Recently while engaged with my grand children playing games in the back yard, it caused me to consider how much has changed from my childhood days growing up in Australia. Australia then was influenced by large scale immigration which later, not only changed our food and what we drank, but underwrote the multicultural country we are today. Most artists then needed to travel overseas to further their careers and although our first cultural icon, The Australian broadcasting commission had been established in 1932 (The ABC) it was not until 1956 that The Australian Opera was established, followed in 1959 by the National Institute of Dramatic Art and in 1961 the Australian Ballet. But most of our culture influence still came from abroad. The “Dream machines” manufactured in America gave us such icons as Roy Rogers with those captivating tales of the Great Dividing Range to dominate my childhood memories, along with British spitfires and adventures set in England. Australia in custom and culture was said to be more English than the English; perpetuated by constant pilgrimages by our Prime Minster Sir Robert Menzies to the “Mother Country’ as he reminded us. He was our longest serving Prime Minister, serving between 1939-1941 and then for an uninterrupted period from 1949-1966; retiring at aged 70. But Australia also continued on at times in blissful ignorance, with racial prejudice and abuses never far away, hidden away by a majority who enjoyed a seemingly carefree existence as distinct from our Aborigines who were only being given the vote in 1962.
My early childhood memories were very happy ones. I grew up in the picturesque small dairy farming town of Kyogle situated on the NSW side of the border with Queensland. The back fence was all that separated our house from fields of grazing cattle and the river; an endless source of entertainment and excitement for me. I was scarcely ever indoors, coming in only at the shrill cry from my mother “The Search” a call to us to come indoors to listen with bated breath to the daily radio broadcast of “The Search for the Golden Boomerang”. Radio, books, comics, making sling shots, playing in the dirt under the house, bows and arrows, climbing trees or exploring the river banks with family cats and dogs kept us actively interested so I can never recall feeling bored. In later life when I first watched the same radio script on TV, I was sorely disappointed. Actors and sets seemed surprisingly insipid and imprisoned on an impoverished tiny screen compared to the images conveyed by exciting radio broadcasts.
I loved the weekly visit to the movies.Coming home afterwards we feasted on hot chips, smothered in salt and dripping with fat, wrapped up unceremoniously in old newspapers- it was indescribable manna from heaven to me and no doubt frightfully unhealthy. When I returned home it was time to re enact the scenes, embellishing the story line to make it more exciting whilst playing in the bush outside.
Supermarket shopping didn’t exist but there was a constant stream of merchants and visitors to our house; the milkman at first light filling your jug with fresh milk and cream, a baker carrying his basket under his arm of freshly baked bread exuding its enticing aroma, the postman’s shrill whistle, ice from an ice cart for your ice chest, an insurance man collecting the premiums and an occasional salesperson selling encyclopedias and so on.
Each week the faithful ‘Dunny man” had to carefully exchange your full dunny for an empty one which was an operation that required a combination of brute strength (as they were rather heavy when full) and skill to ensure you didn’t spill any of the contents out while lifting on to the truck. The contents were respectively referred to as “Night Soil”.
My best pal conveniently lived next door; he was several years older and the wrestling champion of the local neighborhood and my experience wrestling with him turned out to be invaluable when I went off to school, when dealing with an older school bully. He launched an attack on me on the way home; and I though I was a goner but resolved to do my best. To my surprise as the small crowd gathered around to watch I managed to get a decent head lock on him and wrestled him to the ground. To my astonishment and relief it was soon over; as he heeded the chant of the crowd. “He’s got you!. He’s got you!! Give-up. Give Up!!”
Christmas time was always an exciting time and receiving a Bike for a Christmas present eclipsed all known previous joyous experiences. My parents had laid a string throughout all of the rooms of the house and back down the stairs to be attached to the bike situated on the front lawn. Christmas morning at first light they invited me to follow the string and see what was on the end of it. Needing no encouragement I tore through the house and in a state of heightened excitement to finally survey a wondrous bike. I immediately hopped on and cycled away. It didn’t matter a fig to me that it was an old bike, painted and spruced up with a false “Malvern Star” sticker on it.
It was the best thing that could have ever happened. It was only in later life when I recalled the details in my mind of bubbly paint work covering up rust and the shiny new bell on an otherwise heavy old frame. Freedom is an elusive state but I never felt as carefree as when riding that bicycle around in the country.
When Queen Elizabeth’s visited Australia no one really knew why we should all be excited.It was as if we were all swept along with this national bout of infectious enthusiasm and delight for the Queen. The cheers of the schoolchildren echoed everywhere as the Queen was greeted with unanimous delight. We travelled a long distance by train with thousands of cheering country children to catch a glimpse and listen to her speeches.
Growing up in Australia in the fifties is similar in many ways to what is described by author Bill Bryson’s account of the life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid in America when he recalls that “growing up was easy. It required no thought or effort on my part. It was going to happen anyway”.