Australian Biography

Donald Metcalf - full interview transcript

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Don, you were born in 1929 — that was the height of the Great Depression — did that circumstance have any effect on your early life?

I think it probably did ... my father was a schoolteacher in a remote little village outside Mittagong and of course there were no neighbours there, so you never saw any impact of it. I think where I saw it was later, about five, six years later, when we went to a small town called Kingsvale, near Young, and there, the local store used to have a queue of people picking up their dole, so these were people who were unemployed getting paid. Ah, other than that, I think life was very simple, people didn't have possessions, they didn't expect to have possessions, and whether it was the '20s or whether it was the Depression ... the '20s and '30s, I don't know. But compared with now it was a very simple life, simple pleasures, you enter ... entertained yourself, there were no movies to go to, there was ... nobody had a radio and you made your own entertainment. So there are photographs of swimming parties down on the Murray or ... but it was simple you ... you drove there or you took your horse and cart there and ... had the day. That's what ...

You didn't ...

... and if you look at the photographs of schoolchildren at that time, a lot of the kids have no shoes or socks, and hand-me-down clothes, now was that what it always was like in the country? I don't know, I think it probably was the Depression.

Did it affect your father's job in any way?

Not really, so in the New South Wales education system you started in [a] little one-man school and then as you get better you get promoted and moved to another village, a bit bigger, two-teacher school, four-teacher school. So that progressed and went on, the kids went to school, that's ... that was it, that's your job. We, at that time, had a house attached to the school so the house existed and we moved and my father moved and everything was arranged so that you put it in packing cases and labelled and off you went to the next school.

What effect did all this moving have on you as a child?

It's hard to know, you ... you can't run this again as a control experiment and say, ‘Well, what would happen if I grew up in the city?’ I suppose it meant you were self-contained and you knew the friends you made for the next couple of years were not going to be your friends in a few years’ time. And you learnt to get by yourself, self-contained, I think, self-reliant. Reliance wasn't a word that they used about me, I was a bit of a ratbag, I think, as a child.

In what way?

I think I was probably a ratbag.

What do you mean by that?

Ah, what's an example of me being a ratbag in a nice way? I was always wandering off and finding coins or notes instead of walking between the house and school. I'd be wandering up the banks and looking at places. Ah, that sort of thing.

You were finding coins and notes in the bush?

I had ... this was in Goulburn within the rough grass alongside the footpath. Did this mean I was looking at the ground all the time? Probably. I find coins down on the beach now, it's probably a habit.

Maybe a reflection of a poor childhood.

No, no, I don't think so. We had ... no, no, that's one thing you could say, we had no sense that we were living poorly and in all truth I'm sure we weren't, compared with a lot of people. So we never went without a meal, goodness me. We were always clothed, it looks nice in the photographs, that's sort of how I remember. No, we weren't hard done by.

Did you have brothers and sisters?

One elder sister, one younger sister. So I was sandwiched in the middle.

And as the only boy, did you get special privileges?

Not that I remember, no. I don't think so, no. My elder sister was considered to be smarter than me in the sense that she was two years ahead of her class at school, and went to high school when she was nine, and was indeed very smart, so I think she carried the burden of expectations of my family and I just trailed along behind. Perhaps.

Did she go on to fulfil those expectations?

She became a teacher, a Latin teacher, sent of all the places to Tenterfield to teach Latin, which must have been a little bit stressful. Ah, then at the age of 20 she went off to America on a bride ship to marry an American serviceman that she'd met in Sydney, and got married in San Francisco in borrowed clothes, because she'd lost her baggage and the minister lent her some clothes, and my mother had never seen her son-in-law and was not impressed by this. She developed an agonising ache in her arm which she had for months afterwards.

Was that ... so that was the end of your sister's career? But back ...

No, she then became a teacher in Delaware, which was amusing. They considered that the training she'd had in Australia wasn't up to scratch so in Delaware she was retrained as a teacher and taught First Grade kids for 30 years then. So, was that a successful career? No, I think she could have done a lot better than that but that was her choice. She was clever.

What was the general expectation of the family — in other words, we use these days the word values, the word values seems to be around ... but what were the values of the household you grew up in?

Um, I think you were expected to make a serious effort at school. School was their world, they knew what kids should or should not be doing at school ... were you performing up to scratch? If not, I can't recall being punished but it was made known that that was not, you know ... I think one of my reports said, ‘Surely a better effort could be made.’ Well, that was the attitude my parents took. Um, strict, I suppose that's being strict. But then when there's no television, when there's no radio, and you've got some homework to do or what else is there to do? You do it. Um, yes, sort of strict. But nobody said, ‘You have to do better than this, you are supposed to be becoming a medical student, that's not good enough.’ That's ... I can't remember them saying that.

