BOOKS > PLAY TOGETHER, DARK BLUE TWENTY
what it says on the cover:
the southern edge of the Domain, that little patch of Melbourne
that is forever England, stands Melbourne Church of England
Grammar School, its milieu dominated by the offices of British
Petroleum, the elegant white tower of Government House, and
the massive Graeco-Chaldean ziggurat of the Shrine of Remembrance.
one hundred and thirty years Melbourne Grammar has been
the training ground
for many of the nation’s gentlemen. It has provided rites of passage
for homesick boys who have learned the decencies of social behaviour on the
ground, in the dining room, in the showers, under the dangerous glances of ‘the
East’, the school’s secret police.
was here the young Chester Eagle came in the late ‘forties from his
parents’ farm near Finley, lovingly detailed in Mapping
to the alien, claustrophobic world of boarding school.
in local time, the buildings of Melbourne Grammar have echoed
shouts, groans, laughter; to interrogation and exhortation; to chants, lectures,
and prayers. Here are those echoes.
note for a later edition that never appeared:
book was first published (1986) when I was working in Victoria’s
education system. I intended it to be, like its predecessor Mapping
the paddocks (1985), an
evocation of a past Australia, and I wanted also to make
a contribution to the building of a state education system
quality and achievement.
I hoped that those involved with government education would
recognise the considerable qualities, mostly to do with pride,
certainty and tradition, of the school described, and also
see enough of the ways, many of them unattractive, by which
school’s prestige was maintained to see the need to
go in another direction entirely. In the weeks following
its publication, I saw that what I wanted was not going to
happen. The book created a certain frisson at the
school in question and among old boy
and old girl networks more generally, but as a contribution
to the changes then taking place in the state’s education
system it had no effect at all. I am reissuing the book now
as a record of a tradition, very powerful in its day, which
had some effect on our history.
would like to record my thanks to Hilary McPhee and Diana
Gribble, who believed in
and first gave it to the public.
read some extracts from the book click here:
The dining room
The Boss (J.R.Sutcliffe)
read about the writing of this book click
the bottom of the hill capped by Victoria’s
Shrine of Remembrance sits our memorial hall. Heavy and
imposing, it faces the clock tower. On the side
next to the main oval - which we call ‘the big ground’, though
small - hundreds of boys fight to get near the doors. The prefects can hardly
push them open. We rush in, grabbing the friends we want to sit with, and
for a few minutes the hall’s filled with the sound of banging seats.
the foyer, masters gather quietly beside the Roll of Honour, with the Boss,
Mr Sutcliffe, standing apart. The names of the dead, set in metal,
down. On Anzac Day a small flame’s lit underneath. We’ve a
way of doing things that’s calculated to impress. When the school
captain comes on stage, there’s a hush. Prefects close the doors.
The vice-master makes himself visible in the doorway, the captain motions
us to stand. Grouped
houses - Bromby, Witherby, Morris, Ross, Rusden, School - we watch our
masters make their way down the aisle. They’re relaxed, though there’s
a feeling that any unseemly action would be punished. The procession is
the Boss - a menacing presence - enters the aisle as the first masters
make their way up the steps. When he reaches the position vacated by his
at the music master, who strikes a chord on the piano, and we sing:
together, Dark Blue Twenty,
Long and little marks in plenty;
Get your kick, let none prevent ye,
Make the leather roll.
Mark your men, keen effort straining,
On the ball and show your training;
Still though short the time remaining,
Get another goal.
is the first verse of the Games Song. Nothing in its diction,
or sentiments, troubles us. A passion for sport’s
enforced on us, with an emphasis on teamwork and the bonding of males.
Boys, we’re to be transformed into men,
and not a few of those who supervise this transformation are old boys.
In room 21 the names of two of the men now facing us can be found carved
into the tops
of desks. At Winchester and Eton, we’re told, the same thing’s
true on a grander scale. Future Viceroys, Admirals and Prime Ministers
in wood, impulses similar to our own. Churchill himself, the hero of
World War Two, has cut his name in a desk at Harrow. While we don’t
have the long tradition of these schools, we have as much as it’s
possible to have in Australia. We’re Melbourne Grammar! Trebles
are drowned in the roar of older boys as we sing:
our ranks shall sunder.
