Wake in Fright (by Trevor Miles)

Introduction: We had a wonderful experience staying with Jack and Marg Jones. Their hospitality, generosity and wonderful story telling ability prompted Trev to write about one of Jack’s experiences in Australia. (The photo is taken on Jack and Marg’s 56th wedding anniversary.)

Wake in Fright

One of the great Australian stories is Wake in Fright. I cannot remember the author, and I may not have the details right, but what I now recollect is a story about a young, almost virginal, sensitive Englishman heading into outback Oz.

I think this naive pommie was a teacher and he was then exposed to the harsh, violent, uncouth, alcohol-dazed dark side of some of the worst aspects of Oz. It is effectively a horror story and so I do not recommend reading this story before you go to sleep. And in contrast, I need to say I have experienced the best side of Oz, so the story is not typical.

This story has been made into a film and one of the main characters in the film is played by Donald Pleasance. Mr Pleasance clearly had a great time playing the role of an evil, lecherous alcoholic, who leads this young Englishman astray. Unfortunately, Mr Pleasance died a few years ago – a great actor who alway seemed to play nasty characters.

The Englishman was played by a young good looking bloke – perfect for the part, and perhaps maybe like a young Jack.

Jack was originally a Pom – in fact he was a “10 pound pom”, and when they paid their 10 English/Australian? pounds to the Australian Government, they received assisted passage to immigrate from England to Australia.

Jack wanted to be a teacher and he was duly trained in 1953 at Toorak Teachers College (the last of the “1 year trained teachers”) and sent to Bonang in Victoria. A one teacher school in Far East Gippsland. Its called Far East because it is a long way from Melbourne and you cannot travel a lot further east before you hit NSW or the Pacific Ocean.

It took Jack 3 days to get there via train and bus. When he got to Orbost, the closest town, the bus driver said to the three new passengers “Christ, I cannot fit you in because I have got the beer supplies on board”. He was hardly joking.

The Bonang highway is infamous. It has more than 50 bends as you travel north deep into the dark, mysterious forests of East Gippsland. You have not been really carsick until you have travelled the Bonang Highway. This could have been the start of Jack’s Wake in Fright.

When Jack arrived he was told the last family did not want a teacher boarding with them again and it was better if he stayed with the MacDonalds. It was a purely practical matter because Mr MacDonald had broken his back when drunk, and he tried to tighten the load of logs on his truck and they fell upon him. Mr MacDonald was now head to groin in plaster and another male hand about the house would be helpful.

Jack found he loved the bush and the rough knock-about kids. He loved the raw nature of the forest and a dead bat he found had pride of place in the school room. It was the beginning of many lessons in natural history, maths, spelling and story telling.

Jack also loved the Bonang River, and in spring the trout fed on the grasshoppers until they were big, fat and sweet. The technique of catching trout was simple. All you had to do was scare the hoppers into the stream and the trout duly swallowed them. Another grasshopper on a hook floated down then meant that trout committed suicide and fed Jack and the MacDonalds that night.

One Saturday Jack was fishing and he felt a pain in the stomach. He continued fishing. The pain got worse. He started vomiting. Fortunately Jack was able to walk to the MacDonalds. Jack was worried. He had met Margaret at Pt Lonsdale a few months earlier and he was in love. She beat him on the tennis court but Jack was still pretty keen.

Mrs MacDonald reckoned Jack looked pretty sick when he got home. And he was getting worse. It was early evening by this time and the trip to the nearest doctor was a few hours away by rough gravel road to Delegate NSW.

By the time they got to Delegate it was late. It took more time to find the doctor. Yes, you guessed it, the doctor was drunk. Anyone who knows the story would start to think – Wake in Fright. However, although the doctor was drunk, he was sober enough to know that he was too drunk to operate. Fortunately, the surgical nurse was not.

Jack did survive. The Education Department sent a relief teacher and he had a few days off. He wanted to see Margaret. He hitched a ride to Bairnsdale, the nearest railway town. Unfortunately the bugger who gave him the car ride to Bairnsdale charged him 10 quid and that was 10 weeks wages!

Anyway, Jack got to see Margaret after nearly dying from accute appendicitis and they celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary yesterday!

I would have liked to have a teacher like Jack.



3 thoughts on “Wake in Fright (by Trevor Miles)

    • Hi Liz, Trev has gone back to Pemberton with Brendan this morning, but last night he mentioned to me that Jack was suffering acute appendicitis (as Frank Hicks) also rightly points out.

  1. Sounds like appendicitis to this social scientist! Mrs Google tells me it was Jack Thompson who ‘woke in fright’. Hey don’t worry you guys, I’ve been across that great country, there’s PLENTY of time, places and people for you to wake in a freezing lather! Like so many others I’m enjoying the blog.

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