Rebecca Tyrrel: Rolf Harris' childhood was a tiny bit surreal Waltons


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The Independent Online

Who knew that the adolescent Rolf Harris was a champion swimmer in the world's leading swimming nation? Can you guess what the event is yet? No? Well, at 16 years old, in 1946, Rolf was the Australian Junior 110 Yards Backstroke Champion. He went on to become West Australian state swimming champion.

"I was a really crash-hot good swimmer," is how the great all-rounder from Bassendean, Perth recalls it. "We were probably the first house in our whole area that got a cooking device run by kerosene. All the other kids had to go home and chop kindling." With his boyhood hours freed up by this futurist kitchen appendage, Rolf could apply himself to other matters.

Aside from the swimming, his childhood, which is a tiny bit surreal Waltons, included lessons in how to chisel from his father, Cromwell, while his mother, Marge, was an even more avant garde educationalist. She adopted a shock tactic to acquaint him with the facts of life by one day unexpectedly getting into his bath with him.

"I was always different from all the other kids," said Rolf, with rare understatement, "and I was doing things that nobody else did." Such as chiselling and Oedipal bathing. "My dad encouraged me to be different. He said, 'Enjoy your differences'."

Obeying this paternal diktat, Rolf, who turns 82 later this month, has been sharing his differences with us since moving to London in 1952. The West Australian recorded his imminent departure as follows: "Making his final swimming appearance before leaving for England on Wednesday to study art, the 22-year-old Rolf Harris helped Bassendean to a 21 point victory against Guildford yesterday."

Little could they have predicted that the journey would take him from promising impressionist painter to inventor of the wobble board and virtuoso on didgeridoo, maker of weird humming noises for no obvious reason, number one singles artist with "Two Little Boys", star of Glastonbury, unlikely interpreter of "Stairway to Heaven", portraitist of the Queen and so much more.

In West Australia he may be remembered for his heroics in the pool. But to us he will always be the leading renaissance man of the 20th century, and in at least one sense he bested his role model, Leonardo da Vinci, who invented the diving suit some 400 years early, probably because he was terrified of getting wet.