littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Memoir

Reflections on a salaried working life

 

For most of my adult life I have earned a salary. Music and writing – the occupations I love most – don’t provide a particularly stable income. In the early 1970s, I was sitting in the ‘Ballroom’ of an educational research organisation, situated on top of the old Walker’s store by Glenferrie Railway station, grappling with the Humanities section of a multiple choice test. There was a glass ashtray on my desk. No bells ringing every 40 minutes. No kids screaming. Just  clatter from the nearby typing pool. I was fresh from my first teaching post at ‘Heidi’ Tech, with a class of over 50 Year 8 students for ‘double’ Social Studies on Friday afternoon, where it was not unusual to have a reluctant reader threaten you with a knife, ‘I’m not reading that, Miss!’

I had been appointed Research Assistant on an annual salary of less than $4000 a year. It was the beginning of a career in educational research.

Margaret was our tea lady. She made tea in a large aluminium pot for the ‘main’ building first, then came over to my section, where she wheeled a trolley of cups and plates of biscuits. We would sit at our desks listening for the clunk of the trolley. Every morning we gathered around it. Margaret remembered what everyone had – tea or coffee, milk, sugar, butternut snap or ched. Before coming to this job I didn’t have a clear preference for tea or coffee at particular times of day. On my first day I chose white tea. I was so impressed when, on my second day, without hesitation, Margaret poured white tea, no sugar that I had that every morning for the next six and a half years.

We revelled in the freedoms of the seventies. One of my male colleagues was married in a white kaftan, another helped me to make a jar of muesli at my desk. We selected the ingredients at the Glenferrie Market directly beneath us. I used to do my lunch-time oboe practice in a spare room in the ‘Cottage’, a vacant house used for printing and storage. There was a flexible approach to work – an approach which turned out to be highly productive. We’d have extended lunches – sometimes a trip to Melbourne University to hear a speaker such as Ralph Nader or else Friday afternoons in the Rice Bowl enhancing Rice Vermicelli with a rough red. But when there were deadlines, everyone stayed back late to help. We had to fill in time sheets. The accountant would personally hand each staff member their pay cheque. One of my colleagues always costed a portion of his time to ‘thinking’.

We, the workers in the ‘other’ building, saw the Director every Friday when we trooped across to the main building for morning tea. He would stand at the front of the staff room in his rather baggy black suit (a blacker and better tailored suit when there were Council meetings) conversing with a few senior staff, then he would make announcements. If someone were leaving there would be chocolate biscuits. His office was guarded by his secretary, and beyond her domain you could glimpse a dark panelled room with a large desk.

It was probably the secretary who told me that the director would like to come to Monash University with me to help try out a music test I had worked on, a daunting prospect for a young researcher. Even more daunting when I found that we were not going in his car but I was to drive us there in my little VW beetle. What would we talk about? What if we had an accident? He helped me carry the reel to reel tape recorder and parcels of different coloured trial test forms. He was ‘Dr’ and I was ‘Mrs’. I never thought of him as ‘Bill’. He was an avuncular, elderly man– older than my father. We didn’t have an accident and by the end of the trip we were joking about a music test having ‘high phis’ – a psychometric measure.

After I’d worked in the research assistant position for about a year I was encouraged to extend my qualifications. I should do a BEd, which in those days was an equivalent full-time year added to a Dip Ed, which I already had. I should do the subject Measurement and Evaluation. The first part was taken by my boss and was reasonably straightforward – I managed to get some kind of honour. The next term we had Test Theory. This was completely beyond me. I had no idea of what the ‘i-th variable’ was. I tried to find the formulae in our text book, but because the lecturer would clean the board before I had finished copying down the foreign hieroglyphics, I couldn’t even find what we were meant to be learning. At the end of a lecture he would ask: any questions? My lack of understanding was so great that I couldn’t even formulate a question. There was a three hour exam. I would fail for sure. In a panic, I borrowed some neatly written notes from a staff member on the Maths team who had taken the subject the previous year and passed.  Adrenalin rushing, I learnt the notes by rote and regurgitated them in the exam with absolutely no understanding at all. Whereas my colleague had gained a pass, I got second class honours – so much for the exam’s validity!

