583pp SC with companion CD
The Sphinx Foundation
$49-95 plus postage
Reviewed by Neville Cohn
Having reviewed too many histories of this or that state school while working in a distant outpost of Empire, the prospect of wading through yet another dust-dry chronicle was less than inviting. Would this be yet another blameless but cosmically tedious recital by well-intentioned worthies? Was this yet another school history destined to be given away as prizes on Speech Night or to gather dust on the neglected upper shelves of school libraries – or to suffer the indignity of being remaindered at knockdown prices at this or that local fete? I quailed at the prospect, the more so on discovering that this was a book written by a committee.
In the event, I am happy to report that my concerns were groundless. This dissertation on Perth Modern is that rarity, a school history that makes for frankly fascinating reading. Although inevitably (because of its numerous contributors) there is little uniformity of style, the book is put together in so skilled a fashion that making a way through its almost 600 pages became a pleasure rather than a chore.
Its alumni are a rollcall of distinction: at random, Bob Hawke (among 14 Rhodes Scholars), John Stone (former Head of Treasury who remembers the excellence of teaching at PMS), Nugget Coombs, Max Newton (foundation editor of The Australian), Peter Douglas (who was instrumental in introducing credit cards to Australia), leaders in law, commerce, science. the arts, diplomacy. There are lists in abundance and for the most part those on them have done themselves, their community – and their country – proud.
From a musical perspective, PMS has produced any number of graduates who have gone on to notable careers in W.A. and the wider world. They include, in no particular order, Jenny Coleman (trumpet), Victor Sangiorgio (piano), Emma Lysons Matthews (soprano), Phillip Murray (flute and voice), Gregory Yurisich (baritone), Alison Eddington (percussion), Simone de Haan (trombone), Geoffrey Michaels (violin) and Ian Westrip (choral trainer). PMS is also now the home of the Graduate College of Dance.
What comes across vividly time and again is how relevant Perth Modern has remained, and with what practicality – and compassion – in time of war as well as peace, it has welcomed children, refugees perhaps, with little or no English and cultural backgrounds that might often be exotic and barely known locally. This, running like a golden thread through the book, is surely the supreme achievement of PMS. Certainly, the sensible and sensitive approach its various stewards over time have brought to bear on the life of its community within a community, makes it a national treasure that is yet, perhaps, to receive its full recognition.
No less impressive is how resilient and adaptable PMS has remained in the face of sometimes inconsistent, insensitive or frankly foolish guidelines laid down by the education bureaucracy of the day – and how dedicated and imaginative most of its teachers have been across the century of its existence.
There are abundant and fascinating pen pictures of the school’s more colourful teachers such as Mr Greenhill “for singing, natty oldish wisp of a man belting out sea shanties” and “muscular Miss Arthur of the dreaded gym class”.
Nostalgia, that yearning for days that will never return and which invariably seem better now than they were, in fact, radiates from its pages. If many of these recollections are touching to this reader whose school days were spent in another country, they must surely have made many a PMS alumnus misty-eyed. The book abounds in students’ recollections of chums.
This inspired use of memories (which is one of the most striking of the history’s features) elevates the book to a special category of excellence, bringing the past lucidly to life. Lavish laurels to those who would presumably have had an avalanche of yarns to sift through; it’s a labour that has borne fascinating fruit.
There are absorbing insights into what it meant to teach at PMS through the decades, not least Mary Straiton’s beautifully written memoir about communicating with refugee Vietnamese children in mathematics classes.
Bearing in mind how we are nowadays exhorted to be alert to terror plots, the recollections of Lieutenant-General L.G. O’Donnell (a PMS student from 1946 to 1950) about school army cadets travelling to and from PMS across the metropolitan area in buses, trains or on bicycles while carrying their rifles over their shoulders make intriguing reading. The imagination boggles at how today’s constabulary would react to such a sight now.
In 1988, then-minister for education Bob Pearce told a conference of education bureaucrats that by the end of the year, seventy per cent of them would be out of a job, prompting Warren Louden, then Director-General of Education to remark that, with this put into effect, 1,200 years of experience had been lost.
The book speaks with a sure, strong, confident voice. To have incorporated so many pertinent, revelatory, fond and often very moving reflections on the part of its old boys and girls gives an unusually vivid insight into a remarkable educational institution.
The overall quality of the writing is excellent. A myriad recollections and vignettes cause the book to flash into life. It should be required reading for anyone embarking on a similar enterprise.
This book can be purchased from Perth Modern School, Roberts Road, Subiaco
Telephone (08) 9380 0555
Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn