Upcoming Remembrance Day celebrations bring Shirley Stott Despoja to reflect of children roaming freely, strict manners and a world powered by horses.
James Hurst, a friend and World War I (WWI) historian, has organised a recreation of a WWI infantry camp and the Barossa Light Horse, a light horse camp, which Mitcham Council is hosting for a Remembrance Day event on the site of the old Mitcham camp.
Barossa Light Horse, Hurst says, do a tremendous job, and if they bring all their gear they might set up horse lines, tents, sleeping and HQ tents, and all manner of stuff, that give great insight into the life of a light horseman in the field.
“So that when Trooper Stott writes: ‘returned to camp’,” Hurst says, “you can get an impression of what it looked like and (if you’re lucky) smelled like.
“You must come.”
Trooper Stott was my father. The reference was to his diary, which I have guarded all my life, and which Hurst has found useful for his next work, now awaiting a publisher. I was so tempted by his invitation, but had to reply that my great age would probably prevent my attending.
This good, kind man responded: “Would it help if I sent a horse to pick you up?”
I fell about laughing at the vision conjured up of my waiting outside my house for the 11 o’clock horse. Yet in my lifetime it might almost have happened in the Sydney suburb in which I grew up. How colourful and lively things were in the streets in those pre- and early-WWII days. Horses were the traffic in suburban streets. I honestly can’t recall a car (there was petrol rationing and people only dreamed of their first car). The milkman with his horse-drawn van brought our quart in a billy can to the door. The baker (he had the best horse) came later and left an unwrapped loaf on the front step. The fruit and veg man offered his fresh picked goods from a cart drawn by a dark horse of uncertain temper, and chased the kids away when they ran out for a pat because he was anxious to get on with his round.
On the night the Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour, fruit from that cart went down the hole under my parents’ bedroom that we called our air raid shelter. My sister was determined not to starve no matter what might befall. We were scarcely eight miles from the action.
I can hear Mum saying, “Don’t dramatise” when one of us in our musty funk hole must have fussed. People didn’t dramatise much in those days. It was not, in modern parlance, cool to dramatise, or to ‘show off’.
“She thinks she’s smart” was savage criticism. It meant wearing a nice dress but holding one’s arm stiff with the hand slightly turned out. That was the ‘show off’ pose.
How little our parents fussed over us when we were kids. One day on an impulse I rode my tricycle miles on Princes Highway to visit my Uncle Stan’s bike shop. I boasted to my friends that he would let me play with the till and call “shop” when someone came in. When I arrived and announced who I was, old Stan was bewildered, he had never heard of me, but the fact that he had a bike shop had stuck in my head after listening to one of my parents’ anecdotes. Crazy kid. Was I even four? He had a phone but my parents didn’t, heaven knows how it all got sorted out. And without reproaches. But I think I realised then that my norm was a bit different from that of others.
Toffee days at school for the war effort. My mother, having had four kids, was so bored by toffee making that she left them to me. Heaven knows what I sold for a penny. Stickjaw or candied? I’d ask. But they all looked the same. I was on safer ground with the coconut ice.
Oh god, I can still recall the disgusting smell of gas masks. We were told, if the sirens went, to get under the desk and bite on a pink eraser. We were on the first floor of a school on a hill that stuck out like a lighthouse. Easy target.
I don’t think we took the war seriously. Bad news was kept from us. No ‘media’ in those days, just Dad’s wireless on top of my toy cupboard, (inside which I wrote my first novel and my diary), raised, so he could press his deaf ears to the fabric front.
Of course there were newspapers sold by paper boys at the railway stationery or tossed over the fence from… I’m sure it wasn’t a car.
Perhaps it was from the 11 o’clock horse.