My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full
A Life Lived to the Full
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Part 5 – Pages 47 – 53
For a few days prior to leaving, we stayed with friends at their home in Woodford. Phil had been a good friend to me. A thoroughly decent and forthright man he was also one of the most honest coppers I had encountered. Phil would remain my friend all the time I was in Australia and Malaysia. And indeed he would so remain after our return until his sad death in December 2016.
On 9th May 1965 we took the train to Southampton to catch the SS Fairstar, a ship sailing under the Italian flag as part of the Sitmar line. It was an old ship and had seen service as a British troopship during the War. I cannot say that she was the most comfortable vessel in the world but she was adequate. In any event, she was the only sea going vessel of which I had any experience, so I was in no position to make any judgements.
We had a cabin on E Deck which was the lowest passenger deck and below the waterline. Rory was just under a week short of his second birthday. The Fairstar was a migrant ship; all the passengers, I believe, were £10 Poms. We only had two stops between England and Australia, Egypt and Aden.
I had a camera, a box Brownie, or similar, which took black and white snaps. It was the best I was aware of at the time, but looking back over fifty years it produced some poor results.
We sailed down the coasts of Europe through a stormy Bay of Biscay and past Lisbon before passing through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean and some sunshine.
The food was all right, I suppose, even if a bit too Italian for my taste. In particular, the Italians did not having a clue about making tea. There were a number of shipboard sports to be enjoyed like deck quoits and we played that but much of our time was watching and playing with Rory.
We sailed close to the North African coast with views of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia before on 14th May we passed Malta. Twenty two years later Margaret and I would spend our last holiday together on Malta.
On 16th May we reached our first stop, Egypt. For two people who had never been out of the United Kingdom before, Egypt was a very exciting and strange place, full of exotic sounds, sights and smells. It was not unfriendly as far as I could tell. We stopped at Port Said and were immediately surrounded by it seemed thousands of small boats the occupants of whom were anxious to sell whatever they could.
Ropes were attached to the Fairstar and items were hauled aboard for inspection or sale. We did not buy anything.
A paid guided tour to the Pyramids at Giza was on offer but we decided we could not afford it and decided to sample the delights of Port Said. In the years that followed I thought about this decision and determined that it had been wrong. It would be well into the 1990’s before I got to Giza, and Margaret never made it. I think ‘Carpe Diem’; seize the day, is the lesson to be taken here.
I was called ‘MacGregor’ by the Egyptians and Margaret had the nickname ‘Mrs Simpson.’ There were Police officers everywhere, splendid in white uniforms with black webbing. They were all friendly and had no problems with having their photos taken.
We wandered everywhere for a few hours until Rory, who had just had his second birthday, grew tired. We enjoyed stretching our legs in Port Said and found it all hugely entertaining. It was the last occasion we would have before we reached Aden.
From 17th to 20th May 1965 we had the once in a lifetime experience of transiting the Nile and through the Suez Canal to the Bitter Lakes, then into the Red Sea and eventually into the Indian ocean. It was utterly fascinating, both in terms of its scenery and the activities of its human population. Most people were content to wave at the ship, but one group of men in long flowing shirts, waved in a friendly fashion before turning around and displaying their naked backsides. Thanks chaps.
We passed through the Canal, taking on board various officials, including, I think, the pilot, all of whom were dropped at Suez. The canal was fabulous with a myriad of activities adorning each side. After Port Suez we were on our own and we travelled the length of the Red Sea with long stretches of jagged unfriendly cliffs on each side. We passed French Somaliland, as it was then, now Djibouti, which in later life I visited several times.
On 20th May we dropped anchor in Aden. Aden was a dangerous place in 1965, and it was destined to become more dangerous in the two or three years ahead. Nevertheless we went ashore and were fascinated by the bustle in the street market, the sunshine and the sparkles in the water. We even managed a tentative paddle with tiny fish nibbling at our toes.
