One of the best things about getting older is the awareness of how much and what change has occurred in a long lifetime.
I am thinking about how much private and public behaviour has changed since I was born, and I have to say that in Australia at least, there is a great deal that is positive.
In the 1950s, just after World War II, there was a need for people to settle back into their ordinary lives.
This was a hard time for many ex-soldiers who had seen more than they should. It was hard for women whose partners came back as different and often damaged, men. It was hard for children who suddenly had to adapt to a different sort of family. And there was not a lot of money.
No outdoor eating for breakfast, no coffee shops, no takeaways except fish and chips, no cheap clothes and lots of hand-me-downs. Not that any of that was bad.
It seems to me that life became incredibly ordered and orderly at this time as the country tried to reestablish itself after chaos. Women were back in the kitchen, Dad was the boss, kids were seen and not heard and rules were created or expanded or encouraged to create order.
I grew up then and I thought it was horrible. Brush your hair a hundred times, don’t lift your elbows up when eating, don’t answer back, call people by their proper names eg ‘thank you Mrs Brown, that was a delicious pie’ etc.
We were encouraged to absent ourselves soon after breakfast and return as darkness fell so that mothers could get on with their continuous cleaning and washing or their occasional afternoon tea. Thank heavens!
What was really different was that this was not an affectionate time. You never saw men hugging anyone … shaking hands was the male way. You didn’t see couples holding hands in the street or schoolkids with their arms round someone’s shoulders. Most often it was stiff upper lip and self control.
Very Anglo ... and very dull until the Italians and Greeks came and changed everything. Laughter, music, dancing, out on summer nights, kissing, hugging, cooking and while some ignorant people resented these migrants, Australians began to change.
I recall seeing the difference between our lives and theirs and what I see now is a great deal of affectionate greeting, genuine emotion on TV and between people, and a lot more teasing and fun. I listen to the way we speak to each other and though it is sometimes only in grunts we deal with most things with enormous affectionate humour.
And then came the Vietnamese who have also changed our lifestyle. They brought their food culture with them and we haven’t tried to change it. Most of us can now cook fresher and faster with more flavours and variety and we have a reputation for fusion food around the world.
I always smile when I hear someone of Asian heritage and appearance in Melbourne with a broad Aussie accent. I think it is the accent and our humour that binds us.
And among other groups we now have the Sudanese and other African groups, some of whom are not settling easily.
Some have come here from a contemporary culture of war, deprivation, and in many cases, family devastation. Many have no jobs or prospects, they face daily prejudice, poor educational achievement and the fear other people have of them.
Unlike our earlier groups I suspect their own culture has been severely tested in war and they have less of it to bring here to support themselves.
I think Australia has to hold hard to its ability to welcome. That’s what we do best and being fearful and thinking that the law will fix things is not going to do it.
Government needs to have a good look at processes in the past that helped people and urgently invest in young migrants in ways relevant to them.
And please use that song I Am Australian for our National Anthem. It strikes a modern note and is therefore influential, central and culturally helpful. Get rid of “girt by sea” and get over our phobias around skin colour. It demeans us all.
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