I speak from a position of old age but, so far, I have not lost the clarity of my memories.
In the last few weeks I have also had the great privilege of speaking with groups of even older people, who also treasure their Australian memories. For example, some of those who remember their own war service are amazed, and like me are not very pleased, about recent new attitudes towards remembrance ceremonies and the development of brand new memories surrounding wartime.
But what most affects me at the moment is how generations younger than we are seem to idolise what they call “Aussie Values ” without criticism and analysis. They think our way of life and “Aussie Values” have always been the same and that they should be immediately adopted, as is, by new settlers and refugees from whom, they assume, we can learn little.
One of the most amazing myths I have heard, and this is a development only obvious this century, that is we view ourselves as always having been a welcoming inter-racial society.
How is this possible? Consider the official government “White Australia Policy” – not a good example of welcome and only finally buried in the 1970s. Observe our continuing poor treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. We have not, in fact, been very inclusive. I worked with a professional woman of Polish descent who remembered, not fondly, the years her family spent in a post war refugee facility. On Wednesday I was speaking to a very elderly lady who described herself as a “twenty dollar migrant from Glasgow” (but we did have a laugh about the “ten pound poms” as they were called). She also told how awful the camps were. I remember how poorly some refugees were regarded, by some, on the Snowy Scheme where I grew up.
This morning I heard on the radio a woman defending current criticism of a lack of acceptance of migrants. She had an expectation that acceptance required rapid and major adjustments of displaced people from their traditional culture to adoption of “Aussie values”. She stressed the non patriarchal nature of our society must be accepted. But she seemed to have no appreciation of how recent that transition of Australia to a partially non patriarchal society has been.
Australian women were required to wear head gear – usually hats but scarves would sometimes suffice – in all sorts of places as well as in church – well into the second half of the last century. Prefects used to put us on detention if, on the train home from a state all girls high school, we were not wearing our hats. Women were required to wear hats in a court room when I was a young solicitor. When I worked in schools in the 1980s women teachers were expected to wear skirts.
As a University student I was not permitted to go to lectures in trousers.
In the early seventies, when I was a young married woman, the daughter of a neighbour was married at 14 with the permission of her parents as she was pregnant. This was not uncommon. (It was only in the mid 20th Century that Tasmania was the first state to raise the age of consent for girls from 12 to 14.)
I don’t say that we Australians are not entitled ( or even obliged) to be vocal about women’s rights and child protection. But it is not reasonable to totally condemn migrants for practices we fully supported as a nation in the lifetime of many of us older Australians and which we remember clearly.
Culture is like the learning of English. It does not always come easily to the first generation of migrants and refugees but it will be easy for the next generation.
And as for the White Blight analogy. I wish all those who talk of “Australian values” could read the poem of that name, “White Blight” by Athena Farrokhzad . I wish we could all read it in the original Swedish but I, like the majority of non indigenous Australians born here, have sadly not got the facility to speak another language. Hearing her read (in beautiful English translation) of an immigrant mother trying to lengthen her vowels so they are “whiter than white” is so sad and moving.
Let us all try to develop a new set of Aussie values of modesty and tolerance.
Blight can destroy the most beautiful.