Retroblog – Australia 1965

By Christmas 1964 we were in our new house on a quarter acre block; south of the Swan River in a new suburb laid out in the popular grid pattern. Our street would soon go on for miles, but at the time there was still a sandy track between us and the few shops. The location was ideal for Dad’s new job and we could see my future high school across the paddocks opposite our house. On one side of our house was bush with beautiful ‘Christmas Trees’ covered in yellow blossom. The other side was an empty quarter acre block that mirrored ours with gum trees and black boys – now days they are called grass trees – almost prehistoric, they had black trunks with long tough grass like spikes. They were said to grow just one inch a year, which is probably why they were only waist height.

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On the other side of the empty block were our only neighbours, Mable and George, dinky di Aussies who had retired from the goldfields in Kalgoorlie. George got himself a job as a dustman and after work devoted himself to the novelty of a television set. Mum and Mable became good friends, they were both strangers in Perth; to Mum it was a tiny city, but to Mable huge, she had never been on an escalator. Mable and George’s only son lived in The Eastern States, two thousand miles away; he may as well have been in another country. Even today Perth is still the most isolated modern city in the world.

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Around the corner were more houses; Dad soon found me some new friends when he went to buy petrol and met a Pommie who worked at the service station. The two families with two girls each were more established and had television sets. Mum and Dad had vowed never to get one now we had got used to its absence, they weren’t missing much, television was quite new in Western Australia.

Christmas was strange, no relatives to come and visit, no parcels to arrive in the post and Mum and Dad on a very tight budget.  My parents had not found a church, nor were they likely to find one to match the ancient parish church with a thriving congregation that we had left behind. Candlelit services and the dark greens and reds of winter were now in the past. But when our packing cases finally arrived it was like Christmas as we were reunited with our favourite books and toys.

Only one of my new friends was also starting high school at the beginning of February 1965. I was glad to have someone to go with, but as we walked along the sandy track on the first morning Linda told me that if you didn’t pass your junior exams you had to repeat the whole three years. I believed her.

There were fourteen hundred children in the school, it was a senior high school so that included fourth and fifth years. We all lined up on the grass in front of a long veranda. There was no assembly hall. Names were called and we were allotted to the ten classes, Linda and I were separated. Although education was comprehensive the classes were ranked. 1-9 and 1-8 the only classes to do French, then all the way down to 1.1 and if you were in 1-Special that was bad… I had made it into 1-9, another girl in my class later told me she thought 1-9 was the bottom class and went home and cried.

I was on my own, but not for long, an Australian girl said ‘Do you know anybody?’ she was new to the area and in the same boat, we became friends.

Retro Blog Australia 1964

Read last week’s blog about our arrival  in Australia here.

https://tidalscribe.wordpress.com/2019/10/23/retro-blog-1964/

After a week in Perth, Western Australia, Mum and Dad had found a house to rent, but the blinds were down when they viewed it. When we moved in and the blinds were open it was very gloomy and not too clean – certainly not to my mother’s standards – but we did not realise that the aim of Australian houses was to keep the sun out and the house cool in summer. The other thing less visible, but soon revealed was the presence of fleas. They only liked Mum and my sister, so perhaps it was just as well that she was too young to go to school, as the teachers might have got the wrong impression when faced with a flea bitten pommie child.

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The wonderful thing about our new street was it had a library. With no television and only what we had brought in our suitcases, books were vital. We had no other possessions because our packing cases were still at Southampton Docks. Dad had made all our packing cases with rough planks from the timber yard; they were sent on ahead for their six week voyage, but there was a strike at the docks so they didn’t move. Mum and Dad had to eat into their capital to buy five of everything, bedding, plates etc. This was when we discovered peanut paste. Hard though it is to imagine a world without peanut butter, we had never tasted it in England and thought it was something exotic Americans had. In Perth it was called paste and came in jars that were actually drinking glasses; we had to eat our way quickly through five jars, lucky we loved our new treat.

The neighbours didn’t talk to Mum, except for a Dutch lady who introduced her dog.

