Tuesday, December 27, 2011

more memories

At the age of 7 and 8 respectively, one of my brothers and I took the first of many journeys from Melbourne – unaccompanied – to holiday in Porepunkah.
Single parents rarely had any financial support in the 60s, and my mother had to keep working. Holidays with relatives or family friends were a win/win child-minding option.

Our journey began at Spencer St [now Southern Cross] station.

Country lines had the interior of their carriages laid out in much the same way as one would see in old black and white movies – two bench seats in a little compartment, luggage racks at the top, and a corridor along the side of the train.

A standard feature of Victorian carriages was a series of black and white pictures of Victoria’s main attractions, including the Mount Buffalo Chalet. The Chalet belonged to the Victorian Railways and provided accommodation for those who were more “well to do”.*

Railway toilet deposits went straight through onto the railway line. It was always fascinating to me, to peer through the toilet and watch the sleepers below as the train rushed its way from one location to another.
No need to worry about pollution, a friend suggested as we reminisced years later: Mass = force x acceleration, and everything exploded into tiny biodegradable fragments as it hit the bed of the railway line.

A standard sign inside the toilets prompted someone, somewhere, long ago, to compose a song which begins*:
Passengers will please refrain
From passing water while the train
Is standing in the station
I love you…

From the train we checked our distance from Melbourne at regular intervals, with the help of Griffiths Tea signs.

At Wangaratta we left the train, gathered our luggage and headed for the bus stop, where the driver on the Wang to Bright bus was expecting us.
Australia’s private bus lines have a tradition of being friendly and flexible with “stops”, and the bus driver delivered us safely to Mo – waiting on the side of the highway at Porepunkah – sometime after midnight.

A long time friend of my grandmother, Mo had lived for years in this house as a ‘resident housekeeper”. It was no stately home, just a cottage where she’d found lodging in exchange for housework when the owner’s wife had died, leaving him and 3 young children on their own.
The kids had long since grown up and moved on, but Mo had stayed.

a cottage much like the one at porpunkah

Country cottages or farm houses often had a “front parlour” in those days – a lounge room off limits to any but adults, and reserved for special occasions. A wall mounted telephone, rarely used, had a crank handle for connection to an operator.

The next room after the parlour was the width of the house. Here there were lounge chairs, a huge wooden dining table, open fire place, and on the door of a linen press, a giant hand painted portrait of Donald Duck.
Behind that room was a large kitchen with a wood stove. Bench tops ran along two walls, with lots of cupboards and drawers underneath.

Many homes today still have a traditional “junk drawer” or two where people store little bits of “stuff” that might come in handy. In the 60s this would include pencil stubs, lengths of string that could still be used to tie parcels, drawing pins, scraps of paper, screwdrivers and whatnots. Fred, the owner of the house, had the most interesting “stuff” I’ve ever seen.
One day he pulled out a small vial of mercury, explaining this was used in thermometers and blood pressure machines, and that people who worked in mercury mines usually suffered brain damage. In those few minutes I learned useful things could be dangerous, and that poor people often did unsafe jobs out of desperation.

Fred wasn’t one to initiate conversations, but usually had something interesting to say about anything. Like most of the adults in my life he had a knack for creating more curiosity than he satisfied – something for which I’m eternally grateful.

The door of the kero[sine] fridge had long ago lost its grip on life, and was held shut with an old bicycle inner tube.

Like many other older cottages, it had a bathroom which was something of an afterthought, this one had been cobbled together with crate boards. During our stays here we were expected to have a bath once a week – whether we needed it or not – and lit the chip heater ourselves. A retired sawmill worker, Fred had access to an endless supply of perfectly sized wood chips and offcuts.

The toilet was quite some distance from the house, but close to a dirt road so the dunny can man could “drive to work” when he came once a week.
Locals in the few houses Porepunkah, at the time, all pumped water from the Ovens River, so having a night soil collection was a jolly good idea.

Photo source here

At the risk of being indelicate, let me tell you the only thing worse than the smell of phenyl when a can had just been replaced, was the smell a day later. To use one of these thunderboxes in the summer is to have all of one’s senses assaulted by damp heat, along with the noise and itching as one is repeatedly hit by a frenzy of blowflies desperate to lay their eggs.

The contents of a used pan are at once mesmerising and repulsive. Of course the contents warranted investigation! Who would want to sit over a pan that’s too full, or trap a blowfly inside the pan while closing a fly’s only exit with a bare bum?
Luckily, Fred owned several acres. During my stays I fertilised every corner of those paddocks. I much preferred to take my chances with the snakes than the blowies.

