Sandy Thorne stands on the verandah of the Bonny View Tavern at Bald Hills on Brisbane’s northern outskirts and points furiously left, right and centre.
“There’s the shop where I announced loudly to the local gossips that they had big bums,’’ she cries. “ And there’s big Moreton Bay fig tree my mother leant against, crying with laughter after she quickly pulled me outside.”
“There’s the newsagent, where I shoplifted comics” and the house where her kind neighbour Auntie Toy lived, the saviour Sandy ran to when her mother’s patience wore out and the jug cord was poised for yet another thrashing.
And she gestures angrily at the western view after which the hilltop tavern was named. Once a glorious sweeping vista of green river flats to the blue McPherson range, there’s not much “bonny”’ about it now, with chimneys and factories of the Brendale Industrial estate littering the eyeline.
“That should NEVER have been allowed,” she grimaces.
Sandy is visiting old stamping grounds she writes colourfully about in her funny and bittersweet childhood memoir Bonzer: My Unforgettable Childhood, published this month, which traces her wild and rebellious upbringing in Brisbane in the 1950s and 60s.
Her family house in Gympie Road still stands just a couple of doors from the Bald Hills School of Arts, and within 150m of the State School, where Sandy ruled as class clown for years, and from where she was expelled just weeks before she completed Grade Eight.
“I called my psychotic teacher, Mr Meanie, a bastard – not something kids usually did in 1963,” she says.
Sandy’s encyclopaedic recall of her childhood pranks and misdemeanours has you laughing and wincing in equal measure. The youngest of three, her mischief, misadventures and occasional misery stemmed from a lifelong inclination of always looking for action. Like punching holes in the family water tank to make a dolls shower, cutting up her mother’s best silk dress for sports ribbons and stealing the neighbour’s fruit , “rocking” the Methodist Minister’s roof, taking dares and being the biggest rebel in school.
She discovered early she could make people laugh – a powerful drug that she became addicted to. It’s proved a double-edged sword for this cheeky yarn spinner, bringing many beltings and expulsion from school, yet to a livelihood from 13 books and countless unforgettable tours across Australia and even an appearance on the Dave Letterman Show in New York.
Sandy describes in fruity terms her animal-mad Brisbane childhood in a simpler time when everybody knew everybody in the neighbourhood, children wandered freely to play in bushlands, creeks, rivers and streets in large gangs; outside dunnies, Sunday roasts, barefoot walks to school, “cuts” from the teachers for punishment, wringer washing machines, mouths washed out with soap for swearing, the fruito, the fisho, the baker, the butcher and the knife sharpening man came to the door.
But many families had dark and disturbing secrets, Sandy came to discover. “My trouble was, I had a father who was too hard and a mother who was too soft,” she says.
Snow Sefton was a distant man, a harsh disciplinarian who showed little affection, yet was fun and lively company amongst friends and a dashing, risk-taking Speedway race driver. Sandy’s pretty mother, Pearl had a similar extrovert disposition, but behind closed doors, they fought bitterly – mostly about his affairs.
“My father was just one of those men who was not cut out for marriage and children,”’ she says.
Still a scallywag spirit, Sandy has married twice and now lives alone at Lightning Ridge on a sheep station, making herself a tidy living writing about all the funny things she has seen and done.
In her dreams she will own a cattle station in the Gulf – but that’s another yarn for another day.
Bonzer : My Unforgettable Childhood by Sandy Thorne. Published by Michael Joseph, RRP$29.95 out now.