It was a formative time for many of us researchers. We were in our twenties and keen to explore and challenge conventions with that newly won freedom of young adults. Some kind of chemistry brought us together and significant, lasting friendships were formed. Was it the influence of the director? My boss? The tea trolley? There was an annual cricket match and three-legged races around the corridors at Christmas.

The camaraderie of the ‘Ballroom’ continued. We could all hear Jim brazenly asking for an outside phone line to order his Pewsey Vale wine. The accountant had such a loud sotto voce that we overheard all the gossip she exchanged in her phone calls to Bronwyn– she always went to George’s sale and, for one of her overseas trips, travelled on the Concorde.  On 11th November 1975, we sat together in disbelief to hear the Dismissal on someone’s transistor radio. Whenever I see clips of Whitlam’s ‘Well may we say God Save the Queen because nothing will save the Governor-General’, I remember that time in the ‘Ballroom’.

About a year later, shattering news.  We arrived at work to hear that the director had died—suicide.  So hard to believe, and impossible to understand.  A subdued church service. Within months, many of us had left. But we kept in touch.

Ever since leaving school I had confronted a dilemma of whether or not to make music my profession. I think that even today it takes courage to follow an artistic career. In those days it was even more challenging, particularly for a female.  I was shy, uncertain, and severely lacking in confidence.  A disgruntled school music teacher had advised me that if I were capable of doing something other than music, I should do it. I had started to take a Music degree, then changed to Arts. Although the most stimulating conversation I had at university was with a composer visiting from the Netherlands and composition really interested me, I didn’t take it up. I was far too shy to proffer my schoolgirl attempts; a suite for oboe and piano and a children’s musical. So I ended up taking an Arts degree, majoring in Music History. In the 1970s I had been starting to satisfy my musical needs by becoming involved in music assessment and I had looked into enrolling in a Masters in music assessment at a university in London. But my next job in a newly fledged university faculty had nothing to do with music. I found myself chairing a course development committee for Ergonomics for the Health Sciences. What is Ergonomics, I wondered. The niggling dilemma of whether or not to abandon a reasonably well paying job to satisfy my urge to be a musician was addressed at last in 1978, when I completed a diploma in musical performance (oboe) at the Victorian College of the Arts (while working part-time) and, some years later, I formed a chamber music group, Trio con Brio. I still play in that group.

In 1992, I was back again in educational research, sitting at what I remember as a Chippendale table in the Conference Room of my ‘alma mater’ in Hawthorn. I was being interviewed for a Research Fellow position. Between leaving in 1977 and rejoining the staff in 1992 I had learned a lot about health sciences and medical education, gained a music qualification and undertaken some professional playing and teaching, had wrenchingly sad experiences of motherhood, run an antiques business and taught at Wedderburn High School. There were quite a few familiar faces from the 1970s.

I had returned to a familiar workplace, but the tea trolley and typing pool had gone. Computers displayed green font on their screens. Email was new. Staff members were somewhat more sedate and grown-up.  Yet one could probably say that the gala event of 1992 was the Christmas Party. The new director was resplendent in academic gown as the principal at a ‘school’ prize giving. We managed to scratch together an orchestra – the players wore school uniforms. The 40 year-old leader looked about 12 in her Balwyn High School dress. We performed an extremely abbreviated version of the Messiah – sheep certainly went astray from time to time.

By 1992 I was ‘mid career’. I was completing a Masters degree in careers education and received valuable support from colleagues, particularly the library. I had been slogging away at the literature review. I mentioned this to one of the librarians. The next day there was a pile of books and journals on my desk – all the things I needed. I didn’t even have to walk into the library to fetch them!

I love travel and a large proportion of my overseas adventures came about through work. The very first time I went to Europe was to the International Society for Music Education conference in Montreux. Australian music educators sat by the lake in Montreux, networking, although we didn’t use the term in those days. We formed what was to become the Association for Research in Music Education. Then in the 1990s there were further travel opportunities. The BERA conference in York, where, at a pre-conference workshop, I was able to focus on the topic for my PhD. By this time former colleagues were working at OECD in Paris, and after I’d attended a conference in England I went to France and was taken to see Monet’s house and garden – a memorable day. Once I’d completed my PhD there were workshops on ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ in parts of the Middle East. Higher-order thinking became a buzzword and, particularly in countries where rote learning prevailed, it was important to encourage students to think critically – to reason and evaluate. There were workshops in Jordan (an opportunity to see Petra), Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Botswana, Uganda, Indonesia. And these workshops forged friendships with colleagues as we tried to figure out unfamiliar cultures: ‘Do they really understand, or are they just being polite?’ I remember walking around Amman in the evening trying to tactfully dispose of an extremely rich birthday cake that had been left in my room by hotel management.

