A frank story, part 5 ( missing Australia’s corrigated iron)

Frank’s story. Section 5

Apartment living.

The arrival in Sydney was on a sunny day, as it always is. When is it ever, when a boat going through the Heads happens during rain? My parents picked us up and after arrival we were shown the converted garage or our previous ‘temporary dwelling ‘that all of us had lived in some year earlier. The curtains had been renewed and were a cheery checked white and red. It also happened that the apartment at Pott’s Point, Sydney had become vacant. It seemed more logical for us to move into our own place rather than stay in the garage and be miles away from anywhere. It is not as if Sydney’s suburbia was in a forest or nestled along a picturesque lake. Au contraire, the bare looking suburban roads and houses in the region were as devoid of life as a Fremantle on a Sunday afternoon. I asked Helvi, where would you like to live? She wanted to be in Sydney. The little she had seen while being driven through it from the boat was enough for her to want to live at least where there were people, shops and life in general.

We stayed just one day in the garage and much to the surprise of my mother, we moved to our own patch in Pott’s point next day. The small but comfortable apartment was smack in the middle of a very cosmopolitan area of Sydney. We were on the top floor with the lift right next to our front door. The concierge was helpful and of Irish O’Leary descent with a skinny frame and a red nose but a friendly demeanour if somewhat under the weather after about 3pm (daily).

Even in the 1960’s, Potts Point and Kings Cross next door, had a rather bohemian tinge to it. It was a happy mixture of hookers and poets, criminals and cafe habitués with some of the best delicatessen in the whole of Australia. A butcher shop with all sorts of European condiments, smoked hams and jars of anchovies, prosciuttos and home- made sauerkraut, rookworst et al, and with a fragrance that permeated the pavement outside which one could only have found either in Budapest or Vienna. I think the shop was named ‘Hans Continental Meats’ or something and the customers were lined up from morning till night. From memory, Pott’s point and Kings Cross were also an area where some shops were allowed to be open after 6pm, which in Australia was groundbreaking for the time.  We loved living there and for me it came closest to living in a kind of Piazza Garibaldi of Naples.

The apartment that I had bought in 1963, cost $ 9.500. It came fully furnished and even had a Bakelite radio, all crockery and cutlery, small gas operated fridge. The bedroom had a curved bay window and the queen size bed had a bed head and foot end of the imitation wood laminated variety, very popular for the time and now sought after by collectors. The floor was carpeted by another Australian favourite phenomenon ‘wall to wall’. It could not look worse. The whole building had been used in the past by a company for daily rental as a kind of inner-city hotel but without restaurants or services. While I went about re-building the decorating business with printing of letterheads and matching envelopes, buying a car and connecting with previous clients, my wife started to make our living quarters less like a place whereby couples would have a quick horizontal folk dance and more like reflecting our own life. The ‘wall to wall’ was the first to go under which we found a delightful hardwood floor. We stained it a darker colour and put a Finnish hand-woven rug on it, which we had bought from Artes Studios in George Street, Sydney, together with some strongly coloured material to re- cover a simple settee. We re-painted the whole place and hung some of my paintings and wall hangings that we had been given in Finland on our marriage. We had taken some Arabia crockery with us, especially the Arabia tea pot that was also a wedding present. Arabia ceramics are even today unequalled in the world.

We, of course had now settled in and I started work, very modestly at the beginning with doing most of it myself. In the meantime Helvi was increasingly keen to start work as well and managed to get a job in a hospital within walking distance. It wasn’t long after when we decided to start a family and a year and a half later, our first daughter was born.  At the same time, some of my brothers had married as well and started families. A period of visiting brothers and babies and wives had become an almost every week-end event, with all doing up places or renovating. The arrival of our daughter did not come without crying bouts and lack of sleep. Fortunately, we had an expert nurse as a neighbour and she told us to walk around the block while she would stay with her when baby was crying, and this would always result in the baby having fallen asleep when we returned after 15 minutes or so.

What amazed Helvi was the local Baby Health Centre. She went just once. The nurse told her; don’t wear those silly necklaces around your neck, now that you are a mother! Never again did she even get close to a ‘Baby Health Centre.

Harbour foreshore and Gertrude’s Cottage

 Of course, with the business doing well, and family growing we needed more space. We happened to look at The Sydney Morning Herald with an advertisement for a cottage for sale, which was called ‘Gertrude’s Cottage. It faced the harbour and had a goat. The advertised price was $12.500.-. I knew this was ours right from the start. I don’t believe in premonition or future or fortune telling devises. I took a drive to the address which was right near the harbour of Sydney in Balmain which was an area that used to be ‘working class and ‘cut-throat’ territory, belonging to thieves, drunkards and Irish Catholics. I say, that ‘used’ to be, because it had become a bit of a low cost housing area for students and artists. It was changing and in an upward transit.

Even so, the rabbito men were still doing the rounds, albeit in its final years and the milkmen and bread delivery were still a daily event.  I am running ahead somewhat now. The Gertrude Cottage was as charming as I had imagined it to be with a large living-dining-kitchen area and with the bath all out in the lounge area. I knew Helvi would love it and she did. Upstairs were 2 small bedrooms. The whole cottage was weatherboard, very old and one corner had sunk on its foundations which made the floor canter to the lower side. It was a private sale and the owner a well known architect with 2 blond little daughters and a vivacious wife. The goat was tethered to a stake and eating the vegetation of derelict land between the house and the harbour. In the middle of the ground floor it had a slow combustion cast iron wood heater with a galvanised chimney going up through the roof. As an extra bonus it could also include a huge boulder that was about ten metres by thirty metres long and could be leased from the local Council. This boulder would extend our property to the next street corner giving us the right for intruders to be excluded.