He’s a Kelpie ( Australian sheep dog ) but mit the ears floppin down instead of mit the ears stickin up. Ever after, that was our term of reference for describing dogs.

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The summer term was well under way in Australian schools. Children started at six years old, so though my five year old sister had already started school in England she could not go. She was so bored Mum kept sending  her to the corner shop to buy one item at a time.

My seven year old brother could fit in with the right age group. I had already started at grammar school in England that September, now I had to go back to primary school. As Australian children started high school at twelve I could have ended up having to start another year of primary in January. Luckily I was put in Grade Seven and the teacher, Mr. Wooldridge, was excellent. He said it would be a disaster for me to be kept behind so determined that I would pass all the end of year tests. The maths setting out seemed to be back to front and upside down to what I was used to and of course I had no idea about Australian geography or history, but I got through. There are teachers who teach the work and teachers who talk to you about life and you always remember them. He told the dark World War Two story that I borrowed for Jennifer’s teacher in my novel, Quarter Acre Block.

The school was very different from my little Church of England junior school. No uniform, no school dinners; we just sat outside with our sandwiches, peanut past of course. The only other difference was the girls were a year older, more grown up and just liked sitting talking at break time instead of belting round the playground, but they were friendly.

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We were still going down by the river, but I hadn’t learned to swim yet. The school summer outing was to Yanchep Park – everybody went on outings to Yanchep Park, about 30 miles from Perth; a very large nature reserve with a lake and caves. There was also a swimming pool and I had not told my class mates I couldn’t swim. Everyone was jumping in and I figured I could drop in and catch hold of the bar on my way down and cling on. I just went straight under, but luckily came up again, only to hear some snooty girl saying people who couldn’t swim shouldn’t be in the pool. I suppose it would have been even more embarrassing not to have surfaced.

School broke up before Christmas and we had six weeks holiday ahead. Dad’s search for a job and a house to buy was still on and the packing cases had not yet arrived.

Read the story of the Palmer family for 99 pence or $1.27

 

Retro Blog 1964

What if I had been blogging when I was eleven…

My novel Quarter Acre Block is based on our family’s experiences as Ten Pound Pommies migrating to Perth, Western Australia, but is not autobiographical. Readers ask which parts are real? Some people say ‘weren’t your parents brave.’

Brave is going to a country with a different language or as an asylum seeker, being invited by the Australian government and given free passage with only £10 per adult to pay for administration costs, is not in the same league. Of course leaving your relatives behind and burning your boats with no job to go to and little capital is braver than staying put…

I needed my mother’s help to get the adult point of view, but the Palmer family are not my family. I wanted the story to be realistic, so the Palmers follow the same journey as we did. The ‘six week holiday of a lifetime’ sounded fun and I was envious of those who had come by ship, crossed the equator and met King Neptune, but the Palmer family had to fly.

I knew no one who had been in the migrant camps: I don’t think my father would have persuaded Mum to go at all if she had to face the prospect of a camp! She hadn’t been in the services during the war and had gone from home straight to marriage, so barracks and camps did not fall within her experience. Dad knew ‘someone from the office’ who had migrated and they sponsored us. The chap met us at the airport well gone midnight and as we drove across to the other side of the little city Mum was already looking out of the ‘station wagon’ in dismay. Once on our own, inside the caravan booked for us, she was soon saying ‘Rob, what have you brought us to’. We hadn’t seen much in the dark, but Mum had apparently focused on endless rows of electricity poles. Full of the whole big adventure I was exasperated that she was complaining when we had only been in Australia two hours.

The friend returned at nine am to take us down to Scarborough Beach. His family had taken to beach life and were living ‘the dream’. My younger brother and sister were terrified of the waves and I clung to a plastic surfboard, too embarrassed to tell their children I couldn’t swim. After that experience the only beach my parents wanted to sit on was Crawley Beach by the Swan River. It was very pleasant and Mum and Dad treated this first week as a holiday, we even had an ice cream every day, unprecedented, though it was not like Mr. Whippy and tended to have lumps of ice. Perth City was small then and you couldn’t get lost. Supreme Court Gardens were very pleasant and down by the Swan River was the wide open esplanade, so far we were living the dream.