The cottage had been designed to take good advantage of prevailing crosswinds. Doors and windows were invariably open. There were no window or door screens, but the population of flies inside the house remained at a tolerable level. When blowies came looking for me – perhaps feeling rejected because I so assiduously avoided their nursery – they most often flew in one door and out another.

As we sat at the table to eat it was often a choice between fork or knife, because one hand was always shooing flies.

Using a spritzer to control flies in these conditions was as effective as a water pistol in a bushfire.
Fly papers suspended from the ceiling like so many elements of an art installation were far more useful. Once tacked to the ceiling it seemed they were never to be removed, their numbers simply increasing from year to year.

Each spoonful of an occasional baked custard with sultanas in it was scrutinised carefully before it went into my mouth.

Every two days my brother and I crossed the highway and walked up a long dirt road with a clean billy, to swap for another with a quart of fresh milk in it.
No kid’s education is complete until a dairy farmer squirts fresh milk directly into their mouth.

Inside the house, jug covers were used to keep the flies out of the milk.

Further at the rear of this large block, and much closer to the river, was an even older shack where Fred’s daughter lived with her husband and very young children. The kitchen was – in the tradition of its day – in an outbuilding behind the main rooms of the shack. The walls were lined with newspapers which made for interesting reading, and some of the floors were still compacted dirt.

At the back of the kitchen building was a fairly common sight in the 60s – a carefully stacked pile of beer bottles: Three deep and much taller than me [which isn’t saying much].
One day my brother and I were down at the river behind the house when we heard some loud shotgun blasts, and the sound of breaking glass. The kids’ grandmother was baby sitting, and had seen a black snake slither behind the bottle stack. Some people are like that about snakes.

Unless sunning themselves on warm asphalt, I’ve rarely seen snakes, though people are often keen to say they’ve spotted them, even in my own yard.
We’d always been told they are shy, so whenever we tramped through long grass were careful to make a noise announcing our presence and giving them time to move away.

The river was quite shallow behind this block, and a trickle of water had made its way around a small sand bank. If it had been of any significant size it might be called a billabong.*

Mo always blanched sausages in boiling water to remove some of the salt and fat before she fried them, and was happy to donate sausages and a heavy frypan to the cause. We would light a campfire of sorts when my brother and I went “camping” during the daytime on our little “island”. Bro spent a lot of time fishing as well, and was quite good at catching redfin which no one wanted – when he was older he developed a habit of going fishing with sinkers on the end of his line but no bait or hook. As he dislikes fish as much as I do, it seems pointless to catch them for nothing, but he enjoys sitting quietly surrounded by nature and I guess “fishing” is part of the treat.

One of Fred’s neighbours worked for the Mount Buffalo Chalet where he led people on horse-trail rides. I know he took us there one day and although I remember the hairpin bends on the road up Mt Buffalo I have no memory whatsoever of the Chalet then.
On another occasion, he took Mo and I up to the Buckland Valley* where her elderly parents lived in an old mining shack. I accepted an offer to stay a few days with them, astonished that people lived without electricity or generators.
At dinner I was offered a strange new food called “potted meat” which I didn’t like at all but felt I must eat because it was the polite thing to do. It also proved to be a big mistake. After dark I felt a desperate urge to get rid of the meat but as it was pitch black I couldn’t find the door latch in time. Mo’s mum eventually came and found me, and then cleaned up by the light of a kerosene lamp. That was the night I decided it’s less trouble in the long run to politely refuse anything I don’t want to eat.

Porepunkah was a small town then; I remember a butcher’s shop, a post office where the mail was collected, and a pub as well as a handful of houses. Somewhere away from the highway was a sawmill. Across the bridge over the river was a general store /caravan camping ground and, behind here, was a dredged out swimming hole.

Ovens River

Driving through there a few years ago on the way across the mountains to Omeo I was gobsmacked to see Porepunkah had become such a crowded suburb of Bright.

It’s staggering to compare the enormous freedom and trust we had back then compared to kids – or even adults – today. We never stole anything, polluted anything, burned houses down, or drowned; instead we were able to stretch and test ourselves and learn what we were capable of.

A large yard next to Fred’s house had the standard clothesline held up with a wooden prop, and it was also the place where chooks roamed free during the day. To this day I can recall the smell whenever Mo plucked a chook she had killed, and I can still see the disappointed look on her face when she took a naked bird into her kitchen one day and three unlaid eggs slid out.

