Sunday, July 09, 2006

Baker Street

Adrienne saw in yesterday’s Melbourne Age that one of the best (in fact it may have been the best) places for buying pies in Victoria is the Malmsbury bakery. This may not mean much to most people, other than somewhere to go for a Sunday drive. But when my father was very young, during the Depression, his father owned what was then the Malmsbury bakery. Malmsbury is a small town on the highway north-west of Melbourne, near the edge of the goldfields. It has a very nice park with a lake (where dad and Aunty Betty supposedly once found a matchbox-full of gold in some dumped quartz), a bluestone church, a mostly bluestone school, and an enormous railway viaduct that used to give me the creeps. In more recent years it has also been host to a correctional facility for naughty boys. For a few years the Emmerson family held its annual reunion at the Malmsbury hall.

One day dad showed me through the bakery, having imposed on its then owners. It was amazing to me to think that a family with 12 children could have lived and run a business in such a small space. Apart from the shop, there was one small bedroom, somewhere to cook, somewhere to wash, and precious little else. The oven was in a separate structure in the backyard. And yet this was how they lived. As it was told to me, government regulation in those dark days meant that providers of things like bread were obliged to sell on credit, even where there was no real likelihood that they would ever get paid. So things were tight. Workers on rail gangs would come through from time to time, get their bread on credit, and be gone in a day or two. Dad told stories of playing football with other kids, using an old sock, stuffed and sewn up, as the ball.

At some point he went to live with some of his older sisters in Richmond, where he went to school near the MCG and claimed to once have played a school vs school football match in which a young Lou Richards was playing for the other school. Later, dad's family left Malmsbury and somehow finished up at Meeniyan and thence to a farm at Berry’s Creek, from which I suppose dad and some of his brothers got the idea of being South Gippsland farmers.

The desperate circumstances of their youth no doubt lies behind the close-knit nature of dad’s generation. Dad and three of his brothers worked the one farming enterprise until dad’s untimely demise. If you put any two of that generation of Emmersons together, nobody would say very much. But if you added a third, it was impossible to shut them up, as the stories would tumble out. Always the same pool of stories was drawn upon, told in different combinations and in different ways. Always funny. The day my father fell into the milk separator. The day Uncle Jack had to write a letter for some poor farmer whose wife had left him and taken their prize cow. The day Uncle Jack, while on the bread run, found someone in their house trapped underneath a wardrobe that had fallen on top of them. The day Uncle Tip (real name Albert) took literally my grandfather’s exasperated exclamation “those kittens should be tied up”, with predictably grim consequences. The day Uncle Tip got the sack from his newspaper run, for some inadvertent indiscretion, and said “Well I won’t take the sack”, turning up for work again the next morning so that the newsagent felt compelled to take him back (and didn’t regret doing so). The day the bullock wagon ran out of control. The night the roof blew off the house (shades of Thurber in that one).

Well, now Uncle Mick (real name Walter) has gone, and there is only one of that generation left, Aunty Betty, the baby of the family and mother of my mad cousins from the city. It must be very strange for her to be alone, after having so many brothers and sisters for so long. And, perhaps predictably, the next generation has gradually gone its separate ways. I have a large number of cousins, but most I have neither seen nor heard from in the seven years since we moved to Canberra. News travels, of course, and I have some idea of what goes on, but many of them must now themselves be getting quite old. The stories of dad’s generation have now gone, there being no longer the possibility of a quorum. Murray, one of my cousins, has apparently written them all down, but I’m not sure what is happening with that. I suppose it would be nice to be able to pass some of them on to the boys, but it wouldn’t mean the same to them, given that they have no real knowledge of the people who were telling them.

Such is life, I suppose.