WHEN I LOOKED at my father, I imagined Australia. In those first memories he is a tall figure in a dark blue uniform: handsome, glamorous and exciting, rather like a movie star father might seem today in the eyes of a four-year-old. As well as energy, he radiates a potent sense of freedom. Freedom as in wide-open spaces and boundlessness.
My Australian father, Brian, was a pilot in the RAF. He had been a World War II ace, a member of the elite Pathfinder squadrons who flew thrillingly low over enemy territory to identify targets and drop marker flares for the laden bombers lumbering up behind. Of all dangerous flying missions, this was surely among the most perilous. Only a handful of those in the first hundred returned. My father was one of those who made it back. He survived the war and remained in the RAF for the next fifteen years: he loved flying jets.
Australians in the RAF were often given the generic nickname Digger. Brian was known as Digger Duigan. In his case this was not inappropriate. After jackarooing on the historic Quantambone station in outback Queensland, he left Australia as a nineteen-year-old and went to South Africa, where he worked as a gold and diamond miner. Once I thought I picked up a hint that he had not been averse to the odd spot of border smuggling, too. When war looked imminent, he embarked on an epic solo journey by motorbike up the spine of Africa to Tripoli, crossed the Mediterranean, made his way to England and signed up.
For the first fourteen years of my life, until we left England for Malaya in 1959, the idea that would become Australia was a complex kaleidoscope of images. I held them in my mind as a sequence, pictured with utmost clarity. For this, my Australian grandmother was responsible as much as her son. She was always called Phyllis Mary, the only person in my childhood experience with two names. It bestowed on her a kind of grandeur, enhanced by the large monochrome photograph, in a brass frame embossed with sinuous art nouveau tulips, of her on her wedding day. She stood alone on the steps of a church in a clinging Edwardian gown which enfolded her hips and draped around her feet with dramatic flourish, rather like a mermaid's tail.
The photograph was one of only a handful in the house. It travelled with us on every move from one flat, house or airforce station to another, always prominently displayed in the sitting room. My brother and I were told she was six feet tall, something of an Amazon when the average Englishwoman was a good eight inches shorter. Phyllis Mary's imposing Australian height and the calm, grave way she looked into the camera's eye on the day of her wedding elevated her status in my mind to that of a tribal elder.
MY PARENTS HAD met me late in 1943 on an RAF station called Warboys. My mother, who was English – an aspiring actress and opera singer before the war, an attractive, talented package of five foot three and a half inches – headed the large WAAF contingent. Like her future mother-in-law, she too was a Phyllis, but disliked the name and opted to be called Pam instead.
Soon after I was born – a year to the day after Brian and Pam married – Phyllis Mary came to England for three months. She endeared herself to my mother by taking my father firmly in hand. In the immediate postwar period, he spent much of his time in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. Between exotic engagements, he would blow into whatever temporary and usually inconvenient digs his young wife and baby daughter were calling home, expecting to be welcomed like a hero and waited on like royalty. Phyllis Mary, my mother told me as soon as I was old enough to understand, would have none of that. She insisted Brian do his fair share of domestic chores, including helping to look after his baby. My mother suggested this was a revolutionary idea at the time. But Phyllis Mary, a forthright countrywoman, was a strong-minded believer in social justice. She made it clear that while Brian was her cherished firstborn, she was just as staunchly in my mother's corner and Pam always loved her for it.
Throughout our childhood in England, my brother John and I saw Brian pull his weight at home. Phyllis Mary's authoritative and enlightened visit early in their marriage explained why, my mother always maintained, he cooked breakfast for the family every day, always washed up after dinner and was no stranger to the broom or vacuum cleaner. Australia, I imagined, comparing my father with the other more insipid dads I encountered, must be peopled with secure, intensely masculine men who did not regard domestic chores as a threat to their identity.
Brian was raised in Colac, west of Geelong, and introduced us to bushcraft and adventure – perhaps as an antidote to what he must have seen as the regimentation of our prim and sheltered English schooling. I can see now that he seized the chance to replicate for us his own freewheeling, largely unfettered childhood.
When I was eight and my brother John four, we moved to a memorable address in Sutton on the outskirts of London. The house was unremarkable but it had a garden, unique to the area, with a compact, dense forest. Brian built an eight foot-long platform high above the ground and at the base a solid cubby house like an early settler's hut, with earth floor, brushwood walls and a watertight roof of planks. We called them the tree house and the house on the ground. He hammered six-inch climbing nails in a vertical, challenging line right up to the cloud-shrouded pinnacle of the loftiest tree, a ramrod-straight pine.
The garden was a magnet for all the local children who streamed through our gate. Only a chosen few were permitted to climb the ladder to the tree house where John and I were bushrangers holed up with stored ammunition – hefty logs and piles of chunky rocks to repel marauders. We were never told to remove them and we never had to resort to violence.
By the time we moved north to airforce stations in Lincolnshire three years later, I had nearly, but not quite, reached the dizzy summit of the nail tree. At the new base there were few children, but we were surrounded by intoxicating miles of empty countryside waiting to be explored. Again, no one attempted to stop us heading off alone from dawn to dusk to dam streams and climb trees. Instead, my father bought us a Staffordshire bull terrier puppy, Caesar, a wonderful dog with a chivalrous flaw (he attacked only male dogs, and only those his size or larger) and taught me to box. He did this by placing one and very soon two folded pillows against his chest and inviting me to punch him bare-knuckled at full strength. He showed me how to hold my fists, keep my elbows tucked in and deliver a killer uppercut. He also urged me, if attacked, to zero in without hesitation on the most vulnerable target: the male groin.
THE LONG SUMMER holidays were anything but tame. We would load up the old-model station wagon with camping gear and set off on expeditions into isolated corners of the British Isles. Brian was contemptuous of organised camping grounds and prissy amenities like showers and toilets. We would drive – often for hours – in search of the ideal campsite, the more remote and removed from civilisation the better. In a small, heavily populated country, this was quite an undertaking. It might be close to sunset before my father found a spot wild enough to win his approval.
He was scrupulous about passing on bush etiquette. On arrival he would dig two holes: one for a toilet, the other for rubbish. We collected any surrounding litter and buried it before pitching in. We were taught to leave gates as we found them and knock on doors to ask farmers' permission to camp. Fires were lit with one match even if the sticks were damp. Trees were lookout towers to be climbed to the top, streams to be forded with rocks and fallen tree branches. John and I were bushrangers on the run.
And, like bushrangers, we shot and fished to eat, never for sport. John chopped wood and shot rabbits with a twenty-two. Brian skinned them and stewed them in the billy. After dinner, reclining on our lilos in the tent, we would read by the light of a hurricane lamp and listen to the night noises. They were different, I already knew, from the sounds of the Australian bush. Our friends did not go on camping holidays like us. This, I surmised, was because their fathers were not Australian.
But our pets came. There were several: at any one time a dog, cat, budgerigar, hamster, and a succession of non-venomous snakes he smuggled back from abroad. The animals were piled up in beds or cages on top of the cases and camping equipment, and unloaded beside a mountain stream, in a beech forest or an abandoned quarry.
WE CALLED THE camping gear paraphernalia. I came across this new and evocative word in a picture book Phyllis Mary sent for my sixth birthday. The book had engrossing, well-drawn illustrations over double pages. It was about the life of a girl called Henrietta on an outback sheep and cattle station – another unfamiliar word: stations were linked to trains or airforce bases in my experience.
I pored obsessively over Henrietta's daily routine. She lived in something romantically called a homestead, not a small suburban house in crowded London. It was low and sprawling and flanked by a long canopy on posts called the veranda. It had a corrugated iron roof, amazingly, instead of tiles or slate, or even thatch which we had seen on holidays. The station was flat and nearly treeless. Unlike an English farm's neat patchwork of manicured fields, it had unruly paddocks. You could tell that a paddock was vast: fences snaked into the shimmering distance. Next to the homestead was a huge, shiny water tank on stilts.
London seemed permanently smoggy under glowering skies – even our summers were rarely summery. But it was always hot in the Australian outback, where an enormous orange sun blazed against a cloudless, cobalt-blue horizon. Every morning after a mountainous breakfast of steak and eggs, fried potatoes and toast – just like ours, although Brian cooked bacon instead of steak – Henrietta went to the stables to collect her paraphernalia. I worked out that this meant the saddle-bags she filled with schoolbooks and lunch, leather water-bottle and the riding tackle for her pony, Roger. Guarded by Daisy her faithful blue heeler, a breed which did not feature in my much-thumbed Observer's Book of Dogs, Henrietta collected a wide-brimmed hat and things called bridles, snaffles and bits. After giving Roger an apple she leapt barefoot on to his back and galloped to the boundary fence, where she leapt off again to unfasten the gate – here there was an illustration of a latch of Heath Robinsonian intricacy. Then she galloped for miles – as many as eleven – to school (one teacher, one classroom) followed all the way by Daisy, who sat patiently with other dogs and ponies lapping water from buckets in the shade of a ghost gum until the bell proclaimed liberation.