Who will shirk or blunder?
If all are true
To our Dark Blue,
Our foemen must go under.
Honour ye the old School’s story,
Those who played and won before ye,
Bear the Dark Blue flag to glory,
Grammar to the fore.
comes when boys at the top are kept waiting by persons trying
to put jam or honey
on their toast before
they relinquish the bowl. This is when menace
is transferred down the table in a series of orders - ‘Jam! Panic!’ -
or by ugly looks. Such warnings are sometimes given unjustly, in that the
junior person hasn’t realised who’s been kept waiting; he will
then apologise. At other times, and particularly when the East’s
been active, the bowl flies from hand to hand at uncontrollable speeds,
to the embarrassment
more benign prefects and the greater embarrassment of boys in the middle
a bowl of honey pressed against their lapel or overturned in their lap.
Accidents of this sort are greeted by laughter, with an ensuing frown from
seated at the table which runs across the room.
the scene. The walls are lined with premiership photos going
deep into the nineteenth century.
Athletes, cricketers, footballers and oarsmen,
stare from frames, capped, moustached, wearing knee length trousers which
the years progress. They’re in blazers with wild hair, hair watered,
hair brilliantined. Their coaches sit sternly between captain and vice
stand in the back row. In 1931 Grammar took out the four premierships
and the photos from that year are in one frame which hangs above the
and grandparents of the present school look down on maids rushing trays
to prefects, before whom empty plates are stacked. They serve. On weekends,
less pressure, boys in the middle may get their dinner first. At other
times, seniors take their plates, then pass indifferently towards the
middle. If one
side of the table has an uneven number, a voice in the process of breaking
may cry, ‘Hey! What about me?’ The prefect will say, ‘You
belong to the other end.’
Power’s clustered, and may be arbitrarily
employed, but most of the time there’s security in our hierarchical
system. We know who we are, and if we’re exposed to others, they
also are exposed to us. We know each other’s
sounds and habits. We’ve nicknames for each other of brutal aptness.
Yet night after night, in our blue suits, we push in to dinner, with
masters at the
centre table. A hundred and twenty boys stand at their benches. Fred
Jarrett, School House master, grunts; it’s his call for silence. ‘Benedictus,
benedicat, per Iesum Christum, Dominum nostrum,’ he says.
We sit. The prefects on duty produce their rolls, calling names at
speed. We answer ‘Sir!’ The
meal won’t be served until the rolls are finished, so the prefects
hurry, answers coming two or three names behind the call.
‘Baillieu, Bodinnar, Brown,’ says the prefect, and they answer ‘Sir!’ right
down to ‘Whitehead, Wiseman, Withers.’ Missing a roll call is serious.
Boys arriving late are greeted by Fred’s ‘See me after.’ They’re
caned, or gated. When the senior roll’s completed, Perry, the junior boarding
house, is called. Their voices come out too loudly, or in falsetto. There is
general merriment when someone’s voice goes wrong, though we dare not,
in the presence of masters, squeal as we would if the same vocal accident occurred
in the shower room. Fred glares in the direction of any exuberance. The serious
business of eating has to start, and we’re our own enforcers.
the Korean war starts, Jack Brooksbank pins cuttings on a
cupboard, so we’ll know what’s happening - the
Communists are overrunning a country that wants freedom.
The waves of Red Chinese are made to sound worse than the
dervishes who trapped General Gordon; it’s a depressing
and unstable world!
Boss, who’s clear about it, says fear can be mastered.
He makes a practice of taking a maths class from time to
time to see what our scholarship’s like. He has a store
of short cuts for doing problems, and an amazing ability
to factorise. He thinks nothing of tackling seven or eight
digit numbers in his head. He tells us, speaking as informally
as we’re ever to hear him, ‘In a war one often
finds oneself marching for hours at a time, and I made it
my practice, as a way of getting mental exercise, to factorise
the identification numbers each man had stencilled on the
back of his pack. God knows there was little else to do.
