Saturday 24 September 2016

Outback and Old Country - Salisbury Review, Autumn 2016

Frances Newman's 1953 Farewell

Here is my latest piece for the Salisbury Review, "Outback and Old Country":

Frances Forbes (nee Newman), now 84-years-old, is typical of a number of Aussie old timers. She is Australian-born and raised, and has lived here for almost the entirety of her life; and yet her destiny has been inextricably linked with Britain. While others, at her age, might describe themselves as, for instance, Greek-Australian or Italian-Australian, few – least of all Frances – would identify themselves as British-Australian. That is, perhaps, because being “Australian” is a concept so deeply associated with British notions that “British-Australian” remains something of a redundancy.

Fran’s childhood, spent on an isolated rural property, could not have been more uniquely Australian. The closest school to the family’s property was a one-classroom affair, with every student from Grade 1 to 8 sharing the same teacher. Every morning, in their first years at school, tiny Fran and her only slightly taller sister were lifted up onto a horse by their father for the five-mile ride to school along a sandy road. If they came off during the trip, because a snake spooked the horse or on account of some other terror lurking in the Aussie bush, nobody would be around to help.

It was a dour life, backbreaking and heartbreaking at the same time. The Mallee was the last region in Victoria to be settled and with good reason. Soldiers returning from the First World War were offered land to cultivate but, with the blocks mostly too small and the conditions inhospitable, some of the same people who had triumphed on the Western Front ran up the white flag in the Mallee Lands. Fran’s father came into his property in 1925. Joe Newman eked out an existence, growing grain and raising sheep, but nothing came easily. For years the family’s only water supply was channelled into a dam once a year from the Murray River. After that ran out, it was a daylong wagon journey to fill up a small tank with water. One year, in the midst of a drought, six horses endured excruciating deaths after ingesting sand and grit. Probably the only people poorer than the Newmans were the ‘swagmen’ who came by in search of a feed during the height of the Depression.                                                               

Fran’s older brother, Lenny, died aged five. It was the result of a misdiagnosis (or, more accurately, outright incompetence) at the nearest rural hospital, in Manangatang, which led to Lenny’s agonizing death after his appendix ruptured. Joe and Meg Newman – once keen-eyed migrants from Britain who met on the passenger ship in 1923 – were, in the decades afterwards, as silent about their grief as the Australian outback. Joe went about his daily chores in a sullen and bad-tempered fashion while Meg, who had lost her brother in a shooting accident that same year, remained mostly indoors, depressed and withdrawn.

Hampton Court could hardly be more different from life on the Newman’s struggling Mallee property. How Frances Newman, aged twenty-one, came to be living in Lady Baden-Powell’s grace-and-favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace in 1953 is a story on its own. Fran, as soon as she turned fifteen, had been jettisoned from the family farm into the big wide world. Joe placed her with a distant relative in Melbourne, a virtual stranger in truth, after they had secured her a job via the newspaper in a large hotel as a chambermaid. Fortunately, the Melbourne guardian deemed this “not the place for a young girl” and she wound up boarding with complete strangers and working in a cake shop, where she was very soon “fat and miserable”. Thus began Fran’s stealthy plan to acquire a qualification in nursing, one of the few professions open to an independent-minded but under-educated female of modest means in post-war Australia. The city of Melbourne was something of an eye-opener for the girl from the Mallee, and yet it only whet her appetite for what most Australians, at the time, regarded at the greatest metropolis of all.       

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the numerous passenger liners transporting British migrants to Australia were mostly full to the brim– the return voyages, on the other hand, were not. The knockdown price for a berth on the London-bound R.M.S. Strathmore, which included four weeks’ food, lodging and entertainment, was a mere £110. Frances had arranged ahead of time for a London agency to find her nursing work as soon as she arrived in what was then affectionately referred to as “the old country”. Most of Fran’s employees/patients were well heeled but rarely patronised her or treated her as a servant, partly because a private nurse was less a servant than a helpful companion for an ailing senior. But there was another factor at play. Then as now, to be an Australian in the United Kingdom – and the same applies to a Brit in the Land of Oz – is to enjoy, on some level at any rate, a suspension of the rules of social expectation. We are free to be equals.   

When Frances Newman’s ship sailed along the Thames on Guy Fawkes Night 1954, it was as if the people of London were coming out to farewell her as she commenced the long voyage back to Australia. Fran had experienced things in Britain, from being live-in nurse for Lady Baden-Powell’s sister at Hampton Court to witnessing Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation pageant from a seat in Piccadilly – “the day was perishing cold”, things the little girl growing up in the rural isolation of the Mallee Lands could only dream about. But that was hardly the end of her British connection. In 1957, while studying midwifery in Adelaide, she met Donald Forbes, a young Scot in the Royal Air Force, stationed here temporarily during the time of the British atomic tests at Maralinga in outback South Australia. After much correspondence, she eventually followed him back to the United Kingdom where they married and had a daughter while he was serving at the military base in Aldershot. In 1962, Donald left the RAF and he and Fran decided to emigrate – to Australia.

It says something, surely, about the interrelationship between the United Kingdom and Australia that Frances officially migrated to Australia precisely thirty-nine years after her parents did the very same thing. In Australia the Forbes family settled in a new satellite town directly north of Adelaide called, yes, Elizabeth – named in honour of the British monarch herself. Elizabeth was mostly populated by British migrants and, with manufacturing at its heart, began as a kind of workers’ paradise. Eventually, alas, much of the manufacturing departed and today it is more of a welfare town. Donald and Frances, not unlike most of their Elizabeth contemporaries, developed strong sympathies for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and, over the years, we had our fair share of arguments, my feelings for the ALP being – how shall we say this? – somewhat less sympathetic.

Frances moved away from Elizabeth some time after Donald died but she retained her non-conservative partisanship; in some ways it grew stronger as the Australian Greens emerged into the mainstream of politics with their Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) scare campaign. Sometimes the only safe topic was our shared interest in all things British, past, present and future. It often intrigued me that an avid collector of This England magazine – “for all those who love our green and pleasant land” – should lean towards the ALP and the even more ideologically driven Australian Greens. But there it was. She has always loved This England, in its way the most patriotic of all magazines, and revered the endless pictures of ancient architecture, traditional English gardens and historic places that remind her of her times in “the old country”.                     

In Australia, at any rate, almost everybody on the left decided that the Brexit campaign was “racist”. Even the redoubtable Tony Abbott – architect of Operation Sovereign Borders – came out as a Remainer. It was a surprise then – although perhaps it shouldn’t have been – that one day, while I was flipping through her latest edition of This England, Frances revealed herself to be a Brexiteer. What’s more, in the recent national election she voted not for the local ALP or Australian Greens candidate but a maverick populist: not a conservative, to be sure, but some of the way there at least. Maybe enlightened patriotism – along with self-reliance – is something about which old timers instinctively understand.