We bought a record player, as we had disposed of our old one on leaving England. It served us very well and in turn we sold it on leaving Australia a dozen years later. We did notice a large number of British troops. In addition a fair part of the US Sixth Feet were in port so we saw many American sailors all over the place. This only added to a very exotic mix.
Too soon we left Aden and headed south, passing P and O’s Canberra heading for Southampton. She was a splendid ship, making the Fairstar seem a little shabby. There would be no further stops for over a week, so we all settled down to make the most of things.
Four days later we ‘crossed the line’ thus exposing ourselves to King Neptune’s tender mercies. This generally involved many of his hapless subjects getting a thorough dousing. All good clean fun then. In the evening we had an equatorial dinner with a special menu. Looking at a copy of the menu, I note we had a choice of eleven dishes. We were totally spoiled. The Italians still could not make tea.
Dinner placings were allocated from the start of the voyage. Rory had a place with the other children and we were able to put him to bed after his meal and he slept. There was a ‘listening’ service provided but he never disturbed our dinner. Good lad!
We were seated next to a couple from Yorkshire, Grace and Jim Sosinky. He was Polish, a soldier who stayed on after the war and whose English was a mixture of Yorkshire and Polish. This couple stayed on the ship after we left and disembarked in Sydney, where, by pure chance, we bumped into them again after a couple of years.
On 1st June we had two happenings to keep us all occupied. The first was our sighting of the West Australian coastline. The second was little less esoteric; a force twelve storm. We three little travellers took to our beds feeling thoroughly seasick and were grateful to arrive in Fremantle in the early evening. Many of the passengers decamped to the streets, which were not moving and sought refuge in a café where they served tea, real tea, tasting like tea. Heaven!
There followed a slow drag through the Great Australian Bight until, blessedly at 7 am on the morning of 5th June we pulled into Port Phillip Bay and our final destination. It was the 27th day of our voyage and we got off feeling tired but ready to tackle whatever lay ahead.
We were met by Stan and Berta Lennon who had lived down the street in Belfast. We, and they, thought that it was a preferable option to living in a migrant camp. But it became quickly apparent that it was not a workable solution in the long term and within three weeks we rented a flat in Laburnum Street in Parkdale.
One day while wandering on the beach we came off to find ourselves near a Police Station and we ventured in. I explained my situation and said that I was interested in how I could get a driving licence. I produced my UK licence and the very helpful policeman said Sure, he could give me a Victorian driving licence. After I was fixed up he said, “Does your wife want one?”
I said “She cannot drive.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter” was his cheerful response.
We declined his kind offer but left wondering.
I also went through the final process to join the Victoria Police. This took a few weeks but eventually I went to the Training School in St Kilda Road near the City Centre on 29th May 1965 on a 20 week course. This seemed excessive to me and to the other former policemen on the course. There were four of us; Peter Jackson, Kent County, Jimmy Martin, Glasgow City, Brian Finch, Met A division and me from the Met J division. As Australian law was based on English law it was all a pretty easy twenty weeks. The only difference was that we were all required to donate our efforts to doing a variety of tasks for nothing. These included brushing and cleaning up, fetching oil for the heating ovens and generally carrying out menial tasks.
As the weather improved we played a bit of cricket and generally had a pretty easy time. At the end of the training I was told that I had topped the course. Good news, but it involved no great effort on my part.
As it happened, my joy at finishing top of the class was short lived. There was a passing out ball to be undergone and I informed the Training School bosses that I could not afford to go. They considered this for a while and then told me that there had been a mistake and I was no longer the Dux of the course but had finished second. Sic Gloria transit.
In the meantime our little family had settled down very nicely at 8 Laburnum Street, spending the weekends getting to know Melbourne and, as the weather improved, spending time on the beach. I also joined our local cricket team, Parkdale but played with my usual lack of success.