The rooster was a ratbag, but when he had his eye on a hen he was lucky if he didn’t wear himself out too soon chasing it for miles around the large yard. 
I remember one day when a local pair of elderly spinsters, on their way to collect their mail “in town”, stopped for a breather by the fence. The rooster was up to his usual trick, chasing a chook up and down, round and round. Feathers and dust were flying and the hen was squawking. Occasionally she would flap her wings and make a little leap in the air, but we didn’t think she would win the battle. Somehow, she finally found a small hole in the fence and broke out to freedom. The spinsters did not take their eyes off the hen as she ran from the fence line, across the grass verge, and onto the highway just in time to be caught by a car roaring through. 
For a moment my brother and I, and the spinsters – perhaps even the rooster – watched in open mouthed disappointment at what we had just witnessed. Then one of the spinsters turned to the other, nodding with a dour and knowing expression on her face, and said “See, Suze: she preferred death!”.

photo cottage

I must confess the train carriage in the photo was actually a NSW train [much the same as Victorian trains]. 

photos ovens river and chalet http://www.travelvictoria.com.au/porepunkah/photos/

The train song appears to be nearly one hundred years old and probably originated in the UK, though versions of it exist in the U.S. as well. The Other first heard this song from her mother [now 90] The Other's mother probably learnt it from her father, who had been and actor and music hall performer. The tune is Humoresque.

A billabong is sometimes known as an "ox-bow lake".

The Buckland Valley was the location of some anti-Chinese gold mining riots in 1857
[The following clip is a bit fuzzy, but brief and quite interesting.] 


  1. This is beautiful Fruitcake -- interesting and funny. I like your sense of humor.

  2. That was a very, very long walk down memory lane. I'll never forget the flypaper hanging from the ceiling by the dozens and the millions of flies stuck to 'em or the thunderboxes that really stank to high heaven in the summer that you felt like vomiting YUK! :-).

  3. I inherited from my mother an intense dislike of those disgusting fly papers. She used to blast them with the pump spray, as you depict, invariably dripping goodness knows what chemicals everywhere.

    We had a snake swimming in the toilet pan, so you were never safe. Mother was home alone with us kids and a bottle of phenyl did not kill the snake.

    Freedom and trust, yes. But some terrible accidents used to happen to kids too.

  4. A very interesting recount of earlier times in the Victorian high country. You have a great memory and way of writing. I can remember many of your experiences especially the outside dunny. However, I never went on such a long train ride unaccompanied. You were brave little soldiers. Our life as kids was so different to today's children surrounded by whiz bang technology.If you have read "My Story" on my sidebar you would have seen some of the similarities.

  5. Rubye - thank you. Just trying to show off my less serious side, in honour of the holidays.

    Windsmoke - yes, YUK, and YUK!

    Andrew - my goodness, a snake in the pan? And yes, the Beaumont children spring to mind. Some terrible accidents happen[ed] then and now - perhaps just the nature of the accidents has changed.

    Diane - I'm not sure it ever occurred to us that we needed to be brave. I suspect unaccompanied children bring out a protective instinct in most adults, anywhere.

  6. I laughed when I read about you checking the sultanas. It's very gross; but hey a fly or two might have added some extra protein to the mix.

    I see a lot of commenters agree with me. You're a very good writer. Maybe you can write one of those memoir books. I think if you write a book you can put it on Amazon Kindle for free. It looks complicated though.

  7. Thank you again for your kind words, Dina. As for the protein... I must admit witchetty grubs look just like mutated maggots to me.
    As for any technology that doesn't involve cogs and wheels or valves, yeah I bet it is complicated. :)Nice to know I'm not alone!

  8. oh god that POOR snake.

    The massacre of the Chinese was a shameful act by 'Australians'. I didn't know about it til I went to Bright last February. It seems we keep it quiet, while sneering at NAZIs and 'the bloody Japs'. hypocrites we are.

    1. God knows where that poor snake ended up - if it had been my home and children I'd be sick with worry it escaped INSIDE the house.

      And if we knew the WHOLE truth about our history, maybe more of us would be more tolerant and understanding of Indigenous Australia's problems.
      Because my parents and grandparents had lived through and therefore spoke often of wars, war is as real to me as if I had lived through them too.
      Considering how recently we stopped treating our first peoples like crap, the memories will be real for a few
      more generations yet. [Well, like total crap at least.]