Lit­tle Eng­lan­ders

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - SOCIETY - By Bernard salt

It is more than 50 years since I was raised in a Hous­ing Com­mis­sion house in Terang, western Vic­to­ria. And the more time passes, the more clearly I can see the con­text of that era and how it mor­phed into the pros­per­ous and cos­mopoli­tan cul­ture we’ve fash­ioned for our­selves to­day.

It wasn’t un­til I vis­ited Bri­tain in my 20s that I re­alised that grow­ing up in ru­ral Aus­tralia, in many ways I might as well have been in the north of Eng­land. At that time Terang, near War­rnam­bool, was very much a colo­nial out­post of the Bri­tish Isles. And I say Bri­tish Isles ad­vis­edly be­cause the in­flu­ences were equal part English, Scot­tish and Ir­ish.

Pa­rades and the lo­cal agri­cul­tural show would fea­ture Cale­do­nian and Ir­ish danc­ing as well as bag­pipes. Spon­ta­neous com­mu­nal singing – at pic­nics or sports events – would in­vari­ably rev­ert to Oh Danny Boy or When Ir­ish Eyes Are Smil­ing.

Our meals com­prised meat and three veg. Spaghetti came in a tin. Kids were fed white bread spread with but­ter and topped with sug­ary “100s and 1000s” on their birthdays. And all this would be washed down – as a treat – with a bot­tle of Tarax soft drink.

Sweets were called lol­lies. Trucks were called lor­ries. The evening meal was called tea. The toi­let was called the lava­tory. It was out­side with the laun­dry, which was called the wash-house.

No one we knew “en­ter­tained” – there were no din­ner par­ties. The only peo­ple who shared a meal in our house were rel­a­tives – un­cles, aun­ties and cousins. We did not eat out­side, even though we had a big back­yard. That was for vegeta­bles and the wood heap. “Why would you want to eat out­side amid the dirt and the flies?” my fa­ther would ask.

When we got tele­vi­sion in the mid-1960s, my par­ents watched Step­toe & Son and On the Buses, which they thought were up­roar­i­ously funny. My fa­ther, who I think had some ex­po­sure to Amer­i­can troops dur­ing the war, was dis­mis­sive of their hu­mour: “The Yanks will laugh at any­thing.” I think this was af­ter he saw Laugh-In for the first and only time.

There were no tis­sues; we used han­kies. There was no toi­let pa­per or plas­tic bags or biros. All these dis­pos­able com­modi­ties ar­rived in­cre­men­tally from the late 1960s on­wards. A packed lunch for men on a wood-cut­ting ex­pe­di­tion was stored in a sugar bag, which was a small hes­sian bag. Some men car­ried their lunch in a Glad­stone bag.

My mother oc­ca­sion­ally drank Pablo instant cof­fee but mostly we drank Lan-Choo tea be­cause if you saved enough la­bels you could re­deem them for free tea tow­els. Free tea tow­els!

We had old clothes and good clothes. Good clothes were worn to mass. I can­not re­mem­ber wear­ing good clothes any­where other than to church. Good clothes were hand-me-downs, in­clud­ing a hand-knit­ted V-neck jumper that was worn with a tie.

I do not be­lieve any piece of fur­ni­ture in our house was new. Dad made the wooden kitchen table and our bunk beds. Every­thing was ei­ther made by Dad or given to us by friends and rel­a­tives. Every­thing was passed around in the com­mu­nity in which we lived. And our story wasn’t par­tic­u­larly un­com­mon. I knew we weren’t rich but I didn’t think we were poor. That’s just how it was.

I won­der what we will make of the way we live to­day in an­other half cen­tury. What think­ing, what nar­row­ness, what pec­ca­dil­los that we see as be­ing quite nor­mal to­day will be viewed as per­haps a tad pro­vin­cial?

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