Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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... I'll just mention here that there were severe interruptions, to my tertiary level education, and that combined with the sort of lack of basic foundation in my secondary years, all contributed to what I thought were inadequacies in my later scholarly life. At Hamilton, the, I've mentioned the sporting side of thing, there was also the wonderful outdoor life that I had. We all rode bicycles, the high school was a mile and a half out of town, and I used to ride a bike to school in the morning, back home for lunch then, back to school and then back after school. So that was four cycle trips a day just in school. And every weekend we would go rabbiting, and rabbiting took different forms according to our sophistication. At first we would go out with a dog and simply get the dogs to chase the rabbits down. Then we became a bit more sophisticated and took ferrets. And then we graduated to shot guns and pea rifles. So we'd cycle ten or fifteen miles out of the town on a Saturday, and spend almost all day shooting rabbits, and come back in the darkness nearly always to find mother apprehensively pacing the footpath outside, peering into the darkness wondering whether her son had shot himself or been hit by a motor car of something.

She was quite tolerant of your physical activities.

Remarkably tolerant. Of course, Geoff paved the way for this. As a young kid, aged about nine and a complete loner, he found a sort of small hill outside Hamilton called Mount Pierpoint, that was an extinct small volcano of the western district with a bit of a crater hollow in the middle. And he went out there for one weekend as a kid, carried blankets and things, and just camped there over the weekend on his own and he liked it so much that he designed a little caravan on wheels, which he would drag out through the paddocks and then spend the whole weekend on his own.


So then we were introduced to the Grampians because a school teacher friend of my father's, a man who was the headmaster of the school at Portland, arranged a trip, a three-week trip in the Grampians for his family and some friends and Geoff and me. And we went up with two lorries, each one drawn by two draft horses and stacked with everything we needed for a three week stay. And we stayed at two places. One was Mafeking, which was a deserted gold mining town on the slopes of Mount William, which had been deserted right back in about 1905 and everything was overgrown with scrub. This was about 1923 when this happened. And then from there we moved on to a place called Jimmy's Hut, which is on Jimmy's Creek, which flowed into the Wannon River right in the heart of the Grampians. And this gave Geoff and me a life long interest in the Grampians and in bush walking and in mountain scrambling generally.

Very beautiful country, isn't it?

And in those days there were no tracks and no mountain motor road. The motor roads finished at Mirrinatwa Natural Gap in the south and at Halls Gap in the north and the Wannon Valley just had an ancient wagon track just all overgrown with scrub. And over the following years, Geoff and I spent most of our holidays in the Grampians. We had Easter holidays, we had first term holidays, we had second term holidays. Not generally Christmas holidays because we would go somewhere else.

Often just the two of you?

Generally with other school mates. Generally there would be three, sometimes four. And we started off just walking. We then tried going with bicycles. And our final method of travel was with pack horse, which was wonderful because you didn't carry anything, you put everything on the horse and walked free. So we explored most of the Grampian area before I was seventeen.

What was it especially that you liked about doing it?

I think it was the mountain climbing and the love of the bush generally. But we used to probe in and climb anything we could see. And the climbing was quite dangerous and quite arduous because the Grampians - the shortest way up them was to go up the vertical side. You'd never go up the long slanting side, it takes too long. So to climb up the face here, you'd generally look for a cleft or chimney, which gives you a less steep slope than the vertical face of the cliff. So even there it was pretty steep and very often a chimney would be blocked at the end by a vertical wall of rock and you'd have to come back again and we experimented with all sorts of scrambling around.

Was it dangerous at all, what you were doing?

It was highly dangerous, looking back on it, because we were so unsophisticated. You see we hadn't read any books on mountaineering. We didn't even have ropes. No idea of roping each other up and belaying each other or safeguarding ourselves. So we took all sorts of risks scrambling around on these vertical faces.

Were your parents at home worrying? Your mother and father, were they worried about you?

Well, I think they were immune to it by this stage. They'd got used to Geoff going off on his own. Oh, I forgot to tell you, that for about three years after this episode with the lorries to Jimmy's Hut and Mafeking, Geoff decided he'd like to retrace his steps, so he went off on his own. Walked in from Dunkeld or Willaura, I forget which, and went to Mount William and he had this photographic memory. He remembered every tree on the path. He remembered everything. But he followed around this almost trackless country to get to the various places where we'd been and he spent about ten days on his own doing that. And my parents accepted it.

You must have admired his bravery a lot?

Yes, well, he was the stimulus and the goal setter you might say. He also stirred me out of my lethargy. He organised a lot of trips which I, left to myself, would probably not have done. Later on he organised, oh I'll come to that later, the first ski trip I ever went on. That was Geoff. Later on I organised my own but the first one was generally Geoff pioneering the way.

So you were close to him. You were close to each other?

Very close and yet very aggressively opposite, so that we fought interminably. But we developed a very close rapport in all sorts of ways. I think he admired me for some reasons and I admired him for others. [Laughs]

How did your mother cope with all this, while you were going out bush walking? She was at home with other children.

Yes. Yes. She was a remarkable woman looking back on it. She was tolerant. She was loving. She was highly efficient in running a house. A very good cook.

She had a hard time really didn't she with all those children and a husband, who was away?

Oh, and putting up with the sorts of things that a woman in those days put up with from a husband, in terms of having very much the second level position and being ... having little say or no say with anything to do with money. All money was handled by the father and she just had to just accept what housekeeping money was doled out once a week, and no such thing as personal allowance or anything like that. Had to almost beg from the husband is she wanted a new hat or a new frock or a new pair of shoes. And having always to handle everything in the house with very little help. For example, it always turned out, that whenever we shifted house, my father wasn't there, so mother would have to organise it all and do all the work and all the packing.

You mean, he might have arranged not to be there, or he just wasn't there?

I think he was at work in some way or another or something happened to the effect that he was not able to be present.

So she'd have to do it all herself?

Yes. We'd help of course, but she was the organiser and the official person. She'd do it. Wonderful.

Did you ever she might be frustrated at not having much of a life of her own outside the family?

No, but I often felt she'd have blossomed socially much more if she'd had a different sort of husband. See, he was a non-social person. He was very shy. He was working so hard. He didn't have time for the frivolities of entertainment, so that there was almost no entertaining of other people in our house. The sorts of breaks we'd get would be, he'd be invited out to some country teachers place for Sunday afternoon, so we'd all pile into the T-model Ford and drive out and have afternoon tea with this teacher and his family. That sort of thing was the sort of break, but very little in the home itself. One of the only things that ever happened in our home, was I think they were called the 'Oddfellows' or something. This little group of intellectuals in Hamilton, who used to read a set book once a month and then come to different houses of the members to discuss it with supper. I remember this group coming to our place on several occasions over the years so my father, who'd be chairman for the evening, would discuss the particular book concerned. But apart from that ... and the kids we used to invite home to play music on the piano, because my mother could play the piano and she had a piano. Apart from that, there was no social life in our house.

Did your mother have some happiness about her?

Oh yes. She was a very happy person and she loved having us and the other kids around, and she encouraged us musically. She tried to get Geoff, Marge and me to try and learn the piano but we all ... we got fed up with the discipline of five finger exercises so we each threw it away. And then later on, each of us took it up again. Marge taught herself later piano. Geoff taught himself about five or six different instruments. I taught myself about two or three different instruments. Once we got onto jazz, which was the in-thing, we had a motivation which we didn't have with classical music. So our development in classical music came years later, when we found the limitation in music of the jazz ... of the jazz envelope, and began to move outside that for other forms.

I'll ask you a little bit more about music later. I'm just wondering whether as a small boy, you were very aware of the First World War, being in small country places and a small Melbourne suburb?

