Play Together, Dark Blue Twenty
On the southern edge of the Domain, that little patch of Melbourne that is forever England, stands Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, its milieu dominated by the offices of British Petroleum, the elegant white tower of Government House, and the massive Graeco-Chaldean ziggurat of the Shrine of Remembrance.
For one hundred and thirty years Melbourne Grammar has been the training ground for many of the nation’s gentlemen. It has provided rites of passage for homesick boys who have learned the decencies of social behaviour on the football ground, in the dining room, in the showers, under the dangerous glances of ‘the East’, the school’s secret police.
It was here the young Chester Eagle came in the late ‘forties from his parents’ farm near Finley, lovingly detailed in Mapping the Paddocks, to the alien, claustrophobic world of boarding school.
Venerable in local time, the buildings of Melbourne Grammar have echoed to shouts, groans, laughter; to interrogation and exhortation; to chants, lectures, hymns and prayers. Here are those echoes.
Written by Chester Eagle
Designed by Diana Gribble (incorporating a photo of School House, 1951)
First published 1986 McPhee Gribble
3,000 copies printed
Circa 47,300 words
Electronic publication by Trojan Press (2006)
Author’s note for a later edition that never appeared:
This book was first published (1986) when I was working in Victoria’s education system. I intended it to be, like its predecessor Mapping the paddocks (1985), an evocation of a past Australia, and I wanted also to make a contribution to the building of a state education system of quality and achievement. I hoped that those involved with government education would recognise the considerable qualities, mostly to do with pride, confidence, certainty and tradition, of the school described, and also see enough of the ways, many of them unattractive, by which a famous school’s prestige was maintained to see the need to go in another direction entirely. In the weeks following its publication, I saw that what I wanted was not going to happen. The book created a certain frisson at the school in question and among old boy and old girl networks more generally, but as a contribution to the changes then taking place in the state’s education system it had no effect at all. I am reissuing the book now as a record of a tradition, very powerful in its day, which has had some effect on our history.
I would like to record my thanks to Hilary McPhee and Diana Gribble, who believed in the book and first gave it to the public.
The writing of this book:
I finished Mapping the paddocks in a blaze of excitement. Later that same day I started Play together, dark blue twenty. On, on! Over the following weeks I got about fifty pages done, as I recall, before I began to have doubts. My treatment was too light. There was something darker, heavier about the school and its traditions, that wasn’t burdening my prose as it should. I stopped. I waited a day or two, looking at what I’d written. Could I fix the problem by adding bits here and there? No, I couldn’t. I had to start again.
What to do? I put the fifty pages in an envelope and sealed it. I have it still. I’ve never opened it from that day to this. I don’t even want to. I’m very happy with my second effort, so that I’ll leave the comparisons to someone else if there’s ever anyone who wants to bother.
It was said, when I was young, that Australia lacked traditions. This was rubbish. I’d come from one tradition and young men of my sort flowed into the traditions of the sombre-looking school in Saint Kilda Road where my young manhood was shaped. There was no such thing as a teenager in my time. Male children became boys and boys became men. Men of the Melbourne Grammar type sought advantage and they managed things to make sure they got it, they and their children, their spouses and families. Networking and obedience were consummately enforced, while the school’s teachers, educated enough and distinctly quirky, some of them, taught by rote, most of them, by way of showing us how to succeed. The school always got good exam results. Its leading scholars went on to university and did well, of course, but many were happy to get their matric (year 12) and go back to the properties they would run when their fathers handed them on. Others went into business. Tertiary education was not general in those days so many students did a second and occasionally a third year of matric, before they finally left school. School was enough for most in those days, and its rituals, Head of the River, and inter-school dances, were the foundations of a way of life for those who benefited most from Australia’s pastoral economy and relations with the world’s leading power, Great Britain.
Ours was a very English school. Yet the more English its ways, the more Australian it felt. I don’t think I can explain why this was so, yet I believe it was. Perhaps I feel this most strongly because I was a boarder and that meant that nearly all the boys in the boarding house came from somewhere in the countryside, so that I knew that they, like me, had connections that were absolutely inseparable from tracts of country, scattered through the vast land to our north, and west. Every holiday I went home and so did they. Holidays ended and we came back, something of those properties clinging to us still.
The Melbourne Grammar that I attended had struggled to hold itself together during World War 2. The age of affluence hadn’t yet dawned, though it was on the way. I describe in the book the replacement of headmaster Sutcliffe by headmaster Hone, who would change the school forever, and for the better. I was fortunate to see the beginning of the new age; I could understand it when it came. I could write about it. The school, I’m sorry to say, didn’t, and doesn’t, want to be reminded of what it once was. It’s never been comfortable with my book although its official account (Challenging traditions: a history of Melbourne Grammar, by Weston Bate and Helen Penrose, Arcadia, 2002) quotes my book liberally. I am sorry that my book has been pushed away, but much sorrier that the state school system, where I myself taught for many years, has never tried to learn how to make its schools special. Brian Hone, Melbourne Grammar’s greatest headmaster, said to me in my last year as a schoolboy, ‘They (government schools) need a hundred good headmasters.’ He knew they would never get them, and I’m not convinced that his way of making a great school should be everybody’s. There are other ways.
Lastly, I think I should mention the role of ritual in the school I attended. Things were done formally and in settled ways. Processions moved in and out of chapel. We sang at certain times and prayed in certain ways. It was rather monastic. Meals, bells, and everything else happened at set times. Very little ever went wrong. I remember very few stuff-ups in my years at Melbourne Grammar; they must have occurred, I suppose, but they weren’t tolerated. For a Christian school, there was surprisingly little forgiveness, or charity. Everything had to be just so. We lined up, we sang, we passed plates of food along the tables. We stood, we sat, we filed in and out. Life was a ritual, endlessly performed. I look back on this with amazement, now, and wonder at it. We, the boys, submitted, and in submitting we became what the school intended. It was a virtuoso performance, my schooling, and although I won’t pretend that I enjoyed it I knew, even at the time, that it was uncommonly effective. The old boys had such an air about them that they gave us faith in the methods of the school. Faith, belief, dressing themselves as Christian, but really, in fact, forever keeping an eye on success, which, as the old boys showed us, eventually, and mostly, arrived.