Breathing in the scent of my childhood

After a few confusing and slightly hectic weeks in my first full-time job in three years, I have a moment to take a lunchtime walk. It’s spring here in Canberra and for the first time in about 20 years the weather is spot on. Instead of blazing heat as soon as winter is done, the season is easing in ever so gently. The sun is warm, the wind is cool and it’s about 17 degrees. Magpies are out in full force, squawking urgently about perceived threats to their nests and bees swarm around blossoms. That spring smell that carries with it the allergies that affect so many is thick and heady for a moment before the cool wind dilutes it. Old Man’s Beard floats through the air, collecting like snow at the base of trees and if you’re unlucky enough, it goes up your nose.

Ahead of me, I see a building in which I began my tertiary education nearly 20 years ago now. 

It’s nothing remarkable. Inside it there are beautiful works of art and young and emerging artists finding their place in the world.

I walked here 20 years ago. My best friend Grug [not her real name] and I had nothing to do one weekend and we noticed the uni was having its open day. I knew my marks wouldn’t be good enough and my friend wasn’t planning on going to uni but we went along anyway. We picked up goody bags and wandered about the campus then went to check out the school of music. As we walked out of Llewellyn Hall, we noticed this white building, the Canberra School of Art, was also having an open day. It was part of the uni apparently. Somehow we made our way through the gallery towards the back and ended up in the Textiles area. I immediately felt like I’d come home and suddenly realised that this might be where I need to be. I talked to them about applying and felt encouraged, despite not having studied art in my final two years of high school.

So I created a portfolio. I’d been sewing for about six years at that point, and I’d done really well in textiles in year 11 and 12. It was something I found easy and fun and interesting and I wouldn’t need high marks in maths or science to have a chance at a place at art school.

“You know this isn’t fashion design,” they said to me when I went for the interview and presented a portfolio dominated by pattern drafting and fabric design. I was clear that I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in fashion, although frankly I’d have said that about anything at that stage, I had no idea what I wanted.

At the end of 1996, after having submitted my application and been interviewed with my portfolio, my dad took me on my first overseas trip to the UK. That’s another story, but while I was there my mum called to say that I’d received a letter to say I was being considered for a place but that I was on a waiting list for any places that became available due to people dropping out. I didn’t really think anything of it, and I know my dad wasn’t impressed that I wouldn’t be going straight to uni, so that was that, I put it out of my mind. When I got home in January 1997 there was a letter to say I had been accepted. I’m hazy now on the numbers but from what I recall I got one of 27 places in a pool of 300 odd applicants. Not too bad. I still didn’t think it was that big a deal until years later I was chatting to a local artist who was stunned to discover I’d been accepted there, saying it was one of the most highly regarded art schools in the country. Hmm. I have no idea if that’s true!

Anyway, this white building, this is where I started. I didn’t become an artist, obviously, but I did that first year of my BA (Visual) and realised it wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I just transferred into a regular BA and that was that, thus began my academic career. It’s bizarre to think I’ve come from that to a PhD in Italian in Canada 20 years later. I recently stumbled upon a social media post I made ten years ago when visiting Rome. I went to the Trevi Fountain and when I looked for a coin to throw in the only one I had was a Canadian ten cent piece. Imagine that! I’d never been to Canada, but for some reason I had that coin in that moment and I threw it in the Trevi. In Italy. And now here I am, in Canada, studying Italian. I have no idea how or why this happened but it’s quite an odd coincidence that I find hard to label as arbitrary.

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A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.