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The first time I ever heard of Australia was as a boy in 1968. A long-time pen friend of my mother’s came to stay with us. They’d written to each other since they’d been teenagers but this was the first time they’d actually met. I was told she came from Australia, a country far away where people walked upside down. She was introduced to me as Auntie Mercy. Although I don’t recall a great deal about her I do remember her accent. I’d never heard anything like it. I’d sit transfixed listening to her, trying to mentally mimic the sound.
The next time I recall being aware of Australia was when my eldest sister and her husband announced that they were going to emigrate there. It arrived in the form of a letter. I remember my mother becoming extremely upset and shouting, “No! No!” I suppose at the time it seemed about as far away from the Isle of Wight as the moon. In time she got used to the idea. For me, it was the most exciting piece of family gossip imaginable. I took great delight in telling everyone at school that my sister was going to be emigrating.
During the 1960s Australia embarked upon an ambitious programme to boost its population and as long as you were white and preferably British they would provide assisted passage to allow people to pick up sticks and move there. I can still vividly recall an advertising campaign at the time portraying a family of four with raincoats and sad, grey faces mirrored by an upside-down image of the same family smiling and wearing summer clothes looking the very picture of happiness and health. This, combined with reports of cheap housing, good wages and unemployment was, for many, too good to resist.
In the end it wasn’t my eldest sister who emigrated but the next one down. I don’t know the details about why but by then the idea had been planted and she and her husband flew with it. A little later my parents decided that they too would apply; however it turned out that they were too old to do so without sponsorship. My next eldest sister and her family would have to go there first and then sponsor us. And so it was that in 1969 the first contingent of the family set sail for the land down under.
Once they’d arrived and settled the reports we got back home were positively glowing, full of how friendly everyone was and about the excellent lifestyle. These would sometimes arrive by way of letters but more memorable for me were the tapes that were sent back and forth which we’d all duly sit around and listen to on the portable reel to reel tape recorder before recording over the top of them again with our news and sending them back again. It never occurred to my parents to keep the tapes. They would have provided a fascinating window onto that time.
Despite the ease with which the Australian Government made it possible for white British people to emigrate, there were various administrative hurdles to cross including a series of interviews that as a family we were required to attend. Being only a boy at the time much of the detail of these meetings eludes me but I do recall the excitement of going with my parents to the mainland to attend them, and while it seemed to me an eternity until we would finally be allowed to go there, I knew that each interview brought us one step closer to going.
Much as the prospect of us all moving to Australia was an exciting one, to a ten year old boy it was a rather abstract concept and so long in the planning it seemed like a distant dream.
I remember in class one day telling my best friend David Lakey all about moving to Australia and the way he paused thoughtfully before saying, “I’m really going to miss you.”
My predominant memories of 1969 are the long hot summer days on the Isle of Wight and the constant flow of late 60s music that permeated every fibre of my being.
Not everyone in the family was thrilled about the idea of moving to Australia. My youngest sister, then 16, was horrified by the prospect and made no secret of her complete opposition to it. She dreaded the idea of leaving behind her friends, especially her boyfriend Nick, and she regularly threatened to run away. This was exacerbated by the fact that she turned 17 the day before we set sail and was thereby legally entitled to stay behind. While her threats proved to be empty ones the potency of her fury remained potent during the first days of the voyage.
After our house was sold, before heading to the mainland, we stayed with friends in Ventnor. From there we went to stay with another sister in Belvedere, Kent. It turned out to be one of the coldest Decembers for many years with early falls of snow turning the suburbs of London into a winter wonderland. There was some concern that the snow might prevent us getting down to Southampton but on 7th December 1969 we set off and arrived in good time to board the Castel Felice, the aging liner that would be our home for the next five weeks.
By today’s standards the Castel Felice was not a large liner. Nevertheless it was the biggest ship I’d ever encountered and seeing it docked there I felt a shiver of apprehension run through my young body. What if it sank? Once on board my concerns melted away. What had appeared imposing and forbidding from the dock felt completely safe and secure from the deck. We were embarking on an adventure and it was starting today. What I couldn’t have grasped at the time was that it was an adventure that was going to alter the course of our lives forever.
