REMEMBRANCE OF CHILDHOODS PAST
Ask most adults for a good story about what they did yesterday and you are likely to be met with a shrug. But an intelligent question or two about their childhood might well produce a rush of stories and real enthusiasm in the telling.
Jaqueline Kent has spent two years asking Australians to remember their childhoods. The results are marvellous, a tribute equally to her skills as a listener and eliciter of memories, and to the ‘yarners’ themselves, ordinary men and women whose stories make vivid social history.
There is considerable irony in the title of the book, because children tend to live in the full light of eperience, to feel acutely their emotions before the repressions of
‘civilised’ adulthood clamp them down and cut them off from their own reactions.
Kent introduces her story-tellers with a minimal amount of stage setting and observation. With the effect of real spontaneity, undoubtedly achieved with considerable editorial skill, she allows each player to hold the stage and our attention.
And what fine memories these story-tellers have. Details of daily life, of things, of place names, brand names, of grudges held and graces lost, are as much a selfidentifying part of the teller as his or her name, date and place of birth, place in the family and in the social and schol pecking order.
Caroline Eleanor Macmillan Howard, born in 1904, provides the first memories, and they set a sterling standard. ‘We never had fewer than thre housemaids, rather shadowy figures who appeared and disappeared regularly.’ But cleanliness did not come next to godliness.
‘We never washed our hands after going to the toilet or bfore sitting down to a meal, and the water we drank was not very clean.’ The book moves across social classes and round the country, as well as through time. Arthur Dwyer was thirteen in 1915, and brave enough to travel hundreds of miles from home to a job as a plumber’s mate. He sas paid seven and six a week, and when he had saved enough to buy a suit, at a cost of three guineas, he thought it was ‘Christmas’.
The big external events – war, droughts, the Depression – impinge on these young lives, but those memories are no more dramatic than the excitement of moving house, gaining or losing a sibling, starting school, or of the battles waged in school playgrounds.
‘You must be filthy if you need to wash every day,’ Andy Kelly and his gang told Margaret O’Connor, a bank manager’s daughter during the 1930s. And at recess the gang ‘would follow us around the playground chanting, “Stinky, stinky!”‘ The book does not offer any clear sense that childhood has improved. Marie Butler, born in 1922, remembers that ‘All the kids in the street played together, the road and footpath were our playground. Nobody had a car, of course, because we couldn’t have afforded one, and so playing hopscotch or cricket on the road was perfectly safe.’ Sandra Hardy recalls the threat of the Japanese invasion differently from many Australians.
‘Sometimes I used to wish that the Japs would invade and get the white fellers. Because we were all terribly afraid of the whites. We knew that the Protection people could take you away to Palm Island because fo the Queensland Government’s Aboriginal Protection Act. The Protection people could do whatever they liked to you. Beat you up if they felt like it. Not to let you see your whole family, ever again.’ Later memories become even more varied, with the arrival of ‘New Australians’. From Nicholas Kallergis: ‘Sometimes on Mondays the other kids would have leftover birthday cake for playlunch, from Darrell Smith’s or Margaret Gilroy’s party. I didn’t even know it had taken place. I tried not to care.’ And Alex Lukics remembers his Czech mother and ‘being ashamed of her at school because she couldn’t speak English.’ The attitude of Jenny Rockwell’s family to the European newcomers was probably typical. ‘Though we were polite to the Lorenzinis, we didn’t have much to do with their lives, so we found out very little about them: where they came from, how long they were staying, whether they were happy. (Of course they were happy: they were in Australia, weren’t they?) It is anecdotes around vent which dominate, rather than analysis of events or of feelings. In this it is a markedly Australian book, and its Australianness comes through too in the open space atmosphere of many of these childhoods, whether rural or urban.
As the childhoods become more recent, the self consciousness of the subjects seems to grow somewhat.
But most of the story-tellers have been guided by Kent to a state of recall in which the past dominates. And that is what we get in the accounts, not just a retelling but a brief reliving. This is the nearest we will ever get to being there, or to being there again, and to understanding it all a little bit better.
Stephanie Dowrick, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1988
CHILD’S EYE VIEW ILLUMINATES HISTORY
Childhood memories for most of us have a vividness that brings bygone times alive. So there are few better ways to illuminate recent social history than through the recollections of older people.
Jacqueline Kent spent almost two years interviewing hundreds of people throughout Australia for her new book, In the Half Light.
