I have a strong sense of history. You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old, my grandfather would be 175, and my father would be 125 and my mother 125. Even my sister would be 104. There is frightening evidence of longevity. All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.
I’m not lying. My great grandfather was born in Scotland in Glencoe in 1802. My grandfather was born in Adelaide in 1842. My father was born in Yando in 1890. I don’t have to invent stories, they fell in my lap. I have been privy to hand-me-down stories dating back before Ned Kelly. I’ve selected a few from the distant past and some from my own personal experiences. There’s a bit of a mixture of humour and pathos, such is life; and hopefully some insights into human nature. I’m reaching an age where recollections are almost more important than new experiences and frankly I’ve already decided that I will ignore Facebook and a good deal of the goodies of the IT revolution. In fact some of the behaviour, such as the lack of eye contact because people have their focus trained on iPads and iPhones etc, and the pathetic use of mobiles just to fill in time, makes me quite angry on occasions.
Well, times have certainly changed. I imagine the percentage of regular church-goers has dropped from 80%-plus when I was born to maybe 2% now in Australia. My dad told me that when he was a kid they were let out of Sunday School well before the adults came out of church and he and his brothers had taken all the horses out of their shafts, turned the jinkers and the buggies around and re-harnessed the horses on the other side of the fences. The kids were hoping this would see them banned from Sunday School but all it did was result in a thorough belting from their father.
Dad saw World War 1 coming and from 1911 he was in the volunteer Light Horse. He was also in the town band so he became their army bugler. He told me they had a visiting colonel from England came to inspect them, a very self-important gentleman. During a field exercise the colonel called on Dad to “Sound the assembly!”
“I don’t know it, sir,” Dad said. The colonel was unimpressed.
“If you whistle it I’ll play it,” said Dad.
“Good God!” said the colonel. “Well at least the man’s got some brains!”
My dad Angus and two of his brothers were in World War 1. As farm lads they were all excellent horsemen and deadly shots with a gun and they were in the 4th Light Horse. Uncle Les saw more of the fighting, in Lebanon, Egypt and France. He was gassed in France and although he survived, it certainly shortened his life. He died in 1952. I also knew he had been hospitalised, wounded, for five months. I had always assumed it was a bullet but when I searched his records it was a surprise to discover he had been kicked in the groin while shoe-ing a mule! It may have saved his life by keeping him out of the front line for half a year. Uncle Jack told me a story of a soldier mate of his who woke up one morning in a dead funk and sweat and told him he knew he was going to die that day. He had never been anything but brave in all kinds of situations but this day he was petrified. My uncle went to their commanding officer and explained the situation, and he said, “I’ll send you two behind the lines to get ammunition and this will take him out of harm’s way, a mile away”. Jack said they took a wagon, each riding one of the horses. At the gate Jack dismounted and presented their authority to proceed. When he returned his mate was lying on the ground with a bullet between the eyes from a sniper who had infiltrated the lines.
At the end of the War they were reallocated horses and rode as Lighthorsemen in the Victory Parade in Paris down the Champs-Elysées. In the polishing and preparation for the event one of the men discovered he had been issued a sword which was bent; although it would come out of its scabbard OK it was extremely difficult to put it back. It was too late to get a replacement but nobody liked their sergeant-major, who was an arrogant bully, so the lads all agreed they should replace the damaged sword with his – a simple swap. Imagine the scene on the big day. The sergeant-major is out on his own in full view of the crowds. The detachment is at the trot and he gives the order as they approach the saluting base: “Withdraw swords! Present swords!”, and – after they pass the President of France – “Replace swords!”
The sergeant-major rode for the rest of the journey unsuccessfully trying to get his sword back in the scabbard. After the march he singled out our boys and said “If this bloody war wasn’t over I’d have you all shot!”
Les went on to ride at the London Victory Parade and got his just deserts when his horse slipped on the wet cobblestones and they slid into the crowd outside Buckingham Palace. One selfie he’s glad he didn’t get.
Back to farming for two of them.
