Taree High, 1955-56
Les Murray ... was 16-years-old when he came to Taree High School for the second time, at the beginning of 1955. His previous stay, ended by the death of his mother, had lasted just a few weeks four years earlier. After his 'Huckleberry' years of running wild, interrupted by stints at small friendly bush schools, where everyone knew him, Taree was something very different.
There was no school bus to Taree, and his father was too busy to take him. Cecil had by this time given up his dairy herd and gone back to his bachelor occupations of timber-getting and bullock-driving. It was agreed that Les Murray would have to board in Taree during the week, going home only at weekends. But it was during the day that he had real need of stoicism.
Taree High was a much larger school than any he had experienced. Murray, as a newly arrived country boy in class 4A, was an outsider on two counts. He was not just new, he was odd: he had no social graces except trying to impress by showing off his vocabulary and his huge general knowledge: this worked on the teachers, but irritated the students. 'I didn't have any idea at the time that it was a dreadfully dangerous thing to do because it can get you regarded as a nerd, a swot and all sorts of dangerous pond life.'
He had a slight speech impediment which made him pause before getting certain words out, as if he were fighting down a stammer: he would keep this for life. He was shy, quiet, immature and puppyishly anxious to be liked, particularly by the girls. To make matters worse, he was visibly a country boy and poor: there was about him an indefinable sense that he was uncomfortable wearing shoes, and his shirt would not stay in his trousers. The absence of running water in his home could be deduced, for though his body was clean, his clothes were grubby and smelled. He suffered from bad acne, which he picked at constantly.
And he was very big. He had by now reached his full height of just under six feet (180 centimetres) and he had his father's broad shoulders and barrel chest. His weight was already 15 stone, or more than 95 kilograms, though he was not particularly corpulent, most of that weight being bone and muscle.
In school photographs he is taller and broader than the masters. He would have been a very useful member of the rugby XV, but he had no interest in sport of any kind and did not know enough to hide his disdain for it. He was a natural victim.
The pupils in his year, about 50 of them divided into two classes, turned on this new, strange boy and he was mercilessly baited. It was the girls who particularly fixed on him. Other boys at the school believed it was because the girls thought they should be best in subjects such as English, history and art, and Murray quickly showed that he could easily outdo them. Murray himself believed that they were in some sense revenging themselves for slights at the hands of other boys.
'I suspect that it was by no means entirely their own fault. They had probably had a bugger of a time from other boys and here was one that was such a droob, such a helpless weirdo, that they could get their own back on the male race ... They were probably having a hell of a time with their own identity and their own fears because in that merciless world of teenage girls, nobody's ever pretty enough and nobody's ever got few enough pimples and nobody's ever got the right clothes. It's merciless, merciless. You need a valve, something to take it out on.'
Murray was the ideal victim because it was easy to raise a laugh against him, and because when persecuted he retreated into a dumb, miserable silence.
One of the girls who tormented him most pitilessly also noticed, and misunderstood, his hunger for and fear of sex, recalling 40 years later: 'He seemed particularly to dislike girls. He would say `Stupid women' and had no time for you. I got the impression he couldn't stand women. To tell you the truth I was very surprised when I heard he'd married.'
Naturally his fellow-pupils, though they knew he had lost his mother, had no conception of the terror that warred constantly with his longing for a girlfriend.
The method his fellow-pupils fixed on was relentless mockery of Murray's size. 'The way that they got me was to say that I was fat. I wasn't particularly, at the time, but that was their way of dealing with me.' He was addressed by a plethora of fat-names: 'Tubby', 'Nugget', 'Fatso' and worse, in a varied but unrelenting campaign that gradually broke down his already tottering self-esteem.
The boys joined in half-heartedly, making fun of him by clumsy practical jokes such as loading his schoolbag with bricks and waiting to see him lift it, a jape that backfired when he swept it up effortlessly; they also treated him with contempt, sniggering at everything he said, with sidewise glances for approval from the girls. 'The kind of cruel things you do,' one of them would remark, 'to the lowest order of kid in a school.'
Some schoolboy wit among them named him 'Bottlebum', and many called him nothing else for two years. He learned to regard as a friend any boy who derided him only in public, to protect himself, and was sensible in private. The only one who never taunted him, and addressed him as 'Les' even in public, Colin McCabe, he gratefully regarded as his best friend, and never forgot him.
