The city and the river
Ray Parkin was a Collingwood boy. His great-grandparents came to Melbourne in the way that so many immigrants did in the mid-nineteenth century, as skilled labourers from the ‘old country’, poor but respectable people intent on making better lives for themselves. John Parkin, from Hull in Yorkshire, was a hard-working blacksmith. His Australian-born son James was an engineer. James’s son Arthur built a successful business as a coach trimmer and fitter. In 1898, Arthur married and moved with his bride, Letitia Coulson, into a rented house in Collingwood. It was there that their third child, Raymond Edward, was born in 1910.
The suburb was one of Melbourne’s first, and in the early days of the city it was a bustling hub. There was insufficiency aplenty, but there was also a strong ‘battlers’ community and opportunity. Men and women could find work in the area’s mills and foundries; they could settle, build a business and raise a family; or muster partners, capital and transportation for a commercial sortie to the gold fields. By the time Ray came along, the last of Arthur and Letitia’s children, the suburb’s raw outlines had well and truly set, and its character was determined. The orderly grid pattern of its narrow streets was lined with handsome public buildings, tall shopfronts and pubs, bluestone churches, large red-brick factories and small workshops. In the even narrower side streets, modest workers’ cottages housed the men and women who sweated in the tanneries and slaughter yards, the hat and boot factories, the breweries and the brickworks.
The Parkin home was a semi-detached weatherboard villa at 148 Vere Street, ‘just off the main cobblestoned thoroughfare of Hoddle Street’, as Ray recalled. In his unpublished memoir – ‘Mosquito Under a Leaf’ – written in old age, he remembered the place vividly through a child’s eyes:
“Across the road from our house was Gahan Reserve, a large rectangular park, with little, mainly wooden, family houses on three sides facing the plane trees along its grassed edges. The railway line ran alongside the fourth side of the rectangle, with the railway station at the far end. The railway ran on a high embankment two or three miles long. On the other side, opposite the station, rose the Victorian bluestone clock tower of the Collingwood Town Hall. There was a tall flagpole on top with a large Australian flag that flew above us all, while the deep toned bells of the clock chimed the hours and half-hours day and night. Large deciduous plane trees surrounded the whole, as if to remind us of the Mother Country, and two Canary Island palms grew slowly upwards, challenging the clock tower. Tidy lawns and garden beds were always planted thickly with annual flowers according to their seasons.”
At the top end of Vere Street there was a foundry with a blacksmith’s shop, which Ray passed on his way to school. He loved the way its doors stood open, the reassuring smells of horses and manure and iron and burning coal wafting out. The ‘blackie’ always had a friendly hello for him, and sometimes allowed Ray and his mates to pump the bellows of the forge until it glowed fiery red. At the bottom end of the street, the land fell away to the Yarra River, with a dramatic rocky cliff on the far side, 150 feet high. The river’s banks were still largely untamed, except for a boathouse and landings and a few paths leading down to the water. How different was the world of the river from the busy streets less than a mile away!
On the crest, there were great gnarled gum trees with giant trunks and wide spreading branches. In the scorching summer heat they stood death-still in the shimmering air, with deep shadows cast upon the granite-hard earth beneath them and the grass around now only yellow straw. I could not help but compare them with the green trees and lawns and garden beds of the reserve across the road, where everything was watered by diligent gardeners. Yet these old giants above the river got nothing more than the rain that fell – sometimes, none for months at a time. However had they managed? This had really puzzled me since I was quite young.
There were the insects and things flying and crawling on and in the ground. I used to squat down close and watch them, fascinated. How did they know what to eat and all the things you have to know so that you don’t die too soon? How did they learn? How were they taught? I knew, as a child, how much there was that I did not know.