What sort of things did you get into trouble for, apart from schoolwork? What kind of things were punished?

At school?

I mean, at home?

Ah, when I nearly killed my younger sister by pulling her hands through her legs and jerking her up. She was supposed to come up in a circle but hit her head on the floor. That I think must have alarmed my father beyond belief and I got thrashed for that, I can't remember too many thrashings, but occasionally he did.

What were you thrashed with?

Hand. That's quite, quite satisfactory on [a] six-year-old or however old I was.

But it didn't happen very often?

At school they got the cane and since I was occasionally in my father's class, if I'd earned the cane, I got it. Out in front. Six on each hand like everyone else. But that was normal. Ah, what did I get that for? Throwing stones across a school ground, you know, the usual sort of anti-social behaviour.

Apart from the times when you bashed their heads inadvertently, did you play with your sisters much?

Not much. My older sister was sort of remote, she was at high school, I'm still at primary school, that sort of thing. Gone to university, I'm still at high school. Younger sister, no, not really very much interaction. There must have been some but it was ... when you're separated, as she was, four years younger, again she's at a different school from me and you don't ... when you're in the country and you're going to a high school 10 miles away it ... it separates you. You don't often interact as a family except at weekends, I guess.

You said that because you moved so much, you were always a little unsure who your friends were going to be, because you'd make friends and ...

Oh you ... you picked friends with all the most likely looking lads in the class. First thing that happened when you went to school was you sat down and said, ‘What religion are you?’ And you looked around the class and you sort of sussed who ... who was the most interesting, listened to what they said as their religion and that's the one you said you were. Because in the end you got put in that class for religious instruction, which you had in those days. So you chose your friends and chose your religion at the same time. I have a wide ...

To fit in to ...

... a wide experience of religions.

So how did you pick a likely looking lad? What did a likely looking ...

I don't know. Looked like they'd get into trouble, I think. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. Um, I think we were a pretty normal sort of lot but looking at the photos, which is all you can do at a distance, you say, my goodness, you know, this fellow looks as though he's going to be in trouble always and it's interesting what you remember is pretty accurately what they were like.

And did ... what sort of things did you ... what sort of games did you play in those days, of no television, etcetera?

Um, at primary school, probably cricket and hockey, I can remember playing men's hockey. Um, then at high school you played whatever was going, at summertime it was cricket, wintertime it was football and tennis, then. We lived beside a golf links at one stage, so I used to play golf. One, one club. Um, and played basketball at high school, running.

And what about in the backyard, what did you play then?

In the backyard, nothing. Who do you play with? When you're in a schoolhouse and school's gone, there are no kids around you. You've got two sisters, one of whom's away at school and one's somewhere else, you play with yourself, play with your toy soldiers or something.

Did you have toy soldiers?

Toy soldiers, not many but enough's enough.


Marbles, you played marbles, yes. I can't remember any other games.

What was your father like as a person?

He was very serious, I mean he ... he'd left Victoria and gone to New South Wales, got married at a very early age, with the disapproval I think of the family, so he was out to ... to succeed and he was a migrant, he'd sort of come from Scotland at the age of about six, I think. So there was a big pressure for him to succeed. And so the pictures of him look solemn and determined and I think he was an excellent teacher, and the proof of that came later when he was made headmaster of a demonstration school where you actually train teachers. He obviously knew about teaching ... but full of good fun and enterprise, wanting to try things, usually it was my mother who said, ‘No, no. I'm not properly dressed’ or ‘I don't want to do this.’ I think he sort of was frustrated, he'd like to have done a lot more things than he actually did.

What kind of things did he feel frustrated about, do you think?

Oh, I think he probably would have liked to have jumped into his car and driven around Australia and explored — this is just guessing, it was wartime by then and there was no petrol so you didn't travel much. But I remember times when I was sure he wanted out ... doing something, going out for the day, and it was not welcomed and he stayed home. This is just guessing, guesswork, you know.

But you felt that there was a curiosity there and an adventurous spirit?

Oh yes, I think so. Yeah.

What sort of a person was your mother?

She is ... I remember her as being solemn all the time. Now she couldn't possibly have been as solemn as I remember but, again, I think this ... this effort to succeed and show that the family back in Shepparton had made a mistake in rubbing her off. And so she was trying to have a successful brood of children and getting by in the Depression and, yeah, I think a stressful time.

Why was the family back in Shepparton wanting to ... ?

