Can a Duck Swim?
by June Porter
On Friday 8 September 1944 at 8 am, recently married June Porter stood on the deck of the India-bound SS Glenartney as it drew from the wharf at Fremantle. It would take this young and privileged suburban woman to live in palaces with people who were making history in India, Europe and Australia. Once in India she entered the opulent society of the British Raj, a world of continuous tours, elephant rides, tiger shoots and continuous dinner parties and balls.
For 18 months she lived a kind of life only available to the very rich and powerful. It made an enormous impression on her as did the short stay in Europe before returning to Australia in 1946. Some 65 years later when Lady Porter started her autobiography, which became the story of a woman who lived through the depression, the war and the passing of the Empire, the short short time in India alone would take up half of its 180 pages.
Born on 20 March 1919 in Melbourne to Hilda and Stan Perry, June Perry was educated at Rose Bay, Sydney until 1931 when the family moved to Perth where her father had accepted the offer from Hoyts to become state manager. In Western Australia June continued her education at the exclusive Kobeelya boarding school in Katanning, nearly 500 km southwest of Perth. In 1937 she was named Miss Western Australia.
As Australia entered the war in 1939 June entered the Voluntary Aid Detachment and enrolled as trainee nurse at the Royal Perth Hospital. When the South Australian Polo Team visited Perth she met, and fell in love with, polo-playing businessman Tom Porter, one of its members. However it was not until Tom had seen action at Tobruk, Greece, Syria and Lebanon that they were able to get married at St Peter’s College Chapel, Adelaide on 31 March 1942.
When Tom became an ADC to Richard Casey, an Australian who governed part of British India as Governor of Bengal, and later became Governor-General of Australia, June naturally wanted to be with her husband. No stone was left unturned and eventually she did get her chance and replied ‘Can a Duck Swim?’ when Lady Rutherford, wife of the Governor of Bihar, invited her to India to become her lady-in-waiting.
After the war and a visit to England it was back to reality, Lady Porter writes. But was it really? The Porters returned to Adelaide where they stayed at the South Australian Hotel for a while until Tom’s twenty-room family home, Cosford, which had been let during the war, was available again. Tom continued his stock-broking business.
Cosford was a big house and meant for entertainment. Once again there were the dinner parties, garden parties and fundraising events. It also seemed a continuation of the social life the Porters had been accustomed to in India and Europe. During the summer the tennis court was in continuous use. While Tom took on an increasingly public profile, June began working for several charities. Both kept in touch with their Indian, English and European contacts. Although they never returned to India together, they did visit England and the Continent several times.
In July 1968 Tom was elected Lord Mayor of Adelaide and remained in office until 1971. On 3 June 1978 Tom was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to local government. Tom died at Cosford on 23 July 1983. After his death Lady Porter went to live in Paris to continue her French studies.
After a short stay in England she returned to Adelaide. She remained living at Cosford until 1986 when she bought an apartment in North Adelaide.
During this time she kept up her travels and visited friends in Europe, South America, Cambodia, Bhutan Nepal and Delhi. After a long life Lady Porter never ceases to be amazed at the role Fate has played. If asked would she live her life all over again, her answer would most definitely be ‘Can a duck swim?’ At 94 she still is determined to embrace every opportunity that comes her way.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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