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After one night in the cramped caravan I had been despatched, or invited, I’m not sure which, to stay with the family of our sponsor. I was to be in the boy’s class at school and his younger sister did ballet, so I had nothing in common with her! I cringe now to think of my prepubescent self wandering around a house of strangers in my flimsy baby doll pyjamas, but all was above board.

After a week Mum and Dad had found a house to rent; as the venetian blinds were closed they didn’t see properly what it was like until Mum pulled the blinds up when we moved in. The only neighbour to speak to Mum was a Dutch lady. It was also time for me and my younger brother to start school, where their summer term was in full swing. This was nothing compared to the reality that Dad had to find a job and a house to buy and our packing cases were not going to arrive… more next week.

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Read about the strange year leading up to our departure from England in last year’s blog.

https://tidalscribe.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/quarter-acre-blog/

Read more about my novel at my website.

https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-six-fiction-focus/

Peek inside the book.

 

 

Windows Ten and a Half

The words double glazing and salesman are inseparable, though there was a time when most folk had not heard of double glazing and salesmen had to go door to door selling vacuum cleaners. Perhaps long ago, glazing salesmen went round to castles and peasant huts trying to sell them the advantage of having panes in their windows instead of wooden shutters or pieces of old hessian.

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In Victorian times householders in Scotland tried adding extra panes of glass to keep out the harsh winters, but modern double glazing started in the USA in the 1940s as ‘thermopane’ . Manufacturers began to use a vacuum between the two panes to improve insulation.

In the 1970’s it became popular for the domestic market in Britain and heralded the arrival of the double glazing salesman.

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Meanwhile in Perth, Western Australia windows meant the necessity of fly screens. As new migrants with a new house my father made them himself and instead of closing the door to keep the cold out we children were always being reminded to close the fly screen door.

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When I returned to England in the 1970’s for my working holiday ( the one I’m still on) it was to a country of three day weeks, power cuts and general mayhem. Pommies in Australia were congratulating themselves and vowing never to go back to ‘the cold’. When we left in 1964 fitted carpets were something posh people had, heating was something you lit and bedroom windows were covered in ice in the morning; beautiful patterns created by Jack Frost.

On Christmas morning I found myself in mild weather in the cosy little terraced house of my aunt and uncle. No one was cold, friends and relatives had central heating powered by North Sea Gas, carpet in every room and the cold kept out with double glazing. A popular topic of conversation was patio doors and porches; pretty French windows had been replaced by sliding doors and front doors were sheltered by tiny porches. I vowed never to turn into the sort of person who talked endlessly about porches and patio doors, or for that matter to ever be impoverished with a mortgage.

Not everyone had these home improvements. Our first flat had no heating, condensation running down the bathroom walls and washing  and baby drying in front of the gas fire. But when we bought our first place, a tiny modern flat, our first Christmas was white and we were delighted with the central heating and double glazing.

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When we bought an actual house it was the typical 1930’s  tiny terrace that my parents had left England to escape. It did have that other popular home improvement, an extension across the back of the house, but this space was rendered useless in winter with cold draughts coming through the rattling doors and windows. We took out an impoverishing extension on our mortgage to get the whole house double glazed, but first had to decide which company. We set a record by having eleven companies come round to give a quote. The worst salesman asked if he could smoke (afterwards we asked ourselves why on earth we said yes) and sat there with sweaty armpits. We didn’t choose him.

But sealed double glazed units don’t last forever, if the seal ‘goes’ you can be left with windows that look like it’s always raining. Friends had the original aluminium picture window in their front room and for years you could not see out of it, there was a permanent mist.

Fast forward to the present; this is the longest we have lived in one house and we have gradually done some improvements and window replacements. The most recent being two back bedroom windows, a new porch and the living room window all scheduled to be completed in less than a week. We chose the local company everyone uses who had previously built our little conservatory, a blissful sun trap.

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The two chaps who came out were loud and rude; I wasn’t sure if they were swearing at the windows or each other. When they said there was bad news, the front window was the wrong size, I thought they were joking, they weren’t.