I don't know, we never asked. They ... he ... her father was a rich farmer and he had four daughters and they all married well and she married this young penniless schoolteacher and I suspect that this was not well-regarded and off they went. We never enquired because, ah, one didn't. There was a bit of a stress I think.

But she'd fallen ... she'd fallen out with her family?

I'm guessing, I'm guessing.

So you didn't have much to do with that side of the family as you grew up?

Not at all. I didn't realise until the reunion about 10 years ago that I had 400 relatives around Shepparton. I'd never seen a single one of them. That happens, I think, particularly when you move to another state and it just ... different world. So, it's interesting, isn't it, the way families become separate somehow.

So in ... in terms of your relationship with your mother, what was that like?

Well, I think she ... well, she loved me and fed me well and dressed me well and expected me to do well at school, and she was quite disappointed when I didn't become a general practitioner in a country town, I think that was her ambition for me to be a successful GP. And when I started in medical research, she was not very impressed. And never really understood that maybe I was becoming successful at that too. So, she was not one who was given to bursting into laughter and doing maniacal things.

Now, you said that you'd chosen a religion by the look of the boys that were ... were saying that they adhered to a particular faith — if they looked naughty enough, you'd ... you'd go for that religion.

Interesting. Let's say.

What religion were ... were you brought up in?

Um, we fluctuated ourselves, as we moved from one town to another. I suppose if there was a Presbyterian church we went to that. If we went to a Methodist ... because there was a Methodist close by. Usually it was one or the other. So I guess you'd say we're Presbyterian. Being Scottish by origin.

Was the ... at that time, was it fairly standard that you went to church anyway, everybody did?

Ah, if there was a church nearby I think the kids did, they went to Sunday School and Sunday afternoon — that was what you went to, you didn't go to church. Certainly that was true in Goulburn, which had a much broader range of places to choose from. After a time I got sick of it, at about the age of 15 or 16, decided that I knew enough about religion and didn't need to be told it every ... every week so I stopped going. Ah, did people go to church? Yes, I think they did. More often than they do now, or at least people in the country did. Which is all I know about. But I suspect the people in the country go to church more often now than city people do anyway. I suspect.

How many different country towns did you go to as a child?

Oh well, I was born in Mittagong, we moved to Womboota then — was a metropolis down near Moama — it has about 10 houses in still, I think. Then we moved to Kingsvale, which is about 10 miles from Young. Then we hit Goulburn, then we went to Wallerawang. Then to Inverell, then to Tamworth, then to ... that was it for me then. My father went on to Wagga and then he went to Lane Cove which is ... he was moving up the order of progression and from Wagga ... from Tamworth to Wagga to Lane Cove was a sequence of better and better demonstration schools. So he was the number one teacher in the state, pretty much, by the time he went to Lane Cove.

How old were you when you started school?




How was that?

How was that? Well, we were in Womboota, which had a one-class school and my mother used to teach needlework at the school and would bring the pram in and put me in the back of the room while she did that. And I must have listened to what was going on and by the time I was three I could read and so I think they just said, ‘Okay, you can go into First Grade.’ And that was the beginning of my downfall because I was always two years younger than the rest of the class, which leads to mischievous behaviour. So I had started high school by the age I was nine and in principle would have been ready for university at age of 14, so they had to say, ‘Okay, you'll repeat the intermediate, repeat the leaving and then you'll be 16 and then you can go to medical school.’ Which I did. But I still have nightmares about repeating the leaving or the intermediate and saying, you know, ‘I did this last year, I haven't studied this year, just keep the results from last year.’ So I do not recommend starting kids at an early age. It was innocently done, they weren't pushing it I'm sure. And they eventually had to take the decision in high school to stop it and let me catch up.

And which high school was that, that took that decision?

Oh, I think that ... I don't think the school said, ‘Hang on a bit, this kid's too immature, too small, too young.’ Um, it happened once in Lithgow and once in Tamworth. I wasn't welcome at Tamworth because I came from Inverell and became dux of the school at Tamworth, displacing the kid who'd been dux of the school all the way through and he was not best pleased.

And you were younger than him?

Well, in my second year I was again dux and he should have been the dux. It's interesting, Tamworth High had no great reputation for scholasticism — they were great swimmers, great at cricket — and it's interesting that two of the kids in the same class have both [become] fellows of the [Australian] Academy of Science. This kid and me. He's a mathematician, I'm a biologist.

How old were you when you went to Tamworth?

I'd be 14. At the start of the year. And doing the leaving, that's the fifth year, and repeating it the next year at the age of 15 — that was the year the war ended and then, 16, to go to university.