Beyond a few key events – the “Crossing the Line” ceremony as we passed the equator, the approaching spectacle of Table Mountain as we sailed into Cape Town, the various films depicting what life in Australia was going to be like and coming second in the fancy dress competition dressed as Danny La Rue – my memory of life on board the Castel Felice is little more than a series of loosely connected scenes. I do remember making friends, as well as the odd enemy or two. Perhaps most memorable of all was the ocean stretching endlessly in all direction for days on end.
There can be few better places to playing hide and seek than an ocean liner. For all that it’s a large area, it’s also a finite one: there are only so many places to hide. Of course, finding someone is one thing: catching them is quite another. Then there were the swimming pools, or in the case of the Castel Felice,
swimming pool. I was always intrigued with how the water would shift and swell in response to the movement of the ship, creating an air of delicious uncertainty as we all bobbed around like peas in a soup.
Our first Australian port of call was Fremantle where we were met for a few hours by Auntie Mercy. From there we set sail for Adelaide. We were greeted on the dock by my sister and brother-in-law.
My enduring memory of this day is sitting in the front seat of their car wedged between my brother-in-law and my father. Everyone was talking at once. I recall looking up at my brother-in-law trying to engage him in conversation, being totally ignored and not understanding why, something which pretty much typifies the nature of our relationship not only then but ever after.
For all that we had trekked half way around the world in a boat to start a new life in a new country, it wasn’t until many years later as an adult while visiting the Immigration Museum in Melbourne and saw photos of people boarding the ships and of life on board for those making the long journey that it really dawned on me that I had been an immigrant. I guess I had become so Australianised over the years that, after so many new successive waves of immigrants I came to see myself as Australian. But I certainly didn’t start out that way.
My sister and her family lived in Elizabeth, an industrial ‘city’ built about an hours drive north of Adelaide. First established in the 1950s it was essentially a patchwork of suburban streets dotted with nature reserves. Every house was built on a quarter acre lot with a front and back garden plus a nature strip and a tree at the front. These were centred around a series of shopping centres each with a school next to it. At the time it was hailed as the 'city of the future'. For us it was to become home for the foreseeable future.
We spent the next six weeks crammed together in a modest three bedroom bungalow – four adults, a stroppy 17 year old and six kids. Much of this period remains a blur. The things that do remain vivid are incidental memories: bright sunlight pouring into a yellow bedroom; getting to know the kids across the road; the constant din of adult conversation and the indignity of being treated exactly the same as the rest of the kids, all of whom were a lot younger than myself. It was with real relief that we moved into our own place some six weeks later.
20 Tolmer Road, Elizabeth Park, South Australia, 5114. For the next decade this was, for all intents and purposes, the centre of my universe. In February 1970 we moved into a three bedroom, double brick house, design number 47. It was the most visible house on the road by virtue of the fact that it had an enormous gum tree in the corner of the front garden that stood twice as high as anything else along the street. After being crammed into my sister’s house for six weeks our new abode seemed positively luxurious. I even had my own bedroom.
Everything about Elizabeth was different to where I had grown up. It was flat, it was bland and in summer it was mind-bogglingly hot. Instead of blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows there were parrots, cockatoos and Australian magpies. Strange and exotic plants grew in people’s gardens. Trees shed their bark instead of their leaves At night the mosquitoes kept one awake with their incessant buzzing and subsequent disappearing acts whenever the light was switched on. Above all it was the dryness of the air combined with the Mediterranean light that was in such stark contrast to all I had known before.
Elizabeth Park Primary School was just up the road. During the heat of summer this was a blessing. Air-conditioning in schools was non-existent in those days, and while the morning walk to school was generally bearable, school itself could be insufferable. By home time the sun would be beating down mercilessly making the pavements hot enough to fry an egg. Consequently the walk home took in every available sprinkler system and every shady tree as well as the shaded sanctuary of the shopping centre. Once home it was straight to the fridge to down a gallon of ice-cold cordial.
During the heat of the summer months shadow hopping became something of a test of character. Discarding any desire for footwear, the idea was to get from point A to point B without melting the soles of one’s feet. This involved running from one shaded section of pavement to another, whereupon you would stand, soaking up the relative coolness of the concrete before making a run for the next bit. Alternatively you could brave the nature strips but during the summer these all too frequently became neglected, dry and littered with to-be-avoided-at-all-costs three-cornered jacks.