The new words and concepts – outback, homestead, veranda, corrugated iron, water tank, paddock, bareback, ghost gum, liberation – had an almost mystical aura, intrinsic to my mental picture of Australia. They were rapidly supplemented. For every birthday and Christmas, Phyllis Mary posted two books in brown paper parcels knotted with string and adorned with colourful Australian stamps which John added to his collection. They were fifth-hand and well-worn, owned first by my father and thriftily passed down to his younger siblings in turn. Their names – Terry, Sue, Tig – were inscribed inside in my grandmother's characteristically decisive writing.
Over the years, we amassed a library of Australian books. Prominent on my shelf was Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong series, published between 1910 and 1942 by Ward, Lock & Co., Limited, London and Melbourne, which seemed to me appropriate. The books were weighty with thick paper and chunky, distinctive brown covers. Between these covers were the renewed allure of wide open spaces and a heroine to admire – the ‘lithe' (Bruce's word, much repeated), spirited and independent young horsewoman Norah Linton. Here, what was more, were ‘fine, clean-limbed fellows' (the author's words again) – Norah's brother Jim and their friend Wally Meadows.
I pictured them as younger versions of my father and his sister and brothers when they roamed their own property in country Victoria. Just like them, Wally and the (motherless, significantly) Lintons were fearless and fun. Real live English children paled in comparison. Lithe, fine and clean-limbed young Australians like Norah, Jim and Wally were a species apart. Phyllis Mary was careful to dispatch the Billabong books in order. When Norah eventually married Wally, after war service, my pubescent dream came true. The postman delivered that intensely satisfactory brown paper parcel the day before my eleventh birthday.
But my all-time favourite was a stand-alone book, less well known than Mary Grant Bruce's signature series.The Happy Traveller told the riveting story of plucky, thirteen-year-old Teddy Winter, who set off alone on an empty road into the bush after a desperate escape from an orphanage. Surviving hair-raising adventures and scarifying skirmishes – a murderous swagman, a deranged, knife-wielding old woman – he was befriended and eventually adopted by Bill, a privileged young man estranged from his patrician landowner father. In his early twenties, having blown his varsity exams, Bill took a year off to fend for himself – to find himself, we might say today. It would be unlikely to find a publisher now. No one would dare write it anyway. The wholly innocent relationship between Teddy and Bill would sound alarm bells.
The intrepid Teddy, with his innate honesty and goodness of heart against all odds, affected me deeply. Together with Phyllis Mary and my father, and in company of a multitude of characters from the stories of May Gibbs and Norman Lindsay, of Ethel Turner, Mrs Aeneas Gunn, Mavis Thorpe Clarke, Frank Dalby Davison and Rolf Boldrewood, and of the poets Banjo Paterson and C.J. Dennis, Teddy epitomised my idea of an Australian. Two characteristics were central to this composite, mythical being: resourcefulness and a spurning of imposed restrictions.
WHEN EVENTUALLY I arrived in this country at fifteen, I discovered I was far better read in the staples of Australian children's literature than most of my schoolmates. Most of them lived in towns and did not go camping for their holidays. And the books that had helped form my imagined Australia were at least a generation out of date.
Were all the attitudes outdated too? Certainly Bruce's books, like many of the others I devoured with such uncritical alacrity, can be accused of moralising and of endorsing a hierarchical status quo. This is par for the period. Looked at today, it imbues them with a freshness and indeed a daring that is almost beguiling. But re-reading almost always turns this slightly on its head, contradictory though it may sound. Whether they were aware of it or not, inherent in the work of most of these Australian writers is a nascent egalitarian sensibility absent from most of the British children's books I was also reading – Enid Blyton and Georgette Heyer, Biggles, Just William, wartime escapes. It may have been subsumed, but it is there, a default presence. I absorbed it. It had an indelible influence.
My idea of Australia was linked to a robust code of ethics which may be unfashionable but had its value. You want heroes and moral absolutes when you're young. At the same time, you are a prisoner of your own naiveté. Casually racist attitudes implicit in We of the Never-Never, for instance, were unnoticed at ten and come as a shock now. But the title alone, on the tattered green cover I first read by the light of a hurricane lamp to the sound of the drumming of rain on canvas, beside a Scottish loch on a summer night, still sends shivers up my spine.