I scored 32 runs in five completed innings. I found Parkdale played a two day form of cricket on successive weekends. Our highest innings score during the season was 260, higher than I had been accustomed to in England. The wickets were matting, something I had never encountered before. It was possible, I found, that the tighter the matting was pulled, the faster the pace in the wicket.
I also bought a car, a Ford Zephyr 6. It was one of the least inspired decisions of my life. I bought it from an Irish Australian I had met at a party. He appeared to be a pleasant enough chap, but was a rogue. The front shockers had gone on this car and at any speeds in excess of thirty miles an hour, the whole car shook like hell. You live and learn.
I also learned a little about the Irish abroad. Despite never having been to Ireland, in most cases, they invariably believed they knew more about the dammed place than those who had been there or were born in the country. This was the case with my car salesman. In a conversation with him, before I bought the accursed car, he sighed wistfully and stated “It must be great to sit at Waterford and watch the Shannon flowing into the sea.”
I made the mistake of telling him that the Shannon actually met the sea at Limerick on the west coast. This produced a little, but increasingly, heated argument until a school Atlas was produced and my version of geography confirmed. He would not speak to me after that, apart from taking a cheque for the car. His father later informed me that I had spoiled a lifelong dream.
Following our training, we were all posted to Russell Street Police Headquarters. This was normal practice. The plan then was to apply for one of the police positions advertised in the Police newspaper. We now had two months to go before Christmas so I applied for a couple of positions, which I did not get.
Russell Street was very old fashioned, much as England might have been in the inter war years. We paraded for duty, were allocated our patrols and then all marched out in a long line, each officer dropping out of the line as his beat was reached. I found it demeaning.
In the New Year we were all required to back to Training School for a further period of training. It was at this time that I had become disillusioned with the job. It was not well paid and we were struggling. Margaret, as a married woman, could not find employment The Police was very old fashioned and the attitude of many officers to the use of firearms frankly scared me Most believed that shooting at drivers who stole a car for a joyride was a legitimate use of Police firearms. I could not share these views.
I resolved to find another job.
One evening coming home from work on the train from Flinders Street Station, I was studying the employment opportunities in the Age newspaper when I saw an ad for vacancies in the Royal Australian Air Force. One section was for Provost Officers. I was not sure but I thought that the word provost was the military term for police. I thought about this for a day or two and then applied.
Rory was growing up into a stocky young chap with few problems. The thing which worried us both was his inability, or unwillingness to talk. That was resolved one day when after being badgered by his mother to respond he retorted angrily “Don’t rush me.” After that we could not get him to shut up.
The summer of 65/66 was spent on the beach and we all got a tan. Margaret took Rory to have some professional photography done with a view to getting some work as a junior model. This cost four guineas. Australia was still using the pound at this stage but I had forgotten they clung to the concept of demanding payment in guineas. The resultant photos were very good but did not produce any work.
In the meantime my job application was proceeding apace. I had a couple of interviews including a question to determine if I was a homosexual. Homosexuals or ‘K’ types were banned from the armed forces at the time. I was asked “What do you think of girls?” This was despite the fact that I was married and had a son.
My reply was simple. “I think they are here to stay.” This apparently satisfied Squadron Leader Lynch of the Intelligence Branch and there were no further questions.
Eventually I was accepted as being a fit person in the RAAF. My problem was now to leave the Victoria Police, whom I had hardly repaid for my training. I wrote out my resignation and submitted it. Very soon I was paraded before the officer in charge of Russell Street Police. He was angry.
“Give me one good reason why I should accept your resignation three weeks before your agreed notice period.” It was a reasonable question.
“Because, sir, for each week I stay on in the Police, it will cost me £20.”
He thought about this for about twenty seconds. “That is a good reason. Resignation is approved.”
And so, in March 1966, I was commissioned as a pilot officer in the RAAF. There was not a training course for me until June, so I was posted to RAAF Provost Unit, Detachment B, which just happened to be in Russell Street until I could go to Point Cook. I had changed one uniform for another.
Headquarters Provost Unit was also in Melbourne, in Burke Street, and there was a good deal of trotting between the two units. On Friday afternoon Det B was thrown open for a kind of a social, the bar being open till about seven.
The commander of Det B was a Squadron Leader Jimmy Lindsay, a Scot who had served in a Scottish Police force and the Merchant Navy prior to coming to Australia. He was a good man and treated me well. Lindsay was a hard taskmaster on many of the RAAF personnel who reported to him in Detachment B, except for one. That was Warrant Officer Arthur Templeman, who was clearly an alcoholic. Jimmy protected him and helped him hide his addiction.
It could not last, of course, and eventually, sometime after I left the Detachment, Arthur hit the buffers for the last time and was dismissed.
I spent an interesting, if rather idle ten weeks there before being posted to RAAF Point Cook, for no 59 Officers Initial Training Course. This meant that Margaret was alone during the weekday, until I got home at the weekend. i thought that she coped very well, on her own in a strange country looking after a two year old.
I had also part exchanged my unlikeable Ford and bought a very good car, a Peugeot 403. It was an old fashioned type of car but very reliable and comfortable.
I then embarked on a twelve week training course. I do remember thinking that in my first fifteen months in Australia I would spend thirty four weeks undergoing training.
I found the trading school invigorating and interesting. We were accommodated at Point Cook, in the Officers Mess, which was civilised and the days were spent learning. We studied Air Force law and history. In addition we were taught firearms drill with pistols and rifles and bivouacked in tents. All was relieved by being able to go home at weekends.
There were twenty students on the course, seventeen males and three females, section officers as they were then called. The three girls were Lyn Letchford, Helen Gloede and Rosemary Meredith. Rosemary and Helen were pleasant and attractive girls who had previously been rankers. Lyn was a direct entry and was somewhat crazy.
The guys were from all parts of Australia with the one exception of a Scot and of course me, as an Ulsterman.
Lyn very early on demonstrated the direction her career was headed by what she wrote on the classroom blackboard. She wrote ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and then altered it to read ‘the penis mightier that the sword.’ That was forgiven but during a formal dining in night, she got up and danced on the Officers’ Mess table. That was the end of a not very bright future.
On our bivouac, we had rifles loaded with blanks and being big boys it was inevitable that we loosed off the odd shot. At one time, during our three days in the bush, we laid ambush to a lonely country road where we anticipated ‘the enemy’ would sooner or later advance. After waiting nearly an hour the enemy had not appeared but an old Holden with an elderly couple on board did appear. The temptation was too great and we let them have a volley. The car took off like a bat from hell while we convulsed with laughter.
We had a severe bollocking that day but I don’t think the couple reported it.
While at Point Cook we did a lot of reading and writing of reports and in due course, the job was done. I finished third in the course which pleased me. The final drill session was something to behold and I was drawn last to command the squad. I thought up a stunt to play a joke on our instructors, especially the impeccable Warrant Officer Terence Colman.
I would carry out the drill commands as they were meant to be until the last one, which I would preface with the words ‘Squad, for the last time’ and then “Halt”. The boys and girls would then produce a silent halt. I did all this until the final command which was prefaced by the words ‘for the last time’. It worked perfectly; not a single foot made a single noise’
We all stood there shivering with giggles while I awaited a response from the Flight Lieutenant and the warrant Officer. Eventually Terence Colman spoke. “Mr Matier, to me Sir, if you will.” I came to attention and marched past my sniggering squad where I heard Rosemary mutter, “You’re for it, mate.”
I came to attention before Terence who was having fits of giggling. “Mr Matier, I do like a joke, but I detest fucking pantomime. Dismiss your squad and fall out.”
I did, and despite the fooling around, I got a distinction for drill.
My time in training was just about done. The one thing I believed it had all been about was how to be an Air Force officer. This was a concept in which I tried to follow over the next six years.
Pages 47 – 53