The Sublime:

Rod Wise on Corson:

"Let me say at the outset that I found David Corson's email quite distressing (I do not have the thick hide of a Camel), sufficiently so that I would like to offer this comment on it. I must emphasise, however, that the ensuing is nothing more than an opinion, and, as such, carries no more weight, or no less, than any other's opinion.

David has said that NSBHS was a malignant institution and that the exchange of emails among those of our extended year is perpetuating a St Trinian's attitude towards it. Those are not my views. But, lest anyone construes from that disclaimer that I retain a Pollyanna glow towards Arthur and everything he represented, let me place the following on the record: I did not enjoy my five years' stay at the school, and more importantly, I believe that my educational, intellectual, emotional, social, etc, etc development were all seriously stunted while there.However, I don't necessarily put all the blame for that on the school. I think the school, a malignant place though it might now seem to some in retrospect, faithfully reflected the far more malignant times through which mid-fifties Australia was then travelling; and it also reflected, in my opinion, the particular peculiarities of the social caste from which the overwhelming number of us emanated. So, unless we are talking about transcendent brutishness, such as Nazism, I think it is false, and dangerous, to judge entirely any institution, or person for that matter, out of the context of its times. (That is an unfortunate failing of much journalism, I admit.) In the case of NSBHS, and the prevailing climate swirling around its quadrangles, it is important to traverse again what those times were.

In January 1957, it was then only a dozen years after the end of World War II and the Depression before it; the Cold War was underway with a vengeance, and had already split the Labor Party; it was three years after the end of the Korean War; only eighteen months after the death of Joe Stalin and Krushchev's secret speech to the CPSU had not then been published; it was seven years after Mao had conquered China and the Dutch had been thrown out of Indonesia; and only three years since the French had been thrown out of Indo-China; just three months before, World War III might have broken out over Hungary; the Malayan Emergency was bubbling along happily; and hanging over everything was The Bomb! There were then fewer than ten million people living in Australia and we were a very long way from ``our great and powerful friends''. Need I say more? The local climate in 1957, you might recall, dear friends, was one of deep fear, bordering on the hysterical, which mightily encouraged the authoritarianism and conformism which, I believe, lie always dormant in large slabs of Australian society. And, dare I say it, the social caste from which most of us (and our teachers) came, the non-Catholic lower middle class, historically the most conformist layer in society (with honourable exceptions), was possibly the most fearful, as the Empire, to which our parents and grandparents had clung like limpets, was shown by the Suez debacle of November 1956 to be manifestly in decline.

That the school encouraged conformism and authoritarianism and intolerance should therefore come as no surprise to any of us, including David Corson. I vividly remember an occasion in the assembly hall, on one Anzac Day or thereabouts, when Arthur and Moulton performed on stage (in civvies, I note), calling each other Major This and Major That, saluting each other, snapping to attention, swapping blatant ``War stories'' for the benefit of several hundred of us pupils. I don't recall anyone in the audience around me even muttering, Get off the stage, you feckin' relics; we sat there enthralled, myself as much as anyone, because we were products of those times as much as the school and as much as those prancing baboons up on the stage.

However - and, in my opinion, this is a big however, and why I think David Corson is dead wrong - neither the school, nor its times, nor our parents, nor even our own conservatism, whether innate or inherited, managed to snuff out the individuality, the human spark, call it what you like, that these exchanges of emails now glorify. There is no hi-jinx, jolly hockey sticks, St Trinian's bullshit in our recollections of that school experience; rather, in my opinion, the good humour and rebelliousness which they display show conclusively that conformism and authoritarianism did not have it all their own way at NSBHS; they show also, even in the years 1957 to 1961, that Australia could become a more open and flexible place than it was in those years. And those emails serve to remind us that we carried the seed of that better Australia within us, even if many of our parents and teachers did not. To me, seeing Ken McGregor again and reliving his house brick exploits, and Harley Wright and his bombings, is not a retreat into sentimental childishness or a preference for seeing harsh reality through rose-tinted glasses, but our way of saying: In spite of the enormous pressure we were under "they" never ever beat us; "they" never ground us down; and "they" never will. And that's why I, for one, intend to remain on the email list and go to the reunion, even though the best I can say for those years is that I remain ambivalent towards them - with my distaste for the institution and its ethos leavened only by the very warm memories I have of so many people who experienced so much that I did.

I sometimes reflect on why it is that school reunions are so much more enjoyable and seemingly more relevant to our contemporary lives than, say, university or football club reunions. In sharp contrast to NSBHS I loved my years at university, they being the first taste of real freedom I had ever experienced. And I loved my football; playing rugby in those years after school will always remain with me. But the key to their relative unimportance to me now, I believe, lies in the fact that both university and football were voluntary - that the people one met there were also there by virtue of free association. School, however - well, one was there under duress, and in a highly regimented place like North Sydney, one had to make the best of it or one fell by the wayside. David Corson made it through the five years of ``malignant'' grind, and so did I, but does he have any idea how many did not? My guess is that for every two who passed the L.C. in 1961, having enrolled in 1957 or 1960, at least one did not. So, what became of them? Did their parents just move on elsewhere, or was the ``malignant'' grind so tough for them that, unlike David and myself, it nearly crushed the life out of them? I can think of one subsequently prominent alumnus of 1957, who, I see, is now listed among our email recipients, who might have a tale to tell on that score. But what about forgotten names like Billy Haldane and Dick Landers and David Larkin from 1957, and Doug Best and Fritz Fraser from 1960? I have no idea why they left or what became of them.

I guess what I am saying to David is that many, if not most, of us did it pretty tough at NSBHS too, but that we are ENTITLED to that same leavening of light-heartedness now that kept us going back then! Given that we were only bloody 12 years old, I don't think that our experiences, except in degree, were much different from the incarcerees in Beethoven's Fidelio. So, if I might be permitted a vulgarity - in the face of oppression they stuck together like shit to an Army blanket, and so did we in 1957.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I was distressed by David Corson's email. I am also saddened to think that in confusing the institution with its inmates he has drawn such inferentially harsh conclusions about the rest of us. I understand how he feels, and I still say that for the David Corsons of 1957-61 there must always be room at the long, trestle table to break bread with their former fellow prisoners, for that is what I believe we were. Well, that is how I remember it, for what it's worth. P.S. As an afterthought, might I pass on the following story which some may find pertinent to the foregoing. Over the years in the sorts of things I have done I have met a number of folk who, er, spent time at Her Majesty's pleasure. One of them told me that the most prestigious table in the Pentridge Prison dining hall was always the Scotch College Old boys' table. Was it a familiar home away from home, I wonder?"

and the ridiculous:

Hansen Yee writes:
"Much as I would have enjoyed being an elephant, It wasn't me. I have a clear memory of watching and having the giggles. I am almost certain that one half of the elephant was Tony Friend"

Tony Friend writes:
Oh boy! I have a feeling I am getting into something over my head. A memory battle with Hansen Yee? Most people would be far too smart to get into that.

Hansen, with all due respect to your mental abilities, I am almost bloody positive it was you in the front. I can remember having to bend even further, as you were "height-challenged", and I have a clear recollection of standing on Falcon Street with you, wondering if they would let us back in.

In fact, and I have never mentioned this to anyone before, I have always wondered if the boycott was really for you, famous that you were, and if I just got back in that day on your coat-tails.

Besides, if it wasn't you, then who in the hell was it in the front of the elephant ??? I can assure you that there are very few people I would share an elephant with. And why was I so sure it was you all these years ???? "