Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 6 — share the blessings

Don’t worry — this won’t be religious, exactly…

On FaceBook (yes, I find it a good place during lockdown) a friend I made at South Sydney Uniting Church back in the day posted about her grandchild’s birthday.

I’ve become a regular Sunday morning Zoom host for South Sydney Uniting Church , a task that teaches me humility as I have no, natural technical capacity. Each month we celebrate birthdays. Thank you so much Naomi Ward for including Billie in our July celebrations!

Julie Elizabeth McCrossin

Posted with this picture from the Church:

I of course noticed the bottom left-hand corner — and yes, that’s me! Naomi Ward, who does the birthdays, responded when I thanked her: “Absolutely we still see you as part of our church. I hope you had a good birthday.”

08feb 001b
In South Sydney Uniting Churcha while ago. I see Pat Corowa sitting under the middle window. The link leads to her portrait: salt-water Murroona and South Sea Islander, Patricia Corowa, a long time activist and a seminal figure in the Australian Black Pantherpan-African and pan-Pacific Islander movements of the  1960s and 1970s. The people one met in church!

For the past seven months my dear niece Christine Parkes has been in hospital, engaged in a major health battle. There isn’t much I can do about it, so each day on her Facebook I post a song for her. Occasionally two. A few days ago it was this wonderful discovery:

Billy Bragg’s latest.

Today it was a Wollongong memory — both of my return here in 2010 and Wollongong High in 1979-1980.

Something different today, Christine Parkes! Stewart Holt was the first of my ex-Wollongong High students I made contact with when I came back to Wollongong in 2010. We met at City Diggers, several times in the first few years. Through him I went to the Class of 1983’s 30th Reunion at Collegians. A great night. He is a criminal lawyer and proud dad these days, with a wife who is a teacher. Something of a singer-songwriter as well, and not half bad. And as you can see a FB friend.

With Stewart Holt at the 30th Reunion of Wollongong High’s Class of 1983

In fact this, which is both serious and funny, was the second one I shared with Christine today. It is very clever, very funny, and a calculated anticlimax stretching the wordplay in the final verse:

I noted on that one:

I encouraged Stewart to write when I was his Year 9 (3rd Year) English teacher at Wollongong High. He had a way with words even then. The following is from “The Gleam” 1980, the WHS magazine. I later also published it in the first Neos: Young Writers magazine in 1981, after I had moved to Glebe. When we talked at Diggers Stewart told me how thrilled he had been to have his poem recognised.


A few things have popped up lately, mainly on Facebook.

First I was sent to YouTube to watch an episode of an Australian current affairs show I rarely watch these days, for reasons that will come out in my Facebook comment on it. But first, here is the show:

I wrote a mini-essay of a comment on Facebook:

Teachers are wonderful!

This one is anyway and eclipses most of the political and bureaucratic crap and (even worse) the shit that appears in anything Murdoch. I am far too old, a retired campaigner these days, but heartened that people like this teacher exist.

And I am sure a legion more….

Heads up to so many I have known directly or through FB, and this is just a sample: Ernie Tucker, Maximos Russell Darnley, Tess Kenway, Rowan Cahill, Darcy Moore, Steve Storey …. I could go on….

A shame about the idiot from The Australian, Greg Sheridan, who trots out combined ignorance and ideological prejudice, but he is thoroughly and politely put down for the fool he is. I have coached in the kind of place Greg Sheridan describes — a Korean one — and my experience very often was the majority of the parents who sent their kids were wasting their money. The Chinatown one I worked in for a number of years that was strictly on a one-on-one basis, and not so much about profit, was an entirely different matter.

That decrepit old bastard from The Oz is the only waste of space in this episode of The Drum.

The ABC alas too often bends over double backwards with pike to placate the spurious claims of “left bias”. This is sadly one reason I rarely watch The Drum, though there are good moments, as in this one.

