Almanac Life: ‘Chilla’ Porter, Colac, and childhood memories

 

 

‘Chilla’ Porter
Image: Wiki Commons

 

News of Chilla Porter’s death this week was a reminder of my advanced age. The Melbourne Olympics were a landmark in a pilgrim’s progress on life’s journey. I vividly recall some of the events  seared in the memory of a sports-obsessed schoolboy.

 

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. L.P. Hartley’s observation in 1953 as the opening line to his novel The Go-Between, set in the opening decade of the 20th century, applies with special force to life in rural Victoria more than 60 years ago. Our experience of the Games was through newspaper reports and what we then knew as the wireless. In particular the Argus, in its death throes, produced some memorable colour photography, Betty Cuthbert straining for the tape open mouthed was unforgettable. We did see glimpses of the Games on television; however very few of these remarkable appliances had found their way into private homes a matter of weeks after its introduction, and the Fullers were notable late adopters. Yes youngsters, people did gather round the shop windows of electrical goods suppliers. My specific first memory of this new device is standing in Murray Street Colac with a significant crowd peering through the windows of Ball & Croft, watching the triple jump, then known as the hop, step and jump. A magnificent Brazilian, Adhemar Ferrara da Silva won the gold repeating his Helsinki success. He inspired some feeble efforts on my part to master this exotic event, soon abandoned, and certainly never attempted in any organised or official setting.

 

Radio as the descriptive term became current with the invention and widespread availability of small portable devices; the development of the transistor, an early manifestation of the marvels of miniaturisation, seems to have been the catalyst. I saw my first example of this miracle when my brother brought  his newly-acquired one home  for a weekend visit from his Melbourne job (circa 1961).

 

We experienced the opening ceremony on the wireless in our school classroom. This was Thursday 22nd November, 1956. Highlights were the official opening by the Duke of Edinburgh and the reciting of the oath by John Landy, already an immortal in our eyes, even though his reputation would be further enhanced throughout the decades of his later service to  State and country.

 

We hurried home from school on the Friday to listen to the broadcast of a marvellous 10,000 metres in which Vladimir Kuts (USSR) surged then eased several times in an ultimately successful bid to burn off Gordon Pirie (Great Britain). The Englishman tired to finish 8th and to our delight, Allan Lawrence from Sydney finished strongly to secure the bronze medal improving his best time by 30 seconds.

 

However the day belonged to Chilla. The enthralling struggle with world record holder Charlie Dumas (USA), the first man to scale the ‘impossible’ 7 feet mark (2.14 metres), dragged on into semi darkness, before the American prevailed. There is some dispute as to whether the event lasted five, six or even seven hours. The medal ceremony photographs certainly indicate that the presentation was long after sundown and daylight saving was not in operation.  I don’t think we were aware of Chilla prior to that afternoon, but as he exceeded his previous best (the initials PB hadn’t entered the lexicon as far as I can recall) by 5 inches (about 12 cms.), this was his moment. These events were brought to life for us by the dulcet voice of Noel Bailey, a wonderful ABC commentator, especially of athletics, but also of football and cricket. There is a danger that the memory plays tricks and we lionise those whom we heard, saw or met as children, but I’m confident that Bailey’s calls of athletics sprints, notably Stawell, are without peer.

 

After these two events on the opening day of competition I was hooked. The two weeks plus two days of the Games rolled by with many other memorable performances, especially in the pool, that architectural wonder at the spot which is now blasphemously occupied by Collingwood’s Holden Centre. As well, female athletes, notably Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland and Marlene Matthews challenged my inherent sexism by significantly outperforming their male counterparts. As another indication of the past being a foreign country, Shirley Strickland was formally referred to as Mrs. Shirley de la Hunty,  a reflection of her married status.

