Childhood memories

My father believed that contacts were everything in life, and had enrolled both of us at the fashionable Shore School in Sydney, but in 1939 world affairs started to impinge on our family life. As an intelligence officer in the permanent army he was acutely aware both of the dangers to peace, and of just how shaky our defences were. Indeed somewhere in my papers there is a document he prepared, headed "Top Secret", which predicts fairly acurately what actually happened at Singapore. The 7 o'clock news from the ABC became a nightly ritual, which we interrupted at our peril. When fighting started my father was desperate to get to the front, but (perhaps because he had trodden on too many high ranking toes) he was posted to various camps in NSW, where he was given what he regarded as trivial jobs, and then to Duntroon as an instructor.

As the military situation deteriorated he was away for more & more of the time. He felt we were not safe in Melbourne, let alone Sydney, and at the end of 1941 we moved to the holiday house at Mt Dandenong for the duration. The house (called Matingara, which was said to mean something like "Beautiful hills" in the local aboriginal dialect) was built to my mother's design, and while it may have suited the hot inland of her childhood, it was most unsuitable to the cold wet climate of the hills. The builders had to battle with wartime shortages, and this may have compounded the problems. The walls were clad with fibro cement, which took up water like blotting paper, and there was no sarking in the walls, so the house was always damp, and everything in the house grew mildew. My mother had built up an excellent collection of prewar Australian paintings, but these, and my fathers enormous collection of books, were badly foxed by the moisture.

The builder had a special pair of shears which he used to cut the (asbestos-based) fibro cement sheeting. They did this by punching out a narrow strip from the sheet, and for years there was a pile of this toxic material behind the garage, which we used as the woodheap to split our firewood. However it never did caused any of us any obvious harm.

The plan to send us to Sydney was dropped, and we were enrolled at the Mt. Dandenong State School. We would have been boarders at Shore and I was exceedingly relieved at (and, I regret to say, thankful to the Japanese for) the change of plan.

Petrol was rationed to two gallons a month (about enough for one trip to town), and my mother had the car fitted with a gas producer. This was a steel box fitted at the back of the car which was filled with charcoal. First we would pour some kero on an asbestos mat and light it. A fan would draw the flames into the hopper, and eventually the charcoal would become hot enough to burn and produce gas. The design was marginal at best and was certainly not up to the hills in the Dandenongs.

When we went to town the long run down to Montrose would get it going nicely and it would then take us to the city, but on the return journey it would take 10 miles to get going nicely, but it would die as soon as we hit the hill at Montrose. The intake from the petrol tank was positioned up the side of the tank and when we were pointing up hill, the petrol would not feed if it was low (as it nearly always was). My mother discovered that when she gave up, and turned round it would start again, so then she backed the five twisting miles from Montrose to Kalorama. She had to do this on several occasions, but I only remember her knocking over one of the white wooden posts used to mark the outside edge of the road.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

Our house at Mt Dandenong