Sometimes the river rose up, inundating Vere Street and its surrounds. The year Ray was born, a major drainage system was constructed in Alexandra Parade (then known as Reilly Street), but every seven years or so, prolonged rain brought floods, isolating the lower parts of Collingwood for days. Often the Yarra stank of the discharges from factories and slaughter yards. But Ray did not see the river as a threat. At Sunday school, Noah and the Flood was his favourite biblical story. Whenever he heard it, he imagined the Yarra ‘flooding over its high cliff, and the water extending right over to the blue ridge of mountains to the east and covering them’. From Kew to the Dandenong Ranges, a sea of water and, meanwhile, Vere Street safe and dry.
The river was not just to look at, but for enjoyment as well. From early in his life, Ray was often in it or on it. With friends his own age, he swam or fished for eels. With relatives, he went boating. ‘There were boats for hire, but my uncle had one of his own, and I could row with him and my aunt, and pull in under the willows and have sandwiches and cakes and cordials.’1
Other things besides the Yarra were important to this happy early life. Ray, like just about everyone he knew, followed the footy, and his team was good old Collingwood: ‘You barrack for where you live.’ Even as a little kid he went to Saturday games at Victoria Park, just across the road from his school in Abbott Street, and stood in the outer to watch the weekly slaughter on the muddy field. He also showed an early interest in drawing, scribbling pictures with chalk on the asphalt footpaths. His other great joy was books, and it was his luck that the Collingwood Free Library was just across the park, its collection swelled by books donated by one of the founders of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner, who had lived on the high land in Smith Street – the rich part of town.
Perhaps Ray’s bookishness was a result of the large age gap between him and the other Parkin children. Charles was twelve years older than him, Lillian seven. As the youngest, Ray was his mother’s favourite. Letitia Parkin was a large, powerful woman, canny and not easily moved from her determined path. Ray’s abiding memory of his mother was her sitting at night, head bowed over her needle and thread while she talked to him: ‘She used to say to me that your hands and mind are meant to work together.’ She not only sewed all the children’s clothes, but created the decorative embroidery on the coach upholstery that Arthur’s business produced. Mr and Mrs Parkin made an excellent team, ‘hand in glove with each other’ as Ray wrote. They taught their children the virtues of industry, personal initiative and thrift.
Ray was descended from Methodists and teetotallers. The Parkin family still holds the simple grey card, signed on 23 March 1884, which recorded Arthur’s pledge at the age of seven ‘to abstain from ALL intoxicating Liquors as a beverage, wine, beer and cider included’ and ‘by all honourable means, encourage others to abstain’. Arthur and Letitia and their children attended the Ebenezer Chapel across the road from their home. Before the amalgamation of Victoria’s Methodist churches in 1902, this church had been Primitive Methodist, and was still marked by those traditions. Primitive Methodists aspired to live in direct contact with God; their ideal was to live simple, unadorned lives within a healthy mind and body. In a suburb like Collingwood, where residents were often poor and educational opportunities were limited, such churches and their congregations had much to contribute – and they did. Not for Arthur and Letitia Parkin and their friends the relentless upward social mobility of some Methodists who turned establishment Anglican as they grew richer.
The Parkins followed the muscular Christianity popular since Victorian times, in which physical and spiritual training went hand in hand. Ray took to this very early. It made sense to him. His father and uncle were leaders of the Ebenezer Gym Club, a popular men’s group run out of the church hall just down the road from his home: ‘Dad used to take me along to watch them on the horizontal bar, the vaulting horse and the Roman rings. While I was quite small, they would use me as a medicine ball, and throw me from one to the other. I loved sailing through the air like that, and I had no fear because I trusted them so much.’
When Ray was old enough, he became a member of this club. Its members practised difficult pyramid formations and travelled to many church, school and public gatherings all over the state to perform them. They also participated in state competitions, which they sometimes won. It was physical exercise which relied on trust, with each man depending on the next to hold up his own part of the pyramid, a metaphor for the church or any human organisation.
Many of the gym club members had served in the Great War, and were only recently returned from Gallipoli or France. Ray saw their scars and soaked up their camaraderie, which spilled over to church socials attended by the young men and their wives. As an old man, he wrote: ‘I can still smell the coffee boiling in the copper rich with milk. Religion, to me, came to mean simply good fellowship.’
Such social activities had to be conducted within Primitive Methodism’s teachings against ‘vain and worldly amusements’.Dancing was frowned upon, and the emphasis was on ‘improving’ fun. The year Ray was born, the church’s ‘Annual Display & Bioscope Concert’ featured Roman ring exhibitions, displays of tumbling, balancing and feats of strength ‘not ordinary, but extraordinary’, or so the poster for the night promised. And then there was Elbert the clown, ‘who will appear as usual’. Patriotic and religious songs, displays of strength, and bioscopic picture screenings: not bad for the entry price of one shilling (sixpence if you sat in the back rows).
These were not the only organised diversions. In summer school holidays, Ray sometimes escaped the baking hot streets of his home suburb for the beach. An aunt of his had relations who were shipping agents in Geelong; when she went to visit them she took Ray with her. They travelled down in SS Edina, a relic of the steam age, which was launched in Scotland in 1854 and had seen service as a troop transport in the Crimean War before ending her days in Australian waters. As Ray recalled:
“She was painted green with a yellow shearline, and her funnel was white with a black top. Her curved clipper bow and elliptical stern gave her a grace of her own. My aunt, through her family, knew her Master quite well. I was allowed to go into the wheelhouse and watch her being steered, and her engine telegraphs being worked with their clanging bells. In fine weather I was allowed to stand forward on the raised fo’c’sle right in the eyes of the ship. There I would stand looking ahead along the bowsprit that she still carried, with the wind in my face scanning the horizon and imagining all sorts of things to suit my fancy of the time.”
On blistering hot weekends, the Parkin family sometimes travelled across town to a city beach such as South Melbourne or St Kilda to wait for the cool change. Near the end of his life, Ray would recall standing at the water’s edge as a child of six, enjoying the sea lapping around his ankles, and looking out towards Bass Strait: ‘The horizon became a magic line over which vessels sank when departing, and rose up like magic on arrival. It was this “beyond” that so intrigued me: as if it was that the whole Rest of the World was waiting for me.’
But even more significant to the story of Ray’s childhood was the river that ran through it.
When Ray was nine, his life changed. Arthur had kept abreast of changes in transportation, and his business – A.J. Parkin Coach and Motor Trimmer – began outfitting motor vehicles as well as carriages. He and Letitia could now afford to buy their first house. The family moved to Ivanhoe, a new suburb developing among old market gardens along river flats seven miles east of the city. With the extension of the suburban railway network, Arthur could travel easily to and from his workshop in Clifton Hill. The decision to relocate was hastened by the influenza epidemic which followed the war, for Collingwood was one of the poorer inner suburbs where the flu catastrophe broke out in January 1919. Within three months, the disease had killed more than a thousand residents of Melbourne, many of them healthy young adults.
The area over the river was green, new and fresh, awaiting families like the Parkins. Ivanhoe’s roads were a work in progress. Ray remembered that many of the streets shown on the map were ‘hardly distinguishable from the paddocks . . . We could walk in a straight line almost anywhere.’ Soon, such shortcuts were fewer as buildings went up, and the chorus of birdsong competed with ‘the rip of saw into timber and the xylophonic note of hammer on wood and nail’.
The new house at 23 Young Street, Ivanhoe, was the only home Arthur and Letitia Parkin ever owned. It was a red-brick, tuck-pointed Federation house, with a wide, shady veranda wrapped around the front and partway down the sides, helping to keep the interior dim and cool. The main entry was on one side, but most visitors bypassed it for the back door. A large bay window helped illuminate the formal front room, which was only used on special occasions. Arthur had the leadlights for that window made to his own design, and he also designed a kookaburra window inside the house. The room in which the family spent most of their time was at the back of the house.
