Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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When you were a small boy Phil, did you ever think you might grow up to be the leader you became?

Oh no. No. I ... I was always interested in adventure, camping, mountain climbing and those things but I ... my initial ambition was to become a surgeon. I was academically inclined. I always knew that I wanted to do something academic but I had no way of getting into it. Living in the country where my parents were fairly poor, there was no way of getting to a university. Until later I found that you could get a teacher's scholarship that would lead down to university and I was able to get into that. But then my horizons were really those of rising in the teaching profession. I had no ambitions in any other direction.

Because you'd been for much of your life a country boy. You grew up in Tallangatta. Could you tell me a bit about Tallangatta?

Yes the name is [pronounced] "Tallangatha", for some reason or other. [Laughs] I didn't spend a great amount of time there but my grandparents lived there and I used to go back there mainly for vacations, school vacation time. And it was the adventure area where we climbed mountains, we swam in rivers and we went on hikes and played all sorts of interesting games with lads of the village, and the girls of the village. [Laughs]

And were you sorry to leave there when your father was posted into ... down into Melbourne, wasn't he?

Oh I was pretty young when that happened, so all my school days were primary school in Melbourne and secondary school in Hamilton High School and the formative years of my life really were at Hamilton High School. That's the period in which I register my greatest development, you could say in every direction: in the school work, in adventure, in sports particularly. In sport, it was interesting. I was deliberately held back for two grades because I was ahead of my age group and I got so frustrated with this interruption that I decided that I'd not do any more swot and I'd join the anti-swot brigade who'd indulged only in sport. It was very good for me really because I developed all sorts of sport skills that as a swot I would never have bothered with. And I had some wonderful model figures to emulate - several fantastic sportsmen of ... of the school, and I used to struggle along behind them fighting to try and compete.

It must have been very painful at the time though to be kept down at school?

That was ... that was terrible, really. That happened two years running and I saw my friends of my class move on ahead of me and I knew I was coming second or third in the grade and have the first ten moved up and leave me.

What was the reason for that?

Oh they thought I was too young and out of my age group and it would better for me to be with my peers. In a way it was. I was always, before that, the smallest boy in the class.

You had a nickname from that, didn't you?

Yes, they called me Squib. Actually I grew out of that when I was about fifteen. Between fifteen and seventeen I grew about six inches quickly and the name just dropped away. [INTERRUPTION]

So tell me a bit about Tallangatta, growing up there?

Well my father was the head teacher of a little school, Mitta Mitta. It was forty-five miles out of Tallangatta, higher up in the mountains on the Mitta River. And I was born in Tallangatta because my mother had to be driven down in a gig with a horse over a 45-mile rough track to reach the hospital at Tallangatta. My elder brother was not so fortunate, because when he was born eighteen months earlier, there was no hospital at Tallangatta, so the idea was that they would take my mother to Wodonga, which was another thirty miles further on. So she was driven down to Tallangatta with a horse and gig and then my grandmother delivered my elder brother because the birth occurred very suddenly before she had a chance to get to Wodonga. And that's an example of the primitive nature of things in those days. I didn't attend school at Mitta Mitta. I was too young. I was only about three or four. But when we first went down to Melbourne, [when] my father was transferred, I attended first kindergarten in Gardenvale and then Elsternwick State School, and only went back to Tallangatta on holidays. Those holidays kept me in touch. My grandfather had set up and run a local newspaper there. When he died my father, sister and I continued it on and eventually the newspaper had to close down because all country newspapers disappeared. And I still retain with my sister, the ownership of the building and it's interesting that it's only this week that I'm finally selling the old Herald office at Tallangatta, so I've had a long association with that. And I love Tallangatta because I had two wonderful grandparents and very loving aunts and these holidays were some of the happiest times of my life. I'd go up there and be treated marvellously by these adoring people and I'd have all this fun and games with the local kids brought up in a country environment, quite different from Melbourne, with the swimming and the playing and the mountains. And that gave me an enduring love of the mountains. And ...

Was it a very small place?