Well that's, that's a nice point. One of my earliest memories of Mitta Mitta was at the age of three attending an Empire Day march. And I have a photograph of Geoff and me dressed up in soldier uniform with a digger hat and everything and a sword each and a belt, and we tagged along on the end of this procession. And my father, who'd been rejected for active service because of eyesight, worked very hard raising funds for patriotic purposes and per head for population of school, his school raised more than any other in Victoria. And so the war was a very important thing in the small town of Mitta Mitta, which was very patriotic indeed. Most of the men had gone off to the war and those who remained and the families, were very supportive of the whole war effort. Later when we got to ... to Gardenvale, the war loomed in other ways. I had two uncles, my mother's brothers, who went to the war. I didn't have much impact from the war, except hearing every now and again about battles and having the usual admiration of exploits that were blown up in the press of bravery and so on. But I do remember at the end of the war, the returning troops brought back with them the influenza, the so called Spanish influenza. And this Spanish influenza was devastating. We were very close to what was the Caulfield Military Hospital. Later became a repatriation hospital. And I remember as a kid, during war time, going past the hospital and seeing wounded soldiers being wheeled around in stretchers and things, and after the war I remember the whole place being turned into a gigantic camp of tents to cope with the patients from Spanish influenza. This epidemic had devastating effects right through Melbourne and the hospital was unable to cope, and they simply put army tents up all around it on all the spare ground they could find. And there were thousands of people in hospital with the Spanish flu. All our family got the flu except my father. He never caught anything. He was very meticulous in his personal hygiene with nose and mouth douches in the morning before breakfast and so on. He just never seemed to catch anything. But mother was badly struck by it. And I believe the reason for the big gap between the top three children and the bottom three is that she had a miscarriage in the middle of that time, due to the Spanish influenza, which she caught.

It was devastating wasn't it at that time. Did you think your father would have liked to have gone to the war?

I don't think so. It would have been very foreign to his whole temperament. He wasn't that sort of person, and I think socially he would have been out of place because he was always a very shy person who didn't mix very well with other people.

And your other siblings, when you were at Hamilton, did they have something in mind that you wanted to do? Do you all hope to go to Melbourne? Was that the ambition being in a small town?

I don't remember much about my younger three in Hamilton, except that they were there and I helped entertain them and look after them and do the housework and so on. And they went to school, and they went to Sunday School and ... Oh, one little thing I should mention, that reminded me. We three elder ones were sent to Sunday School regularly for the first year and we resented it, mainly because it happened on a Sunday afternoon and that was one of the times of the week when we wanted to do other things. And then we had a very astute minister in the Church of England there, and he was a canon, and he devised a morning service from 10 - 10.30, which would precede the ordinary 11.00 Church of England service, and this 10 - 10.30 one was for the teenage kids in the town. And we were told by our parents, if we attended that, we needn't go to Sunday School in the afternoons. So we went to this and Canon Jessop was a remarkable man. Instead of giving us readings from the Bible and a lot of rather uninteresting stuff, he taught us a lot about the background of the Church of England: the structure, the components of the church, the nave and the chancel, the sanctuary; a lot about church history, a lot about other religions, and this was an education to me which resulted in my winning the Scripture prize in my last year at high school. But it formed a basis for later life, which I've always appreciated. The fact I'm no longer a believer of any sort, I'm quite agnostic, I do understand religions. I have a fair background of what they're all about. I was brought up as a confirmed member of the Church of England.

Although your mother had been Catholic, her family?

Yes. But she changed to the Church of England with my father, for which her grandmother never forgave her.

Well her whole family turned their back on her ... turned its back on her, didn't they?

Well not so much her brothers and sisters, they were always very sorry for her. But they were afraid to show any outward form because of the dominance of this pretty terrifying grandmother, who was about five feet one high and ruled everyone with a rod of iron. A little Irish woman. [Laughs] [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

One of the interesting aspects of life at that time for a teenager, was the masculine attitude to girls, which is so utterly different from what it is now. It was considered to be sissy to have anything to do with girls. Very few high school chaps had steady girlfriends, and the one or two who did, you regarded as being a bit offbeat. Most of us would have been ashamed to admit that we had a girlfriend.

It's strange, isn't it?