It was a good exercise in concentration, and I found it helped
immeasurably to steady my nerves.’ We look at our merciless
Boss. He has, on the back of his head, a small circle where
no hair grows. It’s the size of a two shilling piece.
No-one tells us what’s caused it, but it’s sometimes
offered as an excuse for something we resent about him -
he uses perfume! When he comes to the door beside the artillery
shell and makes his way up the quad, he carries with him
not only his pool of silence, but an aroma we don’t
associate with men. Some sneer at this, others excuse it
on the ground that it’s a medication he uses to stop
his bald spot spreading. In thinking of him as being unmanly,
we don’t stop to wonder why he needed his mental arithmetic
as he marched to the line. We can’t imagine our Head
as a young man, any more than we can think of Hairless having
balls. Things are as we see them and we’re ferocious
in our judgement.
> back to TOP
best athletes aren’t necessarily first through the
opening because to be small and light can be an advantage
in the heavy going, and desperation drives those who know
they’re slow at dressing. Filthy from training and
red with exertion, we hurl ourselves at the opening, making
a new sound as our studded boots reach the drive. We fall
on the bluestone steps near the locker room and drag off
our boots. Gear’s hurled into lockers to be untangled
next day. We grab our sports towels, which are only slightly
less smelly than our sports gear, and rush for the shower. ‘Four
to go!’ yells someone who’s looked at the clock.
Shit! We take our dash in the cold shower and rush upstairs.
Suits on! Ties! Hair! Tangled shoelaces cause anguished cries. ‘Two
to go!’ The last to dress are still in the locker room
when the clock starts to chime the quarters; that means there
are just so many seconds left to be at the dining room door.
If it’s bolted when we get there we wonder why we rushed.
If it’s open, we know why - because Fred’s coming
out of his rooms and making his way to the head of his table. ‘Benedictus,
benedicat, per Iesum Christum, Dominum nostrum,’ he
mumbles, and we sit. Picture the scene: a hundred and twenty
boys in blue, with white faces and black hair, blonde hair,
and the energy of youth. We’ve got blue diaries in
our pockets, or our lockers, and they’re full of tonight’s
homework. Latin translation. Algebra. Euclid. A
Midsummer Night’s Dream. Montcalm, Quebec. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Let there be no moaning, when
I shall cross the bar.
Practical Physics, by E.D. Gardiner. Avogadro’s
hypothesis. Atomic theory and the ideas of matter it replaced.
The formation of crystals. Causes of World War One, Danton,
Robespierre, the guillotine. A
Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge.
Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, the end of year exams. At
Intermediate level we’re streamed into Classical A, B, C or D: Shell
A, Shell B and the Remove. At leaving and matric, it’s
results that count, and the school knows what it wants. We’ve
to do as well as those who came before us, and better if
might, if we try hard enough, be one of the great years of
> back to TOP
parts the Red Sea, but it’s
custom, not done in awe. He takes the field in an enormous
cable-knitted jumper to watch the First XI practise.
Standing six or seven paces from the stumps, he observes
the back of a spinner’s
hand, and the footwork of batsmen. His counselling rumbles across the field,
though those who are close to him find him hard to follow. As archetypal
a teacher as the Boss, he wanders about the practice nets,
having plenty to say. Boys who
are trying to bowl out a friend, or flailing at balls from those they hate
or fear, are likely to find Babylon roaring ‘Splendid!’ and
pointing with jovial intensity at what’s been done
right - or he may stop the action to analyse a failing. These
visitations make us feel awkward because we’re
not on his wavelength, and it can be embarrassing when the school’s
most senior person looms behind the umpire of a house thirds game to tell
how to set his field, or to demand of a bowler, ‘Now what are you appealing
he has a superior mind, we have no doubt, but we wish he’d
convey his wishes more clearly. What does he want of us? In later years
he creates a
private room for the sixth form, furnishes it with armchairs and stocks
it with magazines designed to link us to contemporary debate
- The New
Statesman & Nation,
The Scientific American, and so on. He has a plaque mounted on
the wall, quoting the prophet Micah: ‘What doth the Lord require of thee but
to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ This
is not, we sense, the Lord God of Hosts, nor is it the God of Abraham, or
Saint Paul. This is a
God who takes pride in the autonomy of his creatures, and it’s not
a voice we’ve been trained to hear.
