Smokes, Smarts & Singlish: David Toppin reflects

Old Boys’ Union Dinner, 23 July 2016

Good evening ladies and mantelpieces. I think the OBU Committee had run out of speakers and looked for the nearest person who was vertical and breathing. Here I am! Paddy Flower told me that some past speeches at past OBU dinners have been ordinary. If that’s true, you can set your alarms to 16 minutes, wake Murray up at the end, and I’ll stop. As an ex teacher, there will be a test after this speech and anyone who fails will be sent to a monastery to keep bees and illuminate manuscripts!

I would like to apologise for the absence of my wife, Helen. She is currently in England looking after my mother-in- law who fell down a wishing well. I didn’t know they worked! To make up for it, I have booked a table for her return – which is a problem, as she’s crap at snooker!

I had my 50th reunion last year and had a fantastic time, well beyond my expectations. Meeting and catching up with my cohort of ’65 made for a fantastic week end of reminiscences and renewals of friendship. 1966 was the first of the HSC and the last of the Leaving Certificate. Repeating 6th Form was normal with about 30 percent of students returning. I should be celebrating another 50 but of the 11 of the repeaters, only two of us here tonight.

For the ‘76 leavers, I possibly had some of you as my earliest experiments in teaching, or even your children in the latter years, though I’m not sure of that, as children are hereditary. If your parents didn’t have children, there is a high probability that you won’t. I apologise for any confusion that may have arisen from my early attempts at imparting knowledge.

I was born at very young age in Sydney and attended Knox for six years. The highlight at Knox was my role of cricket captain of the Under 13Cs. This was not as a result of leadership or ability but I lived nearest the sports shed so could collect the cricket kit every Saturday and return it after the game. In 1963, my parents moved up here and sent me to TAS. I remember walking in, being welcomed and immediately felt part of school. My life time friends were made in those three years and it’s the reason why, after 15 years away, I am back living in Armidale.

TAS gave me the opportunity to be my best – as a member of the athletic and tennis teams, First XV rugby, a CUO in cadets, school prefect and a member of the1966 GPS premiership shooting team, captained by David Willis who is sitting two tables away. None of these would have been possible at Knox. I even tried to meet girls at the one social a year we had. I wasn’t successful but my friends lined me up with so many blind dates, I should have got a free dog.

The OBU do a great job organising this weekend and I thank Donna, Tim, Graham and current committee. Paddy Flower and Rob Busby work miracles in Sydney and around the traps and their knowledge of OB affairs and membership is without equal. You have come back for mateship and you are probably sitting near someone that has been part of your life since school days. I have in my mind images of you fixed at age 16/17 and apologise for not remembering your names, as I had amnesia once – maybe twice. I can’t remember faces either as everyone looks older – except me – and my current plan to be immortal seems to be working. Old age is not so bad when you consider the alternative. It’s a credit to the school when you consider the number of OB who return each year and the long history of OBs who have joined the staff.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be and you spend a lot of this week end looking back fondly at the lives you often couldn’t wait to leave.   As students, you were always pushing boundaries, ties undone, shirts out, coats unbuttoned, though I believe students can now take back to the uniform shop for replacement, any item of clothing that fits properly. Interestingly, I was in Coles the other day and I saw two Year 12s wrapped in a barcode. I said, “Are you two an item?”

Rites of passage included smoking, drinking, window leave, hidden cars and late night liaisons. Despite the fact that smoking is the leading cause of statistics, it is still a favourite past time. Croft House had its own smoking mattress on the roof! Tyrrell Dorms 3 and 4 fire escapes were ironically good places for a smoke, and after meals, most of the hedges around the school looked like Moses and the burning bush. The “Staff v Students” war was never fair. You always won! In our latter years, we are much more respectable, though I did hear police arrested two Year 10 boys last week, one was drinking battery acid and the other was eating fireworks. They charged one – and let the other one off.

In Sick Bay, there was always the hope of an epidemic so you could lie in and enjoy warmth and attention, get better food and get out of school work. I remember once a Year 8 kid reported to Dot Bachelor and said he had angina, arteriosclerosis, psoriasis, tonsillitis and appendicitis – it was the hardest spelling test he had ever done! Instead of Dr Royle, the school should have employed a full time psychiatrist with schizophrenia, so you’d have a second opinion at no extra cost.

This dining room was the source of many memories. We learnt red meat is not bad for you. Fuzzy green meat is bad for you. The three major food groups of salt, fat and sugar were the mainstay of our diet and the fourth food group – alcohol, was optional at weekends. The use of the smoke alarm to time Sunday roast is no longer in vogue. At my age, I’m on a whisky diet and I’ve lost three days already. Also, now that food has replaced sex in my life, I can’t even get into my own pants.

Chapel was the place we were always finding excuses to skip. War comics were a good distraction. I did learn that Joan of Arc wasn’t Noah’s wife and reincarnation doesn’t mean you return to Earth as a tin of evaporated milk. I did surmise that if you gave a monkey a copy of the “Bible” and “Origin of Species” to read, he wouldn’t know whether he is his brother’s keeper or his keeper’s brother.