Through careful selection and editing, she has presented us with a rich collection of reminiscences spanning seven decades and all social classes.
They range from the daughter of a prosperous Edwardian Melbourne family to an Aboriginal boy who grew up in a camp near Rockhampton in the 1950s.
In between we are given a child’s eye view of all the great social upheavals of the 20th century.
An 80 year old man remembers how excitement over World War zi in a small town on the Darling Downs slowly gave way to grief as news came back of all the young men who had died.
Others recall tough times in the city and the bush during the Depression – boys who fed their families by collecting bottles and selling them to the bottle-oh, girls who gave up school to work for a pittance, others still who saw those years from a position of privilege.
But all of them speak with a directness and frankness which makes for refreshing reading.
The words of each participant are preceded by a brief pen portrait of the person today, done with a sensitive touch which heightens the interest to the reader.
The title of In the Half Light comes from a poem by an unknown Queensland boy in the 1950s:
The rocking horse days of my childhood
Are slipping and sliding away.
And though I lived well in the half light I welcome the coming of day.
Jacqueline Kent has succeeded brilliantly in catching the recollections of the half light and bringing them into the light of day for all of us.
Judith White, Sun-Herald, 19 June 1988
70 YEARS OF OUR CHILDHOOD
A child’s unfiltered, clear eyes can look at a dusty image and give it a startlingly fresh slant, even when the hild’s concepts are diluted through maturity and the passage of time.
Jacqueline Kent has tapped this rich vein for her book, In the Half Light, and brought home a box of jewels.
After covering the history of Australian radio in her first book, Out of the Bakelite Box, Kent captured the voices of our children of this century by catching adults’ memories of their childhood.
She has taken the best of her stories and cut them and edited them tightly, enabling 25 voices to sketch a changing Australia from 1900 to 1970.
There are stories, vignettes, touches of humour and tragedy, but above all this is a book of images.
In 1900 a girl snorts at her nurse’s explanation of baby brother’s arrival: ‘Gooseberry bush! There weren’t any where we lived.’ And in 1909 a girl sees Neil Armstrong lurching about on the moon, looking like ‘a late-night rerun’.
Between these moments the country careers through two world wars, the Depression and into the meteoric age of technology.
Kent catches most of it, but the children hardly change at all.
A photo of children triple mounted in front of a slab built school introduces the 1910 story of a bush boy who has to tap the side of the house tanks to learn whether there is enough water to have a bath this week.
A girl takes part in the Empire Day march, wheeling past ‘the corner shop that sold sherbet balls, humbugs, licorice straps and toffee cakes’.
World War I starts and Turks – chosen by lot – blaze away at Australians after school Then the names of the first dead arrive.
After the war the ragged soldiers return with their nightmares and the new heroes are fat English schoolboy Billy Bunter and ace English detective Sexton Blake. Boys tickle crystal sets with cat’s whiskers to listen to ABC cricket.
The Depression brings kids who live in corrugated iron shacks, ‘with dirty knees and crusted lips and lice in their hair, clothes that never fitted and noses that didn’t stop running. And they always looked tired’. Barefoot kids sneered at those who were forced to wear shoes.
A family eats bread and dripping as its greyhounds are fed eggs – ‘we gotta look after the dogs, see, because that’s where the real money comes from.’ World War 2 gives schools a great new game, air raid drill.
A siren blares without warning and kids thunder from class to ready-dug trenches. The Yanks come with their chewing gum, the Japanese submaries with a night of excitement, and the war recedes. Not quite as gripping as the radio serial First Light Fraser.
The war ends and a boy has to learn how to live with a stranger he calls ‘Dad’, a girl tries to see the new Queen through a crowd and fails. Biggles and Life With Dexter on radio move aside for I Love Lucy and Sergeant Bilko on TV. An eight-year-old girl runs round the house trying in vain to tell somebody that President Kennedy has been shot.
There is a great deal more, as Kent has cast her net wide.
An Aboriginal girl is more troubled by the whies than the threatening Japanese; a baby dies because her migrant mother cannot speak English.
Kent is only able to give us a glimpse of a passing childhood, but these glimpses can evoke an era.
Some tragedies are timeless. A boy from a poor bush family goes home from school to find his mother ‘standing in the kitchen, no expression on her face at all, just stunned’. The father has run away with a girlfriend.
‘I couldn’t understand why he had left us,’ the boy says. ‘The worst of it was, you see, I liked my Dad.’
Allan Baillie, Age, 1 July 1988