Tallangatta was a small town, I suppose about 1500 people. Mitta Mitta was about 300 - very small. Tallangatta finally was submerged under the Hume Weir and the township was transferred to the site that it now occupies. But all my associations were with old Tallangatta, where as well as having the Mitta River to swim in, we had the Tallangatta creek, which was much shallower and much warmer. And the first mountaineering experiences I had were those of scrambling up, egged on by my adored grandfather, who would take us up the hill at the back of the Herald office, which rose right out of our backyard, to a little flat area about three quarters up this fairly steep and fairly high hill, where he'd cook sausages in a pan and we'd have billy tea - these sorts of things, which to young kids of six, seven or eight were magic. And I remember on one occasion I climbed up on my own and got to the top of the hill and wanted to proceed overland along a sort of ridge plateau or spur, which connected it with another mountain called Mount Charlie, which is quite famous because it was a sort of conical mountain with a fringe of gum trees on the top and it was quite outstanding in the district and I always wanted to know what it would be like to be on top of that. And I set out to walk across this spur. I got about half way there and I found time had run out and they'd be worrying about me back home, so I had to turn around without going there. And that failure to reach Mount Charlie stayed with me all my life until only about six years ago. I was staying with some friends at Tallangatta and one night after a hearty dinner, I happened to mention I'd like to climb Mount Charlie and the lady of the house said, 'All right, we'll get up about six o'clock in the morning and do it', and I said, 'Right oh', and I got to my bedroom and thought, that was stupid. I don't know whether I can climb a mountain at my age. And I thought, she'll forget about it anyway. We've all had a few drinks. It was just a spur of the moment thing. Lo and behold, she knocked me up at six o'clock in the morning and off we went and we climbed Mount Charlie, and I had that great feeling of elation at the age of about seventy-eight, standing on top of Mount Charlie, having waited all those years to get there.

And you had how many brothers and sisters when you were at ... in your early formative years?

There were six children in our family. In the early days, the Hamilton and Gardenvale era, there were only three: my elder brother, Geoff, eighteen months older, and my younger sister, Marjorie, eighteen months younger. When we went to Hamilton there were three other children who were about twelve years younger. [INTERRUPTION]

In Gardenvale we were lucky again, as suburban children, to have a very open field to play in. In Gardenvale we lived very close to Kooyong Road and it was about a mile down to Gardenvale station and most of that area was unoccupied. It was vacant fields with odd houses cropping up here and there. But most allotments were blank and were simply vacant lots on which we used to play. They were generally covered with gorse and fern and we used to tunnel in through this stuff and make cubby holes, or we'd go to a cleared block and play cricket or football. So it was a very active life. I used to walk a mile and half to the Elsternwick State School in all sorts of weather. And altogether the Melbourne experience was quite interesting. I found Elsternwick State School was a very tough place. It had a lot of input from what then were the slums of Melbourne and a lot of slum children came to school and I remember the State school was a tough place to be in because we used to have these gang fights. If two blokes had a row they'd generally resolve it by picking up sides and these two sides would be two rival gangs, and the gang business was always quite unfair. It was always with a mob onto one person. You know, you would target one person in the opposite gang and you'd tail him home for lunch and then gang up on him when he came out. It was never one gang against the rest. It was always six or eight onto one. So that toughened me up a fair bit.

Where did you stand in those fights?

Well I was always the smallest one, but I was also pretty quick and learned to preserve myself pretty well by flight or other evasive action. For example, the Elsternwick area is riddled with underground sewer tunnels that flowed down into what used to be the Elster Creek, which is now a canal that delivers storm water drain material out into Hobson's Bay. And we found that there were these great tunnels, six foot six in diameter leading out of the canal, and we tracked them down with candle light and we learned these off pretty well. There were about six of them and they would each go for about a mile, a mile and half, underground. And I found I could escape a gang at lunchtime by diving down a culvert somewhere into a known part of one of these tunnels ... one of these tunnels, and weaving my way back to school underground. It was an adventurous sort of background as well. One other thing I should mention is that they had a nasty habit at that school of setting boys to fight each other. They'd arrange after school, for example, that one chap had to fight another chap and if he won, they'd put him onto someone else. And I remember once having to fight three fellows successively after school. They'd just picked us almost out of a hat, you might say, and put up against each other. It was a pretty horrible thing, but again it toughened me up and made me understand what combat was about and perhaps led me into a bit more of an interest into boxing that I showed later.

And what about your brothers and sisters? Tell me about them at that time.

My elder brother, Geoffrey, I think was in many ways a genius. He had tremendous capabilities in all sorts of directions, but he was not interested in school work and therefore he was always in trouble at school. It's interesting, that after all those years of being regarded as a no-hoper at school, he finally went on and did bachelor degrees and at the age of seventy-eight did a PhD, [laughs] which is an interesting thing for the original no-hoper of the school to have done. But he was a rebel. He was in trouble as I said, at school. He was passed by me at school because I was ahead of my grades and he was just barely level with his because he wouldn't work. And we used to fight, pretty viciously, the two of us, for all sorts of reasons, but I think some of it was due to his resentment of my being the good lad and he was the rebel, and my being the favoured one at school and his being the outcast style. So my mother very sensibly arranged for him to go to a different school. So she switched him from Elsternwick State School to Balaclava State School and then things smoothed out a lot better. Later on, Geoff and I became quite close friends and went on numerous mountaineering exploits and skiing exploits together. But the early days, he disowned the rest of the family. He wouldn't walk to school with any of us. He wouldn't admit at school that he was my brother or Marge's brother.

Did you envy his rebellious nature?

