There is a bus stop ad here in Sydney – and probably the other capitals as well – which shows a very hale, genial George Clooney in a crisp white shirt unbuttoned at the top, hair in crisp greying waves and a silver greyish bronzey jacket. He holds a cup of hmm… n’espresso, which, if my French holds up after much misuse, means that it isn’t expresso. It reminds me of ads that appeared in Man magazine for Stamina clothes back in the 1940s. Whether intentional or not the agency and their designer and photographer have caught uncannily the atmosphere of that Australia – or of that Sydney at least. There are times when I would like to recover or even reclaim elements of that Australia, but it does not have that power for many of you, who are too young. And it rarely has for me. Something like the Clooney ad has to remind me.
In short it has no practical value. It is pure nostalgia.
The Cronulla riots began when locals got sick of young Lebanese louts – whose parents had worked hard to spoil them (not their purpose of course), began insulting and spitting at the lifesavers.Who had to stay at their posts. There was a dark side to the surf lifesaving tradition. Gang bangs I mean, which as far as I know were rarely if ever rapes. Girls, insecure with their status beside the masculine heroes, offered themselves up. The book and film Puberty Blues seemed to be advancing this theory. I was never a member of the club I hasten to add. We went to Melbourne before I was old enough to join.
The tradition also had a real nobility. I won’t go on about that.
Many in the subsequent riots/demonstrations did not live at Cronulla Some did. Most saw the spitting insults as something aimed at the heart of Australia, at one of its revered volunteer institutions. Some of the demonstrators, like many of the Lebanese, rarely swam let alone surfed and saved lives. Faults on both sides were eventually negotiated away, or at least accomodated. Today’s Reclaim Australia morons don’t seem to be aware of that. Some of the negotiations involved the Bra Boys (Maroubra Boys of course), some of whose members were in fact Lebanese. For all their noxious ways they were not racists. Does reclaim Australia know that?
One of the newsagents near me is an old school ocker, though obviously middle class and reasonably well educated . I would be very surprised to see him demonstrating with Reclaim Australia, but he likes to snipe away at the views he assumes are held by customers like me (who left school and home at 14, but he doesn’t know that).
Here is an odd one from our first encounter: ‘The Japs could only build houses in paper until the Yanks taught them to build with stone.’
‘Really?’ I said, and departed with my Saturday Paper.
There were in fact stone and wooden buildings still standing when I was there – including a huge, beautifully carpented pagoda towering over us at Daigo Ji – from before Admiral Perry forced long-isolated Japan to open up to the world. Extremely insubstantial dwellings were built in volcano and earth quake regions because they could be quickly reconstructed. Tokyo did not have skyscrapers when I was there, but they had many modern buildings that would have been seen as skyscrapers indeed in the city of Sydney as I first encountered it in the 1940s. Certain ingenious methods of construction were used to compensate for movements of the earth however.
That the French never won a military engagement was another claim. Well some of the Napoleonic wars gave their enemies a great deal of trouble , not to mention the hundred years war, the 14 years war etc, but I merely shrugged and left once more. I don’t think he knew the deeply stupid phrase ‘surrender monkeys’, but he would have used it if he did.
He began to get to me when he wondered why nobody opened a hamburger joint now. Just Chinese or Thai restaurants. The rest he seemed unaware of. I did tell him that he could get a good burger or steak or pie at the far end of the pub in the basement beneath the escalator that rose up to the first floor of the Broadway Centre. The steaks, schnitzels and pies were cooked there by very friendly and humorous non-Anglo Australians. But, I added, I think the market is dominated by McDonalds and Hungry Jack’s. Both American of course. I think.
At this point I suddenly became expansive. I could remember a time when Australia did not have hamburgers. They came from America when I was about to enter my early teens.I should add that I was a vegetarian at one stage of adulthood, but quit when I realised that my wife was upset that I did not eat everything she cooked. She is now my ex-wife and a seriously lecturing vegan. Things change. I’m sure she’s right. Reclaim Australia folk do not seem to have grasped the fact that many hallowed Australianisms came from somewhere else.’Stone the crows’ and ‘Strike me pink’, for instance were pinched from the cockneys.When I entered my teens Coca Cola had been here for about two decades, but Pepsi was new. Everything that came from America was exciting in those post war years of American market expansion, though some things were a little disappointing. 7-Up did little for me, for instance. When I went to America the Hershey Bar was perhaps the most disappointing of all, excepting perhaps the coffee. By the time I reached my teens I had a strong idea of what Australia was. Bushrangers may not have still existed, but I had a good idea of what they looked like. The days of horses continued for a while because I rode them. Many other things were rapidly changing. White lines on the road turned yellow. Number plates on cars likewise. They were now yellow with black numbers and letters. A particular yellow, with an indescribable zing to it, became the most enviable colour for racing bikes. This will always be 1950s yellow for me.In 1950 we entered a new world, some of which came from elsewhere, though the surf had always been there.