I had twin aunts, Fanny and Florence, who married farmers in the Yando district on the River Lodden. The eldest brother was Jim or James. He had to earn a living off a tiny farm, 200 acres. He left school at 14 and somehow got himself to Tasmania and worked in the 1890s on the newly-discovered Mount Lyall Mine near Queenstown. The work conditions were so dangerous and appalling that he joined the union. Some years later he was running the whole movement in Tasmania and in 1915 entered parliament as a Labor MP. With his lack of education it is amazing that he became Minister for Education, then Mining and then Attorney General. Dad went to his funeral in 1947. It was a State funeral and still holds the record for the number of mourners.
Dad became a retailer, which he had been in Camperdown when the War started. He worked in London Stores (in Melbourne) then Hamilton and then Mt Gambier, eventually setting up his own highly successful men’s wear business, known as The Spot for Men’s Wear. He became a town councillor for 30 years, an alderman, president of the South-East and Western Districts Football Association, The Adam Lindsay Gordon Literary Society, a Rotarian from 1928 to 1977, president of the town band, and he opened branch stores in Naracoorte and Millicent despite the headwinds of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
I was born into the depths of the Great Depression in 1931. Nobody saw me coming and pretty soon nobody will know I’ve been here. 1931 was quite a dramatic year. The New York stockmarket had already imploded and the unemployment rate was over 30%. Adolf Hitler was gearing up to seize power from a democratic government which had become feeble. Josef Stalin had harnessed the false hope of Communism and killed 10 million of his own people. Tojo had control of Japan and invaded China’s province Manchuria, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to launch the New Deal in America, Chiang Kai-shek ruled China but Mao Zedong was taking advantage of that Japanese invasion to carve out a power base for a successful revolution, Mussolini was planning military aggression against France and Abyssinia, and in Spain, the monarchy was removed and replaced by a republic while General Francisco Franco watched, shocked, and waited his moment.
My father saw the inevitability of World War 2, and so when I woke up on my birthday in 1938 he had given me a .22 rifle and bullets as a present: “You’d better learn to shoot, son. It could save your life.” I was 7 years old and I did kill lots of hares and rabbits and won cadet shooting competitions. Luckily I missed World War 2, Korea and Vietnam.
During World War 2 my father was appointed chairman of the government fund-raising for the War for the south-east of South Australia and chief Air Raid Warden for Mt Gambier and District. In this capacity he had a brush with American allies. The USA had taken over and expanded our airfield and had a squadron of Aerocobras stationed there along with other installations. They had compulsorily acquired five or six local garages for storage and supply depots and on one night at about midnight Dad received a call from an Air Raid Warden to say that one of these depots had a major light over the forecourt, in contravention of the blackout, and the officer in charge refused to put it out. He got out of bed very angry, probably just sufficient whiskey to prompt direct action, and he arrived outside the offending building and confronted the officer in charge. There was the light, 60 or 70 feet above the ground, and the Yank said, “We’ve come here to protect you, Aussie. If you want the light out, you put it out”.
“Right!” said Angus. “Can I have that sentry’s rifle?”
“Sure, Aussie, sure.”
Dad cocked the rifle and took aim and blew the globe to smithereens.
The Yank looked on and said, “You know, Aussie, I think we are going to win this war between us.”
I turned 12 in 1943 and I distinctly remember the day I became convinced we would win World War 2. The news in that year was bleak. Hitler was at the gates of Moscow, Rommel’s panzas had reached El Alamein and Tobruk was under siege. In the Pacific, the Japanese were everywhere. But on that day a flight of 20 or so Aerocobras came to my home town. They hedge-hopped at phenomenal speed over the paddocks, even up and down our main street, less than 20 feet above the ground. And then they would hit the thrusters and let out an ear-piercing whine and hurtle vertically up into the clouds. We had become accustomed to Avro Anson trainers flying at 110 mph and these dare-devils thundered across our skies at 400 mph and, like the Yank from the story of the shot lamp, I said to Dad, “We’re going to win this war!”
The great turning point came in that year with the Battle of the Coral Sea, on Australia’s doorstep; the break-out from El Alamein across the North African desert; the Russian victory at the gates of Moscow, St Petersburg and Stalingrad; and the beginning of the thousand bomber raids over Germany. I recall a cartoon in The Argus: “At the going down of the son (S.O.N.) and in the mourning (M.O.U.R.N.I.N.G.) we will remember THEM – Hitler-Germany Mussolini-Italy Tojo-Japan THE AXIS!”
I had some really great bosses during my working life but I think the best was Basil Glowrey, who was managing director of Myer in South Australia when I was there. He joined Myer after the War but only after he recovered from being a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. He came back from Burma weighing 5 stone but when I knew him he was again a robust 14 stone. Glowrey was shot down over Sumatra. He was patrolling solo in a Wirraway and got sighted by three Zeros – not a fair fight. They took him to Changi in Singapore and like many others he was transferred to the Burma Railway. He was in the same camp as Weary Dunlop and witnessed some appalling scenes. If you haven’t seen Bridge Over The River Kwai you really should.
One of our Myer directors, Geoff Errington, was another ex-serviceman. He had been a bomber pilot in New Guinea and told me when they were stationed in Milne Bay a crew with a fully-loaded bomb-load took off on a mission from the short air-strip beside the heavily forested hills. It failed to climb fast enough and blew apart when it hit the hillside. The crew were all their close mates and they went up and surveyed the scene. No one was alive and there was a flying boot with a severed foot in it and helmets and jackets mixed with human flesh. Supplies were so short they salvaged everything they could and reused them when required. This became a practice and reusing dead men’s gear out of their lockers was usual.
Geoff told me he and some of these pilots from New Guinea came back to Australia and were stationed at Laverton and Point Cook as instructors. One day they were sitting in the bar and a trainer aircraft took off. It stalled and crashed back to earth and burst into flames. Geoff raced to the phone and contacted the control tower. “Who was the pilot and who was the instructor?” he asked.
It was one of his best mates. The boys in the bar followed tradition and went to his locker and each took a piece of clothing or boots and retired to the bar to have a farewell drink to their mate. Suddenly the door burst open and this guy waved his hands and shouted, “Put it all back! Put it all back!”
Their mate had been thrown clear and he knew exactly what they were doing, saying goodbye to him.
“Not yet,” he said.
He had resilience, like the old Jewish lady crossing the road. An aggressive motorist flashed by and knocked her flying. As she began to get up he stopped and leaned out the window and shouted, “Watch out!”
She shouted back, “Whatsa matter? You coming back??”
Friday 14th August we celebrated the end of WW2 Victory in the Pacific. It’s worth thinking about what life would be like today had we lost!
When my family – my wife Elizabeth and our daughters – lived in Adelaide we were adopted by the American ex-pat community, most of whom were engaged in oil search Delphin Santos as they found and developed the SA Moonie oil field. They were extremely active in the Australian-American Association and Liz and I were each year guests on that table, a huge square in the middle of the ballroom. We were the only Australians with several dozen Americans, mostly engineers and their wives. One year I was seated next to a guy from Oklahoma named Tom Manuel. His company actually sold the drilling equipment to Delhi and he was the US consul for South Australia. Tom was a man of few words and although I knew him quite well we really didn’t converse very much at the table. All of a sudden at midnight the double doors were thrown open and an American brass band from the visiting aircraft carrier came striding in playing Colonel Boogie and other Yankee tunes and precision marching up and down the aisles between the tables. It was really very exciting but Tom turned to me and said, “Don’t these Yanks give you the shits!”
Back in 1967 the term ‘marketing’ came into widespread use and I was lecturing at the South Australian Institute of Technology and flew to Sydney to the first conference of the Institute of Marketing. The key speaker was Professor Britt from California. Part of his lecture was to define ‘marketing’. In doing so he told us this:
“I was flying out to Australia to address this conference and our flight followed the Tropic of Cancer across the Pacific to Japan and then on to Singapore and Sydney. The crossing of the Pacific became very hairy when we hit a typhoon. Before that however I was chatting with my neighbour in the next seat who was a bishop, he told me, and who was wearing his bishop’s vest and clerical collar. He enquired what I did and I explained I was a professor of marketing. He pressed to find out what this was all about, and so I explained there are those such as salesmen and sales managers whose job it is to sell but marketing embraced much more, such as advertising and broader policy issues including product innovation, and then on top of that there was in the company hierarchy the term ‘management’ – people who oversaw the whole structure and process of general management.
