Once upon a time there was a time just before I was, nor most of you were either. And there was a time when that time held a considerable fascination. Why was that? The time just before you were. In a way it was like the last days of history. When I came, and you too I might surmise, it was the present unfolding. It was now. In the now of our lives a new history was being minted each day, not always fresh and bright.
There has been a series on SBS about places in England and their histories. Like the Chinese, the English would have you believe that they invented everything. When we get to the Industrial Age this becomes increasingly true, although the Scots begin to horn in on the act .And the American marketing genius soon made it seem that the U.S. had invented it all. We’ll just stop for the moment with the train, the steam locomotive. The English certainly invented that. This simple and brilliant contraption was fuelled by dirty black stuff that had to be dug from the earth by shocking hard toil, and what you might call primitive methods. The contrast can be illustrated this way. Here am I- sitting with binoculars around my neck and now, aha, in my hands for I have seen a castle or something moving out there – flying through the countryside in an elegant striped jacket and cream trousers out on the rear viewing platform, while underneath me and beneath the rails pass blackened men, engaged in soul-grinding toil, that I might sail effortlessly through the green of England. Smoking a most excellent cigar. Parking it in my mouth for a moment while I raise my binoculars to view a comely lass riding a glossy chestnut mare or stallion. The binoculars aren’t quite that good at this distance. Horse and rider fly back into the shrinking and expanding old world.
In one of those programs mentioned above the voice over said, ‘It is hard to imagine today a world in which there was no electric light’.
Not so. I can remember but can rarely feel exactly what it was like when we lived in a darkened world of candles and kerosene-powered hurricane lamps. Some of the ‘black-outs’ were power failures, but others were deliberate simulations, drills, to accustom us to the world as it was in England at that very time under an air raid. The possibility loomed. I feel that right now! Be still for a moment. Ration coupons. The grocer looking down over his counter at me. Yes, for a moment I can remember being very small. The shadow of the war was enormous. They did bomb Darwin twice after all, and two midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour.
A warden once came up the side passage of our block of flats to tell us there was a crack of light down the side of our blackout blind. We adjusted it. he looked briefly inside. Aunt Joan sat at the kitchen table. This is my most complete and tangible memory of the war. My father was driving ammunition trucks between Alice Springs and Darwin, but I imagined that he was over the sea, where the war was, and that my mother was singing to him when we went along the cliff tops at Lurline Bay to pick blackberries. my mother sang sweetly in perfect tune.
Our block of flats was very forbidding. At that time the bricks were coated with a kind of blue black enamel. Much later when I saw the place again that glossy composite had been stripped away and the bricks and it was a suburban brick red. And much later again the place had been painted white. It looked almost affluent. It looked almost like somewhere on the French Riviera. Two young gay men lived there then. They were extremely nice.
‘See the upside down stairs? The impress of the stairs up to the verandah above? White concrete. I always thought I could walk upside down up into another dimension’.
‘Ah. I can see that. When you were very small?’
They invited me in and asked many questions about the building. I went first to the kitchen. My aunt Joan sat just here. She married an American serviceman from Queens in New York. He stayed here and opened Valentines restaurant. I could still feel the volume of that room I feel it now.