Memoir of My Uncle, Bill Deakin

I first met Bill at Wallhouse Farm, near Redditch, when as a five-year-old, I visited England with my mother Joan (Bill’s sister) and my sister Judy, in the northern autumn of 1951. Food rationing, begun during the War, was still in force, and a grocer’s van would visit the farm once a week, when ration coupons could be exchanged for bottles of fizzy drink — if this is rationing, I thought, then count me in: fizzy drinks were a rare treat in our family back in Melbourne. I remember what seemed to be bomb craters in the fields, as well as the pig sty, fireworks and a bonfire, an early Christmas celebration before we returned to Melbourne (was it Bill inside the Father Christmas suit, or perhaps Roger?), the thin ice on the pond in the farm yard, and two christenings — Judy’s and mine — in Wigan. I also remember that Bill, Olive, Peter, and Pam lived on the top storey of the old farmhouse, redolent of the small kerosene lamps still used for lighting, even then. I have other memories of post-War England, but didn’t see Bill again, for three years.

I remember standing on Station Pier as the ship from England grew larger, with Bill and family on board. It was 1954; Bill was joining sisters Joan and Bess, and leaving parents Bert and Florence and brother Roger and sister May back in England. After a few weeks in the Nissen huts of the Nunawading migrant hostel, the Deakins moved to a farm between the Yarra Glen-Healesville road and the railway, backed by tall, whistling Monterrey pines. The family continued to obtain the magazines they’d read in England — Desperate Dan in The Dandy, Eagle, I think, and The Beano. Borrowing these was a treat that accompanied Sunday drives from East Malvern to Yarra Glen, as well as climbing in the pines and dodging the cow pats in the paddocks.

Until the Deakins arrived in Victoria, Judy and I had never used the words “uncle” and “aunt” with our parents’ siblings and their spouses: they were simply Bess, Jane, Phillip, Antony, and Ruth. But Peter, Pam, and then young Elizabeth always referred to Mum and Dad as “Auntie Joan” and “Uncle Leslie,” and Judy and I found ourselves addressing “Uncle Bill” and “Auntie Olive,” and later “Auntie May,” after Bertram, Florence, May, and cousin Ian arrived in November 1963.

About the time that Bill, Olive and family arrived in Melbourne, when I was ten, we had spent many evenings being thrilled and entertained by the BBC radio series, Journey Into Space, with Lemmie, Doc, Jet, Mitch, and Whittaker (whose name scared me for years), which was rebroadcast on the ABC. Whether this was my first exposure to science fiction I can’t remember, but I was certainly hooked on the genre, and so was delighted when I found that Uncle Bill was also a fan, who, moreover, bought the American and British pulps from the local newsagent, and would pass them on to me after he’d read them.

Astounding, Galaxy, Fantasy & Science Fiction, New Worlds, If, Nebula, Science Fantasy, and others (thanks to Google) were some of the titles, with well known names as authors, such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. Bill would save them for me, and until the mid 1960s I would get them from him. I have saved all the books and magazines he gave me (including paperbacks by L. Ron Hubbard, before he decided that founding a religion was more lucrative than writing science fiction). I used to store them in the garage at Number 3, but a few years ago decided to move them to Balmain, where they now reside in the attic. (I had the idea that I could sell them on eBay, but after shlepping them up to Sydney I found that most of the prices were less than $2, and so it wasn’t worth it.)

Mum was delighted to have more of her family in Australia, having journeyed here after VE Day in one of the first ships to carry civilian passengers from England after the War. But she was quite lonely for blood relatives until her sister Bess arrived. With Bill and family nearby, Christmases became big family events, and even though the temperature might be up to a century (in the old scale) outside, the nine, ten, or (after Andy was born) eleven of us would sit down in the dining room in Number 3 for a good old-fashioned Christmas dinner of turkey, ham, roast potatoes, boiled green vegetables, followed by plum pudding with flaming brandy, hard brandy sauce, and custard, with the English winter tradition of nuts, muscatels, and crystalised fruit to munch on, while wearing our paper hats from the exploding crackers, with lame jokes and plastic gewgaws. In the early days Dad would drive out to Yarra Glen past Nellie Melba’s to pick up the Deakins for their day with us. After dinner, Peter and I might explore the East Malvern golf course and Gardiner’s Creek. The abandoned cable tramcars were always an attraction, for me at least.

In trawling Google for this reminiscence, I found that there is a lot of material on science fiction on the web, and I thought how interesting Bill would have found this. I hope he managed to use the Web in his later years.

After Yarra Glen, there was Yering, not far away, and then Drouin, then back to Yering. In the 1970s I would travel from California to England and Europe, and it was on one of these summer trips, at Peter and Ursula’s Haymes Farm and mushroom business, on Cleeve Hill outside Cheltenham, that I saw Bill again. He had travelled to England for the funeral of his Little Auntie Bessie (1892-1973). We travelled to Norton Hall in nearby Pershore, where he took movies and I took slides. Later that decade, he turned his hand to milking sheep (for cheese), then the ginseng business and retirement in Croydon. I think it was Bill who took the movie of Mum, Bess, and Bill travelling to England for their cousin, Peter’s, sixtieth birthday. Was it only Bill’s second visit back to the old country since he left in 1954? I know Mum found the whole trip with her siblings back to Pershore, the Cotswolds, and other family haunts with her siblings and her cousin Peter a great experience.

I always found Bill interested in my doings, but I didn’t know him well, despite our common interests. Did he play chess? I rather think he did. I know he’d studied in Germany before the War, and that his ambitions to become an engineer had been stymied by the War and by his grandfather’s remarriage. What had he made of the sojourn in Buenos Aires in the late ’thirties? What did he do during the War? How easy was it for him to reconcile his vocation as a dairy farmer with his pre-War aspirations? How did he and Olive meet? Others may know.

Josh, ZoŽ, and I visited Peter and Ros just before the Sydney Olympics. Bill and Olive were there, and I remember Bill had just lost his driver’s licence, much to his family’s relief — age was catching up. I last saw him at Mum’s funeral. I hope the last few years were kind to him, a gentle, intelligent, generous man.

After talking to Peter, Pam, Lizzie, and Ros two days ago, I learn that Bill did train as an engineer, and worked as a Diesel engineer in England during the War. He was too early for computers and the Internet, unfortunately. He died in December 2005, one day after his ninety-first birthday.

See young Bill with his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents in a photo of four generations of Deakins, taken about 1920, here.

Robert Marks
29 December 2005

Last Updated 29 December 2005