The travel-micrococcus infected me early. Before I can remember I travelled in England, and, when my memory begins, a stay of two years in any town made me weary. My brothers and sisters and I would then inquire what time the authorities meant to send my father elsewhere, and we were accustomed to denounce any delay on the part of a certain Government department in giving us “the route.” Such a youth was gipsying, and if any original fever of the blood led to wandering, such a training heightened the tendency. To this day even, after painful and laborious travel, Fate cannot persuade me that my stakes should not be pulled up at intervals. I understand “trek fever,” which, after all, is only Eldorado hunting. With the settler unsatisfied a belief in immortality takes its place.
In the ferment of youth and childhood, which now threatens to quiet down, my feet stayed in many English towns and villages, from Barnstaple to Carlisle, from Bedford to Manchester, and I hated them all with fervour, only mitigating my wrath by great reading. I could only read at eight years of age, but from that time until eleven I read a mingled and most preposterous mass of literature and illiterature. It was a substitute for travel, and, in my case, not a substitute only, but a provoker. Reading is mostly dram-drinking, mostly drugging; it throws a veil over realities. With the child I knew best it urged him on and infected me with world-hunger and roused activities. To be sure the Elder Brethren, who are youth’s first gaolers, nearly made me believe, by dint of repetition (they, themselves, probably believing it by now), that books and knowledge, which are acquired for, with, by and through examinations, were, of themselves, noble and admirable, and that an adequate acquaintance with them (provided such acquaintance could be proved adequate to Her Majesty’s Commissioners of the Civil Service) would inevitably make a man of me. For the opinion is rooted deep in many minds that to surrender one’s wings, to clip one’s claws, to put a cork in one’s raptorial beak, and masquerade in a commercial barnyard, is to be a very fine fowl indeed.
Some spirit of revolt saved the child (now a boy, I guess) from being a Civil Cochin China, and sent him to Australia. The ship in which I sailed for Melbourne was my first introduction to outside realities, to world realities as distinct from the preliminary brutalities of school, and it opened my eyes–indeed, gave me eyes instead of the substitutes for vision favoured by the Elder Brethren, who may be taken to include schoolmasters, professors, and good parents. How any child survives without losing his eyesight altogether is now a marvel to me. Certainly, very few retain more than a dim vision, which permits them to wallow amongst imitations (such as a last year’s Chippendale morality) and imagine themselves well furnished. My new university (after Owens College an admirable hot-bed for some products under glass) was the Hydrabad, 1600 tons burden, with a mixed mass of passengers, mostly blackguards in the act of leaving England to allow things to blow over, and a Lascar crew, Hindoos, Seedee boys and Malays. The professors at this notable college were many, and all were fit for their unendowed chairs. They taught mostly, and in varying ways, the art of seeing things as they are, and if some saw things as they were not, that is, double, the object lesson was eminently useful to the amazed scholar. Some of them pronounced me green, and I was green.
But a four months’ session and procession through the latitudes and longitudes brought me to Australia in a less obviously green condition. I had learnt the one big lesson that too few learn. I had to depend on myself. And Australia said, “You know nothing and must work.” Had I not sat with Malays, and collogued with negroes, and eaten ancient shark with Hindoos? I was afraid of the big land where I could reckon on no biscuit tub always at hand, but these were men who had faced other continents and other seas. I could face realities, too, or I could try.