It had a big, warm fireplace with chairs either side and Letitia’s sewing machine was nestled into a corner. This room led to a fernery, cool in summer, sheltered in winter, where Ray and, later, his children loved to play. The family room also adjoined a kitchen large enough for a big wooden table in the centre and a traditional pantry. In winter, the butter was kept on the pantry’s painted sill; in summer it went into the ice chest.
Outside, there was a grassy back garden with the customary lemon, fig and apricot trees. Lillian, who was a singer, practised her breathing exercises down by the lemon tree because no one else in the house could stand the noise. The backyard also had beds of flowers and shrubs, and a vegetable garden containing beans, tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce.
The 1920s in Ivanhoe were an optimistic time in a favoured place, as Ray recalled:
“People were coming out from the crowded suburbs to where houses did not touch each other and there was room for a garden all around. People had the feeling that ‘they were getting somewhere’ after having been so crowded. There was a feeling of a new sort of freedom in people’s minds. A freedom now to be able to do so much more than before.”
At Ivanhoe Primary School, a handsome brick schoolhouse was still in the process of being constructed, so the four hundred or so pupils had makeshift classrooms in the Rechabite Hall and local Public Hall. Ray started there in Year Six. He put school into the same envelope as religion. First off, you listened and worked at it, you thought about it, took what was sensible and left the rest. Simple.
His real interest at this stage lay outdoors. In those days the local reaches of the Yarra were generally safe and clean, and in summer there were swimming clubs all along this part of the river. Ray headed down there to his new-found love, the Ivanhoe Sea Scouts. It was there that Ray found his first real footing as an individual.
His brother Charles had been a foundation member of the first Ivanhoe Troop while the Parkins still lived in Collingwood, but now it was Ray’s turn to join. The troop was run by Skipper Wilson, a legendary local identity, who lived near the Parkins and was the heart and soul of this boys’ group. Soon the Sea Scouts was the most important thing in Ray’s young life. It was not just the adventure and camaraderie to be had with other kids in the river, the troop shed, the swimming hole and the boats; Skipper gave the boys instruction, teaching them both skills and citizenship. Ray and Skipper would remain lifelong friends.
As Ray grew up and the world’s torments were brought to his door, he would change and become a much more solitary man. But he started out as an involved, group-minded child happily embracing the discipline of an organised movement. The official objectives of the Sea Scouts organisation, published the year Ray was born, found a willing participant in him: ‘The idea of Sea Scouts is to sound the call of the sea in the ears of boys of our cities and seaports and to give them an elementary training which may be useful, whether in starting them on a seaman’s career or in making them handy men for any branch of life.’
The river could be dangerous. Ray remembered floods that engulfed the boatshed, and emergencies when the Sea Scouts were called out to look for people who had been trapped by the river.
“Some, who simply got into trouble from just not knowing, we were able to pull out. But others drowned and we only had bodies to pull out . . . Once we found a man hanging with a rope around his neck from a branch over the water. This was our first contact with suicide. Then there were the times when someone went under and did not come up. Then we would dive in and search all we could. We would also drag with a four-pronged grapnel down stream where the body may have been swept by the current.
There were strings of billabongs along the river, which had been the river’s old course and in flood time flowed again with the overflow, and there were the stranded carcasses of drowned horses and cattle to be dealt with. We helped the police a lot in all this. When something happened, it was always our boats that they called on.”
Mostly, though, the river was for fun and friends. The Sea Scouts was a good way to meet girls, since Ivanhoe’s young people gravitated to the river whenever they could: ‘So friendly were we all, that we had no trouble in having girls join in on equal terms in our weekend games and pastimes and boating adventures.’ The result, according to Ray, was that he and his friends came ‘to value girls, not for what we could expect to get out of them, but for what we could share’. One of the girls he met that way was Thelma Kirwan, who would become his sweetheart and then wife. She was walking along the riverbank with her friends, Bel and Amy. On the river, near the Sea Scouts’ shed, a couple of boys in a boat were showing off. Their oars accidentally splashed the girls with water. The girls retaliated by throwing mud. A fine introduction!
