Friday, July 25, 2014
ALMOST A CASE OF DÉJÀ VU!
It’s only after you journey back in time that you realise you are indeed a very small cog in the wheel of life. Back in the 50’s there I was a teenager about to replicate a momentous event in the life of my Great Grandmother Geraldine; one of the Four Sisters from Sussex. I approached this milestone with all the ignorance of youth as did Grandmother Maggie twenty or so years later. All three of us no doubt considered the world our oyster and we had only to dive in and choose the way we devoured it.
I was about to test the water.
ROCK’N ROLL & ACRONYMS GALORE
Brisbane skyline 1954-1964: These ten years have seen big changes for both Brisbane and for me. Back in the 1950’s I was just one of the eager teenagers queuing to see America’s sob singer Johnny Ray; but now it’s 1964 and the Beatles are in town performing in the old city stadium revamped and called Festival Hall, but I won’t be there to see them because by the time they arrive I’m a house wife with a husband and two small and adorable babies.
Gosh! What a difference those ten years made. It seems only yesterday I was that naïve young fifteen year old in a baggy uniform and battered hat marching into the Brisbane Telegraph’s office to ask for a job. How on earth did I get from little girl then to mum of two circa 1964?
Easy! I discovered Rock’n Roll and a progression of teenage jobs that involved an awful lot of acronyms. Mind you, the timely appearance of the Reluctant Traveller did, as well, have a great deal to do with it all.
Circa 1954: Queensland’s capital Brisbane was fondly considered nothing more than a country town and compared to its southern sisters, Sydney and Melbourne I guess it was. The town had none of the bustle of a busy metropolis. Life was lived at a comparatively slower pace. Cars and trams were still sharing the city streets, Cloudland still hovered in all its neon pulsing glory over the skyline and with two newspapers churning out thick daily editions Brisbane’s fish and chip shops never ran short of wrapping paper.
Over the river at the busy Gabba Five Ways traffic still came to a halt when railway engines crossed the road behind a worker waving a red flag and shaking a bell; in Brisbane’s absolute city centre the pandemonium of the Roma Street fruit and veg markets reverberated in clear sight of City Hall… and as you can see high profile Davis Cup matches attracted amazingly huge crowds to the Milton Tennis Centre.
On the fashion front skirts were being worn mid calf, gloves and hats were a social must; we all wanted to look like our favourite movie stars, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe.
That’s me; in the middle of the group, handbag over shoulder hat in hand; we’re all eager Johnny Ray fans waiting to see our heart throb arrive at the airport, hoping for a freebie ticket, maybe even meet him face to face. I wonder where all those teenage girls are now.
So much has disappeared. The trains meandering across lanes of traffic, the mayhem of the Markets diverted out of town to Rocklea. Huge entertainment centres replacing the old stadium, Milton Tennis courts abandoned, and the carefree youngsters of yesterday now grey haired and reduced to reminiscing about the ‘good old days’. And they were…
ENTERING THE WORK FORCE
I guess the biggest difference between then and now was the wide variety and availability of jobs. You had only to open the Classified Advertising section of the Courier or Telegraph to scan through a veritable smorgasbord of positions vacant. Kids in this impersonal, computerised 21st Century don’t enjoy that luxury. The dole has replaced incentive. Machines have swelled the unemployed.
For me that first job at The Telegraph proved to be a gentle introduction into the working force though I’m not so sure the paper’s various section heads had the same opinion. Believing I’d actually benefited from those years at Commercial High the powers to be started me off in classified accounts handling one of several hugely cumbersome accounting machines.
I well remember sitting at those now obsolete machines, fingers tapping away with increased abandon as I entered account numbers and billing amounts. Debits and credits, fingers flying across the rackety keyboard; it was heady stuff. What I didn’t like was the subsequent search and correct sessions as I desperately tried to untangle page after page of figures that refused to balance.
