28 August 2010

Alex Buzo on George Crosslé

In an earlier post I reproduced one of the fine obituaries that my classmate Alex Buzo wrote about former schoolmasters who had helped to shape our lives at The Armidale School (see Alex Buzo on Brian Mattingley).

Here is the other, a fine tribute to a colourful and much-loved Irishman named George Crosslé, which was published in The Australian following George’s death on 12 November 2000, under the headline Swashbuckling blackboard pirate.

R.W.L. (George) Crosslé
Teacher. Born Belfast, Northern Ireland, August 6, 1908.
Died Armidale, NSW, November 12, aged 92.  

On a grey and flood-soaked day in early February 1956, the class sat waiting for its first history lesson in secondary school. Suddenly the door was flung open and a figure exploded into the room, his academic gown swirling around, knocking rulers off desks and exuding clouds of chalk dust. He had a black eye patch, a swaggering gait and a voice that boomed, “Since 1945 England has had two governments, while France has had 17! Someone is going to learn the lessons of history.” History? Quite clearly this was drama.

Robert Crosslé, known variously as George, Lou, Ra and Ding, has died, but he struck sparks on that wet day and the fire has never gone out.

A long-time teacher at The Armidale School, Crosslé was a genuine eccentric who inspired hundreds of anecdotes and lent dignity to that hackneyed term, legend. Some of the more laconic country boys were awestruck at first by this barking, piratical apparition, but in none of the stories or pranks did he emerge as the villain his appearance suggested.

Paul Barratt, who went on to head the Business Council and the Department of Defence, was there on that day during the floods of 1956, but his jaw was not on the floor like the rest of us; he had already met Crosslé. “He was a friend of my parents, but he never showed any favouritism to me and never took a set against anyone, either. He had tremendous confidence in his religion and values, and never needed to play favourites,” says Barratt.

Those values began at his home in Northern Ireland, where he was the youngest son of an Anglican solicitor. Educated at Dover and Trinity College, Dublin, where he took arts and law degrees, the young Crosslé taught at a prep school in England and acquired many of the characteristics of his later reign at Armidale – the fatherly concern for any troubled child, the giving of presents and rewards, and the sudden outbursts of advice, solace and compassion.

It was at this time that he lost his eye – and nearly his life – in a motorbike accident.  After three days in a coma, he woke to find his parents staring down at him. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?” rasped the invalid. They sighed in relief.

Despite his rolling gait, Crosslé was in the army – not the navy – during World War II, working on the decoding of German cables at Bletchley Park. He had married an Australian girl in 1940, so it was inevitable that he would be unleashed on the Antipodes at some point. That came in 1946 and it was not a red-letter day for the forces of apathy.

He was to spend 54 years in Australia, 27 teaching at Armidale and 27 in alleged retirement, during which time he was able to double his output of letters to The Armidale Express on his favourite subjects – politics, history, the Adelaide-Darwin rail link, a new state for New England and amenities around the town where he became just as much a legend.

“Armidale might have thought it was getting a wild Irishman, but he was conservative in politics and a Union Jack Anglophile,” says his daughter-in-law Robyn. He was always fair, though, and this was disconcerting for those who value dull partisanship. “If Labor came up with a good idea, he would praise it,” notes Robyn. “For George, ideas were paramount and he was always happy in a debate.”

As a classroom teacher, Crosslé was never one to make a god of the syllabus, and he could occasionally be sidetracked into anecdotes about Trinity College. A cinema buff, he had the fatal weakness of the breed and left no plot untold, so much so that desperate students would try to get him back to the lesson. His great gifts were for arousing intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm and the desire for expression and achievement.

There were many changes at Armidale during Crosslé’s long tenure. For one thing, the school evolved from its lingering Victorian origins to become a member of the Round Square group, from the philosophy of Thomas Arnold and Rugby to Kurt Hahn and Gordonstoun. George appeared to go on just the same, however, a parade-ground Ulsterman who was a tough negotiator with the 20th century.

“He was a very modern man, actually,” says Jim Graham, who taught at Armidale for 45 years.  “He was never afraid to show his feelings, even back when that was frowned upon. He had genuine affection for people and a great memory for their characteristics.”

Barratt cites another modern quality not always associated with private boarding schools.  “George was an egalitarian,” he says. “He never abused his powers or used punishment as a weapon.”

Hugh King, a leading Sydney lawyer, recalls a prank: “Two boarders put pebbles in the hubcap of George’s old Anglia during prep and he thought he’d broken an axle; he got out and walked home. The next morning the car was there in the school drive, but no one was punished.”

As Addison de Witt might have said, for most of the School’s boarders, Armidale was a stretch of sidewalk from the Memorial Gates to Nick’s Cafe, surrounded by what looks like a medium-sized country town.

The school was anxious to dispel any idea that it was an elitist enclave and George was its trump card. He became day boy master, taught Sunday school, coached junior rugby and was an active member of everything from the Masonic Lodge to Meals on Wheels. Long Inured to “Crozzle”, he explained to wide-eyed locals that his name was pronounced Crossly and that the accent over the “e” was Irish, not French. Crosslé never sidled into a room, he made an entrance, and he was happy in spotlight jobs, such as compering a dance at the Armidale Tennis Club: “Azzz the gentlemen have been back-ward in coming forward, the next dahnce will be ladiezzzz choice.”

His wife had a business in the main street, Roma Crosslé Frocks, and she made the costumes for the school’s annual Gilbert and Sullivan production, for which Crosslé did everything, including a memorable night on tour in Inverell where he began as a prompter and ended up singing a duet. Does every school have a Crosslé, a teacher whose influence and inspiration extended way beyond classroom progress and occasionally impeded it? If so, then that must be a large part of its soul.

At the funeral, Graham delivered the euology and described Crosslé as a larger than life character. He was also larger than fiction, being much more rambunctious than Mr Chips or The Crock in The Browning Version.  Another play with an educational background opened in Sydney a week before Crosslé died. It is about a dedicated history teacher and is called, appropriately, Life After George.

There will, in fact, be life after George Crosslé, as he has endowed the Ulster Bursary, and he leaves Roma, son Rob and daughter Louisa, plus two grandchildren who knew him as Grandpa Patch.

Alex Buzo
Alex Buzo is the author of Big River and Armadillo.

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