We were the Redgens of Redford. For most of the year, my life was school and farm. Mum and Dad did their shopping midweek, and spent the rest of the week at home, including the weekends.
When they were younger, they had both been keen to participate in sports every weekend. Dad had followed his older brothers, and had played cricket from his youth. I don’t really know when he stopped playing regularly, perhaps from the time they moved to the farm, and so many daylight hours were committed to working in the dairy. It’s hard to spend a full day on the cricket field when you have to be home by 3.30 in the afternoon to do the evening milking. But he continued to play competitive tennis well into his forties, despite the milking. Maybe his fellow competitors also ran dairies, or perhaps they organised the schedule so that he would be free to leave earlier than everyone else.
Both Mum and Dad played competitive tennis. In fact, they met on a tennis court. Mum was home for a holiday from her boarding school, and was visiting the district courts where a match was being played against a Chinchilla team, which included Dad. During the lunch break, she and a girlfriend decided to use the vacant court, but were soon interrupted by Dad, who was keen to get to know these teenage girls. And that was where their relationship started. Mum was a member of her school tennis team and played well. So did Dad. For many years afterwards, they played together in tournaments almost every weekend. But they had stopped playing competitively by 1950.
And so it was that I had very few opportunities to get away from the farm. No doubt that is why my occasional visits to aunts and uncles were so memorable, as were my rare trips to Chinchilla when we were shopping.
My only other escape from the farm-school-farm routine was through reading, and very early I developed a reputation as a reader. I would read everything I could get my hands on – apart from a few books that Mum had hidden, including a massive tome called the Doctors Book, which had coloured illustrations of lungs and stomachs, and probably also illustrated forbidden topics like sexual organs. It lived in the depths of the linen cupboard, hidden behind the sheets and towels. Yes, I knew where it was, but never thought of investigating it until many years later.
There really weren’t many books in the house before I showed such an interest. But then all the family knew that the easiest way to find a present for Barbara was to give her a book. And so my collection grew. It included stories from around the world .
There was the American book series that started with Anne of Green Gables – she went to a one-teacher school just like mine. Another American series starred Pollyanna, a little girl, who always looked for the bright side of life, and went around cheering up sad people. Sometimes she was just too cheerful to be true. There was the Katy series, where the eldest daughters went to boarding school, like my big sister Val, and where I was destined to go in the future. I read those stories wondering if their school would be anything like mine (it wasn’t!). And Little Women, with four sisters and no brothers. How strange that must have been, without loud teasing brothers in the house.
But all those stories were from a long-ago time.
There were Australian books too. The Billabong series about Norah on her cattle station, and her interactions with aboriginals was way out of my experience. (And when I reread it now, it was very racist and paternalistic). Another series following Seven Little Australians about a big family and their outnumbered step-mother was based in the city, and again was a situation that I did not understand.
I read books by Charles Dickens, too, and thought I was reading about everyday life in England. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he had lived 100 years before me! And I fell in love with fantasy and fairy stories, from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland, both of which I understood were not real. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie the Eucalyptus cherubs, were the Australian equivalent.
At the end of every year in my primary school, each student received a book prize (bought secretly by their parents), so that was another way my library grew. Sometimes it was a new Australian book, like ‘Good luck to the Rider’, about a young Australian girl who entered her pony in the equestrian events in the local show, just as I wanted to do with my pony, Midget.
What did I learn from this reading? That girls could be important enough to have stories written about them; that education was important, Anne went on to become a teacher, so she obviously thought so, anyway; that families were not all like mine, with Mum and Dad, brothers and sisters; but that families were all loyal to each other, no matter what the circumstances (in Seven Little Australians, Judy gave up her life to save her little brother).
And now I myself have added to the list of books about Australian families, with The Redgens of Redford. Maybe sometime in the future it will provide inspiration to another generation of children, just as the characters in my favourite books did for me. I like to think so, anyway.