They tried me on the switchboard next; another delightful, though by today’s standards messy conglomeration of cords and plugs with tiny holes. It was of course a minefield that demanded one hundred percent accuracy with giggles and gasps of apology not always appreciated. So I wasn’t altogether surprised to find myself eventually dumped in the nerve centre of newspaper advertising, the vast telephone room where several women sat in little cubicles, headsets on, typewriters at the ready waiting to copy info from people wanting to hire, sell or buy. Thank heavens two things I could do reasonably well were type and spell and at last I had a job that seemed to run smoothly.
The Telegraph offices were wonderfully friendly with office staff and young journalists like John Morton and Glyn May mingling socially and hopefully with the girls from classified. I even joined the cadet journalist’s shorthand classes run by Bud Matzow though the squiggles and hieroglyphics of shorthand would forever prove as alien to me as the French foreign legion caps worn by Brisbane’s tram conductors.
But then came the morning my work phone lit up and I went into the usual spiel, Good evening Telegraph classified, and took down a positions vacant advertisement for a secretary to the Operations Manager of Queensland Airlines. Q.A.L. My teenage eyes lit up, aeroplanes, airports, pilots. I was hooked: Another stepping stone, another job and my first working acronym.
Apparently I suffered no qualms about snatching the job before anyone else had a chance to see the advert. I guess it wasn’t very ethical but then again I hadn’t yet come across the word in the books I read and in any case had no idea what it meant.
A quick chat to the advertiser, an appointment for next morning in his office at Eagle Farm and before you could say Charles Kingsford Smith I had a new career in the growing airline industry and a working life ruled by a growing list of acronyms.
The airlines in those days while not in their infancy were by today’s standards only barely out of nappies. Air travel was considered an almost unattainable luxury. There were just the two major airlines, ANA or Australian National Airlines, and TAA, Trans Australia Airlines and they were housed in old world war two hangars on the fringe of the airport tarmac. The hangars were tarted up with false hanging ceilings and partitions separating waiting rooms from offices and baggage collection.
Aircraft in service then were DC3’s, the civilian equivalent to the old wartime workhorse, the Dakota. Queensland Airlines, or QAL shared premises with Australian National Airways, ANA, and serviced rural Queensland flying into towns like Emerald and Cunnamulla, Barcaldine, Biloela, Clermont, Longreach and Rockhampton. The big boss of QAL was the aviation legend Captain Robbie Adair who together with his secretary Iris Burton managed to keep the company on an even keel with skill and careful management.
The job had its perks; on the rare occasions an unaccompanied child needed babysitting on one of the short hops I climbed aboard with even more delight than the kid I was supposed to be looking after.
Eagle Farm airport in the fifties was nothing more than a huge landing field occupied by a clutch of large WW2 hangars. When the occasional American Air Force super fortress or KLM stratocruiser dropped in from the sky onto the tarmac, taxiing to a stop in front of ANA, the airport’s entire work force looked on in awe. We were like kids in a lolly shop with office girls and even pilots clambering aboard to explore and savour these foreign giants. I remember sinking into blissfully plush seats accepting foreign confectionary from smiling Dutch hosties. What our Aussie flight crews thought of the intricate cockpit panels I can only imagine.
My first grown up boyfriend was a pilot with ANA, a tall gangling young second officer from Sydney. Nev had a sports car and was a keen amateur photographer. Before long he had me draped over that car in a variety of poses and outfits. Sometimes I was the sporty girl in flippers and goggles, other times the backdrop was a sleek DC3 or Fokker Friendship. Looking back I have to wonder which one of us was the star attraction; me or the car.
An overriding memory I have from that time happened when his parents came up from Sydney to meet mine. Over the dinner table at our house the usual rush of pleasantries were being exchanged with Mum getting in first with her flowery appreciation of Nev’s many qualities. There was a considerable silence when it came to his mother’s turn to presumably say nice things about me. We all waited with polite anticipation until she finally smiled and said what nice teeth I had.
FROM AIRCRAFT TO NEWSPRINT
Fickle me: I don’t recall how or why the transition was made but my next job was with QRNS, or the Queensland Radio News Service, a tightly run appendage to both radio station 4BK and the Courier Mail in which Queen Street building across from the GPO, General Post Office, both were housed.
My job now was to transcribe editors and reporters dictated news stories directly onto a typewriter before the copy was whizzed upstairs to newsreaders in the studio.
More often there was enough time for the editor to proof read the news stories, some memorable times there was not, and while the senior newsreader Don Chadwick didn’t seem unduly fazed when he read out marital instead of martial my boss Gordon Cran would go politely ballistic. Funnily enough that same spelling error would resurface with an embarrassing correction in a much later job when I was considerably older, married and should really have known better.
That’s me growing up! Wearing the daring strapless ball gown; Revisiting Bondi; and the noticeboard that caused my cheeks to burn red with guilt and embarrassment…
Courier Mail journalists were renowned for their social life which included an incredible amount of time in the next door pub, the Stock Exchange Hotel just across Isles Lane and known to all the switchboard operators as the Branch Office. Many a telephone call was switched through to the public bar. (Isles Lane has since disappeared along with the Courier to become an arcade linking Queen Street to Anzac Square in Adelaide Street.)
With everyone working ungodly hours through to midnight and beyond office parties often carried on into the early hours of the morning. Consequently we news typists would at times stumble onto the 5am shift in desperate need of black coffee. It was after one of these late night parties coincided with the misplacement of a crucial decimal point in a story about Government finance that my boss fired an arrow that found its mark in my wounded vanity.
A typed memorandum appeared on the notice board addressed to ‘THE PERSON CONCERNED’. It read ‘Those who burn the candle at both ends do their jobs and themselves no justice. Think about it.’ I did and I felt my cheeks burn bright red, I knew the missive was aimed at me.
But I must have been doing something right because I was soon promoted; at least I think it was a promotion. I became secretary to the Courier Mail’s Chief of Staff. My new boss was Alan Cummins and he in turn answered to God, the charismatic Editor in Chief, Ted Bray, who later became Sir Theodor Bray.
The Chief of Staff’s office was a fishbowl that looked out onto the news room where reporters could be seen busily tapping away at typewriters or chatting away on telephones. News items originated from the Chief of Staff's office; he or his deputies Jim Blaikie, John Atherton or Bud Matzkows decided the item’s level of importance and then allocated the story to a journalist. Finished copy was collected by copy boys or girls and taken to the sub-editors room where they were cut and polished and from there printed on rough sheets and returned to the chief sub-editor for the news conference with God that decided the final shape the next day’s paper would take.
Sir Ted found out the hard way that not all secretaries came equipped with shorthand. For a short while I took on the role of secretary while his own super efficient one was on holiday. This delightful sojourn which for a while involved nothing more onerous than answering the phone and skimming through his large and interesting library suddenly perked up when a late night crisis occurred at Parliament House: Vince Gair the then Premier of Queensland and his government were in dire straits.
The Editor in Chief’s office was crammed with journalists with the phone hooked up to the Political correspondent replaying the action from George Street. The atmosphere was tense; the parliament looked like falling, my boss suddenly called me to take down the story for the morning’s edition…in shorthand.
I’m sure I gulped, I know I went numb. Then the adrenalin kicked in and I suggested the typewriter would be faster. I survived the night, though I’m sure the Editor in Chief was highly amused: A 17 year old secretary with no shorthand.
We parted firm friends and I left his office with the gift of books from his library. I still have one of them, a collection of short stories by Alexandra Hasluck entitled, Of Ladies Past. Most appropriate.
Putting the Courier Mail to bed was undeniably an epic operation, a daily Hollywood blockbuster with a huge supporting cast. The newspaper became my home away from home, no doubt helped by the camaraderie of staff. Siblings and family groups featured prominently in the news room. Apart from the Brays, father and son and the Vines in Sport, there were the Bolton boys and the ever jovial Sligo brothers both senior political roundsmen as unalike as chalk and cheese except for their beaming smiles. Around then Noel Turnbull married a young nurse called Dulcie who later figured prominently in local politics.
