25 April 2010

Alex Buzo on Brian Mattingley

In addition to his great contribution to Australian theatre and his non-fiction works, playwright Alex Buzo was a very elegant writer of travel pieces for the newspapers, and contributed two fine obituaries of our former school masters. One of these, a tribute to Brian Mattingley DFC, was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 February 2005.

Anzac Day seems a good occasion on which to remember a great educator man who had a distinguished war record, and I republish this piece as a tribute not only to him, but also to my former classmate Alex.

Joe held the Arnold Line at Armidale
Brian Mattingley, Teacher and war hero, 1914-2004

"Sedete omnes," he would say as he swept into class.  Others may have said "Sit down, everyone", but he always made an entrance, and like many teachers of his era he was a performer.  Brian Mattingley, long-time senior master at the Armidale School (TAS), has died at 90.  The letters after his name, DFC and BA, tell the story.  He was a war hero and an educator.

In the quadrangle at TAS, where he taught English and Latin for 40 years, he cut quite a figure, being tall and pigeon-chested and known behind his back as "Joe".  No impersonator could complete his act without the stabbing accusatory finger and the strangled cries of fury ("Mou! Mfff!").  In his study he kept a cane called Horace, for those who did not get the message: this was an Anglican boys' school dispensing the muscular Christian philosophy of Rugby's Dr Thomas Arnold.

One of three brothers whose father was a dentist, Brian John Mattingley was born in Tasmania and educated at Launceston Grammar; after university and a sojourn in Adelaide he joined the staff at Armidale in 1939.

The Mattingleys were to make quite an impact on Australian education; brothers Max and David had distinguished careers at Geelong Grammar, Prince Alfred College and All Souls, Charters Towers.  Brian served as deputy and acting head of TAS, where he "really ran the place" at times.

In World War II, Flight Lieutenant Mattingley was a navigator in the RAAF, flying 36 missions over Europe for Bomber Command.  Having proved he had the right stuff, he returned to Armidale in 1946 and set out to do well in the tricky climes of peace.  A conservative Anglican, he favoured tweed jackets, drove a Wolseley, and devoted himself to the profession of schoolmastering, as it was called.

He looked like a film star, one of those Michaels (Craig, Denison, Redgrave, Wilding) who abounded in postwar English cinema, and made quite an impact on speech days.  My mother liked him, and she was not Robinson Crusoe.  He was seen by the school hierarchy as "good for recruitment", but he was married to the job and was essentially a Catholic priest in a Protestant setting, even attracting the same "waste of a good man" comments from the female public.

From his office located at the T-junction of the school's main corridor and the covered way, he could see a cloud of smoke, hear an obscenity and sense a crooked tie or egg-covered face.  It was a reign of terror, with the amused approval of parents.  I felt the wrath of Horace only once, but it was enough to know that Joe was not all talk. 

He often went on patrol, his curious bent-kneed walk suggesting both Groucho Marx emerging from a hotel room and Slasher Mackay going out to bat.  Helped by rubber-soled brogues, he liked to materialise unexpectedly and catch out smokers, bullies and Joe impersonators.

No entrance was more spectacular than his appearance in the 1956 staff revue as a dancing, twirling Spanish senorita.  Not being a method actor, he saw no reason to shave off his RAAF moustache - and stole the show.

The Rugby School philosophy has been criticised for its paramilitary aspects, and Mattingley was its faithful servant, but he lightened Dr Arnold's game plan with his whimsical humour, quoting jokes from 1066 and All That or regaling us with chunks of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Like many teachers of the period, he created a character, or "adopted a persona", so that when the heckling comes, as it always does, he could rationalise that it was the Latin-spouting cane man who was being attacked, not him.

The attitude to performance was always an amateur one.  After a world trip he showed us slides, including one of Hollywood.  It was just the scrawny hills above Sunset Boulevard, but I was entranced.  "Impressive looking place?" asked Joe.  "Yes sir!" I gushed.  There was a pause.  "I don't think so," he said, to murmurs of assent from the rest of the class.  Dr Arnold's schools were supposed to turn out empire builders, not poodle-fakers.

Contrary to belief, these rugger academies were not completely sports mad.  B.J.M.  was bored by cricket and football, and as school swimming coach he was all stopwatch and no stroke correction.  At his farewell in 1979 he said "there are too many takers in the world and not enough givers".  What he gave was his time, and with it his life.