We immediately went to the bank to try and get a mortgage. The manager promised an inspection and after a week he got back to us. Look, Gerard mate, he said, you are buying a glorified shed. Are you sure you want to go through with it?  Our deposit was sixty percent, so the bank had little option but to approve of the loan. The ‘shed,’ after six weeks or so became ours. It was heaven. The morning sun would come up over the harbour bridge and then reflect on the hardwood timber flooring. Looking against the light, the water was sparkling and shimmering, boats and ferries busying themselves with large merchant ships reversing engines before berthing making the landmass our house shake. Sydney still was an industrial harbour and full of life. The derelict land  adjacent and in front of the cottage facing the harbour was ideal for throwing in a fishing line and many did so, especially during week-ends. Our little family thrived and business thrived as well. In the meantime I kept on with my art and painted many pictures. At one stage we had nude life drawing classes and our friends would sometimes strip off and allow themselves to be charcoal drawn. Many early and adventurous couples decided to also buy those cheap places in Balmain, do them up and restore them to former glory.  Of course, working class cottages that were small and modest could hardly become ‘former glory mansions’ and some of the results were far from modest and ruined many of them. Extensions and extra storeys on top of former two bedroom cottage on small parcels of land ended up ugly and bloated. The flexing of moneyed people did not enhance the area in later years either.

The bath in the middle of living area was eventually screened off. Adjacent to the bath we had a second hand washing machine with draining of rinsing water done by lowering the hose to the outside and then sucking on it to encourage the flow. Nowadays it could be seen as a bit primitive, but to have a washing machine that did everything except pumping out the water, was seen as a minor dysfunction. The cottage itself with its open sunny feeling could only be improved upon by bits of furniture that we mainly scrounged around for in second hand shops, St Vinnie’s etc. It was shielded from the street by a very high timber fence that the previous architect owner had put up. It was so high that you could not even jump up to get a hold and climb over it. Some friends that had lived in Indonesia remarked it reminded them of a brothel that the Japanese were running then during the occupation.  No doubt, if it would have been possible to have had a look inside during the nude drawing lessons that the brothel conclusion could have been drawn as well.

We lived in a very narrow street with the before mentioned leased boulder from Leichhardt Council on one side and a cliff face on the other side, giving the impression that the tail end of the street had been cut through solid rock. During the period when we were still living in Pott’s Point and my brother Frank was working for me, we worked on a block of three story home-units that was on the opposite side of Gertrude’s cottage. When sitting on the very ledge where Frank took a swing at me, I used to admire the cottage. It had three goats then and the two blond girls used to play outside. The admiration for that cosy cottage came to owning that very same place some two years or so later. What a coincidence. When I read the advertisement for ‘Gertrude Cottage’, with a goat, I was fervently hoping it would be the one with the goats that I had seen before.  It was.

Children’s Library, Play and baby- sitting groups and Vegetables.

These were happy times, and soon Helvi and I had another daughter, delivered at the same hospital and by the same doctor. Our children were growing up with many other young children in the same area. We befriended many other couples.  None of the child-care centres that are now so proliferate existed then and one enterprising mother thought up the idea of playgroups whereby both children and mothers could get together. These were supreme examples of communities getting together. The playgroups and babysitting club came to being through a community organisation that was set up to preserve an old police lock up and ‘watch house’. It was an historic double story sandstone structure and in need of restoration. The National Trust which was set up to preserve old and historic buildings of national significance also included the ‘Watch House’ and decided in its wisdom to fund some of the cost of restoration. Money was also raised through the community having ‘fund raising’ dinners or events and through membership fees. Those members belonging to the association were mainly young and professional couples with children and it was a logical extension to get together with the kids and parents, mainly mothers. This was happening in parks, playgrounds or people’s homes.

As many of the couples became friends and started to socialize it was inevitable that someone thought up the idea of setting up a baby-sitting club. This would then allow parents to sometimes go out and know that their baby or young child was well looked after and at no cost.  For every hour a baby was looked after, mainly during evenings, the parents of the baby would be charged a minus point and the baby sitter would get a plus point. To get rid of the minus points it was expected for parents to baby sit in return. There was a limit in racking up minus points and anyone exploiting the system would receive a notice that baby-sitting was expected, or else the baby- sitting for the offending couple would cease. The system worked perfectly, and by and large the point system remained fairly balanced. After all, who wanted to be known for being a perpetual ‘minus point couple’? There was one hiatus, males doing baby-sitting. The last bastion in the late sixties for males to break down was the right to baby-sit. Women were in the throng of burning bras and going girdle less, stockings with seams were passé and Germaine Greer had announced ‘Bras are a ludicrous invention’. So, while women burned bras because they were seen as accoutrements of torture, men burned their draft cards avoiding real torture and felt liberated until they tried to baby-sit in Inner West of Sydney.

As it was I turned up one evening and with the household all dressed to go and dine somewhere or see Zorba the Greek, I noticed a distinct cooling towards me. They made a discreet phone call and decided it would be safe for a man to be allowed to baby sit, just this time.  ? Of course, many of the parents that knew each other through social events knew each other as couples or, in the case of play groups, were mainly always women. For a man to be on its own, solo, and at baby-sitting in the evening was not that far advanced in acceptance yet. There was a meeting and the majority approved ‘male baby-sitting’. I don’t know what the objections or criteria were for being suspicious of males doing baby-sitting. Curiously enough, the mother that was surprised and taken aback somewhat when I presented myself to baby-sit, thought nothing of taking her clothes off for a life drawing session. Were males going to do evil things or was the reluctance because of lack of skills? It was not that much of a challenge though and much depended on what sort of facilities the parents had provided. Real coffee instead of the instant variety was preferred. Sometimes, there was a good book or a television program. Sometimes, especially if it was after midnight (double points) you would just go to sleep on a couch if available. Never in their marital bed of course!