And did you beat this other boy in both those ... no, you repeated of course, so he came on ... yes of course.

The year that I ... yes it was not ... not well-done but ...

Now tell me, being younger like that, I mean dramatically younger, a couple of years younger, presumably smaller ...


What effect do you think that has?

I think you're out of sight of a teacher and when you had a few kids in a class, and you were sitting in the back row, and the smallest, the most mischievous, you were not paying attention, you were not soaking it in. You were just immature so on paper you could get through the ... the examinations, but were you really taking in what they were telling you? I doubt it. Doubt it.

Socially, this disjunction between your intellectual development and ... and your emotional age, what effect did that have on how you related to the other boys?

I don't think it did much harm. What you did learn was to be more cunning because you were the smallest and therefore you could persuade them to do things that they might not otherwise have thought of doing. So you weren't regarded as the runt of the pack, you were probably a ringleader sometimes. You learnt to get by.

How important was sporting prowess?

Um, it was important in schools at that time, you know, the biggest dunce in the school was the fastest swimmer and he was God in the school. So you had to have some ability or you were poorly regarded but if you had enough ability then you were just one of the pack.

So how did you get on in that respect?

Oh, quite well, I was quite a good tennis player and I could run fast for a time, not long, but for a short time ...

Being younger though, you know, affects your ability at sport — smaller, younger.

Yes, I guess you don't ... you're not prominent when young but when you get older you're slowly catching up and getting to be of the same size, so it evened out.

And was there any ... apart from the time that you beat the boy that should have been dux, did you experience any sort of problem associated with being clever?

I think only in the sense that it made you a smart alec and not pay attention to the lessons and therefore get yourself into trouble. I can remember getting into trouble first day in high school and the chemistry teacher, Miss Adams, who was a very large lady, obviously took exception to what I was up to. And gave me 200 lines. Punishment. I'd never heard of lines, I didn't know what lines were. So I went home, didn't tell my parents this disgrace, and I got the poetry book out and I found a poem that had the shortest line in it. And the kids said, ‘You've got to write the lines out.’ So I wrote Charge of the Light Brigade out. You know, ‘half a league, half a league, half a league. On ...

Short lines.

Came back the next day, 200 lines. She said, ‘You're a smart alec, do it again. I must not behave as a smart alec.’ Um, that sort of thing, occasionally got you into trouble. I'm sure I was an impeccably behaved child really. No troubles. But mischievous.

But you remember yourself as mischievous?

Only under pressure. I think it's very hard to remember childhood really. So extraordinary things like getting told you had 200 lines stand out in your memory.

Are there any other memories like that, that you have of ... of school and your relationship with the teachers or the other students?

I'm sure there were, I'm sure, I mean, it depended where you were. And I remember when we were in Goulburn once and we, as boys, had bicycles and we had a job from the local movie theatre to deliver flyers advertising what was on at the movies at the weekend. And I was given the job of delivering them in the East Goulburn and if you've ever been to East Goulburn, it's a sort of vertical suburb and it was hot and I decided I didn't want to do this. So I just took the bundle and threw them in the rubbish tin. And forever after was certain that I'd been seen doing that and that I'd be caught and were ... you know, was almost afraid to go to the pictures again. That was a ... a plot involving a couple of people who decided they didn't really want to deliver them. How anyone ever figured out they weren't delivered, I don't know. But there were complaints and I was sacked. So, that was a short job.

Was that the wickedest thing you ever did?

... [interruption] ... I doubt it. I think the wickedest thing I ever did was to break all the telephone cups on the main western telephone trunk line during the war, which on reflection was a dastardly thing to do. But when you're waiting in the cold for a bus to take you to school and the bank is loaded with stones of the right size and the telephone cups are sitting up there, it's inevitable you're going to throw one to see if you can break one. And over the weeks you manage to break them all. What that did to communications in 1941, I think, one doesn't know. Maybe we nearly lost the war. The police did come and question me, I denied everything, and I think they knew damn well it had to be me. Only two children waiting out there for the bus. I don't know, I never tried to see whether the communications work when there's no ... you know, the china telephone cups on the poles ...

When the police came, did they come to your home?

No, they came to school because the school was next door and ... but I was going to high school and just happening to wait there for ... so I think they'd been through the school and decided that it wasn't any of the schoolkids and ...

How terrified were you when the police ... ?

Pretty, pretty terrified. I'm sure I was obviously guilty and they knew it and I knew it and that was enough said. There were no more cups broken.

Now you mentioned the war ...

