Play together, dark blue twenty
Written by Chester Eagle
Designed by Diana Gribble, with cover incorporating a photo of School House, 1951, several times repeated
First published 1986 by McPhee Gribble, Fitzroy
Circa 47,300 words
3,000 copies printed.
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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On 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.

For 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 football ground, in the dining room, in the showers, under the dangerous glances of ‘the East’, the school’s secret police.

It was here the young Chester Eagle came in the late ‘forties from his parents’ farm near Finley, lovingly detailed in Mapping the Paddocks, to the alien, claustrophobic world of boarding school.

Venerable in local time, the buildings of Melbourne Grammar have echoed to shouts, groans, laughter; to interrogation and exhortation; to chants, lectures, hymns and prayers. Here are those echoes.

Author’s note for a later edition that never appeared:

This 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 of quality and achievement. I hoped that those involved with government education would recognise the considerable qualities, mostly to do with pride, confidence, certainty and tradition, of the school described, and also see enough of the ways, many of them unattractive, by which a famous 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 has had some effect on our history.

I would like to record my thanks to Hilary McPhee and Diana Gribble, who believed in the book and first gave it to the public.

To read some extracts from the book click here:
The start
The dining room
The Boss (J.R.Sutcliffe)
Babylon (B.W.Hone)

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The start

At 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 it’s 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.

In 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, look darkly 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 in our 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 long, and 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 captain, he glances at the music master, who strikes a chord on the piano, and we sing:

Play 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.

This 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 have recorded, 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:

None 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.

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The dining room

Conflict 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 of more benign prefects and the greater embarrassment of boys in the middle who find 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 the housemaster, seated at the table which runs across the room.

Picture the scene. The walls are lined with premiership photos going deep into the nineteenth century. Athletes, cricketers, footballers and oarsmen, they stare from frames, capped, moustached, wearing knee length trousers which shorten as the years progress. They’re in blazers with wild hair, hair watered, hair brilliantined. Their coaches sit sternly between captain and vice captain or 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 fireplace. Parents and grandparents of the present school look down on maids rushing trays to prefects, before whom empty plates are stacked. They serve. On weekends, when there’s 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.

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The Boss (J.R.Sutcliffe)

When 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!

The 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.

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The 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 we can.

We might, if we try hard enough, be one of the great years of the school.

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Babylon (B.W.Hone)

Babylon 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 the captain how to set his field, or to demand of a bowler, ‘Now what are you appealing for?’

That 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.

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The year’s marked out by visits from the Sears Studio man who sets up his camera and hides himself in black cloth to 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 rank. 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 jokes, laughing 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 cross-legged boy 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 practised. ‘All 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 calls. ‘Right, 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, and he’s 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.

The 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 order them unmounted, mounted with names, mounted without names. We pick mounted with names. We sense, however much we hate our faces and laugh at our friends, that the trick’s been done again. History’s grabbed us by the balls. The faces we’ve 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.

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The writing of this book:

I 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.

What 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.

It 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 and 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. Others 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, Head 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.

Ours 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 meant 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 absolutely inseparable 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.

The 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, and doesn’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.

Lastly, 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 was rather monastic. 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; they 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 performance, 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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