 Most times babies would either sleep or cry. If they cried you generally gave them the option of a milk bottle or a dummy. With some families there were directions on procedures, and I remember one cot having a type of fly screen lid fitted on top. It was hinged and had a locking device which was difficult to open; it had a trick to it. I ended phoning the secretary. Did they think their baby was going to get stolen? I only had one time that my baby soothing skills were inadequate. Mind you, the babies (twins) were known as ‘the horrible twins’. Apparently, they would scream and could not be bend in order to change their nappies. It was my turn to baby-sit for these twins and as soon as I walked near them they broke out in a howl and in tandem. The nappy stench made clear I had to change them, but even another step towards their cot resulted in a renewal of their blaring sirens. It would only abate when stepping back. I kept stepping back and phoned the secretary again, she came around and changed the nappies. By 1972 most males had broken the barrier and were fully accepted for babysitting.

The fruit and vegetable co-op had similar beginnings. We would pool say, ten dollars per couple and draw up a roster for two people to drive to Flemington’s Produce markets and get boxes of fruit and vegetables at wholesale prices. It was surprising how much we would get for the ten dollars. Perhaps there were 15 couples, so the kitty would be one hundred and fifty dollars. In those days that was a lot of money to spend on fruit and vegies. The main staples were of course onions, spuds and carrots. Depending on who went, the rest would be whatever there was in season. I nearly always teamed up with an Irish man who happened to be a song writer and very much a ‘bon vivant’, he would always sing and smoke during our trip over and would indulge in some exotic articles, sometimes artichokes or perhaps blue berries. This then would take a bite of the kitty that some thought could have been spent on more onions. On the other hand there were couples who hated onions and garlic could not stand the sight or smell of it. So, what to do? The solution was for some couples to do internal swapping. So there you are, if there is a will there is a way.

The Community also decided to do something about a library for children. That part of Sydney did not have a library. Of course, we had access to a library somewhere else but this was not always convenient for children. In any case, the idea of having just a children’s library in Balmain came from an ex chief librarian from Canberra who had retired sometime earlier. The Balmain Watch-House had by then undergone some renovations and repairs and the State Government was leasing the building for a ‘peppercorn rental to the Balmain Association who in turn was looking for ways to make use of the space apart from having their meetings. The children’s library was one of those functions that could make good use of the holding cells on the ground level. It had a little yard and the cell did have all the steel doors and iron locks with grates and bars on windows that kids would just love to look at. A real jail! The library was organized by Larry Lake, the retired chief librarian previously of Canberra and now living in Sydney. A group of three volunteers, managed after about a year, of getting books together and cataloguing, covering and putting a card system in place for future borrowers, that the children’s library was finally opened. One of the families that I remember using the library every week was the family Ford, they had at least five children and the mother and her brood used to come each Saturday to borrow a few books. The library lasted till the local Council established a library in Balmain. 

Inner City living and Art appreciation.

The time of the early seventies in the Inner West and especially Balmain was the entering of many people testing the waters of inner city living. They braved the pervading tradition of block of land and house in the suburbs, and in fact sometimes heaped scorn on those poor sods that travelled for miles to and from infrastructures such as shops schools and especially work. Many thought that it was just not a ‘dream’ to live out miles away, where the streets where empty and the houses looking deserted with inhabitants cowering inside except when washing the car or trimming the petunias. This was also of course, the period of Barry Humphries and the satire on Australian suburbia through Dame Edna Average and her ever- present bunches of gladioli. Property prices, as a result of those willing to test the waters, went up rapidly and many moved in and re-sold into bigger or better situated places such as Birchgrove or East Balmain. Soon there were areas with more prestige than others in the Inner West. An ominous sign.

With the decorating and painting business booming I did many paintings and also joined an art appreciation course at Circular Quay which was run by a very well known art teacher. His name was Desiderius Orban (1884-1986) who was already in his late eighties when I joined. His main quality was that he never taught any tricks or skills but tried to encourage students to paint or draw from within. His aim was to make students loose fear and to try and get back to a creative expression which, he always claimed, children are born with, but loose through bad parenting or education or whatever else that make children comply and conform. He was very likable and being Hungarian born was of course very charming and witty. The ladies loved him and picked him up from his home and delivered him back home, baked cakes and would often come with all sorts of delicious morsels. It was a time of much delight and we were invited to always bring in our work for critique by everyone, but especially the master. He was quite sincere and honest in his appraisals but at times a little harsh as well and some students would end up in tears. He seemed to like my work and often would compare my work with others and point out differences between those that did not let go of conventional drawing and mine. I was of course flattered but also thought that the mixing of money making, bringing up children and art was hard. There were many exhibitions that I entered and indeed, won a first prize handed out by no less than Lloyd Rees who was a well known and respected artist. To paint full time and also make a living to keep family in food, pay mortgage and run a car etc. seemed only possible for a very few that were well known. My previous art course at The Mary White School of Art at Double Bay during 1961 or 62 had known artist as teachers and they were well on the way to the top. John Olson, Robert Klippel and Colin Lanceley had made some name even then. In 1972 our third child was born, a boy. Just perfect. We had not planned a third baby and decided to try and prevent a fourth child from happening. I would go for a vasectomy. I was examined by a woman doctor and a date was set for the operation. It was performed by two lady doctors and the snip took 15 minutes. My brother did the same thing and for some reason or other we were invited on channel 9 TV to be asked about our experiences. I suppose the vasectomy was still in its infancy and had some curiosity value. The next day after the programme was shown, all sorts of people including the local butcher made the kind of remarks you would expect. Did you get it cut off, seemed to be the main one.   