And the only sexual events that I had up 'til I left Hamilton at the age of seventeen, were bits of crushes on various girls, at a distance, at school. To take someone home from a high school dance in the dark and to be arm in arm, and hand in hand, until you got to their front gate and have a quick kiss to say goodnight, or to go to the church social and play postman's knock and kiss the girl in the dark, whoever she happened to be. But you know nothing steady. Nothing at all real about it. And this funny repression of the masculine attitude: of being anti-girl and anti-that sort of weakness. When I went to Geelong I had spent one year as the ... I should say before that, I'm sorry. My last year at Hamilton I was the junior teacher at Hamilton High School. Now junior teachers ... a junior teacher was a position of apprenticeship to teaching. In those days you did a year or two years of junior teaching before you went to Teachers' College and you were supposed, in that time, to have been given indoctrination as how to teach a class and to have had practice and so on. But I in high school didn't get that. I was the office boy to the head master. So my training was quite different. I learnt how to type, and how to file. I had to answer correspondence and had to answer telephones, and how to type out the exam papers for all the rest of the staff. And I learnt ... had my first lessons in administration.

It's amazing how often, even in your early stories talk about administering, administration, of some kind or another.

And even now, I can look back on how valuable it was: the whole idea, for example, of having to keep a green copy of every bit of correspondence that goes out, having to keep a correspondence book, noting down what letters were sent out and what dates and what they were about and brief extracts, learning how to pay money into banks and out and so on. When I went to Geelong High School, my father had been transferred to being District Inspector at Geelong and I became junior teacher at Geelong High, which was very fortunate, being able to live at home. And I developed these skills and I also studied Honours Mathematics. Again, with no particular success. I got a third class Honour in Mathematics ... Honours Maths at the end of the year. But Geelong was important. First I learnt how to improve my typing and to run a duplicating machine and to duplicate thousands of sheets for the exams. All the exam papers were done by me in the office. And I had a wonderful head master called Robert Hagan and it was a first class school and I really profited from the experience of the teachers I saw. And the sport - the sport was fantastic. I seemed to do everything that year. At school we had a good gymnastics man and I did gymnasium at every break and at lunch times.

Were you kind of obsessive with sport around that time?

Was I quite what?

Obsessed. Obsessed by sport and physical fitness?

Yes. Yes, very much. I ... in Hamilton I had done all the swimming certificates that were possible. But in Geelong I gained the highest certificate you can get, which is called the Award of Merit of the Royal Lifesaving Society, which is quite a difficult award to get, and I remember it was done under terrible conditions in the sea baths at Geelong in April in bitterly cold weather, and with what I know now, I know I was suffering severely from hypothermia. After an hour in the water I got out and I shivered uncontrollably and it was over half an hour before I returned to anything like normal and was able to walk. But nobody did anything for me. Nobody put a blanket around me or anything. I was left on the sidewalk of the baths to recover.

You were meant to be tough?

Oh, yes. And I joined the Church of England Boys' Society, mainly because of sport. They ran athletics and they ran a football team and a cricket team, so I joined in all that. And then a chap, a bank clerk, I met, persuaded me to join the Geelong Guild Harriers and I entered a field of sport I'd never done anything with before, and that was athletics. I'd learnt at high school that I didn't have the speed to sprint and I was no good at foot racing generally. I didn't have the leg muscles for it, I guess. But under the persuasion of this chap, I took up long distance running and this was a form of severe physical training. Looking back on it, I'm staggered at the fact that I went through it and persisted with it. But we used to do a three-mile run every Tuesday and Thursday after work and then Saturday we'd do a five mile run, which was generally competitive with the Guild Harriers. Geelong Guild Harriers were one of the top amateur athletic clubs in Victoria, at that stage, and they had some very famous runners of Australia class, who ran for them.

How old were you?

I was then ... let's see ... I must have been eighteen. Then having done three miles on Tuesday and three miles on Thursday and five miles on Saturday, we'd turn up at ten o'clock on Sunday for a 15-mile race walk. We'd walk from Geelong out to Batesford and back, headed by two of the best walkers in Victoria. And at the beginning I'd walk until I was 200 yards behind, then I'd run to catch up, and then I'd walk and drop back to being two or 300 yards back behind, but at the end of the year I was beginning to keep up with them all. And, so at the end of that year, 1930, I was a very fit young man. I'd been swimming, because we were only about half a mile from Corio and the swimming club, and what with swimming, and athletics, and the gymnasium and the Church of England Society, playing basketball for example, cricket, football, I sort of did everything. And at the end of that year I went - hoping to get a scholarship to Melbourne Teachers' College to do the secondary course, which led you straight into a science degree and then onto a Diploma of Education. And to my disgust and disappointment, they cut heavily back on the numbers that year and the following year they cut it out all together. Anyway, I didn't get in there and I was sent instead to Ballarat Teachers' College to do a primary degree ... a primary course leading to a trained Primary Teacher's Certificate, a one year course. The lucky part ...