 

November 22nd is a date  fixed in the memory for a different reason a few years later. In 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated on that day, a Friday. Of course, 1 p.m. Dallas time was early Saturday morning, 23rd  in eastern Australia. This earth-shattering reached the Fuller household via the ABC 7.45 a.m. news, 3AR (621 frequency) in those days was the popular station, while 3LO (774) was the highbrow broadcaster, although it also carried Parliamentary broadcasts. There’s an anecdote from the time after the assassination when Kennedy’s staff were gathered and his secretary Evelyn Lincoln remarked “we’ll never laugh any more”. One of the males in his circle (Arthur Schlesinger perhaps) offered the rejoinder, “sure we’ll laugh Evelyn, we’ll just never be young any more”. Events such as Chilla Porter’s death reinforce my own sense of the truth of Schlesinger’s observation.

 

I was disappointed to learn later of the Porter family’s involvement with non-progressive politics, and I was under the misapprehension that Chilla became a cabinet minister in the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland. This confusion is repeated in this week’s news. Com. report of the death. In fact it was his father, Charles snr, who was a Queensland MP for 14 years and a cabinet minister for one term. Chilla was involved in Liberal party politics but on the administrative side serving as secretary of the Western Australian division of the party for ten years. He sired the current Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter. My political prejudice would describe this as buggering up the country across three generations, but I am compelled to acknowledge that Christian wrote an eloquent and moving tribute to his father in his press release announcing the Olympian’s death.

 

The pedant in me also obliges me to note an error in that press release, when Christian refers to his father as a 19 year old on that fateful evening at the Melbourne Olympics, when he was in fact 20 and only a couple of months short of his 21st.

 

Chilla’s death is for me a spur for reflection that brings to mind the opening scene of Chariots of Fire at Harold Abrahams’ memorial service.

 

Charles (Chilla) Porter 11th January 1936 – 15th August 2020

 

 

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Comments

  1. roger lowrey says

    Great yarn Peter. Always good to hear from contemporaries growing up in our part of the world.

    My principal memory of the 1956 Olympics was the photo mum kept of the torch relay bearer running past our farm gate in Winchelsea on the Inverleigh Road. I’ll never know why the relay organisers in their wisdom arranged for the torch to be carried from Inverleigh to Winchelsea however, with apologies to that famous film line, whatever behaviour influencing substances they were on I would like a double!

    Your reference to Noel Bailey reminds me of another excellent ABC broadcaster called Dick Mason. Not only could he competently call any number of sports, but also, back in the day he hosted the Saturday afternoon ABC TV show highlighting that week’s hit parade (sic). Multi skilling in early television must have been a necessity as the great Bill Collins would often do a song and dance routine in addition to his role as compere of Sunnyside Up on Channel 7 on Friday nights before calling the races for 3DB on Saturdays.

    You wonder how it was Winchelsea watched the Melbourne television stations while Colac watched Channel 6 Ballarat? It seems Birregurra must have been the transmission cut off point!

    RDL

  2. Luke Reynolds says

    Peter, loved the tale of watching the Olympics on the TV in the shop front. You’ll be happy to know Ball & Croft is still going, the only electrical retailer left in Colac, at a new, bigger venue. They are now also selling furniture.

    Fascinating to read your memories of ‘Chilla’ Porter. Have always really enjoyed watching high jump and pole vault at Athletics events, despite having no ability in these fields. Happy to report my oldest son Gavin has taken to high jump and has made regional level events and performed well.

    I reckon 621 and 774 have switched as highbrow and popular broadcasters!

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Great stuff Peter. Really enjoyed your insight into an era that I (just) missed.

    Noel Bailey ended up at the ABC in Adelaide – he gets a fair bake here from Alf Gard (https://archival.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/oh/OH997.pdf)

    Dick Mason was also a very good baseball caller, back when the ABC did the Claxton Shield.

  4. Grand memories PF. TV was later to Adelaide so I can just remember not having one until the early 60’s. JFK’s assassination is an early memory. The gap between hearing on the radio he’d been shot and the confirmation of his death. We had a big old bakelite radio with a short wave band. Dad tuning in to the Voice of America to try to get news. The pall of silence in the house. JFK personified the hopeful optimism of the younger generation – pre Beatles and Vietnam. Sport was very much the gifted part time amateur thing back then. Dad had books full of newspaper clippings including 1950’s Davis Cup but Laver and Rosewall were mythical figures because we never saw them in Australia until tennis went “Open” in 1968 and the professionals could play.

  5. Steve Fahey says

    Really enjoyed your reminiscences Peter and hope that you are keeping well. I’m sure you’re enjoying the resurgence of your Blues.

    I’ll ignore the blasphemy reference, as I’m sure Luke did !

  6. No surprise Dick Mason was a good and informative sports commentator.
    https://waverleybaseball.com/richard-dick-mason/

  7. Peter Fuller says

    Thanks blokes for your responses to my indulgent trip down memory lane. I’m also grateful that you have stimulated me to further research.
    Roger, I assumed that you were closer to my age – just better preserved. BTV-6 did not come on the air until 1962. Colac was definitely receiving Melbourne stations throughout the late 50s. I watched the final quarter of VFL matches (1957-59 or ’60). Giant antennas dotted the skyline. I don’t seem to recall their being much controversy about this unsightly intrusion, compared with the ideological battle over wind turbines.
    Dick Mason definitely deserves the commendations offered by Swish and you, both for the breadth of his sporting knowledge and his inspired leadership of a generation of Melbourne-based ABC sports broadcasters, Peter Booth, Graham Dawson, Clarke Hansen, Drew Morphett.
    Luke, I’m surprised that Ball & Croft is a continuing entity; Thwaites’ and Hulms’ Bakeries seemed to me about the only survivors from my childhood, although the Murray Street shop facades are still recognisable as are the pubs, the Commercial, the Union Club and the Austral. I waste time on the Colac-Otway History page on FB, where I noticed several Pomberneit CC photos. I assume that they are the work of your Club’s history sub-committee, which seems as productive as the marketing department. Good luck to young Gavin.

    Swish thank you for my burning the midnight oil reading Alf Gard’s reminiscences. No surprise that Noel Bailey would have toed the corporate line at the ABC, and in any event he seemed an accessory to Alf’s exploitation rather than a ring leader. Alf sounds like my dad who was similarly opiniated. That old expression might have been coined for Alf and my father: “always forthright, often wrong, seldom (never?) in doubt.”

    PB, Your recollection of the pall that fell over many families with Kennedy’s death, that sense of optimism and hope dashed is familiar. In truth much of the Kennedy dream was mythical, his health problems belied the sanitised version. Phil Ochs line “a man so full of life, even death was caught off guard” reflected how we felt (erroneously) and he certainly would have been in strife in the me too era, JFK made Clinton look like a choir boy. The recurring theme hope for a better world foundering on grim reality tempers one’s optimism. John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed in Britain, the ambitious prospects generated by Kennedy then Johnson’s Great Society being crushed by the Vietnam fiasco; the fate of Obama’s hope campaign winding up with Trump. Here of course, the possibilities conjured up by Whitlam’s election and the reaction which that prompted. The optimism which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and wishful (wistful) thinking about the End of History, all examples of how we have had to live with the more sombre reality of glacial progress often interspersed with regress.
    We listened to the Davis Cup and the summer tennis tournaments in the 1950s. About 1960, I remember seeing some of Jack Kramer’s pros have an exhibition – essentially a hit up – at the Olympic Park cycling Velodrome, certainly Pancho Gonzales and Hoad among others, but that was probably the only time i saw top line tennis players in action until recent years with occasional visits to the Aus Open.
    Steve, thank you, lovely to hear from you. I acknowledge your gracious last line. I have some good memories of the old swimming stadium, notably protest meetings as the culmination of demonstrations, and of course when it was remodelled prior to Flinders Park/Melbourne Park, basketball matches.

  8. Peter Fuller says

    Mark,
    Thank you; your post went up while I was putting together my reply to the others. I was aware of Dick’s basketball involvement more than baseball, so you have helpfully fleshed out the detail.

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