The original idea by coming to Australia, was, that we would eventually return back and live in either Finland or Holland again. I knew I could start a business and make some money In Australia that would enable us to buy a house and save some capital. Australia would allow anyone to start up almost anything. It wasn’t known as a pioneering country for nothing, while in Europe you needed a diploma to start a bicycle repair shop or fruit shop and in Holland you just about needed either a license or permission to just breathe.

 Australia just was not up to scratch when it came to all those European delights, such as good health care, good education, above all, reasonable conditions for artists. Australia had failed in a sense of not having given me much that I was in sympathy with. I just did not feel Australia to be my home. Heaven knows why I even thought that Australia ‘owed’ me anything or why I should feel the need to be ‘Australian’. The riddle of identity would not resolve itself until many, many years later!

Another pull from Europe, specifically Holland, was that artists whose work was deemed to have enough merit or quality would be given a salary. This had been established as part of a general socialisation of The Netherlands. The dire straits that Europe was in after the war, and in the case of the Netherlands, the need to completely overhaul so much of its infrastructure had been achieved and priorities were now completely changing with money flowing to all sorts of institutions and perceived social needs. The idea of being able to work full time on art and not having to worry about having to do something else for a living had enormous appeal.

Part 5: section2.

The artist salary would enable me to work full time and as the salary included the government taking works from me, it also would give me the satisfaction that my painting would be shown. The method by which this was achieved meant that public buildings such as hospitals, schools and even jails would feature works by artists that were being paid a salary. This applied to all visual artists’ work including ceramics and printmaking, as well as paintings, sculptures and others. This at the time, of course was an appealing and attractive lure. We decided to sell up and travel to Holland, lock stock and barrel.

Holland.  The Artist’s Nirvana.

Well, the bullet had been fired through the church and after we made up to go, the house in East Balmain was put on the market. The advertisement ‘for sale’ was put in the Sydney Morning Herald, but not as Gertrude’s cottage again. We had bought this charming cottage in 1969 and little more than three years later was snapped up for more than thrice the original amount. The first person to see it was so overcome by the charm and position of Gertrude’s that without further ado he pulled three hundred dollars out of his wallet and promised he would see his lawyer next day to start the transfer of title. He then lit a cigar and when we told him that the large boulder was rented from council for $ 10. – A year, he was even more enthralled. He puffed on his cigar and stated, ‘this is just the best pad I have ever seen’, climbed the large rock and paced it out. His euphoria had no end. We never saw the man again, never ever. We did not have his address or phone number and the three hundred dollars were never re-claimed.  Did he go home and got smacked by his wife for his brash decision without consulting her first? He never talked about wife though! Did he die, had an accident?  Who knows?

The next person was a very calm Englishman by the name of Martin. He also liked it very much and asked if we could just let him think about it for a while as he had to go back to England the next day. Sure, we said, think about it as much as you like, we will let you know if there are others interested. He soon phoned us from England and said he would like to come over the following week and look again. He turned up again and said he would very much like to sit in a chair and just get a feel of the place. Sure, go ahead, we will go for a walk and leave you to it!  After the walk and an hour or so had passed we came back and he told us he will buy the house without even making an offer. He went back to England next day and within a couple of months it was finalised and we had the money. He was managing a pharmaceutical company with branches all over the world and would just love to have the cottage for when he was in Australia. More like a week-ender really. Gertrude’s cottage had been a way of life for us. All three children enjoyed their first childhood experiences in that cottage and it was a melancholic task to move out and pack everything for our trip to Holland. Most of the furniture was second hand or home made. Part of the sale was to leave the furniture in the house. Martin had promised he would not throw it out and understood and valued our feelings about the house and its contents. He was a most unusual house buyer.

While still in Gertrude’s I had read about a village near Amsterdam called Midwoud which had a progressive Mayor sympathetic to the arts and I wrote him telling him about our plans. We were welcome and, please contact me after arrival, he answered, which we did. He had arranged for a local farmer to let a disused old farmhouse. After arrival and a rest in a hotel for one night, we hired a car and drove to this village. It was nerve wrecking with our three children and driving on the opposite side of the road that I was used to. The weather after arrival was of course miserable. I almost immediately felt those old feelings welling up again of déjà vu, especially when after waking up in the morning in a hotel that we spent the first night in, of seeing a man on the opposite side, on a small stepladder, washing his shop window. It was an optical and spectacle shop. It seemed so telling and typical. That very bourgeois ‘burger’ cleaning of windows in Holland is of course like a national institute and despite their reputation of tolerance and live and let live attitude, the religious washing of windows is somehow adhered to through thick and thin. It would be a brave soul to survive in a community without at least once a week giving the windows a thorough cleaning. Anyway, I already felt uneasy, the day was grey, the man with his chamois on the steps. Had we, or had I, made the right decision? My wife just seemed happy anywhere, she bravely followed me but, and this took some years to acknowledge, she often had much better insight.

We had it made in Australia. Own business. Many friends. A living community with a wonderful charming Gertrude cottage? These were some of the thoughts going through my mind watching the man washing his shop windows. It was a bit late now.

The flight over was tiring and unlike travelling by boat whereby one can get acclimatised, we were hurled into the opposite climate and day was night now. Next day, after the stay in the hotel, we drove with fully packed suitcases and our three children to Midwoud. The old farmhouse that was arranged for us to rent was liveable and we soon unpacked. Being May, the weather was still pretty cold and we managed to get a kerosene heater, not unlike my mum used during wartime Rotterdam, feeding Frank and I with porridge, if she could get her hands on it.  We had taken rubber blow up mattresses and some blankets with us, just for the first few nights. We soon bought some Danish Donahs and I bought a Skill electric saw, timber and made a double bed. This is the same bed we still sleep on now, some thirty six years later. The owner of the farm, called Peetoom, was a surly bachelor, forever steeped in misery and gloom. Made some remark we should all speak Dutch instead of English. I suppose he belonged to this very small and minute percentage of those that missed out on learning English.

It did not take long to meet some people in the village and with Helvi’s charm and ready smile we met a New Zealand woman married to a Dutchman and also a very vivacious Belgian woman who spoke good English. The Belgian woman had a sickly husband who, when we were introduced, seemed to have food stuck to his pants. He also told us he had suffered a nervous breakdown. In due course, we were to find out that quite a few seemed to suffer from either being overworked or having nervous breakdowns. The precise nature of all those breakdowns we never got close to, perhaps the Dutch Social services were a little too easy and generous in declaring people unwell and pay them social security. I wasn’t going to be too harsh a critic seeing I would soon apply to be considered for an artist salary. In the meantime, the Belgian lady who, as I said before was lively and probably had a libido to match, was keen on the owner, the surly farmer Peetoom.  She made any excuse to visit us in the hope she would be able to meet up with him.  During early summer he cut his first hay and at one stage we all helped with pitchforks to hurl the hay higher and higher into the shed. Of course, nothing is more likely to inflame desire than work on top of a hay stack. She was getting very chirpy but the Peetoom man would not melt, nothing apparently would work with him and according to village gossip, he was a hopeless case. 

We had looked around to buy a place. After a few weeks we thought we found a farm house which was in the tradition of that area of North Holland. It had a huge roof which was partly tiled and partly thatched. It had some fruit trees and a large garden but on a busy road. We were told that the sale would be finalised within a few weeks and the bank approved a small loan.    However, it took a few months. The owners reneged on their promises to move out several times and were waiting for their new farm to be ready. Finally, after a threatening letter from our lawyer they moved out and we moved in. We enrolled our kids at the local kindergarten and employed a builder to make a kitchen and install central heating.

The living quarters were typical of many old farm houses in Holland and were built around the animal quarters when during winters they had to be kept indoors. This of course meant that the house during winter would also enjoy the warmth of the animals. People and cows then had the perfect symbiotic relationship. Around the animal quarters were bedsteads that were open to the side were the cows were tied up. During winter and early in the morning, the milkmaids could just jump out and be milking the cows within seconds of waking up. The whole structure of those farm houses was built around four massive beams that were upright and formed a square around which the living quarters were built. The original area in which the cows were kept would be my painting studio or as the French would say an ‘atelier’. There would also be an area around the studio whereby my work could be on a permanent display lit up by spotlights. The bedsteads would be closed and opened up on the other side into our living quarters for handy storage or even sleeping for the kids. They absolutely loved the cubby feeling of those bedsteads.

After we bought bicycles for the whole family and done the rounds of North Holland, we came to the conclusion that the general feeling of the place was a bit claustrophobic. Being on a busy road did not help and the constant noise of traffic seemed to re-enforce our sense of not really being in the country on a farm. During the day I had managed to get a job doing art work for an ‘antique’ clock factory.  It was a fully automated large clock factory where brand new imitation clocks were made on a kind of conveyer belt. The only things that were authentic were my hand painted clock dials. So please, take the statement of ‘antique’ with a grain of salt. The hand painted clock faces were than sprayed with a yellow clear lacquer to give an appearance of age, after which a paint cracking effect was applied as well. It was all a bit kitschy and after a while became depressing. I told the owners of the ‘Friesian kitsch clock factory’ that I could easily paint those clock dials on the farm, so managed to just take boxes of those home and got Helvi to help me paint them. As long as I did the required number the boss was happy. This was the best compromise ever, leaving me the time to concentrate on doing my own paintings. The little clock dials I painted with typical Dutch scenes, old wooden fishing trawlers with full sets of brown sails or a landscape with a windmill and seagulls. My wife did the skies and basics and I filled in the skilled parts, highlighting the spray of water or the billowing wind. Those so-called antiques were exported all over the world and for decades I have looked into jewellery, watch and clock shops in the hope of seeing one of ‘my own’ works. So far, never even one!

If ever there was proof of youth being extraordinarily fit and willing to undertake events which in later years would be too daunting, it would be that we packed up and moved again. I had driven to the East of Holland and discovered a most charming and very old Saxon farm that was for sale. I drove back and told my wife about it. After driving there with her, the decision was to put in a bid and if successful, put our farm up for sale and buy the other one. The main attraction was that this time the farm was on a track well away from traffic, yet within cycling distance of a reasonable town with schools and shops. The little town was Westerbork, which we found out had some notoriety for having been used by the occupying Germans during the last war to transport Jews to concentration camps. In the first of the last three trains to leave the camp at Hooghalen, near Westerbork in September 1944, included Anne Frank and family.

The actual village where the farm was situated was called Eursinge, not much more than a huddle of five farms of which only three were still being used as farms. Ours was a very old around the 1750’s Saxon farm, again with indoor stables and hay storage all under the one roof. The difference being that this time it also included a very large sheep shed which was attached to the farm at one corner and had a doorway leading into the main farm. Both buildings were large and the roofs completely thatched. It had a main lounge room with a bedstead in one corner and open fireplace. The stables had been converted to a very large living area with a tiled floor and had 2 bedrooms along the side and the bathroom. This large room had massive oak beams spanning about ten meters across which was holding up an attic with stairs leading up to it between those beams. The roof structure was very high and steep with the rafters being very long and somewhat bending in the middle holding up the weight of all the thatching. This is what made us decide to buy, no matter what. It was the absolute essence of an old farm, with entrance doors very low that one had to steep somewhat to get in. The land area was two parcels of land of over ten thousand square metres. The parcel across the road had a chicken coop and also held a pregnant Iceland Pony included in the price as were many old and antique farm furniture, which we are still using to-day.

The farm house was a National Trust protected property and at the time about seventy percent of any necessary restoration costs were shared by both the State and the Local Council. The thatching of the roof was urgent and after quotes were obtained, the thatchers ordered all the thatch and re-thatched the main roof of the house and the large sheep shed.

We still had contact with some of the people from our previous address at North Holland and also met some new ones. I had submitted a series of paintings for consideration for the ‘artist salary’ and after originally being rejected, on the appeal; I was accepted into the scheme. Helvi and the kids adjusted quickly and the school was delightful with nice teachers and play mates. When Helvi and I met we only had German in common which changed to English in Australia. With our children now speaking mainly Dutch, it was inevitable that Helvi and I now changed to that language. Helvi who studied languages at the university in Finland was quick with languages and within no time we spoke Dutch as our main language. I still continued with the hand painting of clock dials and drove the distance back to the clock factory. It wasn’t long after that the clock factory went into liquidation and that was the end of that career.

With an income secured, I finally had all the time to produce my paintings and with the large indoor stable area already converted to a comfortable space I set up a series of spotlights and made the perfect studio.

 The Netherlands must have enjoyed another ‘golden age’ during our stay there. Thousands of artists enjoyed the income of salaries by which their work was bought by either State or Councils and exhibited in many public buildings such as schools, prisons, hospitals and many Government offices. Holland was oozing with art. In fact, there were more art-works produced than there was space for to be exhibited. The practical Dutch knew of course that the answer had to be ‘artotheek’, libraries for paintings, ceramics and sculptures. The art libraries were set up all over the Netherlands. It was popular and people used to change the art works as they did with books. This idea alone soaked up years of art works by those salaried artists

The first year I was busy painting, with Helvi starting a garden, planting trees. It seems wherever we live, Helvi makes it greener. She loves gardening and still gets on hands and knees to work the soil. I managed to get an exhibition together in a nice gallery but the sales were poor, in fact, perhaps just two or three sold. From a friend I was told they were looking for art teachers at a school for creative development for adults. I applied, and to my surprise I was offered a part time job. The school was, like so many other institutions connected to art, brimming with money and energy. The supply of art material in the form of paints, brushes, easels, together with canvases, stretchers, etch presses, copper plates, lithography equipment, clay, kilns and anything else one could conjure up for art’s sake, it was all there, and bountiful. Years later I took a course in printmaking at East Sydney Tech and even though, I enjoyed doing the course, the provision of equipment was nothing like that school in Holland.

 With the teaching I was able to express similar ideas that I had been given by Desiderius Orban back in Sydney. The ‘letting go’ of pre-conceived ideas and to lose fear, was what I tried to convey to my adult students. It must have been a relief that expectation were minimal and certainly not in the area of academic shading or drawing in a perspective. Be like a child and enjoy what you are doing. If you want to just ‘doodle’. Pretend you are scribbling and talking to someone on the phone, I offered. There were some that were so tense that just putting a pencil to paper was not possible. Some would say,’ I can’t draw’. How do you know that you can’t, I asked? I just can’t, they kept answering. I tried to do a series of drawing whereby for each drawing, usually a still life or model, they would be given cheap butcher paper and thick charcoal, and given just one minute per drawing. This they loved doing and the drawings were often done with great hilarity and laughter. A few threw caution to the wind and in the process lost their fear and started drawing for real. One of those I still have contact with. She became an accomplished artist with many exhibitions to her name.

Frank repatriated to Holland.

I was now starting to suffer what I experienced years before when working in the Amsterdam bank. Even though everything was alright, there were just not the friends and especially not the family of brothers and sister back in Aussi land. With dear brother Frank, the issue was finally resolved and after almost seventeen years in Callan Park Mental Hospital, my parents finally managed to get Frank repatriated back to Holland. My parents also decided to follow Frank and as my father had now retired and all other siblings had landed on their feet, married and started families of their own, they felt that living back in Holland with their remaining family members was attractive enough to take that step. The added benefit was that Frank would have his parents nearby. Frank was well entrenched in institutional living and was thirty four years old now. He had suffered a hell that my parents held the Australian Health service responsible for. At no stage was Frank given care within the limits of normal acceptability. The Chelmsford Hospital horror was still in the making but would yet take many years to unfold. When it did, it made Frank’s return to Holland, all the more justified at the time.  If my father would have been successful in killing Doctor Harry Bailey when grappling with him on the floor of his office years before, it would not be unreasonable to speculate that many lives could have been saved. Frank’s return to Holland relieved not only the pressure on my parents but also finally on all the other members of the family and we were overjoyed with the attention and care Frank was deservedly and oh so finally given. The Commission of Enquiry into the affairs of Callan Park back in the early sixties resulted in the two and half metre wall surrounding the Callan Park asylum to be lowered to just one metre. This change at least gave a less forbidden image but it was only a superficial change. That was about all. Shortly after that most patients were turfed out to be ‘absorbed’ into the community. Even today in 2009, mental health care in Australia is badly underfunded, hardly exists. In emergencies, people with mental problems are at best put under observation for a couple of weeks, given medication and then forgotten about. The number of homicides and suicides committed by people with psychological disorders remains far too high in Australia.

Mental health care for Frank.

After Frank’s arrival in Holland we visited him and the change in care was startling. He had his own room and was playing soccer. He had an income, would be taken shopping and on holidays with other patients and their carers. But above all, we could talk to his doctors at any time and my parents were kept informed of what treatment they would try out with Frank. Frank remained unpredictable and was on medication to try and stabilize him as much as possible. He would visit my parents who by that time had also arrived in Holland and were living in Nijverdal in the East of Holland while Frank was in a hospital in Apeldoorn which was in the West. Frank would be driven to my parents accompanied by at least one nurse and after Frank was left with my parents, Frank would be picked up again in the afternoon and driven back to the hospital. If he was well, he could also stay overnight and return to hospital next day. The change in professional care was so obvious. His carers were caring and always introduced themselves if they were new on the job. He would be seen by dentists, podiatrists and his physical condition would be monitored making sure he ate well. He was entered into a rehabilitation program and given a number of hours work in specially adapted workshops. I remembered my parents especially my mother being hopeful that Frank would finally be well enough to meet a nice and good woman, marry and have children. As if?

One of the problems that still lingered was that my mother expected Frank to be ‘normal’. This ‘normality’ would be shown up as Frank being considerate enough to make her a cup of tea after the drive from Nijverdal to his institute at Apeldoorn. Of course, Frank after so many decades of living in institutes would not think easily of fulfilling domestic duties and would neglect the making of that longed for cup of tea for his mother. When mother showed her disappointment in the lack of Frank’s awareness or progress, he would become a risky patient and react angrily, compounding my mother’s anguish. It did not matter how often Helvi and I pointed out to leave Frank make his own decision about the ‘cup of tea’, mother could not resist making Frank feel inadequate. Both Frank and his Mother could not help themselves.

Missing Australia and corrugated iron.

We had spent over two years in The Netherlands and summing up our achievements, we came to a considerable list. We had lived on three farms including the first rented one. I had the promised artist’s salary, had some success in getting my work exhibited and sold. I worked part time as a teacher teaching art to adults. Our kids were doing well at school and made friends easily. Yet, something was missing. At the best of times, I felt hemmed in by the conventionality of Dutch life. Yes, very friendly and tolerant and lives clearly delineated right until the very end. The annual holiday to France or Costa Brava in Spain was always the aim, and coming back with a glorious tan. The social evenings with our friends with Brazil nuts and the taking down of the fondue sets, dipping the best of top-side meats impaled on the end of metal prongs and dipped into the boiling oil. Had our lives settled and stultified too much now?

Where were the rusty corrugated iron roofs and the wrecked cars littering the country side, the aluminium beer cans jammed into the forks of trees at picnic grounds? God, I missed the camping at the coast with the wine cask and crawling out of morning’s tents with hang over and Bex powders. I also missed the throwing of fishing lines from rocks into the foaming and wild surf with our one year old son Nick in the papoose. Uncle Pudding, an ex coal miner with dusty lungs, retired in his van and annexe, giving us huge slabs of freshly caught tuna. The chaos of Parramatta Road with those cheerless flags fluttering above the Holden car yards beckoning us to reckless spending with their yawning bonnets and smiling smirking salesmen. The heat and sweat on the 401 bus-trip to the city and haircut at Gowings on a hot February afternoon. Yes, I was missing all that.

Where in Holland is there a chance of disorder, a climb over the fence or a stroll around the bush? Once we drove to an area called Mantinger sand, parked our car and with the kids entered this nature reserve, which for Holland was unique, a bit of original wilderness. Half way through our walk the kids got hungry and thirsty so we sat on a sandy bit on the side of the dirt path and opened the prepared packets of sandwiches and a bottle of water. Within a very short time the ranger came and told us to move on. We protested totally unaware that eating sandwiches was a forbidden act in that nature reserve. There was not a soul around. He would not relend and said; just suppose everyone does the same, comes here and start picnicking. What will become of it then, he asked?  I suppose people will be less hungry, I replied. The Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down and we thought it better to re-pack our lunch and move on.

That day, after getting back to the farm and finish the sandwiches, I said to Helvi; I don’t know about you but I am going back! There, that’s it, I repeated. Back to Aystralia. She gave me a lovely smile; I am not against living here or anywhere Gerard. Let’s go back then. The Mona Lisa of my life. The restless moving about would not have been tolerated by anyone, but if ever there was proof of love and care from partner, Helvi sure was as unselfish as I was selfish.