There were three meeting places for the kids of Ivanhoe in the early 1920s: school, the river, and Kirwan’s Black Cat Café, a milk bar which stood behind the Ivanhoe Picture Theatre. Thelma’s mother, Ethel, ran this business with great energy. She was an Irish-Catholic battler, slightly crippled, with one leg shorter than the other. Her husband worked as a cigar maker by day and helped out behind the counter at night, but as their son Max remembered, his mother was the family’s dynamo: ‘Ethel ran the milk bar, kept the house, fed her six children, made the pies for the local footy club plus the ice blocks for the shop, and still kept a sense of humour.’ Ray was a few years older than Thelma and he made a great impression on young Max, who also joined the Sea Scouts. ‘Ray was a figurehead for the younger kids. When he came back to talk to us after he had joined the navy, we would all sit around in a circle and listen.’
When Ray and Thelma first met, he was probably on his way to high school. He had finished sixth grade and passed his examinations to enter high school – ‘not spectacularly’ – but he was not yet fourteen, leaving age. So with a dozen other boys and girls, he spent a year in what was called Scholarship Class, studying maths and English in order to sit for scholarships to continue their schooling. Ray passed the exam for Ivanhoe Grammar, but a student with slightly lower marks was given the scholarship on compassionate grounds. Ray’s father, who could not afford to pay full fees, went to see the head of Ivanhoe Grammar, the Reverend Sydney Buckley, and persuaded him to grant Ray a partial scholarship.
Buckley would not have been too hard to convince, for he was a kind-hearted man. He had been a chaplain in the AIF’s 2ndfield Artillery Brigade. During the last of the fighting on the Western Front, two members of the brigade, Lieutenant Frank Grose and Sergeant John Conn, found a young French boy, frightened and alone in the ruins of his house in Franvillers. His name was Yvon Calmus. His father, a soldier, had been killed at Verdun and Yvon had become separated from his mother and sister as the Germans advanced. The Australian officers ‘souvenired’ Yvon and took him back behind their lines. The brigade adopted the boy, gave him an Australian uniform and kept him with them for the remainder of the war. With the knowledge of the commanding officer, he was put to work digging artillery trenches, effectively an unofficial member of the brigade.
After the Armistice, there was the problem of what to do with the homeless boy. Yvon was smuggled onboard the boat back to England, wrapped in a bundle of army blankets, and stayed for some time at the Australians’ military camp on Salisbury Plain. In 1919, when they sailed for Australia, he was concealed aboard the troopship by Lieutenant Grose and Sergeant Conn. When the three reached Sydney, Yvon went to live with the families of his two ‘kidnappers’; and later with a Captain Roy Pattie in Victoria.
A picture in the Australian War Memorial’s collection, dated circa 1920, shows Yvon as a tall sapling of a teen, thin, well-dressed, self-confidently mugging for the camera. Sydney Buckley, who had played a part in rescuing Yvon, was by that time headmaster of Ivanhoe Grammar School, and stepped in to help the boy. He offered him the chance to become a boarder at Ivanhoe Grammar. Reverend Buckley issued a deliberately uninformative enrolment card for ‘Yvon Pattie’, ‘Pupil 110’. Eventually, however, the French consul in Melbourne learned Yvon’s story and the boy was sent back to France to commence his compulsory military service with the French army of occupation on the Rhine.
Calmus survived World War II, and entered the tourism business as a travel guide and interpreter for Thomas Cook. Over many years, he continued to correspond occasionally with his Australian friends, never forgetting their kindness towards him. His story is perhaps discomfiting to contemporary sensibilities, yet it speaks volumes about fellowship in the AIF and the independence of men who were prepared to bend or break the rules for what they perceived as their collective responsibility.
Yvon Calmus had just left Ivanhoe Grammar when Ray Parkin arrived as a student in 1924. Ray spent the next two years there, achieving reasonable results but feeling, as he put it, ‘a bit out of his league’: ‘Most of the students who went there were aiming for the professions as the normal course of events, whereas I knew for sure that I was not university material. And I did not want to waste my Dad’s money. I wanted to start doing something practical.’
In reaching this decision, he felt guided by Sydney Buckley himself, who told his pupils that ‘you don’t come to school to learn but to “learn how to learn” – that real education begins after you leave school’. So Ray left school for good at the age of fifteen, and went to work for his father.
Though he loved his dad dearly, Ray had no real interest in the family business. Besides, between Arthur and his long-time assistant, it already ran like a well-oiled machine. Ray’s main memory of his time there was of making the tea. ‘There was always a billy of tea available. Hot at mealtimes, cold in between times, without milk but with sugar.’ Arthur Parkin could see with his own eyes that his son was far more interested in drawing ships than in making coach upholstery. Ray had begun the struggle that every young person must undergo, to discover the work they are best equipped to do in life.
Because Ivanhoe Primary School was still under construction when Ray first went there, the syllabus was basic. There was no library, no music subjects, and drawing and painting were not taught. Ivanhoe Grammar had a strong emphasis on maths and commercial subjects, yet Ray may have managed to study some art subjects there. Somehow, by the time Ray became a teenager, drawing was one of his favourite pastimes. He was largely self-taught and already a natural. In later life, he joked that he had to join the navy because he had exhausted Melbourne’s maritime subjects. ‘I’d painted everything around, so I needed to go away and find more.’
Anyone who has read George Johnston’s semi-autobiographical novel My Brother Jack may recognise similarities between the teenage years of Ray Parkin and its author. Both were born in Melbourne, only two years apart, and grew up in similar financial and social circumstances. As youths the pair was mad about ships, and they each spent much of their free time sketching and painting them. This interest set each of them on the paths they would follow as adults.
The narrator of My Brother Jack, David Meredith (based on Johnston himself), recalls how as an impressionable fourteen-year-old he discovered the busy river wharves around Victoria Dock and the lower reaches of the Yarra: ‘the fine floating calligraphy of a tug’s wake black on a mother-of-pearl stream in the first glow of a river dawn, the majesty of smoke in still air, the pale and tranquil breath of river mist and morning steam, the rising sun picking golden turrets of derricks and samson-posts and cranes and davits’. For the first time, the narrator informs us, he became aware of ‘an opalescent world of infinite promise that had nothing whatever to do with the shabby suburbs that had engulfed me since my birth’. Ray loved the neighbourhoods where he grew up, and he was never as cynical about his home town or as brashly ambitious as the fictional Meredith or his creator. Nevertheless, these descriptions suggest the powerful romantic appeal that the sea and maritime life had for a teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1920s.
Ray was intrigued enough to learn more about ships and naval life firsthand. During family holidays to Queenscliff, he was a frequent visitor to the local lighthouse, situated close to the entry to Port Phillip Bay. This entry was infamous for its dangerous Rip. Over the years, many passenger ships had foundered there, and the role of the lighthouse keepers was crucial.
“At the point, where the lighthouse and the signal station were, I had made friends with the lighthouse keepers who also manned the signal station in watches around the clock. One, in particular, was an ex-Royal Naval signalman. Whenever he was on watch, I would spend most of my time with him. He showed me how to change and hoist the tide-signals at every quarter of the tide. He filled my head with many tales about the navy, of which he was still very proud.”
Ray later felt this man had a great influence on his ‘final decision to join the Australian Navy’.
In 1924, when Ray was fourteen, he had a bird’s-eye view as the Royal Navy’s Special Service Squadron entered Port Phillip Bay. Edward, Prince of Wales, was aboard HMS Hood, one of the showpieces of the British navy. She was a monster of a ship – almost 860 feet long, with a complement of more than 1200 crew. Her cruising speed was 31 knots, her range 7500 miles, and she was equipped with giant 15-inch guns. Ray remembered the awesome sight of her overtaking a traditional sailing ship. He had “spent the whole night in the signal station, waiting with the keeper expecting the squadron to arrive from the west off the Heads about daybreak. About 4 am we sighted signal flares offshore a bit to the east. It turned out to be a four-masted barque signalling for a pilot. By the time the squadron was entering the Rip, the barque, under all plain sail was halfway through it. . . . She, in their midst, backlit by the rising sun, made a sight I shall never forget.”