With a holiday coming up and then seven visitors staying, the process has been drawn out. A different chap came out with the new window.

‘Are you on your own?’ we asked.

‘Yes, I’d rather work by myself, you wouldn’t believe some of the blokes I’ve had to work with.’

‘Yes, I think we would…’

He had hardly sipped the cup of coffee we gave him than he realised the windows were still the wrong size!

It has taken a while, but on Saturday at the third attempt we have a good window, nicely finished off by a chap and his son-in-law. Chatting with them we heard the first two blokes have been sacked as they didn’t get on!

We haven’t parted with any money yet, there is still a finishing strip missing from the porch, to be fixed tomorrow… I did suggest we say we can’t pay them as there has been a mistake with the money…

sunshine-blogger

Other Families

Teenagers always think other people’s families are more interesting than their own, but Marjorie’s family really were. Marjorie was my best friend in second and third year high school in Perth, Western Australia. In first year Janice had been my best friend, mainly because neither of us knew anybody else on the first day; I was new in the country, she was new in the area. But Janice was a bit boring, confirmed by the fact that she wanted to do shorthand and typing and sidestepped to the commercial course. Our ways parted.

Marjorie was much more fun and for the next two years leading up to our Junior Exams we must have driven the teachers mad with our incessant giggling and occasional pranks. Our English teacher was driven to comment in front of the whole class

Do you two want to ruin your whole lives?

In time, it turned out that Marjorie had a photographic memory and had no need to pay any attention in class to sail through her exams.

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But back to the beginning and the first time I cycled round to Marjorie’s house. Her parents were Dutch and had brought her to Australia as a baby; I don’t think being Dutch had any relevance to the way their home was run, though to me it seemed more exotic than being English or Australian. I was fascinated by the way they pronounced Marjorie and to this day I think of the name with that accent and love the way the Dutch speak.

She had two Australian born brothers, Johnnie and Steve, indistinguishable with their blonde crew cuts. Their house was the only one in the street with a boat and three geese in the front garden. I don’t think the boat ever made it to the Swan River, let alone Fremantle Harbour or the Indian Ocean.

The geese made good guards; somehow I made it to the front door. Inside, the house was dark; that was not unusual, most of the Australian houses were kept in Venetian blinded gloom, shielded from the glaring sun.

Marjorie’s house was SHC, State Housing Commission. It was years before I realised some Australians were very resentful that migrants were housed ahead of them.

We headed for the bedroom to inspect her pop pin ups and she opened her wardrobe to reveal more pictures on the inside of the door. Sitting on a pile of clothes on the shelf was a packet of spaghetti; kept safe from her brothers who liked to eat it raw. When we went back to the lounge her brother was sitting on the settee eating dry cornflakes from a large green bucket. The visit was also more adventurous as her mother was out at work, a novel concept for me.

When my new friend came round to my house for the first time Mum offered her a cool drink and Marjorie said Oh, isn’t your fridge clean.

Ever after Mum wondered what their family fridge was like; empty probably. Her mother only cooked a proper meal on Sundays, when they always had steak, another reason for disapproval by my mother.

Marjorie was the first person I knew who worried about being fat and filled up with bottles of Coke to avoid hunger pangs. In our house meals were regular as clockwork and always delicious. Coca Cola never darkened our fridge, nor did I have any money to buy it from the corner shop near Marjorie’s house.

My novel Quarter Acre Block is not autobiographical, but is inspired by our family’s experience of emigrating to Australia. You can read more about that time at my website.

https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-six-fiction-focus/

Read about the time leading up to our family’s departure to Australia in a previous blog.

https://tidalscribe.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/quarter-acre-blog/

 

Quarter Acre Blog

The first time Australia was mentioned was at breakfast on a school day. I was astonished when Mum said

‘How would you like to go to another country?’

Where had this idea come from? The furthest we had ever been was a hundred miles to visit my aunt in Cheltenham.

I replied instantly ‘If I can have a horse.’

I had always wanted a horse and what other reason could there be for going to another country? I would need no help caring for it due to my extensive reading of the Kit Hunter Show Jumper series and all the other pony books I could lay my hands on.

