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?