Thursday, August 27, 2009

Somewhere, over the rainbow

The Rainbow Club was an early formal manifestation of my need to control my environment; to secure my comfort zone. We were a neighbourhood club of girls. Still a pre-teenager, I was the oldest of the six members, who included my sister Deb.

We would meet once a week.

‘Bring the washing in for me, will you, Rob?’ Mum might say when I arrived home from school on a Rainbow Club afternoon.

‘I’ve got a meeting of the club scheduled in five minutes. Can’t I do it later?’ I’d reply.

My father, a signwriter, had turned a small piece of tin donated by one of our members into a club sign, and he made each of us a name badge, with our names painted in script beneath a small rainbow. We had a special song that I had written, which we sang to open and close our meetings. And we did good deeds, such as holding fĂȘtes in our front- and backyards at which we sold toffees, cakes and slices to raise funds for the Save the Children Fund. One of our members would dress as a gypsy and tell fortunes. She was quite good at it, and in later years did some amateur acting. She always was a drama queen. We had something for everyone at these fĂȘtes, including gymnastics displays and running races up and down our quiet suburban street.

The Rainbow Club meetings were sort of like a book group. We had a regular agenda, which included my reading aloud from one of my own books and then loaning them out. I didn’t have much of a library – Chinese and German fairytales, maybe a dozen or two of the classics. I had stuck pockets in the front, and I would write there the date the books were due back. Conveniently, that date would coincide with our next club meeting. As a form of internal control, I would note the name of the borrower, the title of the book, and the return date in an exercise book I kept for the purpose. This sort of controlling behaviour has always made perfect sense to me.

I think we may also have taken the opportunity to exchange cards from our collections of picture playing cards. Swap cards were a craze that swept through schoolyards all over the country in the 1950s and 1960s. At recess and during our lunch break at school, my friends and I would congregate in huddles by the ablution block if it was raining, or up in the rear corner of the school where the air smelled of sawdust and horses from the agricultural showgrounds next-door on fine days, ready to swap.

‘Let me have another look at that one with the horse,’ my schoolyard friend might say, as I expertly peeled cards off the top of the large pile in my left palm.

‘It’s got a bent corner. You’ll have to give me another one for free if you want this one of mine with the dog.’

I spent all my spare time reviewing and rearranging my collection of cards. Every Saturday morning I would be at the Coles novelty store swap-card counter in town, obsessing over which new series to purchase.

The Rainbow Club imploded around the time I turned eleven. One member got her Cottontails in a twist about something or other, and demanded that we return the piece of tin she had donated for our club sign. The fall-out at in our street was rather nasty, and I think the grown-ups had to intervene to prevent blood being shed.


I next became obsessed with stamp collecting. I found this interest perfectly to my liking. I could be alone in my head, but with something to chatter to myself about. My collection was given a great boost when I inherited from a neighbour an album that contained many very old Australian stamps. It might have been of some value today if it hadn’t been nicked in the early 1970s when my parents packed up their house and moved to New Zealand.

I found stamps a very fulfilling obsession. Maintaining and building a collection required organisational skills, perseverance, and attention to detail. I loved the colourful designs, and the wide assortment of shapes and sizes; best of all, I loved that they had come from faraway countries. I loved to roll my tongue around wonderful place-names like Bechuanaland and Zanzibar, and to try and imagine what those places would be like. I’ve still to visit Zanzibar, which remains one of my favourite place names, but in 1991 I spent some time in Botswana, the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland which became independent in 1966.

I spent the entire summer holiday before my final year of primary school immersed in my stamp collection. I would emerge from my room in a daze and have to stand under the sprinkler in the backyard to bring myself back to the here and now. Or I would find that the rain had been bucketing down outside, while in my imagination I had been in Brazil, or Hong Kong, or the Congo.

Mum, home early from her washed-out golf game, would say: ‘You might have thought to bring in the washing, Rob.’

‘Some of us have more important things on our minds than the washing, Mum,’ I’d reply.

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