January 2007 Newsletter - Greg Wernert YHS 1956

Greg Wernert YHS 1956
Memories are Made of This Fifty years ago, a bunch of ragged (metaphorically speaking) kids late of Grade 6, East Newborough Primary School went on a character building journey to the glittering palace of secondary education, Yallourn High School. From memory, they were Effie Bridges (Carr), Ann Clark, Marilyn Kennedy, Gwenda Leverton, Linda Rendell (Reed), Judith Spackman, Margot Guzzardi (Teasdale), George Dibsdale, Bruce Garrett, Colin Nash, Derek Pym, Jeffrey Stearman, Rodney Thompson.

When I remember the people behind those names, many of whom were hatched in the shattered warlands of Britain and Europe, and resettled in the prefabricated little boxes of East/North Newborough, I am reminded of the fact that within that group, only three, including myself, had been born in Australia. Such was the cultural mix that I had already spent half of my young life embedded in. Long may I reflect, but more to the point, our new life experience was about to begin on that bright, sunny February day; the inevitable initiation by the solid “big kids” Yallournites. Other newcomers from “old” Newborough, Yallourn North, Hernes Oak and Morwell Bridge - similar bearers of wariness and fears - were not exempted. Thus we endured ducking under the taps or far worse, the immersion of your head (with body attached) into the toilet bowl, or a partial de-bagging. One timorous pre-pubescent lad stood back from these public bastardisations, the same lad of whom I’m proud to say I am still a friend; fifty years of laughing, crying as well as serious ponderings, but, never competing.

YHS was forever a small school - seldom more than 600 students. One of the warm and fuzzy reminders I have of those years is of a bonding, a feeling of selflessness and interest experienced from the likes of stand-out staff members such as Messrs Pyers, Parsons, Tremain, Collins, Dyall, Gearing, Bodsworth, Robinson, Dooley and Jones, for example, headed by the “boss”, the legendary G.S. Ellis.

Memories of a pervasive psychic atmosphere that it was all temporary anyway, that humankind’s relentless dictates that we need to destroy what’s good for the general economic dictate of what’s supposed to be good held true then, fifty years ago, as it does today.

The hot, late October of 1959; clammy palms writing, sweaty brains headaching. White heat felt by anxious 1956ers. Exams, the results of which will determine the old Intermediate Certificate. The victors will move on from year 10 (Form 4) to year 11. Classes will be smaller in’ 60 - hooray! Because of the heat, the exams are brought forward to early in the day. From midafternoon we are free to stream down Latrobe Ave to the swimming pool - the summer meeting place where all-important decisions about social events are decided - for a cooling off. Bravely, some of the staff similarly escape their stifling, stuffy staff room to ostensibly mark grimy, sticky exam papers. What’s more appropriate is a friendly water fight in the pool, staff vs students; a kind of metaphorical love in.

Yallourn was built on its own grave; the pretty little town tumbling down the side of a hill to the solid red brick town square portrayed an ironic sense of permanence. Built on its own grave because beneath the neat brick/timber houses, the green playing fields, the stout public buildings, the illusion of solidity was the motivation for the town’s destruction. For beneath that urbanity was the 25-50 million year old fossil remains, the dark chocolate brown detritus of fossilised primordia that was to have its grimy locked up energy released to fuel the post-war economic miracle of unbridled growth, and as part of the Faustian contract, the festering of environmental pollution. I remember those days when the infamous easterly blew the gaseous sulphurous stench from the Maryvale paper mills, mixed with the coal dust from the local chimneys. You walked with your head down with a subservient dignity to maintain eyes free from dust infestation.

The late fifties: an era of great vigour, a pulsating kaleidoscope of ephemera and potent influences. Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, the hernia inducing “Twist” courtesy of Chubby Checker, infantile television (has it changed?), Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Mad Magazine, Johnny O’Keefe, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Grace Metalius’ Peyton Place, the Yallourn theatre, the Yallourn library, the swimming pool, Kernot Hall, Colindale café (one of its many metamorphoses - I had my first cappuccino
here in 1957). Above all else, was the dominant force guiding my growing up, Yallourn High School. My strongest memory of what was good.

We formed a “group”— Bruce, Diane, Janina, Lynn, “Midge”, Richard, Sheila - a coming together of adolescents with similar unspoken desires. As teenagers, we were unaware of the intuitive forces at play. Former “members” will recollect, I’m sure. Some of that group still talk 50 years on. Kind, talented, passionate people, concerned with what is good. Personally, I am immensely grateful to the “group”. During a teenage period of identity crisis, this bunch provided a non–judgmental centre of focus for my reason for being, a sense of loyalty and belonging that stays with me.

My first experience of love, separate from that for my family that is, was felt in those streets paved with irony. The quiet, windless spring night, the boy and girl holding hands, strolling up the hill to the vicinity of Hazelwood Crescent, the orange sodium lights of the town twinkling away below, like sequins in black velvet. Yes, a class member who arrived ex-Melbourne in 1958. But now its 1960, the focus on two supposedly - well one anyway - responsible 17 year olds. The embrace, our thumping hearts pounding away, competing with the ever gently pervasive throbbing of the non-sentient power stations huddled around the river below; the reason for our existence - so D.H. Lawrence. Then it was all over. We rejoined the “Group” and not long after, I joined the work force, the patriarchal SECV, fighting my own demons in the bowels of ABCD & E power stations. Though she has gone her own way, the woman still talks, 50 years on.

From 1961 (Mad magazine palindromically labelled 1961 as the “upside down year”), I was no longer part of YHS, though my heart felt differently. By 1963 most of the Group had relocated to Melbourne and its centres of further education to be popped out later as teachers, nurses and academics. I felt the cuckoo of necessity pushing me from the nest of conformity so that I could move away from a feeling of nothingness to at least a sense of mediocrity. My deliverance had begun. The town began to exude a feeling of distance, of loneliness, a loss of direction: a vapidity. The centre of gravity was beginning to oscillate between Moe and Morwell. The Spring Street suits were openly numbering the years remaining. The unimaginable of phenomena, empty houses, began to be noticed. The earth was trembling. The gravediggers were polishing their huge shovels. Where was the national trust? A wanton, careless bleak destruction had begun as an antonym to the careful planning and construction of the 1920s. There appeared to be little public lament. The town is gone. What remains consists of a pervasive ghost, that when you put out your hand, you can almost touch the memory and palpably feel the slippery softness in some ethereal way. Reason subsumed by un-reason. Memories are always stronger when the physical evidence for the stimulus is absent. It becomes a purely platonic exercise, a yearning to use imagination to expand our memories. Therein lies the reason for the strength of YOGA: to give substance to a collection of memories that inevitably distorts the truth in order to enlarge one’s personal comfort zone. My lasting, almost cloying recollection of those years is of an era where people seemed to matter more than economic reason. A benign “big brother” - the SECV - was watching over you. All was well within its confines. Or was that an illusion as well?