Part of our work routine was ‘panel meetings’, where we would chisel away at material for a test, trying to get the wording absolutely spot on. This kind of work is so helpful for developing writing skills.

Fairly soon after completing my PhD I became a ‘senior’ person. Instead of seeking mentors, looking at job advertisements and seeing oneself as forging a career, I was giving advice and helping less experienced staff. I thoroughly enjoyed being a team leader; exploring new possibilities for our work, recognising and developing team members’ diverse and considerable skills.

When it came time to clear out my ‘paper-less office’, a cynical part of me felt that, having worked at the one organisation for 24 years, I was now throwing it all out: a lot went into confidential destruction or the blue paper rubbish boxes. But of course that’s not true. There were reports I’d forgotten about, stacks of literature reviews, loads of test item material. Overall, it’s the people who are memorable. And I’m now ready to devote my ‘working’ life to writing fiction.

About a week before I left my salaried job, I was having a lunch-time walk and I sauntered into a clothing shop, as one sometimes does, working in Camberwell. I was the only person in the shop and the attendant seemed to be asleep. She suddenly woke up and became aware of me flicking through the racks. To compensate for her initial inattention, she couldn’t stop talking. I didn’t want to buy anything and was trying to move on. She pursued me towards the door, chattering away. In the end I said, ‘I really must get going . . .’

‘Oh, do you have an appointment or something?’

‘No. I’m in my lunch hour.’

‘Do you work?’ She stared at me in amazement.

It confirmed for me that it was time to move on to the next phase of my life  . . .

 

Reflection on a wedding

On a warm Saturday in November, I attended my niece’s wedding. A twenty-first century wedding on the banks of the Murray River. What meaning does a wedding have today?

My first wedding, at far too early an age, in the late 1960s, was like most Australian middle class weddings of the time. It provided a longed-for escape into adult life. It conformed to a traditional ceremony. We didn’t think to question the wording – or even really, what some of it meant. It was a kind of rite of passage. I do remember discussion of the word ‘obey’ – ‘to love, honour and obey until death us do part’. And the priest assured me that in old English the word meant something more like ‘to share’. He talked about dividing an apple, and I didn’t quite get it. It was the time of Betty Friedan’s criticism of ‘WAMs’ (Wife And Mother). Germaine Greer was about to make her mark. So even then, the idea of obedience seemed out of place.

For nearly 4000 years, in the western tradition, weddings were more to do with property than with love. The idea of marriage came about with the development of more agrarian ways of life. Rather than thirty cave people cohabiting together there could be a little more social stability and for some, preservation of power. A woman became a man’s property – proof that her offspring were his biological heirs. Although, if he wanted some sexual pleasure ‘on the side’, that was quite acceptable. If the woman failed to produce offspring, she could be given back. And I imagine that if the man failed to produce offspring, it was considered to be the woman’s fault.

But surely there was love. How about Romeo and Juliet, written in the sixteenth century and based on an earlier story? In Shakespeare’s drama the bride is still viewed as property and any idea of Juliet marrying a Montague is unacceptable. Shakespeare shows us that love transcends these boundaries. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries love became more the basis for marriage, but even in the twentieth century we see, for example, with the British monarchy, that at times love is not sufficient.

These days, for most, a wedding is no longer a rite of passage into adult life. In many cases, including this one, the young couple have been living together, have bought a house together. Why marry? For some it is a legal binding to give security to children. Maybe for some it is a good excuse to have a smashing good party. I didn’t quiz my niece and her new husband, but this wedding was clearly a joining together of two families. At the ceremony, the bride was welcomed into her husband’s family – her father didn’t ‘give her away’. They had written their own vows – their public commitment.