But it was the girls whose company he longed for and feared who refined the mockery. It was one of them, Jane Liddell, who with Pam Findlater and Barbara Montgomery, seems to have originated the name many of the girls used for him, 'Bottom'. With its combination of crude reference to his size, Shakespearian echo and a suggestion of his place in this society, it was an inspired piece of cruelty. And Bottom the sexual fool was how these girls loved to see Murray. 'I would have treated them with my usual mixture of shyness, bluster and fear. That gets you nowhere, that gets you taken after. I used to have strings of 16-year-old girls hanging after me screaming with laughter and provoking me into making more of a fool of myself. And coming on to me, making various motions towards being my girlfriend in order to dismiss any such idea and howl some fresh ridicule. I'd make some evasive reply to escape, and that would cause more merriment. It was hell, it was proper functioning hell.'
The death of his mother had already fixed in him a terror of sex; this persecution, taking the form of constant sexual attraction and rejection, turned the knife in the green wound, and went on doing so for two years. Reasoning it through in maturity, he would come to think he was the victim of 'a kind of attempted psychic castration of people who are out of fashion in some way'.
These years of quiet cruelty, helplessly endured, were to prove one of the vital formative experiences of his life. It was as crucial as that other terrible psychic wound, with which it was linked, the death of his mother. At Taree High, he would come to see, he was the victim of an organised, powerful majority, a mob with leaders who set the fashion and who had decreed his torture and exile. And there was no appeal against his sentence. 'Nothing a mob does is funny,' he would say in Fredy Neptune, his most detailed study of this phenomenon.
He was made to drink deep of the bitter waters; he would never forget, and in his poetry he would make that terrible time live again forever:
Those years trapped in a middling cream town
where full-grown children hold clear views
and can tell from his neck he's really barefoot
though each day he endures shoes,
he's what their parents escaped, the legend
of dogchained babies on Starve Gut Creek;
be friends with him and you will never
be shaved or uplifted, cool or chic.
He blusters shyly poverty can't afford instincts.
Nothing protects him, and no one.
He must be suppressed, for modernity,
for youth, for speed, for sexual fun.
In his later writing he would recognise the universality of his situation at Taree High; every society has its victims, every society its torturers. He would always be on the side of the outcast; the poor, the powerless, the odd, the unemployed, the unfashionable. For the victimisers, the enforcers of fashion, he would find many names; 'the humans', he had called them as an angry child, later 'the snobs', 'the mob', 'the Nazis', 'the police'.
In a sense he would never get over this experience. 'Merely crossing a schoolyard, even today,' he would write in 1983, 'can fill me with muscle-tightening horror.' It was Taree High that turned him decisively against enforced conformity, intellectual gangs, particularly literary and academic ones, and the mob-persecution of any individual, even those he disagreed with, often women Lindy Chamberlain, Helen Demidenko, Pauline Hanson.
Murray avoided all physical activity other than the cadets, which he loved, and which provided cause for further scorn. Cadets had ceased to be obligatory for all boys in the year he arrived at Taree High. Most boys gratefully ceased to attend, but Murray was so keen that he wore his cadet uniform whenever possible. He was rapidly promoted to be sergeant, and wore the stripes with pride, though the cadet master thought him too sloppy to be a soldier. He was, however, the star of Taree High's five-man rifle team, posing proudly with them in a photograph in The Torch, the school magazine.
His military interest grew steadily during this time of misery at Taree; the unrelenting victimisation produced a smoldering, impotent resentment that made him long to be part of some powerful group and in a position to strike back at his tormentors. 'Imagine the teeth-clenched eerie delight of fellows pouring bombs out on Germany, the number of schoolyards they were killing.' He was later to realise that at this time he was going down a path that could have led to terrible things.
He lived an internal life in self-defence, a life of which his teachers and fellow-pupils knew nothing, building up a private mythology to give himself strength. One of the stories that consoled him was that of Samson, who had always been his favorite character in the Bible. 'He had a bugger of a time but he brought the whole world down on their heads.'