Did you feel thwarted in that, in going back to Ballarat? I mean up to Ballarat?

Did I what?

Feel thwarted?

I felt thwarted academically. But there again it paid off. In Ballarat I had a wonderful year. The sport was wonderful. I played football, cricket and swimming. Scholastically it was broadening because I had to do subjects that I had never taken much interest in before: psychology particularly and world history which I had never studied. We'd always done British history at school. And lovely English, which broadened my whole English perception, because I had been brought up in the school in the classical old fashioned sort of English of Milton and Shakespeare and all that era. And here we had a modern teacher, who taught us what a short story was and introduced us to contemporary short stories and three-act plays and modern novels.

Had you discovered any of the mountaineering or the Antarctic books, by this age?


Not at all? You hadn't read anything?

No. Not even mountaineering books, strangely to say.

Despite the fact that you had been doing that yourself.

So at Ballarat Teachers' College I played on the local ... I played on the college football team and the college cricket team. I was the champion swimmer of the college, not that that meant much, there were not many of us. I didn't play tennis there. I was too busy on football and cricket, I guess. And I was ... I ran a little dance band and played the saxophone.

Did your brother Geoff come and join in?

No he was not there. He was out teaching. And I was on the council, the student council of the college. And I became enamoured of a nice young girl with whom I went steady. That was the first steady girlfriend I'd ever had.

That must have been an amazing experience.

Yes. And I remember we used go up on a Saturday night and climb over the fence into the Ballarat Gardens and park there on the lawns away from anyone.

Was she at the Teachers' College?

She was at the Teachers' College, yes. She was a Melbourne girl who had been sent up to do the course there.

And so how long were you there?

One year. Now that opened another gate for me because at the end of that year I found there were two scholarships given for what they called a second year: one for a man, one for a woman. And I won the one for a man and it led to one year at Melbourne's Teachers' College to enrol for a degree. So the following year, 1932, I went to Melbourne Teachers' College and did a one-year, first-year science course. When I talk about interruptions to my academic life, at the end of that year, money had run out and I had no money to live in Melbourne, so I had to take a teaching job in the country. So ...

Well the economic climate must have been pretty bad around that time.

Well that was the middle of the Depression. And they then closed down ... the following year they closed down the Ballarat College because of the Depression. Ballarat and Bendigo. And they cut this secondary course out of Melbourne's Teachers College and I had to go out to Clunes Higher Elementary School as a teacher and for a while I thought, that's the end of my university work for some time, but then I found that I could study mathematics without attending the university. So I did Part Two and Part Three Pure Maths while I was studying ... while I was teaching at Clunes Higher Elementary School. And that was a terrible struggle.

You were doing that at lunchtime, or after school hours?

No lectures at all. See I was in a little country town and I arranged with one of my friends from the previous year, who'd done Part One science with me, he'd gone on to Part Two mathematics ... I arranged for him to take his lecture notes with some duplicating paper, you know, carbon paper, so he sent the carbon paper notes of his lecture notes and then I would write down to the public library in Melbourne, and get them to post up text books, and I literally taught myself maths, following the syllabus set out in these notes.

You must have been very keen to do it, to go to that trouble?

I suppose that I could see that my future in the Department depended on getting a degree, particularly being in the high school section as I wanted to be. And in this elementary school I was teaching up to Intermediate Certificate. One aspect of that shows you, talk about being keen, I found that a country teacher in a little school five miles out of Clunes, a rural school, who lived out there, he wanted to do Part Two and Part Three Maths too. So he and I teamed up, and every Friday night I'd walk five miles across the paddocks to get to this chap's house and he'd give me dinner, and then we'd settle down and work till midnight on our mathematics. And then next morning, which was his shopping morning, he'd drive into Clunes to do his shopping and deliver me back. And over those next two years, I did Maths Two and Maths Three and so did he in that way.

[end of tape]

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