~~both Making A Difference, and his earlier autobiography In The Arena (1990), Beattie provides only the briefest thumbnail sketches of his early childhood and school years. He presents that time in his life as enjoyable and character-building, despite financial hardship.
The reality, however, was far from rosy for the young Peter Beattie, and infinitely more complicated.
He wrote that going to live with Nana and Harry “held no special fears as I recall” and “a novelty”.
In 1959 young Beattie, in fact, entered a world that was closer to Edwardian Australia than the eve of the swinging 60s. A devout Anglican and rigidly conservative (she was a great fan of former Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies), Annie Esbensen quickly ensured that Beattie lived by her strict doctrines.
The small, three-bedroom house in Robert Street, near the corner of Lloyd (the house has since been demolished), was variously described by locals as “a dump” and “awful”. There was little room even for seven-year-old Beattie. His living quarters for several years was “the laundry room downstairs, with the concrete tubs”.
Nana’s house was directly opposite the Atherton State (Primary) School, which Beattie attended. In his first few years he occupied the small wooden classroom closest to a huge stand of pine trees in the school grounds.
He immediately struck up a friendship with a boy who lived nearby – Glen Graham. (Graham is one of the only friends from Beattie’s Atherton years named in Making A Difference.)
“One of my earliest memories of poor Peter was seeing this kid dressed in heavy gabardine trousers and braces and a long-sleeved shirt pulling weeds out the front of his grandmother’s house,” Mr Graham said. “Old Harry was standing over him with his walking stick, nudging him with it if he didn’t work hard enough.
“He copped a bit of criticism from the other kids. He didn’t have a school uniform, just pants below his knees and braces, and he was a thick-set sort of guy. He had a few fights.
“In Atherton, if someone picked you, you had to turn up in the recreation ground after school and fight. He handled himself.”
Mick Nasser, who now runs the Barron Valley Hotel, said Beattie immediately stood out when he arrived in Atherton.
went to the State school and I was in the Catholic school, and I recall he was always very loud and a bit of a smart arse,” Mr Nasser said. “I remember giving him cheek when he walked past the school. We gave him lip and he was cheeky, he gave it back. We used to thrown stones at him. We called him pumpkin head.”
Beattie also participated in what came to be known amongst local children as “the gully wars” – a series of periodic stoushes between local Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics and children like Graham and others in a wooded gully not far from Nana’s house.
“We used to get influenced by the movies,” Mr Graham said. “We’d make marble guns with firecrackers we bought from Fong Ons (a store in Main Street). One kid got shot in the head and it broke his skull. The police had to sort that one out.”
Beattie’s difficult home life became known throughout the town and several people offered him small gestures of support.
“My mum used to feel so sorry for Peter,” Mr Graham recalled. “He was the kid that never had toys. He lived on that cold wet slab down in the laundry. The boarder, Sid, was there for years and died in the house in 1966, I think, which allowed Peter to move into his room. I think it was the first time in his life he had his own bedroom.”
A relative, Gwen Lunn (whose uncle Harry married Annie Esbensen), said Beattie was “brought up very tough”.
“They didn’t have much money and I think Peter was a burden,” she said. “He had an awful life. That woman (Annie) never bought him a damn thing. He’d come to swimming and he didn’t even have proper swimming trunks.
“We all tried to help him out. He was a boy that wanted people to like him. He would do anything for people to like him.”
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