I probably could be considered as the quintessential WASP (White-Anglo Saxon person) Australian citizen. Great-great- great?? grandparents (and a grandmother) who come originally from Great Britain. A childhood spent on a farm and teenage years living by the sea.
Many of my forebears came out to Australia over 200 years ago. Many of them came unwillingly. There are 8 convicts in my family history: 3 on my fathers’ side and 5 on my mother’s. To even up the criminality a little, my father’s great grand parents came out as indentured labourers in the 1850s. They were successful yeoman (middle class) farmers in Devon, England and their passage was paid by the Bowman family of Jerry’s Plains, NSW. They were original “ten pound Poms”. When they had worked off their indenture, they bought land and settled around Coonamble and Coonabarabran, NSW.
Large sections of my childhood were spent on a farm, 13 miles East of Pilliga. We lived in a small wooden house built by my father and helpers. There was no electricity or running water and no sewer/ septic. The toilet was a classic Australian dunny: the “long drop”.
I was born in 1949, and so was a young child of wealthy parents initially. (Australia really did ride on the sheep’s back in the 1950s.)
My maternal grandmother had migrated from Durham, in the north of England, in 1918, after marrying my grandfather who was in the AIF and stationed nearby. She made Australia her home. She never went back, not even for a visit, because she had married against her father and brother’s wishes. She often talked to me of the bluebell and daffodils growing along the bridle paths and in the fields, and I know that there were times when she pined for the greenness of England. But she was a tough old bird and she appreciated Australia’s toughness. She realized that Australia had allowed her to live a life that she could never have lived if she had stayed there under her family’s domination.
My parents had married in 1948, and part of the deal was that my father buy a house near where my maternal grandmother lived in North Curl Curl. It was a regal old home, overlooking the ocean. My mother, sister and I moved back to live in this house in 1960. So, in my teenage years, I became another quintessential Australian: a worshipper of the surf and sand. Unfortunately, due to “drought, fires and flooding rains” (Dorothea Mackellar’s “I Love a Sunburnt Country”), with resulting poverty, and my mother’s mental illness, my life was not all beer
and skittles. But that’s another story. My family history suggests that I would develop into a person with a viewpoint strongly biased to a narrow Anglo Saxon perception, but this isn’t the case. I see Australia as a place that opened its’ doors to help those of the world who were in need of a new start. Over the years I have met many people who also feel the same way, after leaving the country of their birth.
(NB: I know that some people will scoff at this idea of Australia being so open and welcoming. Over the years, many people (from other countries) have told me that Australians are very welcoming and friendly in many ways, but there was a sort of barrier there as well, when it came to having people to their homes for a meal. Perhaps this is a slight stand-offishness stemming from our Anglo Saxon heritage????)
I have met many people over the years, who have come from other countries to make Australia their home. The following is a brief description of their experiences.
Nabob Allam: Nabob came originally from the Punjab in India. He was born in 1882. At some time, early in his life, he came to Australia. He worked as a hawker, travelling over the north west of NSW, selling things from the back of his horse and dray. My father’s sister told me how he would come and pull these wondrous things from under the old blanket that protected his things from the dust: beautiful, colourful bolts of material; shiny pots and pans; pins, needles, cotton thread of every colour…. He also had an old grinding wheel set up on the edge of the dray and would sharpen all their knives and scissors. In the 1930’s, he acquired some buildings in Pilliga and set up a general store. By the 1950’s he had 2 big shops on the eastern edge of town and a café that sold the best ice cream sodas, in the western part of town. His sons and grandsons run an extremely success real estate and building company in western Sydney. I think, from reading the graves register of the
Pilliga cemetery, that he may have brought many of his family over to settle in Australia. They are buried beside Nabob in the Pilliga cemetery.
My school-friend: I always had a strong sense of fairness and kindness to others, so I was always running foul of my mother who was very cruel to my father. I was always being locked out of the house, which was no drama when I was younger. I just made sure the mattress and bedding that the dog slept on, on the back verandah, was washed weekly, and I would sleep there.
It was harder in my later years of High school, because I needed to study late into the night. There was always a bed there for me: a little trundle bed that slid out from under my friend’s bed. This was not a wealthy family, but they were open and giving. They were originally from the U.K.: the father from Wales, where his father died in a mining accident, and the mother from London. They came to Australia to get away from the mess and despair that they saw in the countries ravaged by war. Australia, to them, was a new start, and they embraced the peace and climate with relief. My next door neighbours in Wentworthville, Western Sydney: they came from Austria. In his home town, he was ostracised because he had been a war baby, the product of an Austrian
woman who had been raped by Russian soldiers. His wife had married him contrary to her family’s wishes and they had come out to Australia to work on the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme. When the scheme finished, they both worked in the plastics industry and then set up their own manufacturing business. They were extremely clever and hard-working and built themselves an affluent life that would not have been possible for them back in the country of their birth.
A friend of theirs: Her family were Hungarian Jews. They escaped across the border one night with just the clothes on their backs. In the women’s’ lipstick tubes they hid the gemstones taken from their jewellery. This funded their emigration to Australia. They had wanted to get as far away from Europe and all its’ past history as they could.
A parent of one of the children I taught: in the late 80’s, I returned to full time teaching in a small school for children with special needs in Fairfield, Sydney. One of my students was a tiny little bundle of intelligence, who was a select mute. He and his family were from Cambodia and had suffered horrendously. His father could never talk to me about what they had been through, except to say that his wife and other child had starved to death, and that his remaining son had never spoken since. He had been mute for 6 years and doctors wondered if he would ever speak again. To this kind, gentle, sorrowful man, Australia was a chance to start again. He had been a TAFE teacher in Cambodia before the purge and been able to get a similar job in Australia. In the time I taught his son, he had remarried and was buying a house.
A Lifeline telephone counsellor: in the late 90’s, after my divorce, I trained as a Lifeline telephone counsellor. One of my co-trainees was a Tamil from Sri Lanka. When the training was finished, we worked together on the same shift. She often talked of her homeland and the sadness at the situation there. Australia represented safety for her family and a chance for her son to be educated and to be of service to the world. Her son now works for the United Nations as a human rights lawyer.
What does Australia mean to me?
It is not an easy environment in which to live. It does not have bounteous rivers and endless supplies of rain. It can be subjected to devastating droughts and rampaging bushfires, but it also has wonderful beauty. Western sunsets are stunning to see. The Barrier Reef is magic. Those huge river gums full of screeching cockatoos are a real celebration of raucous larrikinism….. and so very Australian. The bush can seem dry and monotonous, but if you look closely, you will see subtle wild flowers and birds of rainbow colours.
For most of its history, Australia was isolated from the rest of the world, and so learned to be resourceful and innovative. It also learned a little to be distrustful of differences/ changes, and so we are a little conservative and maybe a bit reserved.
BUT: Australians also knew about hardship and pulling together with their mates to make a better life for themselves and others. And this is the Australia that I believe in: country that will welcome others so they can have a fresh start and a chance to make better a life for themselves and their families.
A country that is made of many, many diverse nationalities, religions and cultures but that is united in its’ diversity.
Maggie talks about what being Australian means to her.