Murray loved films, and saw as many as he could. One of these in particular provided him with a parallel to his own situation, and he saw it until he knew the dialogue by heart from beginning to end. It was From Here to Eternity, the Fred Zinnemann love-and-war hit of 1953, set in Hawaii in the build-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Murray identified strongly with Private Prewett, the powerful boxer played by Montgomery Clift, who refuses to fight again because he once killed an opponent, and who is persecuted relentlessly by his corrupt company commander.
In his art class, Murray expressed pain, anger and grief continually in his drawings. One of his fellow-pupils, Robin Norling, who later became an important artist, recalled that, 'at a time when the rest of the class had moved on to madly sophisticated abstract art, he was still drawing his one subject, which was soldiers, tanks, war machinery, generals. He was crazy about war. Like a kid'.
Yet he had extraordinary knowledge of most unexpected areas. In one of the first art classes, the teacher, James Murdoch, told the group that they would be studying pre-Columbian art. Could any of them name one pre-Columbian civilisation? The rest of the class was utterly stumped, but Murray's hand went up. 'Ah, sir, do you mean the Aztecs, the Maya, Zapotec, Totonac, and Teotihuacan civilisations, the Toltecs...' He knew them all, Murdoch would recall years later. Who could fail to detest such a classmate?
And in English and history he was the outstanding pupil of his year. The English teachers, Keith and Edith McLaughlin, were particularly impressed by him from the start. 'He was interesting to teach, more than most pupils, because he was genuinely interested in words. He owned a dictionary, a Concise Oxford I think, and he looked words up and remembered them, and used them, very unusual words sometimes. He used words like an adult. I enjoyed teaching him,' said Keith McLaughlin.
Murray's vocabulary impressed his fellow-pupils too. Each year the school magazine carried a class report on the senior pupils. The report for class 4A in 1955 devotes a doggerel couplet to each pupil, including 'Les at English is a whiz/Is a dictionary in that head of his?' Perhaps for his own amusement, he would sometimes misuse the polysyllabic words he threw at his schoolmates. Robin Norling was to say, 'I remember him threatening to `transubstantiate someone through a wall'. Not that he was violent, this was just bluff and horseplay'.
Murray played up to this image of himself as a 'brain' and a 'whizz with words'. It was a big improvement on himself as sexual clown. His fellows knew that at what they all called 'playtime' he took himself off to the library to read his way through the school Encyclopaedia Britannica; and he appeared to remember everything he read. His memory was already as retentive as a mantrap.
Bob Wallace was impressed. 'He had a huge brain for history and had all these quotes up his sleeve; in modern history he would virtually take over the class. Same in English. We admired his talent. When he spoke out he knew what he was talking about. He argued with teachers, and wasn't often proved wrong.'
Particularly bright pupils could take certain subjects at honors level, which meant sitting a separate examination at the end of the School Leaving Certificate year. The McLaughlins encouraged Murray to do English honors, and tutored him with pleasure. It was with them that he first began reading poetry in a concentrated way, focusing particularly on Gerard Manly Hopkins and T.S. Eliot, who were set for study, but also ranging much more widely than he was required to do.
In a single weekend on the family farm he read the whole of Milton's poetic output, particularly relishing Samson Agonistes, and it never struck him that this was an unusual way for a schoolboy to spend his free days.
Despite the fact that he had already begun to live poetry, when Edith McLaughlin asked for a contribution for the school magazine at the end of 1955 and again in 1956, he provided not poems but short stories. In 1955, he published a lightly humorous, autobiographical piece about school cadets in which a particularly sloppy cadet is punished by 'Sergeant Thompson, a precocious young pimple-faced lad'.
This sketch, though confidently written, is notable chiefly for being his first publication of any kind. By the following year, however, he was able to turn out a Faustian yarn entitled Mr Cuthbert and the Devil, a polished piece of work for a 17-year-old, concise, well-expressed and with a neat plot twist.
Murray continued to put most of his effort into work not set by the school. He noticed some German texts in Keith McLaughlin's office and asked about them. McLaughlin said: 'One day he asked me if he could borrow one, and gradually he borrowed most of them and used them. I think he just wanted to have another language.' Murray discovered that he had a natural aptitude for languages, in which his astoundingly tenacious memory played a large part, and his German developed rapidly. This was the first of the languages he learned consciously; in the years that followed he would come to read a score of them with ease.
