset Light Infantry gave me plenty of time to think about what to do with the rest of my life. But first there was some psychological baggage from the past to sort out, so I decided to use a week-end leave pass to see if I could unload some of it.
I had no address other than “Basingstoke”, plus a faint recollection of a two-story detached house that faced the sunset on a long block that sloped slightly south of the sunset with a hedge on the northern boundary next to an open field. Why all this topographical precision was stored in my four-year-old memory and why it had lasted a further fifteen years I have no idea, but it may help to explain my fascination with the map-reading sport of Orienteering later in life. But with so little to go on, how could I even hope to find this house, let alone undo past traumas?
As soon as I got off the bus I started asking people if they had heard of a “nursery boarding school”. This wasn't as daft as it seems because it was a Saturday afternoon and all the public offices were shut. Nobody I asked had heard of any place that boarded children as young as eighteen months, but one person suggested that the nuns at the Catholic Convent might be able to help me.
Never having knocked on such a door I was a bit nervous, but need not have worried. The nun who answered couldn’t recall any such place as I described so she took me to see the Mother Superior who had lived there for more than twenty years.
Thinking out loud the Mother Superior took me on a mental tour of several possible institutions but none of them fitted my meagre evidence. Just as we were giving up she said, “Come to think of it I do recall a small place that closed many years ago that might be worth a visit.”
Making my way to the given address I thought about why I had come. Had it really been so bad? It could hardly have been the canings for wetting the bed - because they were conventional wisdom in those days and for me they continued for many years as just a normal part of an otherwise enjoyable routine in a succession of boarding schools. There was little else in my memory except being made to eat a plateful of boiled onions because I had left one onion uneaten the previous dinnertime; falling off a tricycle and cutting my hand and having to wear a sling. And the pit!
Ah! Yes! The rubbish pit. I must have been over four and years old and under four feet tall. So I guess the pit must have been about six foot deep and about twelve feet across. I was by far the youngest of some fifteen boarders but always tried to join in any games. That evening we were playing Blind Man’s Buff and just before they blindfolded me I foolishly said, “Please don’t push me in the pit”. I needn't tell you what happened next! But the thing that hurt most was the trouble I got into for dirtying my sling and dressing. Why this relatively minor incident should have stuck, I have no idea, but, for me, it was symbolic of all the indignities and, maybe, the absence of parenting, stored in that psychological rubbish box labeled "Basingstoke".
I found the house - at least I’m fairly sure I did. It was two-storied, detached, and facing west on a long block with a slight south-western aspect. The hedge was still there but the field was long gone under the suburban sprawl. I especially remembered the hedge because Dad and I had sheltered under it one rainy Sunday afternoon and he had taught me “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, “Ten Green Bottles” and “One Man Went to Mow”.
The house was empty and derelict and when I wandered around the garden I found the path where I had cut my hand - the path that led to the pit. But there was no pit! The years of rubbish added after I had left had turned it into a heap some six feet high!
The word “Basingstoke” no longer stirs grey mud in my mind. I now know that the house from which that mud came is a ruin and that the pit is a heap and from the top of the heap you can get a good view of what looks like a really nice place to live.
I know some of you are thinking that the chance of it being the same house is pretty remote. Well, even if you are right, for the purpose of exorcising my particular ghosts, it doesn't really matter, does it?
Is every rubbish pit so filled to rise from dark to light?
Can joy on sorrow build? Dull past allow a future bright?
As every tier of ancient Troy is founded on the wastes below,
are scenes that frighten every boy the soil from which the man can grow?