No. I envied his contempt for authority in a different way. I was a conformist and I envied the sort of freedom he created for himself so that he was not subject to the restraints that I was. And also, I was a very thoughtful planner and I used to always consider the pros and cons of everything very carefully before I did them, and in that way I found that you generally finish up not doing your thing because you could think up so many reasons why you shouldn't do it. So round about the age of fifteen or sixteen I decided I wasn't having nearly as much fun as Geoff and I'd start plunging in off the deep end a bit more often rather than preplanning everything. And I found it worked and it was much more exciting and got me into a bit more trouble but gave me a hell of a lot more fun. So I think he was responsible in that way for changing my attitude to life.

Did your parents encourage you to be that conservative, little boy, when you were very small?

I suppose all the pressures at that time encouraged that sort of behaviour. They were living in a very strict era and discipline was pretty severe. We were quite often strapped by our father for misdoings. It was that sort of age and it was only someone with a very strongly developed rebellious instinct like Geoff who'd step outside that moiré of that time.

Who were the main people around you then? Before you moved to Hamilton, as a older boy, when you were a small boy, who were the main people around you?

I suppose the kids in my street. I lived in Lantana Road in Gardenvale and there were young kids down the street that we palled up with and we played various games with them, and lived in each others backyards and so on. They produce a general social background to my life. I don't think they really had any really permanent influence much. Not as much as the school itself had with its canals and its fights and gang wars and so on.

What was your father doing at that stage? He was teaching.

My father was transferred down to become a lecturer at Melbourne Teacher's College, and he was also then studying for his Master's Degree, MA, and so he was a very distant figure to us children. He would leave early in the morning and he would come home fairly late at night and after dinner would go to his study and swot. So we saw very little of him in those days. But when we went to Hamilton of course it was much the same. He was inspector of schools then. The youngest one in the State. [INTERRUPTION]

We moved from Gardenvale to Hamilton when he was appointed District Inspector, and at that stage the fourth child, Dorothy, had just been born. When we got to Hamilton, my father used to be away from Monday to Friday travelling around the various district schools and we'd only see him Saturday and Sunday, so my mother was the dominating influence in bringing us up. And as I said before, my father tended to be a rather distant figure and being the disciplinarian he had the unpleasant duties to perform, so that he'd come back at the end of the week and if there were any bad transgressions that week, it'd be up to him to punish us for them. So that there was this rather unsatisfactory psychological situation, where the mother was the loving person and the father was the person whom you feared and was the centre of all disciplinary measures. So in many ways we were relieved when he departed on Monday morning and we were left alone for the rest of the week.

Do you think that has a long lasting effect on young children's lives, when that pattern happens?

I don't know. I don't think it affected me adversely. I remember it as being rather unfair on him. For example, he was a much more loving ... a much more loved father for the three younger children, who were Dorothy, Peter and Wendy, who formed a little group twelve years later than our group. And so to him, they were more like grandchildren in a way, or else he'd learned from his experience with us, or he had simply matured, or he was home more because by then he was living in the Teachers' College and they were living there and so he was present all the week round. So it was rather a different form of parenthood all together from that which we experienced when we were young.

Do you think there's an irony that in him being an educationalist by profession, but in fact spending very little time with you and your siblings?

Well we've often discussed that. We children have often said that as a man whose major, in his MA, was psychology, he was one of the worst psychologists you could imagine. For example, on several occasions, as young kids at Gardenvale, one of the punishments was to lock us up in the coat cupboard. To close you into a dark cloak cupboard and leave you there for half an hour was a pretty terrifying experience for a young kid.

It would be quite traumatic.

And you can't image a psychologist subjecting you to that sort of treatment.

So were you scared of him?

Oh I was. But my brother Geoff wasn't. From the age of two he used to shout out, 'I'll kill you. I'll chop your head off'. He used to defy him at every move.

And what about you?

Oh no, I was a bit of a good boy. [Laughs]

Did your mother call on you to do a lot with the family, because of your personality?

Yes, I acted a bit in loco parentis to the three younger ones, particularly with my father away from home in Gardenvale. I remember once when the three of them got whooping cough and mother and I had to cope with it. Coping meant that when one started to cough you'd rush and whip him out into the yard, where he could vomit, and by then that would set the second one coughing and you'd rush to try and get that one out in time, but you'd generally miss out on the third one because that would happen while the second one was in the garden. So I did a lot of house work, a lot of child minding, and at an early age I could change nappies and bathe kids and so on. So although I've never had children of my own, I know all the processes.

Did you resent having to do all that?

No, no. I quite enjoyed housework, I still do. I like running a house. I like cooking and enjoy housework. I like seeing a place turn out from being a mess to a good clean orderly place. There's a sense of satisfaction in it.

But when you were a child?