I see the ABC as having a commendable bias towards intelligence.Adrian Piccoli, though a one-time LNP NSW Education Minister, and a good one, really does understand. Well worth having on this segment.

Some of the teachers I named commented afterwards, and in response to Greg Sheridan I referred to a post I wrote while I was still an ESL teacher at Sydney Boys High: Thoughts on coaching.

There is nothing surprising about parents seeking to have their children coached. Many of the SBHS parents come from cultural backgrounds where such help is the norm, even if (as we see in the hagwon story below) it may be argued that this is over-the-top. China’s determination to reduce the burden on students and to seek a broader view of education (see below) is interesting too.

Xiao Wu (Year 12 2001), a very successful HSC student, now counsels parents and students to realise that the pressure to get into a selective school ought not to be so strong; it is not like China where getting into the right school is the only way to ensure a first-rate career or choice of university. (It should be added that coaching is not so common in China as it is in Korea or Japan.) Xiao also sees the importance of participating fully in any cocurricular activities the school offers, citing the burn-out factor as being a significant reason for being somewhat less academically single-minded. In his case he had little choice, but does have regrets that he could not participate as much as he would have liked.

One can understand parents seeking coaching when the system confronts them with high stakes tests such as the Selective Schools Entrance Test–especially when parents feel they cannot help their children themselves in this new environment. Their feeling–not entirely wrong–is that their sons and daughters are starting behind the line compared to native speakers. To try to correct that by whatever means is not in itself reprehensible. However, the ethics and activities of some coaching colleges are quite clearly reprehensible.

The argument that coached students are hot-house specimens does, however, deserve rebuttal. If it were so, they would wilt once the initial purpose of coaching had been achieved. Actually being in a competitive selective school environment would show their weakness. It is fair to say that in the majority of cases this is simply not apparent. The students in general thrive, and were probably deserving of entry anyway. Nor are all coached students nonparticipants in cocurricular activities; if that were so the situation at Sydney Boys High in music, debating and sports would be far worse than some fear it is. Indeed, to judge from the 2006 edition of The Record (which did come out on time this year!) all the above are very healthy indeed, even if participation rather than absolute success characterises a few sports.

Clearly I would have posted, and indeed did post, quite a lot related to teaching on my blogs — search “teaching” or check the categories “education” and “schools” in the sidebar.

Two such posts: I return to teaching — 1985 and Reflections on one ex-student, but also on the issues of partisan politics and stereotyping.

The first suggests that I left at one stage — and indeed there have been breaks in my career. In a statement I just made recently on Facebook I wrote:

Being a good teacher is not just about qualifications and measurable outcomes. It is about humanity and empathy — and fallibility. It is in fact a relationship. It can be a glorious job, but it can also bring pain at times. Sometimes we win, sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we burn out. I have done all three in my time.

1985 marked my recovery from one such period of burnout, in the early stages of which I spent much time contemplating the grass in Glebe Point’s Jubilee Park, and also had my first sessions of therapy… However, that time also saw the editing of the magazine Neos: Young Writers and a productive job at Harkers Bookshop in Glebe. From Term 3 1985 I was back in the saddle at Sydney High where the young ScoMo was a Prefect! I was getting to know the people who became the wonderful Class of 1986, quite a few of whom I am still in touch with. That entry on returning to teaching tells of them.

From the Class of 1986

My first teaching appointment was Cronulla High School — 1966 (practice session in 1965) to 1969. I have been back, particularly in 2011 when the school had its 50th birthday. See these posts.

2011 — back to Cronulla

Just the other day on Facebook this class photo appeared. Bundeena is to the south of Cronulla, just across Port Hacking. Students from Bundeena Public School normally went to Cronulla High.

Colourised by me. It’s a composite class, so the 4E5 referred to would have been 1968 or 1969. Back row second from the left seems to be wearing a Sydney Boys High tie. Interesting.

