My Big Bruvver Goes on Bivouac

7 April 1965

One of the birds lay an egg on 3-4-65. What should I do? Gypsy can’t walk on her hind left leg. There has been no mail yet. I am getting on fine with the Spearmans. Last week we weren’t allowed to watch television for a week. Mum came home for the weekend and did a few jobs. Mum has been transferred to Ward 9. I stayed with Mum on the weekend and helped her. On Thursday I got the afternoon off school and went with Mrs Spearman to see Mum. Last Wednesday in sports I grazed my knee. Yesterday I fell over in the school playground and got quite a lot of tiny sores on my left hand. About two weeks back on Friday last in March I was playing softball with my friends when I got hit with the bat and put my tooth through my tongue. Mrs Spearman says she want to give me back to Mum in one piece.

Your Loving Sister, Gwen


P.S. I just went and fed the birds and found the eggs gone. And the GAS BILL was in the letter box for £2.3.9

I was three months shy of my tenth birthday when I wrote the above letter to my brother. I wonder what he thought of receiving such a missive from his baby sister. He probably hid it away for fear of teasing by his mates. He was always embarrassed if people knew our family situation. Nevertheless, he kept it for fifty years, and returned it to me some while back.

Two and a half years before I wrote to my brother, our mother had the first of a series of nervous breakdowns that would dog her life thereafter, and regularly hospitalise her for anything from two weeks to many months. We didn’t talk about mental health openly in those days, definitely not in the way as is so common now. But a select group of people knew our situation, because it meant I would have to be billeted out whenever this happened. In this case, I’d been taken in by the neighbours across the road, the Spearman family. Their three boys had to scrunch up to make room for me.

Meanwhile my eighteen-year-old brother had been sent on bivouac as part of his military training with the CMF. I guess he had to take annual leave from his workplace as this clearly was a long stint in a nearby regular army camp.

Photo by Jacqueline Smith on

Under a mandarin tree that had been planted by the previous Italian owners, my brother had built a large aviary, the size of a garden shed, in which he was keeping budgerigars. Sadly, he didn’t get to see this short lived nesting that I wrote about so matter-of-factly. As well, our beloved family dog was getting on for twenty and ailing. A year or two later we had to let her cross the rainbow bridge. Again, I’m not mincing my words when I write him she is not in a good way.

In the letter, I’ve taken it as my duty to keep my brother up to date on the day-to-day running of our house. But mostly the letter is about me. It was always a source of amusement to me that when my brother was in school, my mother took out a small insurance cover for him in case of schoolyard accidents. Yeah, well, obviously she backed the wrong jockey with that thought!

Later, when my brother returned from bivouac he told me about the grenade practice.

The guys had been in the trench for a good part of the day. It was arranged in a square around a field, and they had repetitively practiced the manoeuvre. Hold grenade in right hand, pull pin with left, count five seconds, duck head down and lob grenade over head onto the field. 

This had gone on for some time with dummy grenades and the troops were becoming blasé.  Fresh ammunition was brought up, the process was repeated.

The first grenade that hit the ground exploded.  All around the trenches, heads bobbed up – expressions of ‘What the – bleep – was that?’ abounded.

It became clear to the men that they were now playing with the real thing…

Complaint Department Grenade.jpg

(I think it is still standard army training to drill a person until they become automatons.)

I don’t remember my brother keeping his real rifle at home, but one of his prized possessions was an air rifle.  He used it to scare away starlings that would linger around the peach trees in our yard (also planted by the previous Italian owners).  He must have done a darned good job of it, as I haven’t seen a starling anywhere in years.

The air rifle had a slight upward bend in the barrel about half way along.  To hit the target with a bull’s-eye, you had to take aim to the left and slightly down of where you actually wanted to strike.  For a time – a very long time – I gained a lot of street cred challenging my brother’s army mates to a bit of target practice with tin cans in the backyard. Then my brother blew the lid on my little scam. But not literally. Not with a grenade, for instance.

As I got a little older, and one by one they left home, what with their brass polishing, and their ironing, these guys provided me a nice little earner right into my early high school days. I’ll always be grateful for that.

But money in our family was always a problem. After her first hospitalisation, Mum tried unsuccessfully to return to her job as a saleslady in a department store. Then she was sent to a rehabilitation centre where they tried reinvigorate her secretarial skills, but that failed also. So then she was put on the Invalid Pension – what they call a Disability Pension today. It was a pittance – about £5 per week – barely survivable. My brother had been paying board since leaving high school and starting work, but now with this latest development he took his responsibility towards us even more seriously. I think he must have dedicated one-third of his take-home to the family coffers, because when I was thirteen and got a little school holiday job, Mum took one-third of my pay for board 🙂 . Anyway, back to my brother. He developed an envelope system of budgeting, simple, and yet very effective.  There were three brown envelopes, one for general household expenses, and one each for mum and me for clothing, and he put different amounts in each envelope. I remember my clothing budget was one dollar, and Mum’s was two (decimal currency arrived in Australia in February 1966). Over time, the money would accumulate so I could by an item of clothing.

The above photo is extracted from my Grade Six end of primary school photo (twelve years old). Why I am not in school uniform I can’t remember, but I know exactly what I was wearing. It was a light green check woollen suit, with a pleated skirt and double-breasted jacket. Underneath that, I am wearing the jumper part of a green twinset, knitted by my mother. Again, why – when we were at the start of an Australian summer? Compared to my schoolmates, I look like I’m off to visit a buttoned-up elderly relative. But the relevance is that it all came from the money squirrelled in that envelope, right down to the wool for the twinset. I can even see a watch peeking out from the sleeve. Again, a present from my brother (and ergo, my mother) for my twelfth birthday. It had a beautiful mother-of-pearl face. I lost it a few years later and my brother hit the roof. Said I’d never own another watch. And for many years, he was right!

When my husband and I retired some years ago, and moved to a new place, I returned to my brother’s envelope system for the first six months until I was sure we had a handle on our altered income and expenditure. Sometimes the lessons one learns early in life are the hardest to let go. But if ain’t broke – why fix it – right?

31 thoughts on “My Big Bruvver Goes on Bivouac

  1. I got the impression from your book that your brother was an earnest young man that took his responsibilities for you very seriously, but these posts have shown other sides of him. I can see why he was a hoarder, and how lovely for you that he kept your letter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These blog posts are drawn from my very early drafts when I didn’t know it would become a publishable book. I had to cull a huge amount of material in subsequent shaping edits. I’ve written one last post, where I show yet another side. Nice to be reminded none of us are one-dimensional.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I chose them. When I started writing, I didn’t know where I was going. Once the central adoption story emerged, I re-drafted several times, during which I removed irrelevant family history. Then I began to see eligibility for a prize called the Finch Memoir. It had a maximum word count of 80,000, which meant I had to trim about 20,000. In the end, I didn’t submit, and the final book was around 95,000 – but different words 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • I was rather hoping it had been your process, selecting and directing and controlling your own story. I think your memoir covers your challenging and interesting life remaining focussed on your experience at its core whilst still giving depth to family members and other significant people you encounter.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you Agnes. That means a lot. Originally, it was meant to be an homage to all the strong women who had stepped in to support me as a child, and expand my horizons, when their own upbringings had not offered them much beyond homemaking. Along the way, the edits even subsumed them, but I think their grounding shone through.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Great that you can re-purpose it.Do you want to have a chat some time?

      Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android On Mon, 20 Sep. 2021 at 2:37 pm, Gwen Wilson wrote: Thank you Chris. Much of this comes from the very first draft and was gradually eliminated in the successive edits. Xx Gwen


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: My Big Bruvver the Larrikin | The Reluctant Retiree

  3. Wait. Are you telling me it not good to use the veggie money for plonk!

    I just loved everything about this post. It has also told me that, having learned more about you, it’s time to read your book again. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought dividing the budget in envelopes was my idea. 🤭 What a sentimental bloke your brother must be to have kept your letter that long. What a devoted sister to have sent him tidbits of home life when he must have needed it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My brother, like my mother, was an incurable hoarder. His wife once said, in exasperation, ‘Did you have such a deprived childhood you can’t bear to throw anything away?’
      But when it’s gems like these coming full circle, I have no complaints.
      The envelope budgeting is great. I pity those who have only grown up knowing credit cards. There is no visual beginning and end to the money. We were able to let it go when we started borrowing from Peter to pay Paul (eg financing a bottle of wine from unspent groceries 🙂 ).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Unsurprisingly I was mature for my age. In earlier year photos though, you can tell the difference between whether I dressed myself and did my own hair, or whether I had stayed at “another mother’s” house the night before. In one, my girlfriend and I have matching curls, styles and ribbons 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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