Of all the memories told in front of good decent people, this piece is the one to avoid. Please leave the room now…If you asked what I am by profession it would be better to list the things I am not. Certainly not a lawyer, doctor or dentist. Nor an articled clerk or keeper of tropical fish. That leaves still a lot of jobs. It is likely that I have worked at many of the other available options.
One of those was working on swinging stages. In those early days they were primitive wooden platforms suspended by steel cables or thick ropes from timber needles on top of the building’s roof on outside multi-story buildings. They were hoisted up and down the exterior by the use of winches or by a combination of pulleys and ropes. It was very well paid but not a job for the nervous or faint hearted. I started at nineteen and looked at my savings every week. I wanted to save up to go back to my school friends and life in Holland. The savings were kept in a metal box.
We all know that Australian Christmas parties at work involves a lot of arm movements lifting copious amounts of brown ale. They have calmed somewhat now. During my swinging stage operations in the early sixties, I was employed by a very large painting company with over one hundred fifty men and many apprentices. Their Christmas parties were legendary. They were held underneath the offices in Blues Point Rd, North Sydney. It was an area that also held the ropes, cables, ladders and winches and other equipment for those swinging stages. The joint was tidied up and stacked with boxes of the most glorious looking bright pink smiling prawns shimmering on ice. The lubrication necessary for ingesting the prawns was given and provided by large kegs of beer. Remember Christmas is very hot in Australia and working outside was thirsty and very hard dangerous work. The men were given the afternoon off to collect their pay and join the traditional Christmas Party. We all descended towards the office and the much looked forward Chrismas Party in droves. Thirsty and keyed up like hell. We were in for a cruising bruising but earned it.
All this has to be seen in the period when after-work drinking was the norm. A walk past any pub at 4.30 pm was a Bedlam re-invented. The din was overwhelming. Course oaths renting the cigarette smoke riddled stinking beer heat air. Large burly blue singled men standing at the bar. The trough below their feet ready for spills and butts. Pyjama clad kids with mums waiting outside for dad to come home, hoping they would not have totally pissed the earnings up against the walls of bitumen coated lavatories. It wasn’t a good time.
The verb and noun ‘chunder’ relates to much earlier times still. The English convicts on the way to Australia’s Botany Bay. During big seas and suffering bad food, huge waves and the first of the prisoners getting sick. Those on the top deck while vomiting overboard would shout to those on the lower deck ‘watch out under.’ In time this became shortened to watchunder and finally to ‘chunder’! It was a form of consideration for their ‘mates’. Mateship is still high on our national psyche.
It might also be possible to now join the above explanation and include the wise and profound Australian saying to ‘coming the raw prawn’. This means telling a lie or having someone on, as in; Don’t come the raw prawn to me, matey!. Are you getting what I am leading to?
I too was drawn to the Siren call of the Christmas party but combined it with picking up two suits from Reuben F Scarf in Sydney’s George Street first. At the time they promised two suits for the price of one. Tailor measured they were and dark charcoal in colour. After arrival at the party I did get stuck in many prawns and drank endless schooners of beer. Boy, I felt euphoric and happy, a rare event at that time. Two suits and my Christmas pay in pocket, the latter waiting to be placed in the metal box at home in Revesby.
But, for those that left the room to avoid unpleasantness; it won’t be long now, it is coming to a peak.
On the way home, and don’t ask me how, I got on the train, things started to come down a bit. Rather, things started to come up a bit. I had safeguarded my bag with the two suits and was lucid enough to feel the reassuring packet of my earnings in my pocket. I was kind-o-getting in preparation for an event I have never forgotten. Oddly enough, with all I had coped with, even now, I don’t really feel remorse or shame. It is or was really an event of reckoning or getting even, a kind of reward for things, a cathartic letting go…
Fortunately, at those earlier times the trains still had those ornate luggage racks above the seats and smokers could open windows, not to let the smoke out but to jettison the cigarette butts out. Anyway, I opened the window and ‘chundered’. It was wholeheartedly and with gusto. The prawns were not raw. Barry Humphreys would have regaled endlessly on about the stained-glass effect of the windows behind me as the train was in full flight. The passengers behind me, oh no, oh no, nervously racing to close their windows. Even so, no one complained, not that I would remember.
I came home to my parents in Revesby with my two suits intact and my money saved. What an achievement.
You can all come back inside now.