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‘Australia?’

I returned from my reverie to hear what Mum was saying. A new picture presented itself; warm weather, living by the seaside and swimming every day. I couldn’t actually swim, but had been up to my chest at Frensham Ponds and in the sea, while Mum and Dad sat in deck chairs huddled in coats and rugs.

But my most vivid image of what our Australian life would be like came from my favourite television programme, The Adventures of the Terrible Ten. Ten children living in rural Victoria, who all had ponies, discovered some old packing cases and built Ten Town. They never went to school or saw their parents.

Mum said I might get a horse, would probably get a dog and would definitely go swimming. But for now the whole adventure must be kept deathly secret; until we knew for sure we had been accepted for migration. This meant absolutely no one, not even my best friend or my younger brother and sister. I kept the secret.

 

It was spring now and by autumn we would be ready to go, not on the dangerous voyage of the early settlers, but Mum and Dad would be burning their boats. Cheap flights at ten pounds each for Mum and Dad and free for children; but it was a one way ticket. My parents expected never to see England or their relatives again.

In the meantime a momentous year lay ahead. It was our last year at junior school; the first year Top Of The Pops was broadcast and in the garden shed our pet white mice were multiplying rapidly. As top years we went on school holiday for the first time to the Isle of Wight. It was a very pleasant holiday, but two strange things happened. As a Church of England school we knew several of our classmates were Roman Catholics, it made no difference to them or us. But on the Sunday of the holiday, one poor catholic boy was to be marked out as different. All of us were to attend morning service at the local church, but Eric’s mother had decreed that Eric must go to the catholic church. As a relatively new boy he was already slightly different; now as his lone figure trudged off in the opposite direction, to the mysteries of candles and incense, he had become an outcast. Later that day, as we ran around in the grounds of the hotel, some primeval, sectarian instinct took over and we all chased Eric; convinced in that moment that we were going to lynch him. Luckily the teacher came out blowing her whistle and normality was restored.

Peter was another unfortunate boy. For some reason he was the only child of our class of forty who didn’t come on the holiday. As we ate dinner one evening, the headmaster came into the dining room looking very distraught. Peter had run away from home and managed to reach the island before being caught by the police. We all thought him very clever to have got that far and very sad that he still wasn’t allowed to join us.

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Back at school our summer term was nearing its end; we practised maypole dancing ready for our centenary celebrations and Mum and Dad visited the headmaster. Later that day he entered the classroom to chat to us; a common occurrence, but this time I realised with horror he was talking about me. I had kept my promise and not told a soul and now was mortified the headmaster was telling everyone I was going to Australia! Having spent four years mostly unnoticed, I was now the centre of attention as everyone turned to look at me.

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As autumn arrived life became surreal. The date was set for our departure. I had passed my eleven plus, but it would make little difference to my future, the Australian schools were comprehensive. Our little school gang had been split in half, four of us were going to grammar school; one mother didn’t come out of the house for a week with shame that her daughter had failed. For a few weeks I experienced a glimpse of what my life might have been at a girls’ grammar school, dressed in bottle green uniform with the excitement of Bunsen burners.

Soon our house was sold and we had reached the point of no return. As the taxi collected us for the airport my grandparents stood stoically waving and my school friend Wendy skipped up the road after us; she would be the only person from those days to stay a lifelong friend.

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The taxi had been late, very stressful for my parents. As we arrived at London Airport     (now Heathrow) our friends and relatives were waiting, wondering if we had changed our minds. We rushed through with hardly time to say goodbye. The airport was much smaller then; as we climbed the steps to the plane we could see our loved ones gathered on the balcony waving. Except for Dad, it was the first time we had been on an aeroplane. I was really excited until I noticed the big card in the seat pocket. How to put on your lifejacket! Until that moment I had not considered the possibility that planes could crash. I wondered if we would reach Australia.

6

 

My novel Quarter Acre Block was inspired by our family’s experience. It is not autobiographical, but people who have read it ask which things were ‘true’. Find out more at my website.   https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-six-fiction-focus