So in 2001, I came home from work and found Helen was counting our jar of 5, 10 and 20 cent coins. I said “She’s going through the change!” Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine, so man and boy, after 37 years of association with TAS, Helen and I decided to seek new horizons overseas.

One million Australians live and work overseas. It is challenging and exciting. The downside is the loss to Australia of taxation and expertise, as well as the necessity to leave family, friends, home and your lifestyle. The upside is a maid to cook, clean and look after kids, school fees paid, free travel home, flights subsidised, rent and medical benefits. We applied for and got jobs in Singapore.

Singapore is rated the third or fourth richest country in the World. Many of you would have visited or stopped over there. I call it “Old Fogey’s Paradise” with no graffiti, low crime rates and no chewing gum. It is normal to see young, unaccompanied children riding buses and trains late at night on a transport system that is integrated, clean and reliable. The Ezy Link (Opal/Myki) system is seamless and cheap. Changi airport has palm court orchestras to greet you and free and frequent inter terminal connections. Singapore has world class attractions and away from tourist areas, it is vibrant and interesting. They have the best holidays, celebrating every religion’s festivals, though the Christmas display on Orchard Rd of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves visiting Jesus in a sleigh, is somewhat over the top. Singaporeans speak a variation of English called “Singlish” which is a mixture of Chinese dialect, English and Malay. When I asked a street vendor for a can of Coke, he replied “Can cannot, bottle can!” Singapore has a tax rate of around 10 percent and the expats average salary is equivalent to $30,000 a month – though not for teachers!

There are 23 international schools and most exceed 1500 pupils. The Australian International School (AIS) is co-educational with an Australian focus. It was established in 1993 with 35 pupils and has now grown to 2600 students. It out grew its campus three times. Staff have two or three year contracts but there are no unions. Other AIS schools in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Vietnam are not related. Sixty percent are Australian students and they are known as “third culture kids”. Many have never lived in Australia but have Australian accents, love Australian sport and consider Australia “home”. They are motivated, confident and privileged and there is virtually zero bullying or racism, as all are off their own patch. International travel is second nature.

After five years in Singapore, we were bitten by the International teaching bug, so went to China. China has 1.4 billion people. Only towns of more than one million are shown on maps as there simply isn’t any room for the smaller ones. Only five Australian cities would make the map. Chongqing has 30 million people and Armidale at 26,000 would rate as a small village. China encourages “foreign experts” with large communities of Japanese, Korean, European and American expats. The Chinese pick their brains and expertise and then adapt these technologies for Chinese industry. They were the first to build a 1 Megavolt transmission line and if you want the physics of that, see me after school. The Three Gorges Dam was to supply 10 percent of China’s energy needs. By the time it was finished, it was supplying only 1 percent, all of which was sent to Shanghai to keep the lights burning. They built the 1300 km Beijing to Shanghai high speed rail in three years, most of it above ground level to minimise crossings. Trains take under four hours to travel that distance. The Shanghai Maglev at the airport takes 7 ½ minutes to travel 30 kilometres at 430 km/h and costs $8.          ‘Snow’ is the most popular beer in the world by volume and the Chinese consume 10 billion litres at about $1 per litre. There is no OHS, as life is cheap. There is so much competition for work that anything is done for money, including soaking pork in tea to make it look like beef, melamine in baby formula to add ‘protein’ and fake Heineken beer by recycling old Heineken bottles and filling them with cheap Chinese beer.

We taught at Dulwich College Shanghai, a franchise of the well known namesake in the UK, established in 1619 and of which Nigel Farage is an old boy. Many schools have established satellite campuses overseas which charge a fee for using their name, insist on minimum standards and have a say in their governance. In return, the franchisee relies on the school name and reputation to attract students. We called our school “McDulwich”.  We taught the International Baccalaureate, entry was by competitive exam and most students spoke at least three languages. Fees were high and parents were very demanding of both staff and kids. Many got into top tier universities.

Shanghai is famous for its fake market! I tried to buy a spider for a science experiment but they wanted $10. “Damn that”, I said, “I can get a cheaper one off the web!” Australian Chinese food is not Chinese. There is no sweet and sour pork, beef in black bean sauce or Mongolian lamb. Instead on the menu you find “The peasant family slightly fries the meat”, “The meat garrulous bean curd burns the trepan” and the self-explanatory “Curry with three kinds of balls”.

Our time overseas was well worth it. We worked long and hard, were paid well and experienced a lifestyle that re-set our goals and outlook on life.

I would like to conclude with thanks to Murray who has lead the school and put up with 19 OBU reunion dinners and speeches. Good headmasters are few and far between and he knows for every action there’s an equal and opposite criticism, but looking around today I believe the school is in the very best of hands.

You now have dorms to raid, motels to terrorise, a smoke behind the pines and a bell tower to climb. Birthdays are good for you – the more you have the longer you live but be nice to your kids: they’ll choose your nursing home. Thank you for your patience and perseverance.

David ‘Tex’ Toppin (64-66)

Duty staff 70-71; Teaching staff 72-76 & 80-01.

Old Boy, teacher, educator and some time driver.