No, the only thing we resented was any element of unfairness in distributing duties. See the three of us, Marge, Geoff and I, all had certain jobs and chores to do around the house, and they had to be very carefully apportioned because if anyone got the slightest bit more than someone else there'd be a row about it.

Did you have to adjudicate?

Our mother was the adjudicator but she was very fair, very sensible, very receptive. [INTERRUPTION]

I think my Hamilton years were the most important formative years of my life. When I first went to Hamilton I was in Grade Seven and half way through the year, I was promoted to Grade Eight, so I had one year at the primary school and then I went across to the high school, and this was one of the times at which I was held back. I came second at the state school in Grade Eight. The top five, I think it was, went into D form at the high school but because of my age, they put me into E form. So I saw that my peers, intellectually, had gone ahead of me, but that didn't worry me too much. I enjoyed E form. But at the end of E form, the top half dozen skipped D form and went straight up into Intermediate in C form and again I was not amongst them, even though I'd earned that position in my results. So I went into D form, just one step up, and it was at that stage that I decided to join the sporting crowd and to give up any pretensions to intellectual advancement.

So it was an act of rebellion really to give it up, because of what happened to you?

Yes. Yes. And looking back, I'm awfully glad I did. If I hadn't done that, I'm sure I'd have been a better scientist. I would have had a better intellectual career, but I would never have become the Antarctic explorer. The sporting advent was quite significant. I'd always been fairly physically active but my father - again a point I resented - my father never encouraged my sport. And at Hamilton, even in the sporting era, he showed no particular interest. He never once bought me a tennis racket or cricket bat. He used to sneer, almost, when I came home and started to talk about something I'd done at sport.

Why do you think he did that?

I don't know because in later life when he was at the Teachers' College and I was at the university in the boxing team, he became fascinated and used to follow every boxing match I boxed in, and finally he became president of the boxing club as a result, and so I can't explain why he was not interested. The same with my music. He was never interested in the musical instruments I played. As a matter of fact, when I was at Geelong, I was playing clarinet and I wanted to get a saxophone and I knew he would never agree because he'd reckon it was a waste of my pocket money to spend it on a saxophone, so I had to buy the saxophone secretly, and I used to keep it hidden and would only play it when I thought he wasn't there.

Hard to hide.

And now and again I'd almost get caught and I'd quickly switch onto the clarinet. Luckily his musical ability was not such that he could tell the difference much, so he didn't ever detect that I was playing saxophone ... clarinet instead of saxophone.

Didn't it upset you that he showed so little interest in your endeavours?

I used to get very disappointed. I'd win in some inconsequential little thing at the athletics day and come home and have it dismissed as being of no importance. And I suppose it made me try all the harder really. But I was mentioning the role models that I had. There was a chap called Reg Stewart who is still alive at the age of about eighty-six, and he was one of the most remarkable natural sports I've ever met. From a country high school, he became the under-fourteen athletic champion of Victoria. And he could do everything. They were fairly wealthy and I used to tail along in his wake. He was the best bike rider. He was the best shooter. He was the captain of the footy team. In the cricket team. The swimming champion of the school. Anything he touched, superb. So I learnt to shoot, I learnt to swim, I learnt to swallow-dive. I eventually won the school swimming championship. Through hard work I got into the cricket and footy teams. I was runner-up in the tennis at school. I became a first class shot with the shotgun or a rifle. And I went round the district swimming with the Hamilton Swimming Club.

How old were you around this time?

I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I suppose. So from Hamilton ... Oh, at the end of my time at Hamilton I became the junior teacher at the high school. I must say that I ... in those days, matriculation was called Leaving Certificate and there was an extra year that you did if you were good called 'Honours'. Leaving Honours gave you special marks for entering university or something. So I did leaving Honours in English, physics and chemistry, and had very mediocre results. I got a pass in Honours physics and a third class Honour in chemistry and a third class Honour in English, and my teachers were very disappointed. But when I came down to Melbourne I suddenly realised the inadequacies of the sort of preparation you get in a small country school in those days. For example, there was no space on the timetable for allocation of these duties to the teachers. They had to do it as a sort of act of grace for a couple of periods a week, and they were not highly specialised in this area. Later, for one year, I taught at Melbourne Boys' High School. I taught matriculation physics and maths, and I suddenly realised the advantages of the city boy: the degree of excellence of the teaching, the special programming, the coaching, the attention to detail, the thoroughness of treating the curriculum. It was a completely different world of scholarship from struggling along as the single student. You see, in a little high school like that, I'd be the only one in the physics or chemistry honours class so the teacher would have to just give such spare time as he could devote. And you'd go down to Melbourne Boys' High School and find a class of thirty under the best teacher in the State. So ...

Did you envy that?

In later years. Yes. The sort of envy I developed was when I became a physicist and realised the tremendous obstacles that I'd had to overcome in my intellectual career, which meant that there was no earthly chance of my ever becoming a top class physicist.

[end of tape]

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