His schoolwork he continued to take lightly, doing it rapidly and tending to put in just enough effort to get by. On English he spent more time, one day remarking to the physical education master, Les Lawrie, that he was not enjoying reading Shakespeare. 'There are Australian poets too, you know,' said Lawrie, mentioning Henry Lawson, Judith Wright, Kenneth Slessor and others. This was a revelation to Murray, who came the next day to take up Lawrie's invitation to borrow and read a volume of Lawson's verse. 'But he wasn't very impressed by him,' Lawrie recalled.
All the same, as Murray gratefully recorded in an article he wrote for the school magazine in 1988, Lawrie had alerted him to the existence of Australian poets, 'whose ranks I would soon attempt to join'. He got hold of an anthology, The Boomerang Book of Australian Verse, and there encountered for the first time the work of Douglas Stewart, being greatly impressed by Stewart's poems about Aboriginal rock art. 'When I was shown ... poetry written in my own country about things I knew or was interested in, the magic happened,' he would tell other schoolchildren years later.
His father, worried by what young Les was to do in life, drove in to Taree to consult Keith McLaughlin, who was also the guidance counsellor. McLaughlin advised him to send his son to the University of Sydney if he could get in.
Les Murray did the Leaving Certificate at the end of 1956. The English honors examination was held on a Monday morning, and to the McLaughlins' deep disappointment Murray missed it, having failed to get back in time after his weekend at home in Bunyah. He had simply mistaken the time. He had to sit the ordinary examination in the afternoon. As a result he got only an A, rather than the hoped-for honors in English. He scored As also in Economics and Art, and Bs in his remaining subjects, modern history, biology and geography. He was quite happy with this outcome, as it assured him of a commonwealth scholarship to study at Sydney University.
He left Taree High School without regrets at the end of 1956. It would be 20 years before he returned in 1977 to talk to the pupils about poetry. After giving his talk he walked meditatively around the school with Edith McLaughlin. As they were parting Murray quietly delivered a matter-of-fact summary, without self-pity. 'I had one of the hardest times of my life here.'
Back in Bunyah, on the hot afternoon of Christmas Day 1956, after the miserable midday corned-beef dinner with his father, he wrote his first poems, 10 of them, in a single burst. They were short, all about machinery and the effects of light on oil or steel, heavily influenced by Hopkins's images, 'like shining from shook foil'.
One of these 10 first poems in particular stayed in Murray's mind, a poem in which he tried to describe the light on the railway lines at Gloucester Station.
It was a poem of covert farewell, for Gloucester was the station from which he would leave for Sydney University. Though he would later say they were 'terrible', at the time he read his poems with pride. 'I can do this,' he thought with excitement.
Some days before he had taken his old pony, Creamy, and gone on one of his day-long rambles from Bunyah, thinking about what he was going to do with his life.
By late afternoon he was in an old timber-mill he sometimes visited, on the riverbank at Coolongolook, nearly 10 kilometres from home. Dow's mill, now long gone, was already falling into ruin, weeds growing through the floor, the remaining machinery rusting quietly, the big circular blades on the walls dimming.
Down a road padlocked now
steel discs and weeds sprawled
in a room whose rusty hair
was iron cornrows, and its brow
a naily timber lintel
under which I'd gaze across
the river at Midge Island
as the tide turned on its pintle ...
The place seemed a symbol of the decay of his father's timber-getting lifestyle. He determined he would turn his back on that, and he would never be a dairy farmer either.
As he would put it in a verse-letter to the poet Dennis Haskell, 'at 18, I made a great vow/I would never milk another bloody cow'.
He stood a long time watching the mayflies circling over the still water, thinking about his future, and with a sense of inevitability he realised that he was going to be a poet.
A few years later he would put some of the excitement of this discovery into a fine poem, 'Spring Hail', in which a boy realises that he owns Pegasus:
It was time, as never again it was time
to pull the bridle up, so the racketing hooves
fell silent as we ascended from the hill
above the farms, far up to where the hail
formed and hung weightless in the upper air,
charting the birdless winds with silver roads
for us to follow and be utterly gone.
This is for spring and hail, that you may remember
a boy and a pony long ago who could fly.