At times I was reminded of a Hindu wedding, because the celebration extended over days. We were all there, by the river, not just for the ceremony, but spending time in this favourite place of theirs. There were the symbolic things – rings, attendants, a wedding cake, the bridal bouquet. Each had a particular meaning for this couple – something relevant to their life together. After the ceremony, drinks on a paddle-steamer and a dinner dance. The next day we all went to a barbeque hosted by the groom’s family – a welcoming of one family into the other. And for the next five days we were on a houseboat on the river, and the bride and groom had one too. Most of the time they were alone but there were two occasions when we all had dinner together.

Those pre sixteenth century arranged marriages (which still exist in some cultures today) were not necessarily loveless. But surely love must have been largely a matter of luck. Indeed, being in love at a certain time doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lifetime of marital bliss. The wedding on the banks of the Murray seemed to be drawing on the best of both approaches. Love has been tried, tested and it has endured to the extent that it has been proven to be more than passing infatuation. And family – that institution that is becoming fragmented in our society – family had a role of acknowledging and supporting the intent of this young couple to build a life together in the 21st century.

Today some are cynical about love. Is it just elevated dopamine, as suggested by Lucy Prebble in her play The Effect? Or is it magic – the voodoo suggested by Woody Allen’s recent film, Magic in the Moonlight? I hope it’s the latter and I hope it continues to be an integral part of living together.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

 

Why put pancetta with the gnocchi when it’s served with a perfectly good piece of grilled salmon? You get like that on your fourth night of dining in a hotel on your self-imposed writing retreat.

I had done it once before, so I knew that a creaky old hotel at Portsea, built in 1927, with a room looking across the bay to Queenscliff would be the place to go to make amends to my neglected novel. I’m sitting here now at my desk, looking across an early morning sea to the misty buildings on the other side. Every so often a container ship glides by on its passage through the heads, or the white shape of the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry comes into view. But here I can put my head down and write – there is nothing else I have to do.

The room is a 1927 version of a ‘suite’. It could be two bedrooms. The one I write in has a double bed and a desk at the window. There would have once been an uninterrupted view out to sea but some time in the past twenty years a bar with upstairs deck has been added to the hotel, so my view is about half of what it might once have been. The other room has a single bed, a sofa, a fridge, kettle – all the usual things, a kind of dressing alcove and ensuite. There’s a little semi-enclosed verandah with a table and couple of chairs, which these days doesn’t have a view. In winter it’s too cold to sit out there. Oh – and of course there’s the 21st century addition of two plasma-screen TVs. You don’t feel cramped. Another important feature is the tin roof. On a couple of nights I could lie snuggly in bed and listen to rain, even hail. The whole lot cost me a bit over $500 for four nights, breakfast included. The trick is to come in winter – the off season – and I think the best season.

There aren’t many shops in Portsea – no distractions. I brought with me a bottle of wine, some good coffee and filter papers and some decent tea. What more does one need? Every evening I go down to the dining area, have a glass of Cape Shank pinot noir and a main course.

This time I came without a car. I caught the train to Frankston and then the 788 bus, which stops almost at the front of the hotel. The trip down seemed to take forever, but there were plenty of interesting people to observe. I was the only passenger who stayed on the bus for its entire journey. Every day I went for one good walk. Well – on the first day, it wasn’t very far. It was a cold blustery, raining day. I walked along the pier and the waves were washing over the top. I had planned to walk along the beach, but there isn’t much of it left, thanks to dredging the bay, and I was unsure of the tides – silly to be marooned, or worse, on my first day.

One day I wandered around Point Nepean National Park – an easy walk from the hotel, pruriently looking over the fences of posh beach houses, locked for the winter, wondering who owns them. Then the contrast of the coastal bush. I spent some time looking at the Quarantine Station – I hadn’t realised that right up to the 1950s passenger ships would call in with outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox. There weren’t many people around and on my way back a wallaby hopped out of the bush. Another day I walked to London Bridge. The tide was in, so the blow hole was completely immersed – you could just make out rocks under the seething green water. I returned by another coastal track – completely to myself – along the cliff tops to the back (surf) beach.

Will I ever be satisfied with my novel? Maybe not. At the end of the four days I’ve achieved what I set out to do. I don’t feel as though I’ve written a lot, but, by calculation I’ve written over 20,000 words (some of this cutting and pasting and editing). Now it’s time to go to breakfast.

 

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