> back to TOP
year’s marked out by visits from the Sears Studio
man who sets up his camera and hides himself in black cloth
take photos. Crews, when term one
ends, put out from the jetty one last time to be recorded sitting stiffly,
blades poised, with the cox looking over his shoulder.
Cricketers don blazers and whites
for the traditional shot beneath the Witherby tower. School House is
taken outside the Boss’s study, facing Dr Bromby’s
pine. Chairs are brought from the studies and the benches
are carried down from the dining hall. We wear suits,
white collars, and take care with our ties. We wear school lapel pins
and stern faces for posterity. We talk like parrots as
the rows are put in place. Small
boys gather at one side, waiting to be sat, cross-legged, at the feet
of the mighty. The captain stands next to the photographer,
of whom we know nothing
except that he wears a hat, has glasses, and comes back every year.
He wants to place boys by their size, the captain by their
While the compromise
is hammered out, those in position smile, then stiffen. ‘God,
you look ridiculous!’ we tell each other, and ‘Say cheese.’ The
moment comes closer. Our facial muscles tighten. We crack our weakest
uproariously. The Sears man takes off his hat. We cheer. He dives beneath
the cloth. We freeze. He pops out, opening his case for a plate. We
know the ritual.
He rams it in place, we tighten. He dives under the cloth. The captain
walks to his place at the centre of the second row, there being no
to impede him. It’s close! The photographer, having studied us
through his lens, hands out orders. ‘Shoulder to shoulder. You
and you, swap places. No! You and you! That lanky fellow in the middle,
stand up straight! Stop trying
to bury your head in your shoulders. The fellow next to him, get your
heels on the ground, stop trying to look bigger than you are!’ The
house mocks those who are reprimanded. ‘Come on fellers, steady
down,’ says the captain,
grinning broadly. Half the time we hate him but now he’s popular. ‘Steady
down,’ we tell each other, trying to find the face we’ve
right,’ says the man from Sears. ‘Are you ready?’ He
dives under his cloth. This is it! We slick our hair. ‘Keep still!’ the
photographer calls, voice muffled by the cloth. ‘Ready?’ he
here we go.’ It’s awful. Click! In a split second the Sears
man pops his head out, cries ‘We’ll have another!’ and
dives back. It’s
the moment we’ve been waiting for. He says it every time. ‘We’ll
have another!’ we yell, beaming. Click goes the shutter again,
got his picture, the whole house smiling or at least presentable. ‘What
about another?’ we sing out, but he’s packing his things,
he never takes more than two.
proofs go on the noticeboard, weeks later, stamped in purple
Proof. We study them, pin them back. We add
our names to the list - we can
mounted with names, mounted without names. We pick mounted with names.
We sense, however much we hate our faces and laugh at our friends,
been done again. History’s grabbed us by the balls. The faces
given the camera are the faces by which we’ll be known. We’ve
spent hours looking into earlier photos than our own, and now it’s
been done to us. We’re on the record, frozen, cooked, embalmed.
We’re on the
way to being entries in Liber Melburniensis. Judgement’s been
carried out. The school’s claimed another year.
writing of this book:
finished Mapping the
paddocks in a blaze of excitement. Later
that same day I started Play
together, dark blue twenty.
On, on! Over the following weeks I got about fifty pages
done, as I recall, before I began to have doubts. My treatment
was too light. There was something darker, heavier about
the school and its traditions, that wasn’t burdening
my prose as it should. I stopped. I waited a day or two,
looking at what I’d written. Could I fix the problem
by adding bits here and there? No, I couldn’t. I had
to start again.
to do? I put the fifty pages in an envelope and sealed it.