Three-cornered jacks were the bane of our footloose and fancy free summers. A particularly nasty thorn with, as its name suggests, three protrusion for the price of one, they could be found lurking in the greenest and lushest of watered grass and, to make matters worse, grew in clumps, which meant that as soon as one foot sank down onto one patch it was just as likely you’d find more with your other foot while hopping around in agony. This in turn could prompt a fall, the misery of which was equalled only by the mirth of one’s so-called ‘friends’.
Two doors down from my house lived a boy called David. I didn’t much care for David himself but I did like his parents and I especially liked his swimming pool. Every day after school during summer I would be in David’s pool, along with Jeff who lived next door. It was one of those round, above ground pools that are perfect for creating a whirlpool. To do this we all had to keep pushing round and round in the same direction until the flow was so strong we could lift our legs and be carried around by its flow.
Summer time without an air conditioner is not time to be thinking of cooking and as luck would have it we had a traditional fish and chip shop in the shopping centre at the top of the road. More often than I care to remember Mum would send me up to buy four pieces of fish and a large serving of chips, all liberally soaked with salt and vinegar, wrapped in grease paper and then double wrapped in newspaper. By the time I got them back they were invariably soggy and limp but delicious, especially when smothered in tomato sauce.
Friday night was TV night. Dad was never big on TV, preferring to busy himself with his horoscopes in his little office by the front door while Mum and I bedded down for the evening with a giant box of Licorice Allsorts. First up was Deadly Ernest, a bizarre presenter who climbed out of a coffin clutching his skull called Yoric to present the weekly choice of 50s B-grade horror films that we were addicted to, followed by similar fare that constituted Friday night television back in those days. It was perhaps the time when she and I were closest.
I remember the time when Mum decided to make ginger ale. It was to be the perfect refreshment for a hot summer’s day. Equipped with a recipe and the necessary ingredients she made 12 bottles of the stuff and put them in the bottom cupboard of the kitchen. A couple of nights later we were startled by a loud, muffled explosion, shortly followed by another. Then another. It didn’t take long to realise what had happened.
It was some two hours or more before all 12 bottles exploded and we could begin the messy and hazardous task of cleaning up.
It was around this time that Dad discovered Estapol, which in those days was a paint which could be applied to any surface and then sponged through to create the illusion of wood grain. This being 1970, wood was very much the rage and perhaps in the hands of an expert it might have been possible to achieve a satisfactory, if questionable result. Sadly, Dad’s enthusiasm for Estapoling everything from the doors to my grandparents black oak chest was horrendously compromised by his total incompetence in creating anything more than a smeary mess. Not that he was any the wiser.
Given what we now know about skin cancer and the sun it amazes me I wasn’t riddled with it years ago. I can remember spending endless hours in the back garden lying on a towel and frying myself, turning ever-deepening shades of brown whilst listening to the portable radio. Sunscreen was unheard of back then, at least in our household. To cool off we’d jump under the sprinkler for a minute or two and then resume our places in the sun, relying on the radio jingle, “time to turn, so you won’t burn” to remind us when to turn over.
The day we got the air conditioner installed was an environmental milestone. A couple of workmen came and punched a hole through the ‘feature wall’ which Dad had covered with wood panel designed wallpaper and installed what was to become the central focus in our house until we had a swimming pool installed a couple of years later. Suddenly the 40 degree plus summer heat could be tamed and we found ourselves all too often sitting indoors with the curtains drawn watching TV to keep cool while outside the suburbs baked, emerging at night to enjoy the cooler evening air.
Night walking became something of an obsession. After the heat of the day I would take to wandering the streets, as often as not prompted by the boredom of living in an isolated satellite town in one of the remotest parts of the planet. I became something of an expert on other people’s houses and gardens; who’d had a pebble garden put in, who’d had their roof re-done, who was having an extension built, while listening in on other people’s lives through fly-screened doors and open windows: televisions, radios, snippets of conversation and children’s laughter drifting through the evening air.
Living in London as I do now I’ve often wondered how my life might have been had we not all trekked half way around the world. Much less enriched I would say. Growing up so far away from my original roots forced me to put down new ones. It also gave me a perspective on life I might not otherwise have achieved. And for all that I love this huge metropolis in which I currently live I nonetheless retain a fondness for those streets of old and the subsequent life I have led as a consequence of having known them.
The Tip Jar