Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Boys, bikes and the bush

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 25 March 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Cousin Jamie has been progressively putting Aunt Kay’s photos up on the web. He is very organised: photos are tagged by decade from the 1890s, by location, by person and by topic. Talk about a nostalgia trip!

Kay, Belshaws and Halpins This photo shows us at the Armidale baths. From left to right, myself, Michael Halpin, Kath Vickers (then Drummond), Richard Halpin and brother David.

We spent a lot of time at this pool. One year we had a season’s ticket. This allowed us in free. During holidays we sometimes started swimming soon after the pool opened at 6am.

Mr Monkton managed the pool. His son John was a champion swimmer, winning silver at the Melbourne Olympics in the 100 metres backstroke. I suspect, I do not know, that the pool’s opening hours were influenced by John’s. Certainly it was open for a very long time during the day.

I only saw John train once. He started with free-style, and then switched to backstroke. I had never seen anything like it. The speed, the huge wake, stuck in my mind.

The Halpin twins were our special friends for much of my early childhood. Mr Halpin worked at Richardson’s, our big local department store. He and Vee were close friends with our parents and especially Mum.

Looking back, Richardson’s was a remarkably good store, offering a range of good and services that would seem strange in today’s Armidale.

For many years after leaving Armidale I actually bought most of my clothes in Armidale instead of Canberra or Sydney. Not just at Richardson’s, but also Hanna’s and Savages.

The Halpin twins initially lived just down the road. This made it easy to do things together.

There was no TV. TV came to regional Australia quite late, and even then my father would not have it because it might interfere with our studies. This meant that when I did finally have access to TV I became totally addicted, an addiction that lasted for a number of years!

In the absence of TV, we spent most of our time out doors. Initially we walked or ran every where, sometimes dozens of kilometres a day between our favourite patches. Then, with bikes, our horizons expanded.

I was in year five when my parents bought me a bike, a second hand model.

Early one morning I got the bike to learn to ride. Just to the side of the house there was a steep slope down to the street. I got on the bike and pushed off.

Those who have read Banjo Patterson’s Mulga Bill's Bicycle can guess the result. Gathering speed, I crashed into the front fence.

That would have been bad enough. Worse was to follow.

This was the tail end of the days when early morning ice trucks delivered block ice for home coolers. The truck arrived just as I hit the fence. A boy in my class was there helping his father unload the ice. I was mortified.

Still, I did finally teach myself to ride. The bikes gave us much greater freedom; we roamed a big arc of country from the Pine Forest in the north through to the Dangarsleigh lanes in the south.

It is hard today to imagine the sort of freedom we had. I don’t know that the world is in fact a riskier place. Certainly our attitudes to acceptable risk have changed, as have attitudes to acceptable behaviour.

Among my daughters’ friends there are some who have never been in the bush alone except on organised and in fact compulsory school excursions, who have never lit a fire, never cooked a meal on an open fire, never been on a farm.

The knowledge that we acquired has gone, replaced by new knowledge linked to a crowded and busy urban environment. Street smart has replaced bush smart.

I have to remind myself of this from time to time because it affects the way people think and talk. It helps explain, among other things, the growing gap between city folk and their regional cousins. But that’s a subject for another column!

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