One day we came out of the surf, pulled on shorts and crossed the promenade, then crossed the road and ordered the new American burgers from a milk bar with a griller just behind the front counter. They used mince meat. It was not long before we bought this meat ourselves and took it up to the Hudsons, where we made our own burgers and ate them out in the back sunroom, below which the land sloped steeply and a large glossy evergreen crowded against the back fence. The new/old land lay spread out below. The sandhills and swamps and surf and headlands we had always known. The gangs of bodgies were new. Though in fact most had been born here. They sometimes went singing and dancing along French Street in front of the Hudsons’ place. They sometimes sang what I later recognised as scat. They were crazy about everything American, from Frank Sinatra to Bill Haley .Did we curse them because they abandoned Aussie bush songs, many of which were American anyway? No, we were bemused by them. We had not reached their age. Secretly I admired a certain soft shirt with soft collars and pocket flaps that some of them wore.
Soon after this my father was offered a job as a factory manager in Melbourne by Australian Consolidated Industries. In that new city the old returned in the form of white lines on the roads and black and white number plates. This world of black and white, however, was clothed in deep green foreign trees and hedges. New things were here from foreign lands. For instance, expresso machines which expelled steam like small locomotives and forced an irresistibly sophisticated aroma from ground beans.
Other elements of European sophistication multiplied about me in Melbourne, for I was growing enough to register them. Beatniks were the next phase. They had evolved from the Beats This was America absorbing European sophistication and intellectualism. Complicated for us. I had always had Italian/American aunts, uncles and cousins but now began to realise how important an influence was Italy. Those who were immune still abused wogs and dagos, but they were ignored. At the Everyman Theatre, in Hampstead where we lived and my son was born, I saw Last Year At Marienbad and before that I had begun to see parts of Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne as the French Riviera.
Of course the atmosphere of old Australia is not all that is desired by Reclaim Australia (much of it would disorient them), but Aussie Values, so imagined. Free speech. Individuality, A fair go. Sure. I did see a certain amount of this, but I also I saw three poofters, blushing helplessly and angered helplessly beyond endurance, being tormented and confronted by Real Aussies while a large crowd encouraged their antagonists with jeers and shrieking imitations. This was near a service station where taxis and cops cars pulled up to refuel. The location saved them from a bashing.
Of course there is something in Tony Abbott’s claim that Islam needs its own reformation and enlightenment. This was surely what Salman Rushdie was about. This was why he needed body guards when the fatwa was declared. The irony here was that Tony saw himself as a conservative Catholic. Through a fair amount of reading through conservative catholic authors I became aware that they hated nothing quite so much as humanism, the reformation and the enlightenment. Maybe Tony has reformed himself in some way. I hope so. I would rather not think of him as a hypocrite and a complete galoot.
Here is something that moves me a great deal. Occasionally I have curry – lamb rogan josh with dahl – in the Broadway Centre. I have seen Australian workmen arrive here in yellow jackets, carrying their road helmets and ordering curries from the Indian girls with utmost politeness, friendliness and good cheer. The older ones call them darling and sweetheart. Clearly they have no intention beyond friendliness and affection. Big smiles greet them.
Reclaim Australia held a non-halal barbecue to celebrate the Cronulla action.But, no they’re not prejudiced. Hmm, only Muslim extremists eat Halal then?. The mayor said the people of Cronulla did not want to celebrate an event which had often looked very much like a riot, with demonstrators jumping on car bonnets. Cronulla was not like that anymore.
An elderly Australian woman said, ‘We sorted all that out. We don’t want them here (the reclaimers). This is a wonderful place. All races use the beach. It’s like a melting pot!’
Like a melting pot? Well I know what she meant. It is like that where I live. Maroubra was like that when I was a child. My Australia does not need Reclaiming.