This may get me in jail. You realise that, there's probably a long ... it's not a seven-year, you know, moratorium, you know. Yeah.

Statute of limitations? Right, what ... what ... why ...

I mean, if you had a kid who broke telephone cups now, you'd strangle them, wouldn't you? Ah, no. Look it's bleak and it's cold, if you go to Wallerawang now in the middle of winter and wait on the roadside, with a pile of stones, I think you'll pick one up and throw it.

That sounds to me as if you're trying to excuse yourself, even at this late stage.

I'm explaining my unsocial acts.

Now, you said that this was wartime, what are your memories ... what are your memories, apart from trying to break Australian communications during the war, what are your memories of the war and the outbreak of war?

I can remember the announcement that Menzies made on the radio. We had a radio then, '39. I can remember the year before the ... this was in Goulburn and it must have been the headquarters of a light brigade so the horsemen came in and it was still summer and the parade ground was opposite our house, so that was exciting, to see columns of horsemen riding in and ... so that was the outbreak of war and it pretty much happened, as you know ... in World War II, for a while, and then 1940, we're still living in Goulburn, things had turned nasty. Then we moved to Lithgow and it was totally different. Lithgow is a mining town and was in the middle of a miners' strike. If you can imagine in the middle of the war, having a miners' strike, but all the kids were getting free lunches sent in, by somebody, by the government I suppose. So the miners' kids were getting these great sandwiches and oranges and things and I was making do with whatever I brought home from ... brought to school, so you rapidly became a miner's child and got the free handout. So that was one part of the thing — our Latin teacher rejoiced, by the name of Mr Starling, and he was the local communist candidate up for election that year. So we'd see him on a soapbox on the corner as we left the school. We were transported from Wallerawang, a tough load of ... a busload of toughies that hit this tough Lithgow high school, which was no great shakes, so there were about 80 children jammed on a bus that was legally supposed to have 25 and later it ... had a gas bag on top, a great big canvas bag of town gas as the fuel supply, so it was pretty ordinary climbing over the mountains in this, particularly if you missed the bus and had to walk home — that was that part of the war then things got quiet again.

I remember they used to show Russian movies every so often which were pretty horrifying, these documentaries, but that was in about '44, '45, a Russian offensive, people charging over the snow and getting mown down. Where they came from, goodness knows, how they got to Australia, I don't know.

Maybe Mr Starling had something to do with it?

I'm not sure. Anyway, they were interesting, then the war ended, or the war ended in Europe and the war ended in the Pacific. But because you're in the country you really saw very little of this except when we lived in Lithgow, it was the most desperate time — that was when the Japanese entered the war at the end of '41 — and so Lithgow became an armed camp, there were dumps of fuel in the fields, they built a fake village into a mountainside, a fake railway line at Marangaroo, and stored ammunition in the mountain so all the kids knew what was going on. And Lithgow had the small arms factory so they were manufacturing machine guns and rifles there. So the kids used to collect rifle parts out of waste tins and everyone had their own rifle. So it was said.

Did you?

I didn't but we all joined the cadet corps and so we had our own rifles. Like the ones used in Zulu. Martini-Henrys, just slid the bullet in the back ... there was that part of it and then at Tamworth they were training pilots in the latter part of the war, so the air was full of Tiger Moths flying round and round as they taught them how to take off and land. That's my memory of the war.

Were people scared?

People were in 1941, they were alarmed. Were they scared? There was rationing then too. And so things were short even though it was the countryside, butter was rationed. Sugar, eggs.

How did rationing work?

They had coupons, you were given little sheet of coupons, and if you wanted a shirt, they'd use 12 coupons, if you wanted something else, I don't know. My parents looked after that.

Was there a black market?

Ah, sort of. We had a big backyard so we had our own cows and chooks and would sell the eggs to other people in the village. Is that black market? No, it's not. Not really. Was ... and if you were friends of the grocer he managed to have a can of sliced peaches or sugar or something, I know that, because I used to work in the grocer shop at the weekend. People would come in and [he’d] nod and wink and put his hand under the counter and get a tin of goodies. Goodness knows, I mean there was probably black marketing everywhere and you never knew.

While you were a kid at school, did you always have jobs at the weekend?

From about the middle of high school onwards. My earliest job was at the age of six, I became a member of the plumbers' union. Because I ... the school in Kingsvale was about a foot from the ground and they had to put pipes in underneath, so I was small enough to climb in under and thread the pipes through to put water in the classrooms so they made me a member of the plumbers' union, got paid a penny a day. Good money.

For a six-year-old, but not union rates, though.

[end of tape]

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