I suggested there was every chance I taught some of them at Cronulla High, and then came one of those magic teacher moments:

Does my ageing bones good to get a comment like this from the person who posted this school photo from more than 50 years ago: “Neil, you taught me English for my School Certificate I think it was 4E5, we had a great year & you were so good to us, thanks, I am bottom row extreme left.”

And here is the young teacher he remembers — a student took this in 1968 or 1969:

How good is that! Yes, I remember 4E5 — they were for a young teacher a touch difficult at times, being shall we say very different to what I had been used to as a student myself at Sydney High, or of course at Sydney University. But it really is heartwarming to have been so remembered by one of them at least after all these years!

I was learning about teaching in a real-world way from them at the time…. And here is another post for you to look at.

Last weekend, yesterday, and 21 years ago…

So here is a 20 minute highlight video by someone in the crowd at last Saturday’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras:

And on the night here in Wollongong my mind went back many years, leading to a series of posts here culminating in one that combined memories of Sydney Boys High School with the Parade, which in fact was still happening on my TV as the dialogue in that last post was occurring.

Yesterday I downloaded the 2020 edition of The Record, the magazine of Sydney Boys High. One image from that fits right in to this post.

Would never have even dreamed this possible in 1986 — good and all as much was then, as some of us have been recalling lately. “Wear it Purple Day is an annual LGBTIQA+ awareness day especially for young people, based in Australia. Supporters wear purple to celebrate diversity and young people from the LGBTIQA+ community. The Day is organised by Wear it Purple, a student run, not-for-profit organisation, providing presentations and workshops.”

I cast my mind back to the first years of this century, when I was still teaching/mentoring at Sydney High and was on the Welfare Committee. With that in mind I added a page to my English/ESL site — it became Neil Whitfield’s rather than Sydney High’s when I retired — and thought myself quite daring. Doubtless quite a few of the links there are now useless — I have not tested it for years. But I did include this video, which is still valid:

Since then there have been many such videos. This one from 2016 is very good:

Then I found myself drawn to posts from the early days of my blogging, posts that by December 2000 I knew were being read by a handful who had penetrated my “Ninglun” disguise (Mandarin for Neil) at Sydney High, where I still worked.

Saturday, December 2, 2000: Yesterday was World AIDS Day.
My little circle of friends has displayed over the past week an amazing range of emotions. We’ve had love gone wrong, love gone right…and so on. Quite dramatic really. Perhaps the dominant note, one way or another, has been love.
I have, I must say, found December rewarding so far.
One of my circle has an anniversary coming up of one of life’s turning-points. There are mixed emotions involved, which I, perhaps, understand better than most. The person involved may read this, and he knows my thoughts are with him.

No, I don’t remember exactly what that was about! Indulge me one more time:

Buddha’s Enlightenment: Friday, December 8, 2000

I have decided today will wind up the “love” theme for a while; so maybe the next entry will be really vicious and bitchy. However, in the meantime some more thoughts–bearing in mind they are just my thoughts, and not the last word on the subject.

You could call this A Romantic Old Queen’s Ten Ways to Experience Heaven on Earth–all a matter of taste really. These represent my taste. And that’s an important point. In my view self-esteem is an even more powerful need than sex. Not that there is necessarily an incompatibility between them, but we should always remember there is no blueprint for being a gay man (or woman). There are not certain things you must do or be before you are admitted to the “club”. Whatever is really outside your comfort zone is probably not for you. On the other hand, it does not do to be censorious of those, gay or straight, who act and think differently. So long as no-one’s potential for happiness is injured, so long as there is no subjugation of the other for one’s own ends, then all is cool as far as I am concerned. So here is my list–and yes, I have been lucky enough at times to have experienced all of them: not constantly, as life is not like that, but often enough to encourage one to go on.

If you are straight and reading this, you may well find you agree! I’d say what we are talking about here are human things, not just gay things.