“About this time we hit turbulence and the plane began to thump and bump and shake unbelievably. Passengers started screaming and crying and several were injured. A young lady broke free from her seat-belt and raced up the aisle. She spotted my companion the bishop and grabbed onto him and pleaded ‘Father Father save us!’
“He turned to her and said, ‘I’m sorry, my dear. I’m not in Management. I’m only in Marketing.’”
Here’s another aeroplane story.
At an exciting time in the history of Myer I was appointed team leader of a selected group of eight directors and senior representatives tasked with reorganising the company nationally. This did not include Target but it embraced McWhirters in Queensland, Western Stores and later Grace Brothers in NSW, Myer Melbourne and Southern Stores in Victoria, Myer South Australia, and Bairds and Boans in Western Australia. At that time I seemed to be on an aircraft five days a week and wouldn’t you know the economy had a nasty downturn and all directors and others used to First Class travel were sent a Board instruction not to travel First Class to help the company economise. Which we all did. Several weeks later I ran into our chairman Ken Myer in the departure lounge bound for Perth. When the seatbelt signs came off a hostess came to me and said, “Mr Myer is sitting five rows back and would like you to join him”.
I walked up the aisle and found Ken sitting by the window with a spare seat beside him.
“Gee,” I said. “You were lucky to get an empty seat on such a full flight!”
“Oh,” Ken said. “As chairman of the Board I carefully oversaw the wording of that edict about travelling economy class. You will notice it does not prescribe how many seats you can have. I always buy two.“
“I’ve got long legs,” he said.
I’ve always been keen on tennis but no champion. In 1958 I married Liz and moved to Melbourne from my dad’s retail business to become personal assistant to John Young, one of the pioneer Australian management consultants. Must have boasted to him of my tennis powess when I found he was president of Kooyong Tennis Club and Lawn Tennis Australia Victoria hosting Davis Cups. He asked if Liz and I would come down to his Portsea house for a barbecue and tennis day and of course we accepted. On arrival he said there were four couples and suggested the men play a set before lunch, now!
The others were twice my age but I quickly found they were no pushovers. John Young was partnering me and I said, “I’m getting sick of this old guy down there on the backhand court, keeps returning my serve with ease and he’s giving me the shits!”
“Okay,” John said. “I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce you. That’s Harry Hopman!”
In Adelaide our neighbour was a close friend of Lew Hoad and he came over and stayed with them and I saw a lot of him. By then he was almost out of top tennis and was coaching in Spain. One day he showed me his problem from thumping his foot down as he served – his right foot and ankle was cold and solid like pottery. He had to have shoes made to fit and yet that week he played exhibition tennis with Rosewall, Sedgeman and John Newcombe.
Incidentally John Bromwich retired down here where we live in Victoria and used to play a little with his wife Zelda and two beautiful blond daughters. John had severe arthritis and could scarcely move about the court and died many years ago.
Later I had a chance meeting on a plane with Peter McNamara, who with Paul McNamee won the Australian Open men’s doubles and two Wimbledon men’s doubles. His knee was cactus and he had the management of the Pro Shop and brand new stadium in East Melbourne. He was trying to stir up interest in business for the courts and I formed a group to play there each week because Peter offered to play with us. We did this weekly for about five years and sometimes Paul McNamee showed up too. One day Peter was partnering me and said I would do a lot better if I watched the ball. I told him I was helping to partner him but I was too old to be coached!
On another day I asked him if he preferred me or McNamee as a partner. He said, “Well, McNamee is boring, because he’s so predictable. You? You’re not!”
He told us that when he and Paul McNamee won their first Wimbledon doubles at a very young age, they were totally nervous the night before the final and decided to go to the club house, have a lemonade and sneak to bed. When they came into the bar there was their idol Lew Hoad propped up on a stool. McNamee pulled his shirt and said “Don’t go near him, people will think we’re trying to get some tips”. But Hoad had seen them and beckoned them over to him. Sheepishly, they approached and Paul couldn’t help himself. He blurted out, “Lew, what are we going to do?”
Lew looked at them both and said “It’s all in your serve”.
“What do you mean?” Peter asked.
“Just throw it up and hit it like shit,”
And that’s just what they did.
Champions don’t need coaches.