Sunday 2 August 2015

Australia (and my family) from the 1920s - Gillian Polack

The anniversary of my father’s death is coming up. I will light a candle in his memory and I will tell bad jokes so that his sense of humour is not forgotten. I will miss him, as I always do. 

This year is different. Dad died in 1988, but a whole group of his friends died this year, in their early 90s. The last of his generation is fading. 

My parents

When I thought about this, I realised that the adults who were around when I was a child represent a world that’s almost alien to us. I’ll talk about other groups of them on other days, for they represent a variety of very different life experiences. People who were in their twenties and thirties when I was a child may have been Holocaust survivors or refugees from civil war. Some of them came from very poor backgrounds, made more parlous by the Depression. Some of them were new migrants to Australia, facing what was then a terrifyingly suburban and Anglo culture.

My father was part of the suburban and Anglo, but he was Jewish. He came from Melbourne, but grew up in small-town Victoria in the 1920s and 1930s. He grew up in the days of open fireplaces and outdoor toilets. Many houses still had coppers, which were only just now being replaced by electric machines. If washing machines were exotic, even electric beaters were something to be marvelled at. My father’s mother acquired on in the early forties and she apparently treasured very greatly for it made the best sponge cakes ever. 

I barely remember my father’s mother. I have one possible memory of her (and even that is hazy) for she died when I was two. There are big generations in my family, which is why my father’s memories go back to the twenties and his mother’s equivalent memories are late Victorian. Three of us cover well over a hundred years. Grandma Polack was born in Melbourne and moved out when she was the mother of a young family then moved back again when the marriage disintegrated. This is how my father had a semi-rural childhood.

Victorian rural house, 1970s

He had stories from that childhood. Milk, for him, was always better straight from the cow. He dealt with pasteurisation, but homogenisation made him livid (in a gentle, stubborn way) and the amount of cream at the top of the bottles left outside our door in the early morning was never enough. Just once in my life have I encountered milk the way my father described it, and that was at an old-fashioned dairy in the South Australian town of Strathalbyn, in the seventies. Dad poured himself a glass and drank it, then promptly poured himself another. Mum thought he’d make himself sick, because that milk was a third cream. I had a glass alongside him and it was rich and full of flavour. It was missing the odd aftertaste that we’re used t with pasteurised and homogenised milk. This surprised me, for I’d thought the stories of his childhood were simple nostalgia. Milk genuinely was different in Dad’s childhood. Dad’s childhood wasn’t as different to mine as mine is to anyone born since the 1980s, however. We’ve had so many big changes that the flavour of life is different, just as the flavour of that milk was different.

Dad was born before penicillin was discovered, and before cortisone. He was born when planes were new-fangled and telephones had manual switchboard operators who (in country towns) knew everything about everybody. There was no television: people listened to the radio in the evening. 

My father, in his fifties, learned to program computers using punchcards, which we then made into Christmas door ornaments and gave to our non-Jewish friends. Dad fell in love with the thought of transferring his card system onto computers, but computing didn’t advance quickly enough and he died before it was possible. He didn’t die before the Sinclair ZX80, however, and it was on that computer that I learned basic programming. It wasn’t an office machine, but it was a lot easier to program than the punchcards.

His childhood, however, didn’t only predate desktop computing: it predated ballpoint pens. Dad was taught to write using a nib. There were no ink cartridges. The nib was not attached to a fountain pen, my mother reminds me (she says that fountain pens were luxury and that Jewish boys turning thirteen would joke on their Bar Mitzvahs “Today I am a fountain pen.”), it was just a metal nib on a wooden handle, and the inkwell was a small open pot, sunk into each desk. There was an inkwell monitor in each class, who had to make sure that there was ink in each desk. I suspect it was Dad who taught me that the seeds of the stink wattle made a very good addition to those inkwells. I was the last generation to use pens with nibs in primary school, you see. I remember when we switched over to cartridges and was very glad that, in early primary school, I’d followed my father’s thought and crushed a few stink wattle seeds and put them in a couple of inkwells. Time passes and opportunities can be lost forever…

My mother (who is – thankfully- still alive) is ten years younger than Dad and she noticed the differences between her world and Dad’s. Dad’s teen years were the Depression and he moved into adulthood during World War II. His parents lost a whole generation of friends during World War I, but my parents’ friends lost all their European relatives in World War II (my family had only a few European relatives by this time, since we’re of an older generation of Australians, but many other fountain pen boys lost most of their family). The two wars were very different experiences for Australians living through them. They marked their generations profoundly.

The Depression left its mark on Dad in a very particular way, and I seem to have inherited that mark. When things go wrong around me, I stock up on tinned food, bottled food, dried food and toilet paper, just like my father did. Even if I don’t have the money for a bus fare, my inner child says, I will have food. When I was a child we used to buy boxes of everything from beans to tissues, and we had extra storage space, just in case the world came to an end (or the grocer ran out, or the money ran out) and we needed all that food. 

We didn’t. It was the Sixties. It was the third decade of continuing prosperity in Australia. There was a generation (the Baby Boomers) that had never known that kind of need. But my father wasn’t a part of that generation. He lived through the many decades of prosperity knowing that it would come to an end (which it finally did) and he kept the habit of hoarding.

I was born in the year between the Baby Boom and the next generation, and so I needed my father’s caution. My habit of filling my cupboard when I have money has got me safely through some very lean times. This is how the habit of a generation becomes a family trait. For years this filling of the cupboards seemed a daft thing to do and right now, it’s wise again.

Mum’s mark on me was the habit of going to markets once a week and getting seasonal produce. Two very different food habits based on two very different childhoods, just ten years apart. The two habits came together every summer. We’d go to the orchards on the outskirts of Melbourne and spend a day picking cherries and berries and apricots and peaches and nectarines. Then we’d spend the rest of the weekend preserving them. Rows and rows of delicious conserves for winter, was Mum’s thought. More food to protect against the incoming scarcity was Dad’s. 

I recently gave the Fowlers’ kit to a friend: I found I’d reached my limits when it came to making food I’ll not eat. It turns out that bottles of fruit and jars of jam are not part of my personal safety net. And this is how we change our culture over time: I don’t have a sweet enough tooth to warrant three days’ labour in an impossibly hot kitchen during the Australian summer. Not all family customs survive the terror of time.


Sue Bursztynski said...

A fascinating post, Gillian! Good to hear memories of Australia at that time. My own parents were born in the mid/late twenties, so their childhood memories come from the thirties, before Hitler invaded and turned their lives upside down. Mum's memories are of picking fruit in the summer and snuggling up with big cuddly German Shepherd dogs and sneaking into the ice skating rink through a hole in the fence. Dad's family had a home wares shop, so he remembered packing parcels for customers(and was very good at it, even better than Mum who is quite good). He learned to use a computer and discovered the joys of the Internet in his eighties. He REALLY loved Google!

We lived in a Victorian cottage with a kitchen/bathroom separate from the house when I was small, and remember taking baths in the kitchen.

I remember those inkwells in our old school desks, though we were using cartridge pens by then. You could open the desks up and put your books in them, something no longer possible.

All these memories really make me appreciate modern technology! :-)

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this lovely story - I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. (I lived in Australia briefly in the 70s and loved the architecture - the photo of the house brought it all back.)

Gillian Polack said...

Sue - the difference just two generations makes is vast, isn't it? We were the halfway generation, where the old desks were still around. In fact, my life is at the exact halfway point between nibs and computers, for I used a nib to learn to write (we graduated from pencil) and learned to program on my father's Sinclair.

Joan - I chose that house on purpose. It's not in any place I mentioned (it's from Hopetoun) but it's such a perfect example of the nicer houses in the 70s in small town Victoria. I used to so want to live in one of those! These days my big dream is to have enough spare for my books!