1. Sharing the highs and lows of life with another, knowing your confidences won’t be betrayed.
2. Hugging and being hugged in such a way that the warmth of body contact is also the warmth of emotional contact.
3. Sharing simple experiences with a loved other–a meal, a drink, or just sitting.
4. Feeling the warmth of another through the night.
5. Seeing confirmation in another’s gaze.
6. A kiss that says more than words can, evaporating tensions or difficulties.
7. A touch that accepts you body and spirit–with all your faults.
8. A happy silence when words no longer seem necessary. (I tend sometimes to talk too much, filling such silences with unnecessary sound.)
9. Having one’s pain accepted, when one is down, without unnecessary probing. Most of us tend to probe; it is not always the best thing to do.
10. Sex, when the pleasure is truly shared–undemanding, celebratory, affirming. Such sex is more than physical release. Or, at times, no sex at all.

And capping an end of year list of things to have been thankful for in 2000 was this:

The privilege of continuing to live in Surry Hills, thereby breaking my record for being in one place. Happy Holiday Season all my readers–especially PK, Sirdan, Ian Smith, Simon H, Johnny Wu, Shanghai Bob*, Mitchell*, Delenio*, Master Fu*, Tony H*, RJS* (assuming you’ve been!), Tess*, Maisie, Simmy (if you visit), Yawning Bread, Nick J, any Talk City Chatters, ICQ visitors, Atakan, Terry in Birmingham, Citizens of Earth… and everyone out there. Thanks for your support during 2000

* Current (2000) or former SBHS students or staff.

About last night….

Someone decided to make a highlights video of last night’s Mardi Gras from their TV screen while watching on NITV –that is, our Indigenous channel. The whole thing was livestreamed to the world in fact.

Convenient though, as I was looking for a short video to share. I have chosen one photo from the gazillions out there. I will leave you to guess why it appealed:

And an ex-student from Sydney High around 1989 just now in FB posted this reminder of where it all started:

I was following my friend Julie McCrossin’s posts from the SCG also last night. She is a 78-er — that is, one of those from the first Mardi Gras in 1978. So was a late friend, Ian Smith, aka The Dowager Empress of Hong Kong. In fact, here he is waving a flag on 24 June 1978! Ian used to get quite pissed off at some on the Left who he saw as hijacking the story to serve their own ends, as on some issues Ian was perhaps slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. And it’s a fact: the Left did not have a monopoly on skin in this game! And still do not.


So last night I found myself in an international group of people reminiscing and watching the 2021 Sydney Mardii Gras, including a clutch of classmates from Sydney High in 1986 when, believe it or not, I looked like this:

Back row, next to Tess Kenway….

I have several times mentioned the Class of 1986, who were indeed very memorable. After an end of the year visit to Beau’s Britannia Hotel in Chippendale of happy memory, they gave me a card thus inscribed:

“The Britannia Rules OK!”  “Best wishes for the future school — I hope you get as good a class as us! — Ben” “Oh for a draft of Vintage — Now you’ve got one! — Chris Jones” “Thanks for some of the funniest English periods we have ever had! — Sincerely, Martyn, Dean & Sam” “Thanks a lot for putting a bit of fun back into school. — Peter Schulze” “Dittoes — Geoff” “Don’t get pregnant!” “Somehow you even made Larkin seem exciting! Good luck for the future. — Craig” “I hope you die! Yours sincerely, Philip Larkin.” “Keep away from Colin the bartender (barmaid?) — Craig Bartlett” “Cribs Rule — The Phantom” “Good luck — Craig McLean (the quiet one)” “Like wow — wipeout. Danke Schon — Tim Knight”


But there was also the Year 10 class, and last night we had a bit of a reunion which began with something I found really heart-warming:

I won’t repeat all that was in the dialogue that ensued last night on Facebook, but here is some of it:

Me: I can’t deny this really makes me feel good, from a Sydney Boys High ex-student from long ago last century, and endorsed by another…. 1985 to 1987 — Year 10 1986? I was at Masada in 1988 and only returned to High in late 1989.The topic had been Chinese star signs.And I am only too well aware of the many many failures and times of inadequacy. But what a great thing for an old man to be told! Especially as I so often doubted myself. Even giving up teaching at one period around 1983…. PS: That period away from teaching 1983-1985 almost certainly made my teaching better. I have before today suggested that my “mid-life crisis” was something to be thankful for….

Year 10 1986 student 1: Teaching is such a difficult vocation and you provided us with not just education but friendship too. As teachers go, you were outstanding.

Year 10 1986 student now in California: What [he just] said! Aye, aye, K!

Year 10 1986 student 2: Your classes were the ones I still remember and that given a choice I would want to remember. It’s a cliche to talk about lifting the veil or turning on the light in the dark, but I think it was like that for a lot of us.

Me: We’ll have the whole bloody class here soon! Maybe I should call the roll… 😉

Year 10 1986 student 1: I agree with [Student 2]. But we are busy watching the Mardi Gras on SBS now…

I have to admit I went to bed before the Parade was over — but then I am old…..


Just thinking about Sydney High today in 2021. On their Facebook page on 3 March they posted:

All Year 8 students participated in the High Resolves Just Society global citizenship program this week. Students gain a deeper understanding of the unfair distribution of resources around the world and of what is meant by the term ‘Social Justice’ and how it is reflected in society.

I said in response: Makes me wish I was still there! But I have had my go, and was mighty privileged to have been able to do so. Also it is wonderful to see that old hall as the scene of such good educational and social practice! As an Old Boy as well as ex-staff it makes me feel good.

From Sydney High to World War 2 heroes….

Even with all the idiocy happening between Facebook and the Australian Government (property of Rupert?) interesting things do pop up there still — and a reduction in news and associated moans is not an entirely bad thing. Trouble is the determined newsmoaner (I just invented that word) will find a way, and they have it seems. Anyway, this post is actually not news, but it is serious. I think it tells a great story — and not a moan in sight!

A Brown (bow), W Skinner (2), E White (3), G Meldrum (str), T Kelly (cox)

That’s the Sydney High First IV in 1939. They won their GPS Regatta race that year, as did the Second IV. The VIIIs, the prestigious Head of the River, was won by Shore. Mind you, not a good year, was it, given what was to come six months later….

Made in 1965

That is what popped up on YouTube last night. It is a good reminder of what my parents’ generation went through, and near the beginning it does mention the 1939 Head of the River, or The Boat Race as it calls it. Now that was just twenty years before my own Leaving Certificate at a Sydney High hardly changed from 1939! There were even some staff members still there! In fact, looking just now at a 1943 staff photo there are six there who were still there between 1955 and 1959! On reflection — twenty years (21 to be exact) since I taught that memorable Class of 2000 at High! Unbelievable!

In sharing that video to Facebook I wrote: “The Boat Race referred to near the start is the GPS Regatta.. The last times SBHS won were 1957 (when John Pilger was in the crew) and 1959. So I am in that special bracket that is still alive and saw SBHS win ‘the boat race’. There were no boat races from 1940-1945, so the doco must be referring to 1939. Shore did win the VIIIs, but High won the other two major events, 1st and 2nd IVs. Then came the war. There were SBHS boys involved, Roden Cutler for one, and one Bob Page…”

[Sir] Roden Cutler was awarded the VC and went on to be Governor of NSW. The driveway from Anzac Parade to Cleveland Street past the school’s front entrance is named after him. And the gates at Anzac Parade, dedicated to him in 2007.

Dr Jaggar, the Principal, said at the Dedication:

As a scholar, sportsman, soldier, leader,diplomat, concerned citizen and statesman,Sir Roden Cutler was an example in action of our SBHS ethos – with truth and courage. At High in 1934, Sir Roden was awarded School Blues for swimming, water polo and target rifle shooting. Sir Roden was described as a trier, a leader and a role model for younger boys. At High, then as now, we idealise the good all-rounder – the person who has the talent, courage, will power, self-discipline, flexibility and communication skills to succeed in a variety of endeavours. Sir Roden was such a man. His integrity in public life was legendary; his gallantry conspicuous, his humility inspirational. He was able to interact easily and warmly with people from all walks of life. He loved his sport. His lifelong dedication to public service and charitable causes marks him out as a very special Australian icon – a man of the people.

Most importantly of all for us here, Sir Roden held his old school in high regard and throughout his life supported its activities. His involvement as patron of our organisations made him special to our community. He was a point of reference for the school in its history and a champion of its causes. He dedicated buildings and made himself available at ceremonial occasions, despite his commitments as Governor. Even as late as 2000, nearly two decades after his retirement, he attended an Anzac Day assembly with a 1934-40 class reunion at High, despite his ill health and the inconvenience of being confined to a wheel chair. He joined in the singing of the school song with his old classmates. He followed closely the fortunes of the cadets and the rifle team and was very pleased with the gift of a picture of the High GPS Championship target rifle shooting team of 2001. It was with a solemn pride that twenty School Prefects formed up behind our school banner and led the procession into St Andrews cathedral at Sir Roden‟s state funeral in 2002.

As a staff member in 2000, I was at that Anzac Day assembly. But Bob Page? Now there is a story!

This humble fishing trawler led a double life during World War II as part of Operation Jaywick.

I then cited the story from The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (NX19158) Captain Robert Charles Page, Z Special Unit, Second World War.

Bob Page was born on 21 July 1920 in Sydney, the eldest son of Harold and Anne Page. He attended Sydney Boys’ High School and enrolled to study medicine at the University of Sydney in 1940. He left his studies a little over 12 months later to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. Joining the 2/4th Pioneer Battalion, he was quickly promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

In 1942 Page’s father, Harold, who had been a senior administrator in New Guinea, was captured by the Japanese at Rabaul. Later that year Harold Page was en route to Japan on board the Montevideo Maru with more than a thousand prisoners of war when it was torpedoed and sunk, killing all the prisoners on board.

In the same year Lieutenant Page transferred to Z Special Unit, a joint Allied unit formed to conduct clandestine operations behind Japanese lines in South East Asia. In September 1943 he took part in Operation Jaywick, devised by British officer Captain Ivan Lyon and using a dilapidated Japanese-built fishing vessel, the Krait, to sneak a crew of 14 into enemy waters. The Krait left Western Australia on the 2nd of September and arrived off Singapore about three weeks later. From there, Page and five other men paddled canoes in to Singapore Harbour and attached limpet mines to Japanese ships under cover of darkness. They destroyed or seriously damaged seven ships, more than 35,000 tonnes of shipping.

On his return, Bob Page married Roma Prowse in Canberra on the 1st of November, 1943. His role in Z Special Unit required him to keep the operation secret from Roma. Page was awarded the DSO for his “courage and devotion under extreme hazardous conditions”, but because of the need for secrecy it was not officially promulgated until 1945 and Bob never knew about it….

To conclude the story, I turn to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

In September 1944 Page was one of twenty-three men taken by submarine to the South China Sea. There they seized a junk in which they sailed towards Singapore. On 6 October, off Laban Island, they mistakenly fired on a Malay police launch, killing some or all of the crew. With secrecy lost, the mission was abandoned. The commandos scuttled the junk and made their way in rubber dinghies to their base on Merapas Island. For about two months they either evaded or fought off the pursuing Japanese. A British submarine sent to collect them failed to make contact. Page and ten other survivors were eventually captured, taken to Singapore and sentenced to death. With nine comrades, he was beheaded on 7 July 1945 at Ulu Pandan. After the war had ended, his remains were reinterred in Kranji war cemetery. His wife survived him.

There was a made-for-TV movie in 1989, Heroes of the Krait. It is on YouTube, quality watchable but not great.