Ivanhoe Grammar gave Ray the opportunity for an even closer look at the Royal Navy squadron during a school visit to the Port Melbourne docks. Some boys were ‘lucky enough to get down ’tween decks and inspect the tangle of wheels, rods and bolts of the engines, whilst others managed to climb to the fighting top to have a bird’s eye view of the whole scene’.
Within months of each other, Ray Parkin and George Johnston left school and became apprenticed to commercial art firms in the city. Johnston was employed by a lithographer. Ray went to work in a process house, where he thrived:
“The boss was a kindly old man who ran the business with his son and nephew and about a dozen others. He could see I was as green as they come, but he was willing to give me a chance. We came to an arrangement. I would spend the mornings at the Melbourne Technical College doing Commercial Art, and in the afternoons I would come and work for him, and I would be paid seven shillings and sixpence a week.”
The firm was based in a three-storey red-brick building in Little Lonsdale Street, the quarter where the printing and allied industries were clustered: ‘My job was on the top floor with the big cameras on sprung rails to overcome vibrations, and the dark rooms for developing. It was heavy with the smell of chemicals.’ Under the supervision of a youth a few years older, Ray worked as a touch-up artist, preparing artwork for camera. It was a job that demanded a steady hand and precision with an airbrush or ordinary brush. It also required Ray to hand-letter, a skill which he had to practise ‘assiduously and continuously’ to reach an acceptable level. Ray loved it: “The whole business, from the beginning to its end was fascinating for me. After a while I was employed full time and no longer went to Melbourne Tech. But, instead, I went three nights a week to the Melbourne Art Gallery for drawing classes.”
Ray Parkin and George Johnston must have been students of the National Gallery School at the same time, if only briefly. Johnston did not enjoy night classes, and often skived off to the public library, where he gave himself over to reading about sailing ships. As a result, he began to write historical articles about ships. The freelance features he published eventually led him to a job as a cadet reporter on the Argus. This old Melbourne daily had a brilliant young editor, Roy Curthoys, and was staffed by some of the cream of Melbourne journalists. Here Johnston soon made his mark as ‘an extraordinarily fast writer’ who ‘flung himself into his work’.
Ray Parkin was moving in a different direction altogether. He became friendly with a camera apprentice at work who was also ‘a bit restless’:
“We got talking about the sea and the navy and what we thought it might be like. After a couple of months we talked ourselves into thinking that moving around in the navy would be much more preferable to staying in the same place here in Melbourne. And, so it was, our romancing was to be turned into a reality, for better or worse.”
Rather like George Johnston, Ray, as he matured, chafed at the circumscribed existence of ordinary suburban life in Melbourne. Loosening the ties of home was hard, as he acknowledged many years later when looking back over his long life: ‘It had been much more difficult to convince my mother that it was safe for her baby to cut the apron strings, than it was to convince the Navy to take a chance on me.’
George Johnston’s view of growing up in Melbourne between the wars was far less sanguine than Ray’s. His father had served in World War I, and returned home with emotional as well as physical scars. He was angry and disillusioned about his work prospects, sarcastic and downright bigoted when the subject turned to Catholics who had not supported the war. He was a hard parent to live with, especially for a sensitive son with a quick, incisive mind.
Ray, on the other hand, was fortunate to come from a loving family which always encouraged and supported him. His parents were gifted with inherent practicality and the ability to make the best of circumstances. Whether or not they regretted his decision to join the RAN, Letitia and Arthur supported him to the hilt, no matter how they might have worried about what it would mean for his future.
Excerpted from Ray Parkin’s Odyssey by Pattie Wright. Copyright © 2012 by Pattie Wright.
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