I loved visiting the printing room while the huge machines were in operation, having to shout above the noisy roar and still not be heard; experiencing a shivery thrill as pages of the paper emerged to be sorted by more machines and finally delivered in trussed bundles along huge conveyor belts to the trucks waiting to disperse the Courier Mail all over Queensland and the Northern Rivers.
(Maybe I was feeling a whisper from the past, from the American Grandfather with the assumed name whose officially legal profession was once as a newspaper print setter.)
BRISBANE’S BRIGHT LIGHTS
Keep in mind these were the days of radio. Television had yet to arrive; cars could actually park in Queen Street; Saturday night at the movies was considered the big night out.
The tramlines and parked cars have long gone, in their place the Queen Street Mall.
Apart from a multitude of movie theatres, in Queen Street alone the Regent, Odeon and Wintergarden, dances and balls and visiting overseas celebrities were other features of life in the fifties.
Brisbane’s public were well provided with a wide variety of entertainment. Live vaudeville shows, drama, musical, ballet and opera were staged at either His Majesty’s Theatre in Queen Street, the Cremorne across the river at South Brisbane or the wonderfully bawdy Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street. It would be 40 years before I found out my American grandfather had appeared at the Royal in 1910, billed as the Champion Ball Puncher of Australia. Note admission price was only one shilling.
During the holidays I moonlighted for a short time working for the hypnotist Franquin during his season at His Majesty’s and later dressed up in a Japanese kimono to sell programmes before the curtain rose for the Cherry Blossom Show...(and surprising my future and unsuspecting Reluctant Traveller dating a girl friend of mine when he shouldn’t have been.)
There were several dance halls situated in various parts of Brisbane. Most popular were the Riverside at New Farm, the Blind Institute at South Brisbane and the larger than life magnet for all dance enthusiasts be they jive artists, square dancers or strictly ballroom, the incomparable Cloudland.
Cloudland straddled a hill at Newstead overlooking just about all of Brisbane. More to the point all eyes were instantly drawn to the huge horse shoe shaped dome that pulsed nightly with rainbows of neon lighting. Access was gained by a winding road up through the gardened terraces from the Bowen Hills side of the complex but most young people preferred to ride up the hill from the tram stop on Newstead Road in a passenger cable car, Brisbane’s little touch of San Francisco.
Cloudland had its resident big band and a specially sprung floor that made even the clumsiest of dancers feel they were floating on air. I attended my first ball at Cloudland. My date was a tall handsome young man from accounts and I wore a gorgeous, strapless froth of white tulle and petticoats.
Mum and I had spent hours agonising over the right dress. Did I have sufficient equipment to hold the dress up? Was the stark white colour flattering? We finally found THE one at McWhirters department store in the Valley. It cost a fortune, on time payment of course.
City Hall was the venue for the annual Arts Ball, an absolute must on Brisbane's social calendar. Its approach sent out a strange signal that changed even the most staid people into raving lunatics. The Arts Ball was the ball of the season where you could let your imagination run riot. The year I attended with a party of young bloods from the Courier Mail our pre-ball party was held at the old Lennon’s Hotel in George Street just around the corner from the City Hall.
These pre ball occasions had a reputation something like today’s schoolies week with party goers taking over whole hotels and spilling from room to room and floor to floor. Because the City Hall was strictly alcohol free the pre-ball parties were essentially nothing more than booze ups. It was often 10 or 11 before relieved hotel management saw the last gypsy or Arab sheik weave an unsteady course round the corner of George and Adelaide Streets to the ball proper at nearby City Hall.
That year I took advantage of the latest craze in matador pants and went as a hot pink matador. My date was a resplendently dressed restoration courtier complete with a wig that was commandeered by some bright spark and went missing very early in the night. But the star of the Arts Ball that year and certainly the most popular was a very ordinary looking scuba diver in mask and flippers who dispensed rum and coca cola to all and sundry from a pair of oxygen cylinders strapped to his back.
With clothing ration cards a thing of the past smart dress boutiques began springing up in the city. I still owned hats and gloves but found I wasn't using them quite so often. By now under the influence of a square dancing craze we were wearing rope hemmed petticoats under full skirts and cinch belts that accentuated the waist.
When the short lived sack dress made an appearance I modelled one on a short walk down Queen Street while Noel Pascoe photographed the reaction of passersby as I hobbled past. It was certainly not the most attractive style and with a tightly gathered hem just below the knees it was awfully hard to walk in.
The sack dress & the Reluctant Traveller- fine dining at Lennons.
By 1956 I was 17 and sharing a flat at New Farm with a former Miss Queensland finalist who worked on the Courier Mail switchboard. Joycelyn was a country girl and one of a really huge family of something like fifteen or more children. She had a classic Elizabethan beauty and an elegant maturity far beyond her years. And better still she could cook. We got on together extremely well. Joycelyn had many boyfriends as well as an older and very besotted mentor from her home town and it was through him that I met my husband to be Stan.
In Queen Street just a few doors from the Courier Mail, Michael Karlos had opened Brisbane's first cappuccino espresso coffee lounge, the Carolena, The Carolena was a bright new alternative for quick snacks between shifts and I was putting away an awesome plate of curried spaghetti when Joycelyn’s friend entered with a dapper young man who could have stepped from the pages of a Rowes menswear catalogue.
The Reluctant Traveller had arrived on the scene. I quickly established that while he looked rather young he was in fact twenty seven, definitely an older man and as such an acquisition to be flaunted.
At the time I had shoulder length dark brown hair but for some perverse reason the very next day in a fit of hair day blues I hacked it all off with a pair of office scissors in the ladies loo. Years would pass before he asked me what had happened to my hair.
My social life was fairly busy around this time and I found only occasional free moments to slot in this new attraction. Brisbane was a busy place in the mid fifties, for teenage girls anyway. Not only were big name overseas entertainers regularly performing in the woefully inadequate old stadium on the corner of Albert and Charlotte but the American Navy had placed Brisbane top of the list for R and R visits.
At that time the ships of the US Navy sailed into the Brisbane River nearly every couple of weeks and their sailors were frequently to be found on the wharf under the Story Bridge chewing gum, tossing baseballs and fending off the girls. Along with Maureen Grant, a country girl from Uki who had the smallest waist I'd ever seen, I joined the Australian American Association thereby gaining entry to a giddy round of cocktail parties and dinner dances for visiting naval officers.
I had also acquired my first car; a memorable but very capricious vehicle. Bought on time payment at a time when I gave scant thought to the legalities of a driving licence or registration, that cheap little bomb spent more time being poured over by amateur mechanics than on the road.
Brisbane had a reputation for being just a big country town and in lots of ways I suppose it was, but bit by little bit a change was creeping over the familiar landscape. The animal cages at the Botanical Gardens had thankfully already disappeared. Never again would Brisbane’s public gaze upon imprisoned monkeys with raw pink bottoms.
Television towers began sprouting along Mt Coot-tha ridge. Cloudland and the historic Bellevue Hotel were, unknown to most, destined soon for the rubble heap. Our beloved trams too were headed for the big chop and in the name of progress King George Square would very soon be created from the debris of Albert Street and the Tivoli Theatre not to mention Jack’s Casket Agency where Constance Street neighbour Shirley Payne once worked.
About now too the Reluctant Traveller coming to my rescue on ever increasingly tricky moments decided enough was enough. In quick succession he returned the car to its original owners and took a more permanent interest in my social calendar.
50 odd years later – The Reluctant Traveller and me.
Like Brisbane itself I was growing up. Ahead lay marriage and motherhood. Life’s big adventure was unfolding. No doubt along the way mistakes would be made and storms would be encountered but looking back now from our venerable and aged perch my Reluctant Traveller and I can safely say it’s been a marvellous journey… and I for one wouldn’t change any part of it.
Next: Brisbane’s world of TV game shows circa 70’s and 80’s.
Previous “Back Then” stories: