Home and Away and Away from Home
I was born in 1955 at the King George V Memorial Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Camperdown and grew up in the ‘burbs’ of Sydney. My family lived in a newly constructed Housing Commission house built out of brick with a tiny wooden fence around the perimeter. For some years the street remained unsealed. The suburb at that time could be described as rural, consisting still of paddocks that housed horses and goats, and market gardens run by Chinese families and ‘New Australians’ – the Italians who were buying up the old farms in the area.
The Italians often sold tomatoes at the garden gate or fresh eggs. They built exotic houses that had porticoes and pillars and they grew grapevines. In the summer they liked to sit outside their houses. Elvira, an Italian girl in my class at school, wore gold earrings in her pierced ears and her hair was oiled. She smelt of garlic.
My mother was a housewife. She paid the rent money to a man who would come maybe every two weeks or possibly once a month from the Housing Commission. Because these houses were isolated, still about half an hour from the nearest railway station, the Commission had built a mini house at the bottom of the street and this ‘rent house’ was just big enough to hold the counter that the man stood behind while he took the money from the housewives who queued outside to give it to him.
There were no shops nearby. Itinerant men would come door to door selling things such as wooden clothesline props. My favourite was the Mulberry Man. He sold mulberries from a basket and possessed the nuggety brown countenance of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. He always came to the back door. Another man regularly appeared each week to take dry cleaning. Yet another drove slowly through the streets in a ute with a tarpaulin cover, selling fruit and vegetables. In the weekends a man and a woman drove around selling ice creams from their van.
My father worked as a baker in the inner city area of Sydney at a small bakery run by a German. It was called The Original Bread Roll Bakery as it specialised in bread rolls and breadsticks. The household revolved around my father and his unusual work hours – he started work at about nine in the evening and came home at around nine in the morning the next day and then slept all day.
He had grown up in the country, in Goulburn, and came from a large Catholic family. He was a sociable, gregarious character who could tell a good story and liked a few beers. Most people took to him as soon as they met him. His great love was the racetrack. He had eclectic tastes – he preferred to never wear suits and ties and instead wore open-neck flannelette shirts and often donned either a sunhat, or in winter a French beret. He drank wine every night and wore sandals, and loved going to the theatre. In our garden he planted almost all native trees and shrubs which was very unfashionable at that time. He had played the trombone but after he was married his family told him to give it up and take a trade.
I never saw him clean anything in the house, nor did he wash dishes, sew, bake, or do the shopping. These were all chores for my mother, although my father cooked dinner once a week when my mother had her ‘day off.’ He always made the same thing – bangers and mash.
My mother came from good New Zealand Protestant stock. She was born in Wellington where she lived in Princess St, Newtown. After that the family moved to Eden St in Island Bay. She was the middle child in a family of three, with a younger sister, Doreen, and an elder brother named Lawrence who died when he was twelve years of age. My mother missed this brother for the rest of her life, describing him as ‘great fun’ and a ‘great wit.’ It seemed he was the one who had kept everyone buoyant. After he died the family seemed to become seized with a sadness that never really left them.
My mother left New Zealand and travelled to Europe where she lived for a number of years. She became fluent in German. She read poetry and owned an interesting collection of books – Wilde, Colette, George Borrow, Flaubert, Mansfield and Janet Frame. She returned to the southern hemisphere where she began to live in Sydney, and then met my father.
My New Zealand grandfather was an Englishman who had lied about himself, claiming he was called Thomas Hurley. On his deathbed he admitted he was really Tyson Orchard Brown who had come to New Zealand and adopted an alias. My Aunt Doreen believed he had done ‘something dreadful’ in the United Kingdom, but he never revealed why he had changed his name.
My New Zealand grandmother grew up in Kaiumu Bay in the Pelorus Sound area. When I was about six years of age she sometimes wrote me interesting letters about her childhood and about living in isolation down there. She said that sometimes she could hear the green hills singing to her and claimed that her sisters would lock her in a room upstairs to make her write stories for them.
An event that had a great effect on me occurred when I was eleven years old and in my last year of primary school. I happened to be out of my class and crossing the playground when I witnessed one of our teachers, Mr White, being removed from his teaching position at the school. He was twenty-one years old at the time. This was July 1966, and Bill White had defied a draft notice to report for duty at an army induction centre to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. He was the first Australian to publicly stand as a conscientious objector to the war. A photo of him being arrested became a well-known symbol for the anti-Vietnam War Moratorium movement in Australia and his stand gained wide press coverage.
This incident affected my opinion of war and made me understand what might happen when someone decides to take a stand for what they believe in. Bill White was jailed. And I began to wear a Moratorium badge and to participate in anti-war rallies. I still think about Mr White, and as a writer I feel that I am one among those who witness, record, and therefore testify. I am currently working on a piece about Bill White.
As I became older it was obvious I was never going to be a nurse or join a typing pool. When I was sixteen I lived in Kings Cross in an art gallery called The Yellow House which had been established by the artist Martin Sharpe and other visual artists, performers and film makers. I performed as a mime with two others (Moth and Jewellion) during intervals at the original Stables Theatre and at other venues around the inner city. Sometimes rich people requested performances at their parties. In the Cross I knew prostitutes, writers, artists, drug dealers, astrologists, strippers and all manner of people.
I began hitching around Australia and lived in North Queensland on several hippie communes. I moved to New Zealand when I was nineteen, eventually taking citizenship through my mother. I thought I was only coming to New Zealand for a visit but I met someone in Wellington and we were together for the next twenty years.
I lived first in the South Island in Dunedin where I worked in the public hospital as a ‘dusting maid’ – a half-day job that finished at two pm. I later moved to Wellington where I became involved in the theatre scene. A photo of me during this period can be found in Ans Westra’s Wellington City Alive, in the nightlife section. I settled in Wellington and lived there for many years in the inner city suburb of Newtown, next door to the original site of Unity Theatre, where plays by Bruce Mason and James K. Baxter were first staged.
In 2009 I returned to Sydney to take up a scholarship at the University of Wollongong to work on a Doctorate in Creative Arts. Sydney has changed dramatically since my growing up days. Eastwood, where we lived, is now predominantly Korean and Chinese. The real estate signs are written in Korean and English and it is easier to purchase a steamed bun than a chocolate lamington. Eastwood is the original home of the Granny Smith apple, and these days the annual Granny Smith festival features Chinese tai chi and Korean dance contingents.
The Eastwood branch of the Country Women’s Association is probably the last bastion of what I now refer to as ‘Old Eastwood,’ still serving Devonshire teas and selling pastel crocheted baby blankets. At age fourteen I would throw back a quick Devonshire tea at the CWA rooms before catching the train ‘outta there’; the CWA is opposite the railway station.
My Australian nephew recently dared me to ‘spot the real Aussie.’ Real? Who's real? Australia now shows a vastly different face from the ‘bangers and mash’ one that I grew up with; my original home exists only in my own memory.
New Zealand Maori who have deserted the shores of Aotearoa to live in Australia (Te Ao Moemoea – the land of dreaming) like to call themselves Mozzies, and I have heard New Zealand Pakeha and Maori alike refer to themselves as Ngati Kangaru (Kangaroo Tribe). But what of Australians like myself who have gone the other way and have been living in New Zealand? I could think of myself as an Auzlander, or maybe a Newstralian or some equivalent morphed form of identity. I have a foot in both countries. While living in New Zealand my home became Away, while my away is now still Home. I am like the child of divorced parents, both of whom I love and feel tearful leaving as I hand myself across the Tasman from one to the other.