Part of the artists’ salary was the awarding to me of a large mural for a new Primary School to be built at Westerbork. The school was to replace the old one, which to our eyes, was still a perfect school. The spending on infrastructure in The Netherlands knew no bounds and was running amok. Even so, it might be better to make schools even better than rely on the often old and dilapidated structures so common in Australia. While my previous sojourns to Holland was always within the safety net of a Re-Entry Permit stamped in my passport, this time after almost three years, the expiring of any re-entry meant we had to re-immigrate all over again. Of course our three children had all been born in Australia and at that time, no way could they have refused our re-entry. We would simply insist in wanting to be with our Australian children in Australia. In any case, we applied and went through all the form filling, medicals and interview by Australian officials. Of course, our English with the Dutch-Finnish and Australian tinged accents made a good impression. Apart from all that, a list of different trades and professions, including Helvi’s academic record in languages, all in great need for Australia and, I suppose, at the time short circuited the approval and in no time had we the necessary re-entry in our passports.

Gough Whitlam’s legacy.

The mural for the new Westerbork finished in time I noticed that at the official opening of the school we were not invited. More munition for re-enforcing our choice to go back, snobbish and conventional Holland now well and truly in the waste paper basket. We organised a removalist to pack all our possessions, including the furniture that came with the farm house. Today, that’s about the only furniture that is still around and which, after our final move, the kids will probably inherit. The economic boom must have been responsible for the ease of buying and selling the farms. We each time sold the farm within a few weeks. The biggest bonus was yet to come.

The political landscape in Australia we had not really followed. The oil crisis was in full swing during that period. At its worst stage, cars were allowed on the road with number plates ending on even numbers on one day and uneven numbers next day. The Sundays were totally car free. What a blessing!

Unbeknown to us, the Australian dollar had collapsed because of the fall-out from the sacking of the Australian Prime minister Gough Whitlam’s Government by the Governor General John Kerr. After having booked the flight back and arriving in Sydney, I arranged our finances and was pleasantly surprised to discover we had far more money in Australian dollars than we thought. What a reward and all well outside our doing. It meant we had not suffered any financial disadvantages during those three years in The Netherlands. Fancy earning money without being aware of it?

 The landing in Australia was not greeted by a single soul. The return of the prodigal family happened without fanfare. The same as it had always been. No one coming from or going to aeroplanes have life stories printed on their foreheads, do they? I tell a lie, brother John picked us up. He was going with his family to Europe for a long trip in our VW Kombi that we had left behind in our parents place in Holland at Nijverdal. In the meantime we would all live in his house in Balmain until their departure in just a couple of days. In the meantime I could drive his old Landover.

Our son Nick was the first one to show his appreciation for corrugated iron and even commented on his surprise and delight of seeing weeds growing along and through the bitumen footpaths. Honestly though, it was refreshing to see and feel the chaos of traffic and crowds drinking outside pubs, especially the Cricketer’s Arms in Balmain, with blue singlets and thongs galore. The Australian casualness that I had so often despaired about before was now reborn as a virtue.  It is a bit frightening to concede swinging so wildly from condemnation to praise about the same countries and cultures and so often. How many more journeys will it take to finally come to love a country enough to call it home? Would it have been easier without the troubles and miseries connected to Frank’s care while he was in Australia? The age of fifteen and in the middle of puberty and education, to be wrenched away from home country with school friends and other family, is something I would not recommend.  Of course, we had been here before and the kids were soon enrolled back at school and had no trouble changing back again from Dutch to English. The next few weeks were spent looking for work and buying a house. Estate agents were as slack as always. Interest rates were high and there was a slump which made it easier for us, being somewhat cashed up, to pick and choose. We bought a lovely stone house at the East End of inner West Balmain, near the water and a five bedroom double story stone cottage with a large garden. The mortgage we took out was manageable and about six weeks later we moved in. We still had not received notice of the arrival of our huge timber crates of furniture and belongings including all the paintings.

While again setting out to start the contract painting business, I took a lucrative job in the meantime at a railway workshop where giant locomotives were being overhauled or repaired. The work could only be done at night and involved the removal of old coatings from the structural steel girders of this huge workshop and re-spray rust protective coats of paint. During the day giant gantries would roll backwards and forwards with attached cranes lifting very heavy equipment for repair. The work at night involved climbing up those steel girders and move planks across to form platforms high above the concrete floor and work remove the decades of dust and rust. Electricity was not allowed to be on in case the gantries would be accidentally activated and sweep all the workers down from above to a possible death. This work was ideally suited. I lacked fear of heights and was fond of being able to climb up to great heights where many a man would not even dare look at. Indeed, we had some men starting alright but once up could not come down and had to be coaxed down. The pay was great and an added bonus was being home during the day and help Helvi with shopping and kids to school.

10 176 words.

3 Responses to “A frank story, part 5 ( missing Australia’s corrigated iron)”

  1. chris hunter Says:

    Two thoughts come to mind – Geoffrey Bardon, the art teacher who initiated the Papunya Tula Art movement spent several horror years at Chelmsford. And an artist friend of mine, Russell Pick, often recounts stories of his time learning under John Olsen at the Paddington ‘bakery.’ This is a challenging, very interesting story and I will be sorry when it ends.

    Like this

  2. gerard oosterman Says:

    John Olsen did teach together with Robert Klippel and a New Zealander ( Colin Lanceley ) at Mary White school of art on New South Head Rd, Double Bay or was it Rushcutters Bay? Those were the days.
    Thank you for those nice comments

    Like this

  3. chris hunter Says:

    Yes, I remember Lanceley’s ‘relief’ paintings, the first of their type seen in Australia. The late NY Times art critic Robert Hughes was a big admirer of these specific works. Now, Robert Klippel and his intricate abstract (junk) sculpting, I donated some money towards the purchase of a major work of his to mark the NSW Bi-Centenary, it is permanently in the collection of the NSW State Gallery. BTW, The Wynn is a tough one to hang in so you did well there. Cheers.

    Like this

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