Maggie carries on old school tie with pride and an author’s zeal

Wednesday, 13th September, 2017

LABOUR OF LOVE – Maggie Gowanlock with Dame Marie Bashir at the launch.

MEMORIES of days in the old school yard tend to be polarising – we either remember them with whimsical fondness or cringe in dismay at their very mention.

One school, however, tends to have imbued its old girls with a sense of endearment. So much so that one former student embarked on a mammoth endeavour to record its history through the memories of some of the 7000 or so students who passed through its halls.

Neutral Bay Girls Intermediate High School was founded in 1926, was renamed Cremorne Girls High when it moved to that suburb in 1935, and was eventually closed amid much controversy in 1987.

But for many of its former students it remained their much-loved alma mater.

One of these was old girl Margaret (Maggie) Gowanlock, who retired from a successful career in journalism little knowing that the “biggest writing challenge of her life” was yet to come.

Maggie described the defining moment when, at an Old Girls Union annual lunch in 2008, the seed of the endeavour took root.

“As we all stood to sing the school song, I witnessed the most touching scene: a group of four women at a table near me were holding hands as they sang.

“They were nearing their 90th birthdays, and were by far the oldest guests at the event. I knew them all quite well; their stories and life experiences during the Depression years and WWII had provided rich fodder for features I had written for our magazine, Old School Ties. That poignant moment at the luncheon inspired me to begin writing this book.”

Maggie dropped the writing of her memoirs, recruited a willing collaborator in Verena Bacchini and fleshed out a plan of attack. “We were not sure where our search would lead us – after all, the women we first hoped to locate would be in their late 80s or early 90s, if indeed they were still alive.

“To our delight the trail led us to the whereabouts of several high-spirited women who had been pupils during the 1920s and early 1930s. They were only too keen to reminisce, and delved into their recollections to provide us with some precious gems.”

As Maggie and Verena began working, the old girls’ network activated and Maggie was contacted by former students from around Australia as well as the UK, US, India and Hungary.

The Best School of All is the result of more than 400 interviews, the scanning and cropping of more than 1000 photos and documents, and hundreds of hours of writing and editing.

For Maggie, it was a labour of love; the anticipated three-year time frame for production extended to seven years.

“I did it because of my love of writing and my deep affection for my alma mater,” she said. “It was so rewarding and it gave me such pleasure.”

The book was launched at a function attended by former NSW governor Dame Marie Bashir.

Maggie, 79, is considering taking up writing again – this time picking up her memoirs from where she left off seven years ago.

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