I have it still.
I’ve never opened it from that day to this. I don’t even want to.
I’m very happy with my second effort, so that I’ll leave the comparisons
to someone else if there’s ever anyone who wants to bother.
was said, when I was young, that Australia lacked traditions.
This was rubbish. I’d
come from one tradition and young men of my sort flowed into the traditions
of the sombre-looking school in Saint Kilda Road where my young manhood was
shaped. There was no such thing as a teenager in my time. Male children became
boys became men. Men of the Melbourne Grammar type sought advantage and they
managed things to make sure they got it, they and their children, their spouses
and families. Networking and obedience were consummately enforced, while
the school’s teachers, educated enough and distinctly
quirky, some of them, taught by rote, most of them, by way
of showing us how to succeed. The school
always got good exam results. Its leading scholars went on to university
and did well, of course, but many were happy to get their
matric. (year 12) and
go back to the properties they would run when their fathers handed them on.
went into business. Tertiary education was not general in those days so many
students did a second and occasionally a third year of matric. before they
finally left school. School was enough for most in those days, and its rituals,
of the River, and inter-school dances, were the foundations of a way of life
for those who benefited most from Australia’s pastoral economy and
relations with the world’s leading power, Great Britain.
was a very English school. Yet the more English its ways,
the more Australian it
felt. I don’t think I can explain why this was so, yet I believe
it was. Perhaps I feel this most strongly because I was a boarder and that
that nearly all the boys in the boarding house came from somewhere in the
countryside, so that I knew that they, like me, had connections that were
from tracts of country, scattered through the vast land to our north, and
west. Every holiday I went home and so did they. Holidays ended and we
came back, something
of those properties clinging to us still.
Melbourne Grammar that I attended had struggled to hold itself
together during World War 2. The age of affluence
hadn’t yet dawned, though it was on the
way. I describe in the book the replacement of headmaster Sutcliffe by
headmaster Hone, who would change the school forever, and for the better.
I was fortunate
to see the beginning of the new age; I could understand it when it came.
I could write about it. The school, I’m sorry to say, didn’t,
want to be reminded of what it once was. It’s never been comfortable
with my book although its official account (Challenging
traditions: a history of Melbourne
Grammar, by Weston Bate and Helen Penrose, Arcadia, 2002) quotes
my book liberally. I am sorry that my book has been pushed away, but
much sorrier that the state
school system, where I myself taught for many years, has never tried
to learn how to make its schools special. Brian Hone, Melbourne Grammar’s
greatest headmaster, said to me in my last year as a schoolboy, ‘They
(government schools) need a hundred good headmasters.’ He knew
they would never get them, and I’m not convinced that his way of
making a great school should be everybody’s. There are other ways.
I think I should mention the role of ritual in the school
I attended. Things were done formally and in settled ways.
Processions moved in and out of chapel. We sang at certain
times and prayed in certain ways. It
Meals, bells, and everything else happened at set times.
Very little ever went wrong. I remember very few stuff-ups
in my years at Melbourne Grammar;
must have occurred, I suppose, but they weren’t tolerated. For
a Christian school, there was surprisingly little forgiveness, or charity.
Everything had to be just
so. We lined up, we sang, we passed plates of food along the tables.
We stood, we sat, we filed in and out. Life was a ritual, endlessly
performed. I look back
on this with amazement, now, and wonder at it. We, the boys, submitted,
and in submitting we became what the school intended. It was a virtuoso
my schooling, and although I won’t pretend that I
enjoyed it I knew, even at the time, that it was uncommonly
effective. The old boys
had such an air about
them that they gave us faith in the methods of the school.
Faith, belief, dressing themselves as Christian, but really,
in fact, forever keeping an eye on success, which, as the
old boys showed us, eventually, and mostly, arrived.
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BOOKS > PLAY TOGETHER, DARK BLUE TWENTY