Many of his decisions were improvised Solomon.  I was upset by a missing tennis racquet on the last day of term and he hauled one out from behind a cupboard, asking, "Did it look like this racquet?"

"Well, I ..."

"Do you think it's possible someone could have mistaken yours for this?"

"I suppose it's ..."

"Then why don't you take this one?"

"Thank you, sir."

Schoolmastering ...  it was a seven-day-a-week job, and teaching was only a part of it.

As a teacher, Mattingley was in the front rank - as his public exam results proved - and his classes were never boring.  When we did Richard II for the Leaving Certificate in 1960, he said the play had been criticised because the ultimate hero, Bolingbroke, was absent for such a long time.  "But what could Shakespeare do?" he asked the class.  "Should he have brought Bolingbroke back sooner?" There was a pause.  "No sir," I blurted, "because that would detract from his victorious entrance later."

It had just been Joe's way of making things interesting, but in that instant I crossed over to the other side and started looking at writing creatively.  Many years later he came to see a performance of Macquarie and, true to form, said nothing about the play over supper afterwards.  Did I detect a "what have I started?" look? There was something pretty close to it.

As a grammarian, Mattingley was of the old school, but again, he made it interesting, however Pavlovian the responses he instilled may have been.  "Nice" was outlawed ("It's a meaningless word"), as was "different to" ("It's similar to, different from"), while "different than" was an abomination.  Even today, if I hear someone say "between you and I", an involuntary twitch ensues.

We were also introduced to literary conventions, such as not writing or saying "William Shakespeare" or "Shakespeare's Hamlet" - it insults the intelligence.  I wonder what he would have made of the latter-day American announcers and their "That was Fidelio by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven who was born in Bonn, Germany".

The 1970s brought rebels and precursors of student rights, culminating in the 1973 Monckton Shield swimming carnival, where the entire school turned its back on the pool - unthinkable in the '50s, but how could Horace hold the bridge against so many? In response, the school did not turn its back on Dr Arnold, but gradually embraced the more liberated theories of Kurt Hahn, the long-time head at Gordonstoun.

At his valedictory address in 1979, Mattingley reiterated his educational philosophy, that "change just for the sake of change is an exercise in futility" and that class sizes, streaming and so on were as nothing compared to the "ethos or character of a school".  The gymnasium was named after him, and then he left Armidale for good.

Change did come to TAS, beginning with the appointment of a day boy as senior prefect in 1980.  Previously a scorned minority, "daygoes" from the town's professional community had diluted the school's traditional stream of graziers' sons.

More change was to come in the '80s.  The anachronistic uniform worn since 1894 had included a Norfolk jacket with gnarled leather buttons that gave much merriment to the "townees".  It was replaced by a single-breasted blazer with plastic buttons.  By this time, Mattingley was living in Tasmania and had been ordained as an Anglican priest.  "He was wise to retreat to the cloth," said Philip Bailey, who had taught with Joe during the turbulent '70s.

Some older teachers gradually switch off and by the end are phoning it in, but Mattingley had an active old age.  He had always been involved with Missions Abroad and Legacy and did some coaching of children with learning difficulties, deriving satisfaction from "breaking down the wall".
At his 1993 testimonial in Sydney there was a record turn-out of TAS alumni and I remarked, "This is a tribute to you." It was no more than a mild pleasantry, but back came the reply like a rifle shot, "You don't know how many refused to come, do you?" He had never played favourites and did not expect to be played as one.

The classics of school life - To Serve Them All My Days, Goodbye Mr Chips, The Corn is Green, The Browning Version, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - threw up vivid characters who were not at all like Mattingley.  Were their visions false? Many of these people, especially Mr Chips, had an ingratiating quality that was missing in Joe.  A hard man to the core, he was certainly not nice to everyone, but he was a great educator.

At 90 he was still active, albeit with a walking frame, and made it to Christmas, but then "crack'd a noble heart" and was found dead by a carer.  He is survived by his brother David and sister-in-law Christobel.

Alex Buzo

Alex Buzo, playwright and author, was a student of Brian Mattingley's.   A memorial service for Brian Mattingley [was] held in the TAS Chapel on February 20 at 10am.

No comments: